Lighter and better equipped? Hiking gear then and now

We got some great feedback from Ian on the article Gear ideas for a wilderness hiking trip.

He questions the need / usefulness of modern gear compared with how he used to walk with mates in the 1980’s and 90s. In those days they made a lot of their own gear or improvised using what ever was at hand.

Below is a (slightly) edited version of his comment.

Optimus 99 doing its thing, Lake Elysia

Optimus 99 doing its thing, Lake Elysia

Image: Tasadam – Wilderness Photography of Tasmania

Mates & I did a lot of annual 5 day walks – Snowy Mountains, Bogong High Plains, Croajingolong coast, etc in the ’80’s & ’90’s, and managed to get down to 21kgs even then.

I still have the excellent Macpac Cascade Backpack & -12 deg Fairydown sleeping bag. We usually shared a home-made 4-man Itsa-pattern tent with tarp, then a Macpac Eclipse (which the married kids have snaffled).

My Pentax MX was held against the upper chest for instant access, under the jumper or parka, held by a bit of shaped car tube & army webbing, never wet, always warm & fog-free for photos, even when skiing. Swum the Lerderderg with the Pentax, and got it out fast enough to photograph my mates’ embarassing nudity as they arrived at the end of the swim with packs wrapped up in plastic!

Fuel was shellite for a very reliable Optimus 99 bought second-hand from a MBW colleague, with home-made aluminium windshield & toast rack. 300ml of shellite was easily adequate for these trips.

Technical gear was limited to:

  • a plain swiss army knife
  • an aluminium spoon,
  • a bomb-proof 2 x AA Techna torch with a home-sewn velcro strap for headlighting while cooking
  • a home-made AM earplug radio with earth pin and 32 gauge copper aerial we threw over a tree.

Oh, and we took 5m of 6lb fishing line, 2 hooks and a bubble, and had to hide behind trees to bait it for trout at Quambat Flat!

I wonder if our walks were, in fact, lighter & better equipped, with more home-made, fun-to-use gear than those on this website?

Over to you readers:
If you have been bushwalking for a while, do you think that gear has improved much since the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s?

Do you make your own gear or perform modifications to improve performance?

What is your favourite “old” piece of gear you still drag out and use on every trip?


  1. Steve Cockburn says

    Not too sure I agree but I certainly acknowledge that in the 70s and 80s when I first began serious walking my gear was pretty simple but it all was heavy and chunky and not all that water proof. I’ll give a good example that I recently experienced. Back when I first started in the 70s and 80s I was using army surplus gear and I still have most of it . It weighed a ton a I recall many a cold wet night . Back then I was extremely fit , strong and over confident , much like young adults today. I recall undertaking a classic walk in the Lamington NP (Qld) from O’Reillys Guest House along the Border Track to Rat a tat Hut. Not a hugely difficult or technical walk but reasonably challenging with some off track navigation required.To this day I clearly remember setting out equipped for 3 days and after 4 hours , I was really struggling under the weight of all my gear.I recall getting over heated and at one stage I nearly passed out going up one of the many inclines . Admittedly I was energetic and bullet proof and thought I could carry a heavy pack full of all my Army surplus gear including pump up kero stove , canvas belt with hunting knife one side and plastic water bottle with aluminum panican billy attached. Added to that the aluminum mess kit , an A framed tent with monster nylon fly , monster sleeping bag, tinned food galore, army greens , giggle hat, leather jungle boots straight out Vietnam surplus, small light weight axe( hatchet for the fire!!)… ( you get the picture) . I survived but 30 years later I still recall the pain and struggle I experienced of a really super fit young lad and back then I secretly promised myself never to do this walk again.
    I did this walk for the second time 2 weeks ago and I must admit , I was quite concerned about how I would handle this difficult walk that tested me to the max some 30 years later.
    I’m heaps smarter and I was packed with my usual through walk gear and guess what , I nailed it with energy to burn . I cruised in at the ripe old age of 50!!. I am no way near as fit and it was still tough but because my gear was manageable and reasonably light weight. Consequently I was able to make it quicker with little distress and I sat at camp at night recalling how spent I felt some 30 years later. I think the gear factor was the difference .I think its amazing how light some of the gear is and I would not swap it though I have been tempted to don on the webbing belt and water bottle and panican kit -though I think I need a bigger belt. I have also been tempted to pull out the heximine stove but that smell of the hexi cubes puts me off. I do however sometimes take out the monster nylon fly but it is on last legs.
    Still love it all and would not change a thing. Be safe. Steve.

    • Frank says

      Good on you Steve,
      Great reply, just the sort of thing I was hoping for from someone.

