Eight (Overlooked) Essentials Every Thru-Hiker Should Carry
Throughout my 2016 AT thru-hike, I consistently carried one of the heavier packs on the trail. I knew this was gonna be the case when I started – and I quickly accepted it would stay that way early on in my hike. It didn’t take long for me to realize this either – thankfully I had “ultralighters” point this out ad nauseam (but that’s another story).
To be honest, I did carry a lot of stuff I should have left at home. For example, I started hiking north from Springer with a chair. In my defense, it only weighed a pound and condensed quite nicely – I’ll touch on that later. But some of the things I carried turned out to be hike-savers. The inspiration to purchase many of them came from fellow thru-hikers I shared the trail with or from reading the trail journals of former thru-hikers. (Tip: Be observant. And don’t be afraid to ask why someone is carrying something and where they got it.)
At the end of the day, your choice in backpack, tent, sleeping bag, trekking poles, boots, etc. is up to you – it ought to be based on whatever fits you best, not what you read off some online gear list. That said, you should buy everything on this list. I’m pretty sure I would have finished my thru-hike regardless, but the following items made life a whole lot easier.
And that’s what they’re technically called. I started my hike with a Snow Peak Titanium Spork – I liked how it nestled inside my GSI Outdoors Halulite 1.1 Liter Boiler (highly recommended, by the way). But that was the problem. If my 6.5 inch spork (the only means I had to stir the boiling food in my cook pot) fit inside my pot, then what was keeping my fingertips from getting scalded as I made dinner? Absolutely nothing – I suffered for nearly a week until I could find an outfitter who carried one.
While it may look a little comical, a long spoon is truly indispensable – especially if you’re planning on eating Backpacker’s Pantry or Good To-Go (if you can afford them, some of the best on the market) freeze dried or pre-packaged meals. You’ll definitely need a long spoon to reach all the way to the bottom.
After I finally bought one, I didn’t know where to carry it in my pack – it didn’t fit inside my GSI boiler. I ended up clipping it to the outside of my pack with the next item on my list I deem to be indispensable. And the combination of these two items hanging off my pack made for a great bear alarm, by the way.
Days hiking until I wanted one: Probably one. I burned my fingertips that first night at Springer – I actually considered carrying chopsticks to solve my stirring-boiling-foods problem. But I stubbornly powered through. I bought a long spoon in Franklin, NC.
2. Titanium Cup
I decided to participate in a gear shakedown with a few hikers I met early on while taking a zero day in Hiawassee, GA – I ended up sending nearly three pounds of pointless gear home. One of these items was my 14-ounce Titanium cup. I deemed it pointless because I had never used it – it stayed clipped to my pack hobo-style for nearly a week completely untouched.
And wouldn’t you know, as soon as I mailed it home I ran into trail magic – in the form of piping-hot coffee on a cold spring morning. But the extremely thoughtful trail angel had run out of Styrofoam cups. I had to bust out my GSI boiler (buried deep in my pack) in order to receive my cup o’ Joe. I remember cursing myself for sending it home.
Days hiking until I wanted one: Ha. Again, probably one. Especially since I had just sent mine home. I bought a replacement in Gatlinburg, TN even though I could have had it shipped back to me somewhere up trail. I just didn’t want to miss out on another opportunity to enjoy drinkable trail magic (which was quite frequently).
The 14 oz. (that’s volume, not weight) cup did end up coming in extremely handy. When it came to filtering water, I didn’t carry Nalgenes or SmartWater bottles like many hikers – I solely relied on two-liter Platypus collapsible water bags. I quickly found that my titanium cup was the best way to fill a Platypus from a spring or stream – just scoop and pour, scoop and pour.
I’ll be honest – I was undecided as to which water filtration system I’d be carrying up to the very day before starting my hike. I brought my SteriPEN Adventurer with me from Seattle to Atlanta – I personally like it. It’s well suited to the pristine streams and rivers routinely found in the Pacific Northwest. But I was back in Appalachia now – and I knew the springs I’d be gathering water from were bound to be murky and muddy (they often were).
