Nine Pieces of Thru-Hiking Gear to Splurge on, and Nine to Save On

Choosing gear for a thru-hike or even for weekend backpacking can be daunting. So what gear should you buy on the cheap and where should you splurge for the best? Let this list be your guide to getting the best bang for your buck.

Where to Save

1) Cookware

Your cookware will take a beating on a thru-hike. You’ll probably burn something, possibly dent the titanium, and you might even lose a handle somewhere. I highly recommend going with something light but affordable. An Olicamp Light Pot (1L, 6.3oz, $19.99) will do you just fine on weight, price, and durability. If you’re willing to spend $14 more to save weight, the Toaks 750 (750ml, 3.6oz, $34.95) is a great money conscious choice as well. Some people, like Dixie, even just use a grease pot.

2) Rain Gear

No matter what rain gear you buy, you’re likely to get wet on a rainy day on the trail anyway, and GoreTex can run you over $300. I ditched my rain pants at Neel Gap on the AT, ripped a sleeve, broke the zipper, and added a smell that could never be removed during my thru-hike. I highly recommend buying a more affordable rain jacket with pit zips like my all time favorite Mountain Hardware Ozonic Stretch (8.4oz, $80 on sale) or Columbia’s EvaPOURation Rain Jacket (~8.8oz, $34-$85).

3) Clothing

Your clothes are going to get stained, smelly, and possibly shredded on a thru-hike. Plus, you might discover that you hate the technical layers you thought you’d love.

Base layer: My Paradox leggings made it 2,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail and they’re still going strong. I can’t say the same for my SmartWool leggings that were three times the price. I wore these Paradox Everyday Merino Base Layer bottoms (10oz, $19.99). The Paradox Performance Merino Base Layer 1/4 Zip top (11oz, $24.99) is a great top as well.

Hiking pants: Columbia is one of the brands I trust the most. They’re also constantly having sales and they have outlet stores, so it’s easy to score savings on their garments. The Silver Ridge II pants (15oz, $30-$50) are stretchy, comfortable, relatively quick drying, and (most importantly) super durable. Likely to last you a thru-hike and more.

Gloves: Many hikers lose a glove, tear, or end up leaving them in a hiker box when warmer weather arrives. Keep your costs down by buying gloves for under $20. I used inexpensive liners like these (3.5oz, $11.95).

4) Butt Pad

You will probably destroy your butt pad, possibly melt it while fanning a fire, or even lose it. Honestly, I left mine in a hiker box halfway through my hike. Instead of spending $14 on a Therm-a-Rest pad, I’d opt for a knockoff. You can get one like this Arich Foam Pad (1.3oz, ~$3) on Amazon.

5) Food Bag

I started the trail with an Ursack (7.6oz, $85). It was heavier than necessary, expensive, not the easiest to close, and in the Smokies it actually froze shut on me in a snowstorm. Having to skip breakfast that day made me rethink my decision to carry it. I passed it on to another hiker and picked up a 20L Sea to Summit Lightweight Waterproof Stuff Sack (4oz, $15) at the NOC. It’s light, easy to hang, and durable. As long as you’re hanging your bag properly and you’re not in a bear canister required area, you shouldn’t need anything more than a stuff sack.

6) Pack Cover

Much like rain gear, your pack cover can only repel so much rain. Your pack will, most likely, be damp even with your pack cover on after hiking 15 miles in a rainstorm. Mine got a hole in it on day one and ended up being the least waterproof thing I owned by the time I got to Maine. Pack covers aren’t that heavy to begin with, and you’ll only cut 3-5oz for the $10-$20 more you’d spend. You can get this one (3oz, $12) on Amazon, or pick one up at REI (3oz, $24.95) for less than the cost of one from name brands. Many hikers have started to completely forgo the pack cover and just line their pack with a trash bag instead.

