Thru-hikers are (generally speaking) fascinated by gear. Equipment is far from the most important element in helping you complete a thru-hike (tenacity, love of nature, patience and endurance all factor in far above that), but it can go a long ways towards making you safer, more comfortable, and healthier while backpacking. Gear and equipment might be the 3rd favorite topic of conversation among thru-hikers (behind food and the weather). We love to see what’s working for other people and to gather ideas for improving our kit. Many people who begin a thru-hike will start the trail with one set of equipment and end with a completely different setup. I’d like to submit a list of the gear I used while hiking the AT in hopes that it will help other people as they shop for backpacking equipment.
Full disclosure: I am above average in the weight I’m willing to carry while backpacking. I like to have a few extra creature comforts while living in the woods (journal, camera, pair of clean clothes for camp), and I’m willing to lug the extra ounces to make that possible. On this thru-hike I was well above the optimal weight range for a thru-hiker (I averaged between 40 and 50 pounds fully loaded), but that was mostly due to the camera gear I was carrying. If you were to eliminate the camera bodies, lenses, tripods, and audio equipment I took along, I would have fallen into the 30 pound vicinity which is in range (though maybe a tad high) for what a male of my age would want to carry on a thru-hike.
For those who are new to backpacking it may be convenient to think of the pack-weight approach falling into three categories:
1) Ultralight – For those who are very experienced in backpacking and know how to stay safe and healthy with a minimum of gear. Ultralight backpackers will travel with 12 to 20 pounds on their back. They carry less food weight because they are burning slightly fewer calories to carry their load. They may make more frequent stops to refill on food and water in order to minimize the load in their pack. They probably don’t have a second change of cleaner clothes for in camp. They don’t carry camp shoes. They probably use a super-light, homemade alcohol stove. Their shelter is light and minimal (maybe just a tarp), and they probably carry Aquamira as a light-weight water purifying solution.
2) Average Weight – Falling in the broad middle ground of 22 to 35 pounds, this is what most backpackers carry. They have a few creature comforts and luxuries (journal, book to read, larger sleeping pad), but they know what they can live without in order to travel with a lighter load. They will typically carry 3 to 4 days of food and a liter or a liter-and-a-half of water, refilling once or twice a day. They may carry a water filtration system (pump or gravity filter) so that their drinking water has no chemical flavor. They might carry a JetBoil or other compressed-gas-powered stove for easy, quick cooking. Their shelter might be free-standing, roomier, and rigged with dedicated tent poles rather than the hiker’s trekking poles. They may have two pairs of clothes and/or shoes: one for hiking and one for in camp and town. With the right setup and choices, even a fairly gear-heavy hiker can keep their load in the 30 pound range.
3) The Heavy-Load Hiker – Weighing in at 38 to 50 pounds, this approach to backpacking is for those who have something to prove or who just can’t say “no” to more equipment (me). It might be a good approach for a two to three day, short-mileage trip when you want all the amenities in camp, but it is not recommendable for thru-hiking. Heavy-load hikers are frequently beginners who have not learned yet what they really need. They may carry a BOHK (a Big ‘Ol Heavy Knife) as opposed to a tiny pin knife which is the most the average hiker will ever need. They may carry a can of bear spray, which most people consider superfluous on the East Coast in black bear country. Perhaps their tent is too heavy, or they’re carrying a cast iron skillet, or they lug forty pounds of dog food for their four-legged trail companion. To each his own, but it’s worth noting that for most people, enjoyment of backpacking is inversely proportional to the weight of their pack. The only reason I carried a load as heavy as I did was because I wanted to make a professional film of my experience, and I’m not a good enough videographer to do it with less equipment.
That said, here is a list of the equipment I used throughout my thru-hike, broken down into categories. Items listed in bold were favorite pieces of gear that made a substantial difference in my enjoyment of the trail. Please chime in with your thoughts/suggestions/ideas in the comment section.
