How to approaching building your backpacking Gear Kit
Your gear kit is 1/3 of what externally defines you as a backpacker. One look at a person's gear kit, their gait, and the look in their eyes reveals almost everything about a backpacker's perspective on the wilderness, their physical condition, and their motivations.
You should look at building your kit as an expression of your personality, your physical capabilities, and your values as a person. These elements determine what gear selections best address each person's capabilities and character.
Though these principals guide our approach to selecting gear, only the very real physical requirements of the High Sierras prove our gear selections correct, only field-testing proves our fundamental assumptions are indeed facts. In other words, we've really gotta watch out for any unrealistic, even idealistic, assumptions we may have about what nature can do or about our capacities to endure.
We must factually determine our capacities to withstand fatigue and cold, realistically gage the range of cold and fatigue we can potentially experience on our trip, and offset the potential for harsh weather with adequate gear for our personal level of cold resistance. Finally, we must have the experience to properly deploy it.
Bad assumptions about our own personal capacities and the gear we need to protect ourselves from physical and environmental dangers in the Sierra produce matching bad outcomes.
Backpacker's food and gear loading distributes itself along what I call the, "Goldilocks Curve."
Backpackers either carry too little, just right, or too much food & gear.
One path to failure is represented by ultralight backpackers who believe that their insufficient shelter, their too-thin of sleeping bag, their too light layering, and their thin footwear are sufficient for the weather extremes the High Sierras are capable of instantly producing.
Some of these folks approach simplicity like a religion.
Unless you've years of experience backing up your assertions, I'm very very skeptical. A few days of fierce early-Summer cold rains and snow routinely threatens the lives of dozens of under-prepared PCT hikers who enter the South Sierra as early as they can every year.
This same light gear setup would be much safer, if still unwise, a month later in the season.
These same late-Spring and early-Summer storms that literally threaten the lives of lightly-geared PCT hikers provide well-prepared backpackers with exhilarating opportunities to exercise their skills and gear.
Responsible backpackers show themselves through trips geared for the range of possible weather their trip entails, assuring that both their physical capabilities and gear are sufficient for worst-case weather scenarios, not just optimal conditions. These assurances come through a logical evolution of fitness and experience.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who pack too heavy. I have seen too many backpackers pack everything and the kitchen sink who critically over burden themselves.
My favorites were the bunch of country dudes who carried cast iron skillets, axes, and a cut-down full-sized shovel onto a long trip along the John Muir Trail. Really. They made the best out of the situation by using the shovel to bury the skillets and axes, as per my brilliant suggestion. Pack lightened!
I still laugh when I think about those guys... "you brought the solution to your own problem...use the shovel to bury the skillets and axes..." I am still laughing now as then.
Future archeologists will be impressed by our stupidity...
The heavy over- packers suffer from the constant pains of a too heavy pack. Exhaustion is also a serious threat in the back country, especially at high altitude. Insufficiently geared backpackers are at the mercy of the weather. Don't fail due to internal miscalculations about your level of fitness or because of external miscalculations about your insulation and shelter needs.
Backpackers die when their physical miscalculation about their gear needs lines up with the appearance of a cold Summer storm, just when their miscalculation about the physical demands of the trail are inducing exhaustion.
Practicality is the watchword for well-constructed kits. Not too much, and not too little. In my case that also requires serious practical budget considerations. Money equals weight in the backpacking world. Budget considerations cannot in any way compromise my security in the High Sierras during any season. If I don't have the right gear, I don't go. But I'm a lucky backpacking bum. Let's put together a backpacker bum's kit.
The Rookie Hiking Health Plan
This site's goal for novice backpackers is to bring you from the couch to the crest. Specifically, to get you on the Sierra Nevada Crest hiking one of the classic long trails between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney, if not the TW itself.
Assess your level of fitness, your injury history, and the selection of gear you have at your disposal. This assessment will determine the start point of your hunt for gear and the fitness and experience to properly put them all together on High Sierra trails.
