My Appalachian Trail vs. Pacific Crest Trail Gear Lists: The Things I Didn’t Carry
Two years ago I wrote a post for this website called Gear Lessons From a Hiker Who Never Learned Her Lesson. In it I talked about the enormity of the pain and suffering that I forced myself to endure carrying a 40+ pound pack as a 125-pound woman on the Appalachian Trail during my 2017 thru-hike. The AT is a difficult trail with or without weight on your back, but more weight certainly exacerbates the struggle. I knew that my plantar fasciitis, aching joints, and perpetual exhaustion could probably have been mitigated had I lightened my pack. But still I chose to soldier on with items like tarot cards, a tea light candle, and a wine opener weighing me down. The pain I was in combined with a hard deadline cost me nearly 300 miles of trail. It was the right call at the time, but ever since making the jump from Port Clinton, Pennsylvania, to Kent, Connecticut, I have been haunted by the question of whether I could have hiked the whole trail AND met the deadline had I only been a little kinder to my body by carrying less.
This past winter, when I was planning to take off for the PCT, I decided that I was going to learn my lesson. This time I was going to carry less. My pack was going to be smaller and lighter. I was going to hike farther and faster. And I was going to wake up in the morning feeling like a 30-year-old woman getting stronger from lots of exercise, not a 130-year-old woman whose body was deteriorating with every step.
I showed up in Campo on April 16 with a base weight just under 12 pounds. I was nervous that my plan wouldn’t pan out and that needing to pull bigger miles and carry large amounts of water would result in my experiencing a level of pain similar to what I experienced before. I did not. Sure, I still woke up stiff some mornings and had pain in my ankles and arches before I found the right insole. However, at no point during my time on the PCT did I experience a level of pain remotely comparable to what I dealt with daily on the AT. Lightening up my pack worked.
The following is a rundown of the major changes to my gear setup and why I believe they were instrumental to a relatively painless hike.
Before I go any further, I have a few disclaimers:
- I did not finish the PCT. My partner was injured in mid-July and I chose to get off trail with him. All told, we hiked approximately 1,400 miles. Still, while I hiked a farther distance two years prior, I began experiencing pain within one week of starting the AT that I never experienced in the three months that I was on the PCT.
- Anyone who has hiked both trails can attest that the PCT offers far more forgiving terrain than the AT. One is a gently graded dirt path with long, switchbacked climbs and descents. The other is a relentless up and down staircase of roots and boulders. The extent to which this affected my level of physical well-being is hard to determine.
Without further ado, here are the changes I made to my gear setup. They saved my aching body and made my hike more enjoyable and they can probably do the same for you too!
I Switched to an Ultralight Pack
In 2017 I made the mistake of reading too many generic guides to backpacking packs and not enough advice from recent thru-hikers. Gear companies like REI often publish blog posts full of conventional wisdom such as “trips of 1-3 days require a 30L-50L pack” and “trips of 5+ days require a 70L+ pack.” Well, I was planning on a trip of five months! Surely my 60L pack was already recklessly small for a trip of that length. It was only after I had done my own thru-hike that I realized that a backpacking trip during which you stop in town roughly every three to five days is really just a continuous chain of shorter backpacking trips strung together, not a deep-woods expedition that requires weeks of food and survival gear. Thus, a smaller pack is sufficient.
For the PCT, I decided to carry the Osprey Lumina 45, the women’s version of Osprey’s ultralight pack that first hit the market in 2018. This was helpful in a few ways. The first was that it immediately shaved pounds off my base weight. The REI Flash 60 that I carried on the AT weighed 3 pounds, 5 ounces, whereas the Lumina 45 weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces. Less carrying capacity meant less room for stuff I didn’t need. Having to prioritize space forced me to think harder about what I could do without. No room for tarot cards this time! The minimalism of the pack’s materials also reinforced an ultralight mind-set—a load over 25 pounds was not very comfortable considering how little padding there was.