I had read about the Sawyer Mini in trail journals and gear lists, but that’s as far as my knowledge went. It had been years since I backpacked prior to my AT thru-hike – I was had never even laid my hands on a Sawyer until the very night before I started hiking north. I purchased one at an REI in Atlanta and was instantly impressed. The thing worked beautifully – and I never looked back. Over the course of my hike, I ended up purchasing about five of them – two because I let them freeze and three more because I got lazy with my backflushing (New Jersey’s bog water was solely responsible for the destruction of one).
And for such a great piece of equipment, they’re relatively cheap. I was able to secure one at a Walmart for twenty bucks – most outfitters in trail towns sold them for about thirty.
Days hiking until I wanted one: In this case, I started with one. But it took probably about two weeks before I figured out the best way to use it for me. I inlined my Sawyer Mini into the drinking tube attached to a two-liter Platypus. I’d simply fill my Platypus straight from the water source and throw it in the brain of my pack – that way, the Sawyer would filter the water as I sucked through the tube.
4. Multiple Pairs of Darn Tough Socks
One thing I remembered from Boy Scouts was the importance of wearing wool socks. When I was in gear-buying mode as I prepped for my thru-hike, I certainly kept the “no cotton” rule in the front of my mind as I shopped. But when it came to socks, there are a lot of wool and synthetic types out there – and after trying out nearly every brand, I eventually settled on two pairs of Darn Tough Light hiking socks.
I liked them a lot – they worked out great! I hiked those first few days with virtually zero blisters or hot spots. I’d wear one pair and let the second pair hang from my pack to air out. Then it got consistently rainy. It didn’t take long for my two pairs to stay constantly soaked – and I suffered. I know why I only thought I needed two pairs of socks (because that’s what I read online, duh). But practical experience quickly showed me otherwise.
I searched for wool socks in Hiawassee, GA – no dice. I finally found Darn Toughs in Franklin, NC – and bought three extra pairs. Overkill? Maybe, but I never had foot problems (related to socks) during the rest of my hike. And there’s just something nice about starting out the day with dry socks.
Days hiking until I wanted one (or in this case, more): Four days exactly. Oh, I remember this well. I had just summited Blood Mountain in a soaking (and scary) thunderstorm. I decided to push on past Mountain Crossings and stealth camp just a few miles up-trail. As I was hiking, I noticed a sharp pain coming from my heel. I stopped and took off my boots – my right heel was nearly rubbed raw. And I didn’t have another dry pair of socks to put on. I suffered for a few days (and went through lots of tape) before I finally found myself in dry socks again. Lesson learned, indeed.
So hiking around with five pairs of socks may have staved off blisters and raw spots, but they did nothing to help with the nagging foot pain I soon began to experience days after starting my hike. I was hiking in boots that I liked (and that fit and were broken in) – I was also properly using trekking poles. But about a week into my hike, the area on the bottom of my foot between my arch and the balls of my feet started killing me.
It was suggested I buy a pair of insoles the next chance I got. Thankfully, I was able to grab a pair at the outfitters located next to Ron Haven’s Budget Inn in Hiawassee, GA (didn’t stay there – sure wish I had). And those Superfeet worked like a charm! My foot pain was all but eliminated over the course of a few days. Apparently, all that extra weight I was carrying had been doing a number to my arches. I’m pretty sure I met only a few thru-hikers over the course of my hike who didn’t swear by Superfeet.
Days hiking until I wanted one: Two days. As soon as it was suggested I buy them – I did. And they worked. I was also able to get extra miles out of my boots, which were thoroughly worn in by the time I started my hike.
I started hiking north with the ever-present A.T. Guide – its green cover quickly became an instant tell as to who was a thru-hiker whenever I emerged from the woods at a road crossing or into parking lot. That book is truly important – we all carried one. Aside from the elevation profiles (super handy), mileage markers (obsessively handy) and water sources (life-savingly handy), it also has detailed maps of trail towns complete with the locations and phone numbers of hostels, outfitters, grocery stores and restaurants.
