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Hiking Equipment

Don't carry what you don't need. What you do carry, make sure it's good quality so it won't let you down when you need it.

Check out my complete series on Hiking Boots. Everything you ever wanted to know, and probably a lot of things you didn't know you needed to know, to help you choose the right hiking boots for you without paying more than you need to.

General Discussion Hiking Shoes and Clothing Backpacks Compass and Navigation First-Aid Kit Cameras, Optics, and Electronic Widgets Specialty Equipment In-Page Navigation, Hiking Gear Page
[ General Discussion ] [ Shoes/Clothing ]
[ Backpacks ] [ Compass/Navigation ]
[ First-Aid Kit ] [ Cameras and Widgets ]
[ Specialty Equipment ]

General Discussion

As with most things, particularly relating to the outdoors, I firmly believe that less stuff is better, and more is just more. If you're heading out to the woods to get away from it all, don't bring it all with you!

That said, one must recognize that some things really are necessary. So, think carefully about everything you bring with you. Make sure you bring what you really need. That means not to bring things you don't need, and not to leave behind things that you need.

Some things seem obvious at first glance. You need a good pair of hiking boots if you're going on a hike, don't you? Think again. Why do you need hiking boots? What is the purpose of these hiking boots? When selecting a pair of hiking boots, what criteria do you use to decide what is a "good pair" and what is not?

Of course, for many things, the choice of "good" equipment is less crucial than it is for others. Your comfort and your enjoyment of your experience in the outdoors will depend very much on the quality of your footwear, so choose it carefully. Elsewhere on this Web site, I recommend that you always bring a trash bag with you, but you really don't have to put too much thought into choosing the very best trash bag.

So, using my minimalist approach, I'll give you a few ideas on what you need and what you don't need, and how to choose "good" equipment.

The main Web store I recommend for hiking and camping equipment is Amazon.com. They have an incredibly wide selection, usually at very good prices, and they have an active community of reviewers. You may not need to look anywhere else.

Another site I recommend is TigerDirect icon. This may surprise you, as they are best known as a discount reseller of low cost, high quality computers icon. However, their selection and excellent prices on digital cameras icon and camcorders icon is always worth a look.

Again, the emphasis on this page is on items that are on sale and that receive good reviews. If you are interested in the most popular, best-selling camping and hiking equipment, check out OutdoorEquipmentReport.com. There are separate pages, with real-world reviews, of the best selling Hiking Boots, Tents, Sleeping Bags, Backpacks, and Cameras and Optics for outdoor use.

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Hiking Shoes and Clothing

Footwear

This is just a quick overview. For more details on how to choose the right hiking boots, see the Hiking Boots pages.

Keep in mind that the purpose of footwear is to protect your feet. You need protection from the cold, in season, and from rough surfaces and sharp objects. You also need good traction, and to keep your feet dry. That's about it.

I believe that most of what you read about "ankle support" is overblown. If you give your feet and ankles a lot of "support," the natural support system becomes weak from underutilization. Unless you have some particular weakness in your ankles, whether innate or from an injury, you don't necessarily need ankle support. Let the muscles and ligaments of your feet and ankles do what they were designed to do, and you will have all the "support" you need.

On the other hand, you do need arch support. Why? Because your feet were designed to walk on a natural, yielding surface that conforms itself to the shape of your feet, and when you strap a stiff, unyielding shoe sole to the bottom of your foot, your arches are unduly stressed.

Believe it or not, the very best footwear for walking in the outdoors is none at all. Of course, soft-skinned modern urbanites that most of us are, our feet can't bear walking on rough surfaces unprotected, at least not for long. Nevertheless, I strongly urge you to try it, once in a while, for a short hike. You'll be amazed at how you can step from a mud puddle to a smooth boulder with no loss of traction at all. Waterproofing? You only need that so your shoes won't hold water inside. No footwear you can buy sheds water more effectively than the footwear you were born with. Really, try it. For at least one short hike at least once a year.

Then, for most of your hikes, you'll want a pair of hiking boots.

