Inside the Pro’s Packs with Liz “Snorkel” Thomas

In 2011, Jennifer Pharr-Davis broke the record for the fastest supported thru-hike.  Perhaps a bit more under the radar, earlier that same year Liz Thomas (trail name: Snorkel) established a new best for the women’s unassisted time at 80 days, 13.5 hours.   To give this some perspective, my thru-hike took 150 days- which included two rounds of slack-packing (aka assistance).

Thomas’s AT record, however, is only the tip of the achievement iceberg.  Snorkel has thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail- completing the rare and prestigious “triple crown”.  She was the first to do an urban thru-hike across Los Angeles- which was featured in Backpacker Magazine.  And to make you feel even more unaccomplished, Thomas has a Masters from Yale and a fellowship from Duke for her research on long distance hiking trails, conservation, and gateway communities.

In other words, Liz Thomas is a certified badass.

Appalachian Trials caught up with Thomas to find out what the fastest unassisted female AT thru-hiker carries in her backpack.  Because with an ocean of gear information available to you, sometimes the smartest way to pack your pack is to mock the pros.  Enjoy.

Favorite AT Story

liz thomas“In some ways, I felt like my last 15 miles on the AT were the “final level” of the game where all the demons from past levels come out and I have to battle them. The fords in Baxter Creek were high and swift–probably the gnarliest I’ve forded on any trail. Then, I saw a snake. But the worst challenge flung at me was the nasty sky filled with thunderheads that emerged as I went up Katahdin. At 12:30, I rushed past the entrance sign so didn’t know the weather conditions. At first, I pretended the rumbling I heard was the water sloshing around in my pack, but then, it became very obvious. I was scared but kept moving—I *had* to finish that day. I had to get the speed record. Finally, I heard a huge clap right by me, and with much thought, I decided to turn around. Getting the record was important to me, but it just wasn’t worth the risk. Turning around was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my life. I was 2 miles from finishing my hike, and was going to wait another day by my own choice. I kept thinking of all the friends I would disappoint–friends who were sending me encouraging texts like: “Sleep is for the weak.” I also felt like I had pushed it so hard for 2,000 miles, had abandoned so many potential friends, meals, interesting conversations…all to make it to Katahdin to get the speed record. I kept thinking of the zero I could have taken, the night hikes I didn’t need to do, the rain I didn’t need to walk in…but I knew I was making the right decision. I walked down the mountain and it took all the energy in me not to cry. At 2:45, I walked down to the ranger station and chatted with Ranger White for a bit, told him the situation. Sometime during our conversation, *every* cloud in the sky disappeared. Ranger White said, “Well, normally we don’t let people up past the cut off time, but…” and kind of waved his hand. A big smile crossed my face and I ran up the mountain. ”

Why you backpack

Backpacking allows me to focus on what really matters. It clears the noise from life. Backpacking provides a space where I can connect with nature, with others, and with myself.

Gear / Packing Philosophy

My pack is ultralight (less than 10 pounds of gear, plus food and water) because minimizing the weight on my back as I trek thousands of miles each season helps reduce the damage to my body, allowing me to hit the trails year after year–injury free. Fewer pounds of my back means less poundage on my knees, hips, and feet. To keep safe, I learn backcountry skills and wilderness first aid –which is just as good as having extra safety gear. The advantage of outdoor knowledge and experience is that it doesn’t have a weight or volume penalty–I just stuff it in my head.


Mountain Laurel Designs Women’s Exodus

Tent / Shelter

Hennessey Hammock Hyperlight + Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Hex Tarp

Sleeping Bag

Western Mountaineering Ultralite / Mountain Laurel Designs Spirit Quilt



Sleeping Pad

Gossamer Gear Nitelite Torsopad


Altra Zero Drop Lone Peaks


Socks:  Vermont Darn Tough no-show or 1/4 crew ultralight merino

Underwear:  Ex Offico Give N Go

Base layer:  Smartwool Mircrocrew

Mid layer: Patagonia Houdini Windshirt

Outer / heavy layer: Patagonia Nanopuff Pullover and/or Patagonia Down Sweater

Shorts / hiking bottoms: GoLite shorts

Pants: Rain Skirt

Gloves: Possumdown

Hat:  Balaklava

Rain Jacket:  NW Alpine Eyebright


Trail Designs Keg-F System


Trail Designs Keg-F System

Hydration Reservoir

2L Platypus with hoser

Water purification method

Sawyer Point One Filter with adapter installed into Platypus hose

Water bottle



Phone, sometimes a camera

Luxury Items

mp3 player

Hiking Poles

Gossamer Gear LT4s

Food system

My philosophy is that not all calories are equal. If I have to carry food weight, I want to get the most energy bang for my buck (well, for my pound carried at least). I stick to mostly all-natural foods with simple ingredients like Probars, Natural High dehydrated dinners, almond butter, and olive oil. Of course, there’s always some junk food: chocolate, Fritos, Nature’s Path toaster pastries, and cookies!

Any other notes you’d like to include?

The most important piece of advice for thru-hikers is learning to read your body and act on your body’s needs accordingly. Hiking is a bit like flying an airplane. Your body has dozens of gauges that you need to monitor and react to in order to avoid disaster. You need to be able to read the weather, read the topography, and react to that, too. Often, the bad times that can end a thru-hike happen when you are hungry or dehydrated, so monitoring for that is key to staying happy and healthy on trail. There are a bunch of personal “gauges” and environmental gauges that indicate you should stop for the day. Often, hikers let what others think they should do (such as continuing on for the day) get in the way of what they need to do for their bodies (like taking a break or calling the day early). Hiking your own hike–doing what you want and what your body and mind need—is the best piece of advice I can give to hikers, but it is a lesson that took me almost 10,000 miles of hiking to learn.

A huge thank you to Liz “Snorkel” Thomas for this wonderful peek inside her pack; check out her website at  And if you enjoyed this edition of Inside the Pros Packs, be sure to get on the Appalachian Trials Newsletter to make sure you never miss another. 

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