Customer Service and Thru-Hiker Relationships: Why is it Important?
PCT Class of 2022
On long trails, the gear you take with you is all you have, it’s everything; your backpack and its contents are your home. Given that, you want to make sure you take the right gear loadout with you and buy from the brands that care for and really go out on a limb to help thru-hikers in a pinch. In our 181 days on the Pacific Crest Trail, we put our gear through the ringer. There were times we loved what we had, hated it, and honestly were just too tired to care. But I want to talk to you about the good and the bad customer service we experienced. While the reviews are isolated experiences we had, they may help you in making your own gear choices in the future. In my opinion, customer service is a part of the package; it’s helpful to know who you’re buying from before making a hefty gear purchase. My wife, Marie (aka Basecamp), and I shared many of the same things, but there were a few exceptions. She had more issues with gear, so including the two of us gives the best representation of our experience.
When I use the word “gear”, I’m referring to absolutely everything you have and wear while on trail: clothing, backpacks, tents, stuff sacks, electronics, trekking poles, and even your spork. If you’ve never been on a long through hike, allow me to explain something about gear. On trail you will destroy, break, blow-out, rip, tear, poke, and wear holes in things. This can be from misuse, normal wear-and-tear, or acts of nature that you can’t control. Sometimes, shit just happens to your gear and you have absolutely no idea how it did. It’s cold, windy, rainy, hot, you’re stressed, or sometimes you’re just buzzed, and all these factors influence the way you care for your gear, and the rate/way that you pack or unpack your things. The scenario where you pack up or pitch a tent like you do in your fenced-in, sheltered back yard on a warm spring afternoon are few and far between. For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into extreme detail on the how’s or why’s for the gear problems we had, but just know that all the things can and will happen when you’re out there. If you’re planning your first thru-hike (or going out for another one), we want to share our experiences with you and give you an inside scoop on some of the customer service experiences we had. That is to say, here are issues we had with gear that spontaneously happened or that we caused, our outreach to those brands/manufacturers, and what they did (or didn’t do) to help out. These are things we wish we’d known going into the PCT.
Why is Customer Service Important? ///
Gear isn’t cheap, and you want to know brands have your back when you need it out in the backcountry. In most situations, you will take your savings with you on trail and not have an active income while hiking, this means a budget to some level is necessary. Working with a fixed budget means you now to be frugal where you can. Since gear can cost a pretty penny, you may not be able to afford the luxury of buying new gear to replace worn out or faulty gear. Given that, it helps to know you have a brand who’s willing to hear out your unique circumstance and be willing to help you on trail if it falls within their warranty or customer service parameters. Read all the reviews you can from your favorite brands; see what other hikers have to say. Before starting a big thru-hike, research your gear, take it on a shakedown hike, and even reach out to the brands you’re choosing to buy from. Many of their websites have chat functions if you prefer not to talk on the phone, and many even have representatives who will respond to you on social media platforms, especially on Instagram (which we discovered to be the easiest way to contact them).
And Lastly, Resource Availability ///
One of the last things to note before going into our reviews is resource availability. When I use the word “resource” in reference to a thru-hike, I’m referring to the entirety of all goods and services you’ll need on trail and the means to get those goods and services: rides/hitchhiking, gas stations, groceries, lodging, medical care, cell service, Wi-Fi, etc.
You will lack cell service more often than not after the SoCal desert, so communication with friends, family, and gear companies will be limited. If you have a satellite communication device (which you absolutely should), you can communicate with friends and family off trail and have them do research, book hotels, or communicate with companies on your behalf. We did this and it worked well enough in a tight situation, but we did have to give several people access to our email and social media accounts. Keep in mind that if you use a Garmin satellite device, you will have to pay for a premium subscription to have unlimited messaging with those off trail, or pay for the messages you send after using up your 20 or so a month limit with the basic plan.
There will be plenty of places for food resupply along the way, but the selection may be limited or costly, especially if you have specific dietary needs.
