Live and learn, right?
I remember the first major hike I did on July 4th during my 2nd year of grad school: Upper Yosemite Falls with some of my closest friends and classmates. We actually wanted to do Half Dome, but none of us knew that we needed a permit to do that, and we got up too late anyway, so we decided to do a different hike. It was my first time visiting my now favorite National Park. I wore a cotton shirt, cotton socks, Nike running shoes, and a regular school backpack, and no hat. My very slippery shoe soles were a pain in the butt the whole way down, and I actually kissed the ground when we were done with the descent. I brought several bottles of water, but it still wasn’t enough and we ended up drinking directly from the stream. We later told our Infectious Diseases professor about it and he joked that we were lucky we didn’t contract Giardia. It was a challenging but gorgeous hike and an amazingly fun day outside of the classroom. I look back now and laugh compassionately at who I was and how little I knew back then, such a young pup!
I’ve come a long way since then. Countless nerdy gear talks with my brother and some good talks with my coworker as well. I didn’t arrive here on my own, and I am very grateful for the people who have provided guidance along the way.
I want to share what I’ve learned over the years. All of this may seem like common knowledge and second nature to people who have played outside their whole lives. The explanations below may seem overkill or bare bones depending on your level of experience, but I wanted to be as complete and thorough as possible… I wanted to write this, in a sense, to my younger, COMPLETELY inexperienced self. I have spent time and money that I could have saved. I incurred bites and sun burns that could have been prevented. And I have bought (and returned) WAY too many things on Amazon and at REI (sometimes my apartment looked like a warehouse with all the different sizes and colors I fiddled with 😂). My hope in sharing is that my fumbles can help spare you some of the blood, sweat, and swollen bites in your own life.
I am far from an expert, and I am continuing to learn as I go. Take what you want, and leave the rest. You are the most important human in your own life; live it as you best see fit! Play and experiment and adjust to YOUR heart’s content.
Some general concepts before I dive into my own gear:
- RISK: Nature is natural because it is wild, and I love how fierce it is. Nature also has many elements and risks. The blazing sun, the disease-ridden bugs, unstable falling rocks, dangerous creek crossings, potential ankle sprains on the trail. Nothing in life is without risk. We get to choose how to prepare and best mitigate that risk to still go out there and live our lives.
- SUN: I love the smell of sunscreen and have joked that it is the only perfume I’ll ever wear. I’m very bad about reapplying though, and it does wear off eventually. I’d really prefer to not get skin cancer, so my options for sun protection are constantly reapply the sticky solution, or cover up. I’ve recently joined the camp of covering up. It seems counter-intuitive, but the more covered up you are, the cooler your temperature stays. Direct sunlight on my skin feels so exhausting and draining. I’ve finally learned first-hand why desert nomads are always covered up from head to toe.
- BUGS: After my first backpacking trip, I sent a picture of my face, swollen from several mosquito bites, to my loved ones. I should have clarified what happened, because many of them expressed concern that I got beat up and asked if I filed a police report! Fortunately we live in an area where mosquitoes don’t carry any life-threatening diseases, but the bites are still extremely annoying and miserable for someone who is allergic to them. I can’t kill all mosquitoes, so I have to figure out a way to live with them while out in their habitat. Bug spray is one thing, and covering up is another. Besides the physical barrier of clothing, you can also chemically prevent bugs by treating clothes with permethrin, and by spraying insect repellent on exposed skin.
- MATERIALS: Fabrics and brands. I’m loyal to a few brands but am also learning that the tightness and weave of a fabric is what’s truly the most important variable. Again, I am no expert, but from what I have learned, you need to find a balance of what your goals are and how best to achieve them. Knit fabrics (think stretchy) are comfortable and breathable. However, given their stretchy nature, mosquitoes can bite through the gaps in the fabric and get to your skin. After being demolished my first trip, I did some homework. Tightly knit 100% polyester or nylon has “gaps” small enough to prevent mosquitoes from biting through. However, these materials are not very breathable, and they don’t stretch. Some companies and products make compromises by using mesh vents or zippers/buttons to get more air flow, or combining them with other fabrics (like elastin or spandex) to get a bit more flexibility.
