Almost everyone who even thinks about thruhiking starts with gear. They worry about which tent, which sleeping bag, which boots, which pack is the "best". They think that if they get the "right" equipment it'll increase their chance of making it all the way to Katahdin.
So -- let's talk about equipment.
A lot of thruhikers (including myself) spend months or even years before we leave, sorting, evaluating, weighing, refining and agonizing over what to carry on the Trail - our equipment. And when we get out there, we discover the most obvious of truths - the equipment doesn't walk the Trail - we do. We just get the "privilege" of carrying it.
I know - you think you need the equipment. But most of us find that we don't need ALL of it. We find that we're carrying too much, so when we get to Neels Gap (if we're headed north) or Monson (if we're headed south), we send home this humongous box of excess gear that we've carried for the last 30 (or 100) miles. Wouldn't it be better to leave that extra gear at home in the first place?
The equipment doesn't get anyone to Katahdin. What WILL get you there is what's in your head and your heart - your attitude, determination and commitment.
Does this mean I have no specific comments on equipment? Of course not !! Read on - but don't expect me to tell you exactly what to buy.
No matter what kind of pack you buy, there are only 4 considerations -
- Will it hold your gear?
- Will it last 2000 miles?
- How much does the pack weigh?
- Is it comfortable?
First - will it hold all your gear? Or - What size pack is large enough? Or - What size pack is small enough? Which question you use depends on your viewpoint. If you're thinking about an internal frame pack, a lot of people think you need something humongous because you have to put everything inside. Not so. For a long time, my lady was using a Lowe Outback 65 (4000 ci, 40 oz). And we sometimes do winter camping with zero degree bags, snowshoes and lots of fleece.
For thruhiking, it doesn't help to get a 7000 ci pack if you only need 4000 ci. The bigger the pack, the more it weighs (empty). Personal opinion is that 90% of starting thruhikers are packing at least 10 to 15# too much gear when they leave Springer. And if they've got that much gear - guess what they're carrying it in - a pack that's bigger than they need. Just remember - whatever you buy - you get to carry. How much pack do you want to carry?
If you get a big pack, you'll fill it. If you get a small pack, you'll fill it - but you'll take what you need rather than what you want.
Second - Will it last 2000 miles? Remember, I'm talking about a thruhike - whatever pack you get is likely to get dirty, smelly, ripped, broken, chewed on - in other words, trashed. If you want to keep a pack for a lifetime - don't take it on a long trail. But the real answer to the question is - who knows? There are people who've made it to Katahdin with K-Mart packs. And there are people who have problems with their Gregory and North Face and Dana packs. I think it depends a lot on how you treat your pack. Personal opinion is that with reasonable care most good brand name packs will survive.
Third - how much does it weigh? For long distance hiking, total pack weight shouldn't be more than 25% of body weight. Most people don't think about it, but if your empty pack weight is 7# - that's 7# of your total pack weight. For a 120# person, maximum pack weight shouldn't exceed 30#. A 7# pack is nearly one quarter of your recommended maximum pack weight - before you put anything in it. Again - how much pack do you want to carry?
At one time there was an article on external frame packs in Backpacker Magazine. The lightest pack that they tested weighed 5# 11 oz. Personal opinion is that that's an unacceptable weight. The most popular internal frame pack on the AT in 97 was probably the Dana Designs Terraplane which weighs in at about 8 1/2 pounds. Yeah - we went and tried one on - and it was COMFORTABLE. In the store. Even with weight in it. It was like sliding into your favorite well-worn armchair. But I don't care how comfortable it is - that's an unacceptable weight.
Having a comfortable pack doesn't mitigate the fact that you have to carry that extra weight up all those mountains. Your knees and back and feet won't thank you for that.
Fourth - is it comfortable? This is an individual choice - no one can tell you what's comfortable for you. Only YOU can determine that. There are a lot of different body sizes and shapes. That's why there are so many different brands out there. Just don't let a salesperson "convince" you that it'll get better when you're on the Trail. It doesn't get any better than when you're in the store.
Now - you think I just contradicted myself, don't you? And I'm gonna tell you that comfort costs. You can buy the bigger, heavier, high-priced 8 to 9 # armchair if you want. Or you can buy a smaller, lighter, cheaper 4 to 5 # pack that'll do the same job and won't cost nearly as much in terms of time, energy, sweat and money. It's your choice. It's ALWAYS your choice.
When you're buying a pack - don't let the salesmen load the packs you're trying on with the standard containers of sand. It doesn't carry the same way your equipment will. Instead, get all your gear together (everything you expect to carry on the Trail) and drag it into the shop. Then you can load the packs with your own gear and get a better feel for how the pack REALLY carries - and how your gear fits into it.
I still didn't tell you what kind of pack to get, did I?
I won't either -- I don't have to carry it - you do.
Take a tent or a tarp. The shelters are crowded under the best of conditions. Besides, for those who are worried about being cold, a tent is at least 10 degrees warmer than the shelters - and it doesn't have mice.
A tent means freedom - the freedom to walk as far as you want without being tied to the shelters. More than once the next shelter was too short a distance for the day for me - and the following one was too far. But with the tent, I had the option to pick my own distance, my own campsite. That was freedom. Being tied to the shelters would have been a chain for me.
For a lot of women, carrying a tent is also a measure of security. It means that if they get to a shelter on a rainy night and the people or the situation doesn't "feel" right then they have the option to move on. It's freedom. And in that situation, it could be freedom from a really bad experience.
For winter I used a 20 degree bag and had no problem, but it depends on your metabolism. I know people who used a 0 degree bag in the south and were cold. You can get by with only one bag - or trade for a lighter one when it gets warmer. For the Mid-Atlantic states I used only an overbag (about 45 degree rating). Experiment before you go. YMMV
Do you need rain gear? It's ultimately your call, but .......