Hiker-specific gear shops along trail will be few and far between. General sporting goods stores are there for sure, but you will find yourself scanning through FarOut looking for the next niche hiker-specific shop with Altra trail runners, Hyperlite or lightweight pack, Sawyer filters, etc. You won’t settle for just any gear. Weight becomes everything, and you’ll be looking for the best, lightest version of everything you use. You’ll want to know you can depend on the brands you take with you into the wild.
Gear Reviews ///
Gear Review Index:
- Sleep System
- Cook System
- Final Thoughts
*The gear reviews below are our isolated experiences. Your experiences may be quite different than ours, however we wanted to share our perspectives on poor customer service, and to brag on the brands who went above and beyond for us. I should mention that we were not sponsored by any brands before, during, or after our hike, so all the reviews below are my (our) honest opinion. The intent of our reviews is NOT to deter you from buying the gear you love, but just to give you a heads-up on the caliber of customer service we received while out in the backcountry.
1 Backpack // Debatably the most important piece of gear you will buy
Likes: We saved up for these beautiful packs, in black. They were in such high demand at the time, that it did take several weeks to receive them both, but who doesn’t want a quality, lightweight backpack? We used them on several shakedown hikes in Colorado and loved everything about them. Overall fit, the outside pockets, and the roll-top are great. The only adjustment we could even think of is that a load-lifter buckle might be helpful on the shoulder straps, but it’s a minimalist pack at its core, so we fiddled with stacking and weight distribution to compensate.
Issue: There were two issues total. In the first few weeks on trail, I had so much gear with me that I often came within 10-15 pounds of the 60 lb. weight limit, and even closer to the 70L volume capacity. Given this, I’d crank down the buckles as tightly as I could to get the pack as small as possible. As a result, two buckles broke in rather important locations due to my rough handling. Secondly, after we completed the PCT both of our packs had tears at the hip belt-main body joint from so much weight, and use.
Manufacturer’s Response: Hyperlite truly seemed to care about the thru-hiker struggle. We developed a contact with them through their Instagram page who quickly sent me a loaner pack on trail while they repaired the pack buckles and asked for no compensation when I returned the loaner pack to them, damaged. Upon completing the trail and asking if our hip belt tears could be replaced, they assessed the damage and issued us replacement packs free of charge.
Our Take: Great! Hyperlite Mountain Gear is one of a few brands that truly supported us on our thru-hike and expedite-shipped packages to us when they could. In addition, the communication with them was always rapid, informative, and resulted in a positive outcome. In the long run, they have effectively lost money on us with repairs and replacements, but we hope that our continued use of their products and positive reviews will bring others to know the Hyperlite brand. I’m not suggesting everyone will receive free gear for any issue they have, but Hyperlite has established a great reputation in doing right by thru-hikers, and we strongly endorse the use of their gear.
2 Shoes // Debatably the other most important piece of gear you will buy
Gear: Altra Lone Peak 6:
Likes: Most hikers on trail wear them. My wife and I have been devoted to the Altra brand since 2018 and love the zero-drop sole. We both need a wide toe box and the Lone Peak line has the perfect fit for our feet. Oddly, she has a large arch, and I have pancake-flat feet, but they still work for us both. The colors and designs are a bonus.
Issue: We burned through several pairs of Altra Lone Peak 5 and 6 models on trail as to be expected after 450-500 miles of use. We wish we/hikers could get more mileage out of them, but it is what it is. In WA, however, I blew the sides out of a brand-new pair after only 200 miles of use. The WA terrain can be rocky and unforgiving, but the first 100 miles of use were only on dirt, grass, and some minimal loose rock. They should not have blown out that quickly.
Manufacturer’s Response: I reached out to Altra after about 220 miles of use when we first had cell service. I had to submit a lengthy claims form which I wasn’t able to finish until several days later after hiking to another town. By the middle of WA, I’d been using a prematurely blown out pair of shoes, awaiting an Altra representative to respond to me. This meant taking my shoes off every other mile to dump sand and pebbles out. I finally received a response at the end of WA (which is over 500 miles) informing me that the shoes had been worn to that state by normal wear-and-tear, but they would allow me a one-time kindness and issue credit to purchase a replacement pair.
