Big Three

Wanna be thru hikers that attempt a social media presence typically start with an “Intention” post. “I just want to announce that I intend to hike the AT in 2024.” There, that is done. An “Intention” post is usually followed up pretty quickly with either a Big Three or Gear List. I think most of the “Intention” posts are kind of cheesy, that’s why mine is the one line above (and one very short paragraph in my introduction). I really love the Big Three and Gear List posts and continue to read all of these I come across. If “Intention” posts are your thing, I will be sure to sprinkle my intentions through all my non-intention posts.


The 40 inch long, ⅛” thick foam pad mentioned below was given to me by Ron Bell, the owner of Mountain Laurel Designs. My mentioning that I got it from him is probably much more than he intended to get as part of our transaction. He had a pile of them in his workshop and I think he really wanted most of them gone. All the other gear I purchased with my own money, typically while on sale, always after my wife had purchased similar gear for herself.

I am fortunate to be in a position where I can afford the gear presented below. Twenty years ago, I was using a huge Kelty pack that was very used when purchased. I slept in a 7-pound Alps Mountaineering sleeping bag purchased new for under $50. And my tent was a closeout special from a local shop getting ready to go out of business. Even though the gear was cheap and heavy, it provided the opportunity for many, many unforgettable (in a good way) days and nights on the trail and in the woods with my children. Slowly, over many years, I have learned, saved up money, and refined my gear as I have fallen more in love with backpacking.

Backpack – ULA Circuit

I’m starting this list with my backpack because all thru hikers have to have something to carry everything in. I had a difficult time picking this piece of gear. There are so many good choices and everyone I spoke to loved the choice they made. After months of online and on trail research I narrowed it down to the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest, and the ULA Circuit. I really wanted the Mountain Laurel Designs Burn to be on my finalist list but was concerned about the cost to get all my gear light enough for the pack to be comfortable. Ron, the magician at MLD, is a friend and former neighbor of mine.

The ULA Circuit eventually won. I have used the pack for over 400 miles so far and it still looks brand new. The Circuit held all my gear and way too many days of food on the Foothills Trail in SC, an attempt to climb Mt Whitney, a weekend in the Cranberry Wilderness, and many weekends on the AT. This is the most comfortable, even with 12 pounds of food, of the 4 packs I have owned over the last 45 years. Yes, I like to use my gear for a long time. Several features led me to pick this pack: 1) it is the lightest available pack that will literally last forever, 2) very customizable, the hip belt, pack, and shoulder straps are all configurable at order time, 3) large hip belt pockets, 4) made in the USA.


The author and his beloved backpack on a shakedown hike

The only questions left about my pack are to use (or not) a rain cover and shoulder strap pouch.

Sleep System – Katabatic Gear Flex 22, Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite, ⅛” foam pad (40 inches long)

I spent almost as much time looking for the perfect sleep system as I did looking for a backpack. Many quilts, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads were considered. I really wanted the Katabatic Gear Flex 22 but it is very pricey. When the 2022 model went on sale, I almost pulled the trigger but hesitated a bit too long and they were gone. A few weeks later I learned about GGG and discovered that they had the 2022 model on sale, and I did not hesitate.

The Flex 22 is my newest piece of gear. I was looking for a warm quilt that would also work in the summer, if the night got cool. The Flex 22 has been perfect. I took it out several times over the summer, kept it beside me in the tent, and would pull parts of it over me as the night cooled. Recently there have been a few nights in the low 30’s and the quilt has kept me very warm while just wearing some lightweight running shorts and a long sleeve t-shirt, but nothing on my nearly bald head.

Everyone on the trail uses a Therm-a-Rest sleep pad. Maybe not everyone, there are a few outliers. My first popped due to poor tent site selection and Therm-a-Rest fixed it for $20. I purchased a second one while waiting for the repair because there was no way I was going back to my 1990’s vintage Trail Lite self-inflating pad. Pro tip, putting a ⅛” thick foam pad (Thanks Ron!) under the NeoAir, or any pad, will silence the crackling sound. Please do this in consideration of your camping neighbors.

Tent – Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3

Yes, this is a big tent, but my wife does allow me a slender section on one side. The Big Agnes Copper Spur is a huge upgrade from the Lanshan 2 we previously used. I really wanted another trekking pole tent, but none of them had the same space as the Copper Spur. We finalized our decision when Taylor (Nahamsha) made the switch from a trekking pole tent to a free-standing tent in PA. We are thrilled with the purchase.

Big Agnes Copper Spur

The author’s tent at the haunted shelter on the AT

On our Whitney attempt there was torrential rain, not to mention the gale force winds and hail. We planned to camp at Trail Camp and make a summit attempt the next morning. The winds were so strong and the hail so stinging that we decided to go back down the trail about a half mile to a flat spot next to a cliff wall. While the granite wall provided some protection from the wind, the tent did fully collapse many times during the night. When the hail turned to rain, a stream quickly formed under our tent.

It had been years since I slept on a water bed, this experience was similar. My NeoAir floated nicely on top of the water flowing beneath the tent. In the morning there was NO water or dampness in the tent. We are so happy with this purchase. Big Agnes sold us a new (used) set of poles for about $50 and Tent Pole Technologies unbent out bent poles for a little bit less. I now have two sets of poles, should someone need a replacement.

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Comments 6

  • Robert Jubin : Dec 14th

    I too love my Copper Spur UL 2, there is only one of me, and gave up my X-Mid 2 because of its larger footprint and trying to squeeze it into some spots. Another hiker asked if I parachuted in. Plus I can move the Spur much easier if I find I set it in a questionable spot. Pull the pegs, move it, and re-peg. I use my 1/8 pad more for pad protection than noise reduction. With all the snoring and farting going on in shelters or nearby tents, what’s one more crackle? Oh yeah, and the mice scratching around.

    I we run into each other on trail, say hello!

    Happy hiking!

    -Movin’ On

    • Mack McGhee : Dec 19th

      Waking up my wife with loud crackling noises is dangerous to my health….

  • Michael Veronesi : Dec 18th

    Good luck macK on your through hike. I’m Gonna do a 2024 flip flop myself and although im from virginia myself ‘Waynesboro’. I’ll be doing the flip and the flop from nearer to center. But same way Nobo then sobo. Hopefully you and your wife have a great time, like we all should. Michael

    • Mack McGhee : Dec 19th

      Looking forward to chasing you in the spring! We are actually hiking the whole trail NOBO, 311 to ME, GA to 311. Happy Trails.


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