Category Archives: Equipment

Beginning Backpacker’s Overnight Gear List: Big Ticket Essentials

Backpacking is one of those gear-intensive activities that lends itself to “GAS” (“Gear Acquisition Syndrome”). Any passionate hiker is bound to have a couple of tents, sleeping bags in a range of ratings, a few different stoves, and countless pairs of boots in various stages of disrepair.

Indeed, it’s hard not to shop when a hobby has so many different kinds of tools and toys. Just look at what’s available. Backpacker magazine’s annual gear issue lists literally thousands of models of backpacking equipment every year.

But the funny thing is that once you’re out on the trail, you quickly learn that the gear that may make you the happiest is the gear you left home — and don’t have to carry. What looked shiny, new, and functional in the outfitting store may look like nothing more than a painful burden on the trail, especially if you never actually need it.

Backpacker’s List of Major Gear Essentials

Bottom line: It’s not necessary to have the latest and greatest gear to get outside for an overnight, especially in the summer time in temperate and warm climates.

Let’s start with the basic list of the big- ticket essentials. These are the items necessary to transport your gear, sleep out of the weather, and eat.

  • Tent, tarp, or bivvy sack. Even hikers who prefer sleeping under the stars or in trailside shelters need to carry some sort of shelter in case of rain or in case the lean-to is full. The smaller and lighter, the better. A tarp is the lightest choice, although perhaps not the best choice in areas with a lot of mosquitoes.
  • Sleeping bag: The standard “one size all” bag is a three season bag, rated down to about 20 or 30 degrees Fahrenheit, but that’s a little much for the Appalachians in July or northern California in August.  A 40- or 50- degree bag is much lighter. Use the heavier three-season bag for the shoulder seasons of early spring and late fall, as well as high mountains. For winter, an even warmer bag will be required.
  • Sleeping Mat: For sleeping comfort and insulation from cold ground. Thickness depends on your comfort requirements. A Thermarest inflatable pad is a standard item for three season camping. Some lightweight backpackers choose an even lighter closed cell foam pad.
  • Stove: A liquid fuel gas stove, a propane cartridge stove, or an alcohol stove. For beginners, a cartridge stove is inexpensive, easy to use, and lightweight. Note: The now common propane-butane blend stoves work well in most conditions, including cold and high altitudes, although liquid fuel is more efficient in very severe conditions. Alcohol stoves (which you can make yourself; Google it!) don’t work well at high altitudes, but they are a good choice for lower mountains. Brasslite makes them commercially.
  • Backpacks: Backpacks should be selected after all other gear is bought or assembled for the simple reason that all the gear has to be able to fit. Backpacks come in two styles, internal or external frames; external frames are “traditional” but internal frames are by far the most common choice among long-distance hikers. The lighter the gear you are carrying, the flimsier your backpack can be. But comfort is also an issue. Those stays and straps add weight to your pack, but they DO help distribute the lod more ergonomically.
  • Boots: Contrary to tradition, thick heavy hiking boots are not always required for backpacking, especially not on gentle well-maintained trails in the heat of summer! Trekking shoes do just fine for many overnight hikers. If conditions do require boots, buy them – don’t try to rent or borrow. Boots need to fit properly to prevent blisters.
  • Accessories: For a list of other essential backpacking gear, check  Gear and Accessories for Beginning Backpackers.

 

Gear for Beginning Backpackers: Accessories

So you’ve got your big-ticket items under control: tents, hiking footwear, backpack, sleeping bags and mats, and stoves. Beyond this basic hiking gear list a number of other items will help you stay safe and comfortable.

Backpacking Essential Equipment

Not all of the following items are used by all hikers all of the time. Backpacking gear selection depends on climate, season, length of hike, and hiking style, among other things. But the following list is a good place to start planning for a backpacking trip.

