Prepping for the Appalachian Trail: Gear (Part 2 of 2: The Big 3 and The List)

In which my version of the very tidy “all gear” picture is a bit rough around the edges because some of my stuff is still all over the living room floor.

So! Now that we know I’m a sentimental sap for old backpacks, let’s move on. What’s actually coming with me on this hike? And more importantly, why?

Tools in the Toolbox

People can get really into gear. Like, reeeeeaaallly into it. And there’s certainly something to be said for acquiring that thing, that perfect thing that does its job perfectly and checks all the boxes, and even the boxes are checked with perfect, strong, confident pen strokes.

I like to keep in mind, though, what all this stuff is supposed to be doing: facilitating your experience out there. The goal is not to go out into the mountains and marvel at your setup, but at the mountains (or, let’s be honest, lots and lots of trees in between the mountains – which as a plant biologist by training I’m also cool with). Your gear is meant to get you there (and back) safely, efficiently, and with any luck comfortably. The gear is a set of tools to bring about the goal, not the goal itself.

BUT, having gear that works for you is still pretty rad, and there’s no reason not to try and optimize where you can, within constraints like budget, knowledge level, and time to research things, of course.

So here’s the state of my kit, with a focus on the Big 3. I’m still making decisions on a few things, and as I said in the last post it’s good to go through multiple iterations of that process. We are madly hurtling toward my departure date, so time is getting short to be ordering new/different things, but I have most of it figured out. You can peruse the entire list here or at the bottom of this post.

The Big 3

For those unfamiliar with this term, these are your backpack, tent, and sleep system (some people refer to just the sleeping bag as part of the Big 3, but I find it helpful to consider the sleep system as a whole). So named because they’re some of the largest, bulkiest, and typically heaviest items in your inventory. They’re also, you know, kind of important, so it pays to take the time to get them right. Here are mine.

Pack: Granite Gear Blaze 60

Remember me saying in the last post about how I tried out four different packs? I guess technically it was actually five, since for a time I was still considering trying to make it work with The Jansport. The packs I looked at were the following:

As you might expect, they all have their pros and cons. But the Granite Gear eventually won me over for a few reasons:

The pockets. One of the things I loved about The Jansport was how convenient the side pockets were, and this pack has pockets to die for. The side pockets are roomy and well-placed, meaning you can actually reach them and can easily get things out of and back into them, even when the bag is full. The other packs I tried all lacked this (for me) critical capability.

Being able to grab water or a snack and easily return it to your pocket without having to twist around or remove your pack is crucial for the times when you just want a quick break or want to eat/drink on the go. You can also risk getting dehydrated if you just don’t feel like dealing with your water, which can lead to Big Problems. Easy-to-use pockets are key for me.

The Granite Gear also has really nice hip belt pockets (which, to be transparent for the record, The Jansport does not have) that are roomy enough to easily slip a phone into. The hip belt pockets on the other bags were a joke, a bit of tulle window dressing and nothing more. This was especially true of the Baltoro, a giant honking bag that I had high hopes for that showed up with hip pockets that you could fit about a thimble’s worth of stuff in.

It’s light. It comes in at 3 pounds even, minus a rain cover. Not the lightest pack out there, but decidedly not the heaviest. The Baltoro was heavier than advertised and with a rain cover was pushing 5 pounds. That’s approaching Jansport territory.

Can convert when needed. The Granite Gear’s top section (a.k.a. the brain or the lid) comes off and converts into a lumbar pack for short side trips. The Jansport also did this, which I always loved. One of the things I liked about the Baltoro was that it had a little daypack inside it that weighed next to nothing, but it wasn’t enough to overcome its other shortcomings. You can also wear the Granite Gear’s brain in front on the chest to balance weight and have additional things close at hand; I’m not convinced I’ll use this feature, but it’s nice to know it’s there.

It’s comfy. Okay so this maybe should have been higher up on this list considering the length of the trip I’m gearing up to do, but I just got so excited about those pockets! Pretty much all the new packs I tried felt really good on my back; as I mentioned before the Jansport was designed for people taller than myself. The frames and designs of the modern packs really make a noticeable difference in how the weight of X pounds feels on your back.

So, Granite Gear it is!

