Broken on the AT: Gear That Breaks At 2,000 Miles (And The Gear That Doesn’t)
Are you planning a long-distance hike? Do you want gear that will last the whole time? Of course you do. Who doesn’t!?! Gearing up for a jaunt through the wilderness can be an expensive proposition, and aside from known consumables such as footwear, you really want that pricey gear to make it to the end. Broken gear is a bummer, and the AT sees more than its fair share.
While hikers spend arguably too much time drooling over gear that saves them just an ounce on their baseweight, the lightest gear often trades durability for that weight reduction. This isn’t always the case, but if you want gear that lasts, then you need to consider more than the listed heft on the spec sheet. Sometimes specific materials have a reputation for being more/less durable. Sometimes it comes down to using this highly specialized gear carefully and in the manner for which it was intended. Gear reviews and customer feedback can provide enlightening insight, but even the most careful research doesn’t always pay dividends on the trail.
Ultimately, you won’t know what will last and what won’t until you’re out there putting it to the test. This was my experience on the Appalachian Trail. Below is some of the gear that didn’t make it the whole 2,198.4 miles on the AT — and the gear that did.
The Gear That Broke
Here’s the stuff that didn’t survive the AT. While I don’t think that this is ‘bad’ gear, it just didn’t last for me.
These were the first to go. My REI Flash Carbon Trekking Poles could not withstand the number of times I face-planted. If you’re a gentler hiker, you might be able to make them last longer than I did, but the rocky AT is known to chew up poles. At first, one of the handles broke, so I exchanged them for a new pair in northern Virginia. Then the rocks of Pennsylvania ate another one. I tripped while balancing along the rocks, and my pole decided to snap instead of keeping me upright. Fortunately, I was fine after my tumble, but I related to my poor pole in that moment.
Without an immediate alternative, I continued to use the pole without a tip. The miles wore it down until it felt like a children’s trekking pole, but it still worked. And I would have been fine continuing like this until, in southern Maine, my second trekking pole snapped. This one was worse and broke farther up the shaft. I was screwed. My shelter required two reasonably long poles to pitch and now both my trekking poles were shrinking.
Alternative: Finally, I gave up and switched to aluminum poles, the Leki Voyager. These were quite a bit heavier and I would not recommend them to literally anyone — but I was desperate and needed something cheap that wouldn’t break. Sure enough, I have bashed these poles hard against rocks when I’m tripping around, and they’ve held up.
My partner enjoyed more success with his trekking pole, a Zpacks Carbon Fiber Trekking pole. It lasted for over 1,000 miles until it snapped in New Hampshire. While it was a little heavier than my REI poles, and was made with slightly thicker carbon fiber, this seemed to have paid off in longevity. Still, breaking at 1,000 miles isn’t exactly a glowing recommendation. On a trail as rugged as the AT, trekking poles in particular are one thing on your gear list where ‘lightest’ doesn’t equal ‘best’. The lightest aluminum poles are only slightly heavier than carbon and will be more durable.
READ NEXT — Best Trekking Poles for Thru-Hiking
My NEMO Tensor survived puncture-free until New Jersey. There, I discovered a hole when I woke up on the floor of a shelter. With the help of nearby Crater Lake, I was able to identify and patch the pinhole leak, and this repair held up alright until southern Maine.
This time, I could hear the air gushing out of the pad. In town, I used water again to identify the leak, then patched it with gear patches and copious duct tape. It wasn’t pretty, but surprisingly, this held up with just minor nightly deflation until the Hundred Mile Wilderness where I accidentally ripped the valve open.
The valve was stuck shut as I tried to deflate it, so I pulled harder and — rippppp — no more sleep for me for the rest of the hike. There’s no fixing an inflatable sleeping pad when it rips at the valve.
Alternative: A foam sleeping pad. If you’re concerned that an inflatable pad will let you down (not unlikely on a long thru-hike), just go with a foam pad and get sub-par sleep until you get used to it. An inflatable pad might be more comfortable, but only when it holds air. Otherwise, it’s darn near useless.
