Is It Possible to Do a Long-Distance Hike Without First Obsessing Over Gear?

I did my first long-distance hike back in 2003, and I don’t think I bought a single piece of gear in the time leading up to my start date.  I had been going on short backpacking trips with my family since I was 12, and I figured that I already had everything I would need to hike the northernmost 600 miles of the Appalachian Trail.  I was missing a few key items, but after raiding my parents’ camping gear supply, I thought I was ready to go.

On the AT in Vermont in 2003. The pack on the far right was mine.

I started off hiking with heavy one-piece leather boots, a tent that probably weighed over five pounds, my dad’s old backpack, and a budget down sleeping bag that was leaking feathers.  I had blisters the size of quarters on the backs of my heels by the time I was one week in.  A few weeks later, one of the shoulder straps on my dad’s pack tore loose, requiring me to tie the loose end to a strap along the side of the pack.  I don’t remember weighing my pack before leaving, but I weighed it in Monson, ME before departing for the 100-Mile Wilderness with five days worth of food, and it was 44 lbs.  I weighed 130 lbs at the time.

After hiking 150 miles in my clunky leather boots, I finally bought myself a pair of lighter hiking shoes, which finally allowed my blisters to heal.  When I took a few days off the trail halfway through, I was able to swap out my broken pack for a replacement from my parent’s gear supply (it was my sister’s pack).  This allowed me to complete my hike, but my pack weight remained quite high.

That’s me taking all the credit for a beaver’s handiwork. Check out those one-piece leather boots!

So when I began preparing for another long distance hike ten years later in 2013, I understood the benefits of using ultralight gear.  This was my first foray into the world of ultralight backpacking gear, and I was fascinated by all the options that were available.  I completely upgraded my gear for this hike, with the goal of keeping my base weight below 15 lbs.  

The difference between that first long distance hike and my Long Trail hike in 2013 was night and day.  I never got a single blister, and my overall level of comfort was significantly higher.  

Much of the gear that I’m planning on taking with me for my 2022 thru-hike is gear I purchased back in 2013, but I also made some significant upgrades.  I’d be stoked to hear anyone’s thoughts or feedback on gear items that you have experience with!

My 2022 AT Gear List

Shelter:  Tarptent Contrail

I bought this tent in 2013 for my end-to-end hike of the Long Trail, and have been using it ever since.  This model has been discontinued by Tarptent, and replaced by the Protrail, which has a very similar design.  

The tent worked great on the Long Trail, keeping me dry during numerous rainy nights.  Condensation can be an issue, and the guylines have to be tight, especially when it’s raining, but overall it’s a fantastic shelter.  Although it’s a one-person tent, there’s definitely some extra room, and the front vestibule is perfect for stashing my pack.  I just replaced all the guy lines in anticipation of using it on the AT.

PackGossamer Gear Mariposa

Again, this is the pack I bought in 2013 for my Long Trail hike, and I’ve been using it ever since.  This pack was amazing on the Long Trail, and I’ve taken it on countless backpacking trips since with no complaints.  I did replace the pad that slides into the backside of the pack to provide more structure, and this made a significant difference.  This pack has gained quite a bit of popularity over the past few years, and I can certainly understand why.  

Sleeping BagEnlightened Equipment Revelation

This was my biggest purchase for my AT thru-hike.  On my Long Trail hike I was still using a very old Campmor down bag – it worked fine on the Long Trail, but it was time for an upgrade.  I was a bit wary of making the switch to a quilt, but now that I’ve been out a few times with the Revelation, I am confident that I made the right choice.  This quilt has kept me warm and comfortable on some cold nights.

Sleeping Bag LinerSea to Summit Thermolite Reactor

I had never used a sleeping bag liner before, but figured it made sense as I switched from a bag to a quilt.  I like that this liner adds warmth to my sleep system, allowing me to sleep comfortably in temperatures below the 20 degree rating of my quilt.  I also like the added comfort that it provides – I don’t like sleeping directly on my pad.

Sleeping PadTherm-a-Rest Z Lite

I’ve had this sleeping pad for the past 5-6 years.  I’ve had a variety of air filled sleeping pads over the years, and every single one has sprung a leak.  I switched to a foam pad while I was living in Arizona, where spiky plants all but assured that my air mattress would be deflated by morning.  It’s bulkiness is the only downside, but I just strap it to the outside of my pack.

