Whatever gear you choose should be suited to how you plan to spend your time outdoors. Gear guru Glen Van Peski talks of the Camping-Hiking Spectrum.
So ask yourself: What does a day on trail look like to you?
If you plan to hike a few miles, sit by a lake, fish, play guitar, hang out, and cook over a campfire, then you are on the camping side of the spectrum (aka Camping-Backpacking Extreme). You’re going to want gear that will make you comfortable where you are spending most of your time: in camp. This includes a nice camp chair, big puffy jackets to keep you warm while you aren’t moving, good cookware, a fishing pole, a guitar, and maybe even a plastic portable sink to make camp dishes easier to clean. Sure, it may be a bit unwieldy to carry all that stuff, but you’re only walking a few hours a day, right?
The Camping-Backpacking extreme end of the spectrum will still have you carrying lighter gear than if you packed up all your car camping stuff. But, it’s goal should be to still provide you with many of the luxuries that you would expect from car camping (a lightweight French Press comes to mind). If you’re Camping-Backpacking, you’re still going to have to do without some things (e.g., the Coleman propane two-burner stove and the easy access to your cooler of beer). Camping-Backpacking is what most people think about when they think “backpacking,” which is one reason why people think of backpacking as, well, back breaking work. But it is a system that is suited to an end goal: hanging out a little ways away from civilization, hopefully, in a pretty place.
The other end of the extreme is the Hike-All-Day-Extreme category. If you plan to get up, hike all day with few breaks, throw your sleeping bag down, drink some Soylent insta-food, and pass out, then you are on the other far end of the hiking spectrum. You’re going to want gear that will make you comfortable where you are spending most of your time: walking on trail. This is gear that will make walking all day easier—a light pack, comfy shoes, hiking poles, maybe an umbrella to block out the sun and rain. Sure, you may be cold hanging around in camp, but you’re probably in your sleeping bag almost immediately after you stop walking, right?
Most thru-hikers fall close to the end of the hiking spectrum. Most Pacific Crest Trail hikers and especially Continental Divide Trail hikers find that they need to be walking most of the day, most of the days that they are outdoors, in order to obtain their goal before the weather window closes (aka, it starts snowing and they can’t really keep traveling in the mountains safely).
But there are other thru-hikes–especially shorter thru-hikes–that don’t require backpackers to be on the extreme end of the spectrum (the hike-all-day-hiker). The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage is probably the most obvious, but the Tahoe Rim Trail, or even the John Muir Trail are frequently backpacked more on the camping spectrum.
You most definitely don’t have to be a thru-hiker to be on the hike-all-day end of the spectrum, either. Glen Van Peski takes his ultralight system out backpacking for long weekend trips where the goal is exploration and seeing as many things as possible.
To tailor gear for your trip, find out where you fit on the camping-hiking spectrum, and choose your gear accordingly. Where you fit will depend on your goals, the terrain of the trip, weather/climate, the size of the party, and your experience level.
Backpacking stops being fun and people start complaining about their gear when they don’t have the right gear for their type of trip. By finding where you fit on the spectrum (and of course, but knowing how to use your gear and using it correctly in the right situations) you can maximize happiness on whatever trip you take.