  • For sleeping: In addition to tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats, use a ground cloth (sometimes called a “footprint” if it comes in the exact shape of your tent) to keep out water and prevent the tent bottom from tearing.
  • For eating: In addition to a stove and fuel, hikers need a pot with lid, a pot grabber, a spoon, and a pot scrubber for cleaning up. A bowl or cup are useful too. Titanium equipment is expensive, but lightweight.
  • For drinking: Backpackers must have water bottles, hydration systems, or water bags, as well as water filters, purifiers, or purification pills. Hydration packs such as those made by Platypus are popular and ergonomic, allowing you to drink while walking. The cheapest choice: empty plastic water bottles (but they can spring links and easily crack).
  • For weather protection: Rain gear (at least a jacket) is usually necessary except perhaps in the hottest driest places (think Arizona in July). The choice of rain jacket, rain pants, poncho, or rain hat will depend on the climate.
  • For warmth: For high mountains, create a layered hiking clothing system. Depending on the environment, it could include insulating long-johns, wool socks, thin wicking sock liners, gloves and hat, a lightweight jacket or pullover, and two sets of hiking clothes (usually shorts and T-shirts). For hot summer hiking, a couple T-shirts and of pairs of shorts should be all you need, with a super-light windbreaker or water-resistant jacket just in case.
  •  For camp comfort: This is a luxury item, but I like having a pair of flip flops. Even lightweight trekking shoes start to feel imprisoning after a big-miles day.

Useful Accessories for Backpackers

Each hiker has an idea of which pieces of outdoor equipment are essential and which are not. Here are some items found in many experienced hikers’ packs:

  • Army knife or multi-use use tool (a mini is fine).
  • Sun hat, sun screen, sun glasses, lip protection.
  • A repair kit : The repair kit should include spare parts, (such as pack buckles and shoelaces), thick sewing needle and ultra strong thread, safety pins, cord, seam-seal compound (acts as glue), repair patches for tents, raingear, and duct tape. Pare it down to bits and pieces.
  • First aid kit: A commercial kit can be modified (read: stripped down) to fit the hiker’s needs. Be sure prescription medicine is included.
  • Walking sticks or trekking poles.
  • Pouch or pack pocket to wear in front of pack for keeping personal daily items close to hand.
  • GPS, map, compass; See-through plastic case to protect map (Zipper-locking bags are a lighter, but more fragile, option).
  • A bandanna can be used for multiple tasks in camp (grabbing a pot); it can also be used as a bandage, a sweatband, and a handkerchief.
  • Extra zipper-locking bags to keep things dry (especially electronics like cell phones and cameras; most cases aren’t waterproof).
  • Stuff sacks for separating and organizing hiking equipment.
  • Bug repellent.

Note that this is a starter list. In desert, high mountains, snow, and winter, other specialty equipment will be needed. Plus, every gear list becomes modified over time as a hiker’s skill level grows, hiking style and priorities change, and new gear is introduced by manufacturers.

Thriving in the Deep Freeze

Winter is the season of all things cold and white: skiing, sledding, skating and sliding in all its guises. It’s also the season of endless hysteria from the news media, which has figured out that the louder the weathermen scream about snowmageddons and snowpocalypses, the more eyeballs they score. Somewhere along the line, we’ve become a region of wimps who cancel school at the first threat of a flake.

So yes, I get it…  we’ve seen a lot of snow this year.  Where I live, the accumulations are indeed higher than average, although not quite the record-setting city-stoppers that have paralyzed nearby Boston and coastal Maine.  And it’s been cold here — it was well below zero this morning when I put on my ski boots to head out for a few hours.

But as they say in Iceland, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

The right gear makes skiing comfortable, even in below 0-degree Fahrenheit temperatures.
The right gear makes skiing comfortable, even in below 0-degree Fahrenheit temperatures. And do you see how empty the parking lot is? When the temps dive into single digits or negative numbers, you’re almost guaranteed to have wide open empty slopes!

Well…. within reason.  There’s probably some type of weather that gets everybody down. We all have our sore spots. For me  21 straight days of 95 + degree temperatures on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike was nearly unbearable.  25 straight days of drizzle and fog sapped my spirits on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington one September. And I can get weary of that sort of drizzly “wintery mix” that can’t decide whether it’s ice or snow or rain and ends up being the worst of all three — wet, cold, AND slick.