SHELTER & SLEEPING –
– Tarptent Stratospire 1: I selected Henry Shire’s Traptent brand based on its efficient designs and high regard among backpackers. I was not disappointed. Tarptents combine a bug-mesh interior liner with a thin outer tarp shell to make lightweight, comfortable shelter. Most designs utilize your trekking poles for structure, eliminating the extra weight of tent poles. This does have the drawback that the designs are not free standing and therefore cannot be pitched on solid surfaces like tent platforms. The Stratospire 1 was larger and slightly heavier (still only 2 lbs.) than I needed for a thru-hike, but on wet nights when all my gear was soaked I relished all the extra floor space to spread out in. The tent held up well to rain (after I seem-sealed it twice), heavy wind, heat (two wide-opening doors allowed for a good draft on muggy nights), and bugs. It was relatively easy to pitch. These tents are built with lightweight materials; so they do not have the durability of heavier tents. By the end of my 7 month hike my Stratospire had a few tears in it, but it was still sound and usable.
Recommendation: I enjoyed the Stratospire 1 for my thru-hike, but if I had it to do again I would buy Tarptent’s Contrail model. The Contrail is lighter and smaller, and most importantly, it has a much smaller footprint. The Stratospire 1 had such an unwieldy, large, hexagonal footprint that it was hard to squeeze into many of the tight spots that you end up camping in on the trail.
– 45 degree down sleeping bag & liner: From mid April through September this was all I needed to stay warm on the trail. There were plenty of sweltering nights in mid summer when I didn’t want any covers at all. Getting on towards mid August in Maine there were nights when I slept on the chilly side. For the most part, though, this bag did the trick. Down requires more care to keep it dry and functional, but it is the lightest and most compact sleeping insulation.
– Therm-A-Rest Neo-Air XLite Mattress (+ NeoAior Pump Sack!): This was a luxury item for me. A good night’s sleep is of utmost importance to me while backpacking, and the NeoAir is the most comfortable mattress I have used on the trail. It is also lightweight and compact. The NeoAir costs more than several other similar mattresses, but in my opinion it is well worth the investment as the Therm-A-Rest brand delivers superior quality, durability, and customer service. One drawback to this mattress is that it takes a lot of blowing to inflate. For this reason, I purchased Therm-A-Rest’s Pump Sack which doubles as a billows for inflating the mattress and can also convert into a stool for sitting. I didn’t use it much for sitting, but at the end of every long day of hiking I was grateful to have this device to save me the extra chore of huffing and puffing my mattress to inflation. This one tool made settling into camp at the end of a long day so much easier, and it also made me the envy of many another hiker who were busy blowing their mattress into shape.
Recommendation: when choosing the NeoAir mattress I was advised to get the Long model. This added a few ounces to my pack weight, but it was worth it to me to have a full-length pad to sleep and spread out on. Good sleep is one of the main things that kept me healthy and happy on my hike.
OUTER GEAR –
– Osprey Aether 85 Backapck: This may well have been my favorite single piece of gear. Prior to this hike I had been using the previous generation of Aether, and I really liked it. With this current redesign of the Aether I have come to love it. The backpack supported my heavy load on my hips with amazing comfort and control. The Aether has several design features that I really enjoy such as the Stow-on-the-Go system for strapping away your trekking poles when you want a break from using them and also the hydration sleeve which holds a reservoir between the back panel and the pack body, keeping the water weight close to your back and preventing any unfortunate spills on your other gear. It could be argued that the backpack is the single most important piece of gear on a thru-hike (that or your shoes); so it’s very important that you find one that fits you and meets your unique needs of load-bearing and features. I highly recommend the Aether as a solid, finely-designed backpack for thru-hiking.
Recommendation: At 85 liters, my Aether had more volume than the average thru-hiker would need. For simple backpacking without all the extra camera gear I would have chosen the Aether 70 liter (or maybe even 60).
