Base Camp: Equipment Check

This is the next installment of Reid Barbier’s weekly column on hiking and outdoor adventures in Southern Oregon. 

You inch your way along the edge of the ice flow, deadly-blue abyss to your right and cliff face of white to your left. Suddenly, the ice cracks, cascades away beneath you, pulling you down with it. You throw out your left foot, the steel toes of your crampons slamming into the brittle ice, holding you precariously against the cold face. The crampon strains, you can see the threads holding it to the boot fraying. You swing yourself up, your right hand scrambling for purchase. All rests on a few threads now, but it stays firm as you finally regain the trail with your right leg and pull yourself out of the collapse.

Equipment can be the difference between life and death on the trail or the mountain, and finding and maintaining the right balance of tools is an essential component of any successful hike. This week, I’ll talk about a few equipment tips I’ve picked up in my travels, as well as my own favorite tools for different styles of hikes.

The most important piece of equipment hands-down for any serious hiker is boots, which come in several different types and categories. There are light boots, in the running shoe style, which offer limited support and protection but maximum mobility. On the opposite end of the spectrum are heavier boots, which offer good support, especially ankle support, but less mobility and flexibility. Splitting the difference are medium boots, which offer some support while still allowing for easy movement. These are the type I use and recommend, as they will fit a wide range of possible hikes and different terrain types. If there is a specific terrain you know you will be exploring exclusively, such as light trails or rocky mountaineering, then by all means choose the type that fits you. For most hikers though, a sturdy pair of mid-range boots from REI or another outdoor store should suffice for the vast majority of hikes.

For backpackers, a good backpack is an obvious necessity, coming in metal-frame and loose varieties. Metal-frames are able to carry more weight, but have generally fallen out of use because of their unnecessary weight and annoying clunkiness. Get a backpack suited to your desired hiking adventures, either something that can get you through a week or more, or a traditional day pack for shorter hikes. For backpackers, allow room for a sleeping bag, clothes, food, cooking equipment, first aid, and camping gear, such as tent and lightweight sleeping pads. Most of the equipment pieces I just mentioned can be bought in lightweight form at a dedicated outdoor store, although they will be very expensive. If you are looking to become a dedicated hiker and backpacker, it is probably worth it to invest early in durable and lightweight equipment. Otherwise, stuff from home is just fine, like sleeping bags and cooking tools.

The types of clothes that you bring on any trip are also essential, as they can be the difference between comfort and misery out on the trail. In general, you want to wear clothes that can resist water absorption like rain and sweat. Cotton clothes in particular are notoriously water absorbent, and will not quickly dry, leading to potentially dangerous cold conditions. Try to get shirts like the athletic ones sold in many outdoor or sports stores that can resist to a certain degree sweat and rain. Bring a second layer that can keep you relatively warm during the day, but can be easily taken off depending on heat conditions. Bring warm pants and socks for nighttime at camp, and make sure to have a sleeping bag that can withstand at least 20 degree weather. Bring a few pairs of socks, because socks will get sweaty throughout the day, which can contribute to blisters, one of the most common problems for hikers. Hats are also nice to bring, to shelter from the sun or rain. Bandannas are pretty useful, as they can shield the face from wind and rain, and also help keep you warm at night.

Some random equipment that is always useful to bring along is a compass and a knife. The compass can (for obvious reasons and with a little training) get you out of serious situations. Inherent with the compass is also a need for maps, the paper kind. GPS is very unreliable in parts of the wilderness, so it is also recommended to bring a map along and look at it before going on the hike. A knife serves a ton of purposes, from helping with meal preparation to cutting bandages. You can cut branches or a make-shift shelter with a knife if you are in desperate straits. A knife or multi-function tool with a knife is probably one of the most important things you can have on the trail hands-down. Another essential item to stuff into your pack is a dedicated first-aid kit, which can be bought at most general goods stores and outdoor outlets. Bandages, gauze, reflective rescue devices, whistles, and blister care can all be found within these aid kits. They are a definite must-have for any hiker.

I’ve tried to list the things that I usually find essential on any hike, and while I’m sure I’ve missed or forgotten a few, this list should be a good starting point for anyone wanting to throw themselves into the Great Outdoors. There should always be a degree of preparation before any major hiking excursion, but that doesn’t mean that all the fun should be subsumed by details. If there is something you feel you need out there that I didn’t mention, feel free to bring it! Throw interesting food into your pack, grab the clothes you feel you need for the journey, set your compass, and trace your fingers along the line of the map. The Wilderness is calling, with the right stuff anybody can be part of it.