But here’s the thing: While the weathermen are apoplectic and the schools are shuttered, somehow the die-hards make it to the ski areas — with big smiles on their faces.  Are they a different breed of human? Somehow impervious to the cold? Bereft of normal never function? Doubtful: They simply know what to wear.

Quite simply, the key to enjoying winter is to embrace it. And the key to embracing it is to have the right gear.

Gear List for Extreme Cold Skiing

I skied this morning in single digit temperatures with a serious windchill, and I was cozy and warm. Here’s what I wore:

Ski boots and lightweight socks. Ski boots have their own insulation, and thin socks give toes plenty of room in which to wiggle. If you get cold, wiggle your toes while on a ski lift for a few minutes (not just a few seconds). Or use chemical toe warmers, which stay activated for several hours.

Leg Layers: One layer of stretch ski leggings, and an overlayer of  insulated windproof ski pants. If you’re moving around a lot, the large muscles of your legs are doing most of the work; mine seem to stay warm.  When it’s warmer (say, over 15 degrees F) I ditch the insulated pants and wear a layer of Goretex instead.

Torso Layers: I wore four layers today: A mid-weight four-way-stretch wicking layer, an Underarmor sweatshirt, an Icewear wind-and-water-resistant lightweight softshell jacket, and a Wild Things mega-heavy-duty jacket. This is a mountaineering jacket, with a heat reflective inner lining, a thick layer of high quality down, and a Goretex outerlayer. It keeps me warm until — well, I don’t actually know, since I’ve never actually been cold while wearing it I can vouch for temps as low as -20 F.

Face: A very lightweight poly balaclava, a fleece neckwarmer, and my ski helmet. When I didn’t get everything organized just right, I had some fingers of cold poking at me between the gear gaps.  I think I’d be better off if I added with one of those face masks that covers the nose, and has little breathing holes.

Gloves: I wore old-school heavy duty insulated leather mittens — they  look a little like boxing gloves. Mittens are warmer than gloves. And if you’re still cold, add a lightweight glove liner and/or chemical hand warmers. (You can keep them in your jack pocket and just use them if needed.)

And of course, stopping in at the lodge for a few well-timed hot drinks breaks is never a bad idea!

All told, I think my outfit today would pass muster with the Taliban — not an inch of skin was exposed. But  I stayed completely warm.  So can you.

Ideas for Finding and Buying Cheap Hiking Equipment

Want to try backpacking? Don’t want to spend a lot of money before you even know if you like it? A full complement of hiking equipment is expensive, if purchased all at once, but there’s no reason to do that. Most beginning backpackers can find some ways to try before they buy, which gives them a chance to see not only how much they like backpacking, but how well they like certain types of gear.

Budgeting and Buying Tips for Hiking Equipment

  • Buy used equipment. Start at a local hiking club. Check the newsletter, which will frequently have a “for sale” section, or put in a notice. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s newsletter frequently has listings of used and not-so-used gear for sale. Craig’s List, eBay, and local garage sales are also possibilities. Or post a request on Facebook.
  • Borrow: Friends and relatives may have a stash of old gear available for borrowing, especially if they don’t use it often. This is a good way to check out various brands and models, although much of what’s sitting around in a friend’s garage is likely to be out of date.
  • Rent: Some outfitting stores such as R.E.I. in the United States rent major pieces of gear, including tents, sleeping bags, and packs. Backpackers traveling with an organized trip may get the use of gear included in the price they pay, or may be able to rent certain items from their outfitters.
  • Check end-of-season sales: The selection might not be enormous, but the prices are right. Last year’s stuff is out of fashion this year — but not out of function.
  • Ask about sales of returned items. Some outfitters have very generous return policies, and you can sometimes score a barely used piece of gear for a fraction of its original cost.
  • Hiker events (fairs, conferences, “rucks” (or gatherings) on the A.T. and other long trails) are good places to check out new designs in ultralight gear, often at good prices.
  • Check to see if local hiking clubs have a gear swap or sale day.
  • Make do. There’s no need to spend $200 on hiking boots for an overnight: Use a pair of running shoes. Old workout clothes make good hiking clothes (although it’s best to avoid cotton, as it absorbs moisture). A couple of soda bottles can be used for water (take a spare in case one cracks).