Look for good traction, reasonable wearing properties, water resistance, and warmth in cold weather. Look for a good fit so they won't slide and cause blisters.

Look for good quality, and expect to pay for it. If you're looking for fashion and the latest trends, you'll pay a premium for that, too. What I look for is usually last year's good quality, so I get the quality I want without paying for the style that I don't care about.

Don't forget socks. You'll need warm socks, maybe more than one pair, in winter, so make sure your winter hiking boots allow room for them.

For some of this month's best-selling hiking boots, with reviews based on real-world experience, visit OutdoorEquipmentReport's Hiking Boots page.

Other Clothing

The very idea that there is special-purpose outdoor clothing amuses me. What I look for in clothing to wear while hiking or camping are the same qualities and characteristics I look for in clothing I wear for just about any other purpose. Okay, I'll wear a suit or sport jacket and dress pants to church, but when I'm working in my basement office, I'm wearing the same clothes - jeans and t-shirt (or flannel, in season) - that I wear on the trail, hiking shoes and all!

If I can find a good, sturdy shirt or pair of pants at a good price at a place that sells "hiking clothing," I'll buy it, and I won't consider myself obligated to wear it only while hiking. I have yet to receive a ticket from the fashion police for wearing "hiking clothes" while not actually hiking.

You'll want your clothing to be sturdy and wear-resistant, easy to wash, comfortable, and appropriate to the weather and your level of activity. For my money, almost nothing beats cotton, whether cotton canvas shorts and a cotton t-shirt in warm weather, or cotton jeans and flannel shirts in cooler weather. Cotton wears well and allows enough air exchange to carry perspiration away from your skin in hot weather, and it's a rather good insulator in cool weather.

In very cold weather, the most important thing is layering, with the outermost layer being water resistant. Most of the layers I add under my outer denim coat are wool. Like cotton, wool is quite comfortable and easy to care for. And in the form of a couple of sweaters and an extra sweater in the backpack, it allows plenty of flexibility in adjusting your layers in case the temperature changes.

I don't like most synthetic fibers, and I'm a little leery of new materials like "thinsulate" and such. Seems like a good idea, but I wonder if it allows you the flexibility you need to adjust layers. What if that thin, light, water-resistant jacket is the last layer you have and it's still too warm? Well, maybe that's just the old-fashioned traditionalist crank in me. If you like it, go for it.

A trick I like to use in very cold weather is to carry my hat while I'm walking, and put it on when I stop to rest. The head loses quite a lot of heat in cold weather, so removing my hat prevents me from perspiring when I'm working hard. Then, when I stop working so hard, I put my hat back on to keep warm. If I'm still too warm, I'll remove a layer, or if I'm too cool, I can either add a layer or put my hat on until I'm warm enough. Using my hat to make these coarse adjustments means I can keep myself quite comfortable without having to stop and unpack an extra sweater from my backpack.

Amazon's best reviewed hiking shoe:

Mens (Price varies by size and color. If you are stuck with the $99.99 sizes, consider Chaco Men's Canyonland Low Sneaker.):


Women's (Price varies by size and color, but all on sale this month. Not too bad.):


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Backpacks

This is one aspect of my hiking gear where synthetic fibers play a very big role. I don't know if I've ever had a backpack that wasn't nylon. Nylon resists wear, repels water, and resists mould if it does get wet. So what if it doesn't "breathe?" My extra sweater inside my backpack doesn't need to "breathe."

Choose a backpack of an appropriate size for what you're going to use it for. If you're going on a multi-day backcountry camping trip, you'll want a sturdy frame, waist strap, and adjustable shoulder straps on a large 3,000 to 4,000 cubic inch weekend pack. If you need to carry your sandwich and an extra sweater on a short day-hike, a 1,000 - 2,000 cubic inch day pack is much better.