But it doesn’t contain maps of the trail itself – so you don’t know where you’re at in relation to everything else. And that’s where Guthook’s guide comes in. Downloadable as an app to practically any smart phone, Guthook’s uses GPS to show your exact position on the AT on a detailed, full-color map – and it works in airplane mode. And, like the AT Guide, this app has an elevation profile mode – it also shows where water sources, campsites, scenic outlooks, summits and road crossings are located. Additionally, you can tap the location of anything, like a water source, and the app will tell you how far away you are from it. Pretty cool piece of tech.
Days hiking until I wanted one (or learned how to use it correctly): About ten days. I downloaded it last minute the night before my hike – it got decent reviews despite the fact I hadn’t read much about it online. And, yes, I checked it frequently during those first few weeks in the woods. But it has its limitations – the info it provides simply isn’t as detailed as what I found in the AT Guide, particularly when it comes to towns. I eventually discovered that they both served different purposes and used them accordingly – I relied on Guthook’s for on-the-fly info (so how far until the next water source?) and the AT Guide for advanced planning (so how far is that burger place away from our hotel?).
Despite being deep in the woods with spotty cell service, I used my phone a lot. When I wasn’t checking the Guthook’s app or snapping photos, I was writing. I brought along a Zagg Pocket Keyboard to help update my dinky trail journal on a (semi) nightly basis. And while I did carry an external battery, I quickly realized it wasn’t going to be enough to keep my tech powered between recharging opportunities in town.
I left Springer with “The Brick” – a 15oz. behemoth that would charge my iPhone at least nine times before needing a recharge itself. The problem was this thing took a full 48 hours to recharge! I left town multiple times (Hot Springs, NC and Damascus, VA) with only a partially-charged external battery. I ended up buying an additional external battery in Pearisburg, VA as a supplement.
I’m sure by the time the Class of 2017 starts hiking north (or south), there will be something, anything, better than The Brick. (Note: I would include a hyperlink to it so y’all know what not to buy, but I can’t find it online. I’m serious.) I was very impressed with The Brick’s eventually replacement (or, to be completely honest, supplement – yeah, I carried two external batteries…). I found a 12,000 mAh PocketJuice at Walmart for less than thirty bucks.
If I ever do another long hike, I’m buying the biggest damned external battery I can find.
Days hiking until I wanted one (in this case, found a replacement, er, supplement): 24. I was crushed when I left Hot Springs, NC and quickly realized my external battery wasn’t fully charged. Not only did it limit the amount of time I was able to spend writing, I completely had to stop listening to music in order to save juice. It was devastating – by this point in my hike, music had become a huge motivator.
Like I said, I started hiking north with a chair (I know, I know…). I chose to carry an Alite Monarch – in my defense, it was the lightest “backpacking” chair on the market. Ok, I’m an idiot – total rookie move. While I generally eschew the virtues of true ultralight backpacking (to some degree), carrying a chair was a jackass-level decision. I only used it twice – and the second time, I fell out of it, nearly kicking over my stove. By day three, I knew I’d be sending it home – it became the bulk of that three-pound package I mailed from Hiawassee, GA.
But I didn’t want to just sit on the ground. I’m serious. I was filthy dirty about 90% of the time, but at the end of the day, when I was cooking dinner and trying to relax just a little, I didn’t want to plop down in a pile of wet leaves or sit on some janky rock. I needed cushioning. Thankfully, I took a cue from a fellow thru-hiker and purchased the Therm-a-Rest Z Seat. It was the exact same design as my Therm-a-Rest Z Lite mattress and weighed only two ounces. It wasn’t much – but it provided just enough padding to keep my butt dry and comfortable.
Days hiking until I wanted one: Seven. After I sent the Alite home, I sat on the dry sack that held my tent whenever I cooked dinner. It was actually Savage who turned me on the Z Seat – she had been carrying hers since day one. After about a week without a proper seat, I finally decided to buy one the next chance I got. I got lucky – I found one two weeks later at Bluff Mountain Outfitters in Hot Springs, NC.
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I’m sure there’s stuff I missed – and I’m sure you’ll let me know. Thanks y’all and happy hiking!
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