From November 1st to the end of the year, you’ll be bombarded with advertising, discounts, and announcements of “shopping holidays.” In the winter months, you’ll find all sorts of sales on camping and backcountry clothing and gear, as retailers clear out their 2023 stock and announce new products for the spring and summer.
And if you’re looking for the perfect gift for yourself or your loved ones who spend lots of time outdoors, you can find plenty of Shopper’s and Buyer’s Guides to consult for ideas.
This is not any of that.
In this post, we do not steer you toward specific camping or outdoor adventure products or brands. In fact, depending on your situation, our advice may inspire you to shed some gear. The ultimate objective is to accumulate gear that makes your human-powered outdoor experiences more awesome than ever without spending so much money that you can’t afford to go anywhere!
Gear Up with a Leave No Trace Mindset
Leaving no trace in the backcountry doesn’t only apply to the seven principles of Leave No Trace (LNT). It begins with how we buy, use, and consume only what we need when engaging with the outdoors. Buying the latest, greatest outdoor clothing and gear each year runs counter to that philosophy. In addition, if you’re on a limited budget, it reduces the funds you have available to take time off work and cover the costs of traveling to your favorite outdoor destinations and participating in the outdoor adventures you always dreamed of.
So, instead of doing a 2024 Buyer’s Guide or Shopper’s Guide, we decided to take a different approach. Here, we lead you through the process of creating your own personalized 2024 Guide to Improving Your Outdoor Experience.
Think About Your Last Trip and Your Next Trip
Start developing your personalized Guide to Improving Your Outdoor Experience by thinking about your last trip and your next trip.
I spend a lot of time outdoors, which means I spend a lot of time packing and unpacking. Every time I pack for a trip, whether it’s climbing, paddling, backpacking, or bike touring, I think about my last trip and review any notes I made about conditions and equipment. This process enables me to start to identify items that I need to repair, replace, or upgrade for my next trip. Over the years, this careful reflection has helped me purge gear, get gear that’s more suitable for me, and be more organized — all of which amplifies the amount of fun I have.
I recommend that you take the same approach. Whenever you’re unpacking, take notes about items that need to be repaired, replaced, or upgraded. As you prepare for your next trip, jot down ideas for clothing and gear that would make the experience more comfortable and enjoyable.
Ask the Right Questions
As you examine your previous trip and think about your next one, answer the following guiding questions:
- Do I need new items to improve my backcountry experience?
- Do I need to replace items for safety or protection from the elements?
- Do I need to go on a day-trip to see what I might need? (This is a great excuse for getting out.)
- Does upgrading my gear mean purchasing new gear?
The last question may be one of the most overlooked questions when it comes to upgrading gear, and it is the most complex. The simple answer is no, you do not necessarily need to buy new gear. Friends, family members, organizations, and complete strangers purge gear, and you can use this to your advantage.
Host a friends/family or neighborhood gear swap; you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised to see what people are getting rid of. You can also buy used gear via Facebook Marketplace, eBay, local garage sales and flea markets, and other outlets like GearTrade.com. However, if you need to upgrade safety gear, such as harnesses, ropes, a first aid kit, or a personal floatation device (PFD), buy new.
One way to focus your attention on specific gear that’s in need of upgrading is to take inventory. Lay out your gear and break it down into the following four categories:
- Food: Kitchen related, stoves, storage, spice kits
- Water: Carrying and purifying
- Clothing & Shelter: Tents, clothing, rain gear, sleeping kit, backpack
- Comfort: Items you do not necessarily need but make your backcountry adventures a little more pleasant, such as a camp chair or hammock
Once you have your gear organized, within each category, create the following three separate piles:
- Keep: The item is still in working order, you love it, and you will not let it go.
- On the Fence: The item is not in perfect condition but still serves its purpose. Maybe it is not comfortable or has tech specs like weight or rating that you might want to improve, but you are unsure whether you are ready to let it go.
- Retire/Replace: The piece is compromised, does not fit well or no longer serves its intended purpose.
For example, in my Clothing & Shelter group, I have a down jacket. I have slept in this jacket hundreds of times, it smells like smoke, has 50 or more patches on it, and is still one of my most reliable and favorite pieces. It is definitely a keeper.
In the same category is my foam Thermarest. It barely provides any cushion against rough ground, it is bulky to pack (especially for bikepacking and climbing), and I am thinking about replacing it with an inflatable sleep pad. This item I place in my On the Fence pile.
In my Kitchen group, I have an old hand pump for water. It is heavy, bulky, and I have had to do field repairs on it dozens of times. I recently used a friend’s squeeze bag purifier on a backcountry trip and I love it. I want to upgrade, so I move this old hand pump into my Retire/Replace pile.
Take a Rational Approach
Before acquiring any piece of new gear, make sure it passes the reason test — that you have a good reason for bringing it with you on your next backcountry trip/adventure. Ask yourself, “Why am I getting this?” Maybe the item is easier to use, lighter, smaller, sturdier, or more comfortable. Maybe it will enable you to extend your wilderness season. Just be sure you have a good reason to buy it and bring it with you on trips.
If your reason is to extend your outdoor recreation season into colder months, take a closer look at the items in your Clothing & Shelter group:
- Sleeping bag
- Base layers
Here are some other areas you may want to focus on when considering your options for replacing or adding gear:
- Denatured alcohol stove (light)
- Canister stove (light, fast, and easy)
- Over the fire (zero cost)
- Prepackaged foods (easy but costly) — consider hosting a pre-trip tasting party with friends around a backyard fire
- Make your own pre-packaged food (more work-intensive)
- Squeeze bags (Mini and Squeeze filters are rated up to 100,000 gallons, but how long will they actually last? Sawyer filters should last 3–5 years and through hundreds of uses — thousands of gallons. You’re more likely to accidentally damage the filter than wear it out. With squeeze bags, you must drink the water immediately after filtering it.)
- Tablets (These are lightweight and easy, but you have to wait 30 minutes after treating the water to drink it.)
- Pumps (Heavier than the previous options and reliable . . . until they are not and you need to do field repairs. As with squeeze bags, you must drink the water immediately after filtering it.)
- Four-season shelter (to expand your outdoor recreation season)
- Bivy bags/tarps (light)
- Bikepacking tent (fits between the brakes on your handlebars)
- Portaledge (for camping while climbing)
- Puffy (down) pants (warm and light)
- A change of shoes (for comfort)
- Maps (improved navigation)
- Polaroids/journals (for documenting your trip)
Now that you have your own personalized Guide to Improving Your Outdoor Experience, you’re ready to gear up for your next trip. Keep in mind, however, that this is a living document designed to change with each passing adventure.
For now, put your Guide into action by taking inventory and gearing up for your next backcountry adventure. Then, put your collection of gear to the ultimate test. Do not let your gear become a museum of past trips and trips that could have been. Get out and use it and continually improve it!
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About the Author: Stephen Mullaney is the Director of School Partnerships at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE). He has worked domestically and internationally with schools, organizations and wilderness programs. His classrooms have ranged from dilapidated trailers at overcrowded, underfunded schools to the Himalayan mountains and everything imaginable in between. His past students include gang members/prisoners, education majors, college and university professors, and pioneers in the field of outdoor and adventure-based experiential education. Stephen’s philosophy is to focus on the development of positive working and learning environments. He brings more than a quarter of a century of education experience and understanding of human nature to any organization, whether it is an education institution or a private company. His writing has appeared in adventure sports/education journals, magazines and on the web. Stephen prefers to arrive by bicycle and sit in the dirt.