As I suggest above, non-hikers should set a goal and have a pragmatic plan to achieve fitness. My goal is to gradually get you ready for the hike from Tahoe to Whitney in a logical evolution of fitness, skills, gear and experience.
Every time I break something on my body or in my gear kit, I have a process to remedy the loss. Sometimes this process is like starting backpacking from less than scratch, other times it is just getting started again after a minor injury and the associated sedentary period.
Physically, you must first recover from the healing phase of the initial injury and be ready for rehabilitation, otherwise known as training. We used to call it work. You must be willing to work.
Start with light stretching, light weight-lifting, and short local walks. Carefully monitor the response of the injury. Back off with inflammation and pain, increase work with successful completion of your current level of training.
I consider myself totally prepped when I can easily jog 7 miles with a 750 foot elevation gain. This means I will not suffer too much during the transition to heavy pack and high elevation field conditions. If I can run half that distance I will suffer twice as much for twice as long. Gear acquisition is not much less precise a science.
Gear selection should be made carefully
Start studying boots, and when opportunity for a great deal strikes, get some nice light-to-medium boots. Add a small day pack, and begin to collect up the bits of backpacking gear that you can use to support some nice car camping before you hit the trail.
Once you get your stove, tent, sleeping gear and some good backpacking clothes lined up you can familiarize yourself with using them and test their suitability in a controlled car-camping environment.
Gradually bring your hikes to the next level, and launch your day hikes from a free National Forest car camping site along the Sierra Crest. If you are not in proximity to the Sierra Crest, bring yourself to your nearest National Forest location where you can car camp for free.
Car camping is free in National Forests, and no permit is required, though you will need a fire permit even for you stove in the High Sierra. Check your local National Forest for information on their car camping opportunities.
There are many free car camping sites on all the more remote Northern trans-Sierra Highways.
The goal here is to get you fit, get you some basic gear, and get you familiar with how to comfortably deploy and use that gear one logical step at a time.
You will sit in your car-camping site and figure out exactly how your layers, your tent, your stove, and sleeping bag are working for you. You will figure out fuel, food, and water usage and you will determine the proper layering to keep yourself warm at night across the range of temps experienced in the High Sierra.
Your High Sierra day hiking will improve your fitness, break in your boots, and allow you to explore the local areas where you will execute your first backpacking trips.
Oh, and you will watch half of eternity wheel overhead every night, while tracking the routine of daily life in the mountains during the days.
After a bit of this day-hiking and car-camping you will put it all on the trail, and know what has already worked for you while car-camping near the Sierra Crest!
My goal as a long distance backpacker is to have the capacity to hike all day, from before sunrise to just before sunset, covering a minimum of 15 miles per day for 5 days consecutive days between days off while being well fed, warm, and able to physically recover from one day exertions for the next. I must be able to repeat this output for as long a period of time as necessary to reach the destination.
There is a method to this madness. The key section of the PCT-TYT across Emigrant Wilderness and the North Yosemite Backcountry is about 75 miles between resupply points. The key section of the PCT-JMT from Muir Ranch to the Whitney Portal is around 132 miles from end to end.
The distance vs. time vs. food/pack weight demands of these two key sections determine that 15 mpd is around the minimal capacity necessary to efficiently cross these distances.
If we go slower than 15 mpd the increase in food weight will make the overall pack weight unbearable. Especially for the lengthy Muir to Portal section. Our pack will be noticeably lighter if we can maintain 17 or 20 miles per day. This is very very strenuous work at very high altitude up steep mountain trails carrying potentially very heavy pack loads.
Oh, and each of these long sections of trail are the hardest sections of both the North and South Sierra, respectively.
This difficulty of the work load should not be underestimated.
Our long distance backpacking trips across these lengthy sections between resupply points each takes a considerable number of strenous hiking days to complete. This requires we have training and trail plans that prepares us for crossing long distances unassisted while successfully enduring weeks of physical stress and exposure.