Our Take: Bad. Both shoes blowing out at 200 miles is uncommon for Lone Peaks. I appreciated the credit for a replacement pair but was disappointed in their “benevolent” response making me and my use of the product the issue, and their lengthy interim between responses. When I responded to their final email and inquired what exactly constituted for “wear-and-tear” I never received a response. I’ll continue to use Altra shoes because I love the comfort and fit, but I won’t expect anything from their customer service or warranty department.
3 Tent //
Gear: Nemo Dagger 3P (version before the OSMO):
Likes: We started the PCT with our second Nemo Dagger, love the weight: square foot ratio, the ease of setup, and the look.
Issue: The tent worked flawlessly on the PCT through CA, acceptably in OR, ant the zippers finally gave out in the middle of WA at White Pass. One zipper completely failed so the door was taped up. The second zipper and door only sealed halfway. Also, 1 of the 4 Jake’s feet became loose and flew off somewhere in the wilderness. This is the component that connects the tent and the fly together for pitching. To pitch the tent, we used rigged paracord to connect the pieces. Welcome to the wonderful, beautiful shitshow that is thru-hiking!
Manufacturer’s Response: At the end of the Sierras we met another couple who used a Nemo Dagger loaner tent. Their zippers had also failed. We didn’t even know using a loaner was an option until they stated that Nemo proposed it. Well, it made perfect sense, and would save on a new tent. We loved our Dagger. So, when our zippers began to lose their seal in OR, we reached out to Nemo customer service via Instagram and then email. In our first correspondences we requested a loaner tent to use while we sent ours in for repair. Instead of helping us with a loaner, Nemo issued us care information and sent us a zipper repair/care kit with lubrication and thread for hasty repairs. They stated that the zipper likely wouldn’t seal because of dirt/dust accumulation (how do you keep things clean when on a trail for months? You can’t). It took weeks to finally get the care kit and replacement Jake’s foot in Sisters, OR as responses from Nemo customer service took several days to weeks. We attempted to clean and oil the zipper to no avail. We purchased a replacement Big Agnes tent for the Nemo Dagger since it was mosquito season, and we could not afford to continue with open doors. Ultimately a Nemo customer service manager was involved and they shipped us a new, replacement tent with Airpin tent stakes. We were exceedingly grateful for this and love the new tent, but I feel like a lot of extra effort could have been avoided by both parties had we just gotten our old Dagger repaired.
Our Take: Good and Bad. Nemo customer service was poor at first, which truly shocked us given their reputation for excellence, but they came through in the long run. They assisted in possible repairs and cleaning as best they could online, but response and mailing times simply took too long, on top of having to issue them mailing locations further up trail. We truly appreciated the replacement tent and stakes from Nemo for the hassle and will continue to purchase Nemo tents in the future for their quality and customer service. I do think there should be some level of response priority for thru-hikers given the urgency of their gear needs, the volume of Nemo products they use on trail, and lack of available cell service for communication. All hikers are important, but most thru-hikers do not have the luxury of time, a vehicle, store availability, and easy shipping access.
4 Sleep System //
Sleeping Bag /
Likes: We both started with these heavy-duty Mountain Hardware bags and transitioned to lighter bags after the High Sierras. They were overkill for sure, but oh so inviting on those surprisingly cold desert nights or during snowstorms in the Sierras. We started our hike through the Sierras on May 1st and experienced warm, frigid, and blistering cold days. The weather was sporadic in the backcountry. Our bags were fantastic, developed zero condensation during our hike, and were a cozy cocoon to crawl into at the end of each day.
Issue: The only issue we had was on Basecamp’s bag. We received the bags two weeks before starting the PCT. We took them out on a shakedown hike one week before. We didn’t notice it until she actively used her bag overnight, but there was a hole inside her toe-box where several stitches were missing or faulty from the manufacturer. We first noticed this when more feathers floated around our tent than normally do. Not a big deal if you have time to sort it out, but you’d expect a $1000+ bag to be immaculate. Things happen. We did not attempt to stitch it ourselves.
