AT 2017: The Gear That Actually Worked
Narrowing down your gear and trying to trim ounces from your pack can be one of the most daunting parts of preparing for a thru-hike. You tend to get stuck in a never-ending cycle of adding a bunch of just-in-case items and then ripping out anything you probably won’t use every single day. What happens if you burn a hole in all three pairs of socks and don’t have this fourth? Why would you need more than one pair of pants, anyways? What will really work, what is going to keep you both alive and happy out there on the trail? Most importantly, what balance will help keep you out there, and get you to Katahdin?
There is a golden rule in this preparation: you will make mistakes. The beauty of the trail, though, is that it is as forgiving as it is brutal. Things will break when you least expect them to or feel like you can least afford it. You will probably start out with too many frivolous items and missing one or two things you realize you really need along the way, and that’s totally OK. In all the stress of planning, give yourself some leeway. Grandma Gatewood survived with her sack flung over her shoulder, and you’ll survive even if you don’t start with the perfect setup, or can’t afford the latest and greatest.
I am going to break down for you the gear I carried on my thru-hike, what I carried all the way, what I’m glad I picked up, what I’m glad I ditched. You can see the gear I started out with here.
Osprey Exos 58
The Exos is a well-known trail favorite. It felt like the best of both worlds to me: lightweight with a very comfortable load distribution system, and a heavy hitter. I and most of the hikers around me carried around 30 pound pretty consistently, which tends to push the upper limits of most of the ultralight packs out there, and I wanted to be able to have an accidentally heavy resupply or carry excess water in Pennsylvania without compromising the integrity of my pack (like many of the ultralight packs on the market). Most importantly, except for some holes in the mesh pockets from catching them on rocks or trees (Maine was especially fun for getting strung up by my pack on a tree branch), the Exos held up to the entirety of the trail and probably has hundreds of miles left in it.
Like most hikers, I ended up ditching the brain on the pack. I really like having everything in my pack organized, but it was easier to organize with those cheap ditty bags from Walmart and Ziploc bags.
I was set and ready to use more than one water filter. I had even ordered two more for my parents to send me when I needed it. It seemed too easy for the filter to get clogged or to accidentally freeze it. And yet, the single Squeeze I started with made it through the entire trail.
I think what really helped was this adapter kit, for two reasons: I never had to take my water bladder out of my pack to fill it, and I am pretty confident that the back-pressure from the bladder backflushed the filter regularly. Obviously, you can achieve the same result by regularly backflushing your filter (which all thru-hikers totally, definitely, always do for all six months).
Brooks Cascadia 12s
There are a lot of options for footwear on the trail. Shoes tend to a get a cult following (like the Altras), but everyone’s feet (and knees and hips and back) are different. For the love of Honeybuns, go to an actual shoe store, and actually get fitted. I dragged my aching feet 110 miles in Altras that were not right for me, until I made it to Outdoor 76 and got fitted.
Brooks Cascadias changed my life, but more notably, two pairs got me the rest of the way to Katahdin. Each pair saw about 1,000 miles, and were still comfortable to wear. I did purchase a pair of SOLE insoles in Harper’s Ferry that I wore the rest of the way. No shoe should be worn just because of its popularity, but Brooks really went out of their way to fix the durability of previous models, and I do think they’re worth your consideration if they’re right for your feet.
I loved them so much, I bought another pair after the trail (the Great Smoky Mountains National Park edition are beauties).
I got a lot of flack for carrying a Kindle, but it really was one of the best choices I made. I read something like 35 books on the trail. It was really nice to curl up under my quilt, mix some cheese into my Knorr rice side, and finish a day of hiking with a couple chapters. On zero days (especially the rainy zeros spent in a shelter or tent), I swear my Kindle kept me from going insane from boredom. Bonus, when left on airplane mode, the Kindle got about two weeks of battery life, so it wasn’t sucking any juice from my powerbank pretty much ever.
