The Shocking Moment of Truth — or a Desperate Plea for Packing Help

heapedFor the past eight months, ever since I decided to attempt an AT thru-hike, I’ve been accumulating hiking gear. Since I tend to be somewhat anal (okay, totally obsessive), I’ve been doing exhaustive research, then buying each item piece by piece to be sure I’m getting exactly what I’ll need.  So today, with my closet bursting — and less than three months until I begin my thru-hike — I figured the moment of truth had arrived.  It was time to try packing my bag.

But as I pulled everything out of the closet and began spreading it across the bedroom floor, I couldn’t believe how much stuff I had.  Mountains of it.  Way too much to ever fit in my backpack.  But maybe it only looked like a lot. After all, I’ve been doing my homework.  I know everything should serve two purposes.  I’ve collected dozens of sample gear lists and studied them with an intensity akin to a nuclear inspector, weeding out anything even remotely unnecessary from my pile.  I’ve even calculated my toiletries down to the day so I’d know exactly how much to take (my travel size face cream, for example, lasts precisely two weeks).  After all that meticulous research, there was no way on earth I had too much stuff.

grouped1

Roughly sorted

Trying to remain optimistic, I sorted things into categories: my sleep system, my clothes, items I’d want in the outside mesh pocket like my water filter and tarp.  When I was done I felt more organized, but it still seemed like an awful lot of gear.  But looks can be deceiving, right?  Fighting off my mounting uneasiness, I began to pack.

I put the underquilt into the backpack first — loose because it took up less space that way.  However, the top quilt (Enlightened Equipment Revelation) took up a shocking amount of room no matter what I did.  I finally crammed it into a compression sack, which helped a bit, and jammed smaller items around it.  Then I added the items I needed to keep dry, like my sleep clothes, and finally, the remaining gear.  I used stuff sacks for some, and put the others in loose, ruthlessly culling anything I could mail myself later, like extra insoles, or leave at home. Still, the backpack filled up fast.  Alarmingly fast.  As in OH MY GOD I’VE GOT WAY TOO MUCH STUFF fast.

compressionNow I know what you’re thinking.  I should have bought my equipment first, then gotten a backpack that would accommodate it all.  I know that.  I read that advice in multiple articles and blogs, but decided it didn’t pertain to me.  At my age I need to hike light, and I figured that if I stuck to a medium-sized pack (the ULA Circuit), it would force me to carry fewer things.  And I have to say that my strategy worked great — except for one tiny hiccup.  I don’t have any room for food!

face-cream

Face Cream

Yep.  The good news is that almost everything else fits just fine.  Even better, my base weight (without food or water) is 13 ½ pounds.  It will probably be closer to 15 once I add my toiletries and cell phone, but I’ll keep working to lower that some.  The bad news, of course, is that there is no way on earth I can hike without food.  And right now the food bag simply won’t fit. I’m guessing that I need to put more things on the outside of my pack to accommodate the food, but I’m not sure how to do that.

So I’m sending out an urgent plea for help.  If anyone has any suggestions, I’d be eternally grateful for any advice you might have.  Because otherwise, it’s total panic time!

UPDATE: Here is my current gear list for anyone who would like to critique it. I decided to put the underquilt in loose instead of in the compression sack. By pushing down much harder, I was able to cram in a few more things.

Side pockets:

water bottles

Outside mesh pocket:

Sawyer mini filter and bag

Bug head net

Tiny Sea to Summit Ultra Sil bucket

Hammock gear cuben fiber tarp and stakes

Tent stake/trowel

Rain kilt (z-packs, doubles as a ground tarp)

Outside belt pockets:

Cell phone (doubles as my camera), sunscreen, chapstick, tiny bottle of Bonner’s soap, snack for the day, glasses.

Hanging on the outside:

Accordion sitting pad (12×15)

Rain jacket (Patagonia M10), doubles as a windbreaker

Pack cover (blaze orange for hunting season)

Lucy light (so it will recharge)

Inside a plastic waterproof liner in the pack:

Warbonnet Wookie underquilt (loose)

EE Revelation top quilt (loose)

Hammock (Warbonnet Blackbird)

Stuff sack with sleeping clothes (Under Armour fleece beanie, wool socks, smart wool mid-weight long underwear top and bottoms).