With a little bit of creativity and planning, it should be possible to assemble enough equipment for a night in the woods without having to take out a second mortgage. Of course, after a hiker gets hooked, that’s when “G.A.S.” (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) kicks in, and if you really get into backpacking, you’ll want to carefully assemble equipment you can count on for longer trips. But it’s best to get some experience under your belt first, and learn from that experience just exactly what you do need — and, as importantly, what you don’t need.

Using a Lightweight Camping Tarp

Continuing on with the lightweight hiking theme… Summer is a great time to experiment with different gear. And one of the best places to trim weight is with your shelter.  A simple tarp may may be all that you need, and a tarp that protects two people may not weigh much more than a pound. Considering that many two-person tents weigh in at four, five, or six pounds (ouch!) that’s a lot of weight savings.

Even in hot and dry climates, you almost always want to have some sort of shelter in case it rains at night. Some of us have learned this lesson through cold and damp experience. In my case, the lesson took the form of a snowfall that woke me up when I was backpacking without carrying any sort of tent or tarp. It was Memorial Day in New Mexico. Choices: To get up and start walking at 3:30 a.m. or to lay there in the falling snow.

But while some kind of weather protection is necessary, in a reliably mild or arid climate, you can afford to go light. For shelter, that means taking a tarp, a simple square or rectangular sheet of coated waterproof nylon.

Best Uses for A Camping Tarp

Tarps are good choices for anyone who is concerned about weight, especially backpackers. Bikers or paddlers can more easily handle a few extra pounds, and sometimes opt for the relative luxury of a tent. But tarps work better in some conditions than others.

  • Use a tarp when you expect mostly warm, dry weather. You probably won’t need it, and if you do, it will protect you from the rain while still allowing good air flow, which is much more comfortable in warm humid conditions.
  • Don’t use a tarp when you expect lots of rain and snow. It doesn’t offer as much rain protection as a tent, and snow can easily drift inside.
  • Don’t use a tarp when you expect to camp in exposed areas of high winds, or when you expect to have to camp on surfaces where it is hard to drive in a secure stake.
  • Do use a tarp when you expect to be mostly staying in shelters, and only need an emergency shelters for nights when shelters are full in bad weather.
  • Don’t use a tarp in mosquito season. Black flies are not so much a problem, as they aren’t active at night, but tarps offer scant protection against mosquitoes unless you also carry (and affix) a net – in which case you may as well carry a lightweight tent.

Tips for Choosing and Pitching Tarps

  • Two people can squeeze into a 64-square-foot tarp, but it’s a tight fit. The 72 square-foot size is more comfortable for two.
  • You need enough parachute cord to tie guylines for all the grommets, and a stake for each grommet.
  • You need two poles to hold up the tarp. (Basically, you are making a triangular tent, like a typical old-fashioned A-frame tent). You can use walking sticks as tent poles.
  • You need a long line of cord to pull out and stake the tarp where the walking sticks hold it up.
  • You can pitch the tent asymmetrically, if necessary. The tarp should be side to the wind, so that the wind doesn’t whip through it. You can bring down the fabric lower on the side that faces the wind to create a nylon “wall,” and leave the lee side more open.
  • Be sure your guylines are pulled tight and your stakes are securely in the ground.
  • Using a ground cloth keeps your gear clean and dry.
  • Consider drainage issues, and try to pitch in a place where water won’t flow or settle.

Tarps are not good choices for all backpacking situations, but they work well in mild climates where you don’t expect to need a lot of weather protection. And they might just help save your trip when unexpected weather rolls in.

