Regardless of whether you are going out on your first backpacking trip or finishing your Triple Crown 7,700 miles later, the gear you bring can make or break your hike. With more options every day that are ultralight or ultrafeatured, how do you land on a decision for anything?
Ultimately gear decisions come down to where you are wanting the comfort to be in your hiking; the walking itself, or your time in camp. Each gear decision you make will affect one of the two. Keep in mind that if every gear choice is catered to comfort in camp, the soreness and exhaustion from carrying a heavy load will make it difficult to relax at the end of the day.
My goal for this post is to lay out the pros and cons of common gear dichotomies like tents vs. tarps, air mattress vs. closed cell foam, cooking stoves vs. cold soaking, and suspension framed packs vs. going frameless.
Tents v Tarps
Pros for tents:
- Freestanding tents offer more freedom of setup be it on wooden tent platforms, rocky terrain, or soil too soft to stake.
- Fast setup as opposed to dealing with lots of stakes and tension points on a tarp.
- Full bug and critter protection.
- Often times roomier than enclosed tarps.
Cons for tents:
- Typically heavier and pricier than tarps.
- Limited fabric options.
Pros for tarps:
- Lightest weight option for shelter.
- Variety of materials from cuben fiber to silicon nylon blends.
- A simple A-frame tarp is extremely roomy.
- Variations for setup depending on terrain and weather for rectangular tarps.
- Doubles the use of your trekking poles as tent poles.
- Large price range depending on material and size.
Cons for tarps:
- Condensation and lack of ventilation.
- Less headroom than tents depending on setup.
- Separate bug netting required on most models if protection is needed.
- Longer setup time as tension and pitch need to be adjusted.
Air Pads v Closed Cell Pads
Pros for Air Mattresses:
- Much more comfortable for side sleepers.
- Smaller pack size.
- Better quality sleep means better quality hiking.
- Higher end mattresses can typically weigh less than closed cell foam.
Cons for Air Mattresses:
- Much more costly than closed cell foam.
- Cold weather can cause deflation.
- Risk of pops and tears.
- Time and energy to blow-up/pack.
- Can be noisy when moving around at night.
Pros for Foam:
- Most cost efficient way to insulate and provide a little extra comfort.
- If you are carrying a frameless pack, the Z-Rest can fold into a perfect back pad on the inside of your pack providing structure to the bag.
- Doubles as a sit pad during breaks if carried on the outside of your pack.
- Typically lasts around 3,000 miles before the foam packs down. It will still insulate but not provide the same comfort.
Cons for Foam:
- Side sleepers can experience hip pains.
- Break in period to get used to sleeping on a thin foam pad can be anywhere from 2-4 weeks. In the meantime, your energy is affected every day.
Stoves v No Stove
Pros for Canister/alcohol Stoves:
- The mental boost of warm food after a long, cold, wet day is hard to beat.
- More food options open up when you have the ability to boil and simmer; rice, quesadillas, hash browns, etc. A variety of flavor becomes more and more important the longer you’re away from your stovetop.
- Hot coffee. Need I say more?
Cons for Canister/ alcohol Stoves:
- Cost of fuel can add up after a while and finding canisters can be a challenge in remote areas.
- Weight and bulk.
Pros for Cold Soaking:
- Most food you can cook with boiling water can be soaked in cold water in a sealed jar for an hour or two to create a saucy meal.
- A good way to get more calories and flavor than the regular snacks throughout the day.
- Almost entirely eliminate the weight of a cook system.
- No need to buy or search for fuel on resupply.
Cons for Cold Soaking:
- Obviously less appealing than warm food, a cold mush at the end of a long day can be demoralizing.
- Rice and pasta don’t tend to cold soak well, limiting food variety for dinners.
Mummy Bags v Quilts
Pros for Mummy Bags:
- Nearly ubiquitous as the sleeping bag style, mummy bags contour to the shape of your body, eliminating cold spots.
- Being entirely closed in, mummy bags are the warmest option.
- Offered in any temperature rating you could need for your adventure.
- Offered in most color options and price points you could want.
Cons for Mummy Bags:
- Typically heavier and bulkier than any quilt unless you are paying top dollar.
Pros for Quilts:
- Eliminating the fabric and insulation that would be compressed underneath you, quilts cut down weight and bulk significantly.
- Cottage industry companies allow for customization of your quilt if you prefer to get the exact color and temperature rating you are wanting.
- Versatile design allowing you to use the same quilt year round if the temp rating is low enough.
- Typically, the foot box is able to be opened or cinched shut for ventilation. Also the back can usually be buttoned up in freezing temps to eliminate any drafts.
Cons for Quilts:
- If you are a cold sleeper, the draft in a quilt can sometimes be too chilly for some.
- Being a niche product, the cost of quilts are relatively high.
Suspension Packs v Frameless Packs
Pros for Suspension Framed Packs:
- If your total pack weight after food and water is over 20-25lbs, a light weight suspension pack will provide significantly more comfort than a frameless bag.
- The airflow behind your back will keep you much less sweaty, conserving water.
- Being able to effectively shift pack weight from hips to shoulders throughout the day gives the option of allowing injured or stressed muscles to heal.
Cons for Suspension Framed Packs:
- Higher cost than frameless bags.
- The weight of the pack itself is enough for ultralight hikers to shy away from most suspension packs. More options that are nominally heavier are being released slowly, however.
- Suspension packs typically are not designed with the intention of keeping your pack on all day. If you are a hiker who likes to go without stopping, many frameless packs cater specifically to that.
Pros for Frameless Packs:
- The lightest weight option at about half the price of suspension frames.
- The features built into frameless bags are usually all about efficiency; if you don’t want to take off your pack and stop for snacks, map checks, etc. many cottage industry companies have good options.
- The lack of frame allows more freedom of movement.
- Being a smaller profile, navigating certain terrain or tree blow downs is easier with a frameless pack.
- Offered in a variety of materials that increase or decrease durability, waterproofness, and cost.
Cons for Frameless Packs:
- If you haven’t been able to shave your base weight below at least 12lbs, a frameless pack is probably going to be uncomfortable after a few days.
- Space can be limited, making longer food carries or bear canister requirements an issue if not planned for.