Gear evolution for backpacking: Then vs. Now

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My backpacking gear has not changed overall that much since I did the PCT way back in 2002 vs. 2012 or even now for solo, on trail backpacks.

I still go light, tend to take a tarp or tarp-like shelter, a frameless ruck, use trail runners, my trusty boonie hat, and so on.

But the 2012 list, while mainly accurate for a particular type of trip, is not always ideal for the variety of trips I do.

But as with all (most?) people, what I enjoy in the outdoors may evolve, be added to, or outright change.

I tend to go to obscure places with poorly maintained or non-existent trail and enjoy scrambling for a good amount of trips now.

So, that means different gear.

And my views of the outdoors has matured, at least I think.

I am more mindful of the impact I may make on the environment. And that the very light gear to cover miles does not work as well for a trip that is perhaps at a more relaxed pace with friends.  And, of course, the weather has been hotter and drier over the years versus even a decade ago.

All changes.  And all changes that affect what I may take in my kit.

Some changes in my gear, technique, or even how I spend time in the outdoors noted below:

Long pants vs. shorts:  I rarely wear shorts anymore when hiking. Some light nylon pants provide sun protection, leg protection when off-trail and work easier in a variety of conditions. I stupidly took shorts as I was lazy when packing for the Ferris Mountain WSA trip last year. My scratched up legs from all the scrambling and bushwhacking reminded me not to be lazy again. And to stick with the long pants, I was gradually using more and more.

No stove vs. canister stove vs. alcohol stove:  I truly love alcohol stoves for solo backpacking. Light, easy to use, simple so less failure prone, and I don’t guess on the amount of fuel left. But in our drier and hotter environment of the American West, management agencies are getting stricter about what backpacking stoves are allowed. I am not the only one who has noticed, either.  Now, I tend to use alcohol stoves in the spring or later Fall only.  I’ll use a canister stove or even no stove at the height of summer. Trip dependent as well. Lower mileage trips with a friend, and typically more camp time will have me use a canister stove for the more the leisurely meals and more water boiled for hot drinks.

Potty trowel vs. my foot, a stick, rock, etc. : Yes, in the past I would use a stick, a rock, the back of my foot, etc. to dig a cathole. If I am to be honest, the cat hole was not as deep as it should have been. With more people out on the long trails in particular, “TP blossoms” are becoming a noticeable problem.  When I did trail work last year on the CDT, I overturned a rock not far from the trail…and saw a deposit and said TP blossom. Yeech!!!!   With many trowels weighing under an ounce, not expensive, and being more durable than the old orange trowel we all had at one point, there is no reason NOT to take one.


100 wt fleece pullover vs. just a puffy: My most versatile piece of gear for all four seasons is my 100 wt fleece pullover. I never did get into wind shirt use except for winter. For three-season use, I find the that if it is so windy and cold, I need a wind shirt, the breathability of my light fleece works fine and is better overall.  And if the wind is light and the weather cool rather than cold, my thermal top works well enough.  But that is me.  Plus the fleece works well for cold and wet conditions, a layer when sleeping during cold snaps, and many other times.  It is with me on all my day hikes, too.  Can’t picture any of my trips without this piece of gear.

With my ever-faithful sun faded fleece on a hut trip!

Real” food vs. gas station surprise: As I said in my article about Pecorino Romano cheese, I tend to crave real food now versus my dirtbag hiker days. Oh, I still have a soft spot for Snicker bars.  But a good hard and salty cheese, some figs, dates, and nuts just taste better to me. And last longer, I think, it terms of the fuel. And it just happens that the food of childhood Sunday dinners also makes excellent hiking food!

Variable kit vs. a specific thru-hiker kit: Gones are the days when I used one set of gear for all outdoor activities. I’ll mix and match gear now. A tent may be brought for shoulder season trips. A coffee mug will wind its way into my kit for more leisurely trips. Or if a trip partner is coming, a bigger pot for nicer meals and a spacious tent is carried.  A legacy of the family upbringing perhaps, but I now realize a different job requires a different set of tools.

At the end of my Grand Junction to Moab walk. Still have the same type of hat!

Camping vs. backpacking only: The younger and less experienced version of me would never car camp. Out West and a few years later? Dispersed camping in off the beaten path areas abound. And some interesting places just don’t allow backpacking. But are certainly places I want to see. And when the nights are long, car camping is a logistically easier version of the hut trips I enjoy. Car camping has been another activity that has expanded my outdoor enjoyment and places to see versus backpacking only.


So here it is 2017. What gear I use, and how I use it, has changed since 1997 from 2007 to the present. And I am sure what I use will be different in 2027, too.

However, I suspect as long as I can, the main focus of all my gear, techniques, and activities, will still come down to one aspect: How can I get outside the most efficiently and enjoyably in the time I have available?  

I do not see that goal changing at all!

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John D
7 years ago

I like the way you have linked gear choices to the things you do now versus the things you did then. Posts which compare the individual pieces of gear used in the 70s with their modern equivalents have historical value when done well but your post reflects the changes we go through as we gain experience and try different approaches to the outdoors.

Adventure Alan has written similar comments on windshirts and light fleeces. You both know what you are talking about but would have a different view if you lived here in Scotland, where every day is shoulder season!