When gear works, you barely notice it. The memories that usually stand out? The times that it doesn’t. Here are the BACKPACKER staff’s recollections—from funny to frustrating—of our biggest gear fails.
A deflating experience
“I struggled through most of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike with a faulty sleeping pad. Within a week of starting, it started leaking. I patched it, and then it started to leak from another spot. The company sent me another one that I picked up at mail drop location. That one started to leak, too. They me a third one; same deal. I switched to another pad after the third malfunction and never looked back.” – Justin La Vigne, Testing Category Manager
Lesson: Before taking new gear on a long trip, vet it on a smaller one. And, when a piece of gear fails again and again, it’s probably not you.
Well, that sucks
“What immediately comes to mind for me is when a straw-style water filter failed during a long trail run in Rocky Mountain National Park. I thought I was smart going super-lightweight on this 15-mile loop, which had plenty of water sources. But it became so difficult to suck water through the tube I swear I pulled muscles in my cheeks.” – Emma Athena, Testing Category Manager
Lesson: If you’re relying on one small piece of gear to do one big job, bring a backup. In this case, iodine tablets would have been easy to pack.
Unscheduled fire drill
“Thru-hikers love to sing the praises of homemade alcohol stoves, and I used a cat food can stove for a time. But after employing it as my main cooking companion for years, I think it’s a third-degree burn or a forest fire waiting to happen. Once you light one of these things, they flare up like the Fourth of July and keep burning until the fuel runs out, unless you’re brave enough to snuff it out with your tiny, lightweight pot. Stand too close and you melt your clothes; knock it over and you have a real problem on your hands. For me, it’s Pocket Rocket or nothing now.” – Adam Roy, Digital Editor
Lesson: Lean on gear that you can trust for consistent performance, every time you take it out.
“I received a gas-powered portable handwarmer as a gift maybe 12 years ago and I keep holding onto it, figuring I’ll eventually find its best use case. It sounds great, but I’m too afraid to stick it in the pocket of a flammable nylon jacket and wouldn’t dare put it in my sleeping bag for the same reason. Not that it lights things on fire (though it does work by combustion) but I think I’d rather have cold hands than wake up in flames.” – Casey Lyons, Executive Editor
Lesson: Having confidence in your gear is paramount, even if it’s just a mindset. You won’t properly use gear you don’t trust.
“Before our Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, my husband and I rethought our whole backpacking kit from the ground up, including our shoes. We’d been wearing minimalist trail runners for years, but the go-to shoe for thru-hikers at that time was, hands down, the supercushy Brooks Cascadia. So we figured we should make a switch—no one on the PCT message boards seemed to think thru-hiking in minimalist shoes was feasible anyway. The Cascadia got its trial run on a 45-mile section of the Appalachian Trail near New York City, where we were living at the time, and it was a disaster. The increased padding and structure made it feel like we were walking on stilts compared to what we were used to, and our ankles rolled so many times on that rocky AT terrain that I’m surprised we didn’t get a sprain. We switched back to minimalist shoes for the PCT and stuck with them all the way to Manning Park. – Laura Lancaster, Testing Category Manager
Lesson: Don’t just buy gear that everyone is going gaga over. Use products that are right for your body and hiking style.
Less is more
When my husband and I purchased our first water purifier for a 10-day hike of the Long Trail in Vermont in 2010, it turned out to be more science experiment than useful tool. You had to shake up a a salt solution to trigger an electrical current, pour this into your water, wait 30 minutes, then use a paper test strip to test your water to make sure it was safe to drink. Sometimes, I had to conduct the test multiple times because it was too cold and the device wouldn’t work. We ditched that filter immediately after the hike (and it has since been discontinued). – Patrice La Vigne, Testing Category Manager
Lesson: When a piece of gear presents a complicated answer to a simple question, you can probably leave it on the shelf.
Ever had a piece of gear let you down? Tell us in the comments.