Any experienced hiker knows that a good (or bad) piece of gear can have a huge impact on a trip. The off-brand tent that seemed like an awesome deal when you bought it becomes considerably less awesome once it starts to leak, and lugging around a heavy backpack all day is enough to make you wish you’d left the coffee maker at home.
Outdoors writer Lisa Maloney warns against gear that advertises style over substance. According to her, the most important quality to look for in a piece of gear is that it does what's promised. "They need to serve their function well,” said Maloney in a conversation with mental_floss. "They also need to be sturdy enough to survive a lot of abuse, because no matter how carefully you treat them your hiking gear is still going to get stepped on and banged up.”
The Alaska-based writer is the former hiking and backpacking expert for About.com and author of 50 Hikes Around Anchorage. She’s currently working on a second guidebook and has recently launched her new site HikingAlaska.net. Whether she’s venturing on an extended journey into the wilderness, or just a leisurely day hike, these are the pieces of gear she relies on to keep her safe and comfortable.
Proper footwear is essential for any level of hiker, but Maloney emphasizes that bigger and bulkier isn’t necessarily better. “A lot of people think that you have to wear heavy hiking boots, but I actually like to go hiking in lightweight shoes or sandals,” she said.
1. MERRELL BOOTS
One pound on your feet equals five pounds on your back is a hiker’s rule of thumb that originated during the 1953 ascent of Mount Everest. Other studies that have been conducted since show this theory holds some truth. Maloney’s favorite brand for lightweight outdoors shoes is Merrell. For hikers in search of footwear with a wider fit, this is the brand of shoes she recommends. (From $89.95, buy at Amazon)
2. SCARPA SHOES
For shoes that run in a more narrow size, she suggests checking out Scarpa. The Scarpa Kailash is a tougher, sturdier boot for hikers who still prefer that style over something more lightweight. (From $149.95, buy at Amazon)
A collection of top-notch camping gear is worthless without a quality backpack to fit it all in. Especially for longer trips, a comfortable, well-fitting pack makes for a much more pleasant experience.
3. DEUTER ACT LITE
For both day hiking and backpacking, Maloney’s brand of choice is Deuter. She prefers the fit of their packs and she says their hip belts are the best she’s seen. “A hip belt is actually what supports the weight of what you’re carrying,” she said. “If you don’t have that then the weight will just end up hanging off your shoulders, and you’ll be miserable very quickly.”
Her favorite model is the Deuter ACT Lite. It’s a comfortable fit and she says it fits up to four days worth of supplies (she owns it in the 45L size). “It’s been with me for several years now and it just keeps on going.” (From $225, buy at Amazon)
4. GREGORY PACKS
Maloney says hikers also can’t go wrong with Gregory brand packs. They place a heavy importance on sizing, and their larger capacity lines come with interchangeable harnesses and waist belt components for hikers to customize. ($244, buy at Amazon)
If you’re only willing to invest in one piece of brand-name hiking gear, Maloney suggests a quality tent. You may not see much of an advantage in a big name on a sunny day, but once you find yourself caught in bad weather a good tent becomes a matter of safety.
5. THE BIG AGNES COPPER SPUR ULTRA LIGHT 1
Big Agnes is a popular brand among long-distance hikers because it balances light weight with durability. Maloney’s go-to backpacking tent is the Big Agnes Copper Spur Ultra Light 1. Hers has endured hail and the moderately high winds of Alaska (which she says would be considered high by normal standards) and it survived unscathed. ($296, buy at Amazon)
6. HILLEBERG TENTS
If you know you’re heading into treacherous weather, Maloney recommends bringing along a tent made by Hilleberg. On a past mountain expedition, she was stunned by the tent’s performance during a nasty storm. “The winds were so strong that you could hear them booming as they came down the ridge,” she recalled. “Half the tents in that party actually collapsed to some degree but the Hilleberg tent was solid as a rock."
While these tents can be pricey, Maloney says the investment is worth it for avid backpackers because they'll last for decades. “You probably won’t need that much strength, but when you do it can save your life.” ($625, buy at Amazon)
Some extreme backpackers opt for tarps over tents, but these aren’t the typical blue tarps you might find at the hardware store. Most options are made from silicone impregnated nylon which means they're waterproof, durable, and incredibly lightweight.
7. MOUNTAINSMITH'S MOUNTAIN SHELTER LT
For tarp-type shelters, Maloney recommends this model from Mountainsmith. The tarp is impressively strong and very light, weighing just two pounds. When using this type of set up, Maloney mentions the importance of avoiding places that may be especially bug-infested, such as bodies of standing water. ($110, buy at Amazon)
The cushiony comfort of a sleeping mat may seem like a luxury when you’re backpacking, but Maloney says they're worth investing in for another reason. “What it also does is keep you from losing heat to the ground,” she said. “The very first thing you should do when you’re cold at night and you’re sleeping outside is put something additional underneath you.”