7) Filter

I used a Sawyer Squeeze for the entirety of my AT thru-hike. The kit comes with the filter, a mesh gravity bag, multiple water bags, and a syringe (you don’t really need to carry the syringe, use a Smartwater sports top instead). Fancy kits like the Platypus Gravity System (10.9oz, $99) or a pump filter aren’t really necessary. You don’t have to use the bags the Sawyer comes with either. Some hikers buy just the filter instead of the kit and use a bag by CNOC or Evernew. Drops like iodine or Aquamira are a lightweight, inexpensive option as well.

8) Stuff Sacks

Some hikers just use 1-2 gallon Ziploc baggies for their stuff sacks. I ditched three out of six of my stuff sacks at Damascus to cut down on weight. Line your pack with a trash bag and use it. The only things I keep in stuff sacks are clothes (2oz, $14), toiletries (30z, $14), and food (4.8oz, $15). Unless you’re hiking with a 0º or colder rated sleeping bag and your pack is small, it doesn’t need to be in a stuff/compression sack. Electronics, journals, wallets, and odds and ends are safer in a Ziploc bag and it’s way cheaper. If you do need inexpensive stuff sacks, consider Granite Gear. For the weight and durability, they’re the most affordable I’ve found.

9) Tent Footprint

I rarely if ever used my tent footprint. At the end of a 15-20 mile day, I just wanted to set up and hang out. If you choose not to be lazy and you don’t want to pay $50 for a specialty footprint, consider making one out of Tyvek. You can get it at any hardware store, some Walmarts, on Amazon, from a neighbor, backpacking gear forums, or pre-cut from companies like Six Moon Designs (4oz, $10). Tyvek footprints typically weigh between 4-7oz depending on your tent’s size and can cost as little as $0 and up to $20. A two-pack of polycro is only $10, and although not the most durable, when folded up, you should be able to get at minimum of a month or two from each sheet.

Worth the Splurge

The first four gear items in the splurge category are your Big Three: sleep gear, tent, and pack. These items are investments and are all really personal-preference-based choices. If you’re concerned about the money and just starting out, consider buying from REI for their return policy.

1) Sleeping Pad

The last place you want to be is cold, at night, alone, on the trail. That was me when I started my thru-hike with the cheaper Klymit Static V (18.3oz, $45) pad that I didn’t realize wasn’t super insulated. Some people can get away with a Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite SOL (10oz, $44.95). I, like most women, sleep cold. After trying four different sleeping pads on the trail, which cost me a lot, my friend let me sleep on his Therm-a-Rest X-Therm (20 oz, $230) for a night in Tennessee and I was sold. For the first time in over a month, I wasn’t cold at night and my back didn’t hurt. I immediately bought one. Other recommended pads include any other Therm-a-Rest Neoair (6-16oz, $89-$209), Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite SOL, or The Big Agnes Insulated AXL (12oz, $159.95-$249.95).

2) Tent

Three-piece tents are the most popular choice for tents. They’re usually two to four pounds and do well in multiple days of rain. Other hikers opt for trekking pole tents, which can be as little as one pound without stakes. Hikers recommend Big Agnes’ Copper Spur UL 2 (2lbs 2oz, $449.95) or Fly Creek UL 2 (2lbs 5oz, $349.95) for three-piece tents. You could also check out Nemo, MSR, and REI’s three-piece tent options. The Zpacks Duplex (19oz, $599) is by far the most popular trekking pole tent. Six Moon Designs was also a popular option in this category.

3) Sleeping Bag

My first sleeping bag was a Marmot Angelfire 20º (2lbs 8oz, $239) and to this day I wish I hadn’t returned it. But I thought that I wanted a quilt instead. So I switched to an Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20º (1lb 6.4oz, $300), which in hindsight was not warm enough for me. During my thru-hike, I ended up using a cheap 40º summer sleeping bag borrowed from a friend for over 1,500 miles and combined that with the quilt for the colder days toward the end. My tip for choosing a sleeping bag: get more than one opinion. Don’t just listen to that one guy at REI or that one guy on the UL Reddit page. Sleeping bags are investments and super personal choices. Hikers have also recommended REI’s Igneo (2lbs 9oz, $299) or Joule (2lbs 3oz, $299).

