Finding gear is a highly personal choice. These are some of my favorite brands and gear that work for my style. I get kinda soapboxy about some of them. Others, well I can always be tempted to reconsider!
One thing that I debated long and hard about was the value of an REI membership. Let me tell you this has paid off. I’ve had issues with boots and took them back after months of wear. A jacket that leaked feathers everywhere they exchanged without batting an eye. Knowing my gear has a guarantee and I’m not going to be hassled returning it makes the sting of the cost much less painful. Besides, there is also the annual dividend where you get money for – wait for it – MORE GEAR! You can buy gently used gear and even trade gear in that’s past the guarantee, but still has life for a gift certificate to spend on new gear.
That’s not to say I don’t shop other places too (see the links below for other awesome places to get your gear fix on and get your gear fixed when it breaks). So much gear. So little time to try it all.
Speaking of getting gear fixed, if your retailer doesn’t offer a satisfaction guarantee, check the manufacture’s website. Your gear often comes with a guarantee of some kind directly from the manufacturer. A pack I owned had a load lifter pulling from the pack, a quick view of the manufacturer’s website, a form completed and product shipped off had the pack fixed within about two weeks. Think the repair might be outside of warrantee? Ask anyway. If it’s not there are likely reputable repair places in bigger cities.
Look for my blog posts titled Gear In Review for more detailed thoughts on specific items.
I’ll get really soapboxy here. GET YOURSELF FITTED BY A PROFESSIONAL (yes, I’m yelling this). I see a lot of folks asking on social media about what brand is best. Here’s the deal. It’s your feet. They are the support system for everything else in your outdoor adventuring life. This is not the item to buy through crowd sourcing. I’ll say it again. Get yourself fitted. Even if you don’t buy them from the retailer, get your butt into the store and try them all on until you find the right ones. Time consuming? Yes. Expensive? Maybe. Necessary? Definitely.
My favorite brands are Vasque, Merrell, Oboz, Keen and Teva. They work for my feet. Depending on the type of terrain, whether I’m backpacking, hanging out at camp or snowshoeing, I’ve got one that suits the conditions. I’ve even done a Gear In Review post to help you out.
There are so many good options out there it can be a bit overwhelming. Being a shorty (5’3″ tall) and a bit curvy, some brands don’t work because they are for people much slimmer than I am. This is another area where you want to take your time and try some stuff on. If you’ll be hauling a backpack, think about where seams fall in relation to your pack straps. A poorly placed seam can rub and blister. Be honest with yourself about thigh gap ladies. Chaffing is not fun.
Disclaimer: Dudes, you’ve got your own special considerations that, as a female, I just can’t speak to. Ask a dude.
My favorite brands are kinda all over the place. But I seem to have a lot of REI, KUHL and Mountain Hardware.
For me, Pants MUST have pockets to put things (pocket knife, maps, my WWH and 52 Hike Challenge patches and my phone/camera). If the legs zip off to convert to shorts all the better. My current favorites offer a welcome new design feature – a fly in the pants so you can pee without exposing your rear to the world. Gnara (formerly Shefly Apparel) and Chickfly both offer a version of the fly. I’m a fan of this innovation, evangelizing a bit because it’s long overdue. No matter which style you might chose, they are solving a challenge which needed solving a long time ago.
I’ve fallen in love with my REI Merino Midweight Base Layer Tights for their cozy warmth on a chilly day. Layered with a pair of pants, I’m good to take on anything from a snowshoe to hanging out at camp. Recently I also invested in a couple Icebreaker and Kari Traa Rose pieces and those are rapidly joining the list of favorite pieces. I’m slowly also adding to my mix a few merino wool pieces because they wick sweat, are antimicrobial and are great thermoregulators.
I’ve got both an REI and Mountain Hardware packable down jacket. The REI jacket is a favorite for its gigantic pockets and roomy fit. The Mountain Hardware Stretch Down is wonderful for its stretch coupled with cozy down. I’ve also got a pair of toasty warm Mountain Hardware Stretch Down pants which are my winter camping luxury.
I upgraded to a pair of REI Co-op Rainier Full-Zip Rain Pants in the last couple years. These beauties have full side zips that took a couple tries for me to figure out how best to use and two front pockets with zippers. They are available in both regular and petite sizes which is great because my regular length ones were really too long for my inseam. I’m very happy with the change. I’m hanging on to my old Columbia ones as backup.
