If you’ve read Planning Your Thru-Hike of the John Muir Trail you know about the gear triangle. For those who haven’t (you haven’t?!), the gear triangle is a graphic representation of this principle: when it comes to backpacking gear, you can get it light, comfortable, or cheap; pick any two.
If you are a more affluent hiker (or if you are of a certain age, the kids are grown, you’ve downsized, and there are more discretionary funds available), you may want to go expensive and light across the board, from your shelter system to your titanium spork, which is a quarter of an ounce lighter than the plastic one.
Many of us, however, have to choose our battles a little more carefully. Here are some rules to follow:
1. Don’t skimp on footwear. A good pair of boots or trail runners, durable enough to go the distance, and fitted well enough to keep your feet in good shape, are worth any price. Even if you have to buy a second pair (if the first doesn’t work out), it’s money well spent.
2. Go for the very best stuff in two circumstances: when the extra cost will save you a significant amount of weight, or if the expensive stuff is just relatively expensive. (For example, a plastic cup might weigh 4 ounces and cost $5 while a titanium cup weighs 2 ounces and cost $30. True, it’s only 2 ounces saved at six times the cost, but it’s also true that it’s only an extra $25.)
The premium you spend on your tent, pad, sleeping bag, backpack, and bear canister could mean a huge difference in your base weight. Going for strictly the top-of-the-line when it comes to trekking poles, camp stoves, a water purification system, and clothes will add up (subtract down?) at a much slower pace.
3. Spend the extra money if it means you can buy one thing to replace two (or more) things. I carried an e-reader, GPS, and cell phone on my last thru-hike. Next time I may bring one device with the functionality of all three. Sleeping quilts can be found (to replace sleeping bags) that can double as coats to wear while sitting around the campsite. The right sleeping pad can provide comfort at night and stability to your backpack during the day.
4. Consider making it yourself. The make-your-own-gear (MYOG) movement has been going strong for years, and, with a little effort, can be a great way to carry the lightest-of-the-light, custom made for you, at much less expense.
If you want to go light, you are going to have to spend some money. But choosing your targets carefully will mean that for every dollar spent you eliminate the most weight.
Good hiking, Ray