More and more people are heading out on hikes in the great outdoors. Thanks to overseas manufacturing and the rise in popularity of the outdoors lifestyle, you no longer have to choose between cheap army-surplus equipment or dropping several hundred dollars on ‘proper’ gear.
There are plenty of options these days, catering for penny-pinching two-minute-noodle eaters to high-tech, spare-no-expense posers, and of course everyday adventurers who just want to go outdoors with gear they can rely on.
Hiking in the northern Flinders Ranges.
Sorting through the essentials and non-essentials
If you’re just starting out in the hiking scene, it’s easy to get lost amongst internet forums and ‘200 essential gadgets for your next hike’ articles. You begin to wonder if you’ll be able to afford, let alone carry, all that stuff that other people seem to be walking around with.
Perhaps you’ve been on a few longer day hikes and are thinking about giving an ‘overnighter’ a go? Or you’re interested in trying one of the amazing long-distance walking trails dotted around the country? Or want the experience of carrying your home, food and water on your back and sleeping out in the great wilderness?
Once you figure out what you need, you can take on an overnighter.
How to get started
In this blog, I’m hoping to relay a few of my thoughts about how to get started and figure out what equipment you really need, especially if on a limited budget. It’s about economising where possible, but investing in a few important items.
I don’t agree with buying cheap gear that will be thrown out in a few years’ time. But, not everyone can afford the top-end gear that appears in the glossy adventure advertising or Instagram posts.
I believe there are three ‘essential’ pieces of gear where it’s really important to seek advice from a reputable outdoor retailer and invest in the best quality you can.
This is the infamous vintage hiking pack. Unfortunately, it favoured hipster looks over hiking function.
Essential 1 – a quality backpack
I learnt the lesson of having a good backpack during a hike through the Austrian Alps. Before the trip, I found a groovy vintage rucksack with an aluminium frame at a garage sale, which I took overseas for a 2-week hike. The frame popped out almost immediately once I started walking due to the weight of my stuff, and had to be held together with duct tape. The previous owner had squashed all the love out of the shoulder and hip padding, leaving me with little more than thin canvas straps that cut into my shoulders with every step.
It was while hiking up a slippery glacier with the pack swaying behind me that I vowed to never go anywhere again with a below-par backpack. Soon after the trip I saved up and bought a Deuter Aircontact 75L pack, which makes carrying heavy loads way more comfortable than the other ‘budget’ backpacks I’ve used.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “equipment can be high-quality, light, or cheap – pick two”. This certainly rings true for most outdoor equipment and becomes even more significant when it comes to hiking gear. You have to choose between hiking light and expensive, or saving money and having to do a little bit more training to carry your 25kg pack full of bulky essentials.
The good thing is that if you have a decent, well-fitted backpack, then it matters less if the rest of your ‘budget’ gear is bulky or heavy. It can still be carried in relative comfort which is what makes the difference.
The trusty Deuter Aircontact 75L loaded with 6 days of food on a walk through the Austrian Alps.
Essential 2 – comfortable footwear
Everyone has a horror story about enormous blisters or squashed feet the time they went hiking in twenty-year-old boots handed down by their grandmother. I once walked part of Tasmania’s Overland Track in winter, with a pair of leaky old shoes that were thoroughly worn-in but certainly not waterproof. The first day I stepped in a creek and my shoes were soaked, squelchy and icy for the rest of the trip.
Considering that your feet join you every step of the way, it’s important to have boots that will keep you comfortable and dry. Ankle support, grippy tread patterns, or waterproofing might be needed depending on the conditions and climate expected. You don’t necessarily need high-cut boots meant for rocky mountain expeditions. Just make sure your shoes have been fitted properly (remembering that feet expand slightly when a load is carried) by someone who knows what they are doing.
Don’t forget to wear shoes in thoroughly, to identify any pressure spots that might require extra padding using hikers’ wool or blister protection.
