What Not to Bring on Your First Long-Distance Hike
Ounces are pounds, and pounds are pain. I heard this countless times before I started packing for my first long-distance hike, yet the message didn’t sink in, and my knees and shoulders paid the price. A few weeks ago, I completed the John Muir Trail—my first backpacking trip longer than three nights. I thought that choosing a 61-liter pack was opting to go lightweight. It wasn’t until PCT hikers were passing me with 45-liter bags that I realized how many planning mistakes I had made. I used the concept of carrying a “luxury item” as my excuse for having a 40-pound pack.
As soon as I am fortunate enough to find myself preparing for my next thru-hike (hopefully even longer!), these are absolutely things I would not bring again:
More Than One Option for Any Type of Clothing
I started off the JMT with two tank tops and two pairs of shorts, as well as a beanie and a fleece headband. Ignoring my inner voice telling me I would be just fine, I thought it might be nice to “have options.” I ended up wearing one of the pairs of shorts a grand total of twice and they were basically clean by the time I reached Lone Pine. Overall, my hiking partner and I agreed that our clothing strategy was solid, besides the double daytime outfits. Even the clothes that we only used for camp and sleeping had a strong hiker stink by the end of the trail. Attempting to keep anything clean was impossible, and embracing the smell was an essential part of our experience. Undergarments can be excluded from this one-article-of-clothing rule… but to each his own. At the end of the day, it took a couple of minutes to pull all of the clothes out of various corners of my pack I used to shove everything in. One pair of shorts is plenty.
A Full-Size Notebook
For me, an essential part of the JMT was writing and reading every night. Even though my book weighed quite a bit, I used it every night and was incredibly happy to have it. However, the weight of the book coupled with a one-pound notebook was absolutely unnecessary. My hiking partner had a tiny, lightweight notebook that I first thought would be too small to use comfortably, but she was much happier than I was having to shove my notebook into the front of my pack every morning.
My money-spending priorities do not always fall where they should. I didn’t even consider buying smaller sizes of soap, face wash, sunscreen, and toothpaste, leading to a toiletries bag that rivaled the weight of my bear canister. On my next hike, I’ll ditch the face wash, bring only one tube of sunscreen (I brought a face and a body tube), and “splurge” on a travel-size soap and toothpaste.
The one cosmetic that I was consistently happy to have was my full tube of moisturizer—I was able to use it on every part of my body to keep from turning into an actual reptile. Had I had more time to prepare and comb through the weight of every item I was bringing, I might have caught my obvious blunder in carrying a six-pound toiletry bag.
My hiking partner and I did quite a bit of shooting while on the trail, and she was SO thankful that she decided to ditch her tripod at the last minute. Her tripod is lightweight, but the bulkiness still would have been awkward and unnecessary to carry for over 200 miles. She was still able to capture a few stunning astro shots by balancing her camera on rocks, and during interviews we were able to balance our elbows on our knees to hold the camera as steady as possible. It’s no secret that the John Muir Trail features some of the best landscape this country has to offer and it’s a daunting task to attempt to capture the beauty and serenity of the Sierra. However, extraneous pieces of camera equipment may hinder the ultimate goal of reaching Mount Whitney.
Two Dehydrated Meals per Day
I can smash some pad thai and never got sick of the taste of my dehydrated meals, but going up a hill in the heat of the day with a belly full of pasta primavera isn’t the most successful strategy. Because our (thankfully successful) plan was to obtain walk-up permits, my hiking partner and I only had a couple of days to throw together our food and resupply strategy for the JMT. We hit up Backpacker’s Pantry for two-thirds of our total meals, planning to eat a full package for both lunch and dinner. Because we’d be burning so many calories, we thought it would be beneficial to have these calorically dense meals. However, having to Jetboil in the middle of the day was a pain every time.
In the future, we’ll opt for a cold lunch. Tortillas, tuna packets, salami, and extra snacks would have been perfect for our midday break. This strategy would have saved time during long hiking days, space in our bear canisters, and prevented the queasy stomach I came to expect during the after-lunch hours.
Skinny dipping was arguably one of the most memorable experiences of thru-hiking. Even though a bathing suit is super light and may seem like a useful luxury item, it was entirely unnecessary. For areas that were more populated, a sports bra and underwear would’ve worked just as well, and actually would have given the opportunity to wash these sweaty articles off while swimming. We opted to go au naturel in the more remote and secluded areas, which was about 90% of the trail.
Heavy Camp Shoes
I didn’t think twice before throwing my Chacos on the front of my pack, without any consideration of another option. I’ve been wearing them everywhere for over a year and thought they would be the perfect camp shoes. By the time we got into camp it was normally too cold to go without socks, and due to extreme swelling, it was often a laborious task to squeeze my feet into my Chacos. The shoes did come in handy when we hit high river crossings, but because we went in September, this only happened once. Next time, I’ll be bringing something lightweight with plenty of room. Currently eyeing a snazzy pair of Crocs.
The 18 days that I spent on the John Muir Trail were easily the most memorable of my life. Even with my lack of planning, I was not wholly unhappy with my strategy. In the future, I’ll be able to shave off at least five pounds by simply considering the items I’m bringing and their relative value to me. Three things I wasn’t certain about bringing but will absolutely be on my list again were zip ties, Fireball, and a camping pillow. The fact that I’m already strategizing my next thru-hike after only a couple of weeks sleeping in a bed tells me that something longer is in my future. Appalachian Trail, I’m looking at you.
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