Footwear: Altra Lone Peak All Weather Mid

I assume that I’ll blow through 3-5 pairs of shoes on my thru-hike, and these are the shoes I’ve chosen to start with.  It seems that almost everyone on the AT hikes in Lone Peaks these days, and I opted for the all-weather mid in anticipation of colder weather and the possibility of snow in March.  As soon as it starts to warm up I’ll switch to something lighter.  I’ve already bought myself a pair of Altra Torrins on discount to replace the Lone Peaks.

Baselayer: Voormi Long Sleeve Merino Wool Shirt

I was hesitant to spend $90 on my baselayer – I’ve always worn inexpensive synthetic base layers in the past – but I decided to splurge.  This shirt just arrived in the mail, so I haven’t had a chance to test it in the outdoors yet, but the merino wool is certainly comfortable!  I’ll still bring a cheap synthetic shirt as a backup.  

Fleece Midlayer: Inexpensive Fleece Jacket

A friend gave me a cheap, unused fleece jacket, and I think it’s good enough for the trail.  It’s some off-brand that I had never heard of before, and I can’t look it up at the moment, because I’ve mailed it in to Insect Shield to get it treated with permethrin. 

Insulating JacketEnlightened Equipment Torrid Jacket

I didn’t bring a down jacket on the Long Trail – I was fine with my fleece mid-layer – but I knew I needed a lightweight insulated jacket for the AT.  My old Sierra Designs down jacket is too bulky and heavy, so I decided to give this synthetic down jacket a try.  I have been very pleased with how warm it keeps me on cold backpacking trips!  It has tight elastic around the waist and wrists, which help hold in the warmth.

Rain JacketEnlightened Equipment Visp

My worst gear fail on the Long Trail was my rain jacket.  I don’t even remember what brand it was, but it was old, and definitely not waterproof, leading to some very wet and uncomfortable days on the trail.  So upgrading to the Visp was an easy choice, and I’ve definitely been pleased.  The Visp is probably ⅓ of the weight of my old rain jacket, and does a much better job of keeping me dry.

UmbrellaMontbell Long Tail Trekking Umbrella

When I hiked the Long Trail, the concept of packing an umbrella seemed crazy.  I remember an AT thru-hiker telling a group of us at one of the shelters that there was someone thru-hiking with an umbrella further South, and we all thought that sounded crazy.  Nine years later hiking with an umbrella has gone mainstream, with almost every major ultralight company selling their own version of a hiking umbrella.  I tested this Montbell umbrella on a backpacking trip in the Redwoods.  On day two of the trip it rained all day, and I never even put my rain jacket on.  It was easy to clip the umbrella to the shoulder strap of my pack, and it provided great coverage for me and my pack.  The only downside was I couldn’t look up at the enormous redwood trees!

Socks:  Farm to Feet Hiking Socks

I didn’t put much thought into my sock selection to be honest.  This is just what they had at my local REI store.

UnderwearSmartwool Merino Boxers

I’m not a fan of boxer briefs… I’ve got one pair of merino boxers and a second pair that are synthetic.

Camp pants:  Inexpensive synthetic long underwear

I’ve had this pair of synthetic long underwear for a few years now – unsure of the brand.

Hiking pantsREI Swiftland Running Pants

As it gets warmer I’ll surely switch these out for a cheap, lightweight pair of shorts.

Gloves:  Manzella Windstopper Gloves

I’ve had these for a while – I use them for cross country skiing mainly.

HatStio Mizpah Beanie

This was a freebie that I got at a film festival a few years ago.  Film festivals often give out goodie bags to attending filmmakers, and the Telluride MountainFilm festival wins the award for best giveaways in my opinion!

Camp ShoeMayfly Imago

On my Long Trail hike in 2013 I decided that camp shoes weren’t worth the extra weight.  I quickly changed my mind, and bought a pair of crocs in the first town where we stopped.  These camp shoes from this new, thru-hiker founded company caught my attention.  They’re cheap and they’re lighter than any other camp shoe you can buy.  Just got them in the mail and haven’t tested them out yet, but I’m stoked to have camp shoes that weigh 1.8 ounces!

Stuff Sack/Pack LinerSea to Summit Ultra-Sil Pack Liner

There are lighter weight waterproof pack liners out there, but I don’t want to deal with throwaway plastic bags, so I opted for this drybag style pack liner.

Cook PotToaks Light Titanium Pot

I’ve got a few of these Toaks Titanium pots.  I have a larger one that works for three people, but I’ll take the 650ml pot on the trail most likely.  I’ve also got a titanium spork from the same company.

