If you ever need an icebreaker to start a conversation with a backpacker, just mention gear.  While preparing for a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, many, if not most, backpackers will obsess over their gear choices, as researching, purchasing, and tweaking gear helps to pass the seemingly endless time until you can actually get on the trail.  There are several good reasons for this intense preparation:

  1. You will be carrying everything that you need to live and survive for five to six months on your back.
  2. Gear is an expensive investment, so you definitely want to get it right the first time.
  3. Your gear choices may have an influence on the probability of completing your thru-hike.

Gear needs tend to vary by the needs of each individual.   However, there are literally thousands of items from which to choose and the process of elimination can seem daunting. Here is the methodology that I used, and I hope that it will assist you through the selection process.

The three general selection criteria that make up the gear of dreams are low cost, high quality, and low weight. Unfortunately, you cannot have all three and must choose two based on your personal needs. If you want high quality and low weight gear, it is going to cost a lot. If you are on a tight budget, you can buy quality gear, but it is probably going to weigh more. On the other hand, you can buy lightweight gear on a budget, but it will not be as durable. Nevertheless, for each individual piece of gear you select, you have to choose between two of these three selection criteria.

When I first started backpacking, I was a ramen-eating college student, and my father taught me that it is better to buy the best you can afford instead of having to buy it twice. As a result, I saved up and bought the best quality gear that I could afford, but it weighed a lot. While section hiking in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park during the late 70s, my pack weighed over 50 pounds with a week’s worth of food and fuel.  Fast forward a few decades, with advances in technology and my improved financial condition, I was able to get that total weight (food included) under 40 pounds for a 12-day hike at the Philmont Scout Reservation.

So what are my selection criteria today? While researching for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I have read from multiple sources that, in addition to physical and mental preparedness, the probability of completing the journey is inversely proportional to the amount of weight that you are carrying. At a length of 2,189 miles, completion will require walking approximately five million steps with elevation gains equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest sixteen times. Carrying a heavy load will eventually wear out your body and force you off the trail. This will be a once in a lifetime chance for me to take this hike, and I want to take advantage of every opportunity to increase my probability of success. Although I will never admit it aloud, I am not as spry as I used to be and I want to make this hike as comfortable as possible. For these reasons, I am choosing high quality, lightweight gear, price be damned.

Over the past 10 years, there have been two interesting developments in the advancement of lightweight backpacking gear.  Advances in fabric technology have introduced new waterproof, lightweight, and durable fabrics, namely silnylon (silicone-impregnated nylon) and cuben fiber (recently renamed Dyneema Composite Fabrics). Silnylon has been around for many years as a waterproof fabric used in ultralight gear such as tents and ponchos. At the lightest usable end, it weighs between 1.2 and 1.4 ounces per square yard, but at that weight, it requires a lot of care to maintain durability. Dyneema Composite Fabric, long used for sailing spinnakers, is a relative newcomer to the ultralight gear market.  Used in the same products as silnylon, it weighs 0.5 to 0.8 ounces per square yard, even though it’s a stronger fabric.

The other development (although related to the first) is the explosive growth in small cottage manufacturers dedicated to making lightweight backpacking equipment utilizing these new materials. For our purposes, cottage industry gear manufacturers are distinguished from “mainstream” manufacturers by the fact that their gear is not available through the big box retailers such as REI. You can find products made with silnylon fabric by both cottage industry and mainstream players. Dyneema Composite Fabric gear, however, is only manufactured by a handful of cottage industry players because it is 4x more expensive than silnylon (limiting the demand) and is difficult to sew (making it difficult to mass-produce).

So where is all this leading? If you feel more comfortable dealing with a big box retailer, with their sometimes-generous return policies combined with the ability to actually touch and feel the product, you will be limited to selecting gear manufactured with silnylon or some other more durable (and heavier) nylon derivative. If you are comfortable buying gear, without seeing and feeling it first, from small cottage industry manufacturers, with their personal and sometimes legendary customer support, you will have access to lighter, more expensive gear, made with Dyneema Composite Fabric. This is a personal choice you will have to make.

The “big three” in backpacking gear are your backpack, tent, and sleeping bag. These components are not only your most expensive gear investments, but they also give you the greatest opportunity to reduce the weight of your kit. Since the cost of these items can easily exceed $1,000, and since your comfort (and possibly your life) on the trail depend upon their proper function, we will look at each of these components in detail over the next several articles.