What’s in My Backpack? My (Pre-Trip) AT Thru Hike Gear List
Disclaimers & Warnings
We all know that the main reason anyone bothers to read pre-trip gear lists is so they can criticize someone else’s gear choices. And by “they,” I mean me. Sure, we might pick up some great ideas, but mostly we all want to validate our own gear picks. That is why the internet was invented, after all. If you’re looking for better advice on gear, read a blogger’s post-thru hike gear list. I know I’ll have refined and sorted my pack more than a few times before I finish. Check back this fall to see which of my gear made it all the way to Katahdin.
But who am I to mess with tradition? So here goes…
Please be kind in the comments and keep in mind that even though I’ve never thru hiked the AT, I have been backpacking for 50+ years and done several other long trails in the past 10 years. My system works for me. I’ve tried out lots of gear. I’d love to hear your thoughts, but I’ll be hiking my own hike and may disagree. If you really feel strongly, please feel free to mail me your favorite piece of gear (new, of course) and I’ll be happy to give it a test run. I’ll give you a shout out if I like it. If not, I’ll sell it online and keep the cash. Either way, thank you.
A Few “Recommended” Items I’m Not Bringing
Maybe it would be more interesting to tell you what gear I’m not bringing that is on the ATC’s recommended gear list:
- Map & compass. Nope. That’s all on my iPhone. If the phone dies unexpectedly, I’ll follow the white blazes or another hiker. Or tap out using my Garmin InReach Mini. And yes, I know how to use a paper map and compass – I had half a career of field work in extremely remote places before smart phones were invented. I’ve moved on.
- Blaze orange vest. Does anyone actually bring one of those to keep hunters from shooting them? I think my lime green pack should do the trick.
- Flashlight. I’m imagining one of those mongo D-cell clubs that beat cops used to carry on their belts. I’ll be carrying a UL (ultralight) headlamp, though I’ve done many trips without one and just used the light on my iPhone when I needed it. Pretty much, when it’s too dark to see, I’m in bed.
- Waterproof matches. I’ve never had much luck with those. I carry two Bick lighters, one in my stove bag and another safely stowed with my night gear. Sometimes, I’ll have an extra one in the first aid kit.
- Sunglasses. Face it, after a few days you’ll have either broken, scratched, or lost them. Or accidentally rolled them up inside your tent and crushed them after stuffing them into the mesh pocket to keep them safe. If not, they will either be too rain- or sweat-splashed to see through. I’m counting on the long green tunnel and 40 years under Arizona’s brighter sun to protect my eyes.
Some Other Common Items You Won’t Find in My Pack
The shortest path to lighter pack is to leave stuff you don’t really need at home. Here’s my leave-at-home list:
- Camera. Replaced by my iPhone (Pro Max 14), which takes better pictures than many of the fancier cameras I used to carry. Also, it’s waterproof. Ish.
- Video Camera/GoPro. Ditto. When my wife is nearby and I can slackpack, I might bring my drone for some aerial shots, as it weighs less than two pounds. But nearly all my video and stills will be taken with my iPhone. Some days, I’ll bring my mini-mikes to improve sound quality, especially on windy peaks.
- Books (including paper trail guides). Replaced by audio and digital books on my iPhone. Hmm, I’m sensing a theme here.
- Cook Pot. My trail meals are all dehydrated/eat-in-the-bag type (e.g., Mountain House) or cold. I boil my water in my titanium cup. I’m no foody and am unfazed by dietary monotony. I’ll get my culinary variety in town.
- Dishes. My only dishes are my Titanium cup and lid for boiling water and drinking tea, and a plastic bowl and spoon for my instant oatmeal breakfast. I eat dinner directly out of the package.
- Dish Cleaning Kit. Since my cup is only used for boiling water there’s no need to clean it. I clean out my oatmeal bowl with a splash of hot tea and a sheet of TP right after using it … the bowl, not the TP, obviously. I give them all a thorough soapy scrub whenever I get to civilization.
- Coffee Kit. Ugh, no. The civilized hiker drinks tea. Stash Double Spice Chai, to be precise. I’ve got a pot brewing right now. Yum.
- Stool, Chair, or Pad. Nope, but I might give in and bring a little square foam pad to sit on during breaks or around a campfire. In all my previous hikes, I’ve been okay sitting on the ground. Then again, most of my hikes in the past 40 years have been in the arid Southwest. Hiking on the rainy, muddy, poison ivy- and tick-infested East Coast might require some behavioral adjustment.
- Pillow. I used inflatable pillows for years, but I now prefer to stuff my extra clothes in a small stuff sack and use that (which also keeps my clothes warm overnight). My air pillows always managed to escape my nest and ended up in a distant corner of the tent. Or they weren’t comfortable enough for a side sleeper like me.
- Crocs/Camp Shoes. I know a lot of hikers bring crocs or other lightweight shoes for camp and river crossings. While it is nice to let the dogs breathe at the end of the day, the weight/utility ratio just doesn’t work for me. Plus, the AT doesn’t have that many rivers to wade, and my quick-drying Altras aren’t that much heavier or less comfortable than crocs. (Pro Tip: Leave your shoes on but take your socks off when wading a river. Unless they need washing. After you cross, take a break and soak your feet in the cool water before putting the socks back on.)
