Five Things I Wish I Left at Home Before Starting My Thru-Hike
I’m stubborn – and I generally pride myself on this quality. Stubbornness breeds persistence, for example – itself a key trait necessary to successfully completing a long-distance hike. But being stubborn can also lead to denial – like when you keep doing (or carrying) something and it’s simply not working out. But you keep doing (or carrying) this thing because tomorrow’s gonna be different – this thing will eventually serve a purpose. Catch my drift?
In past articles, I alluded to the fact that I carried one of the heavier packs on the AT – don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT bragging. More like, I can now admit I was being stubborn – I was in full-blown gear denial.
But I eventually came around. The following items are things I actually carried during my 2016 AT thru-hike that I wish I hadn’t. Geez, I carried a lot of crap.
1. “Backpacking” Chair
Laugh it up. Seriously, I deserve to be ridiculed for this one. Nearly every potential thru-hiker I met that first night at the Springer Mountain Shelter was a rookie (to some degree). But I was the only one to bust out a freaking chair around the fire ring after dinner. The volunteer caretaker shot me a confused look – even backpackers I’d never see again gave me a sideways glance.
I’m not insinuating that comfort isn’t important – the Alite Monarch Butterfly Chair I initially carried was super comfortable. But the damn thing weighed 1.3 pounds and took up valuable real estate in my already crowded pack. I only used it twice and sent it home during my first resupply in Hiawassee, GA.
In my experience, there’s nothing on the market, chair-wise, that hits that perfect balance of being both lightweight and functional. Therm-A-Rest has introduced the redesigned Trekker Chair for the class of 2017 – it essentially turns your Therm-A-Rest NeoAir (and other self-inflating pads) into a comfy camp seat. At 10 to 13 ozs. (depending on pad size), it comes in at nearly half the weight of the Alite. I actually ran across a few folks during my 2016 thru-hike who used an earlier model of the Trekker Chair. But because I didn’t carry an inflatable mattress (for the majority of my hike) I never considered using one.
Better Alternative: I, and everyone I hiked with, used a camp seat for one purpose, maybe two – to keep their ass dry and/or off of sharp rocks. And that’s it. A good camp seat should be versatile – in my opinion, that means not having to inflate it (like the Therm-A-Rest Lite Seat) or strap it to your sleeping pad (like the Trekker Chair requires).
Think about it. It’s snack time – you’ve just hit 15 miles on the day and it’s 3:00pm. Camp is still six miles out. Do you really want to inflate your ass cushion before plopping down to enjoy some jerky? I chose the Therm-A-Rest Z Seat – it’s cheap, functional, and weighs only two ounces.
Pro Tip: So you don’t want to spend $15-$20 bucks and pop on a Z Seat? No worries. If you’re a NOBO AT thru-hiker, wander into the hostel at Mountain Crossings and scavenge a roll-up mattress pad from the hiker’s box (you’re bound to find one). Cut the bottom third off and, blammo – a free ass cushion.
Weight Saved: Alite Monarch (20.8 oz) – Therm-A-Rest Z Seat (2 oz) = 18.8 total ounces sent home.
2. Swiss Army Knife/Leatherman
Before starting my hike north, I actually had three options from which to choose the best for this important category. I’m too embarrassed to elaborate on the first option – let’s just say it was big and stabby. The second option was carrying my old Swiss Army Huntsman – I’ve had this thing for years. And at 3.4 ounces, it was already leaps-and-bounds lighter than the fixed-blade monster I was considering.
But I ended up hiking with a Leatherman. Why? Simple – my dad gave it to me at Amicalola Falls. I thanked him profusely and immediately secured it in my pack’s hip belt pocket. I honestly loved it. My Leatherman Wave had everything – I especially appreciated the fact it has a locking blade, pliers, a can opener and an eyeglasses screwdriver (used this multiple times for myself and other thru-hikers).
I did not appreciate its weight – a hefty 8.5 ounces. But I’m no “ultralighter” and I do admittedly suffer from gear denial. I ended up carrying this bad boy all the way to southern Virginia – the only reason I sent it home was because the pliers began rusting shut at the hinge.
And that kinda left me scrambling for a replacement. Over the course of a few weeks, I eventually assembled my own version of a multi-tool. Sort of.
Better Alternative: I knew I had a mail drop scheduled to arrive in Marion, VA – thankfully, I was able to quickly call family back in Atlanta and have them throw in my old Leatherman Micra. Upon receiving it, I instantly remembered why I liked the Micra so much – it has a sharp pair of scissors and an eyeglasses screwdriver very similar to the one that’s included in the Wave. And at 1.8 ounces, I was certainly on track to shave some weight as well.
But I was definitely lacking some key tools. As I had taken to eating canned chicken (and pork…and beef) in lieu of tuna packets, I was now at a loss as to how to open them (the Wave has a can opener). I tried the “rock method” a few times (and yeah, it’s as messy as it looks).
