My post yesterday was in response to a question about the cost of “gearing up” and who my favorite retailers were. I was unsatisfied with my answer to the first part of the question and wanted to provide a more scientific analysis of market options. What follows is a result of my combined obsession with both backpacking gear and probability. This should give you a fair estimate for the cost of backpacking buy-in.
To do so, I compiled a matrix of 4 options for the 6 pieces of gear I think a hiker needs to buy to become a backpacker. I did not consider items that a hiker would probably already own, like boots, clothing, trekking poles, first aid kits, pocket knives, etc. I also left out accessory items which can be procured on the cheap; such as a food hanging system.
The items I did consider were a backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, water filtration system, and cooking system. For each of these, I considered 4 options:
- My Personal Choice
- Most Popular Market Choice
- Cheapest option I could find
- Most expensive option I could find
From there, I produced a table listing all 4096 options for combining this gear. I did not consider options like going stoveless or using your stove to purify water.
Backpacking Buy-In Costs: My Findings
The cost to go from hiking to backpacking ranges from $289 to $2335. The average cost was $1208. The cost of my personal gear was $1074.
To consider the “normal” expenditure, we look at the Standard Deviation. For those non-mathies, standard deviation is a value for how varied a set of data is. If all the values in a set are similar, the standard deviation will be low. If they are all very different, the standard deviation will be high. For our purposes, we take “normal” to mean “within one standard deviation of the average.”
In our case, the Standard Deviation is $334. Therefore, we can establish a normal range for backpacking buy-in to be the average ($1208) plus or minus $334. That gives us a range from $875 to $1542. The majority, 66%, of all the options I analyzed fall within that range.
What you get for these options:
The least expensive option I considered rang in at only $289. This option included a backpack made by a popular book bag manufacturer. The sleeping bag was cheap but still listed as a backpacking model by its maker. The pad is a discount option made by the dominant pad manufacturer and happens to also be the lightest and most durable option. The Tent is a single wall tarp shelter with no floor or bug netting. This type of shelter is very popular among ultra light enthusiasts. The water purifier is the same as my personal choice and is also very popular among thru-hikers. The stove a tried and true model with an integrated wind screen and pot. This stove is designed to burn solid fuel tablets, but can easily accommodate alcohol fuel.
The most expensive option I considered rang in at a whopping $2335. This is a lot of money, especially considering that it does not include everything you need to go backpacking. The pack is made by a brand more known for being flashy than effective. The sleeping bag is made by a company known for producing mountaineering grade equipment. The pad is both cushy and warm. The tent is made of a space-age fabric developed for élite racing yacht sails. The water filtration system is adequate for small groups traveling together and overkill for a solo backpacker. The cooking system is a favorite among alpinists.
My personal recommended gear rings up at $1074. This falls $135 below the average of $1208. My pack includes innovative features, yet is fairly simple and made of traditional fabrics. My quilt is made by the leading cottage manufacturer of quilts and sleeping bags, a company started in a basement that has grown to support an entire town. My pad could be considered the gold-standard for ultra-light backpacking, offering the best compromise of function, weight, and cost. The chemical drops I use to treat my water are low-cost, light-weight, and easy to use. My stove and pot are pretty basic.
Backpacking Buy-In Advice
The most expensive gear is not always the best. Two of the items from the “discount” set are favorites among élite ultralight backpacking enthusiasts. Some of the items in the most expensive set are more fashionable than functional or more suited towards mountaineering than backpacking. The most popular backpack on the market (among avid backpackers) is made by a cottage brand and is not commercially available in stores. My personal gear rings up in the low end of the “normal” price range.
The best gear is the gear that works for you. Here are a few pieces of advice:
- Do your own research
- Do borrow equipment from friends
- Do try rental gear when available
- Do ask to swap and try other people’s gear while on a trip
- Do seek and accept advice from people who’ve been doing this for years
- Don’t wait until the last minute to buy gear
- Don’t buy the wrong gear because it was on sale
- Don’t put all of your trust in salesmen
- Don’t assume that the most expensive gear is the best
- Don’t trust manufactures claims of capacity or temperature ratings