I’ve Been a Thru-Hiker Since 2013: Here’s How Gear Has Changed

When I graduated from college in 2013, I had no idea what I was doing with my life. But I did know that I wanted to hike as much of the Appalachian Trail as possible.

So I set out with all the secondhand gear I owned and made it as far as possible before I ran out of money. That LASH on the AT was my first real, long hike. And when I think back to the things I used to carry, I realize that over time, my entire setup has shifted in one way or another. My backpack is like the ship of Theseus.

A young Haiku on his first overnighter in 2009: daunted by the prospect of how many Snickers bars he would be eating over the next 12 years.

These days, the consensus on thru-hiking gear gets built, built again, then replaced. One minute I think I’m a total edgelord with my Brooks Cascadias, the next I’m a dinosaur. By the time I’ve figured out which Altras are working for me, it feels like everyone has already moved on to Hokas.

The outdoor gear market is always progressing towards something more lightweight or innovative, thanks especially to the creative influence of the cottage gear industry. The trends move quick, and sometimes it’s hard to keep up.

On that note, let’s take a moment to look around and see what everyone’s sporting, and ask each other how we feel about it. Besides, what else was there ever to do at the campsite but to sit around and compare gear? Some traditions will outlive us all.

2021 Was The Year of the Fanny Pack

Consult the astral charts and you’ll see that it’s true, folks. Personally, I’m pretty excited about it, because I’ve been grinding down my shoulders for nearly ten years now, and there’s finally a way to get a little more weight off of them. Don’t get me wrong, that GoLite pack I had back in 2013 was fun in a masochistic kind of way. And I probably needed that Osprey pack for extra support (and how rainy it was) when I walked across Scotland.

But the practicality and versatility of the fanny pack are simply undeniable at this point. I picked up the Cotopaxi Bataan and I swear you can fit half of Narnia in there, all while relieving your shoulders of some excess weight. Phone, wallet, lip balm, map, monocular, excess of bars, various small rodents, assorted currencies, loose papers, existential dread, etc. Meanwhile, if you crack open a fortune cookie, what do you think it will say inside? Mine says, “the hipbelt is on life support.”

READ NEXT: Fanny Packs: The Ultimate Thru-Hiking Accessory

It can still be nice to have that hipbelt though, like for times when you’re carrying 4.5 liters of water.

Do I want that to be true? I don’t know. My phone doesn’t even fit in most hipbelt pockets anymore. The weight of my pack is barely ever enough to warrant their use, and then when it is, my torso ends up pretty bruised, constricted, caged in. But with the fanny pack, my mid-section finally feels liberated. It’s one of my favorite innovations, and I hope it sticks around.

Water Resistant Backpacks are Here to Stay

A pack cover was an essential item once upon a time. There was that little compartment in the bottom of Osprey, Deuter, and Quechua backpacks where you could stash them and everything. But that time is no longer, amigos. Most backpacks nowadays are made of water-resistant materials with intimidating names. Gridstop Nylon and Ultra Weave materials seem to already be replacing DCF (Dyneema Composite Fiber), which only replaced Cuben Fiber a couple of years ago. And they’re so dang light that soon enough I’m pretty sure we’re just gonna be carrying spiderwebs on our backs.

And that’s fine by me. Because regardless of how things pan out, we’re probably always gonna be just randomly and angrily stuffing our gear into black trash bags inside our packs when it rains anyway. And you’ll never be able to take that classlessness away from me. I will die with a Hefty bag in my hand.

Back In My Day, We’d Filter Water Through a Hose, Uphill Both Ways

And it would clog about every five seconds. You’d spend more time backflushing those pump filters than you would actually filtering. If you were ever in Boy/Girl Scouts, you know what I’m talkin’ about. It’s no wonder that by the time Aquamira made it onto the shelves, everyone switched over to that.

And since Aquamira only filters one liter at a time, it made perfect sense that everyone would carry their badass Nalgenes to filter in. God, I miss those things. They were indestructible. I probably carried the same Nalgene, with the same Smokey the Bear sticker, for over 3,000 miles. And probably never washed it once, either. No wonder all the bears left me alone.

Only 90s kids will get this.

Nowadays, we’ve all got an admittedly lighter, more pared-down system to filter water with. The Sawyer Squeeze seems to be the current favorite, as it will screw onto just about any dang ol’ plastic water bottle and has a decent flow rate for a long time. And since the name of the game is keeping the show on the road, it’s nice to have a filter you can slap on a bottle, and drink from immediately without having to wait around.

Those moments of sitting around the water source and waiting for the purification to finish, or squeezing from bottle to bottle have become much rarer and more cherished (by me). There’s a ruthless sort of efficiency in the way we filter water now, and you know? Sometimes those kinds of innovations, however useful, deprive us of those small moments of humanity on the trail. Is this my love letter to Aquamira though? God no. That taste was awful. I just like taking breaks.