Down jacket (Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer), doubles as a pillow

Fleece hoodie (ExOfficio)

Fleece gloves

Summer clothes: shorts, t-shirt, socks, extra underwear

Thin spiral notebook and pen

(I’m using extra carabiners to attach things to the outside.)

Still need to squeeze in:

Toilet paper

Toiletries, extra underwear, earplugs

AWOL pages

First aid supplies in a baggie

Camp/river sandals

Permits, ID, cash

Petzl head lamp

(This is assuming that I’ll be wearing my long pants, long-sleeved shirt, socks, hiking shoes, and hat.)

 

 

full-pack1

Almost there

full-pack2

The space I have left

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Comments 43

  • Kate G : Dec 30th

    I’m envious of your base weight (mine’s about 20 lbs) and convinced you can find a way to make this work! If your topquilt is one of the largest items, can you find a way to strap that to the outside of your pack? Or maybe your hammock? I was able to put my hammock and underquilt still attached together in the stuff sack that came with the hammock, so maybe you could experiment with that to see if it helps at all? I was shocked and disheartened when I packed up with a full 5 days of food how much space a food bag takes up, but I did manage to squeeze everything in. Do you have a friend who’s good at packing Tetris? It seems like the sort of problem that would be easiest to solve hands-on.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Dec 30th

      I can try putting the hammock and underquilt together, Kate. That might give me a bit of space. I’m leery of putting them on the outside because the under quilt and top quilt are both down, and I want to make sure that they stay dry. But clearly I need to free up space! My base weight is low because I’m not taking anything! It’s depressing, actually.

      Reply
      • Kate G : Dec 30th

        Yes, if you did decide to put them outside you would want them in a waterproof stuff sack. I have my topquilt in one of those anyway because I am paranoid about it getting wet! Having very little stuff seems better than lugging extra stuff up a bunch of mountains. It sounds to me like you are doing it right and hopefully you will start to feel less down about taking so few things once you’re on the trail.

        Reply
        • Gail Barrett : Dec 30th

          I have a plastic liner in my pack for the same reason, but I wonder if that is part of the problem. It might be constricting the space. On the other hand, I will be miserable trying to carry too much stuff so I really do need to make do with less if I can.

          Reply
          • Two Peas - Robert & Kristin : Jan 1st

            We thru hiked 2016, see our gear list & 30 days in “what we learned” journal entry, along with our ending hike gear list entry. We learned – “you pack your fears”. We went commando, ditched side pocket water bottles (challenge to reach). Amongst other things, we learned along the way. We even sent items home 4 months in…..you will be surprised what you think is important!!

            http://www.trailjournals.com/twopeas
            Feel free to email us !!

            Reply
          • Two Peas - Robert & Kristin : Jan 1st

            We thru hiked 2016, see our gear list & 30 days in “what we learned” journal entry, along with our ending hike gear list entry. We learned – “you pack your fears”. We went commando, ditched side pocket water bottles (challenge to reach). Amongst other things, we learned along the way. We even sent items home 4 months in…..you will be surprised what you think is important!!

            http://www.trailjournals.com/twopeas
            Feel free to email us !!

            Reply
            • Gail Barrett : Jan 2nd

              Congratulations, Two Peas! That’s a huge accomplishment. I’m sure you’re right about the fear part. It will be interesting to see what we end up with at the end of our trip v. at the start. I’ll check out your link right away!

              Reply
    • Pam & Jay : Jan 1st

      Hi there! My husband and I (we’re 55 & 57) are planning the AT hike for April 2017 also! We’re doing the modified flip-flop Cool Breeze, starting in Bear Mountain, NY. Do you have a friend that can ship your summer gear? I would also suggest checking your list with others who have done the trail. There are many websites and Facebook pages when you start looking.

