10 Thru-Hikers Share Gear Favorites and Follies

Neel’s Gap sends home thousands of pounds of unwanted gear every thru-hiking season. While this number is huge, if you take a look at the giddy thru-hiker hopefuls on Springer Mountain, you might not be surprised. Packs bulging at the seams, towering above people’s heads. If you saw these same hikers by the time they reach Damascus, it’s a different story. Sleeker packs, less bells and whistles, fewer clothes.

To get some gear specifics, we asked some of our handy thru-hikers their favorite piece of gear from their hike, and the item they sent home first. These are just guidelines, but it might help you reevaluate your choices, which will save money both on replacements AND postage.

Note: Many of the submissions are geared specifically for the Appalachian Trail (e.g. sunglasses). 

Grayson Cobb (Thirst)

Need It: Neoair Xlite. Lightweight, reasonably durable, warm, comfortable, great customer service, easy to repair

Leave It: Pack cover. They simply don’t work. A pack liner was much more effective for me.

Maggie Wallace (Chuckles)

Need It: My water set-up is key. The Sawyer in-line and 3L platypus with a zip-top. All my other gear has fairly comparable replacements, but I think Sawyer is still the best filter option on the market because of its efficiency. It connects directly to the hose on my bladder, so I could drink water immediately after I filled up and I didn’t have to wait by the stream, swatting at bugs or watching sunlight fade at the end of the day. The in-line is super lightweight (I use the mini now, which is even lighter) and because water was so easy for me to refill (we kept our bladders on the outside of our packs), I rarely bothered to fill up with more than 2L. It has saved me a lot of time and weight, and it’s one of the only pieces of gear I always have with me, whether I’m slack-packing, backpacking, or anything in-between.

Leave It: Probably my zip-off hiking pants. I don’t remember the model and I’ve long since tossed them, but I think official ‘hiking pants’ are not the best investment across most brands. My expensive brand-name pants weren’t as durable as I thought they’d be, they had no flexibility, I had bad chafing because they weren’t form-fitted, and the zip-off bottoms were more annoying than helpful. They were also usually soaked from rain and/or sweat. Desert hiking is a whole different story, but for the humid AT, it’s better to have thin, quick-drying stretchy shorts. I should have converted to Under Armour shorts a lot earlier and bought some rain pants to pull on over them in cold weather. My hiking partner had the same experience with his new hiking pants, which ripped at the seams after a week. He bought a Wal-Mart bathing suit that lasted the next 2,000 miles.

Gary Sizer (Green Giant)

Need It: My Exped Schnozzle bag. It pulls triple duty as a waterproof pack liner, a stuff sack, and as the pump for my air mattress. Three quick pumps and my mattress is completely inflated, saving my lungs for more important tasks, like breathing.

Leave It: Sunglasses. 90% of our time was in the “green tunnel” where there isn’t exactly a blinding glare.

Rocky Pearson (Hare)

Need It: I would never ever give up my Therma-Rest NeoAir.

Leave It: I brought three pairs of pants to Georgia. Sweatpants, merino wool pants, and rain pants. By Damascus I had zero pants. I bought short-shorts from the Dollar General in Erwin and wore them for nearly 2,000 miles.

Caet Cash

Need It: Six Moons Designs Lunar Solo. I started in Maine with a freestanding 3.3lb LL Bean tent. In Virginia, I switched to a non-freestanding SMD Lunar Solo. It was lighter and had a far bigger sleeping area. SMD makes great, affordable shelters. I now own their Wild Oasis and Deschutes Tarps.

Leave It: Gregory Jade 50. The AT was my first hiking trip. When researching packs, I was convinced I needed a gender-specific pack to accommodate my small stature. I walked from Maine to Virginia with this pack that weighed almost four pounds… empty. For all its weight, the Gregory Jade is under-padded in its inexplicably narrow shoulder straps, resulting in poor weight distribution. It has plenty of padding in the back and on the hip belt, as well as an impressive amount of clips, bells, and whistles. I started cutting these off in New Hampshire, and ditched the brain in Vermont. I ended on Springer Mountain with a 1 pound 14 ounce dream: the GoLite Jam 50.