Overall, I loved this pack. The Lumina/Levity have not seemed to get much love from the backpacking community so far. Hyperlite, ULA, and ZPacks appear to be the go-to brands for the ultralight crowd. Those packs differ from Osprey’s pack in that they utilize Dyneema Composite Fabric (formerly known as Cuben Fiber) rather than ripstop nylon and, with the exception of ZPacks, are usually frameless or with minimal internal frames. Most people who choose an Osprey pack tend to go with the Exos/Eja line, which is still lightweight but can comfortably carry heavier loads. Those who opt for ultralight packs of other brands largely perceive DCF as being more durable. I would recommend the Lumina/Levity for the reasons above (low weight, enforces ultralight decision making), as they are more affordable than other ultralight options, and because I found the Lumina to be both comfortable and durable. The aluminum frame gave good support and the mesh component that allowed airflow between my back and the pack made a tremendous difference in comfort. And you know what? If your pack does break down, Osprey’s customer service is AMAZING. Their “almighty guarantee” is a godsend to thru-hikers. My partner’s pack suffered some serious damage and when we called Osprey, they hooked us up with a streamlined process specifically tailored to thru-hikers and sent him a brand new replacement to the next town.
I Got a Fanny Pack
Adding a fanny pack was a game changer. This time around, my pack did not have hip belt pockets but it did not matter at all. The fanny pack was superior in innumerable ways. It could fit my phone, my backup battery, my headlamp, headphones, wallet, birth control, cords, charging brick, and at least two snacks. Everything I might need in a pinch was front and center right at my fingertips. Weight that would normally rest on my back was redistributed to the front, easing some of the strain. The fanny pack that I carried was also waterproof, shiny, and earned me compliments on the daily. The trail is the kind of place where a fanny pack makes you cooler. Get a fanny pack.
I Got a Lighter Tent and Made My Boyfriend Carry Half
Ah, hiking as a couple. A whole new dimension is layered atop the challenge of a thru-hike when you undertake it with your significant other. You argue about ridiculous things like whether it is worth it to go .2 miles off trail for water. You learn just how rancid your love’s B.O. can smell. They learn just how many Clif bars you can stomach before the sight of one in your food bag causes you to shed tears or sends you into a hangry rage. But you can also share gear. And that is a perk, to be sure.
I loved my palatial REI Quarter Dome 2 person tent on the AT (it actually fit two people!), but it weighed in at 3 pounds, 5 ounces, and my partner, Baywatch, eventually convinced me to choose a lighter-weight option as our home for the journey. After testing the Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 and feeling it was just a little too cramped, we opted for the Tiger Wall 3, and man oh man, talk about a palace. Plus, it only weighs in at 2 pounds, 10 ounces (3 pound, 1 ounce if you add the footprint). I may have balked at the $449.95 price tag a few years ago, but when we purchased this tent I knew that comforts like space and low weight would have a major impact on our day-to-day enjoyment of the PCT. I carried the tent and the footprint, while Baywatch carried the fly, poles, and stakes. Even if I had had this massive shelter all to myself it would have saved me 4 ounces minimum. Sharing it saved me at least a pound and a half.
The Tiger Wall 3 is a great option for couples since it offers so much space, but I saw plenty of couples sharing the two-person version and many individuals used it as well. Since they are partially freestanding tents, they are easy to set up and sturdy even in high winds (an easy feature to test in the deserts of Southern California). Despite lots of rainy weather this year we had few issues with water getting in and soaking our gear. There was lots of condensation on cold mornings, but what do you want? It’s a tent. Finally, they are very light. The two-person version weighs only 2 pounds, 3 ounces, and if you are an individual who needs more headroom or space for gear, it is 100% worth it.
I Switched from Boots to Trail Runners
On the AT, I was steadfast in my resolve to wear boots from Georgia to Maine. I have weak ankles, I reasoned, and that rocky trail would mean certain death (or at least a sprain) if I dared take away their support. Well, as I mentioned before, my feet developed plantar fasciitis and hurt constantly for the duration of the trail. I never tried to swap out my footwear to see if it might make a difference. For some reason I really did not believe that it would.