The Trekking Pole Tent/Tarp Doesn’t Seem To Be Going Anywhere

And how does that make you feel?

I do miss the spaciousness of my old Big Agnes tent. That thing was great. And believe it or not, the trekking pole tent has only been around for about a decade now. It was only just beginning to catch on in 2013 but has now far eclipsed any other type of tent out there.

There was one day at Vermilion Valley Resort on the PCT this year where I took a look around and saw that everyone camped there had a DCF shelter. Gossamer Gear and HMG’s shelters had a big year, but Zpacks definitely still seemed to be the mainstay. Imagine if everyone bought the Zpacks Duplex in that camo color; you could have a totally clandestine Trail Days right under the nose of the whole town, and they’d never even see you.

R.I.P to my sweet, trusty Hexamid.

The tarps are sweet, and super light, I loved using one on the AT in 2013. But I also loved using my trekking pole tent this year on the PCT. There will always be a certain sense of comfort and security that the trekking pole tents provide that I can’t deny. Although why not take it to the next natural level? My biggest admiration goes out to the few people I met this year who were trying to cowboy camp the whole PCT. That night it rained and Draggin’ just rolled himself into a burrito inside his Tyvek? Y’all are way cooler than I’ll ever be.

Sidenote: My prediction for the future is that it’s already possible to hike the whole AT these days without any sort of shelter, and it will eventually be fairly commonplace. Just splitting time between cowboy camping, shelters, and hostels. It’s like a gussied up version of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. And although some scientists might be so preoccupied with the question of whether they COULD, they aren’t stopping to think whether they SHOULD, I’ve got to say that this seems like a very fun experiment.

An accidental field test for the Duplex.

No Matter Which Trail Runner We Choose, We’ll Never Outrun Our Problems

Trail runners were already taking hold in 2013, and now they appear to be pretty much ubiquitous. I’d say it’s more common to start a hike in trail runners, then switch to boots, than vice-versa. This seems like a recent development, but a trend that’s not likely to be reversed. Of course, there are some who will always prefer the ankle support or water resistance of certain boots, but the flexibility, lightness, and quick-drying of trail runners is a siren song that most can’t resist.

Steel-toed boots are another option.

But then, once the trail runner was established, it seems that everyone started asking how we could make the best thing even better. Scott Jurek did his AT FKT attempt in a bunch of different pairs of Brooks Cascadias, and so next thing you know, everyone was in Cascadias. But then we learned what ‘drop’ was, and the Altra Lone Peaks took the crown.

READ NEXT –  The Best Trail Runners for Thru-Hiking

McAfee Knob in 2015. Lots of Salomons.

Nowadays, the field is starting to get a bit more crowded with some serious players, and I gotta say I’m into it. Not that there was anything wrong with the Altras, it’s just that the Hoka Speedgoats are so dang PADDED. You can be walking over nothing but rocks all day but it’ll feel like you just did 25 miles over a bunch of sleep numbers. I hear Topos are great too.

Honestly I’m just waiting to see if cottage brand shoe manufacturing becomes a thing. It’ll be interesting to see who prevails in the coming years. The real winner, at any rate, is my feet. I didn’t get a single blister on the entire PCT this year. But maybe it was also because…

Darn Tough Socks Still Reign Supreme, But Who’s That Knocking at the Door?

It’s Injinji, and they’re wondering if you’ve got a minute to talk about toe socks. They’ve been there for a while, but it seems like they are really starting to gain more traction these last couple of years. Personally, I still haven’t tried them, because I’m stuck in a cycle of that sweet sweet Darn Tough warranty. But I can absolutely see where people are coming from with this one. After all, I’m not sure there’s a gear company out there that’s been at the top of their field for as long as Darn Tough has.

I’m cropping our faces out of this photo because it was really all about the legs anyway.

Whatever Happened to Hydration Reservoirs?

Pour one out for the hydration reservoir, the attachable hose, and the bite valve. Oh wait, you don’t have to, because they already leaked inside your backpack all over all your stuff.

Okay maybe it’s our own fault that it happened, but let’s not pretend we haven’t all done it at some point. And with water carries being shorter and more calculated, plus so many filters fitting on plastic water bottles nowadays, the reservoir just seems cumbersome and unnecessary. Plus, it seems like most cottage backpack makers have even stopped including a place to run the hose, anyway.

The filter on the water bottle is undeniably a better system.