8. THERM-A-REST Z LITE
One of her favorites is the Therm-A-Rest Z Lite. Its closed-cell design is preferable to spongier open-cell pads because those tend to soak up any moisture in the air, making them cold and damp. The Z Lite has a special coating that reflects your body heat, and its thin structure folds up like an accordion making it easy to carry on backpacking trips. ($38, buy at Amazon)
9. BIG AGNES DOUBLE ZZ
For a more comfortable night’s rest, the Big Agnes Double ZZ mattress inflates to four inches thick while remaining relatively stable. Because it’s inflatable, it's lightweight and can be packed away easily. ($83, buy at Amazon)
10. SEA TO SUMMIT'S COMFORT LIGHT MAT
This mat is built using a honeycomb structure, so if you press down on one side the other won’t spring up. Maloney says the pad strikes a good balance between small size and optimal cushiness. For hikers camping in cold weather, she recommends their Ultralight Insulated Mat. ($150, buy at Amazon)
During a cold season hike, a warm sleeping bag means the difference between a good rest and a miserable night.
11. AND 12. SIERRA DESIGNS' MOBILE MUMMY BAG AND BACKCOUNTRY BED
For more of an unconventional sleeping bag choice, Maloney highly recommends the Mobile Mummy bag from Sierra Designs. It contours snugly to your body, leaving very little space that your body needs to heat up. The Mobile Mummy also has holes for your arms and an opening for your feet, so you can get up and move around while wearing it. ($300, buy at Amazon)
Another option from Sierra Designs is called the Backcountry Bed. Instead of a zipper, there’s a gap in the front that’s sealed in by a quilt. This homey touch makes it Maloney’s favorite recommendation for a comfier bag. ($320, buy at Amazon)
13. BROOKS RANGE'S ELEPHANT FOOT
For something on the extreme end of the spectrum, Maloney enjoys using the Elephant Foot from Brooks Range. It only comes up to the sleeper’s chest and is designed to be used in tandem with a puffy down or synthetic jacket. This way backpackers looking to travel light are able to make the most of what they already have with them without compromising warmth. “It sounds really hardcore, but I think if more people tried it they’d actually like it,” said Maloney. ($450, buy from Brooks Range)
Headlamps are one of those items you never fully appreciate until you find yourself stuck without one.
14. OLYMPIA'S EX550
The EX550 from Olympia is the best of its kind that Maloney has seen so far. It has multiple settings, and the high beams are incredibly bright, but hard on batteries, so she recommends always keeping extras on hand. ($51, buy at Amazon)
15. BLACK DIAMOND'S ION HEADLAMP
Because high-powered headlamps drain battery power quickly, Maloney suggests keeping a backup in your emergency kit. The Black Diamond Ion Headlamp is light enough to keep in your pack or even in your pocket without weighing you down. ($25, buy at Amazon)
Insist on making room in your pack for a stove? Maloney suggests one of these options.
Maloney says this is a popular and reliable option. Like the name suggests, these stoves heat up fast. They’re also small and light, which makes them ideal for long trips. ($89, buy at Amazon)
17. SNOW PEAK GIGA POWER
Maloney personally prefers a camp stove that doesn’t come with the pot attached, so she can mix and match according to her group’s needs. She carries a Snow Peak Giga Power, and though she says it's not quite as fast as Jetboil, it's sturdy enough to handle abuse while still being lightweight. ($50, buy at Amazon)
Unlike water bottles, hydration bladders are light and compact and allow hikers to drink on the go. Maloney says you can’t go wrong with anything made by Platypus or Camelbak.
18. AND 19. PLATYPUS' BIG ZIP SL AND PLATY BOTTLE
She prefers hydration systems with a zip top rather than a clumsy screw cap, and Platypus makes one of her favorites in that category. (From $85, buy at Amazon)
Another product she likes from Platypus is their collapsible water bottle. Once it's empty, you roll it up like a newspaper so that it hardly takes up any space in your bag. ($10, buy at Amazon)
20. GEIGERRIG'S HYDRATION ENGINE
For a less straightforward option, Geigerrig makes a product called the Hydration Engine, which pressurizes the water in the drinking hose so hikers don’t have to feel like a hamster when they suck on it. It’s attached to a bulb similar to what a doctor might use to take your blood pressure; hikers can squeeze it to fill a second compartment in the bladder with air, and then bite down on the mouthpiece to release the water. It makes for a convenient and sanitary way to share water with your friends, your dog, or to wash off your shoes. ($39, buy at Amazon)
Even if you come across the most pristine, crystal clear water on your hike, Maloney stresses that it still needs to be filtered.
21. PLATYPUS GRAVITYWORKS
She like to use the Platypus GravityWorks filter system because it doesn’t require any pumping. Instead you fill up one reservoir attached with a hose to a second. The hose filters the water as it passes through, making the water in the second bag safe to drink. Maloney says it's great for large groups but also small and light enough to be used by a single hiker. ($120, buy at Amazon)
22. GRAYL'S WATER FILTER
There’s also the Grayl Water Filter, which she recommends as an excellent choice for day hikers. “I’ve never seen anything like it before,” she said. “I was totally skeptical but then they let me test one and I was a convert.”
It works like a French press—you fill the outer cup with water and the inner cup filters it as you press down. The capacity is very small, but it’s a great gadget to bring on shorter hikes. ($80, buy at Amazon)
23. MSR MINIWORKS EX
For a filter that does require some pumping, Maloney suggests the MSR Miniworks EX. The biggest advantage of this filter is that you don’t need to be within arm’s reach of a water source to use it. Just drop the hose into the water and pump away without getting your hands wet. ($82.50, buy at Amazon)