It's not about the gear. Really.

I'm about to say something that may sound sacrilegious on a backcountry gear site, let alone during the annual shopping season:

It's not about the gear.

People regularly come to Trailspace inspired to start hiking, backpacking, or climbing. Great! Those are all worthy and wonderful endeavors.

Don't fall into the analysis paralysis trap due to an overabundance of gear choices, like the offerings above at the Outdoor Retailer trade show.

Naturally, first-timers have many questions about the gear, also a very worthy subject. While trying new activities is exciting, it can be confusing to figure out all the paraphernalia and whether it's even necessary. Educating yourself by talking to experienced users, reading books and instructional websites, and researching gear reviews is a good start.

The trouble comes when someone gets indefinitely stuck in the planning and research stage, trying to get the “perfect gear set-up:” the single “best” tent, the ultimate stove that will nourish them quickly and efficiently in all conditions, the boots that will never cause a blister nor let in a drop of water, all this before some have barely, or even ever, gone on a hike or climbed a mountain.

To those folks I say, just go outside and hike. (This advice differs for gear junkies who simply like to discuss their well-used gear. They should head to the forums.)

Your backpack is borrowed from a friend? Find an outing club or mentor and go on a day hike anyway. You got a tent off eBay, but you're not familiar with it? Do a trial run in the backyard. You want to go backpacking, but don't have stove? Rent one, borrow one, buy one from your local outdoor store. Better to be out and about with a working stove, than sitting at home awaiting gear perfection.

Okay, I admit that gear matters to some extent. It is often necessary, particularly where safety is concerned, and in some cases may be your very lifeline. I also firmly believe in the power of quality gear and proper fit, and that the only stupid question is the one you don't ask. Good gear can be safer (note: never ever buy used climbing gear), more comfortable and functional, a better value over time, and make for a more enjoyable outdoor experience. The wrong gear can ruin a trip, while the right gear can leave you pining for your next sojourn.

But that said, I think you can go farther with a positive attitude and a humble willingness to learn than with good gear alone.

“Grandma” Gatewood, first solo female AT hiker. (Image courtesy ATC)

Take “Grandma” Emma Gatewood. In 1955 she became the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail solo. She wore Keds tennis shoes and carried a small homemade bag with an army blanket, a plastic shower curtain for shelter, and a raincoat. She was 67 and would go on to hike the AT two more times.

I'm not suggesting you throw caution to the wind or that you have to camp under a shower curtain for 2,000 miles. But, do not sit at home, paralyzed by gear choices (aka analysis paralysis), waiting to start hiking, camping, backpacking once you have all of your “perfect” gear in hand, because that's never going to happen.

You'll acquire gear along the way. You'll like/love/loathe/be indifferent to various items. Your hiking style/preferences/budget/knowledge will change. That's life. It's not stagnant. It's a journey. You're not out to buy a lifestyle, but to make the outdoors part of your life.

If you've got the choice between going on an easy day hike with your urban daypack and trail runners, or researching yet more gear, I say go on the hike. The trail will help reveal what gear you need, and you'll likely learn more about those needs and wants from the hike than sitting at the computer.

So, find an experienced mentor or group. Beg, borrow, rent, or buy gear as necessary. It does not need to be the newest, award-winning version, as long as it's safe, functional, appropriate, and gets you out there.

Remember that your brain is the most important piece of gear you'll take along. Be responsible for yourself and your choices. Start small. But start.

Gear is the means. It is the means to get outside and hike, climb, ski, or backpack, to see new places, to see old places in new ways, to learn about yourself, and to do all that great stuff that inspired you in the first place.

But, gear, even good gear, is not the end. It is only the beginning.

Filed under: Gear News, Outdoor Skills


0 reviewer rep
9 forum posts
December 16, 2009 at 7:07 p.m. (EST)

Very well said, Alicia. There's so much stuff out there -- so many different brands, styles, gadgets,'s overwhelming and can leave you feeling like you need a special, certain item for every little thing, and it's so much work to understand the whys and reasons and uses. Every time I pack up, I think of John Muir, tossing some bread and his journal in a knapsack and heading out for the backcountry. It helps remind me not to go overboard - to just simply go.

