Happy Monday, everybody!
As you all know, I set out last week in the pursuit of an array of objectives of varying levels of interest to me: yoga, piano, guitar, cooking, baking, and employment all pressed into some semblance of self-imposed structure in a day. As you may also know, one of these has clearly won out over all the others, and it is baking… artisanal baking at home. I could wax rhapsodic about all I’ve learned from my deep dive into the manipulation of that noble grain (wheat), and might just do that someday soon. Alas, I’ve been dragging my feet on publishing my gear list, so with no further ado, here we go.
I initially started out under the strong influence of the ultralight community, the premise being that the lighter the pack, the easier the miles. To achieve a lighter pack, one sacrifices creature comforts and/or spends a lot of money, ofttimes doing both. Imagine a line with hiking comfort at one end and camping comfort at the other: the ultralight hiker leans aggressively left. I myself came to be much more of a centrist: there is truth in the adage “ultralight, ultra miserable.” The list below is my refined ‘centrist’ gear list, the one that I carried en route from Harper’s Ferry to Mount Springer. Enjoy!
Pack and Waterproofing
I carried a Gossamer Mariposa 60L pack. I chose it for its light weight and reputed durability. Further, its maximum recommended carrying capacity is 35 pounds, which is a good benchmark for any long hike… you just don’t want that much weight on your back. That being said, I routinely carried over 40 pounds in my pack, and the most it ever suffered was some frayed stitching on a load lifter strap, which held after I stitched it back into place with a needle and nylon thread. I heartily recommend this pack: its back pad doubles as a seat, and its hip belt is modular, so you can replace it with a smaller size once you’ve shrunk enough that your current belt fails you (it happens). The only thing I didn’t like about this pack was its chest strap, which is prone to falling off when one is unaware; after losing two sets, I opted to buy an aftermarket strap at EMS that worked like a charm. Still, this is an exceptional pack.
Rather than rely on an external pack cover to keep my belongings dry, I elected for an internal waterproofing system. My decision was largely based my military experience, but you only need to experience one rain storm to realize the frailty of a pack cover, to devastating consequence. When it’s wet outside, nothing matters more to morale than the prospect of a hot drink and dry clothes… and nothing matters more to fighting another day than actually having them.
I lined my pack with the Gossamer Gear pack liner, in which I placed first my sleeping bag, then my clothes bag, one stacked atop the other. Both my sleeping bag and my clothes bag were in Sea-to-Summit dry bags; I used their Ultra-Sil View 8L bag for the latter and an Ultra-Sil 9L Stuff Sack for the former and never had an issue. I also put my sleeping pad inside the bag, then folded it over and rolled it tight. On top of this, my food and my hammock sat, both in their own dry sacks.
As to rain gear, I personally opted to just get wet, wearing nylon clothes that dry quickly – more on that later. My one piece of dedicated personal rain gear was the Outdoor Research Helium II jacket, which I used primarily on cold mornings before I began hiking; after it stopped raining and I was cold and static; and in conjunction with my down jacket as a layering system on cold evenings. I absolutely love it – it packs tight, is lightweight, and does a damn fine job. My friend also carried the Helium II pants, but I saw no need.
Daily Wear, Top to Bottom
Essential to getting into gear each morning was the donning of the hiker garb; it is effectively a transformation from camper to hiker affected by a bandana headband and a pair of sunglasses. These were the last two things I put on each morning before I put on my pack and picked up my poles. Aside from its function as a sweatband, a bandana just makes you feel cool. As to the sunglasses, I kept them poised on my head during the day and hung them on one of my hiking pole wrist straps at night.
I carried two nylon shirts, one with long sleeves, and one with short sleeves. The idea is to have a hiking shirt and an evening/town shirt, such that you’re keeping all of the scents that may attract wildlife away from you at night while also reducing the chance of some fun skin infection from all of the compounded salty sweat. I carried the Columbia Tamiami II shirt, which is a breathable fishing shirt that makes for great hiking in full sun (no sunscreen), and a simple nylon button-up by Jack Wolfskin (it was on sale). I bought button-up shirts at the recommendation of Ray Jardine; these allow for greater breathability in hot weather.
For poles, I recommend Leki; I started with a Black Diamond Long Distance Z set that lasted for all of 300 miles before it became dead weight, at no fault of my own. I switched to Leki Corklite trekking poles and loved them all the way home. Cork is the best thing going for trekking pole grips, and Leki is the best thing going for trekking poles; their gear is guaranteed for life and their customer service is exceptional.
For pants, I carried the following:
Columbia Men’s Silver Ridge Convertible Pants: these are great three-season hiking pants. I heartily, heartily recommend them. They are thin, lightweight, and sturdy. You don’t want a thick layer, as you’ll overheat and wilt. No fun.
Ex-Officio Give-N-Go Boxer Briefs: I carried two of these and wore only these in the humidity of Virginia; they were excellent protection against chafing. I carried two so I could rotate out of my salty set. These are badass.
