6 Inexpensive Essentials You Should Know About

We’re riding out the gray and gloomy days of winter, and sunshine and hiking season seem all too far away. But many ambitious hikers are in the thick of plotting their adventures on the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, or Continental Divide Trail for the springtime. As would-be thru-hikers enter peak season for buying gear (or using up those outdoor store gift cards from the holidays), they should make sure they don’t overlook the following trail essentials–all of which can be gotten on the cheap!

1) Tyvek Sheeting

The ground sheets for many tents are both impractically heavy and prone to damage. Save yourself $20 and make your own ground sheet out of Tyvek–it’s cheap at most home improvement stores.
Tyvek is light, it’s durable, and it folds and stores easily. It cleans up quickly and you can write on it in Sharpie: a ready-made hitchhiking sign for those times you have to get into town. It’s a thru-hiker’s best friend when figuring out what you want your sleeping setup to look like.

Super Pro-Tip: Reserve another section of your Tyvek for games! Draw a checkerboard on there and use stuff you find on the ground for pieces to kill some of those long empty hours in camp. (One PCTer I hiked with for a long stretch drew a Scrabble board on hers, complete with a baggie of laminated cardboard letters. That is dedication.)

(Photo cred: Ellie Gertler)

(Photo: Ellie Gertler)

2) Olive oil

Unless you’re extra-creative and a committed long-term planner, there’s a good chance a lot of your trail meals are going to lack in both flavor and calorie density. (See: Ramen noodles.) Olive oil is one of the easiest ways to add calories to a meal, whether you’re a stove-cooker or a cold-soaker. It doesn’t hurt the taste, either. (I’ve seen it added to everything from spaghetti to edamame to dried fruit, with some weird combos in between.)

Super Pro-Tip: Get a travel-sized shampoo container–the kind that comes empty–and fill it with olive oil out of the hiker boxes you’ll find in towns. No need to buy a full bottle unless you’re sharing with friends (which is another easy way to save money and limit waste).

3) Ziploc Bags

Even if you’ve only day hiked in the past, you’ve probably seen the virtues of Ziploc bags firsthand. Now, take that efficacy and convenience and multiply it by a hundred. No thru-hike should be done without a ready stash of Ziplocs in your backpack and in your resupply boxes. Food is heavy enough as it is–it’s imperative to get as much of it out of the original packaging as you can. Gallon-size Ziplocs make for convenient food sorting and storage, and convenience is often hard to come by on trail.

Super Pro-Tip: Put some duct tape around the outside of a Ziploc and pack out your used toilet paper in it. Burying TP is, in the words of Carrot Quinn, “like burying a magazine in the woods”–no Leave No Trace-conscious hiker leaves it behind.

4) Extra Shoelace

Being a thru-hiker means needing to be resourceful at the most inconvenient times imaginable. Expensive pack straps can bust, shoes can fall apart, tent cords can snap–Murphy’s law should be stamped across your consciousness as you prep for your thru-hiking adventure. Keeping an extra shoelace in your supply is a good way to address a lot of those problems and more. I’ve seen busted pack straps tied back in place with one, I’ve seen sunglass leashes replaced with one, I’ve seen them tied to tents to replace broken cords…the list goes on. Keep a thin, strong shoelace handy.

Super Pro-Tip: Go ultra-light and make your own camp shoes out of extra insoles and shoelaces! Members of the hiker trash community are notorious for their resourcefulness AND their frugality. One guy I met on the PCT hiked almost all of the Washington section in gladiator sandals he made out of insoles, shoelaces, and duct tape. I don’t recommend this option unless you want to make this impossibly difficult endeavor even harder for some reason.

5) Safety Pins

Here’s a real shocker: when you thru-hike, you’re going to get wet. No matter what material your stuff is made of, it’s going to take some time to dry out. Keep six or seven safety pins hooked on your pack at all times and you’ll always be ready to dry out your socks, underwear, headgear, or pee rag while you walk instead of waiting until you make camp.

