Unpacking the Pack: Gear Guide
“He who would travel happily must travel light.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Discussing backpacking gear is its own subculture within the subculture that is backpacking and hiking. A quick Google search for “best backpacking gear” will net you about 46.5 million (yes, million) results. Many folks have entire gear rooms dedicated to the various and almost endless possibilities of the most dreaded question in planning for anything… what if? This slippery slope often leads to what hikers and others refer to as “packing your fears” where you attempt to pack for every possible scenario that you dream up.
So how do you avoid putting everything but the kitchen sink on your back?
My Gearing Philosophy
I promise not to wax philosophical here about gear, but I will summarize my planning for my upcoming AT thru-hike as simply as I can. For my NoBo attempt, I am going ultralight, meaning that I am aiming to keep my base weight (all of my gear, minus the weight of water/food/fuel) under 10 lbs. Starting in February means that I have to also mix in some of my winter camping gear. That means that I didn’t hit the mark exactly at sub 10 pounds, but I did get it dialed in—unofficially—at 11.63 pounds. For a kit that is temp-rated down to -20F, I am ok with the extra 1.63 pounds of weight, which mostly consists of my 10F quilt, fleece, puffy, and baselayers… you know… stuff to make sure I don’t turn into a Tucker popsicle while going through the Smokies.
I can boil my own philosophy on gear down to a single idea: Minimalism means finding purpose. If it doesn’t have at least one use on the trail then it’s going home.
The “Big Three” – Sleep System, Shelter, Backpack
With my setup, I can sleep comfortably well below freezing, and since I usually sleep on my side or stomach, a quilt and inflatable sleeping pad work much better for me instead of using a traditional sleeping bag or closed cell foam pad. Doubling up on the Enlightened Equipment quilts instead of grabbing a liner was a twofold decision: to shave a bit of weight to gain a bit more warmth and to make the total setup more modular. Now, when the sweaty summer months of hiking through the mid-Atlantic begin to leave nighttime temps above the mid 40s, I can use my 50F Revelation and send home the heavier 10F Enigma instead of trying to figure out how many limbs I have to stretch outside of the quilt at night to stay cool enough to sleep.
For my shelter, I went with a single wall trekking pole tent, the Six Moons Design Lunar Solo. I’ve used it on a handful of overnights, and I love it. Tons of floor space, a big vestibule for gear, shoes, etc., and excellent ventilation to avoid or at least reduce condensation in the tent. I went with the trekking pole option for ease and quickness of setup/takedown (under 2 mins) and for weight savings. The 20D canopy and 40D floor make it rugged enough to use over the entire trail with or without a ground sheet like the Tyvek sheet I’m bringing as a ground sheet.
The Mountainsmith Zerk 40 is my favorite bag that I’ve used on any backpacking or hiking trip. It is 40L with a huge front mesh pocket, four pockets on the shoulder straps – think trail running vest—and four additional pockets on the sides of the bag with two on each side. The larger side pockets are big enough for two 1L smart water bottles to fit in. The pack is a roll top and, combined with my Nylofume pack liner, keeps my gear dry inside, even during heavy rain. The bag comes with a shock cord for the front mesh pocket and additional straps for securing a bear vault/canister to the top of the bag as well if you go this route.
Staying Warm During a Winter Start… Layers, Layers, Layers!
Layering is a mix of art and science, everyone’s setup will be different, so my goals for a solid layering system were for everything that I wear to be light, warm, and durable. I went with the 150-weight Smartwool merino wool baselayers because I tend to run warm, and a 250-weight Smartwool beanie. Unless it is really cold, I prefer to hike in my cap instead of my beanie so that the wool beanie stays dry for when I am in camp. My other goal was to set up so that I always have dry clothes at camp. In a separate dry bag, I have an extra t-shirt and a pair of thicker socks (Darn Tough Van Grizzle Boot Cushion Socks) that I’ll wear as sleeping socks.
The Hoka Speedgoat 5s are my choice of trail runner for the Appalachian Trail. When I was planning out my footwear, I originally settled on using the Altra Lone Peaks but decided against a zero-drop shoe for the trail to give my Achilles and ankles a little more cushion to work with. They also just feel really nimble to me. I have used my current pair for hiking and trail running, and honestly, it feels like I just bounce along the trail.
I’ve used zero drops for running shoes most of my life and have had issues with Achilles injuries in the past so it seemed like the right call to start with some cushion. I’m also bringing my bedrock sandals along for camp shoes in the warmer months as well as while in town or at the hostel. I have hiked in my sandals in the past, but I don’t plan on hiking in them while on trail.
Everything in the Kitchen Except the Sink!
When running, ultralight food weight matters and can add up quickly. My cooking setup is designed around dehydrated meals or no-cook meals throughout the day. This is also where you find one of the few luxury items I plan to bring on trail with me. I am a morning coffee person and even in my ultralight setup, I have a mug dedicated to that sweet nectar of the gods that I enjoy in the morning at camp. It’s worth its weight and then some.
To plan out my food and supplies, I am using the hiker food 2.5 spreadsheet. I’ve focused on foods that pack the most calories per ounce while maintaining a good balance of carbs/protein/fat. The genius behind this spreadsheet, Gear Skeptic on YouTube, has a great breakdown on how to use the spreadsheet and the science that went into setting it up (the link will take you to the video, which has a link to the spreadsheet in the description).
Not pictured is my 2L CNOC Vecto water container that pairs with my sawyer filter and some replacement pieces/parts for the sawyer squeeze mini.
Staying Connected and Powered Up…
Part of the allure of the trail for me is disconnecting from phones, screens, and electronics in general. That being said, I’ll be using the FarOut app for navigation, listening to music/podcasts on my phone, and using my satellite beacon to keep in touch with family and friends while on the trail. So it won’t be totally unplugged. I don’t plan on editing any video while on trail or taking hours and hours of footage while hiking, so I went with a 10,000 mAH battery from Nitecore. I’ve been able to charge my Pixel 6 Pro fully three times off one charge of the battery. I might be adding a second battery just to make sure that the additional electronics stay charged as well on longer sections between towns.
Some Odds and Ends To Tie It All Together
Not pictured above are things like my first aid kit, which is basically my “anti” pills (anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrhea, antihistamine), Leukotape for blisters which I’ll wrap around my trekking poles along with some duck tape, tweezers, and some other odds and ends. It also includes my extras, like my extra mini BIC lighter and extra batteries for my headlamp. I’m also packing in a small cork ball from Rawlogy to roll out those sore feet and legs in the evenings. It is a luxury item that I am sure I’ll be thankful for after those long days on the trail.
Don’t Pack Your Fears
It is really easy to get carried away with gear, luxury items, and the thousands of what-if scenarios that can be played out while planning for a trip as big as a thru-hike. I hope the thoughts behind my own gear selections can help others in shedding some unnecessary items in their own pack. Ultralight is not everyone’s thing, and those couple of luxury items in your bag might be the difference in keeping your sanity versus being miserable while on your own trip. Do what works best for you, keep dialing in your gear, and eventually, you’ll be happy… until your next trip to your favorite outfitter where, if you’re like me, you’ll start to ask yourself, “what if…”
LighterPack Winter/Spring Setup – https://lighterpack.com/r/tjwnmy
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