Pack Shakedown: Top 5 Most Common Items Cut by the Pros
If you’re planning a NOBO thru-hike of the AT then there is a good chance you’ve heard of Mountain Crossings, the hostel and outfitter located directly on trail at Neel Gap, mile 31.3. For most hikers, it is the first resupply stop on their hike, and a chance to rethink their gear choices for their coming trek. Even just a few days on trail is enough for most people to get a sense of what is, and more importantly what isn’t, working in their setup.
In between my own adventures, I have had the privilege of calling Mountain Crossings (or “the Gap” as we employees lovingly call it) home. During hiker season and preceding months, my favorite part of the job is helping hikers dial in their kit. I’ve done pack shakedowns with hundreds of hikers, and in the process helped them to cumulatively send home thousands of pounds of gear. In doing so, I’ve noticed that over and over again, hikers ditch the same things.
If you are a prospective thru-hiker or someone who has questions about what to bring on a backpacking trip, it’s worth paying attention to this trend. Below I’ll go over some of the most common items that hikers think they need, but really do not. I’ll also present a brief list of the essentials that you should be carrying with you on trail.
Know Before You Go: The Top 5 Items Ditched at Mountain Crossings
At the end of the day what a hiker decides to carry in their pack is a personal choice. Everybody has their own mix of wanting to be lightweight, comfortable, and budget-friendly. I will never shame anyone for their gear choices, but it is my job to share my opinion. As it is during a shakedown, the following is merely advice from someone who has been there before. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you take it.
1. Sleeping Bags with High-Temperature Ratings (aka warm weather bags)
I’ll admit this first one is specific to those folks who want to get an early start on their hikes and think that Georgia is perpetually warm. I was right there with you when I moved down here for my first winter. In fact, I’ll be honest — before my AT thru-hike, I didn’t even know that Georgia had mountains. But it does, and they get very cold. Without a doubt, the most common piece of gear I sell before mid-April is a warmer sleeping bag.
If you plan to get an early start and try to beat the bubble save that summer sleeping bag for later in the trail. For the early season (think January-March) you should expect temperatures below freezing every night, with occasional bouts of near-zero temperatures. Make sure you have an appropriate sleep system for winter temperatures, and learn the difference between the “comfort rating” and “survival rating” on your bag or quilt. It may not be quite as cozy as you think.
READ NEXT —
- Why February Is the Best Month To Start the Appalachian Trail
- The Top Sleeping Bags, Quilts, and Pads on the AT: 2022 Thru-Hiker Survey
2. An Outfit for Every Day of the Week
This one is a quick fix that can cut pounds off your base weight. While you can wear clean clothes every day while off-trail if you like, you really don’t need to when you’re out in the woods. You’re hiker trash, embrace it. Leave redundant extras at home unless you absolutely can’t do without.
I recommend carrying one outfit for hiking and one for sleeping/hanging out at camp. Suitable exceptions to this rule are multiple pairs of socks and underwear, but it is still wise to limit excess. Two to three pairs of each should be plenty for most thru-hikers, and many don’t carry underwear at all. Otherwise, no need to carry an extra pair of shorts or shirt. I promise that nobody on trail is going to judge you for a stain or smelling bad. We all stink. On that note, ditch the deodorant too.
3. Bush Crafting Gear
While you should absolutely be prepared to be self-sufficient in the backcountry, it is important to be realistic about what to expect. The AT is not a true wilderness experience in the traditional Hollywood sense. You will likely see people every day, and the trail is well-marked while never being too far from civilization. Your next beer and burger are only a few days away. You’re not setting out to survive for extended periods of time while completely alone.
Leave the machetes and axes at home — you will not need them. Earlier this year I helped a hiker pair down their pack, and in the process, they sent home 12 pounds of knives, a machete, and a hatchet. I personally only carry a tiny Swiss Army knife, used almost exclusively for opening pesky packaging on my food.
4. A Book
This one can be a little controversial, but for me it simply is not worth the weight. I just threw my current read (Drunk: How we Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization by Edward Slingerland) on the scale. 12.3 ounces. It might not sound like a lot on its own, but ounces add up quickly. That’s like five Clif Bars.
Most people find they have less downtime to read than they imagined. Between setting up camp and eating dinner at the end of an exhausting day, or making friends and tramily members, most people simply do not have the time or energy to read. If you’re truly determined to knock a few books off your list while on trail I would recommend reading on your phone or listening to audiobooks. There are plenty of great apps where you can download your next read.
However, if you find yourself wishing that you had physical pages to flip through, then you can always add a paperback later. Mail one to yourself or peruse a thrift shop.