However, you might struggle to ditch the inflatable if you’re a side sleeper like me. My hips hurt every morning when using my foam replacement pad. In this case, consider making durability a priority when shopping for an inflatable pad. What you find might weigh more, but there’s no worse use of your precious energy than schlepping around a popped pad.
Gossamer Gear’s The One worked out alright for me — when it wasn’t raining. Similar to other single-walled tents, I found that internal condensation was an issue. On the AT I experience torrential downpours for days on end. While The One kept me from getting soaked, I was still damp. The inner walls would become slick with condensation and occasionally mist on me throughout the night.
Then, towards the end of the trail, the seam sealer tape had degraded to the point where even more moisture infiltrated my sanctuary. Sometimes I woke up in a puddle, which is not the same as having a waterbed. However, the weight and price of The One is unbeatable so I’m deciding to stick with it.
Alternative: Get a double-wall tent such as the Big Agnes Copper Spur or Nemo Dragonfly if the occasional misting during the night bothers you. The additional layer of fabric won’t solve this issue completely, but it will help. For me, the low weight and cost of The One will keep it on my gear list, but I will reseal it with tent sealer and waterproofing spray before I head out again. And if that fails, I will just pretend the mist is a nice spa treatment, or that I am a happy frog.
I started the AT with waterproof stuff sacks from Sea to Summit. Unfortunately, they didn’t last and began to rip around mile 500. The buckle was close to tearing off and a hole in my food bag compromised its functionality. I did not enjoy eating soggy tortillas and wet Cheetos. I probably could have solved this problem with Ziploc bags, but I figured that solution defeated the purpose of having a waterproof stuff sack in the first place.
Alternative: I switched over to Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s stuff sacks, and they lasted the rest of the hike. Alternatively, I could have been more gentle with my first food bag and not overloaded it. In the future, lighter resupplies will be my main priority. Unless there’s some really tasty pizza available.
Just after the AT’s halfway point, I realized my Cotopaxi fanny pack zipper would only shut one way. If I closed it from left to right, the zipper would get stuck and I’d have to grapple with it for a whole fifteen minutes. This was especially infuriating when I was starving and in desperate need of a Clif Bar. This also compromised the waterproofness, so I’d stress when it rained.
Alternative: My partner used an Osprey Fanny Pack which held up the entire time. I might have just gotten a dud from Cotopaxi, or maybe I don’t know how to take care of zippers, but I still expected it to go the distance.
For my next hike, I will be going without a fanny pack and will use the bottom pocket of my Hyperlite Unbound 40 Pack to store all my food for the day. Between this and the hip belt pockets, I don’t expect to miss my fanny pack.
Honorable Mention: Shoes
All shoes die on the Appalachian Trail. Or on any thru-hike — no matter what. The best thing you can do is find the ones that keep your feet comfortable and have realistic durability expectations. If you’re rocking trail runners, then be happy to get 500 miles out of them. Boots will last longer, but not forever. Prepare to replace them multiple times (or become a duct tape/shoe sewing savant).
Alternative: Go barefoot and cry. (I would not recommend this.)
Gear For the Long Haul: What Lasted 2,000+ Miles
Believe it or not, not all of my gear exploded while hiking the AT. The stuff that survived and I trust to last me many more miles includes my ULA Circuit Pack, Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt, and Rawology Cork Ball.
My ULA pack feels like one of the most sturdy pieces of gear I own, can hold a ton of gear, and still carry comfortably. As long as I treat my EE quilt gently, I know it can give me years of warmth. My Rawology Cork Ball has gotten me through everything. It did start to look like an oval towards the end of my hike (because I used it so much), but it helped my foot problems immensely.
Your gear might last longer or shorter than mine did, but how we treat it has a big impact on its longevity. So no matter what you’re using, take care of your gear and it will take care of you, on this hike and many more to come.
Featured Image: An Abby Evans photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldman.
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