- QUANTITY: My 1st backpacking trip I was going to wear one pair of hiking clothes and packed another pair of hiking clothes. I very quickly decided to ditch the spare pair in the car and not bring them with me. 2 days of “being stinky” are really no different than 4-5 days of “being stinky,” and having an extra set of hiking clothes just wasn’t worth the weight. All I really need is 1 pair of hiking clothes, 1 pair of sleeping clothes, and enough appropriate layers (insulation, rain shell) for whatever weather I may encounter. This’ll make more sense in my explanations below.
Given these big ideas, I will now share what I personally use, and why. I am not affiliated with any of these companies and make no money from the links provided in this post. I am merely sharing this information because I genuinely believe in these products, think you may love them as well, and hope to spare you the trial-and-error I had to endure:
- BRA: Tera Kaia’s Toura high cut bra. I’m a medium. I have tried several sports bras through the years, but this one is my absolute favorite. It feels supportive, but not constricting. It’s stylish and cute. I sometimes even forget I’m wearing it and will fall asleep still in it! I use it at work, running errands, out in the backcountry, and during workouts. It NEVER EVER STINKS, and I have put it through the ringer. I prefer the support and coverage of the high cut as opposed to the low cut. I’ve used it for lifting, swimming, yoga, and climbing. It’s supportive enough for box jumps. I find that I “bounce” a bit more than I’d like while running, but I hate running anyway and don’t do it unless it’s part of a WOD. It may seem “more expensive” than other bras, but it’s reversible and doubles as a swimsuit. I honestly don’t need more than 2 of them because they’re THAT GOOD, but I have multiple colors because I love them so much. You won’t regret this one!
- SUN HOODIE: Patagonia’s Coastal Hideaway Suncover hoody. I’m a small (seems to run much larger than all their other pieces). Beautiful yellow color and I wore it during my 1st backpacking trip. It kept me cool and covered from the sun. It’s 100% polyester. In my “big concepts” above, I recommended 100% polyester or nylon. CAVEAT: the tightness of the weave is what matters most. This product may have been made of 100% polyester, but the bugs still bit through and got my blood because of the loose and stretchy weave. I adore this piece and will wear it at the beach or while climbing, but I will never wear it or pack it with me again in the backcountry/”bug” country. Lesson thoroughly learned! It’s a great piece… I just used it in the wrong context. User error.
- HIKING SHIRT: Columbia’s Silver Ridge Lite Plaid long sleeve shirt. I’m a large (medium fit like a glove, but I wanted a more relaxed fit to be able to move around, and for it to be farther away from my skin for more ventilation). This shirt WORKED. LIKE. A. CHARM. It is also 100% polyester. However, it doesn’t stretch. I held 2 areas of the fabric about 1-2 inches apart and tried to pull it, and it didn’t budge at all. This is very basic laymen’s terms (if anyone has a better way to explain this, please comment below!). I wish there was a more universal rating system for “weave tightness,” but this is the best test I can come up with for now. It has vents in the back and I was a little nervous about bugs getting through. But if I was wearing my pack, it kept the vents protected. And when I wasn’t wearing my pack, I just pulled the bottom of my shirt down so that the vents weren’t too open or accessible for bugs. I thought it would be really hot compared to the breathable sun hoodie mentioned above, but I was actually quite comfortable. I found my new favorite shirt.
- HIKING PANTS: Columbia’s Silver Ridge pull on pant. I’m a medium (not too tight, but not too loose either. I’m 5’1″ and I didn’t need to get them hemmed!). I wore a pair of convertible pants my 1st backpacking trip, but I realized that I will NEVER use them as “just” shorts. So I found a pair of joggers that feel amazing. These are 100% nylon and I did my “stretch” test, and it had absolutely no stretch. I was concerned that I’d have trouble moving around or stepping high in such “rigid” pants, but it wasn’t a problem at all. I watched plenty of bugs land on me, but none were able to bite through. I found my new favorite pants.
- SLEEPING SHIRT: Just a generic cotton long sleeve that I got because it had a cool design and “Wander Woman” on it. It’s comfortable enough but I might look at sales for a lighter top to help reduce my base weight.
