Backpacking Tips: Buying Backpacking Essentials

These backpacking tips will help you save money when buying equipment. Backpacking can be as inexpensive as other outdoor sports if you know where to look for your backpacking essentials.
By Martin Fox
May/June 1978
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Backpacking tip: A lightweight backpack, a partner and a beautiful view are just a few of many backpacking essentials.
PHOTO: MARTIN FOX
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Learn about these backpacking tips that will save you money when buying backpacking essentials.

Backpacking Tips

"You can pay a lot of money for camping gear," says John F. Barber of Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. "Or you can get good equipment for next to nothing. It all depends on whether you know what to look for and where to look for it."

Like equipment for other outdoor sports, backpacking essentials can be either expensive or inexpensive. You can cook your meals over a 5-pound, $34 Optimus stove, or you can heat your eats over an open campfire. Likewise, you can tromp through the snow wearing $65 Tubb snowshoes . . . just as easily as you can do your tromping in a set of no-cost homemade snowshoes. That's the beauty of backpacking: You don't have to be "well heeled" to do it, and do it right.

By the same token, there's no excuse for not choosing the right kind of equipment for the task at hand. Of course, if you've never shopped for backpacking gear before — or if it's been a long time (10 years, say) since you have — you may not know (or remember) what the "right kind" of equipment is, in which case the following backpacking tips on gear gathering  are in order.

How to Buy Hiking Boots

A pair of sturdy, rock-resistant hiking boots should be considered essential. Look for medium-weight (3 to 5 pounds), Vibram-soled hiking boots with reinforced heels and toes and protective padding around the ankles. (Ideally, the hiking boots should have padded tongues also.) Check the construction carefully. The fewer the seams, the less chance that water will leak through to your feet. Full-grain leather and Norwegian welts (ask the salesperson) are indicators of quality in any boot.

When you shop for hiking boots, wear the type of socks you expect to be wearing while hiking. (Generally, this means two socks — one light, one heavy — on each foot.) Also, if possible, try hiking boots on late In the day, when your feet are hot and swollen (thus simulating hiking conditions).

As you put the hiking boots on, slide your feet as far forward in them as possible, then see if you can fit one finger down behind your heel. If you can touch the bottom of the boot with one finger, you should have the right length. (Two fingers means the boot is too big.)

OK. Now lace the leathers up snugly (but not tightly), and go climb some stairs or do a few deep knee bends. There should be very little up-and-down play of the heel as you walk, and when you step down an incline, your toes should not ram into the front of the boot. The ultimate test is to walk up to a wall and kick it. If you don't end up on the floor writhing in pain, you've probably got yourself a well-fitting, solid pair of hiking boots.

Once you've taken your new hiking boots home, break them in gradually (remember, you're breaking in your feet as well as the boots). Waterproof the uppers (with a silicone spray made for the purpose) between outings. And store the hiking boots in a warm, dry place . . . never dry them in front of a fire.

How to Choose a Backpack

For one-day (and shorter) hikes, a frameless pack is best. However, for longer treks you should have a pack that's mounted on a metal frame. Regardless of what type of pack you select, be sure to find out — before you buy — whether it's comfortable or not. The best way to do this, of course, is to load the carrier with 50 or 60 pounds of gear right in the store, if necessary, and put it on.

Hoisting a loaded pack onto your back involves a certain amount of skill and technique (you'll get it with practice). Basically, what you do is: First, balance the pack on your toe (this is where that reinforced toe in your hiking boots comes in handy!). Then spread your feet for balance, bend your knees, take a deep breath, and — grabbing the pack's shoulder straps — heave the pack up onto your raised thigh. Now slip an arm through one of the shoulder straps. (Make sure the straps aren't twisted.) Transfer the weight to your back and slip your other arm through the other strap.

Before going any further, secure the waist strap tightly around your waist and make adjustments between the waist strap and shoulder straps so that a good portion of the loaded pack's weight rests squarely on your hips. Also at this point, check to see that the pack's center of gravity is high and forward (you'll feel a little bit like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon). Make sure the frame fits you . . . it should curve along your spine and angle at the shoulders and waist to fit your contours.

