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.


Loved my umbrella - here heading through the Presidential Range in NH

Loved my umbrella – here heading through the Presidential Range in NH

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.


Down puffy

While I wore my down puffy all the time when it was cold in camp, this is the only pic of me in it - on Halloween in the Smokies

While I wore my down puffy all the time when it was cold in camp, this is the only decent pic of me in it – on Halloween in the Smokies

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.

Insulated Mug

My trusty NOLS mug

My trusty NOLS mug

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.


Buff making a great ear warmer on Avery Peak in Maine

Buff making a great ear warmer on Avery Peak in Maine

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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Comments 8

  • TicTac : Dec 18th

    I’m totally with you on the Aladdin insulated mug. Mine is from CampMor rather than NOLS, but it never leaves my pack. I can make a cuppa tea in the morning, and it is still warm when I have finished packing my pack and I’m ready to hit the trail. I take a lotta flak about it’s weight (<6 ounces) but it is actually lighter than a double wall Ti mug, and it keeps tea (or hot chocolate) warmer longer.
    I also carry an umbrella, but I have made a holster for it that attaches to my pack shoulder strap, so I can use it while using both poles. It combined with my LiteHeartGear rain skirt is usually all the rain protection I need.

    • Carla Robertson : Dec 18th

      Awesome, TicTac! Aladdin mug users unite! I had forgotten that’s the brand. I’m a big CampMor fan too, being a NJ native -and I have a great CampMor story from my thru hike that I’ll have to share sometime. I bought a double wall titanium mug for my thru and when it arrived, I liked it so much less than my NOLS mug that I returned it. And I’m a big fan of LiteHeart gear too!

  • Robert Sutherland : Dec 21st

    Very encouraging.

    • Carla Robertson : Jan 4th

      So glad you enjoyed, Robert!

  • Nevis Beeman ( Quentin Henderson) : Dec 27th

    Like just about every beginning AT. Hiker setting out I found myself posting unnecessary things to a trusted friend, by the time I reached Hiawassee. But there were a few odd items that stayed in my rucksack all the way to Kathadin….! Being a non citizen of the USA, I carried both my passports ( I have dual citizenship, St Kitts/Nevis & British.) It was important to keep them dry and undamaged….I felt they were essential for ID ‘ in the worst case scenario’
    (especially as a non citizen of the USA)
    But were they absolutly necessary ?

    However definitly the weirdest non essential item I carried was a 1996 Maine licence plate reading “NEVIS WI”
    However In defense of this eccentricity I was fundraising for our museum that honours the birth place of Alexander Hamilton on Nevis..! This plate found on Nevis, was carried all the way ‘home’ to Maine. Merely a simbollic link of course.

    Just to confirm to my eccentric ways, I hiked the whole distance without poles or a sleeping mat….but as many will quote “you hike your own hike”…..

    ( I hiked the AT 2012/13/14)

    • Carla Robertson : Jan 4th

      Cool! So many people bring something important to them in a sentimental way – like your license plate. I had some sentimental items that had no purpose too. And I’m glad I had them, so I totally understand. But I would have been very cold without a sleeping mat!

  • Richard Baglione : Feb 5th

    Dear Carla, Thank you for sharing this article. Hot drinks are very relaxing, a important treat to give yourself.
    LIVING IN Arizona We seldom use a umbrella , but I keep mine in the car just in case. I have visited the Eastern
    USA and you get what I refer to as a (Heavy Downpour, like a waterfall. ) I’VE been planning a section hike of
    NEW HAMPTURE AND VERMONT. I’ve been studying the maps of these two states. WINDY DAYS pop-up often,
    really feel that your correct believing the umbrella protected you from wind and rain. I learn so much from others.
    Thank you, Richard

    • Carla Robertson : Feb 12th

      Hi Richard! So glad this was helpful to you – New Hampshire and Vermont can be very windy – that’s for sure. My umbrella is a special trekking umbrella that can withstand being blown inside out without breaking. That said, there was a rainy day up in the White Mountains, and another day in Maine where I couldn’t use it because it was just too windy. I had to live with just my rain gear. But for the most part my umbrella protected me from rain throughout my hike. Hope you have a great journey in New England!


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