Prepping for the Appalachian Trail: Gear (Part 1 of 2: Considerations)

In which many thoughts – and many dollars – are expended in the name of optimizing So. Much. Gear.

This stuff I have will do fine, right?…

I mean hey, Earl Shaffer (generally regarded as the first AT thru-hiker in 1948 (and no I’m not a historian and no I wasn’t there so don’t come at me with your alternative theories)) didn’t have an ultra silpoly jacket or trail running shoes with a giant toe box or carbon fiber trekking poles or an isobutane burner or any of the seemingly billion other hiking advancements out there, and he polished off the trail in four frigging months. I mean shit, Grandma Gatewood did it, as you can read about in this Trek post on famous women in the history of the AT, “with nothing but a knapsack and a pair of Keds.” I’ve got some gear that’s trusted and tested. That’ll work okay, won’t it?

…No. No it won’t.

While it’s true that plenty of people can do (and have done) this trip with all manner of gear in all manner of conditions, my own “trusted and tested” inventory has been tested and re-tested and then re-tested many more times after that. Put another way, it’s old and beat up and pretty worn out, which kind of negates the whole “trusted” part. All my old gear is well-worn and well-loved, but it’s also deep into its “duct tape and crossed fingers” phase. Added to which, it’s generally a lot bulkier and heavier than what would be considered ideal, or even reasonable. I just don’t see myself going 2,200 miles with most of it. Or really much of any of it.

Hard Goodbyes: Or, Requiem for an Inanimate Object

This principle applies probably most of all to my old pack, which, after much soul searching, I came to realize was not going to be the pack for this trip. But dude, what a pack! I need to talk about it a bit, because it has informed a lot of my search for new gear. And frankly, it deserves to be recognized and celebrated. So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you: The Jansport!

O, let me sing you a song of The Jansport!

This thing is both beauty and beast. Massive, cavernous, too big for my 5’6″ frame, it nevertheless is a pack for the ages. Ordered (are you ready for this?) by mail in the late 90s from a paper Campmor catalog that featured nothing more than line drawing illustrations, The Jansport carried untold pounds all across southern Africa when I was there during my Master’s program. I want to say the listed capacity was something like 80 liters, but honestly it could be even more. At the end, right before I returned home, when it was completely loaded with gear and all manner of souvenirs (which included such weight-aggressive items as a pair of ceramic bongos and a full wood-carved chess set and table), I think it tipped the scales at about 75 pounds. It is not the most delicate flower of the pack world.

The Jansport in headier days at right, somewhere in probably Namibia or Zimbabwe, with a much younger, cooler me… no. That was one of the other research students.

(That’s me. At the shore of the Zambezi River…

…and plunging into a pool in the Chimanimani mountains in Zimbabwe. The water was about 32.0001° F.)

BUT – it’s an amazing piece of equipment. Pockets for days, a place for everything, color-coded straps, a brain that converts into a lumbar pack (unheard of at the time), the handiest mesh divider you could ever hope for… it was (in case this wasn’t obvious) my first pack, and if the search for something new to take on the AT has taught me anything, it’s how unbelievably, unstoppably awesome this pack is.

The problem?

The shit weighs six-plus pounds all by itself.

Some of you have not completely immersed yourselves in hiking gear research recently, and so that number probably means very little to you. Others of you possess some knowledge of modern packs, and so are probably thinking something along the lines of, “Jesus Christ, I didn’t know pack weights went that high.” Well, they do. Or at least, they used to. (The pack I eventually settled on? Three pounds.)

Most modern packs, I have discovered, tend to be about simplicity of pockets/zippers, ergonomic and structural support in all the right places, and durable but lightweight materials. Modern packs say, “I’ve got all the answers, bro. You need support right here? I got you. You need to adjust how this feels? Pull this little guy right here. Not too much. Just enough. All right. Let’s go.”

The Jansport does everything with heavy duty fabric and stupendous amounts of cushioning. The Jansport is a living room couch in pack form. The Jansport folds you into its loving arms and says, “Look at you! You’re working hard today. Who needs a hug?”