      Reply
      • Gail Barrett : Jan 1st

        Hi Pam! We should see you on the trail. We are going to slackpack Maryland starting toward the end of March, depending on the weather. Then we will continue north. We should cross paths with you then! That’s an interesting thought about not taking the summer clothes right away. It’s only a pair of shorts and tshirt, but I will give it some thought. We live near Harper’s Ferry, so I could pick them up when we do our flip, assuming I won’t need shorts up north in May and June.

        Reply
  • Claudia Wilson : Dec 30th

    I can recall laughing about a Gram Weenie agonizing over the weight of an extra Smart water bottle cap. That was before I truly realized that grams add up to ounces add up to pounds. It took hitting the trail for that to be meaningful. Off loading extras in a hiker box or at the PO was a cause for joy. Nothing feel better than lighter pack weight…

    …except a well packed and correctly fitted backpack.

    I learned how to pack by YouTube videos and that went well enough from the beginning. Fitting my pack, having bought it online, was another matter. Mountain Crossings helped with that (I’m still grateful, Jason) of course that was 30 miles in, but boy, even seemingly minor adjustments made a considerable difference in stability and comfort.

    Lots of thing will fall into place for you as you approach go time and then hike a couple of weeks.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Dec 31st

      Claudia, I read that book, too, and had the same reaction…until I tried hiking with 20 pounds on my back one day. That sobered me up fast! I’m trying like mad to eliminate weight, so I don’t really think I have too much stuff. I just need to learn to pack it right. I’ve experimented some more, and if I can attach my hammock and a few other items to the outside, that will free up space. Time for YouTube, I guess!

      Reply
      • Kathy : Dec 31st

        I read back through your posts looking for the size of your pack … how big is it? We’re hiking the Colorado Trail in August and I am planning to buy a smaller pack, BUT food is a necessity and I don’t want to run into the same problem you are having (not enough room). I am looking forward to following you on the AT this year.

        Reply
        • Gail Barrett : Dec 31st

          Kathy, it says 68 liters in one advertisement, although I thought it was closer to 50. Either way, it is not a tiny pack. I am obviously doing something wrong because in theory, everything should fit. On the other hand, I’m not carrying a bear canister, just a bear bag. I don’t think a canister would fit, but maybe others would disagree. I love the pack otherwise and have been really happy that I got it. My husband has the same pack and really likes his, too.

          Reply
  • Christine : Dec 31st

    Make a spreadsheet or check out lighterpack.com and share so you can get suggestions for items to cull. I wouldn’t carry the hand or face cream unless it was medically necessary…..I find it hard enough just to keep hands and face clean let alone moisturize them. Sounds like you are on the right track with a 13.5lb base weight though! Have you done a shakedown hike to test out all your equipment yet? Hope to see you out there…..I’m flip-flopping from Rockfish Gap mid to late April. Happy Hiking! 🙂

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Dec 31st

      Christine, the cream really is medically necessary. I’m a 62 year old with a redhead’s complexion, and I have had multiple basal cell cancers over the years, even losing the tip of my nose to one. So cream and sunscreen are vital for me, as is a hat. The cream is in a one inch container (see the new photo I added), so it’s hardly taking up any space. In fact, I’ll be lucky not to lose it since it’s so small. I’m taking the sunscreen in tiny travel sizes, too. I plan to resupply frequently so I don’t have to carry more than a five or six day supply of anything. And no, I haven’t done a shakedown trip, unfortunately. I planned to, but my hammock and tarp came too late in the season, so unless we have a sudden warm spell, I’m out of luck. My husband and I are flip flopping from Harper’s Ferry. We’ll begin sometime in March and basically slackpack through Maryland because we live here, then head out for real:). We are slow, so maybe you’ll catch up!

      Reply
      • Christine : Dec 31st

        Gail, I’m just a couple years behind you so not sure I’ll catch up, but I hope so! One thing I’ve learned on my backpacking trips over the last couple of years is that everything works itself out, as I’m sure it will for you. Thanks for sharing your journey with the world and best of luck on your hike!