Thankfully, I found a P-38 can opener in a hiker box in Pearisburg, VA. What a score! The P-38 (and P-51) works beautifully – and it weighs next to nothing. But I was still lacking a locking blade…
Enter my awesome luck at Trail Days. I won one the prize packages at the end of the Backpacker Magazine giveaway (McDoubles won the grand prize – what a jerk). In addition to snagging two water purification systems and a pile of Good To-Go dehydrated meals, I won a Kershaw Shuffle. With a 2.4 inch blade, I remember initially thinking, what the hell am I gonna do with this little, stubby thing?
The answer quickly became everything. The Shuffle is excellently designed and has great balance – and it’s actually a very versatile blade. And at 2.8 ounces, it’s rather lightweight for a locking-blade knife – I still carry it today.
In these three tools, I was able to do everything I could previously do with the Leatherman Wave – except what I could do with a pair of pliers. But you know what? I never used the pliers from the Wave anyway.
Weight Saved: Leatherman Wave (8.5 oz) – Leatherman Micra/P-38/Kershaw Shuffle “multi-tool” (4.6 oz) = 3.9 total ounces sent home.
3. A Frisbee
I initially brought along a chair because I honestly envisioned myself spending nights relaxing by the fire ring, laughing and sharing stories with other thru-hikers. In actuality, I used the damn thing twice. You’d think after a while, I’d begin to distinguish between thru-hiking expectations versus thru-hiking reality.
That said, why I decided to buy a Wham-O Frisbee in Daleville, VA is beyond me. I had consistently been hiking through forests, tenting amongst the trees – so yeah, a Frisbee sounds like a great idea. And, like the chair, I used it exactly twice – in the parking lot in front of Outdoor Trails (where I bought it) and again, in front of the Lindamood School near Atkins, VA (I admittedly did have a blast tossing it with Moon Boots and Canuck that evening).
Fun Fact: I’m only sort-of athletic – I mean, I did thru-hike the AT. But in the real world, not so much. I’m a semi-regular runner (okay, jogger) – I excel at “lazy man sports” (think bowling, darts, etc.) During my thru-hike, I played pool nearly every chance I got – and that’s more frequently than one would think. I was very competitive during my stay at The Doyle in Duncannon, PA and ran the table for hours at Wit’s End in Unionville, NY (Black Santa can verify both events).
But the, without-a-doubt, most fun, non-hiking activity I participated in while on the AT was playing horseshoes with Black Santa and Juan Durer at the Jim and Molly Denton Shelter in northern VA. What a freaking blast! It’s so counter-intuitive – to think that after a long day backpacking, you’d want to toss shoes until sunset. But it was amazing – we all had a great time.
If I ever won an Appalachian Trail grant of some sort, I’d install horseshoe pits the entire length of the AT – no joke. Probably the most fun I had at a shelter during my entire hike.
Better Alternative: To a Frisbee? Geez, I don’t know. A lot of hiking buddies bought AT hacky sacks along the way – and it looked like they enjoyed them. I am, unfortunately, 100% uncoordinated (hence my dubious “lazy man sports” claim). I tried to “hacky” a few times, quickly embarrassed myself, and subsequently sulked and isolated in the woods.
But if you do like to hacky, you’re in luck – there’s a lot of like-minded hackiers (hackers? hacks?) on the trail. And the average hacky sack only weighs 2.14 ounces – pretty lightweight for such a (supposedly) fun game.
Weight Saved: Wham-O Frisbee Disc – 6.25 total ounces sent home.
If you’re a professional photographer – please ignore the following.
I met several pros on my thru-hike, all of whom carried far more elaborate rigs than my own. And they took some awesome shots along the way – check out fellow thru-hiker Kodak’s website to see what I mean.
I, on the other hand, was an amateur photographer. Actually, it’s not even fair to call myself “amateur” – I barely knew how to operate my Sony NEX-5T when I commenced hiking north. Photography was something I wanted to learn along the way. Big mistake and bad idea. Granted, I did (finally) progress to the “amateur” stage – but it took a lot of time. And it ended up costing a lot of money and substantially weighing me down along the way.
First, why did I chose the NEX-5T? Well, like pretty much everything I carried when I left Springer, I did lots of research online before making a purchase. The NEX-5T is a mirrorless digital camera with a DSLR-sized APS-C sensor (I have no idea what any of that means). I bought a new(ish) one for about $180 on eBay – and it came with a 16-50 lens (I have no idea what those numbers mean either).
I was very pleased with its performance – it takes pics at 16.1 megapixels and is Wi-Fi enabled. I could actually send pics straight to my iPhone and post them online – very convenient indeed. Another reason I apprecitated NEX-5T was its low weight – the camera body and 16-50 lens weigh 13.8 ounces. That’s very light considering the quality of the pictures and video it took.
