Planning for your first thru hike can be an adventure all of its own. Food preparation, weather considerations, gear jargon, and itineraries all add up to what seems to be impossible.
As a backpacking guide I know what it’s like to get started and I’ve helped hundreds of others get started sorting through the massive spectrum of gear available to the modern hiker.
These five tips will help you save money, save weight, and save mistakes.
Remember buying gear is partially about knowledge and skill and partially about personal preference so always make your own decisions.
#1 Avoid: Buying Gear from One Store
I don’t have the statistics on this one but I know from reading other hikers journals and talking with people in person that too many new hikers go to REI and just hand the first sales associate they see a credit card and say, “Here’s my money just give me some of that cool looking gear.”
It’s easy to spot a hiker who hasn’t done their research as soon as they walk into view around the corner of the green tunnel. Shiny new brightly colored backpack, usually one of the major name brands, one of any number of ThermaRest pads poking out from under the pack, and an absurdly expensive Mountain Hardware rain jacket and rain pants haphazardly sticking out of the mesh pocket on the back. This hiker is rolling around with two Nalgene bottles covered in duct tape with not a scratch on them.
Unfortunately for REI and other outfitters, I’m about to let you in on a secret – some of the best gear is rarely made by brands you’ll find at big outfitters.
Now, don’t take this the wrong way, depending on your needs there is plenty of great gear at REI and, in fact, their in house brand is sometimes really great!
Do your research first and decide what options are really out there; there is so much more than just Patagonia, North Face, and Marmot.
Try some cool cottage manufacturers like zPacks, Gossamer Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs, Trail Designs, Mont Bell, and Granite Gear. I get a lot of my personal gear from these companies.
Pro secret: I still buy a very few select items from companies like Marmot and Patagonia for very specific purposes – choose your equipment based on research, not brand.
#2 Avoid: Sleeping Bags
Yeah, you heard me. Don’t buy a sleeping bag.
Why ditch the sleeping bag?
Well, here’s the thing – sleeping bags are inefficient when it comes to weight and space. Sleeping bags keep you warm by providing dead airspace between you and the cold and this principle is completely void when your sleeping bag is compressed.
As in… when you’re lying on it. Half of your sleeping bag insulation is always smashed flat under you as you sleep and does you ZERO good.
Do yourself a favor and ditch the sleeping bag for a quilt. Quilts eliminate the back half of a sleeping bag, thus avoiding wasted weight and space in your pack. A good down quilt will often be less than half the weight and packed size of an equivalent warmth mummy bag.
Switching from mummy bag to quilt will change your hiking game, so get in the big leagues.
I recommend Underground Quilts, handmade ultralight down quilts at a great price balance.
#3 Avoid: Getting in Over Your Head
Be realistic about your abilities when planning. Spending thousands on the newest, lightest gear won’t do you any good if you don’t have the skills to tie a tuckers hitch or a tautline hitch to tension your new cuben fiber tent.
Be careful about getting too wrapped up in shedding pounds so that you leave behind a critical piece of gear. This won’t do you any good at all.
There will always be someone out there who can hike faster or lighter than you. Ignore them. It’s dangerously easy to start comparing your hiking itinerary, pack weight, or meal options to other hikers in a negative way.
Once you’ve found your personal sweet spot where you’re comfortable, safe, and happy then you’re in the right place.
Part of this involves doing the proper research and seeking the knowledge necessary to safely use and maintain your equipment.
#4 Avoid: Pre Packaged Backpacking Meals
These convenient meals are aimed straight at those hikers we talked about earlier who go into the outfitter, unprepared, and simply buy everything they see.
Mountain House is one of the biggest names in single serve dehydrated trail meals. Every year in the spring hiker bubble on the Appalachian Trail you’ll find heaps of these disgusting bags piled deep in trashcans and fire rings.
Not only are these meals absurdly expensive, the refuse is heavy and bulky if you’re packing it out – and you damn well better be packing out your trash.
It’s easy to find great, high calorie options for something called freezer bag cooking. This method of backpacking cooking means leaving the pot at home (that’s right no cooking pot). Place premade meals in ziploc bags and just add a cup of boiling water. Once the meal has hydrated it’s time to eat up.
One of my all-time favorite freezer bag meals is minute rice, dehydrated refried beans, taco seasoning, and crushed Fritos.
Rehydrated the rice, beans, and taco seasoning together in a bag. Once hydrated, stir well and crush Fritos chips over the top for a delicious meal everyone will be jealous of.
#5 Avoid: Large Cooking Systems
Piggybacking off of number 4 let’s talk about cooking systems and how to minimize the chances of buying something unnecessary.
Now highly popular, the efficient and modular Jetboil can be seen sprouting like weeds from every backpack on the trail. These stoves are flashy looking and sleek and aren’t a bad option for most people.
Improving your cooking skills and paying attention to the way you’re cooking can save you a lot of weight, however. With the smallest JetBoil weighing in at a beefy 14oz (nearly a pound) it is entirely possible to save 12-13oz from this weight with the right cooking system.
Other options include alcohol stoves which can be made at home and weigh less than an ounce. Esbit stoves burn solid fuel tablets which can become expensive and are sometimes hard to find. You may even run across a tiny titanium wood burning stove made to burn tiny twigs.
My personal favorite? The Caldera Keg system from Trail Designs. It’s an Esbit burning stove made specifically only for boiling water. I use freeze bag meals.
Remember, small and light cooking systems aren’t for everyone but I encourage you to find a cooking system that might work better for you than box store solutions.