- Cotton. I won’t be bringing any cotton plaid shirts, with apologies to Robert Redford’s Bill Bryson movie wardrobe. I counted seven different plain shirts, and sometimes Redford wore two at once.
The Gear I Love – What I’ll Have at Springer Mountain
Here’s my gear list. I feel strongly about a few of them, but some others I’d gladly consider upgrades.
- Tent. I prefer an enclosed tent with a separate fly rather than a hammock, tarp, or bivy sack. I like keeping the bugs out as well as the better ventilation that comes with a fly. I used to cowboy camp a lot, until I had some wildlife encounters I’d prefer not to repeat. Once, I woke up to a coyote standing on my ground cloth and sniffing my face. The shock was mutual, I’d like to think, though I was the one that managed to control my bladder. Another time, it was the friendlier end of a skunk. Usually, though, it’s biting insects and weather that makes me long for an enclosed dry space. I’m currently using a Mountain Hardware UL2 free-standing tent I’ve had for about 8 years. It’s a little battle worn and will probably need replacement this year. Even though I hike alone I prefer a UL2 (two-man tent) over a UL1 because I’m relatively big guy, i.e., not one of the munchkins tentmakers use to determine tent capacity, and because I like to keep my gear inside with me and out of the weather.
- Pack. I carry an Osprey Aether 70 Backpack. I know it’s considerably heavier than the UL packs, but it is soooo comfortable. And durable. And packable. And replaceable. Plus, it annoys the UL crowd, which is an extra bonus. When I’m on the trail, I’ll probably blog about pack weight, because I know someone’s head is exploding right now about my pack choice. Did I mention how comfortable my pack is? Thought so.
- Sleeping Bag/Pad. I love my Nemo Riff 15F down bag and lightweight inflatable pad (the big one). I got rid of my UL sleep system after too many restless nights and a midnight revelation while hiking the JMT. Sleeping comfort is paramount to a good hike. You’ll spend 30-40% of any backpacking trip lying in your tent, so make it as comfortable as possible.
- Stove. I use a little MSR pocket rocket isobutane/propane stove. It works. Don’t overthink it. And no, cold-soaking my dinners or cold tea are simply not an option.
- Hiking Poles. Always. I can hardly count the times my Black Diamond trekking poles (Aluminum, External Lever Lock, Rubber handle, metal tips – and yes, I’m aware of the alternatives) saved me from face plants and knee injuries. Mine are adjustable and a little heavy, but I’m a big guy and need sturdy more than I need featherweight. I always keep enough duct tape wound around the handle for emergencies, which adds to the weight, but it has also saved me more than once. If it can’t be fixed with duct tape and superglue, it just can’t be fixed.
- Water Purification. I am currently trying out the Katadyn BeFree. We’ll see. In the past, I’ve used bleach, Iodine, Steri Pens, Life Straws, and a host of different pumps, and I’ve found something to hate in all of them. Well, hate is such an ugly word. Let’s say disappointed, as in, “I’m disappointed my filtration system failed two days into a 14-day trip.
- Garmin InReach Mini 2. I used to carry a sat phone for emergencies, but between the spotty coverage in deep canyons, the poor sound quality, and the expense, I found it difficult to use. Then I found the much lighter and more reliable Garmin InReach Mini. It pairs with my iPhone to make typing messages and using map software much easier. The Mini 2 has incredible battery life (10+ days) and seems to send messages faster than the original model. Free InReach to InReach texting is also a nice perk. Definitely worth the 3.5 ounces.
- Pack Liners/Dry Bags. I always keep my sleeping bag and night clothes in a lightweight dry sack inside my pack, even though I also use a pack cover when it rains. Maybe it’s all my river running experience, but I feel better knowing that I have something dry to sleep in. I also like to keep my other pack gear in lightweight stuff sacks just for the organization.
- Electronics. My gizmos include one rechargeable battery cell, ear pods for audiobooks and music, and a charging cable. I think I’ll leave my lightweight solar pad home from the long green (rainy) tunnel.
- First Aid Kit. Mine consists of some Advil, the duct tape around my hiking poles, a tick tweezers, some Dawn dish soap for poison ivy, a little tube of superglue, my bandana, and my Garmin InReach. It’s the AT, not the Alaskan Bush. Help is never that far away. Oh, I also bring a healthy dose of “You’re not 18 anymore, you idiot, don’t do anything stupid.” It took me more decades than it should have to find that, but it’s kept me out of trouble since I did. Mostly.
- Miscellaneous. TP (1/4 roll), toothbrush (full length), toothpaste (travel size), plastic trowel, head net (in bug season), head lamp, reading glasses, parachute cord & food bag (bear cannister where required), 3-liter water bladder (rarely full), and my journal & pen (my addiction).