The passing of the torch. Granite Gear has some big (and, yes, clunky) shoes to fill.

Tent: Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2

As with packs, I tried several tents as well:

I really liked the Sea to Summit design overall, but the regular Alto had mesh all the way down to the floor, meaning when near others you would have no privacy without using the rain fly. The Alto Plus is billed as their “3-season plus” tent and had only small mesh vents up near the top, meaning in warmer months you would spend many nights basting in your own juices.

The Copper Spur is (fairly) lightweight, has plenty of room, great ventilation, privacy mesh toward the bottom, and some nice pockets for stashing stuff. One of the best features of this tent is that, when you use a footprint underneath (which will also cut down on trauma from canine claws), you can set the fly up independently of the tent. This allows you to set up/take down the tent (and the rest of your gear) underneath the fly when it’s raining. Big fan of that.

I thought of looking into even more lightweight tents like those that Zpacks and Durston offer, but I just couldn’t commit to something that wasn’t fully freestanding, and with Birch in tow those designs just didn’t seem like they’d work well for us.

My Copper Spur in its not-quite-natural element, with Birch for scale.

The “fast fly” setup gives you a place out of the rain to set up/take down the rest of your gear.

Sleep System: Therm-a-Rest Parsec 20 Sleeping Bag and Sea to Summit Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated Air Mummy Sleeping Pad

I originally got the Sea to Summit Spark Ultralight 28F bag and loved how lightweight and comfy it was. But the zipper only unzips down to about your waist in order to save a little weight, so you can’t “throw a leg” in warmer weather without becoming a contortionist.

I got the 32-degree version of the Therm-a-Rest next, but when I did my first shakedown test (camping in the back yard), even with a silk liner I wasn’t warm enough when the temps got down below 35° F. The 20-degree version solved that and is only four ounces heavier.

The mummy shape of the pad with the narrower foot allows you to hook the foot of the unzipped bag over the bottom of the pad and it effectively turns the bag into a quilt in warmer weather. So these two items play very well together. I also really love the inflating sack for the pad, and how it’s cleverly incorporated into the stuff sack.

Sleeping bag and pad, tag-teaming to suplex you into a slumber of unparalled comfort. Also, can’t wait to see what this bag looks like after a few months of Birch trying to sneak naps on it.

Additional Sleep System Items: Cocoon Silk Mummy Liner and Sea to Summit Aeros Premium Pillow – The liner is lightweight, comfortable, and effectively extends the range of the sleeping bag in cold weather. It’s a no-brainer, at least until I don’t need it anymore. The pillow… is just so nice. I used to use the Jansport’s brain stuffed with extra clothes as my pillow, which was often kinda lumpy. For less than two ounces I have something that is literally made for a person’s head. Two breaths and it’s inflated.

Birch’s Sleep System: Yes, she’s got stuff too – but it’s mainly to protect the tent interior. She’s got a 1/8″-thick Thinlight Foam Pad topped with a Sea to Summit Drylite Towel. This should (I hope) cut down on the potential for punctures along the way, and the towel will help soak up water on those nights when we roll in drenched.

The List

I’ll probably talk about other categories of gear at some point (the kitchen comes to mind, or Birch’s gear), but for now I’ll just leave you with the rest of the list. As I mentioned, there are refinements to be made. Peruse and/or scoff haughtily as you feel is appropriate.

Just a couple of notes:

  1. This list includes pretty much everything, including things that I will be switching out when it gets warmer. So the total weight is a little inflated. Plus, I’m listing a few things of Birch’s that she will likely be carrying, which will also bring it down.
  2. Any prices listed are what I paid, which is not necessarily the retail price. I was able to get most things at a discount. Any price of $0.00 means I already had that item and don’t remember how much it cost.

This isn’t everything – some clothes are missing, and probably a few other things too – but you get the idea.

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Comments 2

  • kim Maitland : Mar 11th

    Fantastic info and so energizing- love the safety angle too

  • Mike baczkowski ( Sue Kovic’s this and) : Mar 18th

    Consider for your first aid kit an instant stop bleeding packet. The one I carry is Quik Klot.
    Developed by the military it instantly stops severe bleeding.
    On a hike with Suzanne last summer she managed to fall on a summit split her scalp open. Quik klot stopped bleeding immediately.


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