Although it would be impossible to cover every detail of every piece of gear, I will try to cover the necessities and give you guidelines to use when shopping for your equipment.
Not everybody will agree completely with all of my suggestions; however, these guidelines have worked well for the majority of people I’ve worked with over years of being a Grand Canyon backcountry ranger and instructor/guide for the Grand Canyon Field Institute.
I’ve also been an extremely active backpacker for over twenty-five years, much of that time as a solo hiker. During my years as a Grand Canyon Field Institute instructor, I had averaged over 120 backpacking days per year. For one of the finest references on backpacking, The Backpacker’s Handbook by Chris Townsend is as close to a backpacker’s bible as you will find.
There are several wonderful resources for those shopping for gear. One I like is GearReview.com with their excellent reviews and specifications for the gear they review. They review sleeping bags and pads, outdoor clothing, tents, boots, compasses, walking sticks, and even two-way radios!
When shopping for gear, take into consideration the type of backpacking you will be doing. Do you live in a humid environment or in a desert climate? What seasons are you planning to hike? Will you be hiking in mountains or canyons? Is your primary goal to hike on well-maintained trails or do you have aspirations to explore truly wild and trail-less regions? All of these different considerations must be thought out carefully.
When purchasing outdoor gear, it is wise to visit an store that specializes in hiking and backpacking equipment with people who know what they’re talking about.
In the USA, REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) and EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports) are excellent retailers, and in Canada, good choices are MEI (Mountain Equipment Co-Op), Atmosphere, and Taiga. Discount stores do not sell true backpacking gear; their products are geared more towards car camping and backyard slumber parties, and it is probably safe to say that the clerks are not backpackers themselves.
The time to find out your gear isn’t adequate is NOT when you are far from shelter and/or help! Visit a good store that has experienced sales people who know what they are talking about. Local hiking clubs are another wonderful resource for information and advice.
I highly recommend that you start by renting gear from a reputable store, such as Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) or Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS), or Adventure 16, before investing your hard-earned money on something that could turn out to be completely wrong for you.
Countless numbers of times, I’ve seen people show up with what they thought were good deals from their local discount store, only to end up donating the items to some unsuspecting soul or giving them to their kids for camping in the backyard.
Don’t throw your money away on a “good deal” that ends up costing you more than if you had purchased wisely the first time. It’s nearly impossible to know exactly what you will need until you’ve actually done some backpacking. That is why I strongly recommend that you rent equipment before making the investment.
When making those important decisions, talk to someone who actually backpacks and knows what he or she is talking about. This is extremely important whether you’re buying or renting equipment.
It’s also important that a knowledgeable person help fit your backpack. Another thing to consider; do you plan to do one backpacking trip per year? If that’s the case, then it is entirely feasible to never purchase the majority of the gear needed – just rent it. That way you’re assured of the newest, best equipment at very little cost to you.
Backcountry gear is very similar to computers in that features are updated often. By renting, you can take advantage of the updates. Something to think about.
When you do purchase your equipment, buy the best you can afford. Sorry for the cliché, but you really do get what you pay for. There are reasons that good gear costs good money.
The best backpacking gear comes with a lifetime warranty that covers your gear for everything but normal wear and tear. It also tends to be lighter weight than the cheaper gear.
Until you start backpacking, there is no way to know just how important every ounce is. Completely sane people have been known to cut the handles off of their toothbrushes to lighten their load!
If you’re an adventurous do-it-yourselfer and know just what you are looking for, you can make much of your own equipment and clothing by buying the raw materials from retailers.
You’ll find several retailers listed below that sell fabric, hardware and patterns. If you have any others that you can recommend, please let me know; I’ll add them to the list.
BearPaw Wilderness Designs
2601 S. Lemay #7-402
Fort Collins, CO 80525
Phone: (970) 444-BPWD
Phone: (970) 444-2793
The Rain Shed, Inc.
707 NW 11th
Corvalis, OR 97330
Phone: (541) 753-8900
Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics Inc.
16415 Midland Blvd.
Nampa, Idaho 83687
Phone: (208) 466-1602
(800) OWF SHOP (693-7467)
8702 Aurora Avenue North
Seattle, WA. 98103
Phone: (206) 525-0670
4919 Hubner Circle
Sarasota, FL 34241
Phone: (800) 359-6931 USA
Rockywoods Outdoor Fabrics
3419 W. Eisenhower Boulevard
Loveland, CO 80537
Phone: (970) 663-6163
The Green Pepper Inc.
PO Box 42073
Eugene, Oregon 97404
Phone: (541) 689-3292
Fax or Answering Machine:
Kits and material
Phone: (415) 462-1745
JT’s Outdoor Fabrics
110 Saunders Road, Unit #20
Barrie, Ontario, Canada L4N 9A8
Phone: (877) 780-2722
Phone: (705) 881-1841