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

Photo by Alex Kereszti

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.

Full-Size Cosmetics

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.

A Tripod

Photo by Alex Kereszti

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

An appropriate meal for dinnertime. Not so much for 2 p.m.

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.

Bathing Suit

Alex at Thousand Island Lake—happy as a clam and not needing a swim suit.

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

One of the few times I was able to squeeze my feet into Chacos

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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Comments 21

  • Megan Kommer : Oct 21st

    I may be a bit biased as the mom, but I love the practical advise mixed with her personality – I can’t wait to see more!! And amazing photos to boot!

    Reply
    • Katie Kommer : Oct 22nd

      Always have Alex to thank for the photos <3 thank you for reading and hyping me up as always!!!

      Reply
  • Scott A Brotherton : Oct 21st

    Lesson learned Katie…? You will be amazed how easy it is to cut weight and you didn’t even get into your tent, bag, etc. GL !!

    Reply
    • Katie Kommer : Oct 22nd

      I will definitely be doing a more thorough combing of my items next time! Especially before any attempt of a multi-month trail 🙂

      Reply
  • Matt Hadnett : Oct 21st

    Brilliant article. I just finished the PCT. and it took me 10+ years to figure out what you learned in just one. Congrats on the great achievement! Keep hiking and call me if you ever need unsolicited advice from a dummy that learned ultra light backpacking the hard way.

    Reply
    • Katie Kommer : Oct 22nd

      My dad shared your Canada photo with me – you have no idea how much you have inspired my dad and I! I hope you are celebrating that accomplishment, I hope to hike altogether some day 🙂

      Reply
  • Lesley Davidson : Oct 21st

    Fabulous, well done, what a great sense of achievement. Enjoyed reading your article and gorgeous photos. ‘ The mountains will be calling you’ x

    Reply
    • Katie Kommer : Oct 22nd

      The mountains have got my number for sure. Thank you so much for reading along 🙂

      Reply
  • Carol Longshore : Oct 21st

    This was beautifully written and I was right there experiencing the JMT. Thank you so much Katie Kommer, for sharing your experience With us. I truly look forward to more.

    Reply
    • Katie Kommer : Oct 22nd

      Thank you so much for reading 🙂 hoping to be posting much more in the near future!

      Reply
  • E.C. : Oct 22nd

    I just had that Pad Thai when a coworker and I visited the Thousand Island Lakes area. That meal is KILLER tasty, but it is indeed heavy in the belly, but I had it for dinner.

    I’ve found that splitting the 2-serving meals into two separate, quart-sized ziplocs for separate meals works great. It’s easy for the Mountain House brand because the seasoning is with all the food. But the BP brands have separate packages that may not lend to splitting. I’m sure it can be done.

    I did the sausage and cheese route for lunch, but man, sausage can be heavy. if you bring the tuna, bring a small squeeze bottle of Sriracha. It adds a nice zing to it all. I definitely try to not cook for lunch. GORP+ M&M’s and an energy bar is becoming my go-to for long-weekend type trips instead of other stuff.

    Also, look at your first aid kit. There may be opportunities to limit what’s in there as well.

    Unfortunately for the JMT and that area we are all ‘lucky’ in that we HAVE to carry bear canisters. That’s a pound or so that we just can’t shed and I love it

    Regards…

    Reply
    • Katie Kommer : Oct 22nd

      We ended up re-packaging all of our meals at one of the resupply drop offs – it was a HUGE space savor!! Thank you so much for all these tips, I’ve heard that about first aid kits as well! Next time I’ll for sure just be bringing some band-aids and ointment.

      Best in adventure 🙂

      Reply
  • SMB (Rocketman) : Oct 22nd

    The bear can definitely makes packing the food more of a challenge.

    I tend to alternate between Knorrs and BP/MH/etc each evening. I have to admit that I don’t repackage the dehydrated meals because I like the convenience of them and that’s why I paid for them. I do however tear the tops open and remove the little silicon moisture packet so that I don’t have to deal with that in camp.

    Despite the weight, peanut butter and tortillas is my go-to for lunch. I don’t seem to get sick of it like tuna or sausage.

    Reply
    • Katie Kommer : Oct 25th

      Also, repackaging ALL of those meals into ziplocks felt unnecessarily wasteful to us! Taking those packets out is a helpful trash saver, thank you!

      We had a jar of jiffy peanut butter to add to our oatmeal, we ended up using it for snacks too 🙂 definitely worth its weight in gold.

      Reply
  • Sandi : Oct 23rd

    Awesome! Like you, I love backpacking! Bill & I gave taken the girls on several 5-7 day trips in our beautiful Sierras! I agree with EC about downsizing first aid kit, but make sure you take 1-1.5” tape. On our last backpacking trip, I twisted my ankle (actually tore a ligament), and tape was the only way I could have hiked out! Had to borrow some from neighboring backpackers…so grateful to them!! Also to handle unforeseen equipment failure, wrap some duct tape on your hiking poles, that way you won’t have to pack it. Duct tape can fix almost anything! Lots of ways to reduce weight, especially these days with materials technology, but it can get quite expensive. If you plan on going backpacking a lot, it may be worth the investment. Happy trails Katie!!

    Reply
    • Katie Kommer : Oct 25th

      That’s really good advice, thank you!!! We had duct tape on our radar, but weren’t quite sure how to carry it. We picked up the trekking pole tip from a ranger as well! The zip-ties came in handy for equipment failure too… on day 13 my chest strap busted open and I zip-tied it back together!

      As soon as I save up a bit of funds, I am definitely looking to invest in some durable, lightweight gear. This will not be my last trip 🙂

      Reply
  • Carolyn : Oct 25th

    LOVE this post! Also love hiking but have never camped/cooked on the trail so at 69 am totally inexperienced. Am trying to talk one of my brothers who’s also a day hiker into trying out a multiday hike with me and your insights re what not to bring are invaluable. Question: Is the Fireball a stove or a brand of whiskey? LOL! If it’s a stove, what model do you use? Looking forward to reading about your next adventure! Best, c

    Reply
    • Katie Kommer : Oct 25th

      Hi! One thing that I love about thru-hikers is that there is SO much diversity when it comes to age, that’s so inspiring that you’re getting out there now 🙂 And yes, Fireball is a brand of whiskey we packed in all of our resupplies! It definitely helped us on those colder nights…. for a stove, we used a Jetboil 🙂

      Reply
      • Carolyn : Oct 25th

        Thanks–think I’ll have one of each 🙂 Maybe I’ll even see you on the AT sometime. Cheers!

        Reply
  • Quentin ‘Nevis beeman’ : Oct 26th

    For about 40 years I’ve written a diary. During 2012/13/14 I hiked the Appalachian Trail. The first item that had to go, posted on ahead to a friend, was my beloved diary. I kept writing my journal of course, every day, on sheets of A4 paper kept safe and dry in a ziplock bag. Months later I copied my daily writings from the A4 sheets into my heavy bulky diary ….took forever ! But of course now makes wonderful reading.
    And I’m a wiser hiker….

    Reply
  • Skye Joy : Nov 11th

    What is a Fireball?

    Reply

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