- SLEEPING PANTS: Beyond Yoga’s leggings from a while ago. Also comfortable enough, but also looking at more ways to reduce base weight. My sleeping bag keeps me plenty warm, so I don’t really need sleeping clothes for warmth… I just need very light and DRY clothes to give my skin a breather.
- HAT: Sunday Afternoon’s Ultra Adventure hat. I’m a large (my head is big to begin with, and it gets even “wider” when I wear my usual pig tail braids while being active). LOVE the wide brim! Kept the sun off my face, I didn’t need to put on sunscreen, and, most importantly, it kept my head net (below) far enough for the bugs to not get me. The back of the hat is a cape rather than a wide brim. It was nice to not have it hitting the back of my pack the entire hike.
- HEAD NET: Sea to Summit’s head net. I consider this my most important piece of gear, and I always have two on me now in case one of them fails. My 1st backpacking trip, I didn’t even know these existed! But we got to the lake and literally EVERYONE was wearing one, and I thought it was such a brilliant and simple concept. i was so miserable that I honestly would have paid someone $200 if they had a spare (they’re only $12 on Amazon). Highly recommend a wide brimmed hat with this. If the net is flush against your skin, the bugs can poke through the holes and bite you, so you want to keep it far enough away where they can’t reach you. Based on reviews, it looks like a black net is ideal (as opposed to a white or gray one that can affect visibility). It didn’t feel hot inside the net, although some people did complain about that issue. I also had no problems seeing through the net. In fact, I often forget I was wearing it! I would try to eat/drink or put on Chapstick through it. Had a good laugh every time.
- GLOVES: Coolibar’s unisex UV gloves. I’m a medium. I previously thought people wearing gloves on a hike looked extremely silly, but now, I feel naked without mine. My 1st backpacking trip I did not wear gloves, and I was very bad about putting on, let alone reapplying, sunscreen to my hands. I had enough to deal with with the bugs and maneuvering what felt like very technical terrain, so sunscreen was the last thing on my mind. Boy, did I pay for it. Later that week, the backs of my hands got very dark and felt leathery. Knowing myself, I’m not going to want to deal with putting on sunscreen on just one part of my body. I got gloves with full fingers. I thought I’d be hot in them, but covering up actually kept me very cool. These are a loosely woven fabric so technically bugs can bite through them, but your hands are usually always moving around anyway, and you can pretreat them with permethrin. The thumb and pointer finger tips had a different fabric that claimed to be screen compatible to be able to use your smart phone… and it actually worked! Couldn’t recommend sun gloves more highly. I felt weird taking them off once the sun did go down.
- SOCKS: Everything and anything by Darn Tough. I’m a medium in both men’s and women’s. Cotton is rotten! Wool socks are just so soft and most importantly, they dry quickly and don’t stink. I used to like the medium cushion ones because they felt so cozy. My 2nd backpacking trip I tried the ultra light (a.k.a. thinnest possible) version per my brother’s recommendations, and I’m a convert. They give my toes a bit more wiggle room in my boots, and they dry even more quickly than the medium thickness version. I bring 1 pair to hike in, and 1 dry pair to wear at camp/while I’m sleeping.
- BOOTS: They don’t make them anymore, but I wear Merrell’s Grassbow Air Low hiking shoes. I do NOT want waterproof boots: seem good in theory, but they’d just trap in all your sweat. I also do NOT want boots that tightly secure my ankle: if my ankle is firmly in place, then that means my next flexible and available joint is my knee. There have definitely been times on the trail when mobility in my ankles saved my knees and allowed me to be agile enough to maneuver and balance myself. If my ankles were firmly secured in a more aggressive or higher/longer boot, then it’d force my knees to work a lot harder. I’m sad they don’t make this boot anymore, and I’m not looking forward to the day when mine tinker out and I have to try to find a replacement.
- INSULATION: Patagonia’s Nanopuff hoody. I’m a medium. This beautiful and versatile piece has served me VERY well watching the Northern Lights in Iceland, during the cold desert nights in Morocco, and now in the backcountry. It stuffs into its own pocket for easy packing. Synthtic stuffing will keep you warm even if it gets wet (as opposed to a down jacket). It feels wind proof. I wouldn’t call it rain proof, but in a light drizzle, it would be sufficient.