But last summer as I was finishing off the remaining peaks on my list of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers in preparation for the PCT, I decided I owed it to my feet to see if there was any merit to the trail runner revolution. I traded in my Oboz Bridgers for a pair of Altra Lone Peak 3.5s. The boulders, roots, and granite slabs that comprise the Granite State’s “trails” definitely forced me to descend at an even slower pace than usual, as I had to take care where and how I stepped to avoid rolling my ankles, but my feet held out longer. I wore boots at the end of the summer when I accompanied a friend for three days and 60 miles of her Long Trail thru-hike and found myself in tremendous pain around mile 15 or so each day. I had to admit that trail runners were where it was at. I went all in for the PCT and bought four pairs of Lone Peak 3.5s while REI was having a sale.
What I like about trail runners as opposed to boots is that they are lighter and more flexible. I thought this would mean my foot would be less protected, but I’ve found the stiff outsole of a boot seems to create more of a pounding sensation with each step, whereas the softer trail runners seem to absorb more impact (I am not a shoe engineer, this is just how it felt in my experience). Trail runners seemed to mitigate some of the impact on my knees and hips and were definitely more comfortable on my feet. What I liked about Altra Lone Peaks in particular is that they are “foot shaped,” and great for my already wide feet, which always swell with hot weather and/or big miles. Compared to Altra’s lighter trail runners, like the Timp, the Lone Peaks have a more rugged outsole and sturdier upper. This prolongs the life of the shoe and keeps your feet better protected from the elements.
I Ditched My Alcohol Stove for a Canister Stove
This may sound like the opposite of an ultralight decision, but hear me out. I would have made the switch even if alcohol stoves were still legal on PCT (they’re not; fire hazard) for two reasons. First, because I do not believe I could enjoy a stoveless thru-hike, and second, because the alcohol stove I carried on the AT gave me nothing but grief and saved me little, if any, weight.
The nightmare of my beer can stove had several facets. One was that I always had to worry about finding fuel for it in town, and sometimes had to settle for inferior alternatives to denatured alcohol like rubbing alcohol or a fuel I thought was denatured alcohol but was not and caused a few minor explosions that caught my skin on fire. Another was that it would often disappoint, if not outright fail me when I needed it most. The colder the weather, the longer I had to spend priming the fuel and then waiting for the water to boil. Denatured alcohol does not produce very high temperatures, so it often took upward of 20 minutes to cook food even in good conditions. Finally, I still had to carry fuel. Maybe I saved a little weight carrying denatured alcohol in a water bottle as opposed to a fuel canister, and the stove itself may have weighed only an ounce, but it still cost me weight and was so inefficient I might as well have not carried a stove at all.
By contrast, the MSR PocketRocket 2 that I carried on the PCT was a weight expenditure I could justify. It boiled water quickly and efficiently no matter how cold it was. Nearly every trail town had at least one local business that sold canister fuel, and one small canister usually lasted me at least ten days. I was especially glad to have it considering the exceptionally cold and wet conditions on the PCT this year and knowing that I could look forward to hot chocolate and mac and cheese and the end of the day got me through many a rough march in the freezing rain.
I Got Rid of My Bladder and Only Used Water Bottles
On the AT I carried a 2-liter bladder from Camelbak. I liked having easy access to my water but quickly came to dread the process of refiling it. It involved a laborious process of filling a Sawyer Squeeze bag, filtering the water into a bottle, and then pouring the water from the bottle into the bladder. The nuisance of having to go through this process, combined with the added weight of the bladder itself, convinced me that bottles were the way to go.
Throughout the PCT I carried a combination of 1 liter Lifewter bottles (because they are prettier than Smartwater bottles) and Sawyer Squeeze bags. All of these vessels are extremely light so it was not much of a burden to have them on hand in the event of a long water carry. I always had a dirty bottle that I could screw my water filter onto and drink straight out of, and I always had a clean bottle that I could filter water into for the purpose of adding flavor or electrolytes.