        Reply
        • Gail Barrett : Jan 1st

          Thanks, Christine! I tried pushing the stuff down harder, as one person suggested, and it helped. I guess I need to develop some muscles!!! Hopefully this will become second nature and I’ll be packing like a pro before long. My learning curve seems especially steep, though, since I am so inexperienced. You’ll be much better prepared than I am when you do your thru hike!

          Reply
  • NOtebook : Dec 31st

    Overall it seems like you are committed to ultralight, but when I read face cream and moisturizer I felt like I was listening to a dieter casually mention the chocolate cake and pumpkin spice latte he was having later.

    Reply
    • NOtebook : Dec 31st

      One thing I realized when I got out there is that thru-hiking is not one long haul but dozens of 3-6 day trips. When you start thinking that way it can make it less overwhelming. If you have to have face cream, put enough for three or four days in a contact lens case. In the next town, buy a new tube (or raid the hiker box) and just get what you need. It’s hard to get over the sense of wastefulness, but when you put leftovers in the hiker box someone will use them.

      Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Dec 31st

      NOtebook, I’ve posted a picture of my face cream. It’s a tiny travel sized container, one inch high, so it’s not really the problem. In fact, I’ll be lucky not to lose it since it’s so small! And unfortunately, I can’t go without a few skin care things like sunscreen. I’ve had multiple skin cancers, and even lost the tip of my nose to one, so I have to protect my face. It’s either that or stay indoors.

      Reply
  • Lisa : Dec 31st

    I admit, I purchased the Gossamer Gorilla pack. I absolutely love it. After a few trial runs I learned how crucial being it is to be organized. I was carrying multiple items trying to decide what works for me. And food and water take up lots of crucial space. And packing at home is different then packing up after a night on the trail. If I had the funds I would consider trying a slightly larger pack. But instead I just chose a less bulky cook system, and learned how to utilize some of those weird pockets of empty space.

    Good luck and you will soon figure out what works for you!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Dec 31st

      Lisa, I’m considering going without a stove altogether, to be honest. It might mean carrying heavier food, but it might be worth it. I’m still researching that! And I hear you about being organized. I think that’s the key.

      Reply
  • Brian : Dec 31st

    Do you have a gear list up somewhere? I’ve been ultralight backpacking for about a decade now and I would love to help you tweak your list. My email is bcgobraves at gmail if that’s easier.

    Reply
    • Brian : Dec 31st

      Took a closer look at your photos. If that bottom photo is of your pack with all that stuff in it, it appears you actually have a LOT more room inside. Take a look at some photos of this pack online–it should be able to extend upwards quite a bit more, so it’s up behind your head at least. You may have to loosen some of the straps in order to accomplish this, but the pack definitely holds way more than it’s holding in that photo.

      You’ve done a great job cutting pack weight, so it already looks like there’s not much to cut in terms of gear. Definitely think about what you can put on the outside of the pack, though, if you’re not already. Things you can definitely put outside include the Therm-a-Rest pad, the water bottles (side pockets), the water filter and pouches, any camp shoes you may have, toiletry/TP bag, raincoat–since most of these things are also things you won’t want to dig around in your pack for, it will keep them close at hand, as well.

      As far as inside the bag, I’d probably put the quilts in the bottom of the bag like you started with; I’m surprised the EE quilt is taking up that much space–I have one and it fits in a 7L dry stuff sack with room to spare. You may want to try some stuff sacks that are more square than round–I know Granite Gear has some–since the round ones tend to create dead space (picture filling your bag with baseballs vs filling it with stacked cubes). Next I’d probably stack that tarp bag vertically on top of them, then work everything else around it. That’ll give you some structure while also putting one of the heavier things along your spine.

      Just looking at your photo, if I were going to cut anything I’d get rid of the two Gatorade bottles; they don’t weigh anything but do take up 1.5-2L of space. You probably won’t want more water than can fit in the two SmartWater bottles plus the Sawyer pouches, or if you find that you do, you can easily purchase them. Water is basically the heaviest thing you can carry, so to keep the weight down you won’t want to carry that much at a time (water sources are pretty plentiful on the AT, and you can check the guidebooks for specific mileage to the next source).

