The Thruhiking Papers

What Are You Carrying?

I know -- some of you are saying, "What does all this stuff you're writing about have to do with preparation for thruhiking? Why doesn't you talk about what gear to use?"

And the answer is simple - the gear is less important than you can imagine. Of the people who finish the Trail (any trail), you won't find any two who use exactly the same equipment - because there's no perfect combination of equipment that'll get you to Katahdin - or Canada - or anywhere else.

A few years ago several of the thruhikers on the at-l email list compared equipment lists - what we carried in our packs while we were on the Trail - and there was an amazing lack of uniformity.

Now - that being said, a large part of the traffic on every hiking forum and email list concerns gear. And that's NOT a bad thing. One of the prime ways of learning what gear is available, how good (or bad) it is, how it works (or doesn't), durability, operation, price and a host of other details is to read/listen to what others have to say about it. All of us learn that way (yeah, me too).

If you're gonna thruhike, it's better that you get the best equipment you can find - within your weight and financial limitations. And the lists can be helpful that way. So are places like the Gathering and Trail Days and the Ruck - that's where the thruhikers gather - and they know what worked for them. If you want personal recommendations for what to use on your thruhike, why not go where the thruhikers are and ask them?

But remember - what worked for them may not work for you. Everyone's different - each of us has different expectations, abilities, mechanical aptitude, size and shape, comfort level, preferences, etc. So learn as much as you can about as many different kinds of gear and as many ways of doing things from as many different people as possible. Then if one way doesn't work you'll have the knowledge to try something else. Some people learn just one way to do things - and then if it doesn't work for them, they go home early (quit the Trail). I'm not a believer in going home early.

When you're looking for equipment, there are a lot of factors to consider - price, weight, and all the "ilities" (durability, utility, maintainability, replaceability, etc.)

Let's start with price - some people think you get what you pay for and they go out to buy, for example, a pack for their thruhike. So they buy the biggest, baddest, roomiest, most comfortable and expensive pack they can find. And it usually weighs between 7 and 10 pounds. That's cool - as long as I don't have to carry it. I wouldn't carry it.

More than that - they expect it to last for a "lifetime". Sorry gang, but it doesn't necessarily work like that. I've thruhiked 3 times and trashed two packs. Ginny has thruhiked four times - and trashed 3 packs. The packs survived, but she wasn't willing to haul those holey, smelly, dirty monsters on another trail. I know of a few (read - VERY few) people who have gotten a second (or even a third) thruhike out of their pack. One of those packs was a Dana - another was a Camp Trails Adjustable II. Price had nothing to do with performance - it was the way they were used.

You'll do what you like, but my recommendation would be to get the minimum weight, minimum price pack that'll do the job and then donate it to the Boy Scouts after your hike is finished.

I know - that's heresy. But there are a couple good reasons for it - the first is that it helps the Boy Scouts. The second is that it lightens your load. And the third is that if you're a thruhiker, you're probably a gear weenie - and just like boat owners, every year there's some new and wonderful piece of gear (like a brand new pack) that just begs to be taken home.

It's a lot easier to justify giving that new pack a good home if your investment in the old one is in the $100 to $200 range than if it's in the $500 - $600 range. There's a lot less commitment to "forever". I warned you - this is my philosophy - you don't have to use it.

Now let's talk about weight - some people think it's cool - or macho - or necessary to carry a 70 to 80# pack. I won't comment much except to say that those people are usually young, strong and male, or brand-new backpackers, or very experienced backpackers (read - "set in their ways" or maybe "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"). We all have some of the "if it ain't broke" attitude - Ginny and I also carry things we won't give up even though it would lighten our packs.

But smart thruhikers are always questioning everything they carry - every time they leave town, they look at what they're putting in their packs and ask themselves - "Do I need all this stuff? Is it too heavy? Is it still useful?" Sometimes the answer is - NO.

If you talk to those who have hiked multiple long trails, most of them will recommend that your pack weight be no more than 25% of your body weight. Personally, I'd recommend even less. My normal pack weight at the beginning of a long hike is 10-15% of my body weight.

Then there are the Jardinites - the ultra-lightweight crew. And there's nothing wrong with ultralight - if you have the experience to support it; if you've tried the techniques in your backyard before you take them out into the "wilderness"; if you really understand the restrictions and caveats that go with the techniques; if you understand that ultralight is a "system" and that using it piecemeal can get you in trouble; and if you have the physical ability to make it work.

Most ultralighters that I've met fail on one or more of the last 3 points. On the other hand, we know people who thruhike the PCT with 9 to 12 pound base-weight packs. But they also have the experience, knowledge and physical ability to get themselves out of trouble - and their "comfort level" is something that most hikers wouldn't want to live with.

There are a lot of thruhikers who don't ever get to the ultralight stage - or even lighten up their packs - until AFTER they've finished their first thruhike. A lot of us finish our first thruhike with packs that are heavier than they need to be.