I Got Lighter Camp Shoes
Camp shoes are a luxury item anyway and I initially started the PCT without them. But 70 some miles into the hike in Julian, California, I decided I needed to give my feet more opportunities to breathe. Rather than having my roommate mail me the Crocs I wore on the AT, I bought a cheap pair of flip-flops that lasted till our second-to-last day on trail. They were lighter and took up less space in my pack.
I Resupplied Smarter
It was not unusual on the AT for me to leave town carrying a jar of peanut butter, a summer sausage, a block of cheese, a bag of baby carrots, a half pound of chocolate, and a large quantity of trail mix. I gave no thought whatsoever to the weight of my food. The baseline level of pain I felt throughout that trail would increase tenfold following a resupply. Yet I continued to resupply heavy all the way to Maine.
On the PCT I spent a lot more time thinking about how much food I actually ate on a daily basis, what food was going to benefit my body the most, and which lighter-weight food items could substitute for heavier ones. I still bought jars of peanut butter but only during times when I felt I wasn’t getting enough calories. I still bought baby carrots and fresh fruit but only if I had time to eat the majority of them in town. I tried to buy food that was more nutritious and satisfying so that I wouldn’t need it in such large quantities. And I never carried more than two heavy items at a time. I still never left town without cheese, but you can’t deprive yourself of everything.
I Only Brought What I Needed (Mostly)
Obviously, this time around I left the wine opener and the tea light candle and the tarot cards at home. But I also did away with things that I had carried on the AT that I seldom or never used. These included a pack towel, Castile soap, deodorant, a first aid kit (with the exception of some Band-Aids and ibuprofen), a compass and paper maps, rain pants, and probably some other items too.
Some of those omissions may sound reckless, such as the first aid kit and the maps. What I found on the AT, however, was that if you ever had a problem that Band-Aids, moist towelettes, ibuprofen, and/or a bandana couldn’t fix, then nothing else in your first aid kit was going to fix it either. Carrying lots of Band-Aids and over-the-counter meds is not going to help with a sprain or a broken bone or Giardia or a snakebite. You have to get to town for that. As for the maps and compass, I assumed a personal risk with that one. I banked on the fact that I would be hiking at all times with a partner, that there would be a lot of other hikers, that the trail would be well-traveled and well-marked, and that I would have reliable GPS service—I carried both my cell phone and a Garmin InReach. The truth is that I had maps and a compass on the AT and neither used nor thought about them once. It was a personal choice not to carry them on the PCT and I absolutely encourage the acquisition of backcountry skills and carrying the equipment needed to use them.
I did, however, carry things that may not have been vital to my survival but really enhanced my experience. These items included a journal and a camera. I kept a journal on the AT and took lots of pictures. Reliving the hike after it was over was really special for me and my only regret was that my phone didn’t yield better photos. So I actually added a Sony a6000 mirrorless camera to my setup for my PCT hike and found that it was completely worth it.
Some Things Stayed the Same
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a few shout-outs to the tried-and-true items that carried over from the East Coast to the West.
Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter: Lightweight, affordable, easy to use, filters out the dirt and the microbes. What’s not to love?
Darn Tough Socks: I used a pair of Darn Toughs on the PCT that I had worn for more than half the AT. They really are tough.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad: Has kept me warm and comfortable for thousands of miles. I swear it’s not even that noisy anymore.
Big Agnes Maggie 15º Sleeping Bag: I bought this teen girl’s sleeping bag on clearance in 2012 and as far as I know, it has not been in production since then. That said, this sleeping bag is a thru-hiking champion and I would give a thumbs up to anyone looking to buy a sleeping bag from Big Agnes.
Sea to Summit Stuff Sacks: All the stuff sacks I used on the PCT had already survived the AT. They survive still.
MSR Titan Titanium Tea Kettle: Ultralight, durable, and large enough to cook a full box of mac and cheese.
This is not a complete list of everything in my pack. I wore clothes too, of course. But this list of swaps, omissions, and carryovers represents the most consequential items I carried for 1,400 miles on the PCT. One of the most exciting things about preparing for a second thru-hike was applying the lessons I had learned the first time around to my new gear setup. It was even more exciting to have those lessons result in a long hike with minimal pain.
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