By Michael Lanza
Are you in the market for a new backpack, boots, tent, sleeping bag or other backpacking gear or apparel? How do you find something that’s just right for you? What should you be looking for? How much should you spend? These are questions I’ve heard from many friends and readers over the years as they’ve waded through the myriad choices out there. This article lays out five simple but helpful tips to keep in mind when buying gear.
I’ve learned these steps over nearly three decades of testing and reviewing gear—as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for about 10 years and even longer running this blog—and helping people find gear they love. No matter what you’re shopping for—boots, pack, tent, sleeping bag, other backpacking gear, or some major piece of apparel like a rain shell or insulated jacket—you face a daunting array of choices, and everyone’s needs are different.
But finding the gear that performs well and that you’ll be happy with really comes down to following a simple thought process described in the five easy steps below, which you can follow when buying almost any gear. Below them, you’ll find links to my stories offering specific tips on buying a new pack, boots, tent, sleeping bag, rain shell, and insulated jacket, plus reviews covering my top picks in several categories.
Please share your thoughts on my tips or your own, best gear-buying advice in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
No. 1 Decide Exactly What It’s For
A friend once asked me to recommend boots he could buy for backpacking that would also work well for climbing glaciated peaks (in the Pacific Northwest); I told him that was a little like shopping for a dump truck that would also give him good mileage as a commuting vehicle. If you set out in search of a pack or boots for every hike you ever take, then you will probably wind up with just that—which may serve your needs in an overly general way, but not be quite right for anything.
Focus on how you intend to use that item most of the time and buy something that’s good for that purpose. When you actually need or can afford more specialized gear that you will only use occasionally, get it then.
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No. 2 Decide Exactly What You Need
Do you need solid ankle support, or do you prefer really lightweight, nimble footwear? Are you a big guy who needs a roomy tent, or a lightweight or ultralight backpacker or parent backpacking with a young child with a top priority of minimizing gear weight? Do you want the lightest bag you can afford, or do you get cold easily and need a bag that’s a little fatter and warmer than the average person uses?
The reason for the almost infinite number of choices in gear is the infinite variability in the wants and needs of consumers. That can seem confusing but it’s ultimately good for you. Your first step in buying may simply be writing down your customized answers to numbers one and two in this list of tips and using that as a guide as you begin winnowing your short list.
Trips go better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and “The 7 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”
No. 3 Get the Fit Right
Especially with footwear, packs, and performance apparel, fit and personal satisfaction go together like chips and salsa. You can be happy with a sleeping bag or tent that are not quite what you wanted (but are what you could afford); but no matter how much you spend, you’ll never be happy with a pack or boots that don’t fit you well. A poorly fitting pack can make you miserable, and poorly fitting boots can end a trip.
With those gear items for which fit becomes critical—boots and a pack—narrow your list to perhaps three or more options, based on steps one and two (above). Then go try them on and you will find the model you like.
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No. 4 Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute
The best way to spend more than you want or need to spend—and be forced to settle for something that’s not quite what you wanted—is to wait until the last day or two before a trip and rush out to buy something.
You wouldn’t buy a car or a house that way, because you want to take the time to find something that feels just right for you.
Treat buying boots, a pack, tent, bag, or other major gear or apparel item the same way—those aren’t like batteries or stove fuel that you dash out to pick up at the last minute.
Plus, shopping around weeks or even months in advance gives you time to wait for sale prices.
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No. 5 Spend What You Can Afford
This last nugget of advice goes both ways: If you can only afford an entry-level pack or other piece of gear, look for the best-quality item that’s within your budget (and fits you) and just buy it. Some brands that sell directly to consumer, like Beyond Clothing and Cotopaxi (those are affiliate links), offer high-quality gear at very competitive prices. (Tip: Pick a brand name known for high quality, because they usually bring similar attention to quality to their affordable gear as they do to their pricier gear.)
Maybe it won’t be as comfortable or last as long as the high-end gear you coveted, but it will enable you to get out there and have fun and may last until you can afford something better.
By the same token, I always tell friends or readers seeking advice: If you can afford the best, why settle for something that will be less comfortable, or heavier, or not fit or perform as well as pricier pieces of gear or apparel that are within your budget? Measure the value in terms of your enjoyment and comfort as well as the cost per mile or day of use, because higher-quality gear, while pricier, often proves much more durable than cheaper stuff. That’s money well spent.
See my story “Why and When to Spend More on Hiking and Backpacking Gear.”
See these articles at The Big Outside for my pro tips on buying gear (most of them require a subscription to my blog):
“5 Expert Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack”
“5 Expert Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent”
“How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent for You”
“Expert Tips For Buying the Right Boots”
“Pro Tips for Buying Sleeping Bags”
“5 Expert Tips For Buying a Rain Jacket for Hiking”
“The 10 Best Down Jackets” (includes buying tips for down and synthetic jackets)
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See also these reviews of top picks:
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.