My tops are a complete mix of brands that I’ve mostly found on sale or at thrift stores. The key thing I look for is where seams hit on my shoulders, back and waist. Especially if I’m backpacking. A unfortunately placed seam can rub your skin raw. No one wants that.
This is a key piece of gear, much like shoes. I will say the same thing here. Get fitted for one. Buy it wherever floats your boat, but get fitted for it. The pack that I used for my trip to Philmont and Isle Royale worked. But I had purchased it online and learned at some point that it’s a men’s Dueter 65+10 pack. Which is exactly why the fit was just a bit off. I got it for a song, but now having been properly fitted, I can tell you I was making my life much harder than it needed to be.
I am now the proud owner of a Granite Gear Blaze 60* pack. It fits me properly, is light as a feather, has a gigantic interior, has so many exterior pockets and straps and a lid that detaches. I love it. I also love that it’s made in my home state of Minnesota, on the North Shore of Lake Superior and in short distance to one of my favorite hiking trails (the Superior Hiking Trail).
In 2021 I added a Granite Gear Crown 38* pack. It’s since been discontinued. I really like it for short weekend and 2-5 day trips because it forces me to pack only what I need. The Blaze is one I now hang on to for longer trips or if I’m taking my tent and hammock system.
Another consideration is a pack for day hikes. I like something that is relatively small (less than 18L), lightweight, packs down, has a lid pocket, water reservoir space and a place for a water bottle on the exterior of the pack. I’ve looked at a lot of options and just recently bought my second Marmot Kompressor day pack. It’s smaller than the first but the exterior pocket was something I really wanted. I’m still clinging to my old Marmot pack for sentimental reasons.
SHELTERS AND SLEEP SYSTEMS
Getting a good night of sleep on trail or in a campsite is the best. I’ve got two solid set ups that I’m really happy with:
- My ENO Hammock is my favorite sleeping option for my adventures. It’s not the lightest system on the market, but it works for me. I’ve been gifted a Double Nest, Guardian Bug Net, rain fly and two lengths of straps to hang. I purchased the Ember Underquilt which will take me into early winter hangs. It’s fairly quick to set up which I love. And I’m getting pretty adept at using my car’s roof rack as a hang point in campgrounds where there might only be one usable tree. Of course that doesn’t work in the backcountry, but I’ve only had once where I had to go “to ground” in the backcountry.
In addition to the hammock, I’ve got an REI Flash camping pad and a Paria down quilt that pretty much take care of me for warmth. I don’t camp in super cold conditions much, but I’ve found that a heavy duty reflective blanket adds the warmth I need if the quilt isn’t enough.
- In 2021 I added a Nemo Dragonfly 2 Ultralight Backpacking tent which changed the size pack and gear I can include for multi-day trips. At just over 1 pound and a tiny pack size it’s a great 3-season option.
- My solo 4-season tent set up is a bit old, but it works. I’ve got an old Slumberjack 2 person tent that’s served me well for years. I could go lighter for backpacking but since I opt for my hammock whenever possible, this ends up being my back-up anyway. Inside I use the same pad and quilt.
- My buddy camping set up depends on who I’m buddying with. Most often it’s my man, we’re car camping and we have an old T2 tent that my brother used for his Scouting adventures 20+ years ago. Inside we’ve got a double pad and sleeping bag for optimal snuggling. (TMI? Maybe.)
So many options. I have been suckered into at least 4 different options over the years and ultimately landed on the MSR Dualist set that I was given back when I started getting myself ready for outdoor adventures. I can store my MSR Pocket Rocket, a small canister of fuel, matches/lighter and even camp soap inside the cookpot and it’s about the size of a large grapefruit. The set has gotten even more efficient in size and configuration but why mess with what works. Again, I could go lighter if I wanted to start honing down to being an ultralight hiker. But I’m not interested in hiking 20 miles a day.
For car camping I use the same set up for the most part. I was gifted a Lodge Dutch Oven, which I need to try when I’ve got some extra time in one place for a few days. I’m very excited to car camp with the man or my girlfriends and try it out. There have been many a Scout camp where the best meal came from the dark depths of a dutch oven.
Gear Retailers to Check Out
Midwest Mountaineering (Minnesota)
Repair Lair – great selection of loved wear and repaired items
It’s important to note here that I am not being paid to tell you these brands are my favorites. They are what works for me. That said, in full disclosure I am a Brand Ambassador for those noted with an asterisk(*).
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