Ginny and I - and most AT thruhikers (at the end, if not in the beginning of the trail) fall somewhere in the middle. We now carry a combined base pack weight (2 packs - no food or water) of less than 35#. And we still need to dump some weight. Going lighter means an increased probability of finishing - and a more pleasant trip. But we keep in mind that for every increment of pack weight loss there's a corresponding loss of comfort, convenience - and safety.

So now let's get to the important part of the gear discussion - and the part that's rarely discussed anywhere. I won't tell you which tent or boots or pack or water filter to use. But I will tell you that whatever you use, you should know how to use it - before you get on the trail.

There are people who start a thruhike on the AT not knowing how to set up their tent or light their stove or even pack their pack. Not smart. If you're gonna spend 6 months depending on a stove for your meals and a tent for shelter, you might want to start the trail being comfortable with them.

Whether you're starting your hike in Georgia - or the New Mexico desert - that means NOT being afraid of your stove and having to ask someone else to light it for you - or fix it for you if it clogs.

It means NOT spending 30 minutes trying to figure out how to put your tent up while it's raining or snowing on you. It means NOT taking an hour just to stuff your pack - and then having to do it again because pieces start to fall off as you start up the trail - or because it develops a severe list to port. And YES - I've seen all of those - and more - in beginning backpackers and thruhikers.

Like anything else in life - you get comfortable with something by practicing with it. If you're gonna be comfortable with your equipment, it means you'll have to use it - before you go on the trail. And that means you need to do some backpacking BEFORE you start the trail.

Sometimes - although very rarely - you'll run into a piece of gear that just WON'T work for you -- the "perfect" sleeping bag that just won't keep you warm, the stove that you just CAN'T get to work for you (even if everyone else in the world thinks it's great), the "perfect" pack that just can't be made to fit right, the tent that leaks no matter how often it's been seam-sealed. It happens.

I'm an engineer - and a really good mechanic. But several times in my life there's been a piece of equipment that I simply DON'T get along with. You can say what you want about anthropomorphizing inanimate objects - but there are some machines that simply don't like me and won't work for me. And, believe me, it happens to you, too.

It's another really GOOD reason to take that gear out and test it before you commit 6 months of your life to it. It gives you a chance to replace gear that WON'T work for you - before you start hiking.

Whatever equipment you use, you should also know how to maintain and repair it - again, before you start the Trail. If your stove clogs and you don't know how to fix it, you have a problem. Do you know how to patch your Thermarest? Or replace your water filter cartridge? If not, then learn. Read the instructions, talk to the salesperson who sold it to you, ask a thruhiker, whatever it takes for you to be knowledgeable enough to keep your equipment operable for 6 months - and that's a LOT different proposition than a weekend trip.

OK - you're on the trail and your water filter quits/clogs/breaks/whatever. Or your pack comes apart at the seams. Or maybe your sleeping bag develops a massive down leak. Or your boots blow out. So what do you do? Who do you call? How do you get it replaced - FAST? Do you have the 800 number for the manufacturer? Do they stand behind their equipment/warranties? How fast are they willing to ship what you need? If they won't work with you, do you have the number for Campmor or the outfitter you bought it from or -- anyone else? Can you get it replaced locally (like the next town) - or will you have to wait 6 weeks for it? Those are the kind of questions that go with "replaceability".

And some of them aren't really answerable before you're on the trail - but some of them are. Get the 800 numbers - and carry them with you. Call the 800 numbers - and talk to their customer service people - you may decide to carry someone else's equipment. Check out the location of the outfitters along the trail that you're gonna hike - how close are they? How can you get there? And sometimes - how expensive are they? And then, how will you get back to the trail?

One last thing about gear -- don't EVER put others down because what they're carrying is too old - or too much - or too new -- or not enough - or whatever. There are a multitude of reasons for that, but I'll give you just a few. First - it can be REALLY embarrassing to make a disparaging remark about someone's gear and then find out that they started the trail 3 weeks after you - and will finish 3 weeks ahead of you. Or that they've thruhiked 4 or 5 times. Think about that one.

And then, remember that Earl Shaffer finished the AT (again) with equipment that most of today's hi-tech "backpackers" wouldn't even allow in their house. Could you do it with the equipment he used?

And third, how would YOU feel if someone said that about you? What most people don't realize when they start a long trail is that someone WILL say those things about them after they've walked a couple thousand miles.

Just remember that everyone carries what they want, or what they can afford or what's available. And they're the ones who have to live with their choices. Unless they ask for your opinion, they don't want or need to hear it. As I was taught - unsolicited advice is just veiled criticism.

It's not about equipment - it's a head trip. And I'll keep on saying that.

Created: 30 June 2004
Revised: 30 Sept 2016
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