Working in an outdoor gear store for the last two and a half years has taught me an incredible amount about different fabrics and emerging technology.
While this knowledge has been immensely helpful when buying my own outdoor gear (thankfully at discount), I figured it may also be useful to some of our readers here too.
If you’ve ever read any of our water or trail based backcountry adventures and wondered how to get started yourself (or want to help someone else in doing so!), here’s a quick guide to buying backpacking gear – specifically the holy trinity of sleeping bags, tents and sleeping pads.
One of the main factors when choosing between sleeping bags is usually the type and amount of insulating material inside of it.
The insulating material (the fill) determines the temperature, compressibility and weight of the bag. There are two main types of sleeping bag fill:
- More water resistant than down (still provides some warmth when wet)
- Cruelty free
- Limited longevity due to fibres breaking down after repeated compression
- Less compressible
- Cheaper (but are less durable and typically won’t last as long as down)
- Super compressible (and therefore more easily packed)
- Provides better warmth to weight ratio than synthetic (lighter overall)
- Durable – average longevity for a down sleeping bag is around 10 years
- Loses insulating properties when wet
- Byproduct of the food industry
Some things to consider about sleeping bags
Outdoor companies are beginning to address some of the ethical issues surrounding down insulation. Look for a Responsible Down Standard tag to be sure that the bag was made to the highest cruelty-free standards.
New technology is enabling down insulation to be more water resistant. A water-repellent coating can be added to the down insulation to enable the feathers to dry quicker and resist water for longer.
A standard temperature rating system for sleeping bags has only been introduced within the last few years. The two main EN numbers to look for are the comfort rating and the lower limit rating.
In my opinion, it is always best to go a little warmer than necessary. After all, you can always open your sleeping bag to cool down!
Quilts are a lightweight alternative to sleeping bags. Though previously only available through specialist ultralight manufacturers, quilts are starting to be offered by some of the big outdoor brands too.
Choosing a tent is often one of the biggest decisions when buying backpacking gear. For most people, it is usually the heaviest and largest piece of equipment.
Backpacking tents are most easily categorised by their weight. Tents up to 7lbs (3.17kg) are usually considered to be suitable for backpacking. When travelling in a group, the weight of a tent can be split by distributing the rain fly, poles and tent to different people.
A lighter tent will typically be made from materials that are less durable. More delicate materials mean less gear to carry in but may not withstand as much pressure from weather, rough campsites or human abuse.
Carefully consider how much living and vestibule (enclosed entrance) space each tent offers. Some tents have smaller vestibules to allow for more living and storage space inside the tent. Personally, I find larger vestibules more convenient for storing backpacks and wet clothes/shoes.
The peak height of the tent is the measurement at the highest point in the tent. If you’re on the taller side, this may be a key factor in your tent choice.
Keep in mind that backpacking tents are usually on the smaller side compared to front-country or car camping tents. If space is a priority, think about sizing up e.g. from a two-person tent to the three-person version.
The style of entry is more of an important factor for groups of two or more. Some tents just have one door while others have two. With two or more people in one tent, having two doors can be convenient for those late night trips to the outhouse or just for flexibility.
Three or four season
Three season tents are designed for spring to autumn backpacking adventures. They usually have mesh panelling and rain-fly vents to increase ventilation in warmer temperatures. Many three season tents have two doors.
Four season tents can be used all year round but are ideal for winter trips. This type of tent is typically heavier since they are constructed with more durable materials, less mesh and stronger poles. Four season tents have to be able to withstand extreme environments with low temperatures, high winds and snow. They typically have one door.
Most backpacking tents available on the market are double walled tents. This means that there is a tent body (first wall) and then a fly (second wall). Single wall tents consist of just one piece of material. These are lighter and pack smaller but don’t usually ventilate as well as double walled tents.
Hammock camping is becoming more popular by the year. Not having to find a clear, level campsite when sleeping in a hammock is convenient. Set-up is also quick and the equipment fairly light. There is, however, a reliance on finding suitable trees.
For the ultimate in lightweight shelter, consider a tarp or bivouac (bivvy). These provide basic shelter and not much more. They’re a bit too minimalist for me personally but having such a light backpack would be appealing!
A sleeping pad, or mat, enables a more comfortable sleep with cushioning and insulation.
Without a sleeping pad, the ground draws heat away from the body. There are a few different types of sleeping pads to consider when buying backpacking gear:
- Air pads – these need to be inflated either by breath or an included hand pump. Air pads are light and pack down small. They can be damaged more easily than the other options but repairs are usually fairly simple.
- Self-inflating pads – these use closed cell insulation and air to provide insulation. A few breaths may be needed to inflate the pad to its full capacity. Self-inflating pads usually feel a little firmer than air pads and are generally more expensive and less compact.
- Closed-cell foam pads – the most basic sleeping pad on the market, closed-cell foam variations are lightweight, durable and cheap. Most people, however, will find this type of pad to be are less comfortable than the other two options above. Closed-cell foam pads are also pretty bulky.
The R-value system measures a material’s resistance to heat loss. Most sleeping pads will advertise their R-value to indicate how much insulation they provide. The higher the number, the more warmth the sleeping pad offers.
Summer sleeping pads (ideal for warm locations) usually have an R-value of 1 or less. For a comfortable three season pad, look for a rating around 3. If winter camping is on the agenda, choose a sleeping mat with a rating of 4 or above like this like this Klymit Static V.
Sleeping pad purchasing tips:
An aluminium emergency blanket or closed-cell foam pad can be used underneath air pads to increase insulation in colder climates.
Not all sleeping pads are rectangular. Some lightweight versions are tapered towards the feet or are purposely short to save weight.
Double sleeping mats can save weight in a pack for couples. Alternatively, it is possible to buy systems (basically straps) to join pads together.
Always inflate sleeping pads before going on a trip to check for leaks and other defects. I made the mistake of not doing this once and had to sleep on a partially inflated mat for the next three nights!
Be sure to carry a repair kit (these are usually included with air pads) in case of small holes or leaks while backpacking.
Buying backpacking gear guidelines:
- Lighter gear is usually more expensive
- As a general rule -the lighter the equipment, the less durable it is (more care is needed)
- In my experience, the concept of ‘you pay for what you get’ is true with most outdoor gear: quality usually goes hand-in-hand with price
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