244 reviewer rep
5,429 forum posts
December 16, 2009 at 10:33 p.m. (EST)

My first trip was in 1977 with discount store gear and my old Boy Scout sleeping bag that was 10 years old. I traveled 8000 miles with that gear and had as good a time as I ever have with all the name brand stuff.

When I started bicycle touring and too this day when I tour I wear my own regular shorts and Tshirts, wear wahtever shoes I have and dont get into the fancypancy cycling gear. And my tours have been just as fun as the ones that do wear all the made for cycling gear.

It is not the gear but the experience that makes the adventure!

Bill S
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6,037 forum posts
December 17, 2009 at 12:26 a.m. (EST)

A must read! Can we make this a requirement before people become registered Trailspace members?

Bobbi, one small correction on John Muir - According to his books and journals, he put his bread and journal in his pocket and got his water directly from the streams (and never got giardiasis, apparently!). He also said in one of his books that Mt Hoffman is a pleasant day hike from Yosemite Valley (something like 30 miles each way - but then, he was legendary for his hiking speed and for setting out for days with only the clothes on his back and the bread and cheese in his pockets).

0 reviewer rep
2 forum posts
December 17, 2009 at 4:08 a.m. (EST)

Growing up in the late 70's early 80's I was lucky enough to have parents that would limit our TV time to a few hours a week. This very quickly became zero hours a week.

Going to a friends house was not catching a ride nor via moped,it was a 3 mile walk down rustic country roads forged through one of the most fantastic displays of the Kalamazoo Moraine.

Than we would map out a course to explore the vast 15,000 acre back yard eating plants, berries and yes drinking from open flowing fresh water springs.

In the winter months we read countless hours of books of many fashions. Mostly, "How to Book's and articles". I made my first pair of snow shoes at the age of 13 and many more gadgets from these articles.

Tipi Walter
295 reviewer rep
1,436 forum posts
December 17, 2009 at 8:58 a.m. (EST)

Thanks for the interesting article as it raises some good points. On the other hand, it is about gear, or at least with gear comes more outdoor freedom. This is especially true in tough conditions, and you won't see K2 types or Mt Washington winter backpackers with Crocs and a shower curtain. I've often said that a good $400 down bag is the ticket price for entrance into permanent winter camping and living out.


In the Eastern California Museum and Inyo County there's this picture of Norman Clyde, "The Pack With Legs", with this comment: " . . . his ability to traverse all types of terrain with an 80 pound pack."

In another quote, Smoke Blanchard said, "I can still remember my awe at the collection of gear Norman drew out of his duffel bag. there's part of the weight right there. The bag was lashed to a 6 pound Yukon pack frame which also supported a full length Hudson Bay axe. But perhaps the kitchen bag was the most surprising. Norman's 6 large kettles, the cups and spoons, the dishes and bowls, the salt shakers, condiments, servers, and graters, and for all I knew, cookie cutters. Boots? He carried several: ski boots, tricouni boots, rubber soled boots for the rocks, camp slippers."

"It's not true," Clyde told Blanchard once, "that I carry an anvil in my pack." He did carry five cameras: two 35 mms, two 120s, and a spare. And the books! Smoke Blanchard recalls "Norman's rather large library in many languages. I think many people might find his way of travel in the mountains quite strange, especially with today's gear. BUT YOU SEE, NORMAN WAS NOT JUST VISITING THE MOUNTAINS OR PASSING THROUGH THE PEAKS. HE LIVED THERE . . ." Smoke Blanchard

(Much information from and Mr H. Galic)

The highlighted words are mine, and bring up an important point. And I believe all of us are looking for that "perfect" piece of gear for our needs, the tents, the parkas, the packs, the bags; especially if we are into exploring and camping in areas of harsh weather.

And I've seen many winter backpackers who throw together a "random kit" and end up bailing due to "inadequate gear".