- RAIN SHELL: Frogg Toggs jacket and pants. I’m a small men’s. IF IT’S RAIN PROOF, IT’S ALSO BUG PROOF. This set was my SAVING GRACE during my 1st trip. It’ s also nice to have just as an extra layer of warmth/protection, even if it isn’t raining. Got it in bright ass yellow, very fun and pops for pictures.
- BACKPACK: Sierra Designs and Andrew Skurka collaborated to make the Flex Capacitor. I’m a small and I think it is sliiiightly too big for me (I’m 5’1” and 145 pounds), but I love it so much and have gotten so used to it that I don’t even notice anymore. It is my home away from home!!! Plenty of hip and lower back padding, ample hip pockets, enough space to keep you organized. I LOOOOVE that it expands “fat and wide” versus the traditional “tall and skinny,” keeps its center of gravity close to MY center of gravity. I also like that i don’t have to deal with extra fabric that rolls/folds down at the opening, just a no-muss-no-fuss zipper bucket top. Only 2 pounds 9 oz (in my size), there’s no real need for a “smaller” hiking backpack. It’s versatile enough to take on a full blown backpacking trip, and cinches down small enough to use for “regular” day hikes. I honestly LOVE this thing and couldn’t imagine using any other pack. When I was naively packing for my 1st trip, it carried 42 pounds very comfortably and like it was nothing. Got my pack (including food and water) down to 33-35 pounds now, and it’s even more comfortable. Unfortunately it looks like it’s sold out on the website!
- SLEEPING BAG: REI’s Lumen, looks like it got discontinued. I’m 5’1″ and got the kids size 😅. Stuffs easily into its sack and has kept me warm in as low as 30 degrees. Sometimes I’ll actually wake up sweating and need to unzip a bit! I toss and turn sometimes and kids don’t have the hips of a woman LOL, so sometimes I wish there was a bit more space, but for its weight and price, I’m happy with the product. Won’t be buying a different bag anytime soon.
- SLEEPING PAD: I have two. 1) Nemo Switchback sleeping pad. It’s orange and foam and folds up easily. I cut off a few of the squares because I’m short enough to not need them, and to reduce my base weight. It’s comfortable on my back, but I notice when I’m sleeping on my side, I wish I had a bit more padding for my hips. It’s pretty big so I have to strap it outside my pack. 2) OutdoorsmanLab ultra light sleeping pad. It’s also orange and inflatable. I haven’t brought this out backpacking yet, but my body is starting to feel exhausted from these first two trips. I think I’m going to bring this on my 3rd and final trip for the year. I think it will be more comfortable on my hips, and it fits inside my pack. Technically the foam would be warmer than the air pad, but I’ll take the comfort over the warmth this time around.
- PILLOWS: Sierra Designs Animas pillow. The lettering is “sticky” so your pillow won’t slip around. The contoured shape is very comfortable! On my stomach, back, sides, it perfectly fits whatever shape I happen to be in. I don’t bring the stuff sack to save weight, and it rolls up compactly without it anyway. The cloth itself feels soft and smooth, not plastic-y or slick. It was really soothing when I had swollen bug bites all over my face.
WHEW, think that’s enough basic info for now to get you started if you’re interested in heading outside for small day hikes or short backpacking trips. If you have any questions, let me know! And if you have any ideas/additions/constructive criticism, also let me know! I hope this was helpful. No one can hike your hike for you, but this is also very much a “team” sport… I DEEPLY appreciate the guidance and nerdy gear talks I’ve had with my brother and my coworker! I’m finally NOT a newbie anymore mwahaha, and I have the battle scars to prove it!
Yes, gear can make things more comfortable and tolerable… but at the end of the day, you just have to get out there and DO IT! You will make mistakes. You will learn to fly as you fall. My days of hiking in a tank, booty shorts, and a baseball cap are LONG gone. I’m excited to see what other lessons I continue to learn out there.
What gear is a luxury but worth its weight to you? What is non-negotiable? What is your favorite piece to bring? What is the biggest lesson you have learned over the years? Always open and happy to discuss! Happy trails out there, you beautiful humans!