The following is my attempt at sorting through tons of brain vomit nearly 5-years after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. At this very point in time, thru-hiking is front and center in my fuzzy little head. However, I am shooting for a different thru-hike this time, the Pacific Crest Trail. It seems to be a natural progression. AT, physical therapy, PCT, more physical therapy, CDT, knee-replacements, celebration?
As I am pulling out the old gear, and getting ready for another few thousand miles of hiking in about 5 months (ek!), I couldn’t help but lay out my rational to other future hikers. I’ve found myself helping others with gear shake downs, general conversation with weekend hikers, etc. So hey, why not document and throw it out there for the world to see?
There is an extremely famous motto on the Appalachian Trail: “Hike your own hike.” I can not emphasize enough how important it is. In theory, you are reading this right now because you are either 1) curious how to thru-hike the AT, 2) bored out of your mind, or 3) both. I hope it’s not 3). Don’t hike the AT out of boredom. You will likely say “ef this.” More on that later. Remember, this is one of 2,513,627 ways to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, so again, hike your own hike. Here is goes…
This is the single most important thing to consider when getting ready to commit to 4-6 months of rain, snow, heat, snakes, bears, spiders, hippies, and other unfathomables. Seriously. When you wake up in your warm down sleeping bag and there is a blanket of snow just waiting to chill your toasty feet all day to a point of numbness, you better have a great reason to remind yourself of why you are out there.
I am a pretty optimistic dude. But 99% of the trail is mentally damning. “What’s that? Another rock? Cool.” … “Oh wow, more dirt.” … “I love dead brown leaves.” … “Another up-hill? Awesome.” That being said the other 1% of the AT is amazing. This 1% offsets the 99%. Think of it like a jelly bean on dirty floor. You gonna eat that bean. Jelly beans are rad. Honestly though, it is called The Long Green Tunnel for a reason. Have a fantastic reason to mentally pull you through the 99% of monotony and for the love of all that may be holy, enjoy the 1%. Stop. Look. Absorb.
There is no way in hell I am going to exhaustively comb through all the possible options for tents, bags, packs, food, shoes, etc. That is the purpose of gear forums, and user reviews on REI, Backcountry, Geartrade, and Moosejaw. Even better, go to a local outfitter. Get out from behind that newfangled glow box and go talk to people. Weird, right? Once you have zeroed in on that perfect, shiny (soon to be not), new spankin’ new zero gravity tent, go test it out. I would highly recommend doing this before starting the trail. Imagine your surprise when your cool new gear is not durable/light/functional enough and you are days or weeks away from a replacement. Dumb. Do some day hikes with those new play-pretties or better yet, knock out some multi-day hikes. You’ll learn a ton. I went through three rain jackets on three separate hikes pre-AT. Each one, I spent progressively more cash on. Buuuuut, the jacket I chose lasted the whole trail, and still looks amazing well five years after the fact.
I’ve been told by many that I like to compartmentalize. Fair point people, fair. So, maybe think of your gear in the following catergories:
1) Clothes & Shoes
4) Water System
5) Shelter System
6) Sleep System
I won’t go into great detail, just some pros/cons in my opinion. My preference may be totally different then yours. That’s awesome. The world sucks if we all are the same. Hell, I was a purist hiker. That means, I didn’t skip an inch of the trail. When I hitched back to the trail, I would walk to the side of the road where I left off. I never slack-packed either. This is where people will volunteer to drive your gear up trail and you can hike without it all day. Also, not my style. But again, hike your own hike.
To set the tone for what follows, I am not an ultra-light hiker. My pack was always slightly under-average weight compared to other thru-hikers that finished, so light-weight, just not ultra-light. So grab your poles, tighten your shoes, and lets do this…
1) Clothes & Shoes
Wool: antimicrobial, temperature regulating even when wet, can wash the hiker-funk out, but is a little heavier, takes slightly longer to dry and is a little expensive.
Synthetics: dries crazy fast, a little lighter, but can be chilly on a cool day and that hiker funk never washes out. Ever. (makes hitch hiking harder out of a town)
Cotton: No. Just… quit now.
Leather Boots: Heavy, lasts ~1,500 miles, long break-in time.
Waterproof Trail Runners: Light, last 600-1000 miles, keeps fine-dirt off your feet, take long time to dry out once wet, don’t breath well which can result in more sweat/blisters. Nothing is waterproof.
Non-waterproof Trail Runners: Same as waterproof except your feet will get dusty through the fabric, and they dry out much more quickly resulting in less sweat/blisters.
Five-fingers: Stubbed toes are unavoidable. Rocks and roots galore. Do yourself a favor and put the five-fingers with the cotton clothes.
Gaiters: super handy at keeping inevitable rocks, leaves, and sticks out of your shoes.
External Frame: heavy, durable, 1970’s (pro or con, you decide.)
No Frame: crazy-light, depending on your pack weight it may not distribute heavier loads well across your body.
Internal Frame: pretty-light, distributes weight in an ergonomic-ish manner.
I do not use a stove, I “eat cold”. The rational was it kept me flexible. I never had to plan meals around fuel that may or may not be in the next town. I didn’t want to be stuck with dehydrated food that I couldn’t cook. Also, it requires more water. Plus doing dishes? No. Thanks. I carried 3-5 days of peanut butter, tortillas, pop tarts, candy bars, trail mix, uncooked ramen (thanks Nutterbutter), protein bars, beef jerky, crackers, and on cooler days cheddar cheese. I also hung my food every night (mostly due to mice). Lastly, I hate coffee. That is usually the Achilles heel of hikers who want to go stove-less. Haha caffeinated slaves. Enjoy burning the woods down.
