5 Things No One Tells You About Packing for a Thru-hike

1. Stuff isn’t just stuff

“Pack light!” everyone says. It’s the night before I leave for Atlanta to start thru-hiking the AT. I have already boxed up my office and apartment, and now I’m deciding which items make the final cut for my pack.

“The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction,” wrote the fourteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart. How much more can I subtract? I wonder. Please, can’t I pack those hand-warmers and that peony lipstick? I’m pretty sure my soul would not grow well without trimmed toenails, so the clippers stay.

Stuff = not just stuff. Every piece I leave behind, every memento someone handed me saying, “I thought this would be light enough for  your pack!” every essential article of clothing that must be returned to a drawer- these things carry weight. Possessions symbolize comfort, safety, and connection to places and people I love. What will I regret bringing? What will I regret leaving behind?

2. No one really has this all figured out

I’m told some prospective thru-hikers make elaborate spreadsheets in which they itemize every piece of gear down to the ounce, and then total it up and see if it meets the desired total pack weight. They meticulously weigh each thing and make judicious choices about what will optimize their thru-hike performance.

I am not those people. I like to figure it out as I go, gathering advice from sources I trust and then hoping for the best. When it comes to numbers and strategies and quantitative thinking in general, my eyes sort of glaze over and I start looking for chocolate.

But tonight, I am wishing I were one of those people. The kind who did not drop calculus class one week into senior year. The kind who maybe tested out their total pack weight before the 11th hour.

Here is what I suspect, though: the whole gear thing shakes out differently for each person, and most folks off-load things as they go. Like going to college or leaving for a foreign country, there’s no way to really know until you get there. I’m still whittling down my pack, but I’m not panicking.

3. You need a few things you love, and only you know what they are

Can you go without a journal? Yes. But I’m not. Could I leave behind the little fortune-cookie-style strips of paper that my friends wrote blessings on? Maybe, but no. Could I give up the little St. Bernard medallion from my neighbors because up till this week I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a patron saint of hikers? Sure. But is this really the time to turn down divine help?

4. Ask for help

People know things I don’t. This is such a relief. I agonized over how clumsy and sprawling my pack was (which caused back-pain just walking up and down the stairs of my parents’ house), and then my nurse sister-in-law and engineer brother and dad got involved and it changed everything. They are pros at loading dishwashers, as well as car trunks full of gear for two kids, and they spent close to an hour rearranging my pack Jenga-style. When I put it on again the center of gravity shifted and I felt my freak-out subside. I’ll keep asking for help along the way. People like to show what they know.

5. It’s just stuff

Stuff = more than stuff, but it’s also just stuff. If I miss something or send something back or curse the day I packed that one heavy piece of gear (spot GPS, I’m looking at you), so what? It’s not permanent.

In the end, stuff isn’t what’s going to carry me through the AT. Soul will. Mine, others’, and that of the trail itself.

So subtract away. And let the soul underneath start to sprout.

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Comments 10

  • Lindsay : Mar 16th

    This is great! I’m hooked!

    • Paula : Mar 16th

      You make me giggle. I know that AT hikers that come through the Center have family mail ‘necessary’ items ahead and we hold it for their planned arrival -I suppose other sites might do that too. I love the reminder that people like to help -it builds community when you let people help.

  • Sian : Mar 16th

    I would not be one of those people either Cari. And I would be the one who has forgotten a vital thing and just wears the same damn thing every single day ! Good luck. Can’t wait to read more ! ❤️

  • Lori Ranette : Mar 16th

    My daughter did NOBO 2018 while I babysat my grand dog & I have a feeling I will enjoy your insights for your adventure as well! Godspeed & enjoy every moment from ATX💜☮️

  • TaoJones : Mar 16th

    You have a great attitude, Cari – I’m confident you’ll have a very successful thru-hike!


  • Brett : Mar 16th

    I’m jazzed someone from my generation is taking the plunge and Trek is including you. I’ll be praying for you every night. God speed!

  • Max Miller : Mar 17th

    Wow! What a challenging and exciting adventure you’re going on. Doing new things and going to new places helps to open the mind to endless possibilities. Have a wonderful and safe treck. You go girl! 🏃🏻‍♀️🏃🏻‍♀️🏃🏻‍♀️

  • Pony : Mar 17th

    One thought: Skip the Nalgene and replace it with a 33.8-oz. Smart Water (or similar) recyclable bottle. Much less weight, and a Sawyer filter fits on top!

  • Robert Thielhelm : Mar 19th

    Chocolate is heavy Cari, so not too much, and instead of nail clippers, a pedicure every here and again might do more for you feet and spirits… Gotta respect the feet, almost above all else (I said almost)… Happy Trails!

  • Margaret : Mar 19th

    Best of luck to you!! God bless!


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