Thoughts About Lightweight Backpacking

So Google + has already proved itself valuable: Mark Roberts, one of my brand new Google + buddies sent this link to his hiking blog, and he’s taking on the issue of lightweight backpacking.

Go over there and read it!

I have to admit that I don’t take the same approach to instructing lightweight hiking as many of my long-distance hiking peers do, so if you’re reading here, it’s probably a good thing for you to explore elsewhere as well (and Mark’s site has a great blogroll, with links to a lot of other cool hiking sites). On teaching about this topic, I’m a LOT more conservative, both in how I define lightweight hiking and in how I suggest people approach it. The goal is the same, but my path is a little longer.

This is partly because as a teacher I know that once the information I share with my readers leaves my fingers, I have no control over it.  It’s like a game of telephone: Words get distorted or sometimes misunderstood, and the message can get boiled down to something different. “Don’t take anything you don’t need” ends up becoming (and I have personally seen this happen, and I promise I am not making it up) “I didn’t take my rain jacket into the White Mountains because you said to ditch gear I didn’t need, and I didn’t need rain gear here last time.”

The result — in that environment — CAN  be fatal.

If I’m there in person I can say “Whoa! Not so fast cowboy.” In writing, I have to be more careful.

I think what is sometimes missing in on-line discussions about lightweight hiking is the realization that experience and judgment in rough conditions are a crucial part of the equation you use to decide which gear to take for what type of hike. It seems to me that a lot of on-line discussions simply assume that because something works for the writer, it should work for every reader.

One of the things I appreciate about Mark’s site is that it is reader-focused.  He’s not didactic, and he doesn’t get weighted down in picayune arguments about brand names and definitions of what exactly is ultralight versus extreme ultralight and all that nonsense. He’s just trying to help you get more comfortable.

My own approach to the topic, though, is a bit more step-by-step.  My book, Hiking Light Handbook, deliberately avoids recommending cutting straight to “ultralight hiking strategies.” In short, I think you need to have shivered your tail off in an above-treeline August  snowstorm before you start paring your gear to the bone for a high-mountain expedition. I figure that the people who are ready to do, or are already doing, the hardcore ultralight thing don’t need me. (If that’s you, DON’T buy my book, but instead, click on the link to Mark’s site.)

Hiking Light Handbook

But if you are someone who carries 30- and 40- pound backpacks for a summer four-day hike in Pennsylvania, I’m going to help you cut your weight to something reasonable.  I’m pretty sure that once you feel the difference between 30 pounds and 20 pounds, you’ll want to pursue other cuts, according to experience, preferences, and hiking style. A PodCast I did with practical backapacking covers some of these issues in more detail.

Another thing Mark points out that I think is really important: Manistream manufacturers and gear reviewers at many outdoor magazines, continue to CALL things lightweight that aren’t — a five-pound tent, for instance. A four-pack pack. Sayin’ don’t make it so. Mark’s site gets right to this issue with with practical guidelines as to what is and isn’t lightweight, along with simple compare-and-contrast examples. It’s extremely useful to have these benchmarks in mind when shopping for gear, lest a salesperson convince you that a three-pound sleeping bag is a reasonable choice for the mid-Atlantic in July (it’s not).

In recent years, reasonably priced, durable lighterweight gear is much more available on the general market than it used to be. So it’s perfectly possible — indeed, it’s ridiculous NOT to  — have the total of your three heaviest items (sleeping system, tent, and pack) weigh in at six pounds or less. Once you’ve done that, everything else seems to fall into place.

I got suspicious about lightweight hiking back in the early days when I saw lightweight hikers suffering from poor gear choices in extreme conditions. I got sold on it not by people preaching about it, or books, or arguments on the Internet: I was sold on it when I hiked with a friend who could pick up her fully loaded pack with her PINKY finger… and when I saw, out in the field, that she had everything she needed for the conditions we were in.

Hiking light is about making the right choices — for you, your style, the conditions, and your level of experience.

If that sounds like something you’re interested in, hightail it over to Mark’s blog to learn more. And if you need a step-by-step way to get started, check out my book.

