As with so many other aspects of life choosing the right hiking gear is all about trying to strike a balance between different and often contradictory wants and wishes. Who wouldn’t want a weightless, does-everything-but-doesn’t-cost-anything-and-lasts-forever hiking setup? Well, in the words of Austin Powers “I want a toilet made out of solid gold, but it’s just not in the cards now is it?” Choosing gear is about making compromises. When I choose hiking gear this is what I look for.
The most important thing is to make sure that I have the gear that is necessary to overcome the conditions that I expect to encounter: Is my sleeping bag and clothes warm enough, what carry capacity backpack do I need, what will I use for navigation, should I bring rain gear etc.
In general, the fewer bells and whistles (zippers, pockets, hooks, straps etc.), the fewer things that can potentially break. Simple, but well-designed gear is often also cheap and light. E.g. my Arcteryx Alpha SL rain jacket only has one pocket and no pit zips, but it is cheaper and lighter than most other Gore-Tex jackets, and just as waterproof.
Ease of use
I look for gear that is easy to use on trail, as well as in town. Both as individual items, and collectively. E.g. I stay away from tents that are difficult to pitch. And, while a smartphone is arguably a very advanced piece of electronics, I find it a lot easier just to use a smartphone instead of carrying and keeping charged a separate GPS unit, a music player and a camera.
There are few things that are more frustrating on the trail than gear failures, so naturally I look for gear that is as durable and reliable as possible. While durable is often not the lightest, it doesn’t have to be the most expensive either. E.g: Silnylon is heavier than cuben fiber, but also cheaper and more durable. I always prefer gear that is waterproof, whether it’s a smartphone, a headlamp, or a stuff sack.
Cheaper is better. I think we can all agree on this one. I always keep an eye out for good offers and try to buy all my gear online before the trail. In case of on-trail gear failures, or with “consumables” like shoes, this might not always be a feasible solution of course.
Lighter is better. Unfortunately, the lightest equipment can often be less durable and/or more expensive than the heavier options, e.g. cuben fiber vs silnylon. But you don’t always have to take a financial hit, or weight penalty, to go lighter. A lot of hiking gear can be both cheap, durable and lightweight simply because of its simple and no-frills design, e.g. ultralight backpacks. And of course, the lightest, cheapest and easiest option is just to leave at home the stuff that you don’t really need.
Write and maintain a packing list. This makes it a lot easier to get an overview and to make sure you’ve got everything covered. Make sure everything fits in your backpack, and that your are comfortable carrying it. Review and make adjustments as you gain experience.
Keep in mind that every hiker’s comfort zone and ability is different, and every trail is different. Don’t go out and buy a $500, 30-liter cuben fiber backpack just because you see a tripple crowner using it on the Pacific Crest Trail (a.k.a. the Piece of Cake Trail). An ultralight setup that works well for a seasoned thru-hiker in the desert of southern California may prove utterly disasterous for a newbie hiking in freezing rain on the Te Araroa or in Norway.
With more than 7,500 miles under my belt (and counting) I still take great interest in talking gear and to hear what other hikers are carrying. But I never copy blindly. You shouldn’t either. Listen to experienced hikers for advice and inspiration, but make sure that your gear is adequate for the hike you are going on, and that you know how to use it.
Many hikers nowadays strive to go ultralight. But please remember that there’s a thin red line between ultralight and stupid light. Don’t be stupid. SAFETY FIRST!