Look for a good, practical layout without a lot of fuss. Most day packs have one main compartment with a zipper that opens nearly all the way around, and up to half a dozen easily accessible outside pockets. These work well for almost any day-hike. A day pack with multiple interior compartments or extra flaps and drawstrings for rain protection is adding a lot of weight and slowing down your access to your equipment, all for not much gain.

Most weekend packs these days have an interior frame. Don't know much about them from first-hand experience. My weekend pack is over thirty years old and has an external aluminum-tube frame. Still works fine for me, so I'm not upgrading until I wear it out. (Some who have seen it say it was worn out over twenty years ago, but I'm used to it.)

It's important in a large pack to have very flexible adjustments of the shoulder straps and waistbands. While you might think you adjust it to your size once and then forget about it, that's not the way it works. You'll want to adjust it frequently as you hike, to shift the weight from your shoulders to your hips, and back again, to avoid fatigue.

While adjustability is less important in a day pack, you'll still have to adjust for the season. You'll need more room in the shoulder straps when you're wearing more layers of clothing. However, you probably won't have to adjust while you're hiking.

Beware of trends. Traditional designs often have good reasons behind them. My son once used a backpack with only one strap that went over one shoulder and down across the chest diagonally. I say he "once used" it, because he never used it again. It's just not practical or comfortable. Anything that deviates markedly from a plain-old-ordinary backpack should be approached with caution. (Like these new-fangled internal frame weekend packs these kids have been using for the last 25 years or so.)

For some of this month's best-selling backpacks, with reviews based on real-world experience, visit OutdoorEquipmentReport's Backpack page.

Amazon's best reviewed backpacks:

Weekend (On sale):


Day pack (Price varies by color. Higher rated packs are specialized, or not designed for trail use.):


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Compasses and Navigation Equipment

I have an innate sense of direction that pretty much renders a compass superfluous. For those less fortunate, you may find a compass to be an indispensable tool in the wilderness.

Where most of us do most of our hiking, a decent map and the available trail signs should prevent you from getting lost. Just in case, the compass can help to make sure you're on the right trail and going the right way.

For the more intrepid, crossing unmarked country, you'll need far more navigation equipment than I'd care to describe.

Many compasses have other navigation aids and other tools built in. Nearly conventional is a small lens with a hairline site that enables you to read a very precise bearing to a distant landmark.

Also quite conventional is the "map compass" with a transparent plastic base that contains rulers in most of the more commonly-used scales for maps, a magnifying glass, and several other features in one handy device. I must say, even though I hardly need the compass itself, the other built-in tools make a map compass very handy, even for me.

Besides these standards, there are a number of unconventional compasses on the market. Many have digital displays and protect the poor user from the confusing intricacies of magnetic deviation. Many have built-in features that have nothing to do with navigation, such as a signal whistle or a waterproof match compartment.

As I've said, I believe in bringing as few things into the woods with you as possible. Nevertheless, I'm generally no fan of such "chimera" devices. If you want a compass, bring a compass, and if you want a whistle, bring a whistle. But if you bring one widget that incorporates both a compass and a whistle, you'll probably end up with something less than the best compass and something less than the best whistle. (And if you need to see what direction you're facing while you're blowing the whistle, you may need to bring a second compass with you.)

There are many all-in-one navigation devices that incorporate a chronometer, altimeter, barometer, and thermometer along with a compass. These days, most such devices also record the information for download and analysis on your computer.

And of course, there's the GPS receiver. I have a rather old GPS receiver (it was a gift) that I take out on the trail once in a while. I wanted to determine whether Arethusa Falls was higher than Frankenstein Cliff, or vice-versa. They're close enough that it's hard to tell just by looking. Turns out that they're close enough that they're within the range of accuracy of a GPS receiver, so I still don't know!

Anyway, if you want to record your trip for later display and analysis on your computer, or if you think you need satellite-guided directions out in the wilderness, a GPS receiver might be fun. I wouldn't say essential.

Amazon's best reviewed compass, on sale:


Amazon's best reviewed GPS (Great sale price):


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First-Aid Kits

I always carry a first-aid kit on any serious hike. I've never had to use it, but I replace it every few years so the pain relievers and antiseptics in it will still be fresh in case I ever do need it.

