Trekking gear has always been a tricky subject. When you meet someone out on the trail, you're most likely to be subconsciously scanning their kit before you even say "hello". We admit that it can be a source of a bit of snobbishness and make even a backcountry trail feel a bit like a runway of sorts.
There are the “best brand-name only” trekkers, who have the top-of-the-line shiny gear that matches the latest magazine ads and fiber research stats, and there are the hikers that push on in their Crocks and jackets that have long since lost any weather-proofing they had to the winds of time.
Most of us are somewhere in between. Hey - good quality gear is expensive, and when we buy new items it takes a lot of thought and research! Ever wonder how it got to be this way? The history of high-end mountaineering gear is as fascinating as it is confusing.
It's been almost 20 years since artifacts from the failed Mallory Everest expedition came to the National Mountaineering Exhibition of 2001. There was extensive research done on the clothes that Mallory and his expedition wore nearly a hundred years ago, and what it revealed was surprising proof of our prejudice and our often erroneous tendency to think that people in the "olden days" were extremely backward when it comes to gear.
We tend to scoff at the expeditions that took tins of quail and foie gras to the roof of the world, and we look at explorers like Lewis and Clark almost as we would look at cave people - trekking across an expanse of wilderness in little more than wood dugouts and animal skins.
After studying what was left of the gear from their expedition, we now know that the clothing that Mallory wore were lighter and more comfortable than most Everest trekkers today - in fact, his boot remains the lightest on record. Replicas of the expedition's kits were tested on Everest in 2006 and were deemed summit-worthy.
As it often happens when we explore Incan ruins, ancient pyramids, astrology charts, or stone circles - we find out that the people that came before us knew a lot more than we give them credit for. While definitely not as comfortable as the gear available today - the gear of yesterday "made do" and got people where they were going.
Let's look at some of the most popular trekking gear and examine the heritage and history these ancient hikers left us - and compare it with the state-of-the-art equipment we fawn over today.
1924 Everest expedition - Standing (l-r): Guy Bullock. Henry Morshead. Oliver Wheeler. George Mallory. Sitting (l-r): A.M. Heron. Sandy Wollaston. Charles Howard-Bury. Harold Raeburn
Trekking, Hiking Boots and Crampons
Let's start with boots - this is by far the most important piece of hiking gear that any trekker can purchase, and it pays off to do a lot of research before deciding on the perfect pair. The perfect boots will help you withstand all weather conditions, be waterproof, lightweight, and protect your toes from impact and freezing temperatures.
Most of all, they have to be comfortable.
Today, state of the art mountaineering boots are made by companies like Scarpa or La Sportiva who use the following materials:
- Leather - yes, leather is still used in state-of-the-art boots, and it's most often used in one piece - this means that there are no seams that can be prone to leakage. The more "single piece" the better. Leather makes for very lightweight construction.
- Single/Double synthetic - heavier but more waterproof materials. In fact, modern boots would not be possible without synthetic materials. Double booths have additional removable insulation.
- Kevlar, carbon fiber, steel - as opposed to regular hiking boots, mountaineering, and some trekking boots need the extra stiffness and support.
Boots for hiking aren't as technologically complicated as mountaineering boots, but they require tough construction. They're usually still made with leather, rubber, Gore-Tex, and other natural and synthetic materials. A good pair is usually hand-made with care - take a look:
Gore-Tex and other synthetic materials weren't available in the 1700s when the photo below was taken. Okay, neither were photographs. But people used special nails in their boots - they could make a climb safer but were often sources of leaks. These were called hobnail boots.
Detail Descent From Mount Blanc in 1787 Christian von Mechel via Wikimedia Commons
As you can see, there were rudimentary nails used throughout history. The first crampon wasn't invented until 1910 by an Italian climber, Henry Grivel. Today, crampons can range in design - but mostly stick to these three kinds:
They are mostly made of steel, and sometimes aluminum. They can range from 8 to 14 or more points - or "spikes". The more technically advanced 14+ point crampons are used for difficult and advanced feats like waterfall ice climbing.