Darn Tough And Injinji Toe Socks
These socks get a lot of love on the trail, and for a damn good reason. I used two pairs of Darn Toughs the entire way. They hold up like no other socks, they don’t stretch out as they get dirty, and I did not have a single blister on the trail.
Actually, that’s a lie. After about 2,050 miles, my Injinji toe socks finally ripped to the point of being unusable. I assumed, unfairly, that the reason for my lack of blisters was my tough feet and awesome shoes. I grabbed a cheapish pair of generic liner socks for the last stretch of the trail, and experienced quite a few blisters on the bottom of feet as a result. I missed my toe socks the whole time.
Guthook’s App And Podcasts (And Extended Battery And Powerbank)
I used Guthook’s app on the Long Trail, but I didn’t love how much money it would end up costing me to use for the AT. I started with just the AWOL guide, which, for the record, is definitely sufficient and provides more details than the app does on towns. I caved and purchased Guthook’s app before the Shenandoahs, and I couldn’t go back. I loved how easy it was to find water sources or the shelters or how far it was to the summit without convincing myself it’s definitely only half a mile away based on one or two landmarks. I also did use the GPS once or twice to quickly and easily find my way back to the trail after a wrong turn.
A lot of people are against tech on the trail, and I spoke about this in one of the posts I made while hiking, but I absolutely loved the ability to listen to podcasts on the trail. It was really enjoyable to ruminate on TED Talks and social commentary and good comedy while walking and made long days much more bearable.
Big Agnes Slater 2 Plus
For the record, the Slater is basically the Fly Creek, with less mesh. I found it at a discount, which is why I have it. Big Agnes has dominated thru-hiking markets for good reason, so I don’t think it’s a surprise that I loved my tent so much, but I am very glad that I went for the two-person model. I had plenty of room without adding too much extra weight, and I could fit my German shepherd inside when she came to visit, and the extra room let me have some rainy day beer drinking with fellow hikers.
GoLite 3-Season Quilt
This quilt actually isn’t available anymore (GoLite went out of business, some backstock still available), and the quilt itself had some (very manageable) shortcomings. But, this was my first long trip with a quilt and I am a complete convert and avid fan now. Quilts are just so much better and so much more comfortable than bags have ever been
Seriously, for a couple bucks at Walmart or a similar store, you can pick up a couple needles, a spool of black thread, and these wonderful stick on nylon patches. You will need them at some point, like when you burn a hole in the mesh of your tent like the brilliant, wilderness savvy hiker you are.
Related to the repair kit: yes, you need this. Wrap a bunch of it around your trekking poles, and you’ll be one happy hiker. I fixed shoes, leaky Sawyer bags, and reinforced Ziploc bags with it all the time. More fun if you get it in neat patterns.
For $5, you can find a cheap cotton dress that will add only a couple ounces. While some hostels have loaner clothes, many don’t, and if you’re like me, you’ll spend more time cramming hikers into hotel rooms than at hostels and laundromats don’t appreciate it when you borrow clothes out of the neighboring dryer while you wash yours. Having a town dress allows you to feel like a normal human being for six hours, and to wash all one of your hiking outfits at the same time.
Trust me, these are so much better than TP. They’re also multiuse for field baths, cleaning muddy legs, cleaning injuries, cleaning pots. I personally have issues with burying TP on high-use trails like the AT and don’t think it really qualifies as LNT, so I had no issue packing out the baby wipes either.
Pajamas And Dollar Store Clothing
You want a fresh change of dry clothes at night. I pared down most of my clothing as I went, but carefully considering your clothing so that you have a set for night time is worth it. In the beginning and in New Hampshire and Maine, I carried a set of heavier base layers that doubled as PJs. They were heavy enough that I probably wouldn’t hike in them (and only did twice), but kept me warm when I’d stopped moving. During the summer, a light long sleeve that didn’t get worn much in the warmth but was a good idea to have, and an extra set of shorts did the trick. There were quite a few times where we got stuck in cold rain and the only thing that got me through my miles was the thought of the warm, dry clothes in my pack.