StoveToaks Titanium Alcohol Stove

I remember watching a fellow hiker fire up his homemade alcohol stove when I was on the AT in 2003.  On that trip I used my old MSR whisperlite, but as soon as I saw that alcohol stove I knew I wanted one.  I used a Trangia stove on my Long Trail hike, but it was confiscated by TSA at the airport in Burlington, VT when I was flying home after the trip.  I picked up this tiny Toaks stove a couple of years ago, and it works great.  It holds just about enough fuel for me to cook dinner, which is nice because you can’t store fuel in the stove like you can with the Trangia.  The only downside is that you can’t adjust the flame – but the incredibly low weight offsets this downside (less than 1 ounce!!).

Food StorageUrsack AllMitey Food Sack

From the time when I was a kid, the importance of hanging all food from a tree branch when camping was pounded into my brain.  I was very surprised when I got onto the AT in 2003 to find that the vast majority of thru-hikers that I encountered didn’t bother to take this step.  This was in the Northernmost section of the trail – at almost every shelter folks just hung their food bags from the eaves of the lean-to with little cans positioned so mice couldn’t access the food.  I continued hanging my food from trees, although I never saw a bear on that trip.

Carrying a bear canister is one of those things that almost everyone who’s dishing out thru-hiking advice in any sort of official capacity insists is necessary for a thru-hike.  Despite this, almost no one uses them on the AT.  There is just one 5-mile section of the entire AT where bear canisters are required, and the canister can be avoided if you don’t camp within that 5-mile stretch.

I hate carrying a bear canister.  It’s heavy, awkward to fit in your pack, and often difficult to fit food items inside.  Hanging food from a tree is not an ideal option however.  Although it’s certainly better than sleeping with your food (don’t do this!), bears have been known to access even the best-hung bear bags.  For me, the ursack is an ideal compromise.  It’s significantly heavier that a stuff sack, but also significantly lighter than a canister.  It’s easy to fit in a pack, and it’s easy to tie it to the base of a tree so a bear won’t carry it off.  I know that I’ll run the risk of a bear crushing the contents of the bag, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take to reduce the hassle of a canister without putting wildlife in danger.

Hiking PolesLeki Legacy Ultralite

When I began my first long distance hike in 2003 the concept of hiking with trekking poles was entirely foreign to me.  Most of the hikers I met along the way sang their praises however, and I gave them a try before hiking the Long Trail ten years later.  Now I’m a convert, and would never backpack without them.

Headlamp: Nitecore NU25

This rechargeable headlamp is amazing.  It feels like the charge lasts forever, and it’s got a red light, which is necessary for respectful use in AT shelters and lean-tos.

Water Purification/BladderPlatypus GravityWorks Filter System

I’ve been using this same GravityWorks system for ten years now with absolutely no complaints.  I have the 4 liter model, and I use the clean filter bag as my water bladder.  I just bought a new filter, but the bags have held up great after countless trips.  I am a big fan of using a water bladder – I drink more water when I don’t have to stop to pull out a water bottle from my pack.

First Aid Kit:  Adapted kit from NOLS Wilderness Medicine

I took the NOLS Wilderness First Aid course two years ago and found it very informative and well-run.  The instructors helped us assemble an ideal first aid kit based on our specific needs at the end of the class.

Toiletries:   I bought this ridiculously tiny and inexpensive toothbrush from Garage Grown Gear.  I also grabbed this bag of powdered soap from Pika Outdoors for hand washing and dishes.

TrowelTheTentLab The Deuce

This is certainly an upgrade from the bright orange plastic trowel I brought with me in 2003.

Insect repellent:  Insect Shield

I mailed a bunch of the clothes I plan on bringing with me to Insect Shield to be treated with permethrin.  I was initially planning on buying a spray bottle and applying permethrin myself, until I read that if you mail your clothes in for treatment, it should last up to 70 washes!  I bought an “easy pack” – which means that the company mails you a bag with shipping labels and you pack it with as many clothes as will fit.  It costs $100, and I was able to stuff all the clothes I plan on bringing that I thought would benefit from permethrin treatment, including my fleece jacket, baselayers, pants and socks.


On the Long Trail I decided not to pack physical maps.  I instead found an app that allowed me to download all the USGS maps relevant to the trail, and used my phone’s GPS to show my location.  This was back in 2013, soon after the first Guthook guides were released.  I was a bit worried that this would drain my phone’s battery, but it actually worked far better than I expected.  At no point did I feel like I needed a physical map.