Using and Choosing Trekking Poles or Hiking Sticks

Back in the Middle Ages, if you were going to walk from, say, Paris to Santiago da Compostela, they didn’t call it a long-distance hike; they called it a pilgrimage. But like today’s long-distance backpackers, yesteryear’s pilgrims were identified by their garb (and probably their smell, too): Long cloaks that could be used as shelters, a talisman (in the case of Santiago pilgrims, it was a scallop shell, symbol of St. James) and a walking stick.

Back then, walking sticks were little more than stout staffs. Indeed, today’s hikers sometimes improvise hiking stocks from downed wood, old ski poles, folding wading staffs sold in fly-fishing stores, or broomsticks with neoprene handgrips taped around the top. More upscale hikers might choose hand-carved poles, available at outfitters in popular outdoor vacation spots, but to be perfectly honest, these make better decorations and souvenirs. And then of course, we have the high-tech option. New metal models are more ergonomically designed, with comfortable handgrips and a telescoping feature that allows the hiker to choose the exact right length, then collapse the poles for easy travel.

Whatever type of hiking stick you choose, its function is the same: Trekking poles help whenever the terrain gets rough. If you’ve got to hop from boulder to boulder, descend steep slopes, and cross streams, you’ll find that a pole makes your hike quicker and more stable.

One Trekking Pole or Two?

While the traditional pilgrim used one walking stick, many of today’s backpackers use two. Two poles are more easily incorporated into a natural walking rhythm, and the arms can actually help propel the hiker uphill. Two poles are also useful for balance, enabling a hiker to plant both poles, then hop down from a high boulder without putting undue stress on the knees.

Overweight hikers, hikers with bad knees, and older hikers (whose balance is affected by the aging process) should consider using two poles.

Some hikers find that using two poles gets in the way of using their hands to scramble up rock slopes, or when taking photographs. Collapsible poles can be temporarily strapped to backpacks to leave the hands free. Or hikers in these cases might use just one pole.

Two poles are essential with snowshoes, useful for crossing streams (especially while rock-hopping), and reassuring on snowy slopes that don’t require full mountaineering equipment, but are slick enough that a little extra help is appreciated.

Features of Trekking Poles

  • Telescoping sections: Most modern trekking poles are telescoping, meaning that a pole can be pulled out to its full length of about four feet, then collapsed into a small package when not in use. The telescoping feature comes in handy when traversing very steep ridges: The downhill pole can be longer than the uphill pole.
  • Packability: Some poles collapse into two sections; some into three. Hikers taking plane flights to hiking destination should check that the length of the collapsed poles fits into luggage: Trekking poles are considered potential weapons by the TSA, and are not allowed as hand luggage.
  • Hand grips: Grips are made of rubber, plastic, or cork. Cork models absorb sweat from the hands and may be more comfortable and less likely to cause blisters.
  • Shock absorbing springs: Springs in the telescoping mechanism absorb shock when poles are planted. This small feature makes a big difference when using poles to help with large downhill steps (for instance, off a big rock or boulder).
  • Material” Traditional staffs were made of wood, modern poles are made of aluminum, and high-end lightweight models are now made with carbon fiber.

More Uses for Trekking Poles

  • Checking for snakes in brush and underbrush.
  • Pitching a tarp (The configuration will determine if one pole or two is required)
  • Waving at barking dogs
  • Poking a bear-bag into place.
  • Pushing gear from one person to another when both hikers are too exhausted to move up at the end of the day.

The choice of one trekking pole or two is ultimately one of function and comfort. But many hikers agree that a trekking pole is one piece of equipment they can’t do without.

Hiking Boots versus Trekking Shoes: Choosing Hiking Footwear

Conventional wisdom may be conventional, but is it always wise? In backpacking, conventional wisdom tells hikers to wear hiking boots, but with advances in technology, lighter gear is available, and many hikers find that with lighter backpacks, traditional boots aren’t always necessary.
Today’s backpackers have more footwear choices than ever before: traditional leather hiking boots, lightweight trekking shoes, in-between fabric-leather hybrid boots, and even sandal-shoes. Choosing the right hiking boots or trekking shoes can mean the difference between a successful, pleasant and fun hike and foot torture. Here are some considerations.