This level of fitness will give us the capacity to walk around 75 miles on a five day food load. Reaching this level of capacity will be a very important milestone if we are planning to hike the Tahoe to Yosemite, John Muir, or Pacific Crest Trails.
Our gear must serve us well for this to happen.
The End of the Line is the Advent of Full Access
The distance between our last resupply at Muir Ranch and the Whitney Portal is around 132 miles, off the top of my head. Without resupply. That's roughly 15 miles per day over 9 days. Having this level of physical capacity gives us the ability to access any long distance trail in the country.
We are fit enough for four-season High Sierra travel, with the addition of the necessary skills.
If you have not worked yourself through this process of exploring the limits of your improving fitness while breaking-in a set of boots, of collecting gear and matching gear to your specific needs, of staying warm and (relatively) dry while developing the skill sets necessary to set up your protective tent in high wind and cook a great meal on your little camp stoves in driving rain, you have not yet lived.
should not plan on walking the PCT until you have, or are perfectly prepped to do all the above.
Every year I meet kids with absolutely no backpacking experience trying to hike the PCT. Wow. Just a little common-sense and preparation would have saved these people a whole lot of suffering.
Use the Summertime backpacking gear list as a shopping list. The plan is to have your fitness, your camp skills, your familiarity with a local backpacking area and your gear knowledge all come together simultaneously for a wonderful first backpacking experience. This is especially important for kids and first time backpackers.
People who have not accustomed themselves to walking with a backpack are going to have a hard time if you just throw them onto High Sierra trails, and this difficulty is only magnified by altitude and inclination.
Think of your worse experience in PE or Boot Camp, then think about it at 10,000 feet under a heavy pack. It is pain itself. If you match that pain with exhaustion and with a pair of new boots and matching blisters, you can drive a kid, a rookie backpacker, or yourself off the trail forever.
The Well Cooked Frog
So bring your fitness, your skills, your local knowledge, and your gear all up to speed logically and gradually before subjecting yourself to the rigors of High Sierra Backpacking. If you are already a runner, a bicyclist, or are otherwise aerobically fit, you will not be immune from backpacking-specific stresses and strains, but you will adjust quickly if you transition your fundamental aerobic fitness into backpacking application with logical skill and gear development.
For instance, let's look at the most expensive gear of all, Winter Gear. My $230 Zamberlin mountain boots were bought at an REI end-of-season returns sale. When they used to hold those. I had my boot gear kit in the citidiot tennis shoes I was wearing.
Finding the Zamberins on sale,
I pulled the inserts out of my tennis shoes, popped them into the frkn expensive boots, and Viola!! The boots fit perfectly, and I bought a $230 set of the baddest-assed mountain boots for $32 dollars. 32 bucks!
My North Face Mountain Jacket, $270 retail, was purchased for $99 as a return from the Berkeley North Face Outlet. I did exactly the same thing with my Winter Mountain Pants. It took me a long time to find the right gear. But this should not be a worry.
Sometimes it takes as long to to build the skills and experience required to use the gear properly as it does to find the high quality gear you need on the cheap. Don't short yourself on either side of this equation.
If you're rolling in bucks, don't let your desires overwhelm you capacities. Don't buy what you don't need or can't use.
My philosophy, and yours too, should require that we be personally responsible for always having sufficient shelter, proper insulation, safe water, and copious amounts of good food for the wide range of conditions we can possibly encounter.
We must be responsible for developing the fitness necessary to carry this load over long distances in all conditions. We are personally responsible for having developed the skills and experience necessary to be able to effectively deploy and use these resources in all the conditions we put ourselves into.
And, we must be able to provide those resources to a downed backpacker in emergency situations. Some folks take quite a different approach, failing to provide for even their own basic needs.
I watch people crash and burn on the long trails every year. And I watch people evolve to find their potential on the long trails. Properly evaluating your fitness and skills against your objectives allows you to bring all three into parity.
Never carry too much, never carry too little. Don't bite off more than you can chew and keep your objectives within your capacities.
Check out the following gear sections for more information.
The Basic Set-Up
Gear in Use
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