      Reply
      • Gail Barrett : Jan 1st

        Thanks for the suggestions, Brian. I tried putting the Revelation top quilt in loose, and it seemed to work better that way. I can try a stuff sack, too, and just push it down harder to see if that’s any better. I suppose it would keep it a bit more organized. I’ve added a couple new photos to the post so you can see how it looks now. Do you think that’s enough room for the food?

        Reply
  • Steady : Dec 31st

    Is the last picture “full” to your standards? Looks like you have plenty of room. You’ve packed some stuff loose, make sure you really squish it in there, put some weight into it. It might help to leave some more things out of stuff sacks and when it seems “full”, just push down harder.

    In that photo you’re also not using any of the extension collar space, just the space in there seems it’d be enough for food.

    Without a gear list it’s hard to judge, but the photos of your stuff look reasonable for fitting in there. I think it might just be a matter of playing with it a bit more.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Jan 1st

      Steady, thank you for that advice! I pushed everything down harder like you suggested, and it helped! I also took the top quilt out of the compression sack and just really crammed it in. I think I’m going to develop some serious muscles on this trip! I added a gear list and a couple of new photos to the post so you can see how it looks. I’m getting closer, I think. I wish the outside mesh pocket stretched more, though.

      Reply
  • Dean : Dec 31st

    The cheapest way to go UL…just don’t take it with you. Worst case…there’s no shame in sending stuff home once you get a better idea of what’s working for you on trail. The truth is “stuff” just becomes a hassle to organize and keep track of. Less stuff = Less stress. As far as shaving grams, most people would be better served focusing on food weight and how much water they actually need to carry (I rarely had more than 1-liter)… this will make a much bigger difference than sawing your toothbrush in half.
    Good luck

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Jan 1st

      Good advice, Dean. I agree about trying to keep track of all the stuff. I have never been a heavy packer. Even on trips abroad I never take more than a small carry on bag because I hate to cart around a lot of junk. But living out of a backpack for six months will certainly be a challenge. Hopefully I can memorize where everything is quickly so I’m not constantly looking for things.

      Reply
  • TicTac : Dec 31st

    Hand cream…..? Face cream…..? Start by deleting those two items as unnecessary luxuries. The problem may be too small a pack, but others have done it. Just be more ruthless in culling.
    I will disagree with the writer who said a liter of water is sufficient. That doesn’t take into account the several liters of water that your body needs during the day. Water fuels our body’s utilization of food, and you are only asking for trouble when you economize with the one thing that you should NEVER economize on, water.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Jan 1st

      TicTac, the cream is a necessity for medical reasons (I’ve had multiple skin cancers, etc.), as is my sunscreen and hat. I am trying to put them in the smallest containers possible, though, so that they don’t take up much space.

      Reply
  • Pat Block : Jan 1st

    Hi Gail…we spoke a while back via FB. I’m still focused on 2018. Try to not over think things. Go thru the list, pack and step out. You’ll figure it out on the trail. Stop and shop or stop and drop as needed. 😀🌴

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Jan 1st

      Hi, Pat! I know a lot of my worry stems from inexperience. Hopefully you’re right. 🙂

      Reply
  • 'Chief' Duffy : Jan 1st

    Gail, I agree with Brian and Steady, looks like in the picture you have lots of room left. My gear is very similar to yours, and I have the same pack. My food bag is my largest item, and it all fits. Are you anywhere near Florida? I could show you easily…not sure I can explain/ My method: first aid kit, winter gear, hammock/tarp in first, trashcompactor bag with quilts and campclothes in loose stuffsacks next, then foodbag including stove and trashbag, then windshirt or raingear on top. Everything else in pockets. Tarp will end up on outside when wet. Fold the top over as much as possible, roll a little if possible and buckle it down. Takes some muscle the first day, then gets easier as foodbag shrinks. All the best, Chief.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Jan 1st

      I wish I were in Florida, Chief. It’s cold here in Maryland! Are you in the Keys by any chance? I like your system. Why don’t you put your hammock in the trash compactor bag, though? Also, I have a question about the outside mesh pocket. I found it very difficult to put anything in there once the bag was full. Do you fill that outside pocket before putting things inside? Thanks!

