A Guide to Finding the Right Backpacking Gear

I have a love-hate relationship with outdoor stores. On one hand I love that you can walk in and get a hands on experience with backpacking gear. On the other, it’s like walking in to a melting pot of opinions and experiences that is not only intimidating, but it’s also risky. It’s like playing Russian Roulette with your potential outdoor experience. Depending on who you ask and what they’re into, you’re going to get varying answers that just complicate the whole process and leave you feeling more confused than you were when you walked in.

Backpacking gear designs

Backpacking is intimidating if you’re new to it. Hell, it can be intimidating even if you’re not new to it. There’s always a warming up period when I head out for the first trip of the year and I often feel like I’m having to work out the kinks every time. I’m constantly having to remind myself not to go overboard with gear when I’m sorting our what to bring and over time it’s become easier and easier to pick and choose what gear is right for the job. Not all backpacking gear is meant for all scenarios. Sure, you can make it work, but if you really sit down and think about all of the products out there on the market that you have to choose from, wouldn’t having all those options mean that they’re built for various scenarios? If they weren’t, I really don’t think we’d have so many to choose from. Furthermore, each one of those products being sold are designed by someone based on their own personal experiences in the backcountry. You’re seeing the result of the type of backpacking that designer or design team enjoys. The reason there are so many gear options out there is because of how many personal preferences there are. Those brands making the gear want you to see and experience the backcountry the way THEY do because they believe they’ve found the solution you’re looking for. But what if you don’t know what you’re looking for yet and you just take their word for it?

identifying and Choosing your adventure

Even if you haven’t stepped a single foot down a trail, I guarantee you have some idea of what you’re hoping to see and do out there in the wilderness. Right? Can you picture it? Is there snow? Are you in the mountains? What time of year is it? Are you camped beside a lake fishing or are you hunting somewhere deep in the mountains? I could go on forever talking about the varying styles of backpacking because for every person doing it, it’s something different. Two backcountry hunters hunting the same animal in the same location at the same time of year are likely doing things slightly different. The same goes for the long distance hiker or the weekend warrior. All of us have our own personal preferences on the type of adventure we’re trying to have we have preferences on how we go about it.

Before you can make a decision on what kind of gear you need, you need to explore the various elements of your desired outcome. To begin, answer the following questions for yourself;

  1. Location: Where do you want to go backpacking? You don’t need to know the exact place, but you do need to know what your mind is seeing. Are there mountains or desert? Are you beside a lake somewhere or camped along a river? Answering the mail on where you want to be is key because it helps to eliminate various types of gear.

  2. Time of Year: Most of us do the majority of our backpacking during the summer months, but you might be different. Maybe that vision you have in your head right now is of you camped in the snow somewhere. Summer gear and winter gear are completely different so if you’re dead set on that epic winter camp, your list of gear just got a lot more focused. The same goes with summer camping. Each time you niche down, certain gear goes away and it becomes a lot easier to make the right decision

  3. Style: This is a big question to answer, but let’s not make it too complicated. You just need to define for yourself what you’re ultimately interested in. I know folks who love the idea of pitching a hammock between trees while others want a huge basecamp tent where you can assemble a wood burning stove. Take one look around the internet or social media and you’ll see all kinds of styles. Maybe you like the idea of covering as many miles as you can in a single day or maybe you really just want a quiet weekend beside a lake that you can toss a fishing pole into from time to time. Anytime you can further define the style of backpacking you’re looking for, the less likely you are of making the wrong choice when it comes to gear. If you can complete a sentence like “I like the idea of backpacking somewhere, setting up camp by a lake or river, and hanging out for a day or two” you’ve just focused your search efforts. Again, the more focused you can be the better; “I like the idea of being alone, hiking all day above the tree-line during wildflower season, camping under the stars in a place where I can enjoy the sunrise and sunset from.” This sentence further defines what you’re looking for and makes your life so much easier in the end. Broad strokes are fine if that’s all you have, but I’d encourage you to really take time to write down what it is you’re looking for out there and not worry too much about if it’s wrong or not. Backpacking is one of the most personal things you can do and people change or add too their preferences all the time. I had a conversation with someone recently that thought loved the idea of snow camping so they jumped in and did it, then realized it wasn’t for them and changed direction. That’s perfect!