Soffee Running Shorts: AKA Ranger Panties. I kept a quick pace; these shorts kept me cool. I wore them – and only them – as much as conditions would allow me… and that was much of the Trail.
Nylon Sock Liners: This was the last thing I decided on before I flew to begin my hike, and it was a good thing too: these are the only socks I ever wore hiking, and they worked like a charm. The link is more for the picture than to hawk the brand – I carried four pairs of these because they weigh nothing and foot hygiene matters.
I carried one pair of Smartwool hiking socks, largely for evening wear. These are great for winter days at home too.
Salewa MS Speed Hiking Shoe: I picked up three pairs of these in my desired size on Amazon for $68 a pop in March and broke all of them in before I flew. My desired size was one size larger than my regular foot size to allow room for my feet to swell (it happens). I lined all three of them with Superfeet insoles. This combination of shoe and insole was faaaantastic. It was comfortable throughout the lifespan of the shoe, and it had superb traction in all conditions. I don’t necessarily advise doing what I did, as you may not like the shoes that you buy, but it worked well for me. I changed out my shoes about every 700 miles: the first pair took me from Harper’s Ferry, WV to Hanover, NH; the second, from Hanover down to Catawba, VA; and the third from Catawba down to Mt Springer.
Vivo Barefoot Men’s Ultra II Water Shoe: These were the envy of the Trail, which is where I learned of them. I typically saw them on people who had packs identical to or comparable to my own. They are great for fording streams and for camp wear; I hung mine off of the back of my pack with a small carabiner apiece. Great piece of gear.
Sleep System and Layering
This is one area where I initially leaned significantly to the ultralight. My original shelter ensemble consisted of a Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Tarp-Poncho strung over a cord suspended between my two hiking poles and held tight with titanium stakes. I used the tarp once to build a fourth wall on a lean-to, which saved me from hypothermia in Pennsylvania, and once in a fierce rainstorm in Maine. It works, but it’s not very much fun. Hiker’s preference, I suppose.
I switched over to a hammock for my southbound journey. I went with Hennessy, they have the best thing going at its price point, and it comes as a complete ensemble: hammock with integrated bug net, suspending ropes, webbing straps, rain fly, and a ripstop nylon stuff sack. You can’t find that with Eno. It took me a few days to adjust to sleeping in the hammock, but once I did, I was sleeping better than I ever had on the Trail. That, and it’s an excellent siesta shelter when the heat index is 115 and bugs are swarming all around.
My hammock worked well for me with a sleeping pad and sleeping bag for most of my hike, only becoming a bit less than ideal as the nights cooled near the end of my journey. Hammocks are best insulated with an under quilt, which insulates the hammock by attaching to its exterior, which keeps your body from crushing the down and spending your night shivering. Under quilts are expensive and typically custom made, so they are not as easy to purchase as a hammock is. I made up the difference in my comfort with an emergency blanket lining the interior of my sleeping bag. I have room for growth here.
As sleeping pads go, I started with a Gossamer Air Beam – lightweight by merit of components and the fact that it’s a 3/4-length pad, the premise being that your pack compensates for the rest of that length. It’s not available online anymore, which is all you need to know about it. I switched to a Sea to Summit Comfort Light Sleeping Pad in Vermont, which made me much, much happier.
I carried an REI Flash 29 sleeping bag and a Sea-to-Summit Silk Stretch Traveller Liner; the former served me well on cooler nights, the latter served me well on warmer nights and in hostels, and the combination served me well on the coldest of nights. The silk liner lends an additional 10 degrees of warmth to a hiker; it’s a valuable asset.
On the topic of warmth, I carried the following to nullify environmental trauma:
Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoodie – aside from my Soffe shorts, I wore this more than any other piece of clothing. I will wear it for years to come.
An Army Polartec fleece cap – this is another must have item.
Icebreaker merino wool gloves – I carried these for a few hundred miles, then sent them home. They were much appreciated the one time I needed them, though.
Polypropelyne shirt and pants – Army issue, lightweight, packs tight, and great insulating value as part of a layered system.
Sea to Summit Head Net – Other people I know used this heavily to deter bugs from flying into their eyes… I relied on my sunglasses more. Nice to have.
I also carried a wide brimmed hat with a neck guard; I used this in the Whites and other exposed terrain.
Titanium, titanium, titanium. It’s lightweight and durable.
Snow Peak Trek 900 Titanium Cookset – Reliable from beginning to end, sized to fit a large fuel canister for transport too. I cooked enough food for two normal people every time I used this… it was great.
Sea to Summit Alpha Light Spoon – There were others before this one, but it is my favorite. You do not need a spork on the Trail. You do not need a spork on the Trail. You do not need a spork on the Trail. Also, the carabiner is good for peace of mind.
I bought a titanium cup, but I never used it. If I really wanted coffee or tea, I’d heat it and drink it before I started cooking. That being said, I largely found hot drinks unnecessary or undesirable.
MSR PocketRocket – A hiker staple. I started with a Trangia alcohol stove but switched to my PocketRocket when I got sick of the limitations of alcohol. I needed a simmer capability; this is not a realistic demand of an alcohol stove. I am entirely satisfied with my PocketRocket, though my friend tipped me off to this little BRS stove that weighs a paltry 25 grams… for $15, I may just have to try it.