4) Backpack

Packs are the most personal of the Big Three items. Everyone’s body is different. Like sleeping pads, I tried three packs before I found the right one. The most popular options include Osprey’s Exos/Eja series (38-58L, 2-2.5lbs, $180-$220), ULA Circuit (8-14oz, $235), ZPacks Arc Haul (1lb 8oz, $299), and Hyperlight Mountain Gear Windrider (1.8-2lbs, $310).

5) Pillow

This may seem silly, but I still sleep with my Cocoon pillow at home. This pillow was dubbed the “Snore Pillow” by thru-hikers for a reason. A pillow can make or break your sleep. I started with an $8 inflatable pillow. It was slippery and kept flying out from under my head, leaving me with neck cramps from trying to lie on it at the perfect angle. I highly recommend investing in the Cocoon Ultralight Air-Core Pillow (6.7oz, $32.95).

6) Shoes

Again, shoes are inherently personal and what works for someone else might not work for you. I highly recommend getting fitted for shoes before buying them and definitely going up at least one size for thru-hiking. Trail running sneakers dominated the thru-hiking scene this year. The most popular shoes this year included the Altra Timp (1lb 4oz, $130) or Lone Peak (1lb 3oz, $120), Brooks Cascadia (1lb 5oz, $130), and Solomon’s XA Pro (1lb 8oz, $130). The most popular boots were Merrell Moab (2lbs 2oz, $110).

7) Gaiters

Thru-hikers take pride in their gaiters, using them as a fashion statement. It may seem ridiculous to spend $20 on the small pieces of fabric that will cover your ankles for six months when you’ve already spent twice that on your socks, but it’s not. Keeping debris out of your shoes will prevent blisters, holes in your socks, and the annoyance of stopping to clean out your shoes. A thru-hiker favorite is Dirty Girl Gaiters (1.5oz, $19-23). You could also consider Solomon Trail Low (2.10z, $35) or Altra’s Trail Gaiters (1.3oz, $19.95).

8) Socks

Splurging on socks may sound silly, but you’ll go through at least three pairs of socks on your journey. My favorite socks are Darn Tough brand. In Virginia and Vermont, their customer service helped me replace four pairs of socks total during my thru-hike over the phone for free. I’d say spending $16 on those was worth it because in the end I actually paid just $8 per pair once my free replacements were factored in. A word to the wise, though; Darn Tough does not sell through Amazon. The “Darn Tough” socks listed on Amazon are actually knockoffs.

9) GPS Device

If you’re planning on carrying a GPS device, do your research. It is important to remember that you will have to pay for a satellite plan in addition to the price of the device. The prices listed are only for the device. I carried, and still do carry, a Spot Gen3 (4.5oz, $149.99) which I got on sale for $75. While I appreciate my Spot’s affordability, I wish it did more. A more versatile GPS device is the Garmin inReach Mini (3.5oz, $349.99). It’s compact, lightweight, and offers more interactive features. The inReach devices can pair with your smartphone, two-way text, and are lighter. Spot’s new two-way messenger and month-to-month pricing is comparable but bulkier. I’ve also found that Garmin’s customer service was much better than Spot’s.

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Comments 17

  • Dave Swink : Mar 1st

    Well-written article with very good information to help with gear buying decisions! I totally agree that a sleep pad is worth spending money on. Everything is better since I switched to a Thermarest Neoair Xlite and started sleeping through the night.

    I was very surprised to read that the Darn Tough socks sold on Amazon are knockoffs. Glad I bought mine at REI. The Darned Tough socks listing on Amazon that I looked at did list Darned Tough as the seller, and linked to a “Darned Tough” seller’s site that included a picture of Ric Cabot, the co-owner of Darned Tough. That is a really well executed fraud, if it is not really Darned Tough.

