Gear lessons learned from thru-hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail

I’ve written a previous post with details about thru-hiking the 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail, so this post will just be a shorter selection of lessons I learned while hiking this beautiful southeastern US trail. I hope the lessons will be applicable to the southern Appalachian Trail and other routes like the Pinhoti and Foothills Trails – and to thru-hiking generally.

It can get cold

I’m glad I didn’t succumb to temptation and take my 40 degree quilt. I had several cold, rainy nights where my 20 degree quilt was just right. There were even some nights when I wore my fleece and puffy in addition to snuggling under my quilt.

That being said, I’m glad I have a 40 degree quilt for when temperatures are reliably and constantly warmer than what I experienced. Even in April there were numerous nights on the BMT when I kicked my 20 degree quilt aside as too warm.

Quilts: Go long and wide, and use the straps

I’m very glad that I ordered my Enlightened Equipment quilt with the “Long” and “Wide” options. It’s only a few ounces more and makes for a much more snuggly, comfortable experience.

This was also the first thru-hike I did where I bothered to take along the straps that attach the quilt sides underneath your sleeping pad. I’m glad I did. I could toss and turn as I usually do, but my quilt tended to stay where it needed to be: above me, keeping me warm.

The Durston tent is awesome

I swear I’m not a paid Durston shill. But I now own three Durston X-Mid tents and am convinced that they’re the best-designed and best-manufactured tents out there.

I used the X-Mid Pro 1-person tent on the BMT (as well as on the Collegiate Loop last year), and it was a joy to set up, sleep in, and pack up. Yes, like all tents it can get some condensation inside, but even on the rainy, humid BMT condensation was never a major issue. At most, I used a shammy cloth to mop up a little moisture on the inner floor, and then I was good to go for another night.

There are also all kinds of videos online showing hacks to make the X-Mid even better. Just as one example: some people have found problems fitting the X-Mid with its generous twin vestibules into small tent sites. Well, guess what: the tent’s design allows you to pitch it in a “skinny pitch” configuration that pretty much takes care of that problem.

In addition, if you’re using a standard X-Mid (not the single-wall Pro) you can rig up your tent to enjoy the starlight but quickly batten down the hatches if rain or moisture becomes an issue.

Bidets are good

Not great, but very, very good. The big problem with bidets is that they need ample water sources to work: you need extra water in a bottle or bag to squirt on your hindquarters. But as long as you have water available, it makes perfect sense to direct a stream of it to power-wash your butthole before you mop up and dry off with a tiny bit of toilet paper … if you even need any.

Look, folks: poop is water soluble. It makes sense to use water as the centerpiece of your butt-cleaning system, rather than just using dry toilet paper to smear around your excrement.

(Sorry for the graphic detail, but I’m hoping to save some trees and chafed butt cheeks here.)

Umbrellas rule

OK, after the BMT I am a 100% convert to umbrellas on a long-distance hike. And it’s got to be a sun-reflecting umbrella with a good clip to attach it to my pack (at least when it’s not too windy) so I can use both my trekking poles.

I loved, loved, loved the ability to use both my trekking poles, take photos, and eat snacks in the rain under my trusty umbrella. I loved being able to use it to reduce the temperature about 10-15 degrees when it was sunny, too.

The BMT is a typical southeastern US trail in that it gets lots of rain, off and on during the day, and often with warm weather. Relying on a rain jacket will have you taking it on and off all the time, and will make you hot and sweaty. I loved being able to hike in my shirtsleeves and with no hat, with my umbrella keeping me dry and protected from the sun’s rays.

It’s gotten so that I don’t consider my umbrella a luxury item anymore.

Cold soaking has its place, but so does a stove

I was so glad I took a stove with me on the BMT. I enjoyed – maybe “endured” is more honest – cold soaking on my September thru-hike of Colorado’s high-alpine Collegiate Loop. It was nice to save the weight of a stove, and just eat super-simply. But the BMT had enough cool, rainy days that I really liked being able to eat some hot food and drink some hot coffee.

Then again, there were definitely some mornings and nights when I thought, screw it, I’m just going to eat or drink whatever was on my menu cold: oatmeal, coffee, it didn’t matter. I’ve learned that I should make sure that none of my trail foods absolutely have to have hot water to prepare.