A windscreen. I used folded aluminum foil. There are many options here; yours should nest with your cook system given both small and large fuel canisters.
Nalgene HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) Bottles – I used these for both liquids and spices; they never failed me, and I was not gentle with them. I carried a collection of 1- and 2-ounce bottles for spices with one 8-ounce bottle of olive oil.
Two BIC mini lighters. They lasted the entirety of my hike.
A 1″ Victorinox mini. I cut meat and cheese with this knife with regularity. Next time, I might swing for a full sized Victorinox, but nothing more. Frankly, a simple folding knife will suffice… but I did like having scissors on occasion.
One of my four bandanas served as a towel to wipe down my pot; it also served to muffle the fuel canister so it wasn’t rattling against my pan in my pack all day.
I tried several methods of overnight food storage. I started with a Bear Vault BV500, which is required along the Pacific Crest Trail, but not on the Appalachian Trail. It is secure and multipurpose (a chair), but heavy (41oz empty). I tried an Ursack for a night per the manufacturer’s instructions; a raccoon chewed through it (and it’s bulletproof). If you want to use an Ursack, I highly recommend putting your smellables inside Loksak Opsak odor proof bags, then in the Ursack. Ultimately, I settled on a 13L UltraSil View bag suspended by 40′ of cord; it was simple, and I could see what was in my food bag.
All three systems can hold a week’s worth of my Trail food.
Water Filtration System
Sawyer Squeeze – This thing is solid. You do not need the pouch, nor the plunger. The pouch is not durable enough for outdoor living, and the plunger’s function is adequately met by a Smart Water bottle with a sports cap. Do not make the mistake of purchasing the Sawyer Mini; you will rue the day.
Platypus Water Tank, 2L – A water tank like this is great for pulling enough water at the end of the day to keep you from making a return trip to the source in the morning. It’s also great for helping you through dry patches; on the Trail, there were times when I went 15-18 miles without a single water source this year.
Smart Water bottles – I carried two 1L bottles, both of which fit in one side pouch on my pack. One of these bottles had a sports cap that I yanked off of a 750mL bottle. I used this bottle to periodically flush my Sawyer, which kept sediment build up from obstructing the flow of water through the filter. This is a vital function.
A small plastic cup – This came in handy at water sources with little to no flow. I picked one up in Harper’s Ferry before I started going south and used it almost every day.
Hygiene and Electronics
I carried the following:
2 bandanas – one to wipe clean at the end of a day, the other to wipe dry on any number of occasions. There be many methods of bandana use. All of them obviate the need to carry a microfiber towel.
Deuce of Spades Back Country Potty Trowel – At .6oz, this thing is a solid option to fill a necessary function.
Dual USB Wall Charger – Either you charge two devices, or you make a new friend. It’s just worth it.
iPhone (Verizon) with charging cable and headphones – Verizon has the best coverage up and down the Trail. I used a pay-as-you-go plan and had no issues. Note that rodents like earwax and will eat your headphones. DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU.
Kindle – I didn’t use this as much as I thought I would, but it was nice to have for siestas in the heat of the day.
External battery – I recommend Anker. A 3350mAh battery will charge an iPhone once. I carried a 20000mAh battery; I used my phone to write my journal entries, which used 10-15% of my battery daily, and to listen to podcasts and music, which expended considerable battery daily too. I charged all of my electronics in towns; where there is a need, there is a way.
In a small bag, I carried the following hygiene items: toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, fingernail clippers, a Victorinox mini, a needle & thread, ibuprofen, assorted band-aids, Neosporin, sunscreen (unscented), ear plugs, a CrunchIt tool, toilet paper, alcohol gel, Dr Bronner’s liquid soap (unscented), tick tweezers, and Q-tips.
The CrunchIt is helpful in the disposal of fuel canisters: you twist it tightly onto the nozzle of the canister, which will cause the canister to disperse any remaining fuel in the canister; you can then puncture the wall of the canister, which allows you to recycle it with ease. I lost count of how many empty fuel canisters I found in shelters; don’t be that guy.
Scents attract animals. A hiker got dragged out of his tent by a bear because he went to bed wearing coconut sunscreen this spring. Anything scented, including toothpaste, should be hung at night. You don’t want to wake up to bear hovering over you… or to find that a rodent has chewed through your food bag, your hat, or your toothpaste. And yes, rodents ate through my first straw hat; they loved the salt on the brim.
It’s really easy to get lost in an onslaught of information when you’re planning a backpacking trip – there are many companies out there, large and small, competing for your dollars. If you do decide to go with a given company’s gear, look up their repair and return policy; these companies do a substantial portion of their business on the Trail and rely heavily on word of mouth for growth, which means that they should have exceptional warranties on their products. You’ll find that many of them do!
I hope this list, with all of the rambling and rationale wrapped up therein, is helpful to you. If I can assist you in planning your trek in any way, please let me know.
Until next time –