One of my first “long” hikes was on the GR20 trail in France. It’s also the first time that I weighed all my gear on my kitchen scale and built the first of many gear spreadsheets with the total weight of stuff I would be taking with me. Having little overnight hiking experience at the time, I was initially planning to pack a lot of gear. Not only was I bringing a lot of items, my problem was also that the most of the items I owned at the time were far from being ultralight.
At the same time as I was preparing my gear for the GR20 I was also following blogs from people on the Te Araroa trail, as I was planning to walk the same trail the next year. Seeing their gear lists was a revelation for me. I had not realized before that there are a lot of companies out there that are not distributed at major outdoor retailers. The endless online browsing of gear sites, reviews and articles begin. My wallet also got a lot lighter in the process.
I love ultralight gear. It enables you to hike a lot faster and to simplify your hike even more by taking fewer items. Ultralight also has obvious trade-offs, mainly resistance, longevity and price. While preparing for Te Araroa, I ended up buying a new tent, two sleeping bags, multiple jackets, stoves, a new backpack, a new mattress and countless tiny accessories. While I was happy with my gear in the end, I spent way more money than I needed. Some of the gear I already owned would have been just fine even if it was 200 grams heavier.
After learning the hard way, I have a couple pieces of advice for avoiding becoming an overly ridiculous gram counter.
1- Research, research, research
Read all you can before buying something. Look at what multiple hikers that have completed similar trips to what you are planning have used. Read gear reviews and gear comparisons. Look for users that have used the gear you are looking at on a long distance hike and get their advice on how the gear held up. Getting advice from someone who has used the piece of equipment five times is good, but someone that carried and used it for a couple months is much better.
2- Don’t buy something only because it is lighter.
Don’t base your purchasing decision only on weight. Also, don’t forget that a lot of manufacturers cheat a little bit when they give the weight of their gear and the piece of equipment you will end up with might be heavier. This is especially true for tents, where the weight given often excludes things such as pegs, guy lines, etc.
3- Know your comfort zone.
While I’m all about people getting out of their comfort zone, not everyone will be happy hiking with only 2kg of gear. Take a hard look at your list of gear, decide what you can’t live without, but also know where your limit is and what you want to have with you. Don’t be “light stupid”, meaning that you are not carrying the basic safety equipment (warm layer, matches, etc.) in order to save weight.
4- 30 grams less is not worth $100.
Don’t get ridiculous and replace a good piece of equipment only because the new model is slightly lighter. Evaluate where the savings are worth it and where they are not.
5- Know when to buy.
Register to e-mails communications from outdoor retailers and learn at what time of the year sales come around. Do your best to wait until the items are on sales before purchasing them. On most popular brands, getting a 20-30% discount is easy as they are offered multiple times throughout the year. With smaller retailers, rebates are fewer and smaller but they still offer deals, especially around Thanksgiving (United States one).
I do encourage you to buy from specialized online retailers because:
1- Items are locally produced.
We can’t complain that North America is losing jobs to the benefit of our countries if we only buy stuff made in these countries. Buying gear made locally is a great way to ensure more jobs remain in your country and to support small company owners.
2- Items are typically highly customizable
Forget the standard two sizes in sleeping bags (6′ and 6’6), you can now order a sleeping bag in increments of 2 inches. You can also decide if you want a draft tube, how long the zipper should be and the color of the fabric. Same goes for a lot of locally made gear, you will be able to choose the features that you want and leave what you don’t need.
3- They get rid of unnecessary accessories and features
For years I have owned backpacks with a bunch of features I had no need for (and actually no clue what is was for). I sometimes suspect that some backpacks companies like to put a bunch of features so that the packs look technical and that the people that carry them look like “specialists”. All these features add weight. Why carry something you don’t need?
4- They usually care about their customers and are true passionates.
Most of these small gear shops owners offer amazing personalized service and will help you choose the features you need if you are unsure. Most of the owners of these companies are outdoor enthusiasts themselves and have often tested all of their gear themselves before commercializing it.