What gear do you need on the CDT?

Gear lessons learned the hard way

From 7-day trips to 138-day trips

“3 lbs” Surprised I take the tent off the kitchen scale: the Eureka Spitfire 1, my first backpacking tent. My dad bought it for me when I was 18 and I still remember setting it up in our garden for the first time. Back then, it seemed tiny and I have taken it on a few backpacking trips in Sweden and Norway. Sure, my pack was heavy but not crazy heavy? For thru hiking standards, a 3 lbs tent is not ultralight conform. Ultralight wasn’t a thing when I first got it. Small enough to fit into a 60-liter backpack, that’s all that mattered when I set out to hike in Scandinavia and South America. 

At age 27, I no longer lived in my parents’ countryside house with a garden. And I needed to buy and test all this new, ultralight gear before my thru hike. In Amsterdam, my apartment had no garden. When DHL finally delivered my ultralight Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo, I had no choice but to set it up in a nearby park. Red with embarrassment, I staked my guy lines and adjusted the hiking pole, while joggers and families watched me with curiosity, wondering why someone set up a tent in the middle of the day in Amsterdam.

The 2,650-mile shakedown

A big tear was gaping like a wound on my bright yellow backpack. The pack hasn’t even made it through California. And here, in the middle of the Sierra, just after Evolution Creek, it would be a while before I can replace or fix it.

But my backpack wasn’t the only gear that let me down. The down let me down too. My sleeping bag, which claimed to have a comfort temperature of -2 just wasn’t warm enough to endure October in Washington. My rain gear started soaking through.

If you spent hundreds of miles being cold and wet, you learn a few lessons for thru hike number 2.

The switches

I will explain all the switches I made and why, but I won’t go into detail about gear that will stay the same. A complete gear list will come later on.

My backpack

PCT: Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60l

CDT: Hyberg Attila 50l

Maybe it’s my dad’s influence – but I was a traditionalist when it comes to backpacks. They need to be reliable, heavy-duty, padded back, and hip belts. I chose the Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor, which can be adjusted from a 40-liter to a 60-liter volume using straps, which also serve for attachment and compression.

Despite it tearing and the frame breaking, I loved the Flex. The pockets made sense, it was comfortable to carry, and my bear vault fit in, even horizontally. And hey, did I mention it’s bright yellow?

The Hyberg Attila is frameless, half the weight, 1.4 lbs / 658 grams, roll top. My main reason for choosing this backpack over other ultra-light packs is that it supposedly can carry up to 33 lbs / 15 kg. Given the long water carries on the CDT, it made sense.

My rain gear

PCT: seam taped rain jacket + Rab downpour rain pants

CDT: Frogg Toggs

My rainjacket started to no longer repel water somewhere in Oregon and I was devastated. I just bought it new before the PCT. It got soaked and so did I. I was looking for something new and the affordable Frogg Toggs rain suit seems to be a thru hiker favorite, so I am giving it a go.

The Rab rain pants, I only bought them for the Sierra and only used them when the mosquitos were feasting on me. I sent them home in South Lake Tahoe and regretted it in Washington when the trail was overgrown and after days of rain I got soaked and very cold. I will keep the Rab rain pants in my bounce box, as a backup. But I also purchased them too small and with my 5’10” height, they don’t cover my ankles…

Into the darkness

PCT: BioLite HeadLamp 330

CDT: Nitecore NU25UL

In theory, the BioLite battery should last 3.5 on the brightest setting, but in reality, it didn’t even last 2 hours on the lowest (white light) setting. Night hiking on the PCT usually ended up with me holding my headlamp while it’s plugged into my power bank, not ideal! The NU25 is a thru hiker favorite, lightweight, and USB-C chargeable. 

My sleep system

First off, I have a dirty little ultralight sleep system hack for side sleepers.

PCT 1: Stoic NijakSt. -2°C Sleeping Bag

PCT 2: THERM-A-REST Vesper 20°F / -6°C Quilt

CDT: Katabatic Gear Flex 15°F Quilt (maybe?)

How to save weight as a side sleeper

When the Stoic sleeping bag arrived (again, I am traditionalist and preferred sleeping bags over quilts. Still somewhat do), there was a mistake with the sizing. The sleeping bag in size S is meant for people with a maximum height of 5’5″ / 165 cm, I am 5’10″/ 178 cm. As a joke, I laid in it anyway to snap a picture of my gear fail for my friends, but to my surprise – it worked.

I’m a side sleeper and I will pull my legs towards me in my sleep, so even though I am way too tall for it, I still fit. And even if I pulled the mummy hood over my head, it was alright. I just saved 80 grams! (Be careful applying this hack, some brands might be a bit more precise with their sizing)

What is the right temperature rating?

Despite my initial excitement for the Stoic sleeping bag, it didn’t work for me. I was cold in the desert, I was freezing my toes off (almost) on top of San Jacinto, and I had to pull out my foil emergency blanket the night before Forrester pass, NorCal was okay, but in Oregon, I decided I need to make a change. Especially given that we would finish at the Canadian border in mid-October.