Now walk around the block. Your pulse should quicken . . . but otherwise you should feel no pain. Let your comfort be your guide, and if the pack fits, wear it (all the way home).

How to Choose a Sleeping Bag

The most critical element of any sleeping bag — as you might well guess — is the filling. Here, you'll have to choose between goose down (traditionally the Rolls-Royce of sleeping bag fillers) and one of the new synthetic stuffings, such as polyester fiberfill or Polarguard.

For light weight, warmth, and compactness, goose down has no equal. (The synthetic fills just won't pack down as small and, pound for pound, don't offer the warmth of goose down.) Down, however, is expensive, and when it gets wet, it offers no insulation or warmth whatsoever. The synthetics, on the other hand, provide good warmth even when they're saturated with water.

Bear in mind, too — when you go to select a bag — that loft (the thickness of the sleeping bag after you've fluffed it up) is an important comfort consideration: The higher the loft, the more warmth.

Style and color are matters of personal taste more than anything else. (A mummy bag with a hood is the warmest design, but if that's too confining for you, you can try a semi-rectangular model.) As long as the outer construction of your sleeping bag is of tightly woven, water-repellent nylon — and the filling (whatever it is) is spread evenly throughout the bag by a series of baffles — you're all set.

Choosing a Tent

A small tent is the hiker's best form of protection against the elements, although in many cases a rain fly, tube tent, poncho, or a large sheet of plastic pitched as a lean-to will do just as well. When shopping for tents, keep the following rules in mind: [1] Choose the model that affords the most protection for the least amount of weight (5 pounds for a two-person tent is plenty). [2] Look for double-layer nylon construction. [3] Select a tent that comes with a waterproof floor, storm door/flaps, and mosquito netting over all openings. [4] Above all, choose a tent that you can set up easily on a dark, stormy night!

Shopping for Backpacking Essentials  

Many outdoor shops rent backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, etc. Often times, you can rent everything you need for a weekend outing for $10 or $12 under a "package price" deal. I strongly recommend that you take the rental route first. This way, you'll be able to try out the equipment — no strings attached — under actual hiking conditions and find out for sure whether you like the gear before committing yourself to a purchase.

Also remember that you don't have to buy your gear new if you don't want to. Just about any thrift shop or secondhand store will have some camping equipment (boots, tents, and sleeping bags, at least). But be careful if you decide to purchase "previously owned" items. Check fabric items for tears, examine metal frames for cracks, and look for broken seams (and/or worn-through mid-soles) on boots. And be especially sure to check sleeping bags for rips, broken zippers, and mildew.

If you happen to live near a backpacking equipment manufacturer, look (in the phone book) to see if they have a "factory outlet store." Often times you can buy slightly flawed — but entirely serviceable — equipment at considerable savings through such stores.

Another good way to get almost-new equipment for less-than-new prices is to check with outdoor shops for information on end-of-the-year sales of rental equipment. (You might also go around to the summer camps in your area to see if they're interested in selling — or bartering — any used gear.)

Then too, you may well want to make your own backpacking equipment.

Have fun shopping . . . and happy trails!


Backpacking Equipment Suppliers

The equipment described in this feature can be obtained from:

L.L. Bean, 95 Main St., Freeport, Maine 04032

Eastern Mountain Sports, 1 Vose Farm Road, Peterborough, N.H. 03458

Eddie Bauer, 15010 N.E. 36th St, Redmond, Washington 98052

The North Face, 2013 Farallon Drive, San Leandro, California 94577

JanSport, 2011 Farallon Drive, San Leandro, California 94577

Kelty, 6235 Lookout Road, Boulder, Colorado 80301

Recreation Equipment, Inc. (REI), 6750 S. 228th Street; Kent, Washington 98032

Sierra Designs, 6235 Lookout Road, Suite C, Boulder, Colorado 80301 

The Ski Hut, 1032 East 4th Street Duluth, Minnesota 55805


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