Just like bear canisters, almost everyone who is dishing out thru-hiker advice in any sort of official capacity (including on this website) strongly recommends that hikers take physical maps.  But it seems that very few hikers actually follow this advice.  Even when I was on the trail back in 2003, long before we had phone app assisted navigation, I encountered very few hikers who were carrying maps with them.

Although I certainly understand how easy it is to get lost (I accidentally got off trail briefly once on my 2003 hike), I’m also very confident that I could find my way to safety in an emergency situation – even without a map.  On the AT, you’re never very far away from civilization, and just about any stream would lead you to a road eventually.  There are also lots of other hikers out there on the trail, so in a worst case scenario where a phone gets dropped and broken, one could certainly ask a fellow hiker for assistance.  Additionally, I’ll be hiking with my mom, and the likelihood that both my phone and my mom’s phone stop working at the same time seems quite low.  I also plan on bringing a battery backup for phone charging.

Luxury Items:  Audio Recording Gear, Power Banks, and a Monocular

On my Long Trail hike I was able to get my base weight down to 15 lbs – and that included my Panasonic GH3 camera with one lens, a small microphone, and a tripod.  I made a short documentary about that trip that aired on Vermont PBS (check it out here).  On this trip, I have ambitions for creating a podcast series exploring a variety of AT related stories, so I will be bringing audio recording gear only.  Audio gear is much easier to pack and more lightweight than camera gear, which definitely factored into my decision to produce a podcast/radio story vs. a documentary film.

Zoom H1n – this small handheld audio recorder is ubiquitous in the world of podcast/radio production.  

Rode adapter and lavalier mics – an adaptor for a smartphone that splits the audio signal into two channels and allows you to plug two microphones into your phone.  My phone will be my secondary audio recording device, and this adaptor will allow me to use a variety of small microphones with an audio recording app.

Wildtronics Pro Mini Parabola – I’m still unsure if I will bring this on the trail.  A parabola mic allows you to record sounds from a distance, and this would primarily be used to record bird songs.  I’m a birder, and I would love to find some time on the trail to gather audio recordings of bird songs.  This would also allow me to create lush soundscapes for the podcast series that I produce.  The entire parabola mic setup weighs in at 7 ounces.  Should I take it with me??

Nocs Monocular – I’m a birder.  I get frustrated when I see a bird in the distance that I can’t properly identify.  I debated taking my binoculars with me on the Long Trail, but ultimately decided against it.  A was gifted this monocular though, and have been testing it out these past few weeks.  It’s much lighter than a pair of binoculars, and I bought a clip that allows me to clip it to my pack’s shoulder strap for easy access.  I’m leaning towards taking it with me… 

Supplemental batteries – I have two of these Zendure SuperMini power banks.  I’ll bring at least one of them.

Am I missing anything?  Let me know what you think!

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Comments 4

  • Sarah : Mar 20th

    Great post! Super helpful for those who, like me, are still on dreaming and waiting mode to do the AT. I have a supportive SO and kiddo, too, so, out of curiosity: how often will you be touching base with your loved ones at home? (&, tech-wise, how will you do it?) How does your kiddo think about it (your being away, I mean)?

    • Matthew Podolsky : Mar 21st

      Thanks for sharing this comment Sarah! We don’t have a schedule for keeping in touch laid out yet, but I think after a few weeks on the trail we’ll have a much better sense of what is possible. I imagine that we’ll be in communication via text whenever I have cell service, and that we’ll try to chat on the phone at least once or twice a week. I switched to a Verizon phone so that I would have better coverage throughout the trip, but we’ll see what that really looks like on the ground…. My kiddo has been amazing and very supportive as I prepare – he’s been joining me on training hikes and grilling me with questions about what life on the AT will be like. I’m planning on doing a post sometime soon that will share a bit of his perspective on the trip.

  • Chad : Mar 23rd

    Considered taking a small AM/FM radio with you? I’m currently endurance testing a few. Old-school analog tuned radios are winning by a long shot. Sony SRF-S84 just did 60 hours on one store brand AAA. It’s slightly bigger than a Bic lighter and weighs 1.6oz with battery, seems pretty reasonable for a luxury item 🙂 I enjoy public media (especially VPR and Vermont PBS), and I figure it’s better than chewing through cell phone battery.


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