- Trekking Poles: I used a pair of generic trekking poles (Swiss brand, I think?) that I found discarded on the side of a trail in the Smokies one winter hike. I am a strong advocate for using trekking poles to improve the efficiency of your stride (and I needed them to erect my Tarptent, anyway). This pair was strong and adequate; however, they were exceedingly heavy, and the locking joints had a tendency to get stuck. I would recommend choosing another of the proven brands such as Leki. I used a pair of ultralight Leki’s in Pennsylvania and liked them a lot.
– Vasque Mindbender trailrunners: Footwear is a very personal choice among backpackers. You should find a shoe that meets your specific needs and foot shape, and the Mindbender did that for me in spades. It was an extremely comfortable light hiker to wear through the warm weather. The Mindbender was very comfortable for me, even as my feet swelled an extra size over the summer. It held up admirably to the abuse of thru-hiking—I went through two pairs, each lasting about 1,000 miles. I added a pair of Sole inserts to improve arch support. My main complaint with the Mindbender is that the bottom seemed to have trouble sticking on wet surfaces, and in rainy weather I found myself on my butt more than I would have liked. I was not able to compare multiple shoes, however, to determine how much this was a factor of the Mindbender’s unique rubber compound or simply a factor of carrying a 45 pound pack over wet granite (which most shoes might have struggled with). Overall, I was extremely happy with this shoe as a light summer hiker to use for the majority of my journey.
Recommendation: The majority of thru-hikers choose light footwear for their journey: something like a below-the-ankle trail runner or light hiker with mesh and without a waterproof membrane. There are several reasons for this: 1) lighter footwear is less fatiguing for your foot to lift and drop over time; 2) lighter footwear without a waterproof membrane is cooler on your feet in the summer months; 3) even “waterproof” footwear will likely get soaked at some point on the AT whether through fording a creek or walking in a torrential downpour, and once that happens it takes all the longer to dry out because of the “waterproof” construction. I preferred to have a light mesh shoe that dried quickly with an hour in the sun. That said, light hikers like the Mindbender are not generally recommended for the type of heavy duty hiking that thru-hikers experience. Trail runners lack the ankle support and thick soles that the manufacturers recommended for carrying a 45 pound pack. When you opt for a lighter shoe in these circumstances, you do run a greater risk of injury. For me, it was a good balance to hike in a heavy, ankle-height boot in the winter when my pack was heaviest and the conditions coldest. Once the summer heat arrived, I was happy to switch over to the Mindbender which kept my feet cool, light, and generally dry.
– Astral Brewers (camp shoe): One of my luxury items was a pair of Astral Brewer river shoes. These lightweight shoes gave me something comfortable (and less smelly) to slip into in camp at the end of the day. They also gave me a pair of back-up shoes for when my trail runners were soaked through and threatening blisters. I really enjoyed the added comfort that I got from wearing the Brewers around camp and in town.
– Soccer shorts: I hiked in two pairs of soccer shorts that I had before starting the trail. The nylon was lightweight, cool, and quick to dry. I tried to keep one pair dry and clean in my pack for sleeping in.
– Northface wool T-shirt: One of the two t-shirts I carried was a lightweight, merino wool black t-shirt that I picked up at Outdoor 76 in Franklin, North Carolina. This shirt quickly became one of my favorite pieces of gear. It was cool, comfortable, quick-to-dry, and most remarkably, it didn’t hold odor. If the shirt got smelly over the course of a few days, a simple wringing out in a pond or creek with maybe a dab and a scrub of Dr. Bronner’s soap was sufficient to make it really fresh-smelling. Merino wool truly is a magic fabric, and this was a well-made and durable shirt.
– Northface collared polyester shirt: After my success with one Northface shirt (and after losing my second hiking t-shirt), I picked up a polyester weave button-down shirt in Dalton, Mass. Most hikers would avoid the extra weight that a collar and buttons represent, and even I (ounce glutton that I am) had a hard time springing for it. Once I purchased it, though, I was very happy. The shirt was lose-fitting and cool, allowing for a lot of ventilation under the fabric. It was very comfortable in camp, and I got several compliments from my thru-hiking compatriots for managing to dress like a “towney” (aka, civilized person) while on a thru-hike.
