THE FOUR MAJOR PIECES OF EQUIPMENTBackpack | Sleeping Bag | Sleeping Pad | Tent or Shelter
In this letter, I am going into specific detail only on the four major pieces of equipment: backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and rain shelter. My next letter will go into detail on the remaining items on the equipment list. Keep in mind that these are big purchase items, and that renting equipment can be another possibility if you are not ready to fully commit to all of this. Having your own gear allows you to pick out exactly what is right for you, but often a backpacking store or REI will have stuff to rent. Equipment reviews can be found at www.backpacker.com.
BACKPACK: Your first decision will be whether to use an internal frame or an external frame pack. Originally, all packs were external frame, and they look just like they sound - a frame of metal with a fabric pack attached. What we see most of the time now is the internal frame pack, which is a soft pack, similar at first glance to a day pack, but with a built-in rigid frame and beefed up shoulder straps and hip belt. Which design is best is a personal choice--and backpackers become quite adamant that "their choice" is the best one. So don't be misled by one backpacker's strong opinion that you should only consider an external or only consider an internal frame. Think about how you plan on backpacking and make your personal choice. My personal choice is an internal frame pack.
Some guidelines to think about are that internal frame packs ride closer to your body and tend to be more stable. They don't shift around much. This is something to consider if you plan on doing scrambling over rock, hiking on precarious ledges, climbing, skiing with a pack - any type of movement where you don't want your balance to be compromised by the pack shifting at the wrong moment.
With most internal frame packs, everything goes inside, and there is usually one inner compartment, often with one access, either at the top or front. When you load an internal frame pack, the sleeping bag goes in first, and then you pile everything else in on top of that. You need to be cognizant of what is going toward the part of the pack which will be touching your back -you don't want a sharp or hard object poking you in the back. It is considered tacky to have a lot of gear hanging on the outside of an internal frame pack, although I do keep my camp shoes on a carabiner on the outside. This is because of the type of use the packs were designed for: off-trail hiking through brush or crevasses where you don't want stuff hanging off your pack that might get caught up on something. Internal frame packs usually have sophisticated shoulder/hip harness systems that help to make the pack comfortable.
General guidelines for external frame packs are mostly the opposite of internals: The pack rides on a frame, about an inch away from your back, making contact at your shoulders and hips. Because of this, air circulates between you and the pack so the pack tends to be cooler to carry. However, the pack is also more apt to shift to the side or over the top of your head when you bend to the side or forward. With externals, the sleeping bag and pad are usually mounted to the frame outside of the pack. Most packs have 2 access openings and several outside pockets for small items. With externals, you still need to be sure you don't have sharp objects poking through the pack, but this is more to prevent damage to the pack than a comfort issue. External packs often take on a "gypsy" look, with all kinds of equipment clipped or strapped to the outside.
One other consideration when you are selecting your pack: Where will you carry your water? Some packs have a place for an internal water bladder, which has a hose that hangs over your shoulder so you can drink at will. Whatever pack you choose, be sure you have some way to easily access your drinking water without taking off your pack or having to ask someone to hand you the water. Some people use a holster, which fits on a hip belt. My pack has a lower side pockets made for water bottles, which I can remove and replace while the pack is on.
Finally, whether you borrow, rent, or buy your pack, before making a decision, walk around with the pack loaded with at least 30 lb. for at least 1/2 hour to decide if the pack is comfortable. I just love it when I hear that -"Is the pack comfortable?" There are many "relative" issues in backpacking - a pack being comfortable is one of them. I don't think there is any such thing as someone putting on a pack that weighs 1/4 to 1/3 of their body weight, and then saying: "Gosh, that feels GREAT!" And if you have never carried a loaded pack for 8 hours, you don't know what is going to be comfortable. So, in making your decision, walk around with a couple of different loaded packs. Be sure there is nothing downright painful. Most of the weight should be on your hips, not your shoulders. The shoulder straps are meant to hold the pack in place, not really carry the weight. If you are a small woman, consider a pack designed for women only.
While on the trip, you may have a chance to try out one of the other participant's packs (it is very easy to trade packs with someone if their pack weighs more than yours!) If you rent or borrow a pack, make arrangements to take possession of the pack a few days before you leave so that you can experiment with loading it.
SLEEPING BAG: Try to find the lightest bag you can that is rated to 40 degrees. You shouldn't need anything warmer than that for this trip--you can always wear a few layers of clothing to bed if it is cold. Your bag should not weigh more than 3 lb. A very good review of the different shapes, styles, and insulation available is available at www.backpacker.com. If you have an old cotton "car-camping" bag with flannel lining with pictures of hunting dogs, don't even think about bringing it! It is far too heavy, and nowhere near warm enough. I use a bag rated to 15 degrees, and this one bag then serves me for a wide variety of trips.
SLEEPING PAD: Lots of choices here: closed-cell foam, egg-crate foam, self-inflating foam...The selection for rental will be limited, but the price of some of the self-inflating foam mattresses is pretty high. I have a relatively thick self-inflating foam mattress. It is my splurge because my hips are my vulnerable area. Closed cell pads are much cheaper, but also much less cushion. Find something that looks interesting and lay down on it in the store for 10 minutes or so.
TENT OR RAIN SHELTER: We may not have any rain at all, but we may, so it's important to be prepared. Therefore, everyone needs to have a tent or rain shelter. You don't have to sleep in the tent, but you need to have space in one in case the weather is bad. Sharing a tent means less impact on the earth and makes it easier for a large group to find places to set up. A tent also gives protection from mosquitoes.
Remember, maximum 25 lb. per person includes pack, sleeping bag, pad, tent, clothing, and personal gear. It really adds up quickly.
Finally, a comment about cost. The price of an item, in and of itself, does not define quality or value. Evaluate each item for function, weight, and bulk first of all and then take cost into consideration. You should strive for multiple functions, low weight, and minimal bulk in each item you select.
See also Outdoor Product mail order dealers at donsnotes.
This should be more than enough information for you to digest right now. Let me know if you have any questions about what I have covered in this letter.
Have fun researching your equipment!
last updated 4 Aug 2010