FarOut Guides (Formerly Known as Guthook)

I don’t have a witty title for this part. It’s easily the biggest part about backpacking that has changed in the last eight years. Even six years ago, we were all carrying AWOL’s guide on the Appalachian Trail, and now I’d imagine only a handful of them made it the whole 2,200 miles this year. And I only met a few people on the PCT this year who were carrying Yogi’s guidebook. And even when they did, it was more of a supplemental thing on their phone than the main source of information. That’s wild.

To that end, I think that .gpx files have also completely revolutionized the way that we do other, less-traveled trails. I’ll be honest: my compass skills are still pretty rudimentary, and I’m not totally sure how I’d fare out there without smartphone navigation. Maybe I’ve simply been avoiding that sort of internal confrontation, maybe I’ll never have to do it, who knows.

The Scottish National Trail is nearly all wayfinding. Make sure you get a waterproof case for that thing.

Like it or not, this insanely useful piece of technology is here to stay. And from water carries to campsites, it has simplified so many aspects of backpacking that the entire paradigm has completely shifted to a point that doesn’t even warrant discussion. It’s kind of like social media: you can choose not to participate in it, and that’s totally cool if you don’t want to, but it is still affecting everything around you to a point that it’s almost pointless to try and exist outside of it.

READ NEXT – The Evolution of Backpacking Gear

Check for service at the top of the pass.

And speaking of social media, it seems as though FarOut is already headed in that direction (comment voting, track shares, etc.) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them try and expand into that realm as well. My initial reaction is an aversion to this kind of thing, but then again, I suppose it would be nice to interact with other hikers on the trail with a platform that isn’t Facebook or owned by Facebook.

Sun Hoodies Rule

I categorized myself as a skeptic at first, but they are so versatile and sweet and light that I can no longer abide silence on the matter. And yes, sometimes they make us look antisocial and silly, and I don’t know what to do about that social norm. At the end of the day though, if you’re wearing one, you’re gonna be the cool one (temperature-wise and social-wise).

“Is this the trail?”

I don’t know how useful the sun hoodie might be on a hike like the AT, but everywhere else I’ve been, they were nearly indispensable. For the California section of the PCT, the AZT, the CT, and every hike I’ve ever done in Texas, this thing was a real GAME CHANGER.

South Rim of Big Bend NP is a magical place.

What Else Changed?

I should also mention that cold-soaking has been revolutionary. I’m not sure I’ll ever carry a stove on a thru-hike again. Quilts seem like they’re here to stay, and although hammocks had their moment in the sun, it seems like they’ll always remain more of a niche thing for certain trails. Either way, I’m sure that in another ten years my setup is going to look nothing like it does in any of these photos, and instead of being daunted by that, I’m pumped for it.

P.S. Hawaiian Shirts were the most important innovation of all. But what comes next?

P.P.S: Once they start making dehydrated beer it’s gonna be game over.

Thanks to Jani, Natalie, Jungle Jim, Coach, and Gamechanger for some of these sweet photos.

Featured image: Photo via J Taylor Bell. Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).

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Comments 6

  • Jeff Suber : Dec 31st

    Great article. I started my long walk in the woods in 1977 at the age of 14. I still have the backpack. I too have evolved my gear and why not.
    Warmest regards.

  • Franky : Dec 31st

    This article got me thinking. As we get lighter has the importance of getting to the next trail town quickly becomes more of the goal? Used to be, the old geezer said, the goal was to be out there, the heroes were those that could. There was less focus on trail towns and the trail as just a means to get to them. We thru hikers are a curious lot. We proudly proclaim we have a pack without a lid or have taken the lid off to save weight but then got out and spend 50 bucks on a fanny or chest strap pack of possibly the same weight. Naturally we would never take the lid off and put some web strap on it and a buckle to use as a fanny pack, would we? Of course a lot of changes to gear and techniques have made backpacking perhaps safer and sometimes more comfortable, . At the same time I worry if especially the thru-hiking community if we have become social media minions. Well, I have to sign off now so I can continue my search for titanium and cuban fibre weaved snow shoes for my 2022 PCT.

    • Tangles : Jan 4th

      My fave article from the Trek ever.

  • yogidozer : Jan 1st

    Remember when backpacks had a metal frame?
    I still have one, and use it.
    Remember a compass, and how to use it?
    One thing doesn’t change….nature is BEAUTIFUL ?

  • Tink : Jan 1st

    Hilarious and helpful article! Thank you!

    If I may add to the game-changing gear for the ladies….. please STAND to welcome the pStyle! No more squatting to pee!!! In fact, I can relieve myself faster than my male counterparts! I’m basically unstoppable now.

  • Sasquatch Jones : Feb 17th

    The filter on the water bottle is undeniably a better system.Check for service at the top of the pass.

    Rad shorts, dude. Seriously.

    Rad. Shorts. Dude. :thumbup:


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