Comfortable footwear doesn’t make the ascent to Mt Bryan any less steep! (Heysen Trail, SA)
Essential 3 – a good raincoat
Rain, wind and cold makes for a shivering, average trip at best, or hypothermia at worst! Weather conditions can change very quickly, especially on high-altitude land and in the mountains, such as the Victorian Alps. A good raincoat will cause rain to bead and run-off the outer shell while allowing sweat and perspiration to exit, so you don’t get soaked from the inside while putting in a mammoth effort in hilly terrain.
Staying dry when hiking overnight is particularly important, as it can be difficult to properly dry off before hopping into a tent and sleeping bag in rainy conditions. Recently on an overnight walk along the Heysen Trail we encountered windy, drizzly weather that meant wearing waterproof gear the whole time. There was no opportunity to dry out our gear in the sun, so our raincoats were an essential item.
A raincoat also provides an outer barrier in windy conditions. This gives the insulating layers underneath a chance to trap the air and create warmth around your body.
Weather conditions change quickly in high or alpine terrain, so it pays to have easy access to a raincoat.
Tips for choosing other budget hiking gear
After investing in a quality backpack, comfortable footwear and a good raincoat, it’s possible to buy more budget-oriented gear. Then you can upgrade to better quality over time as you learn the ins and outs of whatever style of hiking you enjoy.
A reasonable 3-season, two-man tent should cost around A$150 and will usually suit a single person or a couple who don’t mind getting close at night. I’ve used an OZtrail Backpacker 3-season on almost all of my trips, from the Flinders Ranges to snowy mountains in Austria. A top-quality 4 season tent is probably not essential unless you’re expecting to encounter heavy snow, rain or very rugged, windy conditions.
A light dusting of snow like this is no trouble for a 3-season tent – keeping warm is really the challenge.
Sleeping bag & mat
Warm, budget-priced synthetic sleeping bags will be bulkier than their more expensive synthetic or down equivalents. But this extra bulk should be no matter if you’ve invested in a comfortable, spacious rucksack. For more details on choosing a sleeping bag for hiking, read this guide here.
It’s also easy to overlook the importance of some form of insulation between you and the ground for overnight trips. A roll-up foam mat is better than nothing, but sleeping will be warmer with a self-inflating air mattress. Keep an eye out for the highest-rated “R-value” (denotes insulative performance) for mats in your price range.
Wild camping in a field in Sweden. It’s amazing how many bits and pieces end up being carried without a ruthless packing regime.
There are plenty of budget options available these days, including gas, spirit and solid fuel burning stoves. Cheaper stoves may be more likely to break in the field… but if you’re travelling overseas, or somewhere your life depends on being able to boil water to drink, then you probably have enough money to buy a top-quality stove too.
Another option for simple overnight hikes is to boil water before leaving and carry it in a vacuum thermos flask. This is roughly the same weight as taking a stove but saves you the hassle of boiling water once you get to camp if you only need to re-hydrate noodles and drink tea.
While not necessarily a cheap investment, the trusty Trangia performs well in a range of conditions.
A set of thermals, a synthetic sports shirt (stay away from cotton as it becomes wet and cold quickly), two cheap polar fleece jumpers, perhaps a hard-shell jacket and a raincoat should provide plenty of layering options for walking in mild to cool climates.
Hiking in pants or shorts depends on personal preference. But, it’s also worth having a pair of showerproof pants to keep wind and rain out in blustery conditions.
A couple of cotton tea-towels are light and handy to take. Use one as a towel after swimming, and the other as a scarf, sunshade, or for drying tents or even dishes depending on your hygiene standards.
Hiking in a lush forest in Southern Wales in the UK got a bit chilly.
A standard dinner for budget hikers is often two-minute noodles or packet pasta. Muesli, nut and chocolate bars are good snacks. An easy no-mess breakfast can be had by preparing ham and cheese croissants and wrapping them in foil.
Tea on the boil near Arkaroola, SA. Tent set up in the background to provide a sanctuary away from the flies, which were prolific in mid-April.
What to focus on
Getting out hiking with all the necessary gear is easier than ever, with the myriad options on the market today.
I think that prioritising investing in a quality backpack, shoes and raincoat allows you to walk in as much comfort as possible. It also makes the experience enjoyable so that you’ll hopefully want to do again!
What’s your best budgeting tip when it comes to choosing gear?
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