Manufacturer’s Response: When contacted, Mountain Hardware offered to repair the bag, but it would have taken weeks. They would not send a replacement. Without the luxury of time before our PCT start, we opted to gear-patch it and send it off after the High Sierras. We didn’t exactly need to carry a -40F bag through the desert 700 miles to the Sierras, but we wanted to be accustomed to its weight (about 4 lbs) by the time we were hiking in snow. We did the same with our ice axes.
Our Take: Good and Bad. Ideally, we would have preferred to ship the faulty bag back to them and have them expedite a new bag to us within the week before starting, but that may be expecting a lot. Since finishing the trail, they have kept their word and repaired the stitching flaw, but we wish it could have been resolved sooner. Regardless, we love the bags and Mountain Hardware products and will continue to use their gear.
Sleeping Pad /
Likes: This was Basecamp’s pad. She chose it because of its low weight, decent R-value, and found it to be quite comfortable.
Issue: The wingtip valve began to leak air when we were in the Sierra Nevadas. We believed that to be covered under warranty.
Manufacturer’s Response: After several attempts to contact Thermarest (it’s difficult to email or call in the middle of the Sierra wilderness due to service availability) they responded to our warranty claim at least a week or so later requesting the pad be sent into them for inspection before a replacement could be mailed. That would have taken at least two weeks overall, and was time we couldn’t afford off trail, or for Basecamp to go without a pad.
Our Take: Bad. We love Thermarest sleeping pads, but the level of cooperation we received in the middle of our thru-hike was frustrating. Given this, we purchased a replacement pad for Basecamp to use from a different brand. We will continue to use Thermarest products but have low expectations from their customer support until shown otherwise. Other hikers have reported helpful and smooth interactions with their customer support team.
Likes: The Tensor was Basecamp’s replacement pad for the Thermarest. It worked well, was relatively quiet for being so lightweight, and allowed for a comfortable night’s rest.
Issue: Somehow, she developed a clean 2” gash in the side of the pad near the valve that looked like it had been sliced with a sharp object that she never carried. Weird.
Manufacturer’s Response: After emailing Nemo about this, they sent a replacement pad, free of charge, and only asked for pictures of the damage and a shipping address in return. The entire process took around a week. They stated we could ship the torn mat to them for inspection if we wanted to, but it was not required. While a week is a long time to go without a sleeping pad, we luckily had a closed-cell foam mat with us as a stand-in and appreciated the replacement from Nemo.
Our Take: Good. Despite the slow responses and long shipping time we received while trying to have our Nemo Dagger tent repaired/replaced, Nemo customer service was extremely helpful and efficient during this process. We appreciated the professional and swift manner in which her pad was replaced, with very little hassle at all. We’d certainly purchase another mat through Nemo.
5 Clothing //
Gear: Darn Tough Vermont:
Likes: I cannot say enough good things about Darn Tough socks. I only used lightweight and midweight socks on trail in combination with Altra Lone Peaks. They are comfortable, durable, and the colors/designs make each pair unique and “fun” (as fun as socks can be). In normal, non-thu-hiking life, I’ve worn the same pair of Darn Tough socks for years without issue.
Issue: The problem I ran into is that the days and miles a thru-hiker clock in eventually wear out even the highest quality socks. I wore holes in five different pair of Darn Tough socks either in the back of the heel, or the pads of the foot. They were mainly the lightweight hiker style, but I did blow out a pair of midweight socks. That many pair of socks over 2653 miles is not a bad deal.
Manufacturer’s Response: Darn Tough has an excellent policy. If you wear out a pair and they observe it to be from wear or a manufacturing issue, they issue credit to replace that pair. The normal process is to start a warranty claim online, send the pair in for evaluation, and then receive the store credit online. When I reached out to Darn Tough through Instagram to check on the status of my first worn-out pair, the representative informed me that they have a “soft spot” for through hikers and would send me a replacement pair free of charge or shipping. All they needed was a photo of the hole and the sock. The only thing to mention is that they only allowed me three of those “easy” transactions over Instagram before cutting me off and having me go through the normal warranty process. Lastly, I spoke with them about the best sock for thru-hiking and I found that the midweight sock had a far superior lifespan on a long trail compared to the lightweight.
