Gear Selection: How to choose the right equipment

Talk to a group of hikers and regardless of the type or length of walk and they will all agree that you will need a certain amount of equipment. This however is where the agreement is likely to stop. Footwear, a given, but what type, boots or trail runners?  Sun protection, a definite, but is this a cap, broad brimmed hat, buff or a combination? Long pants or short, daypack or expedition pack? Given the myriad of choice, what process should you follow in selecting hiking equipment? This article is aimed at new hikers and provides a basic overview of how to go about selecting hiking equipment.

Once you have made the leap and decided to start purchasing gear there are two main considerations that outweigh every other factor in selecting hiking gear and these are based on personal safety. These are ‘function’ and ‘fit’, and both of these carry equal weight; every other consideration is secondary.

  1. Function (purpose)

In a nutshell does the equipment do what you need it to do? A good example here is sleeping bag selection. If you’re planning on doing an overnight or extended hike and you know based on information that you have collected from various sources that you can expect -2° Celsius then you will need to ensure that your sleeping bag (and sleep system) can cope with that. Selecting a sleeping bag that will only keep you warm to 6° Celsius may be the way to go, depending on the rest of your sleep system and your tolerance to cold, but it may also be dangerous potentially leading to hypothermia in extreme conditions.

  1. Fit (comfort)

The correct fit is equally important to function in selecting equipment. Choosing equipment that ‘almost’ fits just because it’s cheap or is the right colour can be at best uncomfortable, or at worst dangerous, and both of these two factors often go hand in hand. As an example here I’ll use footwear selection because this is something I struggle with due to my foot size(s) (my left foot is size 14US and my right is size 13US). Buying a boot ½ size too small just because it is on sale may mean that you are so focused on your feet being uncomfortable that you are not paying attention to your surroundings. A misstep at the wrong time due to lack of focus can cause injury.

Once you have narrowed down your range of choice by identifying what gear meets the function/fit criteria, it is now time to consider other factors. These are:

  • Weight versus Cost

I’ll group these two together as equipment that weighs less often costs more due to the technology used to achieve this weight reduction. Going back to my sleeping bag analogy it is possible to buy two sleeping bags that meet the function and fit requirement but one weights approximately 800 grams and the other weights 1500 grams. The lighter weight bag will usually pack down to a much smaller size and is usually considerably more expensive. The reason for this is often the technology of the materials associated with this product . High quality sleeping bags also tend to use Goose down is used which is not very common (not many people eat goose worldwide as opposed to duck)and as such are usually very expensive. You should always buy the lightest weight equipment that you can afford as you will enjoy your hiking more if you’re not weighed down. However we all have a budget to work with so you may have to sacrifice some weight for some items to save on others.

  • Durability

Unfortunately durability usually, but not always, implies heavier equipment. Tents are a good example here as some of the ultralight single and double skin tents available on the market are made of extremely lightweight material and don’t cope with rough handling. If you are rough on equipment then you may want to factor this in to your choice.

  • Colour

Colour is a personal choice and one that often decides a gear purchase. My wife loves purple and given a choice will choose purple equipment if all other factors are equal. For me I’m a bit quirky so will often choose ‘out there’ colours, which thankfully are usually on sale. There is a saying in the hiking industry (as well as the broader sales market) of ‘shrink it and pink it’. This means that some manufacturers will just reduce the size of equipment and provide pink/purple options to cater for the female market, which is sheer laziness as not all females like pink and purple just as not all males like blue and black.

  • The feel good factor

Sometimes a piece of gear just makes you feel good and wearing or using something that you are happy with will means that its likely to be looked after and used more often. I have a number of pieces of hiking clothing that I wear both to work and socially because I just like wearing them.

In deciding what equipment you need, the sheer amount of information available may be too much and this is where expert advice available from outdoor stores becomes crucial. I research my potential purchases to death before I step foot into a store so when it comes time to buy I’m really just checking size and comfort. I also like to support local stores and particularly in the case of equipment that has to be the correct size will usually not buy on the Internet unless there isn’t a choice.

For new hikers, entering an outdoor store for the first time can be overwhelming and often the choice of where purchases are made comes down to how comfortable they feel with the sales person. I recently quizzed a number of hikers on this and access to a knowledgeable friendly sales person was the deciding factor when choosing their store.

One other factor to consider is the ‘sale factor’. Most outdoors stores in Australia go through a cycle of sales whether this is end of financial year sales, end of year/Christmas sales etc. Unless I need a piece of equipment on short notice I will usually time my purchases with the sales cycles. If you are new to hiking ask a friend or ask a keen hiker at work when these sales are likely to occur.

Happy purchasing.

You can also listen to Australian Hiker Podcast Episode 001 on the same topic. This was our first real episode and we were still learning the podcasting ropes.

Pick a colour!

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