Robert Peck (Silent Bob)

Need It: My Enlightened Equipment quilt is absolutely number one. I’ve never had to suffer a cold night while using it. Five months of on the AT and it’s still lofty.

Leave It: Food stuff-sacks were the first thing I sent home, since gallon bags work just fine as a replacement.

Nicole Docta

Need It: I probably wouldn’t have made it past North Carolina without getting refitted for hiking shoes. My original shoes were causing horrible blisters that probably would have gotten infected and gangrened my feet off. If you shoes don’t work? Get new ones. Fast.

Leave It: I don’t think I ever used my multitool but I knew if I sent it back I would need it. I think because I kept carrying it, it prevented anything from breaking because I never used it… It’s logic!

Carly Moree (Pop-Tart/Papi)

Need It: When I thru-hike the AT again, I will absolutely bring two things: 1. A ZPacks sleeping bag! Having used the Zpacks 10F bag on the PCT, I’m in love. It’s lightweight and warm and their customer service team is highly responsive. 2. Altra trail runners. Because my feet love them.

Leave It: Nope! Used everything I brought. (Editorial Note: How did you manage that?!)

Kenny Howell

Need It: Earplugs

. Simple, yet so practical. As much as I love hearing the sounds of the great outdoors while I hike, they have an unpleasant tendency to keep my mind from shutting off when I’m trying to fall asleep. Ensuring I get a good nights sleep means I’m more prepared to tackle the next the day on the trail. Also anything that helps block out the snore of neighboring campers is a welcome addition.

Leave It: A 20 oz metal MSR fuel bottle. I love alcohol stoves, so naturally I need to carry along some denatured alcohol when I hike. When first setting out on the A.T. I brought one of those large red MSR screw top fuel bottles with me. As a newbie backpacker it seemed like the only natural choice for carrying a flammable liquid around on my back. Plus 20 oz seemed like a good round number as I had no idea how fast I’d go through my fuel. However, I soon found that a 12oz Sprite bottle worked just as well for half the size and half the weight. I sent that bottle home less than 4 days into the trail.

Ashley Upchurch-Kreykes

Need It: MSR SweetWater Purifier Solution. This handy 2 oz bottle fits in a hip pocket and allowed my husband and I to keep on trucking while we hydrated. We could fill and treat our bottles with our packs on and just five minutes later we were drinking our hearts out. We still carry a bottle each in our daypacks (which go everywhere with us), because they don’t get in the way or add any significant weight. This way we’re ready for adventure any time.

Leave It: Goal Zero solar panel. Hubs and I listened to podcasts and audio books as we walked, so we needed a way to keep our phones charged. The solar panel was traded for a rechargeable battery early on. We found these in a convenience store for about ten bucks each. They were lighter and just as efficient between towns, especially if our phones were on airplane mode.

There you have it. Remember, no one’s preferred setup is going to be the same, which is why all of our thru-hikers had different answers. Let this serve as a guideline when making gear purchases and trying to decide what to leave. Have some good gear advice, or a follow-up question? Leave it below in the comments.

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Comments 4

  • Ann : Dec 4th

    Hi Maggie: Thanks for the information. I’m curious – how did you attach your water bladder to the outside of your pack (what pack did you use?) Thanks for a response.


    • Maggie : Dec 6th

      Hi Ann,
      Most packs have enough straps and buckles that you can easily cinch a bladder tight to your pack simply by wrapping a strap around it. I had seen some people lay their bladder under the brain of the pack and cinch it down that way, but then it was horizontal and semi-impossible to drink from, since the water wasn’t getting to the hose. Hope this helps!

    • Maggie Wallace : Dec 7th

      Having two Maggies is confusing (even though I think there should be more of us). I used a ULA backpack which has a meshy outer pocket that I could put my bladder in. I loved it because it’s 1. stretchy and 2. see-through so my hiking partner could tell me when it was running low.

  • janelle : Dec 5th

    Good Badger and Hare
    . Love reading your articles. Hope all is well.

    . Mrs. Spartacus


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