My first quilt! The semi-transparent, silvery fabric of the Vesper looked almost futuristic when I unboxed it in front of the post office in Cascade Locks. 210 grams lighter and fluffy. Water-repelling NIKWAX 900 goose down. But when fresh snow was covering the trail just before Knife’s Edge in Washington, I was cold again.

By the time we reached the Terminus, I had tried every hack, and had added layers, but there was no solution. The Vesper wasn’t warm enough for me.

Cold as ice on the CDT

The CDT quest was to find a quilt under 500€, that can handle  15 degrees Fahrenheit / -10 Celsius and weighs less than 1.7 lbs / 800 grams. Some might say that warmth rating is overkill, but when you keep waking up at night, hoping it’s morning so you can get up, it’s no joke. I’d rather be warm.

Bear Can or Ursack on the CDT?

PCT: BearVault 500

CDT: BearVault 500

“Never again” I smile, when I hand my bear can to the postmaster in Bridgeport after the Sierra section of the PCT. Happy to save 2.6 pounds / 1,200 grams, and happy to no longer have to layer all my resupply into it. When I researched my next thru hike, I was relieved to read that a bear can is not required on the CDT. An Ursack weighs only 0.6 lbs / 280 grams for the 10-liter capacity.

Two things changed my mind about the Ursack:

  1. Dependency on trees: From my research, there shouldn’t be an issue with finding a camping spot with trees in Glacier or the Bob. But, if I can and it adheres to LNT principles, I quite like sleeping on ridges or anywhere with a stunning view for sunrise. And then there might not be any trees to tie an Ursack.
  2. Bear Piñata: So the Ursack protects the bear from your food, but not your food from the bear. Huh? That doesn’t make sense, you might say. Well, if you tie your Ursack around a tree, it’s probably still reachable for the bear. And they’re persistent, they want a midnight Snickers snack (who doesn’t?). There are tons of stories online from hikers who woke up to their food being mushed because the bear had been playing Piñata all night.

I might switch my set-up to a bear hang, in less bear-heavy / non-grizzly territory. If you have more insight into Ursacks or Bear hangs, I am happy to hear it in the comments or message me on Instagram.


Base layers / warm gear

PCT1: merino leggings, merino long sleeve, fleece, puffy, gloves

PCT2: merino long sleeve, puffy

CDT: merino leggings, fleece, gloves

After the Sierra, I got rid of lots of gear. Next to my snow gear and my bear can, also my Merino leggings, my gloves, and my fleece went home—something I would regret towards the end of Oregon.

The big perk of merino wool is that it keeps you warm, even if it’s wet, and on the CDT I will keep it as my base layer. And if you ever had to pull your tent stakes out with frozen fingers, you’ll understand why I regret sending my gloves home too early.

Going without my puffy is something I am still on the fence with, I will probably keep the Merino long sleeve and my puffy in the bounce box (that’s a package with backup gear I will post ahead on trail and then keep posting again, so it travels with me during the hike).

End of my dirty era: Tyvek

PCT: straight up sleeping in the dirt

CDT: Tyvek ground sheet

One thing my dad and I could never agree with was a ground sheet. For me, it was a pointless additional piece, one more thing I had to pack in the mornings. Hence there was no question when I packed for the PCT: I AM NOT BRINGING ONE.

Given the many nights of cowboy camping (hiker slang for sleeping without a tent under the stars), I woke up and rolled off my foam pad into the dirt many, many times. I am dirty enough on the trail as it is, time to pack a damn Tyvek.

To cook or to soak

PCT: cold soaking

CDT: ?? undecided

This one always gets me a lot of backlashes, so let’s make one thing clear: Before the PCT, I assumed every thru-hiker cold soaks on the trail, okay? Given how keen many are keen to reduce their base weight, it just made sense to me that most would ditch stove, gas, and pot for an empty peanut butter jar.

I was wrong. I met less than 10 cold soakers on the entire PCT. And I was often laughed at for my food.

Why do I stop cold soaking (maybe)? It wasn’t so much the eating of cold food, but the lack of variety. The only cold-soaking friendly food in most small stores along the trail were ramen and oats. Of course, there are wraps and snacks, etc, but there are only so many peanut butter wraps you can eat. I was craving a choice of pasta, rice, cooked lentils, etc.

A few weeks ago, I did an overnight trip with a backpacking stove as a test. And honestly, it was a bit annoying to ration water for cooking. As well as waiting for the food to cook and cleaning. At this point, I am not convinced of bringing a stove on the CDT.


Let me know if you have input to these gear switches 🙂


photo credits:

cover picture credit to https://unsplash.com/photos/person-lying-inside-tent-iPufjnRsYe0

snow hike picture credit to https://unsplash.com/photos/desert-during-daytime-PnWX202t_yg

rain gear picture credit to https://unsplash.com/photos/brown-liquid-in-clear-glass-mJPMbJj4AxA

snow camping picture credit to https://unsplash.com/photos/white-tent-on-snow-covered-ground-during-daytime-JI2LxZD66LQ

bear picture credit to https://unsplash.com/photos/brown-bear-sitting-on-grass-field-y421kXlUOQk

stove picture credit to https://unsplash.com/photos/selective-focus-of-blue-and-gray-camping-gas-burner-and-cooking-pan-on-cliff-N561DZ3NfVM

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