Less clothes is always better and your needs will definitely vary, but a puffy, a quality rain jacket, a pair of cheap Walmart shorts and a pair of pants, two (cheap dollar store) athletic shirts, and a set of midweight base layers (long sleeves and leggings) should do the trick. Seriously, Walmart was my main source for clothing. Winter in Georgia and the last stretch through New Hampshire and Maine require some extra planning, but cheap shorts and T-shirts you won’t feel guilty about destroying are wonderful. Shorts with built-in liners also get a little extra of my love.
Jetboil Sol And Long-Handled Titanium Spork
I cooked in and ate out of my pot every night. I cleaned it with a bit of water and my fingers afterward, and gave it a good cleaning with soap every time we were in town. It was easy, and it was reliable. The Jetboil (updated product listed) was stable, compact (I love the way everything nests), and functioned fine in all weather conditions. I will be doing another post about food and cooking, but I was really glad to never have issues with my pot, and I personally always enjoyed a hot dinner after hiking.
“I Swear I’ll Need This.”
Spoiler alert: nope, nope, I did not.
I actually did need them, exactly once. Hiking in the snowstorm in the Smokies, I was very glad to have a waterproof layer. Every other time I wore them, I sweated like crazy and was drenched either way. I ditched them in Virginia and didn’t regret it at all.
It seemed like such a good idea, but if you need that much extra pocket space, you need less stuff. Also, it was really annoying to have yet another hip belt to try to strip out of when you really need to pee.
First Aid Kit
This one actually isn’t totally true. You need a first aid kit of some kind, but even my pared-down kit had way too much in it. I really only needed ibuprofen (so much of it), diphenhydramine HCl (Benadryl), some triple antibiotic, and the world’s best invention: Leukotape. Everything else could wait or could’ve been improvised.
This wasn’t even in my original list, for a reason: I knew I didn’t need it. But at the last minute, I panicked and I grabbed it anyway. It was useless. Honestly, useless. The trash compactor liner was lighter and much more effective at keeping my gear completely dry.
Extra Mug/ZipKock Cooking
Just cook in your pot. It reduces waste, time, weight, and effort. Sometimes you’ll have some rice left in your hot chocolate, but that’s about the only downside.
Gear That Didn’t Make It
I started with the Nemo Hyperlight Zor (mummy shape), a discontinued pad from Nemo. After only about 200 miles, the pad malfunctioned, and Nemo wouldn’t cover it under its warranty, claiming the splitting apart and bubbling was due to normal use. I used a $7 Walmart pad for a couple weeks, which was, well, utterly and incredibly miserable. In a pinch, I picked up the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir, which I really didn’t expect to love. It has a reputation for being easily popped, but I was in no way nice to my NeoAir and it happily made it to Katahdin while providing me with a freaking awesome level of comfort.
UnderArmour Shorts As Underwear
Calm down and go commando, friends. BodyGlide will fix the rest of your problems. Ninety-two percent of your shorts will have liners, either way. The shorts just contributed to my chafing and added quite a bit of weight to my pack.
Most of my Winter Gear
I didn’t regret having the gear on my initial list while weathering the 30 degree weather in Georgia and the snowstorm in the Smokies and cold rain in between. But, I sent home almost five pounds of winter clothing in Erwin, Tenn., and I didn’t have even half of it sent back to me in New Hampshire and Maine. I was terrified of being cold, but if you’re moving and have warm PJs, you’ll be OK. This is the fifth time clothing choices have appeared on this list, and there’s a theme here. The seasons will change and your preferences will change and there are a lot of Walmarts to help you fix your clothing choices as you go.
You’ll Learn Along The Way
This list isn’t my comprehensive gear list, but I wanted to point out the items that really mattered and the ones I realized along the way really didn’t. Every hiker around me carried their own unique stuff – some people carried DnD boards and dice, some people carried bagpipes or ukuleles, some people wore only shorts the entire way. The trail will teach you.
Coming next: how did a picky eater (who really hates tuna) feed herself enough to get to Maine?
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