  4. Why: This might be something for you to chew on alone for a while, but it really does help if you can continually define for yourself why you’re doing all of this. Before I hiked the PCT in 2017, I had never felt the benefits of having hiked all day from sun up to sun down. To be honest, I never really liked the actual hiking part but rather I liked the views at the end of my hike. After spending months on end hiking all day long, I’ve added a new “why” to my list of why I backpack. I learned that for me personally, if I hike all day long, I can sort things out in my head better. The silence of the trail, the constant movement, the exhaustion, it all adds up and puts my mind in a state that is reflective. There’s something about hiking all day that is special. After five months of hiking the PCT, I came to love the movement of hiking and the idea that my feet could take me so far in a single day, week, or month. Pair that with the stillness of the trail and it becomes a very spiritual experience. But here’s the deal, I don’t always have time to hike all day for days on end or the desire to do so. Sometimes my “why” is simple; “I just feel like getting some fresh air.” In that case, I’m probably not going very far and bringing things with me that make me more comfortable. Ask yourself why you’re interested in backpacking and what you’re hoping to get from it. Don’t feel weird if you can’t answer the question just yet because sometimes you just feel pulled to wild places and you don’t actually know why. In some cases, defining “why” helps to further niche down your search for gear, but it doesn’t always have to relate to gear. Just exploring the idea of why you’re out there is good for you.

What next? The Search begins

Okay, so you’ve answered the above questions, now what? Now you search for the gear that fits those answers. There are a lot of different way to go about this and I’m going to refrain from suggesting all of the various options out there because my fingers might fall off and we might all be dead by the time we’d ever finish this article. That said, I do have some suggestions on where you might go about finding said answers and guidance on what gear you should consider snapping up for yourself.

  • Google Search: I know…obvious choice, but hear me out. If you’re taking broad search strokes, searching for various key words like “hammock camping” or “backcountry fishing” will likely bring up blogs and articles that you can skim for the information you’re looking for. I like to click on the “images” tab and see if anything suits my fancy. If so, I’ll click on it and see where the picture is hosted. From there, I’ll check out that site and look up who wrote the words related to the picture. And down the rabbit hole I go…

  • YouTube: I might actually use YouTube first before Google Search because of it’s easier to consume the information I’m looking for. Even though I’m writing a novel right now for this article, I’m not much of a reader. I prefer pictures and video before I sit down to read a long article on something. I’ll take those same key words I’m interested in and toss them into YouTube Search to see what comes up. If I find a video I like talking about that topic I’ve searched for, I’ll check out the channel it came from and again…down the rabbit hole I go. Normally I end up on some other completely different topic like moon landing conspiracies, but hey, at least I gave it a shot, right? What I love about YouTube is that you can engage right there with the maker of the conspiracy video…I mean backpacking video. You can ask them more about what they’re talking about and more often than not, they’ll respond back. I’ve also had other viewers answer my questions so there’s always that.

  • Instagram: Yet another search tool at your disposal for viewing what people are doing out there. We all know how Instagram works so toss in something like #backpackhunting or #ultralightbackpacking and you’ll see a boat load of related images. Good luck with that rabbit hole… somehow I always end up watching videos of people doing things that we used to watch on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” One of the things that’s great about IG is that those profiles benefit from engagement so it’s in the best interest of those accounts to answer your questions if you ask them. Be it in the comments or in the DM tool, if you find someone who’s talking about a topic you’re interested in, hit them up and ask for gear suggestions.

  • Your Local Outdoor Store: Lastly and for good reason, I’d suggest going into your local outdoor store to ask some questions. I don’t necessarily like this option as much, but if you’re the type that needs to be there in person asking the questions, then maybe it’s worth it. Just do yourself a favor and be VERY specific about what you’re asking. I’ve found that outdoor stores aren’t exactly full of people who know what they’re talking about and more often than not, you’re going to end up with something you don’t need. I like to do my research on a piece of gear BEFORE I go into a store to see it in person because I’ll go insane trying to educate myself with the likes of a store employee. Use outdoor stores for the hands on experience and be very wary of the opinions flashed in front of you. Get your opinions from folks actually out there doing stuff and not the kid in the store helping you navigate your purchases.

Final Thoughts

Backpacking is a personal experience and full of personal preferences. It’s a lifelong process and only you can decide for yourself what you like and don’t like. We all start somewhere and in time get better and better. Find what you like, try new things, and enjoy the process. Don’t get down on yourself if you try something and don’t like it. We’ve all been there. We’ve all failed and we’ve all succeeded. Even in the failed trips you find success because you’ll learn from those experiences.

If you’re simply looking for a starting place and have no idea where to begin, just go find a place to camp overnight, build a fire, and watch the sunset. At a minimum you’ll snag some fun photos and before you know it you’ll be off and running.

If you have any questions at all for me, don’t hesitate to email me or contact me on social media. I love helping people find the adventures they’re looking for.

Choose Your Own Adventure,

Emory