The content of your first-aid kit should be related to your risks. Your risks are related to your activity, the weather, the time you plan to be away from "civilization," and personal health factors of yourself and the people you're hiking with.

For me, this comes down to fairly minimal needs. My basic backpack-designed first-aid kit includes basic bandages, sterile wipes, pain killers, and things like that. If you are planning anything inherently dangerous, such as rock climbing, or if any members of your group are prone to illness or injury, you might want to carry some additional supplies, such as splints, Ace bandages, etc.

If you need any prescription medications, be sure to carry a good supply with you. Even if you plan on getting back home before you need a dose, remember that people get lost or otherwise delayed on a hike. Suppose a minor injury, such as a twisted ankle, kept you out on the trail three hours after the time you're supposed to take your medicine? Carry more than you expect to need!

Amazon's best reviewed lightweight first-aid kit (on sale. Maybe a bit more than you need, but nothing else to recommend for backpacking this month.):


A more complete kit, suitable for the campsite, also well reviewed (On sale. Maybe a bit light, but nothing else to recommend for a large camping group this month.):


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Cameras, Optics and Electronic Widgets

Cameras

I heartily endorse digital cameras. As I mention in the page about nature field guides, I carry a decent camera instead of a library of field guides. If I see a plant or a bird that I'm not familiar with, I take a few pictures, being sure to capture as many relevant angles as I can, then compare the pictures to the pictures and written descriptions in the field guide. One could have done this in the pre-digital age, but it would have been expensive.

I have two cameras, but I only carry one at a time with me. The older one is an inexpensive still-photo camera that can also take MPEG videos (and fills its Secure Digital memory in just a few seconds of video). You probably can't buy this particular model anymore, it's that old.

My newer camera is a Hitachi DZ-GX3300A, which you can't buy new anymore. It's a DVD camcorder that also takes still photos on Secure Digital. Now, much as I generally dislike chimeras, the modern-day blend of a video camcorder that also takes stills seems to be a very good combination. Instead of a mediocre camcorder and a mediocre still camera in one device, you can get a fine camcorder and a plenty-good-enough-for-me still camera. Granted, it doesn't compare with a high-end still camera, but it's more than adequate for what I want to do with it.

For an indication of the image quality of this camera, take a look at the full-size images linked from the Download pages. Every image has the date I took it as part of the file name. Practically every image taken after 2006 was taken with the Hitachi DVD camera (and the description will mention if it was taken with another camera). Every image from 2004 through 2006 was taken with the old still camera. (Images older than that were digitized from slides taken with various film cameras.)

Some of the things to look for in a digital still camera:

  • Minimum 2 megapixel resolution. You probably can't find a new camera with less resolution anymore, but if you're shopping for a used one, start at 2 MP.
  • Optical zoom of at least 5X. You won't be able to get close enough to most birds for a decent picture with less zoom than this.
  • Don't pay attention to digital zoom. All you do with a digital zoom is crop the picture and stretch the cropped area out to the full size of the image. You lose resolution and image quality. If you really want to crop in on a small area of the picture, do it on your computer after the fact, where you have more control. If the camera has an option to disable digital zoom (both of mine do), consider that a plus.
  • Removable memory. Doesn't matter much whether it's Secure Digital, Compact Flash, Memory Stick or whatever, as long as you can swap it out (and so have effectively unlimited storage) and read it on your computer.
  • Manufacturers don't make much of a big deal of it, but look for good macro capabilities (or simply a very close minimal focus distance). You'll need this to photograph that flower or insect you can't quite identify.
  • Try to find something reasonably rugged. A cheaply made camera won't hold up to bouncing along in your backpack, or falling out of it!
  • Not essential, but nice: Replaceable lenses, so you can switch to a real macro or telephoto lens. Any SLR will have an array of lenses to choose from, but digital SLRs are still a bit much for my budget. Incidentally, the Hitachi camcorder has a threaded lens barrel, and I understand there are add-on telephoto lenses for it. I may give them a try one of these days.