Our Take: Great! I’ve been a devoted fan of Darn Tough quality and will continue to purchase their socks for use until the end of time, or the end of my hiking days, whichever comes first. Thank you for such wonderful customer service and products. Keep the new styles coming!
Gear: La Sportiva Auster Shorts:
Likes: I purchased these in Mammoth, CA to replace a pair of Brooks. Both the length and the fit were wonderful, the accessory pockets were convenient, and the “sticky” strip along the waistband truly helped keep the shorts in place. They have a brief liner, but were surprisingly comfortable and never caused chafe. In the future I’d be mindful to never get a pair of shorts for backpacking with a zippered pocket on the back middle of the shorts because it did rub some on the backpack- that was my shortcoming for failing to think that through before purchase.
Issue: The very next day wearing the shorts out of Mammoth, they separated from the waistband in two different places, and worsened over time as I wore them. My wife whip-stitched them together because I simply needed clothes to wear; a better option than hiking naked everyday.
Manufacturer’s Response: I had a friend send a warranty claim to La Sportiva on my behalf, and the company sent a replacement pair within a week. I also reached out to them on Instagram, but found them to be unresponsive on that platform. Their website and email was the best way to communicate.
Our Take: Good. The customer service response was professional and the warranty process was smooth. Their email responses came quickly and I was reassured the shorts would be replaced. Since then, the replacement pair of shorts has held up well with no tears in the stitching. I will continue to purchase from La Sportiva and appreciate the level of customer service they provided. While it’s not necessary at all, I would have appreciated correspondence with them through Instagram.
Likes: They’re two inches of liberating, breezy greatness. I could have been more adventures than just “black” with their large selection of cool designs, but black goes with everything. They took a while to get used to being that short, but once the suntan kicked in, I was grateful to have them on the never-ending climbs in WA. On extremely hot days, I did pair them with a healthy dose of body glide to prevent chafe, and never had an issue despite the length.
Issue: I originally reached out to ChiknLegs on Instagram to ask them about fit since I had a small waist and large thighs. In addition, I explained we were on trail. We decided to go with the medium size that turned out to be too small and rode up my legs with any intense movement or perspiration, causing chafe. There were no issues with the quality or durability of the shorts I ordered.
Manufacturer’s Response: When I reached back out to ChicknLegs on Instagram, they immediately agreed to send a size large to the next town we’d be in that received mail orders. They did not request I return the shorts back to them, and asked no payment for the second pair, or shipping.
Our Take: Great! While I wouldn’t normally expect a replacement size without at least returning the original pair of shorts, I sincerely appreciated their understanding of the thru-hiker process. They could have requested that they receive the original pair or that I pay for the second and await a return, etc. but they simply cared that I had a proper pair of hiking shorts on trail and had them as quickly as possible. I would absolutely purchase from them again.
Sun Hoodie /
Gear: Jollygear Sun Hoodie in Casa Orange (Old Design):
Likes: It’s a comfortable sun hoodie that buttons to allow increased ventilation. The long sleeves have thumb loops for those chilly mornings, the hood has a bun hole, and there are two zippered pockets on the chest for extra gear or snack storage. The great styles are an added bonus and some are extravagantly flashy for the colorful hiker in you.
Issue: No issue at all, this is more a shoutout to the cooperation we had with Jolly after we finally destroyed our starting sun shirts.
Manufacturer’s Response: I was in communication with Jollygear on Instagram in the early days of our hike. Marie and I were both in need of new sun hoodies by Burney Falls. We found Wi-Fi at the information center and messaged Jollygear. He responded in minutes and let us know he had the sizes we needed, but in the same Casa orange color (so we would be that matching couple). We agreed to match and he sent us a purchase order for the shirts and offered to cover the expedited shipping to Redding, CA. We received the shirts on time with a personally-written note.
Our Take: Great! Jolly made us feel like valued customers during the entire process and kept us updated on shirt availability up until our purchase. The complimentary shipping was quite welcomed, and Jolly always has a positive, cheerful attitude in communication and on his social media presence.