In 92 I had rain, snow, sleet and hail, sometimes all on the same day and for one period for 19 out of 23 days In 93 they had a blizzard in the Smokies. In 95 Firefly went through 3 hurricanes, a tornado and an earthquake ... In 96 hordes of thruhikers holed up in towns to wait out the blizzard in the South For recent years (especially 2003) --- well, go read the thruhiker journals on Trailjournals.com.
Again - do you need rain gear?
You WILL get wet, if not from outside then from inside. The purpose of raingear is to keep you "warm wet" as opposed to "cold wet." Do you need raingear? Only you can answer that, but I wouldn't walk the AT without it. It's a wet, wet, and sometimes cold, Trail.
I was taught that 1 out of 3 days would dump some form of precipitation on me - and it did. Personally, I'm not into hypothermia as a lifestyle.
I carried a Goretex parka from Springer to Waynesboro, then traded it for a coated nylon jacket that weighed less than half as much. In the mid Atlantic states I hardly ever used it, but in Connecticut I walked through thunderstorms, when I got to the Whites it was great as a windbreaker. And in Maine the weather got cold as well as wet. That jacket lasted until Katahdin when the coating separated from the nylon - but I didn't need it anymore, did I? I was glad to have the parka in the South, the light jacket wouldn't have done the job.
Watch out for the maps - there are a lot of inaccuracies and it got really frustrating because I took them too seriously in the beginning. I found the maps to be adequate after I decided to just follow the white blazes and stop bitching. Just don't pay too much attention to the elevation profiles. Although I've beeen led to believe that they've improved in recent years.Do I believe that? Hmmm....
Few people manage to thruhike the AT without replacing their boots at least once. The only people I know who made it on one pair of boots were those who used heavy duty mountaineering boots or Limmers. I used a pair of light-weights for the first 500 miles of the AT. I wore out 3 pairs of boots and was well into the 4th pair when I got to Katahdin. Even my partner had to change boots at Hanover, NH. We both finished the AT with leather mid-weights. They last about 750 miles for me and about 1500 miles for my lady. Heavy boots last longer, but put more stress on the knees and take forever to dry out.
Personal opinion is that you should have a spare broken-in pair of boots that can be mailed to you, especially if your feet are hard to fit. Boots in EEE width are hard to find - so are AAA's or size 14's. The important thing is how well they fit. Different brand names fit different foot shapes. Try them on and break them in before you go. A pair of boots that doesn't fit right can be misery. It's also good to have enough spare cash to buy another pair or two along the way, if necessary.
Many hikers wear running shoes - some even wear Chacos or Tevas. And a very few go barefoot. If your pack is light and your ankles are strong you may be comfortable in running shoes. But try it before you start a thruhike. They don't work for "everybody." I tried running shoes before our CDT hike - and I left the running shoes at home.
I use at least one hiking staff/stick/pole. Two is even better. They can be a pain when you're in the Whites trying to get down a rock face, but they'll save your knees. And there's no dog alive that doesn't respect a stick !!
Ah yes - winter gear. NO - DON'T SEND IT HOME FROM DAMASCUS !!! It gets cold on Mount Rogers - even in the summer. And you're not likely to be there in the summer if you're following the usual thruhiker schedule. On 9 May 1992 we had 14 inches of snow on Mt Rogers. Send the winter gear home anytime after the Grayson Highlands. And pick it up again at Glencliff, NH. The Whites can be cold too.
All thruhikers love their stove and hate their water filter.
A heavy pack is one of the first and most egregious things that beginning AT thruhikers perpetrate on themselves. I did it, too. Anyone who doubts the magnitude of the problem should talk to the people at at Neels Gap. Ask them how many thousands of pounds of excess thruhiker gear they ship out every year.
The chance of injury is directly related to pace and/or pack weight and a lot of people make the mistake of hiking too fast and/or carrying too much weight. Normally conditioned people should keep their pack weight to no more than 25% of their body weight. My pack weight was rarely more than 20% of my body weight - and usually less. Carrying a lighter pack means being able to move faster and easier, less strain on the knees and back, less probability of injury and a correspondingly greater probability of finishing the Trail.
At one time, someone posted something that sounded a lot like "weight doesn't really matter, you can enjoy the hike anyway". Yeah - you CAN enjoy the hike if you're carrying a heavy pack -- when you stop. But if you're thruhiking you won't stop much and weight DOES matter. I know people have made it to Katahdin with 70# packs, but damn few of them have made it compared to the number who started with that weight. Most of the 70# packs - and a lot of the 50# packs went home with their owners somewhere short of Katahdin. Every pound you carry increases the probability that you won't finish. How much do you care about finishing? If you REALLY want to finish, why don't you maximize your chances - go lighter!
To quote a PCT thruhiker -
"I think one of the great lessons that the thruhiker MUST learn is to carry less stuff.
- Dump all the cotton clothes.
- Dump the extra pot.
- Use a smaller pot.
- Use a lighter tent.
- Use a lighter sleeping bag, and wear clothes inside your bag.
- Dump the thermarest, and get a light pad, then cut IT down.
The More You Carry, the More You Will Enjoy Your Camping
The Less You Carry, the More You Will Enjoy your HIKING
If you are going to finish a 2000 mile trail, you damn well better enjoy your HIKING!"
----- Brick Robbins
For those who REALLY want to go light, you might be interested in Ray Jardine's "Beyond Backpacking" and Lynne Whelden's video Let the Revolution Begin: Lightweight Backpacking Secrets Revealed . Or maybe you'd be interested in the Backpackinglight website and forum. But experiment with the techniques before you take them on the Trail.