Gearing Up for the AT
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
Planning my Appalachian Trail trek has been a whirlwind of excitement and indecision, especially when it comes to finalizing my gear choices. The Big Three – backpack, shelter, and sleep system – have been particularly perplexing. With an abundance of reviews, articles, and opinions available, the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming.
As a part-time employee at REI, I have access to a wealth of knowledge and gear, but sometimes, this abundance of choices can be a double-edged sword. I’ve come to realize that there’s no such thing as a perfect gear choice; there are only good options with their own set of pros and cons. To gain some clarity, I took several weeks off this past summer and spent most of it section hiking in Rocksylvania and Vermudd. I strategically timed my trip to coincide with the NOBO thru-hikers, hoping to tap into the collective wisdom of those who had already completed over half of the trail.
Ironically, this didn’t help much with my gear choices. Many of the hikers I met had developed deep loyalties to the gear they had lugged over a thousand miles, seemingly losing objectivity in the process.
However, two resounding pieces of advice emerged from these encounters:
- Keep your base weight below 20 lbs
- Use shakedown hikes to identify non-essential items
My Base Weight: ~18 lbs
Even with the bear can and a few luxury items, I’ve managed to keep my base weight in the 18-20 lb range. That’s pretty good for an old guy who enjoys creature comforts like a pillow, comfy pads, a Helinox Zero chair, and a full-frame pack.
Shakedown hikes proved invaluable in this regard. I learned how little gear I actually used, how to multi-purpose items, how to manage my electronic usage, and how to navigate the constellation of apps, maps, and trail angels/shuttles. These hikes also helped me make decisions about luxury items and food storage.
Despite my aversion to bulk and weight, I’m committed to carrying a bear canister (BV 450). I witnessed too many poorly executed PCT hangs, got frustrated with tossing lines over limbs, and appreciated knowing that my food would remain dry and uncrushed. Choosing to haul a bear can is a personal decision, certainly less popular, but it gives me peace of mind knowing I’m doing my part to keep bears from acclimating to easy-access food. Moreover, the can serves as a makeshift stool, a level working surface, and an excellent canvas for my sticker collection.
The Big Three
My Pack: Osprey Exos 58
Given some inherent anatomical issues that come with age and my base weight, I didn’t even consider the world of frameless ultra-light packs. Additionally, I already owned several Osprey bags that suit my anatomy well, making them the natural choice.
I was very impressed with the Hyperlite Southwest (55), but once fully laden with water and a full bear can, I couldn’t find a comfortable carrying position. I do believe that if I were willing to cut 5+ lbs from my base weight, it might have been the winner. I also tried the REI Flash 55, which I particularly liked for the price point, but I couldn’t achieve the same fit as the Osprey.
The Osprey Exos came close to being perfect for me. The full-frame and trampoline suspension effectively distributed the weight to my hips, prevented excessive sweating, and made loading and securing gear a breeze.
My Tent: Big Agnes Copperspur 2P
As a ground dweller, I ruled out hammocks from the outset. I’m not an adventurous sleeper, preferring to stretch out, roll around, and spread my gear out in comfort. I also consider my tent a home away from home and appreciate a little luxury, so I exclusively looked at two-person options. Since I tend to spend more time in my shelter than most hikers, size and features were crucial factors in my decision.
I had the opportunity to test out four popular shelters: the Durston X-Mid, Big Agnes Copperspur, Nemo Hornet Osmo, and REI Quarter Dome. All four are excellent choices and well-respected on the trail, each with its unique strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, only one met all my criteria.
I found the Quarter Dome surprisingly spacious, but its weight was a major concern. The X-Mid was a delight to use, but I realized that a fully freestanding option would be better suited to my chosen campsites and provide easier movement after pitching. The Nemo Hornet’s streamlined design and intriguing Osmo fabric caught my attention, but its size felt cramped, and the trade-off between living and vestibule area, along with its partial freestanding nature, led me to the Big Agnes Copperspur.
My positive past experiences with Big Agnes customer service further solidified my decision. Additionally, I opted for the designated footprint, not only for protection but also for the fast fly pitch option, making setup a breeze even in the rain.
Overall, the Big Agnes Copperspur 2P emerged as the perfect choice for my Appalachian Trail adventure. It offers the spaciousness, comfort, and freestanding design I sought, catering to my ground-dwelling preferences and desire for a home away from home.
My Sleep System: REI Magma Quilt, Nemo Tensor Insulated, and Gossamer Gear Thinlight Pad
The decision for my sleeping bag or quilt was relatively straightforward since I already owned an REI Magma 15 bag and managed to snag a Magma 30 Quilt at a significant discount. I plan to start the trail with the 15-degree bag and switch to the quilt as the weather warms up. Ideally, a single 20-degree quilt would suffice, but my existing gear was calling my name.
I experimented with various pad systems, including inflatable options like the Thermarest NeoAir XLite, Thermarest Apex Pro, Nemo Tensor, and REI Helinox. I also tried closed-cell foam systems like the Nemo Switchback.
The self-inflating Thermarest Apex Pro offered unparalleled comfort, but the weight penalty was too much for my base weight requirements. And while my aging body never quite adapted to sleeping exclusively on a closed-cell foam pad, I appreciated its versatility for various uses, from fanning a fire to providing a ground pad for stretching and sitting.
The Thermarest NeoAir, Nemo Tensor, and REI Helinox all boasted similar comfort, weight, and packability, but I gravitated towards the egg crate design of the Tensor and Helinox due to my tendency to toss and turn during sleep. Ultimately, the Nemo Tensor emerged as the winner, as I found it much easier to inflate using the included inflation bag.
Given that I wouldn’t be relying solely on a closed-cell foam pad for sleeping, but rather using it for various purposes, a shortened ⅛” Gossamer Gear Thinlight made more sense than the Switchback. Additionally, I place it under the inflatable pad for added puncture protection and to prevent me from sliding around in the tent.
Navigating the gear maze for an Appalachian Trail trek can be a daunting task, but with careful consideration, shakedown hikes, and a touch of humor, you can find the perfect balance of functionality, comfort, and personal preferences. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution; the key is to find gear that works for you and your unique hiking style.
P.S. Disclaimer: I am a part-time employee at an REI store. Any statements regarding REI or products that REI carries are my personal opinion.
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