The 8-10 point crampons that also come in aluminum are used for snow walking rather than any type of mountaineering.
If you wanted to get a grip before 1919, you would have a choice of boots that looked a little something like these:
H. Harden - Jones, Owen Glynne Rock-climbing in the English Lake District, 1911
Of course, if you look way back to the mountains of 5,000 years ago, you might see something completely different. Petr Hlaváček is the leading expert on prehistoric shoes - he has recreated the footwear of the Terracotta Army, Byzantine sandals, and what's most interesting to us - he replicated the shoes of Ötzi the Iceman.
He tested them in the mountains along with a professional hiking shoe designer - and they passed the test. Believe it or not, the Czech climber Vaclav Patek claimed that the shoes used to trek up mountains over 5,000 years ago were the most comfortable shoes that he has worn.
Replica of 5,000-year-old IceMan shoes found in the Alps, Wikimedia Commons
Tents are a special piece of backpacking gear - they are always a pain to carry, but it's a burden that always pays off. There are tents that are nothing more than emergency shelters, and there are the yurts used by nomads. Their design has always depended on the type of travel that their owners did. If you have a horse, a yak or a llama, your shelter can be more lavish.
But if you're forced to carry everything on your own back, then your living arrangements won't be as palatial as this Iron Age portable glamping unit. As you can see, throughout history, the main go-to material was leather - not only for boots but for things like shelter and water-proof clothing.
Reconstruction of an Iron Age Tent. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Camping as we know it wasn't developed until the 1800s in England. The first commercial campground was opened on the Isle of Man in 1894, while camping was already a popular pastime in the Adirondacks in the USA. Camping for fun aside, most tent designs that can be thought of as precursors of trekking tents can be found in the military.
Why? It's because, for thousands of years, the militaries of vast empires would need to move their armies at a quick pace whilst also providing them with rudimentary shelter from the elements, much like trekkers of today. Military tents were made of leather or waxed canvas - a heavy but waterproof material.
Ancient Roman Tent, from imperium-romana.org
The waxed or oiled canvas was heavy but proved to be effective with keeping out water. It can be made out of completely natural ingredients. When you look at organic lunch-packing products, you can actually find waxed fabric as a zip-lock bag replacement, all for a pretty penny. Imagine how much an entire tent would cost back in the day!
Here is a tutorial on how to make your own beeswax fabric wraps, if you're looking for a good lunch solution for a day hike or at the office! It's the same basic "technology" as thousands of years ago.
Trekking with canvas tents is cumbersome - it's' not a piece of gear that we're particularly nostalgic about. Canvas tents did not have a floor, would soak through when exposed to too much rain, were heavy to lug around, and took forever to set up. Not to mention that their design was perfect for catching gusts of wind which made the tent become an effective sail or parachute.
Rain Shell, Wind Shell
When it comes to waterproof and windproof clothing, the long time go-to was - you guessed it - leather. But trekking clothes weren't always all leather all the time. Check out this amazing video from Hands on History AS - they show you how a typical day-hiker got dressed in the Viking Era.
The Vikings were known for survival skills, and they did a lot of trekking in addition to all that pillaging. When not sailing and terrorizing coastal lands, they were farmers and their homes were surrounded by some of the most pristine and remote wilderness. Getting through it meant having to travel light - using your clothes to your advantage in difficult conditions.
As you can see in the video, the ancient trekker took special care of his legs - it took many layers of natural fibers to protect them. His cloak or cape could also serve as a rudimentary shelter while on the road. Leather was heavy, and not everyone could take it on the road with them. This made traveling in extreme weather conditions almost impossible back in the day. Staying completely dry while out trekking is a modern luxury.
Today, trekking gear keeps you dry and keeps the wind away - if you don't want to end your trip early because of an unwelcome cold, it's best not to skimp when choosing the right kind of rain and wind shell for your trek.