6 Electronics //
GPS Device /
Likes: We love Garmin products and use both their Fenix series watches and GPS devices. The communication, text, map, and weather functions of their Explorer and 66i devices are wonderful, and allowed us the luxury of checking in with family on trail even where cell service was non-existent. Specifically, we appreciated the button navigation on both devices instead of a touchscreen function.
Issue: We originally purchased the Garmin inReach Explorer+ from Ebay since every store we checked locally and online was sold out of new models due to product shortages. The used Explorer+ we purchased turned out to be faulty each time we attempted to use it up through mile 101 to Montezuma Valley Market. I have nothing poor to say about Garmin products because I have no way of knowing what the previous owner of the Explorer+ did with it despite their assurance it worked perfectly. Given that, I would STRONGLY discourage anyone from buying used electronic devices from sellers, unless they are refurbished and sold by a certified source.
Manufacturer’s Response: I called Garmin and spoke with a technician while in Montezuma. He sat on the phone with me for over an hour trying to troubleshoot the issues we were having on the Explorer+, and finally insisted the device we had was faulty. There were no issues with canceling the prior and establishing our subscription on the device, and factory resetting did not resolve the issue. He offered to order a replacement device for me and have it sent ahead of us on trail, but we decided to purchase through REI. We went with the 66i model since the Explorer+ was still out of stock.
Our Take: Great! The point of this review is not to say anything against Garmin, but rather to warn buyers to tread carefully when purchasing used electronic products in person and online. I want to give a huge shoutout to the Garmin tech who sat on the phone with me and patiently ran through every possible solution they could to help. We will continue to use Garmin products because of their quality, and their awesome customer support.
7 Cook System //
Camp Stoves /
Gear: MSR PocketRocket 2 Stove:
Likes: The PocketRocket 2 is a lightweight, easy-to-use stove that packed well into our cook pots. The construction is sturdy, and the arms fold cleanly towards the main body. The tiny windshield is a nice addition to this upgraded design.
Issue: The stove didn’t fail on its own, but an issue happened when using a fuel can pulled from a hiker box. The threading on the can was faulty (unbeknownst to us) and caused irreparable thread damage to the pocket rocket, which meant it wouldn’t connect to any other fuel cans. It became dead weight.
Manufacturer’s Response: We were in the Sierras when the issue happened and GPS-messaged a friend to contact MSR on our behalf. Our friend did, and MSR responded with a link to their unhelpful YouTube channel and instructions for sending in the stove for evaluation. Evaluation would have been a lengthy process and taken over a week. There was no means for me to repair the threading.
Our Take: Bad. I suppose there’s not much I should have expected out of the interaction given I was the one who ruined the threading by using a faulty fuel can, but the customer service process and YouTube channel were unhelpful. Just an ounce of empathy for us would have placated our frustration. In the end, we had a second stove with us to use (my wife carried a stove as well) and I purchased a replacement stove in Bishop, CA from Katadyn Group. I’ve used it since. I’d purchase MSR products in the future with the understanding that they may not be helpful while on future thru-hikes, based off our experience, but their gear is high-quality.
8 Final Thought on Brands/Manufacturers //
Over 181 days hiking 2653 miles, a lot can happen to the gear you wear and have with you. It’s important to know the brands you support will also support you if something happens to the few treasures you carry with you out there. I hope the reviews above were helpful in describing some of the great and not so great experiences you may be exposed to with customer service while on your thru-hike. You’ll have brands like Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Darn Tough Vermont, Jollygear, Garmin, and ChicknLegs who seem to understand a thru-hiker’s needs and struggles on trail. As soon as you communicate with them, you’ll likely see what I mean. Other brands have solid customer service, but it can often depend on who you’re communicating with, such as our experience with Nemo or Altra. And then there will inevitably be some customer service relations that fall a bit short. We buy gear from all these little and big names because we love what they provide but have varying expectations when it comes to help from them in the backcountry. Our experience with the many brands above will influence the gear choices we make on our thru-hikes to come.