– Darn Tough Socks: I started out the trail using exclusively Smartwool Brand socks, which I’d worn in town and on shorter hikes with great success and comfort. The two pairs of lightweight running socks that I wore over the summer quickly wore down, however, and developed holes or else stretched out to the point that they no longer fit. Left without a good pair of socks to wear and no help from the Smartwool customer service hotline, I resorted to another brand I’d heard hikers raving about. Darn Tough socks are made in Vermont, and they have a bomber lifetime guarantee: if you wear them out, they’ll replace them. I bought a pair of Darn Tough’s in Bennington, Vermont. They were very comfortable (though maybe a touch warmer than my Smartwools had been), and they held up wonderfully through the rest of the trail. Merino wool socks are the best thing for your feet in my opinion, and I highly recommend the Darn Tough brand.
– Ex-Officio travel underwear: It’s a well-known rule that you should not wear cotton while backpacking. When it comes to underwear, this can commit you to some very expensive briefs. In the case of Ex-Officio, I think the extra expense is worth it. I had two pair of underwear on the trail, a set of Ex-Officio briefs and a pair of polyester undies that I inherited from a Scotsman who left them in a shelter on the Camino de Santiago. Both sets of underwear kept me dry and reasonably chafe-free down under, and that meant a whole lot to me.
– Patagonia mid-weight capilene long sleeve shirt: Except for the very hottest days of summer (mid June through mid July), I always carried a long-sleeve shirt for insulation. In almost every state and every season you are liable to encounter a chilly night here and there. A long-sleeve shirt in combination with my rain gear was usually enough to keep me warm from May through the beginning of August.
– Rain gear: I carried a Patagonia H2No light rain jacket and rain pants, and I had very different experiences with both. The rain jacket I had owned for about a year before starting this thru-hike, and by that time it was very permeable. Soon after rain began to fall the jacket was wet on the inside and my clothing was beginning to be damp. It would still insulate me and protect me from wind, but it did not keep me dry, and it would have been unsafe to use in cold weather. By contrast, the H2No rain pants that I purchased just before starting the trail performed wonderfully. The pants have full-length zippers on each leg which make them extremely easy to put on and take off. They were very tight and dry against rain, and they were sturdy and warm enough that I used them straight through the winter as a cold-weather shell. However, when the warm weather arrived the full-length zippers allowed me to ventilate and stay relatively cool. These rain pants came to be among my favorite pieces of gear.
Recommendation: Sunshine taught me that rain gear makes a convenient covering when you want to launder all your hiking clothes in a public place.
STOVE & COOKWEAR –
– Etowah Gear Etowah II alcohol stove: Alochol stoves tend to be the lightest option for cooking in the woods (unless you cook straight over the fire). The Etowah II is heavy as alcohol stoves go, but I appreciated the ease of use it provided. It was easy to light, burned efficiently, and could be blown out to conserve fuel. My main complaint with it was durability. It was quick to rust and was ready for retirement by the end of my thru-hike.
– Platypus Gravity Works Filter and Hydration Reservoir: The majority of thru-hikers I met used either Aquamira purifying drops or the Sawyer Sqeeze system for water purification. I really enjoyed my Gravity Works filter. It’s slightly heavier than the other systems, but it provides a hands-free process and a chemical-free taste. I enjoyed being able to fill up the 4 liter “dirty” bag, hang it and leave it to flow through clean into my drinking reservoir. I inserted the clean hydration reservoir into my backpack and sipped on it throughout the day to stay hydrated, The only complication I found with a hydration reservoir was that the hose is quick to freeze in very cold weather.