5. Redundant Gear
While it’s not a specific item, redundant gear is likely the most common item I help hikers send home. While I encourage carrying things like a needle and thread or a patch kit, you do not need a backup for everything you carry.
I’ve met a hiker carrying three water filters and purification tablets. One will do. If for some reason something you’re carrying breaks, it will be okay. You just need to get to the next town, and there are plenty of other hikers around. I am sure at least one will be more than willing to help. Need to light your stove, but lost your lighter? Everyone else at the shelter has one. Borrow one of them until you get to that next gas station.
This same thought process applies to multiple fuel canisters, batteries, headlamps, etc. You name it and I’ve seen someone carrying three of it. Everything in your pack should serve its own unique purpose.
Bonus: “Cheap” Gear
While I understand everyone has a budget, cheap gear can carry additional costs beyond its dollar amount. Typically, these include reduced durability and increased weight. For me, high-end backpacking gear is an investment in my own comfort. A lighter pack means a happier Moose Juice(me!).
At Mountain Crossings I send home old tents, packs, and sleeping bags daily. After carrying heavy gear up those steps at Amicalola Falls and then down the grueling descent of Blood Mountain, many hikers come to the same realization. Lightweight gear is worth the price tag.
You don’t have to break the bank to go ultralight. In my opinion, the easiest way to lighten your load is to simply carry less. If you’re looking at what budget-friendly gear to buy for an upcoming hike, give this post a read Ultralight For Under $1,000.
READ NEXT —
- Backpacking on a Budget: Top Tips and Debunked Myths
- How to Plan a Budget for Your Thru-Hike: A Step-by-Step Guide
What You DO Need: Don’t forget the essentials
Backpacking can be as simple as you make it. One of the greatest impacts it has had on my life has been teaching me how to do more with less. For most of my hikes, I try to pack pretty minimalist, balancing weight and comfort, depending on the trip. I am constantly changing up my kit and trying out new items, but if I were to join the AT class of 2024 my gear list would look like this:
Shelter: Tarp/tent combo
On the AT I used a hammock for the first half and a tarp for the second. I would take a tarp again, but I’d likely switch to a tent at some point as the bugs started to get bad, likely something double-walled to help with condensation. If I was planning to hike during the bubble I would carry a tent the entire way for the added privacy. I’ve decided hammocks just aren’t for me.
Backpack: Comfort above all
Backpacks are so personal that it’s hard to offer advice to people without them trying a few on. I like to tell people that the best pack is the one that is most comfortable for you. If it’s lightweight, that’s just a bonus. Town stops are so frequent on the AT that huge packs aren’t necessary, but make sure that yours can fit all of your gear with room to spare for food.
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Sleep System: Sleeping bag or quilt?
I switch sides practically daily on the quilt versus sleeping bag debate. On three different long trails I’ve used three different quilts. However, each and every time I hop into my mummy bag I am reminded just how cozy they can be. Starting northbound on the AT with the bubble I would take my 20-degree sleeping bag plus a silk liner. I’d pair those with a sleeping pad with an R-value of at least four. I sleep on the warm end of the spectrum, and I truly hate being cold.
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Again this is one that varies dramatically between hikers. I like button-up sun shirts for all weather. Then, either running shorts or lightweight pants depending on the season, but not both. I’ll typically carry two pairs of underwear and three pairs of socks. For sleeping I like synthetic base layers. Wool is great too. Nothing cotton. Ever.
In addition to my hiking and sleeping clothes, I always carry a mid-layer, puffy jacket, and a rain jacket. I’ll carry rain pants, gloves, and a winter hat in colder months, but typically go without.
That pretty much covers the big items in my pack, but there are still a few odds and ends. I’ll add a very minimal first-aid kit, toilet kit, a spoon, water filter, Garmin, sunscreen, bug spray, food storage, and a power bank. Other than that, I don’t need it enough to justify carrying it.
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Take A Hike: No really, go for a hike first
That’s what works for me, but it’s important to figure out what works for you. My favorite piece of advice to give (and coincidentally my favorite diss) is to go take a hike. Test your setup before you leave for your big adventure so that you can take the things that matter and leave behind the things that don’t. You can save a lot of pain, both physically and financially, by listening to the experts and doing it right the first time. However, experience is always the best teacher. Still, you don’t need to wait for AT Day 1 to begin the learning process.
At the end of the day, what you choose to carry is up to you. Just remember to have fun and that help can be found anywhere you’re willing to ask for it. Thru-hikers are a great community, ready and excited to help each other.
Featured image: A Moose Juice photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldman.
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