In a video camera, look for pretty much the same things. In addition, I would recommend DVD camcorders over any tape-based camcorder (which includes MiniDV). Under the varying conditions of temperature and humidity that you will encounter while hiking and camping, a tape-based recorder can easily "eat" the tape. This not only ruins whatever was recorded on that tape, it takes your camera out of action for the remainder of the trip. After more than two years of field experience with the Hitachi, I am convinced: DVD is far more reliable than tape. Camcorders with internal magnetic hard disks will have a similar advantage, but they have the disadvantage of limited storage. When the disk is full, it's full until you download it to your computer.

Solid-state camcorders are probably even better than either DVD or internal hard-drive camcorders. These record on SD cards, and use no tape or disc at all. (They're sometimes called "flash memory" camcorders. Essentially the same thing, but not all flash memory is removable like SD.) They seem to offer much quicker start-up and shut-down time than a DVD camcorder, which would be a plus, and I can only believe that they are even more rugged. Besides that, you can record nearly two hours worth of high-resolution video on a postage-stamp-sized SD card. It would be a lot easier to carry a couple of them into the woods than a stack of mini-DVDs. I haven't actually used one of these devices, but I would certainly like to. If you have any experience with using a camcorder like this in field conditions, please tell us all about it on the feedback page.

Among the best of these is the Canon FS200, available in a great package deal this month: Canon FS200 Flash Memory Camcorder (Misty Silver) + 8GB Accessory Kit This camera seems to be obsolescent, but the price and the package deal, which includes a spare battery, car charger, and tripod, makes this very appealing. Amazon's best-reviewed flash memory camcorder, without the package deal, is the Sony HDR-CX520V 64GB Flash High Definition Camcorder (Black). It's pretty good, but a bit pricey, even at this month's sale price.

The ATC2K Waterproof Action Cam appears to have been outdone. It is not longer quite the novelty it was, and there are now many similar and better-reviewed cameras. The best-reviewed waterproof helmet cam this month is the 2010 Tachyon XC Micro Helmet Camera. Mind you, the video quality of these units is never going to match that of a typical point-and-shoot camcorder, but it is intended for an entirely different use.

For some of this month's best-selling cameras for outdoor use, with reviews based on real-world experience, visit OutdoorEquipmentReport's Cameras and Optics page.

Other Optics

Many bird-watching enthusiasts wouldn't dream of venturing into the field without their binoculars. Many also use terrestrial telescope. (Prismatic monoculars seem to be very popular with this crowd, for reasons not entirely clear to me.)

Frankly, I don't use them myself. I've carried a pair of compact binoculars and a small telescope in my backpack (not at the same time), and generally considered them not worth the bother. Maybe I'd change my tune if I ever got used to carrying and using some serious binoculars, but so far, I think I'm doing fine without them. I happen to have excellent distance vision (though, in the past ten years or so, I can't read anything without my magnifying specs), so I can always see objects and details that other people simply can't see.

If you want to bring some binoculars with you, make sure they're worth carrying: Light, rugged, powerful, and easy to use. You can look for a pair specially marketed for birdwatching, but don't overlook military surplus. Military requirements are fairly similar to those of hiking, so you can find a good, rugged pair of powerful binoculars at a pretty good price.

If you have a truly powerful pair of binoculars or telescope, you will probably also want a lightweight tripod to keep them steady. That's a lot to carry, but you could also try a "monopod." It's just a single pole that helps to steady your telescope, but it weighs less than half of what a comparable tripod would. As a bonus, you can usually use the same tripod or monopod with your camera to steady it for those tightly zoomed shots.