– Snowpeak 900 mL titanium pot: Sunshine had this same pot from her thru-hikes, and I found it just about perfect for my needs on the trail. It was lightweight, durable, and it held enough volume to cook almost all of my meals throughout the hike. Highly recommended.
Recommendation: Following Sunshine’s example, I cut and glued together a coozie for my pot out of a sheet of mini-cell foam. Because alcohol stoves lack a “simmer” setting, the coozie gave me a way to take the pot off boil and keep it cooking slowly. Also kept the meal warm on cold winter nights.
– Plastic spoon
– 8 oz. + 2 oz. plastic bottles: I used small plastic bottles to carry things like denatured alcohol for my stove, contact solution, and olive oil for cooking (a secret, calorie-packed ingredient used in almost every meal!)
– small, lightweight knife: I used one very much like Gerber’s LST Drop Point knife. For backpacking you simply do not need a big bowie knife. For cutting vegetables or cord and whittling skewers, just about the smallest, lightest knife you can find will do.
– 30 liter stuff sack and 50 feet of p-cord: I carried these to keep my food organized in my pack and string up a bear bag in bear-heavy country (New Jersey). I find the lightest gauge of parachute cord is perfectly sufficient for this purpose–no need to carry heavy rope on the trail.
– medium sized microfiber camp towel: I really enjoyed having this to dry off with after cold swims and baths. I also used it to dry off my wet tent after wet nights, greatly reducing the weight as I packed it into my backpack.
– first aid kit: I carried a very simple and minimal first aid kit–Ibuprofen that I gave away more than used for myself, bandaids and neosporen for treating blisters (a lot of bandaids!), quarter-inch medical tape for blisters, a few alcohol pads and larger gauze pads just in case of larger scrapes and bruises.
– small, lightweight cell phone: I bought a dumb-phone for this trip. Given the amount of camera technology I was carrying, I wanted to take measures to minimize other ways that I would be plugged-in on the trail. No internet for me in camp–just a lightweight, pay-as-you-go style cell phone so that I could talk to Sunshine at the end of each day. There is a surprising amount of cell service on the AT these days. A blessing or a curse?
– journal: I used a lightweight, simple moleskine journal to record thoughts and observations at the end of each day
– books: In summer, I usually carried one reading book as well as my pocket New Testament. Recommendation: Sunshine would cut up paperbacks and mail them to me in sections in order to minimize weight. I also did this with my AT guidebook, carrying only a quarter of the total pages at any given time.
– paper & pens (2): For taking notes and writing letters.
– wide-brimmed safari-style hat for the hottest, brightest days of summer (important that it is built with mesh and light fabric so your head does not overheat!)
– miscellaneous items: sunglasses, bug repellent, sunscreen, toiletries, contacts, solution, glasses. Recommendation: break your toothbrush in half to save half-an-ounce of weight. Scavenge lengths of toilet paper where you can rather than purchasing full rolls of TP to carry with you.
– Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap: So nice and refreshing when combined with an end-of-the-day dip. Hikers have differing opinions about the appropriateness of adding soap to water sources, but if you’re going to do it, biodegradable Dr. Bronner’s is one of the best options.
– iPod nano: music and podcasts for when the miles got monotonous
– note cards
– The AT Guide by AWOL: I really enjoyed using this accurate, efficient guide to the AT. It doesn’t have all of the detail and peripheral info that something like the ATC Databook conveys, but it is very simple and useful as well as a lot of fun–like reading code once you come to understand the symbols and language.
– industrial trash bag (2): for holding clothing and soft goods to keep them dry in my pack
– Osprey pack cover for rainy days
– Foam pad for sitting: from the same mini-cell foam sheet that I used to make my pot coozie I cut out a rectangle just big enough to sit on. I kept this in the top of my pack each day, and it made an enormous difference whenever I stopped to sit down, insulating me from the cold, hard ground.