Rod Thompson
56 reviewer rep
5 forum posts
December 17, 2009 at 9:05 a.m. (EST)

Alicia; you hit the nail on the head. Getting our lethargic butts off of seats and out into God's creation is a real treat that many miss. The term "Just Do It!" is right-on. Over the past 40 years my gear has been slowly improved but getting out there with whatever gear you have (as long as you are weather-safe) works well. Rod

3 reviewer rep
9 forum posts
December 17, 2009 at 12:21 p.m. (EST)

Terrific words on the subject. I linked it to my blog at:

Alicia MacLeay (Alicia)
2,008 reviewer rep
4,452 forum posts
December 17, 2009 at 1:07 p.m. (EST)

Thanks for all the great comments. I like hearing others' perspectives and experiences on this subject.

Normally I go on about being prepared, responsible, carrying the essentials, checking weather, telling people where you're headed, making a plan, blah blah...all the good advice we should already know.

So, while I admit that gear matters, especially to the extent of safety and access to the outdoors, it should be secondary to the experience itself. It's what you do with it that counts. Kind of like life.

Tipi, if I see anyone on Mount Washington wearing Crocs or carrying a shower curtain this weekend, I will certainly let you know (right after I treat their feet for frost bite)!

Bill S
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6,037 forum posts
December 17, 2009 at 1:10 p.m. (EST)


Because I spent my teen years in California, with a lot of time in the Sierra, I was luck enough to meet Norman Clyde. His favorite area is my favorite part of the Sierra, the Palisades region. The thing that most impressed me most was the library in his pack. I could swear that he had 20-30 pounds of just books (didn't weigh them, so I don't know, but it looked like that much), and his pack looked like it weighed a full hundred pounds. Yet he hiked tall and straight, just like that photo you posted, while I was bowed over with a 25 pound pack. I never really got to know him, but I did run into him several times, almost all in and around the Palisades, once in Evolution (which is close to the Palisades on the west of the crest). I think every climb I did in the Sierra was first done by Clyde.

Jim S
67 reviewer rep
757 forum posts
December 17, 2009 at 1:23 p.m. (EST)

Too many gear nuts spend all their time collecting gear and NEVER use it. I'm starting to think that a lot of the ultralite guys don't even own any of the gear at but rather post the results of their spreadsheets as though they COULD have a pack that small and light.

A real ultraligher should use those poly grocery bags on a stick over the shoulder, or many a Ti stick?

The one summer that I spent 4 months out I cooked in coffee cans, had an old sheer curtain for a mosquito net, cooked over a campfire and drank directly from streams. An 8x10 piece of plastic was my ground cloth and when it rained I pulled it over me.


Tipi Walter
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1,436 forum posts
December 17, 2009 at 6:22 p.m. (EST)

Bill S: Thanks for being a lucky teenager. Do you wish you had a camera back then? I guess Norman Clyde had several . . .

6 reviewer rep
19 forum posts
December 22, 2009 at 5:29 a.m. (EST)

My motto for the coming new year is to be"dont worry about what could happen get out there and see what happens"-I too own a lot of unused gear and am slowly getting back to what I started with,but in a more modern guise ie simple single compartment pack, one pot, simple shelter (no snow here shade is more important) a down bag not the cotton filled one of my youth.This has also caused me to remember and review skills learnt as a scout and from my father who told me knowledge wieghs nothing-I'm not sure why but this is a lot more satisfying not to mention lighter.Carrying only the essentials and rembering the rule of threes (for survival),keeps my mind focused and on track ie life is down to the basics surley one of the reasons we all "get out there" believe me this is not "man v's wild" just man(sorry persons ) in the wild.

58 reviewer rep
352 forum posts
December 22, 2009 at 9:33 a.m. (EST)

I love camping gear! All the ingenuity required to make that perfect piece of gear just amazes me every time. I enjoy planning a trip and tweaking gear as much as i like going out, or maybe even more! The extra stuff i'm not using i can always lend to friends to help them get out more.