    • Timothy Smith : Mar 2nd

      I have bought Darn Tough socks from Amazon, Massdrop, and local stores. The socks I bought from Amazon were genuine. You can always return them to Amazon if the seller tries to send counterfeits.

      • Rachel Meltzer : Mar 2nd

        If the seller on Amazon is called ‘Darn Tough’ they’re counterfeit, I was told this by Darn Tough’s customer service themselves. If you buy them on Amazon through a seller like Campmoor or something they’re probably genuine! They may have stepped up their game since my 2018 hike and gotten on Amazon, but that’s the info I got in August 2018.

  • Mav"Eric"k : Mar 1st

    Great article, on point!

  • Kreg Moccia : Mar 1st

    Love this article! Totally on point. Spent $80 on my cooking pot just because it was the “best cooking gear” on CleverHiker. Also, tried everything for rain gear even though you just end up getting wet if it’s raining hard enough. Only thing I might disagree with is the gaiters. 🙂

    If you’re going for super lightweight, have the money to spend, and/or are looking for small upgrades to an already complete gear setup, then this article doesn’t apply as much. But if you’re heading out for your first thru-hike, this is a great way to focus your gear research and spend the money where it matters.

  • Serhii : Mar 2nd

    Hey! Great article! But, it’s not correct about Darn Tough socks. They do actually have authorized sellers on Amazon.

    • Rachel Meltzer : Mar 2nd

      Yes they have authorized sellers through Amazon that are not named ‘Darn Tough’! but the seller on Amazon that is called ‘Darn Tough’ is not the actual Darn Tough.

  • Bud : Mar 2nd

    Great article. May I add MyTrail packs to the backpack list? I use the 50L lite model and it weighs almost nothing, is super durable, fairly comfortable, has little hooks that transform it into a smaller day pack, and MyTrail’s customer service is so top notch I was so impressed with the quality and price of the pack I ended up outfitting my wife and older son with new packs also.

  • John : Mar 3rd

    Enjoyed the article! I would give an argument to go with the Therm-a-Rest Z Seat over the knock off butt pad. I have three friends that used the knock off version that was flat as a pancake by the end of a four day trip, while my Z Seat was still rocking strong. Worth the extra $10!

  • Ricochet “Rabbit” : Mar 4th

    Good job with the blog. Wish you well on the trail.

  • Norman Stephens : Mar 14th

    Great article!

    Not sure, however, about the stated weight of the ULA Circuit, “ULA Circuit (8-14oz, $235).”

    The ULA website shows the weight as 41 oz.

  • Ken Nail : Apr 3rd

    Enjoyed the article! On the subject of “butt pads” here’s a hack I use.

    Buy one of those foldable windshield sun shades – the silver reflective type. Trim it down to a size that works as both a butt pad and an extra layer of insulation for under your sleeping pad when it’s really cold. I keep mine in an outside pocket of my pack and use it all the time, even for things like standing on when changing clothes in wet conditions.

    • Sarah : Nov 19th

      ^ genius

  • Chazmatazz : Feb 13th

    I agree with most of your recommendations except rain gear. My first set started leaking at the seams in the Smokies. Very miserable. Bought the best available once I reached Hot Springs. Very good investment. Also bought rain pants in New Hampshire. Used them frequently in the Whites.

  • Stephen M : Feb 14th

    This essay came up sponsored on my Facebook feed today. So I was puzzled at the sleeping bag recommendations (REI replaced the Igneo with the Magma, for instance).

    On the other hand, after two ponchos and four rain jackets, I’m now hiking with a Packa. If my Arc’teryx were only lighter and had better pit zips I’d be wearing it, but several trips and almost two thousand miles in (and hoping to finish this spring) the Packa is really my choice.

    It has some down sides.

    Costs less.

    No affiliate advertising available.

    Markedly superior in freezing rain.

    Reminds me of my mitten shells that have the same downside.

    Though the cheap gloves from Home Depot were the warmest I used.

    Finally. A buff over my inflatable pillow solved all the problems I had with it.


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