PHOTO/VIDEO/AUDIO GEAR –
– Nikon D800 full-frame digital body: great professional camera body for shooting stills and HD video. It was a rock in my pack, however. Other hikers would often gawk at it and ask me how much it weighed. I always answered that it weighed enough that when I set it down in the passenger seat of my car the “fasten-seatbelt” light came on. It was a great tool to work with, however: in camera timelapse capability, high-quality images and video, very rugged and durable.
– Nikon F100 35mm film body: I love the richness of film images, and for certain sections of the hike I would carry a film body to shoot stills with. Even though film shots comprise the small minority of my total captures, they often end up being some of the best photographs I take.
– Nikkor 28-300 VRII zoom lens: This was the lens I used the most: a massive zoom range, effective image stabilization, and pretty sharp picture. It didn’t have a very low f-stop; so I carried other lenses for low-light, but if I’d had to, I really could have used just this lens for the entire journey.
– Nikkor 14mm aespherical wide angle lens: A super-wide angle lens for shooting in tents/shelters, taking arm’s-length self-portraits, and generally capturing the landscape. For whatever reason, I love to shoot wide. It makes for dramatic and interesting images of hiking, and when employed as a video lens it can lend a great sense of motion to moving shots.
– Nikkor 50mm f1.4 fixed lens: A professional, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive lens. I carried this lens for low-light shooting and for portraits, though I didn’t do either of those things as much as I’d hoped. Still, the results I got from it were great.
– Nikkor 105mm macro lens: For certain sections of the trail I would swap this lens out for the 50mm. It was also a low-light, good portrait lens, though it was significantly heavier. It had the added ability to shoot in macro for interesting blown-up images of bug life.
– Gitzo GT3541LS carbon fiber tripod with Giottos ball head: This item alone weighed over six pounds. Professional photographers and filmmakers will tell you that you can’t get away without using stabilization, however, and this expensive set-up sure did the job. I used if for shooting interviews and timelapses mostly.
– Ultrapod small tripod: a very effective tripod that’s about 5 inches tall. I used it to mount the camera to my trekking pole, effectively making it a monopod. I also used it to mount my audio recorder to capture sound.
– Sony PCM-D50 digital audio recorder (with wind screen and lavalier mic): Good sound is imperative for filmmaking. This unit was a load to carry, but it delivered the most mobile and effective solution for capturing sound as the on-camera mic of the D800 is of very low quality. I used the lavelier mic for high-wind audio capture or when there was a lot of ambient noise. Otherwise I would stand the recorder on my small tripod and place it as close to the subject as possible.
– Various CF, SD, and Sony Memory Stick cards
– Lowe Pro Toploader Zoom 50 AW holster camera bag: This camera bag just barely fit my D800 body and long zoom lens, and it very conveniently attached to the straps on the hipbelt and side of my Aether pack for quick-draw camera access.
– Mountainsmith Kit Cube padded lens case: this case fit conveniently into the brain of my Aether pack and carried my other lenses and camera body. It was tricky, but I could sometime reach up behind my head and pull out a lens or camera body without taking off my pack.
WINTER GEAR –
Preparing for cold weather can add a full ten pounds to your backpack. It’s more important to carry back up layers of insulating clothing, in case your clothes get wet while hiking during the day. You must bring an adequate sleeping bag, gloves, and warm hat. Even in the southeast, winter hiking can become seriously challenging and dangerous; so I recommend working up to it if you are new to backpacking. Do some fall hikes and increasingly cold hikes before you take on mid-winter. Always check the weather forecast before you head out, and let others know where you’re going. Here’s what I added to my pack in winter:
– Patagonia down jacket
– North Face heavy rain shell
– long underwear bottoms and 2 long-sleeve shirts
– Zero-degree down sleeping bag
– calf-height snow/rain gaiters: to keep the wet stuff outta my shoes!
– Vasque Snow Junkie boots: insulating, water-proof, heavy-duty boots
– Smartwool medium-thickness and full-thickness hiker socks (several pairs–also work as backup gloves in a pinch!)
– polyester toboggan hat
– heavy mittens + glove liners