It’s got other issues besides the weight: the hip belt buckle is broken, some of the seams need attention, all that cushioning makes you sweat your balls clean off in warm weather, etc. But overall it’s a champ, and I very seriously considered just doing a bunch of repair on it and making a go of it. In the end, though, reason prevailed. The number one reason people end up quitting the trail is because of injury, and more weight means increased chance of injury.

And it wasn’t just my pack. Lots of my stuff was not only well past its freshness date but also way, way too heavy. I needed to streamline.

Recommendations: Ordering, Weighing, Testing/Shakedown

Measuring my old and broken-down tent (also a champ that I pushed well beyond its limits – note funky angles from duct-taped poles) against the footprint of one of the new ones I tested.

This realization led to a mad frenzy of research, comparison shopping, and deeply intense and almost meditative visioning sessions of what was going to work for me, punctuated by some real-world testing. This process is ongoing, and will no doubt continue right up to the day I start and then right on through the hike, or at least the early parts. From someone who’s generally not much of a shopper, here are some things I learned/recommendations.

  1. Start Early. If there’s one thing I would convey, it’s this. As you can see in the image that forms the header of this post, I started well before Christmas (side note: you can tell just how much Birch loves wearing those antlers). I tried to secure most of my big-ticket items (pack, tent, sleep system, performance wear) during post-Thanksgiving and/or end-of-year sales so as not to be too obscenely profligate with the spending. If you are playing the long game and can get a previous season’s closeout item(s), even better. More importantly though, starting early will give you the time you need to engage the rest of these points.
  2. Embrace the Return. This was a hard one for me. I’m not a big fan of ordering multiple things knowing that I’m going to return some or most of them, but for this exercise I had to, especially for the pack. For important items, you have to spend quality time testing and comparing, and that generally happens at home or in the great outdoors. There’s no way you can wander around an REI for 15 minutes with a random pack on your back and figure out what’s going to work. I tested four different packs before settling on one and took my time with the process, then took advantage of some generous return policies. Other gear I simply tried and determined was not for me, so I needed to order something different. For gear ordered from REI, I saved up everything I was returning and brought it back to the store to avoid dual shipping. Still, this is to a degree an inherently wasteful process, and I’m acutely aware of that. If you decide to do something like this and it’s within your means, consider a donation to a reputable organization to offset some of this.

    I mean, just look at this shit. It looks like an REI outlet went on a week-long bender in here.

  3. Weigh Everything. I mean everything. If you are counting ounces, you can’t rely on the advertised weight. Sometimes the item itself is simply heavier than advertised, although occasionally it’s actually lighter (thanks, Cocoon Silk Mummy Liner!). Also, very often the listed weight is just for the item itself and not additional stuff sacks, straps, etc. Is anybody really going to pack their inflatable pad without something to put it in? Be aware of what’s actually going in your pack. You can shed weight by consolidating unnecessary/redundant bags.
  4. Test Everything! This may seem like a no-brainer, but it can be easy to get swept up in sales language – or, more perniciously, to convince yourself that because you bought this shiny new thing that you researched in depth, it must therefore be the Best Thing Ever. You’ll need to actually bust things out and try them to figure out what works. As I mentioned above, this can take time, and so you should give yourself the time to think critically about your stuff. Also, for real, things can arrive damaged, and you need to figure that out before you leave, not after.

    Oh waiter? I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I ordered.

  5. Iterate. You’ll likely go through your gear multiple times, make some hard choices, and get rid of stuff you don’t want to. There’s the old hiking adage about not “packing your fears,” but there’s also just good old-fashioned resource assessment. How many layers will you need? How much in the way of accessories? This of course gets deeply personal, and everyone’s got to find their own balance of comfort and efficiency, but more likely than not you’ll be cutting stuff out that you weren’t expecting. Get used to it.

Having said all that, my pack weight is still too heavy. : ) I guess we’ll see what a few hundred miles does to some of my strong convictions.

I will talk about my specific gear in the next post, or in the meantime you can take a look here.

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Comments 1

  • Sarah : Apr 11th

    You’re an excellent writer — really enjoying your posts! Keep them up, please. 👍


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