Traditional Leather Hiking Boots: Pros and Cons

Traditional leather hiking boots have been around for years. Some hikers swear by them; others swear at them.

  • Pro: Traditional backpacking boots offer ankle support for rugged conditions, especially for hikers with weak ankles or poor balance.
  • Pro: Leather boots are a good choice for hikers with heavy packs.
  • Pro: Leather boots are durable and can be resoled and repaired so they last for years.
  • Pro: Leather boots are waterproof, and come up high enough above the ankle to keep sand and mud out of the boot.
  • Con: Traditional boots are heavy – up to four pounds per pair, which makes hiking more tiring.
  • Con: Leather boots are more expensive than the alternatives.
  • Con: Stiff heavyweight boots are more likely to cause blisters, and they need to be broken in.
  • Con: Leather boots are bulky to pack in luggage.
  • Verdict: Not usually necessary, but a good choice for hikers with weak ankles, heavy loads, or those going into rough conditions where durability and support are important.

Lightweight Trekking Shoes: Pros and Cons

Lightweight trekking shoes look and feel a lot like running shoes, but they are usually a better choice because they have stiffer soles with better traction for slippery trails.

  • Pro: Trekking shoes are lightweight, which means the hiker exerts less effort to lift them.
  • Pro: Trekking shoes pack more easily into luggage.
  • Pro: Trekking shoes are less expensive.
  • Pro: Trekking shoes are a good choice for hot weather and deserts hiking.
  • Con: Because trekking shoes don’t cover the ankle, blister-causing dirt and sand can creep in.
  • Con: Trekking shoes don’t offer as much support, making them a poor choice for hikers with heavy packs.
  • Con: Hikers with balance issues or weak ankles might need the support of an above-the-ankle boot..
  • Con: Trekking shoes aren’t waterproof, making them poor choices for wet or snowy conditions, especially if kicking steps into snow banks is necessary.
  • Con: Trekking shoes are the least durable.
  • When used in deserts and grasslands where thorns and grass-seeds abound, shoes with mesh sections can allow debris to penetrate through the shoe, which can cause blisters.
  • Verdict: Great choice for day hikers. A viable choice for long-distance backpackers with strong ankles who have managed to minimize the weight of their packs.

Leather-Fabric Hybrid Hiking Boots: Pros and Cons

Leather-fabric boots combine the best of both worlds. They are the best choice for hikers who trek in a variety of conditions. Leather-fabric hybrids have leather for support and fabric (usually Cordura) for flexibility and breathability.

  • Pros: Hybrid outdoor boots need less breaking in than leather boots. (Note: they can cause blisters if not broken in at least a little).
  • Pro: Hybrid hiking boots come up over the ankle, keeping dirt out and offering ankle support sufficient for most hiking conditions.
  • Pros: Hybrids are rugged enough to handle uneven terrain, scree, and even kicking steps into snow.
  • Pros: Hybrids offer ankle support, though not as much as leather boots.
  • Cons: Hybrids are not waterproof, and in wet conditions can become heavy.
  • Cons: Hybrids are heavier than trekking shoes, and are not necessary for day hikers on easy terrain.
  • Verdict: Good choice for most backpackers hiking in a variety of conditions.

These three categories of hiking boots give today’s backpackers a choice of footwear for any conditions (although specialty boots are also available for mountaineering and extreme cold weather). As a rule, most backpackers today choose leather-fabric hybrid boots. Day-hikers lean to trekking shoes, as do ultralight backpackers who prioritize light weight over support or durability. And a few traditionalists stick to leather boots, valuing their stability and ruggedness.

The 10 Essentials for Outdoor Survival, and a Few More

When things go wrong in the mountains, who survives? Who gets through a surprise blizzard, being trapped in a snow cave during a for three days, or stuck on a high ridge with an injury? The answer may be as simple as having a few essential pieces of outdoor equipment.