4) Water System
Squeeze filters: these were in their infancy when I thru-hiked. Crazy light. They are everywhere on the PCT. I suspect they are finally making their way to us antiquated eastern hill-folk.
Gravity Filters: no tricep workouts, need to backwash every few days, need to make sure the filter doesn’t freeze and bust, also do not drop the brittle filter as the internal components are fragile. If you have a 3L dirty bag & 3L clean bag, you can have 6L on long dry stretches (which don’t really exist on the AT, so that’s dumb.) However, you can use your clean bag as your hydration bladder in your pack. Multi-use gear. The ultimate weight savings. You’re welcome.
Pumps: similar to weight of gravity filters, get your triceps ripped bruh, plastic handles can snap when pumping oh no bruh, helpful in shallow pools.
Bleach Drops: apparently some people got on the CDC’s website and found out that X drops per Y liters for Z time = clean water. They just take a travel size contact solution bottle and fill with bleach. Seems logical. Gritty. But light n’ logical.
Tablets: light weight for sure, need to wait for varied amounts of time depending on the manufacturer. Again, gritty. Pre-filter through a bandanna would be helpful.
5) Shelter System
No shelter (shelter hopping): obviously light weight. Not flexible. Imagine it’s 3pm and the next shelter is 17 miles away and you don’t want to night hike. Guess today ends early for you suck-a. Cowboy camping isn’t really a thing on the wet misery of the Appalachian Trail (for the most part).
Stake-in Tents: a little lighter than their freestanding counterparts. Troublesome in super soft soil, or rocks. There are work-arounds that I am not well versed on, so I’ll shut up.
Freestanding Tents: a litter heavier than stake-in tents. Can be pitched on soft sand or solid rock. Easy to re-position after erection (best sentence ever).
Hammocks: keeps you off a wet ground, can lose heat underneath your body on drafty nights (sleeping pads help to combat this), need trees (good luck when you are above the treeline in some spots), similar weight to tents, sucks if you are a stomach sleeper, hard to store gear and or get changed each day.
6) Sleep System
Down Sleeping Bags: best warmth-to-weight ratio, very compressible, needs to stay dry to maintain warmth, expensive.
Synthetic Sleeping Bags: the opposite of down, in every way.
Down Quilts: honestly, not too prevalent when I was out there. They are fast becoming a go-to for many thru-hikers though. A little lighter than down bags.
Air Mattress: adjustable firmness, very warm, can leak (mine hasn’t), a little heavier than foam counterparts. Need to blow them up (takes a couple of mins).
Foam Mattress: can be very light if you don’t get the full length ones, definitely for firm-mattress sleepers only, quick setup.
For years before and after my thru-hike, nearly everyone used David “AWOL” Miller’s “The A.T. Guide” It has all the landmarks (camp sites, water sources, etc.), town maps (handy when getting that bounce box at a post office and your phone won’t load Google Maps), post office and hostel addresses to mail bounce boxes, and topography (great for knowing how many ups & downs are coming up for the day). That being said, I’m sure there are some killer apps for phones now that do all this (and more). I can not personally attest to them. I will be using such an app on the PCT, thanks Guthook!
Alright, I know I am going to catch flack for this, but bring it. I wore deodorant on my thru-hike. Blasphemy you say! “But 2%, that’s heavy!” Yeah, so is Bodyglide from all your chaffing from perspiration. Root cause analysis says stop the perspiration with, oh, what is it called??? Anti-perspirant! Also, you wouldn’t believe how many people told me in towns that they were happy to give me a ride back to the trail because I didn’t smell like a nursing home. “But 2%, deodorant isn’t natural, man!” True. Neither is the toothpaste you are using, but you still brush your teeth…I hope. Speaking of teeth… A toothbrush with a head cover, travel size toothpaste, and floss for sewing and pulling pounds of beef jerky out of your teeth will be helpful. Your first aid kid will likely be reduced to 2 band-aids by the first few hundred miles. Don’t fall! Wet Ones antibacterial wipes are crucial for bathing the nether-regions each night. Toilet paper in a ziplok bag is a must. Plenty of Ibuprofen never hurts.
Pole-less: I’d ball park about 5% did not use poles. Hats off to them. Hope their knees still work today.
Plastic Handle Poles: a little cheaper, ultimately saves your knees on the downhills, allows boosts from your arms on the uphills, and saves you from falling on the slick ground (took me 900 miles, but I eventually landed on my rump). Downer, handles don’t absorb sweat well.
Cork Handle Poles: All the advantages of above, but handles that absorb sweat better. They can still get slick, but no worries, that’s what those wrist straps are for.
Miscellaneous Thoughts: You won’t die hitch hiking. Bears run away from you. Don’t step on lazy sun-bathing rattlesnakes. Check yourself for ticks each night, Lyme disease ain’t no joke yo! You don’t NEED to plan any meals in advance. MREs? Nope, towns have food every 3-5 days. Bounce boxes can be your friend and save weight. You really don’t need printed maps and compasses, the path is well marked assuming you don’t have a heavy snow year. Extra clothes will get dirty, so you can always do laundry in your rain gear while washing your hiking outfit and therefore not carry said extra clothes. Your feet will likely grow, so try to resist buying multiple shoes in advance. You can try and plan your entire hike, but Murphy’s Law. Planning each food-stop or town-day is about the most certainty you can have, and that’s OK. You will want to quit (maybe plenty of times), but remember the “Why?”, and that you can do anything for a little while. I saw a 12 year old girl, 76 year old grandma, and everyone in between finish. I saw Boston Marathon runners quit. The common thread I saw was simple; attitude. If you can roll with the punches the trail will deal over and over and over, you will be fine. If you need to quit, so what? You tried and did more than most people dream of. You are not a failure. Let. It. Go.
Video detailing all my 2012 NOBO AT thru-hike gear: