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February 2001

Organize Your Backpacking Trip

Meet Jamie and Joe, who need help with everything from planning to packing to eating well. Enter our team of experts, with a few simple tricks designed to turn them-and you!-into well-oiled backpacking machines.

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Getting Into Gear

“Joe and I are very frugal,” says Jamie. “If it’s not a good deal, we don’t buy it.” That makes sense, but a closer look reveals that Jamie and Joe fall prey to one of the biggest false exonomies plaguing outdoor-bargain shoppers: the “more is better” trap. Thinking they’ll buy the best gear they can afford, Jamie and Joe end up with equipment they don’t need, like the crampons and heavy boots that now gather dust in their closet.

Expert Advice
Kristin Hostetter, Backpacker Equipment Editor, outdoor-equipment columnist for the

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and former outdoors-store salesperson.

Many people buy gear based on what they might do, says Hostetter, not on what they actually do. “Jamie and Joe will save themselves money and frustration by thinking twice before every purchase. They should also sell the gear they never use and buy well-made equipment that suits their current needs.”

  • Be realistic. Figure out what gear will work for 90 percent of your trips, regardless of what you might tackle in the future. Then wear it, crawl in it, set it up, or put it on, all while in the store, to ensure it’s right for you. Rent before you buy, if possible.

  • Shop creatively. If you decide you like winter camping, buy a fleece bag liner ($90) to increase your bag’s temperature rating, rather than buying a new 0ºF model ($400). In Joe and Jamie’s case, if they’d tried zipping different sizes and brands of sleeping bags together, they’d be snoozing soundly. Instead, they bought a matching set, which fits 6′ Joe, but leaves tiny Jamie (5’4″) freezing because of the extra room in her bag.
  • Resist sales pitches. The salesperson won’t be using this gear, you will. If you don’t like something or don’t feel right about it, don’t buy it. Break-in time aside, a good rule of thumb is that if it hurts in the store, it isn’t going to get any better after you walk out the door.
  • Never shop with a full wallet. You’re more likely to buy on impulse something you won’t use.
  • Learn how to shop for bargains. Scan bargain Web sites (;;, catalogs (Sierra Trading Post, 800-713-4534; Campmor, 888-226-7667), and classifieds in hiking club newsletters. In mountain towns like Jackson, an outdoor adventurer can snag sweet deals on slightly used gear and apparel by stopping at yard sales and thrift shops and checking bulletin boards.
  • Know what you want before you step into the shop. Fill out the following gear needs lists at home. Take them to the store with you. They’ll help you, and the salesperson, figure out what equipment is best.

    Boots Needs
  • What’s your price range?

  • What kind of terrain do you usually tackle? (e.g., maintained trails, cross-country bushwhacking, scree scrambling, sharp rocks and roots)
  • How big and heavy is your typical backpack load?
  • In what type of climate do you most frequently hike?
  • Do you have any preexisting injuries or conditions, like a weak ankle or Achilles tendon?

    Tent Needs
  • What’s your price range?

  • How many people will be using the tent, and how big (tall and broad) are they?
  • What kind of weather do you typically encounter on your trips?
  • Which is more important, plenty of living space or light weight?

    Pack Needs
  • What’s your price range?

  • Do you prefer an internal or external frame? (For more on the advantages of each, see the Gear Guide, March 2000.)
  • What’s your torso length? (See the Gear Guide, March 2000, for tips on how to measure the torso.)
  • Do you need a specialty shoulder harness and hip belt (such as one made specifically for women or a big or tiny waist)?
  • How many days is your typical trip?
  • Do you frequently participate in overnight winter travel?

    Bag Needs
  • What’s your price range?

  • What’s the average temperature range during your typical trips?
  • Do you most often camp in a wet climate or dry?
  • How tall are you?
  • What are your priorities in choosing a bag (for example, light weight, freedom of movement)?
  • Are you a cold or a warm sleeper?

    Stove Needs
  • What’s your price range?

  • What’s the lowest temperature you’re likely to encounter when using this stove? (Multifuel stoves perform better than canister stoves lower temps.)
  • Do you need a stove that can handle several types of fuel? Will you be using it for international travel?
  • Will you be using the stove with a backpacking oven? (Some such ovens shouldn’t be used with “piggyback” stoves that sit atop the canister.)

End Result

Jamie and Joe solved most of their gear problems with some tweaking and trading for more appropriate models. For example, Jamie ditched her crampon-compatible heavy hikers and bought a pair of midweight boots that didn’t chew up her feet. Now their packs are lighter, and their shoulders and feet more comfortable.

Weight-saving tip: Pack everything you think you’ll need, then take out three nonessential items or substitute something simpler, smaller, or lighter. For instance, do you really need a pocket tool and a Swiss Army knife?

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