My Xshot Extendable Hand Held Metal Monopod has been rendered obsolete. The newer XShot Pocket Telescopic Camera Extender is more expensive, naturally, but based on my experience with the earlier model, I'd say it's worth the price. The newer model supports heavier cameras and is supposedly more durable. (I'm still using the original, a lot, and it hasn't worn out!) They market the thing as a way to get yourself in the picture, sort of mounting your camera on a "wand" that you hold out at a short distance. I use it as a very lightweight monopod. Its "foot" is not made for resting on the ground, but I do it anyway. It does not extend to my full standing height, but I usually use it while sitting or kneeling, or I can always find a handy rock or log to brace it on. It does not lock into a particular height as a conventional monopod does, but that's okay with me. I don't want it to hold the full weight of my camera, just to steady my shots, especially the tightly zoomed shots. And it does that quite nicely without adding too much weight to my backpack. There are now several competing models on the market from some better-known manufacturers. Check out similar lightweight monopods.

You may have seen those widgets that combine binoculars with a digital camera. What a great idea! Use the binoculars to zero in on a bird or animal, then click a button to preserve the image and share it with friends and family. Great idea but, from everything I've read, nobody has implemented the idea correctly yet. There are nearly thirty models now available on Amazon, but they all sound very poor to me. A few have reviews suggesting that they're okay for the binoculars, but buy a separate camera. I'd say you should save the bother and get dedicated binoculars instead of one of these combination things. Most of the better-reviewed models have one or two stellar reviews and a number of poorer ones, and the reviewers who like it seem to discuss it from a point of view that does not appreciate either good photography or good binoculars. My original assessment still seems to hold: These things combine poor-to-mediocre binoculars with a horrid-to-poor digital camera, and integrate the two very badly. Search for yourself if you like, but I'm not going to recommend any of these devices until I find one that I honestly like.

For some of this month's best-selling binoculars for outdoor use, with reviews based on real-world experience, visit OutdoorEquipmentReport's Cameras and Optics page.

Amazon's best reviewed digital camcorder:


Amazon's best reviewed digital camera (Or, consider the Nikon D200 10.2MP Digital SLR Camera (Body Only) in case you have your lenses already):





A nice SD camcorder bundle:





Another good SD camcorder:





2010 Tachyon XC Micro Helmet Camera:








Amazon's best reviewed binoculars (Very pricey, even on sale. Consider Nikon 7238 Action Ex Extreme 8 X 40 mm All Terrain Binoculars):


Xshot 2.0 Extendable Hand Held Monopod:


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Specialty Equipment

Once you move beyond simple hiking, there are worlds of specialty equipment you might need to consider - snowshoes, rock climbing equipment, ice climbing equipment, etc. I'm not going to go into any of those, other than to mention that they exist and that you should consult appropriate experts before choosing your equipment. You should also look for training to make sure you're doing things safely.

However, there are a few specialty items that fit into the category of "hiking gear" that I will discuss a bit.

Hiking Poles

This is a piece of hiking gear that I don't understand very well. The few times I've tried them, they seem to get in the way more than help. It's just something else to carry. I would recommend them only if you have some problem with your feet and/or legs such that you need to take some of your weight off them. If your feet and legs function normally, you'll be better off without the poles.

If you do need hiking poles, make sure you get a pair that can be adjusted easily enough, but that will lock solidly and not change their adjustment while you're using them. Look for a versatile tip, sharp enough to get a good grip on a variety of surfaces and hard enough to stand up to wear and impact on hard surfaces. Also look for a sturdy, well-attached strap, because this is where you're going to be putting your weight.

Crampons

When hiking on snow and ice, you may need a pair of crampons. Look for a light pair that can be easily installed and removed on your hiking boots. It's very convenient to be able to walk for miles without the crampons, then when you come to an icy patch or a steep slope, pull the crampons from your pack, slip them on your boots, and keep right on going.

Amazon's best reviewed hiking poles (Two natural wooden hiking sticks are rated higher, but they are not as versatile):


Amazon's best reviewed crampons:


A nice pair of hiking crampons. I have used these on several short winter hikes, and they worked just as advertised (Until Amazon fixes it, the price is misleading. That's the price for replacement cleats for these crampons. The crampons themselves actually cost $36.14. On Sale! 1 cent off the usual price.):


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