Unless you have to, resupply without mailing

Certainly there are thru-hikers who need to mail themselves boxes to stay properly fed. This is especially true if you have food allergies or strong dietary preferences. But for me, unless I can’t even be assured of a gas station along the trail, I’m going to rely on buying food along the way.

For most of us, the fact is that we can survive eating crap for a couple of days. On the BMT I was eating pop-tarts for breakfast, Snickers for multiple midday snacks, tortillas and peanut butter for lunch, and ramen bomb with packets of chicken or beef jerky for dinner. And that was fine.

When I got to a town I’d force myself to eat a big, protein-rich salad – at least before indulging in other delicacies like burgers, pizza or ice cream. I felt good and well fed during my nearly month on the trail.

Electrolytes are important

This was my first thru-hike where I took care to drink electrolytes fairly frequently. I liked the “Liquid IV” powders (available at Costco and Walmart) but there are many other options out there. With the humid, sweat-inducing weather along the BMT, maintaining my electrolyte balance was important. I could really tell when I wasn’t drinking enough electrolytes.

Don’t skimp on the ibuprofen

Always, always, always take along more “Vitamin I” than you think you’ll need. I had some plantar fasciitis issues throughout my BMT hike, and there were mornings where I was hobbling around like a 100-year-old man. Stretching, icing my feet in cold streams, and careful foot placement and use of poles really helped me – as did traveling close to ultralight – but I would have been literally in a world of hurt without NSAIDS.

At one point I had to beg day-hikers for extra ibuprofen. I won’t let that happen again.

Hike with friends if possible

I tend to prefer hiking alone, but it was such an incredible comfort to have two great friends with me on this trip. The BMT has challenging terrain, and while we were on the trail we heard of a solo hiker in his 60’s (like me) who has gone missing and never been found. I hope and pray that despite all he’ll be found safe, but it can be very easy to take a fall on a wet rock or root. In situations like that it’s great to have someone else around you.

That being said, traveling alone is really liberating and can make for a beautiful experience. We saw numerous solo hikers on the BMT – and more solo women than men. They were all loving the experience and none of them reported facing dangerous situations.

The Garmin InReach (or other satellite device) is such a game-changer

We’re so lucky today. We don’t have to experience hours and hours of anxiety and worry that our forebears on the trail faced, as they fumbled with paper maps and compasses, trying to figure out if they were on the correct path.

Today we have FarOut and Gaia and OnX to pinpoint exactly where we are, and to show us whether we’re on the trail or off course. As long as we’re careful to protect our smartphones and not get separated from them and our satellite devices, we are much less likely to get lost than trail pioneers were. We really have it easy by comparison with people like Grandma Gatewood and Warren Doyle.

But you don’t really need a satellite device if you have a smartphone with maps pre-downloaded: your smartphone in airplane mode will show you where you are.

Where the InReach (or Zoleo, or other similar device) shines is in allowing you to communicate with others off the trail even if you have zero cell service. Just as one example: on our last day on the trail, we were constantly communicating through our InReach with out shuttler taking us to Asheville. He was texting us from his smartphone, and we were responding through my InReach. It was seamless.

River sandals are great

I found some lightweight (8 oz for the pair) river sandals and loved having them during the eight creek fords we had on the BMT. While I didn’t see the need for camp shoes or river sandals on the Colorado Trail, I’ll be taking these sandals on future trips where water crossings are likely.

What to leave behind next time

I feel like my thru-hiking kit is pretty dialed down, but I can think of a few things to leave behind based on my BMT experience.

Blow-up pillow. Unnecessary. Just use the inflation bag that comes with your Thermarest and stuff the bag with extra clothes. Wrap a fleece or t-shirt around the outside of the inflation bag to make it feel more like a pillow against your skin.

Second battery. With judicious use most of us should be able to get by with one 10K battery for up to 4 or 5 days. Just make sure you keep your phone in airplane mode so it doesn’t run itself down looking for a cell signal!

Food. This is now the third thru-hike I’ve done where I’ve had too much food with me. I suppose if I were doing a multi-month trip I’d want to take along more food, but almost every day I had more food with me than I could eat. I can safely cut back a bit.

Rainpants. I had some Frogg Toggs rainpants with me. They developed a rip without my even wearing them. Even though we had lots of rain, pants simply weren’t necessary – especially since I had an umbrella. Now, if I didn’t have zipoff pants I’d want to have either rainpants or at least windpants along. But I’m 0-for-3 on feeling that rainpants are necessary on a thru hike.