Modern textiles and mountaineering companies that use them can opt for recycled materials, such as recycled polyester, and they can choose to act responsibly when manufacturing their clothing. Look for top-of-the-line brands that are bluesign® certified - it keeps the manufacturing process transparent and responsible, making sure that it's responsible and sustainable "with regard to people, the environment, and resources".
We might not want to use hand-spun materials like our Viking friends, but we can make sure that our trekking gear is produced responsibly and sustainably, and we can keep warm and dry with a clear conscience.
No essential hiking or trekking gear list would be complete without mentioning the backpack - a piece of equipment that you'd be dead in the water (or on the mountain!) without. Where else are you going to put your tent, toilet paper, insect repellent, clothes, extra batteries, first aid kit, sun protection, water bottle, food, and other most essential gear?
You may have heard of the famous Merriam Knapsack patented in 1877 - a military backpack with an external metal frame. Did you know that external frames have a much more ancient history than that? Take a look at what the Ancient Romans used:
This is a Loculus or a satchel. Historians have observed depictions of it carved out on Trajan's Column, where it is pictured as a piece of essential gear. Many recreations have been made, and it is thought to measure about 18" x 12". Not too huge for a backpack, but it was most likely only used for small personal objects and rations. The Roman Army transported everything else for the soldiers, who were tasked with moving from place to place as quickly as they possibly could - no time for extensive packing.
The frame is here - or the "furca" as they called it. It's a pole that was used as support for tying down a waterskin, the Loculus, cups and pans, and other small items that could hang off the frame, or pole. If you think about it, the Merriam Knapsack looks like state-of-the-art equipment compared to the Roman contraption.
As you can see, the frame offset a lot of the weight, and there was a head strap included! To our modern eyes, this might look more like a torture device for naughty trekkers and backpack design went much further in the following decades.
We'd love to talk about what's considered the ultimate backpack of the golden age of camping, trekking, and hiking - the Lloyd Nelson Pack . This is a classic amongst wilderness outfitters, and most trekkers who are at all interested in history will know exactly what we're talking about.
It remains a popular DIY project amongst survival fans and history buffs. If you're interested, here is a video of how to make your own, from David Canterbury - an expert on survival skills as well as historical lore.
This design was originally made by Lloyd Nelson in the 1920s, and was originally called "Trapper Nelson's Indian Pack Board" - Nelson did, in fact, use some original Inuit rucksack design, and combined it with his own improvements. He designed an easy and light wooden frame that was attached to the hiker with canvas straps. It might seem simple to us now, but there was nothing like this on the market, immediately making the Lloyd Nelson Pack one of the most revolutionary inventions in the world of trekking.
Today, some of us remember metal tube frame backpacks - they were loosely based on Nelson's design. Modern mountaineering and trekking backpacks have different anatomy altogether - you won't be able to see any complicated frames - even though backpacks today do have them.
Most backpacks include:
- Reliable rain cover
- Hip belts (help to redistribute the weight and keep it off your back and shoulders!)
- Many adjustment options
- Breathable and ventilated
- Compartments for hydration
- Padded back
- Internal frame
If there was one piece of backpacking gear that we would stick with and pick the modern version over anything else - the contemporary backpack would definitely be it. They are a pleasure to carry, they will shorten your trip (at least in your mind), keep you dry, organized, and able to carry all your essentials and some non-essentials too.
For More Trekking History...
A historical trekking project well worth mentioning is Hobnails and Hemp Rope - a fascinating documentary made by amateur climbers from the Canadian Explorations Heritage Society. Here, you can observe these intrepid historians reenact a trek made in 1916 - the ascent of Bugaboo Spire in British Columbia's Purcell Mountain Range.
You can see how they do this trek using entirely period-correct gear and clothing. Hats off to them! Not only are they brave explorers in their own right, but they bring a sense of awe and understanding of the trekkers and adventurers that came before us, and the difficulties they faced.