I made some mistakes along the way, who doesn’t? My backpacking experience has never been centered on how much weight I’m carrying, it was always “This should be fun to bring! *tosses into backpack*”. This meant multiple pairs of jeans, a crazy amount of socks, classy fanny-packs tied to the hip belt, etc.
In its own right, it was fun. I remember all my childhood backpacking trips fondly. In fact, they’re probably my favorite memories. So when it came time to go out and get new gear, I did things wrong.
I spent too much time at REI
Nothing sells you on a product more than being able to hold it. Once it’s in your hands and you get a feel for it, you can easily dismiss things you can only see online.
I also assumed light-weight gear was fragile and uncomfortable. That too was a mistake.
As I was looking for my backpack, a fellow customer brought up the Gossamer Gear Mariposa and how much he loved it. I had seen it online previously and saw the 30-35lb weight restriction and dismissed it due to long water hauls in SoCal. Same story with the ULA Circuit. I also thought in an attempt to cut weight, they’d skimp out on comfort. I bought an Osprey Atmos and skipped out of the store, eager to test it out.
I used the Atmos all summer and really did like it, but in a cruel twist of fate it started to bruise my shoulders and sides pretty badly. Not to mention the ungodly squeak produced by it at every step. I figured I could live with it. But then I started taking my base-weight more seriously, and decided it had to go. With a lower base-weight, the Mariposa will work well enough.
Lightweight gear is cheap and ineffective (continued)
I don’t know where I got the notion, but it seemed reasonable to me for some reason. But I kept hearing people rave over this and that from the lightweight market, and forced myself to consider replacing my gear with lightweight stuff. The first switch I made was to the NeoAir Xlite.
My first backpacking trip, I slept on a foam mat. It wasn’t a good foam mat either, it was paper thin and just awful. We then switched to self-inflating mats which were comparably better, but still kind of awful. I thought I could live with it, until I – again – looked at the weight. I don’t remember what it came in at, but it was ridiculous. So I went and tried out the NeoAir, and when I realized it was more comfortable than my bed, I knew I had to make the switch. As long as I’m careful with it, it should fair well. If not, I’ll go out and get a foam mat. The good ones are very nice.
I went out and got a Tarptent Protrail which is an amazing tent that I loved in dry air, but wasn’t too crazy about in wet climates like Washington. This is an exception where I started out with a UL tent, and then switched to a pseudo-UL two-walled freestanding tent. I’m rocking the Big Agnes Copper Spur, and if it turns out I have a change of heart on my Protrail, I can always swap them out.
I will also be replacing my sleeping bag with a quilt. All the day-hikers and weekend warriors say “No quilt!”, thru-hikers say “Hell yes, quilt”. I think I know who to trust here. A quilt along with my NeoAir should keep me nice and toasty when needed.
Planning for every conceivable emergency ever
I laugh when I think about this. When I was looking for gear, I was looking at snowboarding jackets and other completely unnecessary gear. I fell into the trap that a lot of people do when they think about a long distance hike: Huge backpacks, ALL OF THE GEAR, etc. But as I read trail journals more and more, I noticed people weren’t carrying heavy winter coats and massive medkits, and fortunately wasn’t stubborn about changing my strategy a bit.
Here I am, five months later, only planning on carrying a base layer, running shorts, and wind pants. Don’t stress over things too much, free your mind of worries like having to repel down a cliff face to help a fellow hiker fight off communist bears.
That being said, you still need to take nature and weather seriously. I bought crampons and an ice axe prematurely to practice with them, just in case. Just don’t be crazy about it.
This is where opinion comes in.
I was planning on bulk-buying freeze dried meals (which would have cost me something like 1-2 thousand dollars) for the duration of my trip. This one was particularly hard for me to shake. I’ve always backpacked with freeze dried food. Backpacking without freeze dried food seemed weird to me and I thought anyone who did it was weird.
Then something happened while I was planning my resupply plan, I became a bit overwhelmed and just stopped caring at all. I then went to the opposite end of the spectrum and decided to just buy as I go with a few boxes here and there that I’ll prepare and ship on-trail instead of at home.
Perception perception perception. Perception.
As I mentioned before, my initial impression of the PCT and thru-hiking in general was that you’d need to brute force your way through nature carrying everything ever in your pack. But then I started to feel more like it was kind of like a few typical multi-day hikes stitched together. Now I feel like I just need to be another piece of said nature (“A wild thru-hiker appears!”). I am nervous about starting this trek, but at the same time I just feel a lot more calm about it.
My best gear decisions came when I gained this calm demeanor about it. Of course I don’t know what the trail will be like still, but my attitude about it feels right at this point.
If you have the time, don’t buy your gear until you really understand what it is you’re getting into. Be active in thru-hiking communities, talk to people, read books, etc.
Let go, live the dream
Maybe some people just thru-hike for the physical challenge exclusively, but I notice a lot of people started on their treks for a different view of life, living, etc. The challenge for me is really getting to know what I find important. Do I really need all these things? What is it like to only own things out of necessity? Among other things, but this is a big one. So oddly enough when I was gearing up, I was packing too many commodities. Too many redundant items. For me now, planning on living with less and less is part of the fun. I will continue to part ways with things (my MP3 player is probably next on the list, I have a phone that does the same thing). And even though I just bought a fancy camera, I might just ditch that on-trail as well. I can bring an extra battery for my phone and really use it as the all-in-one it was intended to be.
It’s hard letting go of things, but I don’t know, it feels good. Before my trip, I’ll be selling a lot of my things. It’s time to let go.
Cliché: Every ounce counts
This is all I heard when I did gear research and asked for advice. It started to drive me crazy. But once I started dropping things from my pack, I realized just how true it is. It is insanely and absurdly true. It may be the only truth on this crazy planet we live on. Dropping two things saved me half a pound sometimes, dropping one thing saved me an entire pound, etc. Most people get a thrill out of watching numbers rise, I practically danced watching my numbers grow smaller and smaller.
When I put on my new backpack yesterday fully geared, the only thing I felt was victory. Absolute victory, and happiness. “I’m going to try to walk to Canada with this.. holy shit”.
Obligatory “hike your own hike” and all that jazz
Everyone has their own way of doing things, of course. But there’s common pitfalls people fall into that may or may not end their hike. For me, I paid a huge monetary price for my mistakes. I easily spent over $3000 in total for gearing up when I could have easily spent half or even less than that. That’s a lot of burgers and pizza I could have eaten on-trail. But that’s the way it goes, we live and we learn.
Do what feels right to you, but makes sure what you feel is appropriate for life on the trail. I think that’s the best way to sum up everything I’ve said here.