At least that’s the conclusion the Mountaineers came to. In the 1930s, this Seattle-based hiking, climbing, and conservation organization started evaluating mountaineering accidents and the role of gear in survival.  They looked at what equipment equipment people had with them, and who survived with what, and the result was a list of ten essentials — items of emergency outdoor equipment — that no climber should be without.

Climbing is a bit different than hiking, and new technology has added some elements to the list. Over the years, different authors have combined the elements differently, so when people talk about the “10 Essentials” they may not actually be talking about the exact same items. I’ve collected as many of these lists as I’ve been able to find and pulled them all together into a sort of “uber-10-Essentials,” list, which includes all of the Mountaineers’ original ten items, plus a few more, like cell phones and GPS, that reflect recent developments in technology.

Essential Hiking Gear and Clothing to Carry in a Backpack or Daypack

  • Navigation equipment. GPS’s are great, but batteries can wear out and electronic equipment can be damaged in a storm or during a fall, so a compass is a necessary backup. A map is also essential. While a GPS can tell you where you are, a map is better for planning your route, giving you information about elevation, obstacle, water sources, campsites, and emergency exit routes.
  • Clothing, including rain gear. A hot day won’t necessarily stay hot, and a dry day won’t necessarily stay dry. Above treeline, conditions can change rapidly, even in summer, and in many mountain ranges, it can snow. Extra clothes are essential, including waterproof outerwear.  Don’t bring cotton: it doesn’t retain warmth when wet, and doesn’t wick moisture away from your skin. In cold weather or very high mountains, when snow if a possibility and hypothermia is a potential issue, having extra clothes, including a hat and gloves, is especially important. For day-hikers (who don’t carry tarps and tents with them), some experts suggest bringing a tarpaulin, a plastic sheet, or even garbage bags, to use as a make-shift shelter.
  • First aid kit. Start with a prepackaged first aid kit, available from outdoor stores, and modify it to meet your needs, including any medication. A first aid class is a good idea; a wilderness first aid class is a better one. Or bring a small first aid manual that fit easily into a pack.
  • Multi-purpose tool. Multi-purpose army knives can help with a variety of tasks, including cutting bandages, removing splinters, opening cans and bottles, and fixing broken gear. A mini-tool is practical and lightweight. A partial roll of duct tape is handy, too. (You can roll a couple of yards of duct tape around a pen.)
  • Flashlight. A flashlight with fresh bulbs and batteries will help if you’re unexpectedly stranded in the dark. A mini with several LED lights is a good choice: lightweight and long-lasting.
  • Sun screen and sun glasses. In snow, above treeline, and in deserts, these are essential.
  • Cell phone. Cell phones don’t always work in deep wildernesses, but they work in many areas, and are always worth taking. Have the emergency number to call on hand. Leave an itinerary at home with fiends and relatives, just in case the cell phone doesn’t work or gets damaged. Some professional guides take satellite phone into very remote areas.

Essential Food, Water, and Related Accessories for Backcountry Survival

  • Water and a way to purify it. Adequate hydration is probably the most important thing hikers can do stay healthy, especially at high altitudes, in hot weather –- and, surprisingly, in cold weather. Without enough water, human bodies are more susceptible to environmental afflictions such as hypothermia and altitude sickness. Carrying purification tablets, water filters, or purifiers means that hikers don’t have to worry about whether the water is safe to drink.
  • Food. Hiking takes a lot of energy, and sometimes more time than expected. A detour, a wrong turn, an injury, inclement weather, or trail damage can turn a short hike into a long one. Bring extra snacks such as granola bars, nuts and raisins, dried fruit, or energy bars.
  • Firestarter and matches. Fires can help prepare food and hot water, and can also fend off hypothermia and signal for help. Bring waterproof matches and firestarter (either commercial fire ribbon, or collected bits and pieces of pine needles, birch bark, paper, lint from pockets).

By carrying these items and applying common sense, hikers and other outdoorspeople can stay out of trouble, even when conditions turn inclement.