      We (being of the same era) have had a few similar experiences I reckon. I grew up using Army Surplus stuff. For some weird reason I loved the smell of the disposal stores and the stuff I could buy there. Yep, it used to get wet (and never dry) was cold and heavy.

      We used to carry cans of tucker AND a light weight axe AND cut trees down for fun! NOT something that would be encouraged in the Scouts now.

      Great to hear how you are still fit and able to “conquer” old demons and mountains!

  2. says

    I think that the gear has changed a ton but I’m not sure that it’s utility has improved in all cases. I like to buy the new toys, I’m attracted to shiny objects! But I am finding more often that the functionality isn’t worth it in some cases. My challenge in answering this question is that my adventures have changed and so have my surroundings. I grew up in central Pennsylvania fishing my way up and down the local streams. The landscape was covered with trees, leafy and pine. We just carried our fishing gear and a sleeping bag. Now I tramp around the desert areas around Las Vegas and the wilderness areas of Mt Charleston. My needs include trekking poles, better shoes, but no fishing equipment.

    I find that I am modifying a lot of my gear lately. We spent time in camp this weekend talking about sewing pouches onto a pack. It never stops.

    The only constant seems to be the sleeping bap and a small pocket knife. That said, I think I could be just as comfortable with the gear I used when I was growing up…with a few of the modern conveniences!

    • Frank says

      Tim, great to hear from you. You are only a young bloke so shiny stuff will definitely appeal to you!

      I have a feeling I might like central Pennsylvania compared to Las Vegas, the idea of fishing rather than desert sort of appeals.

  3. says

    One thing’s for sure: lightweight merino makes for warm, non-stinky layers. This stuff is amazing compared to the clothing of old. I remember Scout Camp wearing the same stuff a few days at a time and how bad it got. Now I can wear a merino shirt for 3-4 days and wash it just because I start to feel guilty, not because it actually stinks. Then it dries in a day even in cool conditions. Great stuff!

    • Frank says

      Hi Dave,
      Great to hear from you again. We love our merino layers, much better than poly that starts to pong after a couple of hours.
      Just checked out your site again, looks great!

  4. says

    It is amazing how geography affects the idea of equipment. Walking in Sydney in the 60’s and 70’s it was 7kg total weight for a weekend using a frameless packs, Dunlop volleys and a tent fly but as you headed south it transformed into boots, tents and heavy gear. I did walk Cradle, Precipitous Bluff and the Eastern and Western Arthurs in 1969? in Dunlop volleys but relented to using a tent. Over the years my pack weight grew but more recently have put some effort into getting it back down. Now I have my pack back down to 5kg before food and water – yes, the gear doesn’t last as well, but the freedom of light pack makes it well worth while.

    I just started a walking and gear blog 3 days ago. Not much there yet but it will build. See

    • Frank says

      Hi Mark,
      Thanks for dropping by the blog. Volleys are / were a popular walking shoe. We have an interview with Dave Noble coming up soon. He has worn volleys for years. Good luck with your blog.

  5. Paisano says

    First backpacking trip (1965) we cooked on fires and even turned the pot sideways for baking (reflector oven??). 1969 we found our first butane stove, thought it was the cats meow (butane, worthless at 8,000 ft on a cold morning). Have gone thru many stoves since (coleman backpacker, whisper lite, beer can etc). Now I’m back to building fires. I’m going to the North Cascades next month and plan on baking pizza using the camp fire. Interesting how the older I get (56 now) the more I’m reverting backwards.

    • Frank says

      Good luck with the North Cascades next month. Using fires over here in Australia is a big issue as many areas are “fuel stove” only. We are happy to comply as either the campsites are in pretty delicate environmental areas OR very prone to bushfires (you guys call em Wildfires) Would love to hear how your trip goes and see some pics of you eating pizza!

  6. says

    No I don’t think there have been any improvements since the 1770s, in fact I prefere the earlier equipment, about 1700-1750.
    Favourite equipment? Well it is all pretty much a favourite with me. I would not go anywhere without my tomahawk and tinderbox. One thing I carry but don’t really need is my brass trade kettle.

    • Frank says

      Welcome Le Loup, Thanks for the insightful comment here. I had a good look around your site. Fascinating stuff!

      • says

        Thanks for the welcome Frank. My reply was a little tongue in cheek, but I really do prefere to use 18th century equipment.
        Regards, Le Loup.

  7. says

    Trekking gear has improved drastically over the past few years. The gears that were available before weren’t as durable but I like how durable and comfortable the new gears have become.

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