      Reply
  • Linda Vance : Jan 1st

    Gail, it seems as though the main culprits here are the underquilt and quilt. All these suggestions about the face cream etc miss the point, which is that your weight is good but your space isn’t. You mention you put the underquilt in loose. What made you decide that? I am a cold sleeper, and so I have a monster sleeping bag, and if I did not compress it to its smallest possible size it would eat half my pack volume. I’m wondering about the summer vs winter clothes. If you are slackpacking Maryland (this is a new plan, right?), you may be able to get away with shorts and a T on warm days, with a lightweight underwear set underneath when the weather is inclement. I have never been a big fan of the “hiking in underwear” look but I do it. That way you would have fewer clothes in your pack. But I really think your main issue is your uncompressed sleeping system.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Jan 1st

      Exactly, Linda. The big items are the problem. I began with everything in stuff sacks, and it was actually worse. I took the underquilt out and just squished it down, and it took up less space. I tried a compression sack for the top quilt, but it was like putting a big ball in the bag. I finally took it out and just crammed it down with all my might, and it seemed to work better. As far as my clothes go, the summer ones only consist of shorts and a t-shirt, I will probably leave a couple of the winter things at home when I start southbound at the flip, but I can decide that later. We decided to slackpack Maryland because it seems silly to sleep in the woods when we can go home and shower every night. It will save us a little money on resupplies, too, and help reduce the strain on my feet. Since we hike in this area anyways we will just do it in order.

      Reply
  • Teresa : Jan 2nd

    I would say to drop the “summer gear including camp sandals until your actually in need of them have them sent ahead but I’n a total nube. Good Luck Your an inspiration to the over 40 crowd like me.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Jan 3rd

      LOL. I’m more of a train wreck than an inspiration, Teresa, but I appreciate the thought! One thing is for sure. If I manage to succeed at this, anyone can! My lack of skills is pathetic. I see your point about the camp sandals, but I’m worried that I might need them for fording streams or if I need to use a public (non hotel) shower. If I do take them, though, they are going to have to be tied on the outside. I guess I’ll decide once I load up some food and see if I have space anywhere.

      Reply
  • Stephanie : Jan 3rd

    Gail –
    I am also a hammock fan (Hennessey!) and have done the entire AT section of Maryland in a long holiday weekend. I also keep my pack weight at about 20lbs and use a Granite Gear Virga. I’ve had great luck with a sleeping bag that uses a pad pouch underneath (it’s a Big Agnes, I think) and combined with the very light NeoAir, it seems to hold in plenty of heat for overnights – and that’s with a 40-degree bag (and I’m a cold sleeper!) Might be a more efficient solution than two quilts.Wasn’t sure if you’ve tried that instead of the extra underquilt, but may make a difference for you. I’m in Maryland as well, so I’d be happy to shakedown your gear if it’ll help!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Jan 3rd

      Thanks for the suggestions, Stephanie! Right now I’m stuck with the two quilts due to budget constraints. My husband thinks the top quilt is smaller in a compression sack (like Linda said), so I will just have to keep experimenting and see. Hopefully they will work because I really like them, but time will tell. Where in Maryland are you? It would be fun to meet up and talk. We are out in Hagerstown near the trail (Washington Monument area). We’d love to pick your brain since you obviously have more experience than we do if you’ve got time!

      Reply
      • Stephanie : Jan 3rd

        Gail – I’m closer to Baltimore, but I often drive to the AT for weekend overnights! I know exactly where the Monument is – could be a good meet up once it’s a teensy bit less rainy!

        Reply
        • Gail Barrett : Jan 5th

          Stephanie, if you have a free day between now and the end of March let us know. We’d love to meet!

          Reply

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