Gear Philosophy: Comfort, Weight, Simplicity
Preparing for a thru-hike is one of the most exciting and terrifying experiences that can happen to a hiker. The biggest part of that preparation is gear choices. You don’t want to overpack, but you don’t want to pack so light that you put yourself in danger. When it comes to gear, I like to plan out all the details; it’s just my personal style. I always abide by three main principles when choosing my gear: comfort, weight and simplicity.
Disclaimer: Backpackers are a spectrum of people. Everyone packs differently and has different levels of experience. Some people can sleep under a tarp on a foam pad with an emergency blanket and some people want a full air pad, down sleeping bag, and a two-person tent. There’s really no right or wrong way to backpack, just what works best for you. Gear choices evolve over time, just as hikers do.
If your gear is uncomfortable, you’re not going to have a good time. Plain and simple. Long-term comfort for a thru-hike is important. If you really enjoy your big 65L bag but on shorter weekend trips you notice that its really hurting your shoulders, you’re probably not going to want it in the California desert, loaded up with extra water for a few weeks. Maybe you bought a super lightweight tent, but after using it a few times you realize that the interior space is a little cramped. Switch to the more comfortable tent even if the weight is a little more. The trade-off is the compromise. You can’t take everything with you; take what you need to be comfortable.
Let’s talk about base weight. Base weight seems to have become a point of pride among some backpackers. The lower your base weight the better a backpacker you are, right? Not always the case. Some extremely experienced backpackers will be able to comfortably hike with extremely minimal set-ups under ten pounds. That’s OK. That doesn’t have to be you. When I started backpacking my base weight was about 23 pounds. It took me about two years to dial in my gear choices and figure out what really worked for me, so don’t be afraid to experiment and make mistakes.
For a thru-hike, base weight is a bit more important. Weight on your back over time is a physical strain that can also turn into a potential injury. Lower base weight means that you don’t really need the extra support of big, bulky hiking boots. Most thru-hikers with lower weights are able to switch to trail runners (The ankle support just isn’t as necessary when you carry under 20 pounds). This is not to say you need to be ultralight to have a successful hike, but it could make you a lot more comfortable. Small compromises over time can result in a lot of weight savings.
When hiking for days on end, people tend to get into a routine. Wake up, eat, hike, eat, hike, eat, sleep, hike. At the end of the day, you want to set up camp quickly, slam down some food, and get some rest for the next day. Simplifying this routine can be easier on you mentally and physically. For example, for short trips I use a closed cell foam Z Lite pad. I love the ease of tossing down a foam pad and being done with it. Blowing up an air pad can be exhausting at the end of a long day. This is the same reason many people opt for single-wall tents, or cold soaking their food. It comes down to what comforts you are willing to sacrifice to make your day to day a little easier for yourself. We all find our comfort range eventually.
It’s really easy to sit at home and watch videos or read articles on backpacking and form an idea of how you want to pack for a trip. Read what you need, but the most important thing is you get out there and try it out. Being boxed in by your comfort zone is not going to help you figure out a gear load out that is going to take you from Mexico to Canada.
*Take all this with a grain of salt, I’ve never done a thru-hike. Not yet anyways… PCT2019. I’m sure my gear priorities will change over time, just as yours will. *
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