- Pee Bottle. Usually, it’s a used Gatorade bottle. I’m an old man, and tent nights can be long. Having to get out of the tent in the rain to empty the tank is one of the main ways sleeping bags and dry clothes get wet. Pro Tips: (1) keep the used bottle in the vestibule, not inside the tent, (2) label it “DO NOT DRINK” in big block letters, and (3) never, ever leave it open and full on the tent floor while you look for the lid.
- Deck of Cards. My other luxury item. Real cards, not those can’t-be-shuffled-or-dealt lightweight ones. You never know when you’ll meet a three-man crew in need of a fourth for Euchre or Hearts.
When it comes to clothes, this is my packing list. It varies a bit by season, of course:
- Shoes. I’m in the trail runner crowd and have been since my 5-lb Raichle leather boots with the steel shank took several toenails during a weekend trip 30 years ago. I’m currently hiking in Altra Olympus 5’s. They have a lot more cushioning than the more popular Altra Lone Peaks, which I wore for several years. I think the Lone Peaks contributed to my Achilles tendonosis, but so far, the Olympus 5’s have done right by my ankles. I’ve used brands I liked better in the past, but those manufacturers have stopped making size 15’s, so my choices are limited. Even Altra was out of size 15’s during 2022’s supply chain shortages, but I’ve stocked up. My Altras are pricey and not that durable (~400 miles on Arizona’s rocky trails), but happy feet are one of the things worth paying for. (1 pair on me, 5 backups waiting in the wings). If anyone from Hoka is reading this, I’d love to give your Speedgoats a try.
- Socks. I’ve been wearing Injinji toe sock liners and Darn Tough wool socks (both crew length) for years and never had a blister, as long as I keep my feet clean. Dirt or sand grains between the toes equals instant blisters. I always bring extra pair of clean, dry socks to rotate with the dirty ones. Clean, fluffy socks are always worth the weight. (1 pair each on me, another in the pack)
- Columbia Quick Drying Long Pants (1 pair, not zip-off). Those zippers always irritate my legs, and in all the years I wore them, I never once bothered to turn them into shorts. Long pants help keep the ticks and poison ivy at bay and eliminate the need for sunscreen.
- Ex Officio Boxers. Best undies I’ve ever hiked in. No chaffing, minimal smell. (1 pair, plus an extra for trips longer than four days)
- Under Armor Dry Fit T-Shirt Base Layer (1). The goal here is to keep the stink in the base layer. Theoretically possible, less so in practice.
- Columbia Long-Sleeve Quick Dry Shirt (1). Long sleeves help keep the ticks and poison ivy at bay and eliminate the need for sunscreen. We’ll see how they work in the mid-Atlantic summer humidity. Button down collar because that’s my groove.
- REI Long-Sleeve Polyfiber Shirt (1, cold weather only). I’ve had this shirt for a decade and it’s the bomb. Durable, cool, warm, and oh so stylish. It disappeared for a few years into my son’s laundry pile, but recently made a return. REO no longer makes it, and the ones that replaced aren’t quite the same.
- Mountain Hardware Lightweight Fleece (1). My warm layer for evenings in camp and for cold days while walking.
- REI Down Puffy (1). For really cold evenings and pre-breakfast mornings, and occasionally for sub-freezing sleeping.
- Lightweight Polyfiber Gloves (1 pair, cold weather only). Nice to have them when you want them and only ounces when you don’t. Also nice for handling my titanium cup when it’s hot.
- Outdoor Research Rain Hat (1). Again, one of my long-time companions. This guy keeps me warm and dry and provides shade and sun protection on demand. A dry head is a happy head.
- REI Rain Jacket (1, zippered with hood). A must have, but mostly for camp. Unless it’s cold or really rainy, I can usually hike myself dry with body heat. Mine is waterproof. No really, not one of those useless water “resistant” rags some vendors trick you into buying.
- Marmot Rain Pants (1 pair). I only use them as rain pants while hiking during driving rainstorms when its below 50F. Otherwise, they’re too hot. But they make for handy camp pants when everything else is wet. Or for downstairs coverage on laundry day.
- Nightwear (1 each) polyfiber long johns top & bottom, wool socks, stocking cap. I’ve slept in this costume for years. It keeps me warm during the cold nights, keeps my skin from sticking to the sleeping pad, and replaces my sleeping bag during the warmer nights.
And the Real Reason Anyone Has Read This Far…
My base weight is 22.8 pounds.
Bring on the hate. In my defense, I’ll be carrying it, not you, so relax and take a deep breath. We’ll both be fine.
I’ve carried that base weight (or much more) for several thousand miles of backpacking trips. I know what it feels like. And yes, I’m aware of and have tried several UL backpacks. I didn’t like them.
Plus, 23 pounds represents less than 10% of my body weight and less than half the weight I’ve lost (so far) preparing for my thru hike.
But if we have to have the base weight discussion, let’s have it on a cold, rainy night while I’m warm, dry, and eating a hot meal. We can revisit the argument on a long, grueling mountain climb if you like and perhaps then we’ll see each other’s perspective more clearly.
That’s all I’ve got. See you on the trail.
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