I don't like to add physical challenges to my outings: i push myself to the limit and beyond all summer long at work anyway. So why not a gear challenge? I've gone hiking with only gear from the thrift shop, hiked the Sierras in sandals or winter camped with only a shovel and a summer bag. My goal is go out with the cheapest gear possible.

It's almost too easy to stay warm and dry with all the new gear that came out in the last 5 years, all you need is a few thousand dollars and some basic knowledge. Crazy when you think about all the adventures you could have for the same price if you could get your gear for cheap. I'm sad to say i have friends that spent all their $$ on gear and don't have enough left to take trips and use it.

It's like buying a brand new expensive car and being to broke to buy gas afterwards. Sure you look good in your driveway but is this really the point? IMO the race for the brand new shiny kit is just another consequence of our consumer-based economy: be what you own, not what you do. Thanks Alicia for the friendly reminder!

92 reviewer rep
311 forum posts
December 22, 2009 at 10:36 a.m. (EST)

Great read!!!I too have become overly concerned about my gear at times of my life.Now i just carry the basics and do without all the details type of gear.Dont get me wrong i have some nice stuff but as has been stated in this post it is all about getting out and enjoying the event not the gear.The gear makes me comfy when the weather turns cold,wet or bug filled but to much just slows the whole trip down.Iam not an ultra lighter but i also do not beleive that i need the kitchen sink when traveling in the outdoors.Thanks again for the remeinder!

3 reviewer rep
57 forum posts
December 22, 2009 at 6:28 p.m. (EST)

From my experience...The Adventure and Gear are both addictive and a helluva lot of fun!

51 reviewer rep
23 forum posts
December 22, 2009 at 7:26 p.m. (EST)

Great Article, i agree with Bill.

"make this a requirement before people become registered Trailspace members"

me being a new member, i would have loved to have read this as a welcome to this awesome site.

0 reviewer rep
5 forum posts
December 29, 2009 at 11:57 a.m. (EST)

I remember when you could walk like they did. Just grab some rice and a bag,get going.Try as i may the wild foods are rare to find now days,and the crow flies paths,are posted.We should always be thankful for the trails we have.

1,731 reviewer rep
3,962 forum posts
January 3, 2010 at 1:10 p.m. (EST)

Gear wise. No matter what I buy, may it be the firesteel I use to the pack I choose to the boots on my feet I research my tail off, ask questions, etc. It is very time consuming but well worth it in the long run. Yes I like good gear but I like gear that works more. I do my best to purchase gear that will last which in turn gives me the opportunity to get out more. Once I make a purchase I am done with it. No I may not have to have the newest piece of hi-tec equipment on the market but what I have works and will last for years to come. My method has worked well for me over the years. There is quite a good bit of gear that I have that is well over 15-20yrs old and I still use it today

More to point. When I was younger I use to go out with the clothes on my back, a lighter, a knife, an old jansport book bag, a canteen w/holder, a wool military blanket, and a .22 rifle. I would disappear on the mountain for 2-3 days at a time. I would eat berries, etc. Guess I was in my Rambo stage of life.

One has to go out and get dirty to find out what they need IMO in the 1st place. Granted you could go on the suggestions of others but that will be a never ending process. Noone know what you need like you do...

One does not have to have the greatest gear on the market to get out and enjoy a wilderness setting. If it makes sense and ya think ya need it ya probably will and yes I can definitely see where people could get consumed by all of the gear out there and lose focus on why they are purchasing it in the 1st place.

Over the years I have acquired a bunch of gear. Alot of which I personally don't use but have packed up just to get a friend out in the bc that has never done it. I have converted so many of my friends into hikers that sometimes I just sit back and laugh. Its to the point that I get phone calls on a regular basis asking if I am going out and if so can they tag along. Its a good feeling.

Yeah I have spent a bit of time and $ over the years on gear but I am at the point in my life where comfort/longevity is a good thing. I have all the majors covered and every now and then I may come across a new item that I need or may just want to add to the collection. Now I have more time to go out in almost any situation and I don't have to hit a shop on the way. Yes it is time consuming but I personally want the most bang for my buck if I am gonna shell out the dough.

Great read...

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