4 “Nonessential” Pieces of Gear I Took on My Thru-Hike and Why I Found Them Indispensable
When you’re planning your gear for your thru hike, every ounce counts. It’s not the same as going out for a long weekend where you might bring heavier extras like a camp chair or a frying pan. Nevertheless, you need things that will keep you somewhat comfortable on your long journey in the woods.
These four items were some of my most comforting pieces of gear on my thru hike, even though they might not be considered “essential”. They’re still my favorites, years later, and go with me any time I take an outdoor journey.
If you didn’t already know this, let me tell you– it rains a lot in the eastern woodlands. A lot. Sometimes every day for many days on end. I love the rain. I love to breathe humid air, I love a forest of lush green-leaved trees, and I love abundant water sources. But I don’t love rain hitting my head, running down my face and wetting my eyelashes. Better than just a hood or a hat, I preferred to carry an awesome ultralight trekking umbrella. I used it in every state. I didn’t strap it to my pack or myself– I just carried it, collapsing one trekking pole on rainy days. When the rain was really cold, like below 40 degrees, my umbrella also seemed to create a little “heat bubble” around me protecting me from the cold air. I’m not sure if it was just my imagination, but that’s how it felt. Carrying an umbrella was an awesome mental health strategy that helped me endure lots and lots of rain.
I don’t care how hot it got, I never sent home my down puffy. Knowing that it was in my pack, ready to keep me cozy once I got into camp on a windy rainy day, or simply serving as the main part of my pillow in my clothing stuff sack, my down puffy was like a dear friend, insuring that I would not freeze. Sometimes I augmented its power with a hand warmer pack stashed in the pockets, sent to me in a care package before the 100 Mile Wilderness, but mostly, my down puffy did its insulating duty all on its own. These days, when it’s winter, whether I’m hiking, going to the grocery store, or simply trying to say warm in my 1800s New Orleans house, you’ll still find me zipped up in it, happy and comfortable.
Some serious thru hikers have one pot. That pot gets used for cooking and for hot drinks. In other words, they can either have noodles or tea but not both at the same time. This is great for saving weight but didn’t work for me. My dinner ritual was to boil water and immediately make a cup of cocoa. I sipped the delicious chocolatey warmness from my awesome green mug while my macaroni cooked. It was my favorite time of day. As an additional perk, my insulated mug had sentimental value as it originated from a NOLS course I took in 1991, reminding me I had once been badass enough to hike with an ice axe.
My buff was one of my most versatile items and it was always within reach. I used it to keep my neck warm, to cover my ears on windy summits, and to insulate my nose on cold nights so I didn’t have to “mummy up” in my sleeping bag. It did duty as a micro towel when I enjoyed an unexpected hot shower at Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania. It was great for wiping away sweat, and worked well to cover my greasy hair on a quick trip to town. On days when I was perspiring like crazy on the uphills and freezing on the downhills, I could keep it wrapped around my wrist so it was handy the moment I felt chilly. Plus it’s indestructible. I’ve had the same one for at least 15 years. There’s a reason they hand those things out to the participants on Survivor.
Your choices may be different, and you’ll have to decide which items are worth the added weight for you. Enjoy figuring out what makes the cut on your gear list to keep you comforted and happy without becoming a burden in your backpack, and share your own favorite “nonessential items” in the comments!
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