Alarm or spray device. I used to take along pepper spray. On this trip I had a little gizmo that emits a piercing noise if you pull a pin. I just don’t think “protection” like this is necessary, especially since we have trekking poles to ward off dogs or other aggressive critters.

We saw six bears and three feral hogs on the BMT, and all of them ran away from us as fast as they could. Taking along bear spray, firearms, etc. is a classic case of “packing your fears.” (However, I’ll be the first to take full-size, full-strength bear spray with me in an easily reachable holster if I’m in grizzly country. I’ve listened to the chilling podcasts.)

Think bright colors!

Finally, from now on, if I buy any accessories I’ll buy them in obnoxiously bright colors. I found a black tent pole that someone had left behind. And I managed to lose my grey-colored rock bag for bear hangs.

I’m going to re-paint the tops of my tent stakes in fluorescent colors. I’m glad my Garmin InReach is a bright orange-red color.

OK: this was my “gear update” blog for the BMT. I’ll have one more post with more of a philosophical bent on what hiking a trail like the BMT does to you and why thru hiking will, to paraphrase the supremely eloquent Carrot Quinn, break your heart and build it back again.

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Comments 6

  • Happie Storm (Kathy) : May 30th

    Rolf, another great article. We appreciate you highlighting the BMT. Did you hear? Progress has been made ie. The National Scenic Trail proposal was introduced to the House.

    I was hoping to meet you during my July and August CT thru hike. I’ll fb msg you with a question or 2. I’ll have my plan finalized in a bit. I prefer to send resupply boxes and supplement with my stops but it is more of a challenge on the CT than the AT.


    • Rolf Asphaug : May 30th

      Hope to see you when you’re out here, Kathy. Thanks for hosting the BMT thru-hiker Facebook page: such a great source of info.

  • Jeff McCorkle : May 30th

    Great article. It really spoke to some of my concerns and internal debates. It helped me to hear your experiences. I’ve done many week long treks but attempting the AT beginning early March 2024 will be my first of such magnitude. Btw I will turn 60 next year. Subscribing to your blog posts now.
    Quilt – EE 10 degree to start and may take a down blanket later on or but a 2nd lighter quilt.
    Tent – I own the X-Mid 2P solid and plan to take my new X-Mid 1P. The pro is tempting.
    Umbrella – I’ve debated this but think I will take my GG umbrella and I do own the clip.
    Bidet – I own one, like the concept, and will need to practice.
    Stove – I value tea and coffee but will probably cold soak some as well.
    Resupply – Nope, I love to plan but will not be sending myself any resupply boxes.
    Ibuprofen, Permethren and Electrolytes – yes and yes and yes.
    Friends – I’m hoping to meet them but my wife will visit monthly for a few days so will lose them.
    Garmin – leaning towards Zoleo since I don’t plan to use it to navigate.
    Camp Shoes – probably my 8 ounce flip flops but the 13 ounce Crocs are so comfortable.
    Pillow – Tough call; my Aeros is nice but I like your thinking.
    Rain Pants – Mine are about 5 ounces and was going to start with them for warmth since early March then send them home.

    • Rolf Asphaug : May 30th

      Thank you! That means a lot. I love our hiking community.

      Re the pillow: a few ounces to better assure a good night’s sleep is worth it. I actually had TWO inflatable pillows on the Colorado Trail but they always slip away from me – even with straps and such.

  • Chris aka Han Slolo : May 30th

    Inflatable pillow is a must. I don’t carry enough extra clothes to stuff a pillow. Hiking clothes and town clothes, if the Hiking clothes are wet I sleep in my town clothes.
    Rolf I see with the comment about the missing rock bag you didn’t bring a bear canister.
    I have a full-brim rainhat that also works as a sun hat, I might think about an umbrella for a long desert but my cattle dog Azul would get jealous.
    Congratulations on your BMT hike,Chris

    • Rolf Asphaug : May 30th

      Good point! My aging arches didn’t want to handle the weight of a canister (at least if it wasn’t required). I own a canister as well as an Ursack but thought I’d use a bear bag on the BMT, especially since the northernmost third in Great Smoky Mountains has cables.


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