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BETTER GEAR + EXPERIENCE = FARTHER DISTANCE: THE IMPORTANT ROLE OF THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT

Words and Photos by Rebecca Sperry

We all see them on the trail and internally (or externally) cringe. Maybe they have on a backpack; maybe they’re just carrying a water bottle. Their footwear might be sneakers, or, in some cases, everyday sandals, and as seasoned hikers, we can’t help but judge (or worry about) them. I know I do it, even though I was one of those people not so long ago (this is only my seventh-year hiking). But the fact is, most of us started hiking in similar attire and transitioned to more appropriate gear as we gained experience in the outdoors.

Looking back at my own gear choices, I made the typical trajectory from an inexperienced day-hiker with a generic backpack to a seasoned hiker with an ultralight setup. This transition was daunting at first, given the variety of gear options. But once I got my kit dialed in, I found that hiking longer distances and doing overnight hikes was more enjoyable, and I felt empowered.

In the backpacking world, there are three general groups of hikers. There are hikers that choose to carry heavier packs with all the luxuries, those that carry a middle-of-the-road setup, and the ultralight backpackers. Each style of backpacking has pros and cons. Carrying the bare necessities and foregoing comfort can put you at risk of being unprepared in an emergency. On the other hand, lugging too much gear on your back can slow you down and cause injury. The range of heavy to ultralight in the backpacking industry is like a spectrum and finding the right setup for you is key.

BETTER GEAR + EXPERIENCE = FARTHER DISTANCE: THE IMPORTANT ROLE OF THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT

In 2018 I set my eyes on my first thru-hike attempt on the Long Trail in Vermont. That winter, I plunged down the backpacking gear rabbit hole, and by early spring, I was several hundred dollars poorer and not entirely sure that I had picked the right gear for me. I knew that I wanted to go lighter, but I was hesitant to purchase an ultralight backpack without being able to try it on first. At the time, many of the cottage industry brands were still up and coming, so instead of throwing caution to the wind and testing out a UL pack, I threw a couple of hundred dollars at the lightest pack I could find at my local outfitter. After one day of hiking with it, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake.

Despite the fact that I had purchased one of the most popular packs for thru hikers at the time, I was unhappy. There were too many pockets, crevices, and attachments. I felt overwhelmed and down about my purchase. How was I supposed to do a thru hike with a pack that felt like a hindrance rather than an extension of my body? Ultimately, I never ended up testing out that pack when my thru hike became postponed. It has sat in my closet since 2018 after only being used once, my last purchase from the general backpacking world before taking the next step into ultralight backpacking.

The following year, 2019, I crossed the threshold into the UL backpacking world. I spent months researching how to get my pack weight down, which pack would work for me, and even went so far as to cut my toothbrush in half to save a few grams. I traded in my external frame pack for a frameless Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 2400. That has been the only pack I’ve worn since strapping it to my body in January 2019.

When I look back at what kind of packs and gear I carried during my first three years of hiking, I wince. I went from a day pack not made for hiking, a prepackaged first aid kit, and wore cotton t-shirts and jeans to a custom first aid kit, UL backpack, and moisture-wicking clothes. My gear plays a huge role in my comfort on trail, and I can say with certainty that there is no way I would be hiking 20-mile days wearing what I wore as a newbie hiker or carrying what I carried. Figuring out how to transition to a lighter setup wasn’t easy, so here are some tips on how I customized my own kit.

BETTER GEAR + EXPERIENCE = FARTHER DISTANCE: THE IMPORTANT ROLE OF THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT


TIPS TO TAILOR YOUR GEAR:

SEASONALITY & TRAIL CONDITIONS

When I first started hiking, I only would go when it was nice and never in winter-type weather (I reside in the Northeast). When transitioning into a more tailored kit, what you carry in your pack will vary depending on the forecast and trail conditions. It was easier for me to create my summer hiking kit and transition into shoulder season and winter hiking because there was more room for error. Once I was comfortable with what I was carrying in the summertime (essentially my basic setup for all seasons), I could start looking more into what I would need for colder weather.

TRIP LENGTH

Another important factor to consider is how long you will be in the woods. On longer trips, you will need to carry more food and potentially more gear (if you’re staying out for the night). Planning out your gear for longer day hikes usually just requires carrying more food and some sort of water purification (which you should be carrying regardless of the length of your hike as one of the Ten Essentials). For overnights or backpacking trips, though, I found that I had to spend a bit more time researching what I should be bringing and what I could leave behind or swap out of my kit. An example of swapping gear would be on overnights. I don’t carry my emergency bivy or blanket because I am already carrying a shelter and sleeping bag. Doing research to see what other people are carrying, watching videos, or reading blog posts, was essential for me to really home in on what I wanted and needed to carry in my own pack.

CREATURE COMFORTS & PACK WEIGHT

The final thing to consider when building out your kit is how light or heavy you want to go. When I first got into ultralight backpacking, the concept of going UL was incredibly intimidating. I didn’t know where to start in terms of gear. Ultimately, the best way to become more comfortable with going light is to read about it (or watch videos explaining gear). The “Big Three” are where you will save the most weight in your kit (tent, sleeping system, and backpack), so once you pick those out, you just have to decide what you’re willing to sacrifice to save weight. Do you really need to carry two headlamps? Are you going to have time to read a book, or could you download a digital copy onto your phone? For you, these things might be non-negotiable, whereas, for someone else, they are unnecessary. Ultimately, there really is no one-size-fits-all in backpacking, but there are some really great ways to save weight and make your hiking more enjoyable.

BETTER GEAR + EXPERIENCE = FARTHER DISTANCE: THE IMPORTANT ROLE OF THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT

FINAL THOUGHTS

Switching to lighter gear and appropriate clothing has made hiking much more satisfying. I feel confident with what I carry and know that I am prepared should an emergency arise. My pack fits perfectly, and even after thousands of miles of hiking, it is still doing its job and doing it well. While I still advocate for people to carry more than just a running vest on day hikes, I can completely agree that there is a huge advantage to going lighter. The saying goes, we carry our fear on our backs, and if that’s true, then I can say I am a hiker with a healthy amount of respect for the outdoors but no longer afraid of hiking.

Rebecca Sperry is an avid hiker who spends the majority of her free time either hiking in New England or writing. In 2020, she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, and continued to hike throughout an entire year of aggressive treatment. She is a strong proponent for the importance of staying active, especially as a way to alleviate some of the side effects of cancer treatment. You can follow her journey on her Instagram or her website: rebeccasperry.com

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