Let’s say you’re smarter than me and actually give a damn about pack weight. You probably wouldn’t carry a camera to begin with, right?
You see, not only did I need a camera, I decided that I just had to have a second lens, this time a Sony 55-210 zoom weighing in at 12.2 ounces. And I needed two rugged cases. And two extra batteries. And a quick-charge station. In addition to my camera body and two lenses, the additional add-ons weighed approximately 8 ounces and cost about $160 when all was said and done – the zoom lens alone was $200!
Better Alternative: I wish I had taken the opportunity to upgrade my iPhone before I began my hike. I started with an iPhone 5S and switched to an iPhone 6 in Brooklyn, NY (after losing the 5S somewhere in NYC). I was instantly impressed with the camera on the 6 – I couldn’t really tell the difference between pics I took with the iPhone versus pics taken with my Sony.
And let’s face it – it took much more time to pull out my camera and take a few “elegant” photos than it did to simply whip out my iPhone for a fast pic. I found myself getting left behind our hiking group numerous times due to my having to unpack and assemble, then disassemble and repack my Sony.
Weight Saved: Sony NEX5-T, plus all the extra crap that came with it (34 oz) – iPhone 6 (4.5 oz) = 29.5 total ounces sent home.
5. Town Clothes
When I first read that thru-hikers often carried a clean set of cotton clothes solely for use in town, I thought it was brilliant. It made total sense to me – after hiking for a week in the mountains and building up a serious case of hiker funk, what better treat to myself (and those around me) than with a set of fresh, cotton town clothes. For years I read in online trail journals that everyone carried a cotton shirt for town – at the very least.
So here I am, on the eve of my thru-hike, carefully stowing away my favorite cotton polo shirt, some lightweight cotton shorts and even a pair of cotton socks. I remember thinking how clever I was.
I learned a lot in Hiawassee, GA – I probably sent about three pounds of gear home the morning before I started hiking north again. Of the five of us crammed into our hotel room, I was the only one wearing town clothes. Even fellow hikers who scoffed and joked with me about “ultralighters” were surprised to find that I was carrying a full outfit – one only to be worn in town.
I quickly realized having town clothes didn’t make any difference – the first thing we did when we checked into a hotel was go take showers while doing laundry. Even before resuppling and restaurants, that’s how it happened – shower, then/and laundry. If my hiking clothes were always clean mere hours after entering town, what purpose did town clothes really serve?
At the end of the day, I really didn’t miss the comfort of cotton clothes either. I really enjoyed my Patagonia and Mammut hiking shirts – I had no problem wearing them in town after I washed them.
Better Alternative: Ditch the town clothes. And if your hiking clothes aren’t comfortable enough to wear in town – get new hiking clothes. Seriously. I can say, without a doubt, that I only did one thing, one single thing, right before I started my thru-hike – I commenced hiking north in comfortable hiking clothes.
I had the benefit of living very close to an REI – I’d order something online and, if it didn’t fit just right, I was able to return it. I eventually learned which brands fit me best and shopped them exclusively – I’m 5’7” so Patagonia, Mammut, Prana and New Balance (awesome hiking shorts and shirts) were my go-tos, just to name a few.
I did run into a problem with shorts in Connecticut. Pro Tip: There’s nothing you want to hike in that’s sold at Walmart. Nothing. I tried.
Weight Saved: One full town outfit – appx. 10 total ounces sent home.
* * *
So in the end, I sent home 68.5 ounces of gear I thought I’d need – that’s over 4.25 pounds of extra stuff. Bam!
And this figure comes from only big-ticket items – I eventually figured out many other ways to shave ounces as I hiked north. While I tend to disagree with some of my “ultralight” friends regarding pack weight, I will say this – there’s no reason to carry around stupid stuff. Drop the rock, thru-hiker! Your thoughts and comments are always welcome – many thanks and happy hiking!
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Great job Chris. I am so proud of you!
I’m due start my At Thru hike mar 3rd,but I’m still debating about whether to start out with my Western Mtg 10° versalit bag wt 1lb 14 oz and neoair xtherm max pad 1lb vs my zpacks 20° bag 1lb and an original neoair pad 12oz. Im just concerned about the colder temps starting out. I plan on using the zpacks set up most of the hike. Which one should i start with? Thanks!
Thank you for your self-deprecating but very helpful information. I find those that are willing to admit where they went wrong and write about it (i.e. tell the world) are the most helpful hikers!! We all know not everything is rainbows and roses so I really appreciate the honesty.
Just two days ago I was watching another “how to” video and it mentioned the clean pair of town clothes. I thought “well DAMN! I thought I was all set to go…now I have to come up with another set of clothing?” Your post alleviated that anxiety – fear.
Straps – hitting the trail March 7! ! 🙂