Super Pro-Tip: Wring out yesterday’s socks and underwear in a water source early in the day so that they’re dry before you stop for the evening. Putting on crusty clothes during your thru-hike is an inevitability, but you can mitigate the grossness by planning ahead.

6) Sewing Kit

This is the slightly less-janky version of the tip in #4. You are going to rip, tear, and otherwise destroy your expensive gear on trail–there’s really no getting around it. But instead of paying big bucks to get a new wicking shirt, or spending tons of time in post offices and on the phone with pack companies trying to negotiate replacements, pack a matchbook with some needles and sturdy thread. You might be lousy at sewing (I certainly am), but the hiker community is replete with people who know what the hell they’re doing. Give them a Pop-Tart from your pack or buy them a beer in town in exchange for a stitch job.

Super Pro-Tip: Send some thread in bright/weird colors in your resupply boxes. The sewing contingent of hardcore hikers goes wild for the stuff, and if you’re not using all of it, you can always trade it or leave it as a neat surprise in a hiker box in town.

(Not cheap, not light, not essential. Still nice to have along.)

(Not essential, not lightweight, not cheap. Still might be worth carrying!)

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Comments 11

  • Mike : Jan 10th

    Super Pro Tip: wait until the extremely inconsiderate hiker in front of you has finished washing their nasty clothing and underwear in the water source before refilling your water. It adds flavor to the water.

    For someone who earlier advocated for carrying out tp, you did not think that one through.

    • Chuck McKeever : Jan 10th

      Mea culpa if the intent here was unclear–obviously you shouldn’t be washing your clothes in the horse trough that’s the only water source for 30 miles. After the desert section of the PCT, a majority of the sources are moving water where doing this is no problem. I can’t vouch for the other thru-hiking trails, though. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      • Betsy Marshall : Jan 23rd

        IIRC: LNT advises washing yourself from a bowl or bag 200ft from water to keep soap/suds/detergent from entering waterways. put undies in a ziplock and do them at the same time, cleaner and better for all of us behind you..

  • Shelby : Jan 11th

    Helpful article! I am actually really intrigued in how your transition from teaching to hiking (and back again) went. Any info on that? I am a teacher myself and dream of thru-hiking, so I’m really curious as to how you were able to work that out! I’d just been planning on using my summers to section hike the AT.

    • Chuck McKeever : Jan 12th

      Thanks for the feedback, Shelby! Before the PCT, I was a teacher at a free school for adults, so I wasn’t a contract teacher for a school district or anything. It’s a lot easier to drop everything at a non-traditional gig like I had, I’d imagine. The adult/alternative education community in Seattle is a pretty well-connected one, but instructors are in short supply, so when I got back in early September I was able to land a few interviews pretty quickly. It’s also part-time, and that was huge for me–I wouldn’t have been able to jump in at 40 hours/week right after thru-hiking, for sure.

  • Stacey : Jan 12th

    I was surprised you didn’t mention Smart Water bottles. They are nearly indestructible and fit the threads of Sawyer water filters. Plus they are much cheaper and lighter than a water bottle you’d buy at an outfitter. Smart Water bottles played a huge role in my AT thru hike.

    • Chuck McKeever : Jan 17th

      That’s a good one too! Once I switched to SmartWater bottles my hike got significantly easier.

  • J-Bird : Jan 12th

    Super Pro Tip: Some first aid kits have piping around their edge which is a handy place to store needles on the go. Add a short piece of string (<1") to the end in order to make it easy to get back out.

  • Chris : Feb 19th

    The safety pins also can work as clothes pins to hang your stuff up on your hammock ridge lines or tarp lines once you get to camp. Enjoyed the article and put some safety pins on my pack after reading and have since used them on a hike that was really rainy to dry things.

  • Chris G. : Sep 17th

    Also upgraded to brass safety pins so they wouldn’t rust. However I lost one pair of socks that I had safety pinned to my pack so I guess make sure you check stuff hanging to dry often.


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