How to Pick Your Big Three
When you think of gear, what do you think of first? Do you think of the first aid kit you’ll need? The clothing you’ll wear? What kind of trowel you plan to use? If you are I hope you already know what you are going to put all that stuff in!
When you first start planning your hike, after you decide your approximate start date and your direction, you need to think about the gear you will be taking. The (arguably) three most important pieces of gear you will take are your pack, sleeping bag and shelter.
The Weight of Your World On Your Shoulders (Packs)
When picking out a pack the first thing you need to decide is do I want an external or internal frame? Nowadays, the answer will almost always be internal. While external frames are classic and great for carrying heavy loads, they won’t help you maintain your balance as easily as an internal frame. If that isn’t off-putting enough, the bulk and weight of an external frame pack should be, external frame packs weigh in at an average of 5 and a half pounds! There are hikers out there who have whole kits with a base weight less than that! For trips where you are carrying more than 30 or 40 pounds an external frame pack could be best but for a thru hike, internal is your best bet.
The next component to focus on is the capacity of your pack. This, of course is hard to pick if you don’t have any gear yet. Therefore, before you buy your pack you should look at the type of gear you’ll be taking or at least decide the type of gear you will be taking. Backpacking on a budget? A lot of budget gear will be more bulky and thus take up more space. Trying ultralight? Then you’ll probably have gear that packs down a lot better. It should be noted that if you are planning to hike in winter, your gear will be bulkier. Either way you should aim for a bag between 50L (about 3000 cubic inches) to 80L (about 4800 cubic inches).
Next you want to look at the fit of a pack. I would highly recommend getting fitted for a pack in a place like REI or Cabela’s (or whatever outdoors outfitter is nearest to you). Even if you intend to purchase a pack online and can’t try on the actual pack, you’ll be more familiar with how pack sizing works and what you like. Also, at places like REI, they have a station where you can put on a fully weighted pack (I would suggest going over what you actually plan to carry) and take a walk around the sales floor to get an even better feel for the pack. Two very important parts of well-fitting pack is one that fits your torso length (your back) rather than your height as well as finding one with a waist belt that has a comfortably snug grip on your hips.
After looking at the fit you’ll want to consider the extra features. Personally, my ideal pack would be one with a top opening as well as a bottom opening (allowing access to the most bottom reaches of your pack) with loads of pockets on the hip belt, sides, front and lip of the pack. Some people like having places to tie gear onto the back of their pack, some find this will too easily snag on wayward branches and bushes. Some go for the most simplified packs they can find in an effort to save weight. Me, I like to have tons of outside pockets for easy access to small items like snacks, water filters and sunscreen.
A note on weight: If you are planning on going ultralight, aim to have none of your big three over three pounds, if not less.
Snuggle Up, Butter Cup (Sleeping Bags)
A good night’s sleep is possibly the most important thing on the trail, not only is it vital to a muscle health and physical regeneration but also to mental strength. Think about how bad waking up on the wrong side of the bed is, waking up on the wrong side of the trail is worse.
Your first decision will be whether to go with a mummy bag, rectangular or other. The cheapest choice would be rectangular, the choice with the widest range is mummy and the most expensive bags tend to land in the “other” category. While perfect for car camping or sleepovers, a rectangular bag would be a poor choice to bring on a thruhike. Rectangular bags tend to be the ones that weigh more, keep you less warm and have the most bulk. If you have your heart set on a rectangular bag, Chinook has some that have been well reviewed.
Your best bet would be a mummy bag for they come in a wide variety of color, outfitters, sizes, temps and weights.
Under the other category falls wearable ones, quilts and figure eight models. The proponents of quilts are that they have a better weight to warmth ratio than bags but you’ll definitely need a pad for it because usually the sleeper lays under the quilt and simply tucks it in under the pad. Sometimes they include straps to help keep then secure while turning about in the night. They tend to be pretty good for those choosing to hammock camp because you can simply drape them over yourself like you would a regular blanket. They are also great for those who can’t quite sleep unless they have a foot out in the open air.
Wearable ones, I’ve never tried, but from all I have read they seem to look silly but be well loved. The main proponent of them is their dual use as a sleeping bag and an extra layer for warmth while hiking.
Figure eight bags are slightly more expensive and weigh slightly more but they make up for that for those who tend to sleep on their sides or wiggle around a bit. The rounds allow the natural bend of the knees and elbows while sleeping.
No matter which shape you choose the next choice would be whether to go with down filling or synthetic. The argument here is pretty simple. Down has the best weight to warmth ratio, can be amazingly light weight and can allow a bag to compress down to the size of a grapefruit. However there are drawbacks. When wet down will lose more warmth than its synthetic counterparts and also costs more. If properly cared for however, down bags will last you longer and keep you warmer for its weight. Synthetic bags will keep you warmer when wet and cost you less but they won’t compress as well nor be as light. If you have allergies, synthetic would be your best bet because despite all their positives, down bags are not hypoallergenic.
Related reading: The Thru-Hiker’s Gear List
Another consideration when purchasing a bag would be the temperature rating. For a typical thru-hike, starting in March or April and going through September or October you could possibly need two sleeping bags or a bag with a low temperature and a bag liner for the colder bits. A bag with a minimum of 25 degrees would be necessary for an average thru-hike, less if you are a cold sleeper or are going through more winter-y weather. With a 25 degree bag you would need a bag liner which could turn your bag into a 5 degree bag if necessary.
Some extra features you may want to look for in a bag are a bag hood, a cinch cord on the hood to pull it tight, a draft collar on the inside of the bag, a small pocket or zip pouch inside, a sleeping pad sleeve or a double sided zipper. It might also be prudent to pick up a waterproof compression sack for your bag to save space and keep down bags safe and dry.
For those hiking with their significant other who have very poor senses of smell (not showering for a month does wonderful things for your B.O.) you can purchase double sleeping bags which can save a couple a lot of weight and allow for easier snuggling after a long day on the trail.
Home Sweet Home (Shelter)
Last but not least, we have come to the shelter portion of our program. On the Appalachian Trail it is possible to go without a shelter and simply shelter-hop (making sure to hike from one shelter to the next and sleeping in the shelters you reach) but with rainstorms or bad weather sending all nearest hikers (not just thru-hikers) to the nearest shelter for the night, if you arrive late to the party, there could not be enough room. Also, just because you are one of those crazy enough to attempt a thru-hike (I say it with love), that does not mean you get preference over day hikers, weekenders, girl scout troops, etc. The shelters along the trail are first come, first serve and open to all.
The shelters along the AT, though numerous, are not placed exactly for the way you hike. If you were shelter-hopping and made it to your allotted shelter with still hours of daylight left but not enough to conquer that 12.8 mile ascent to reach it before dark, you are forced to stop. Another way you can get put in a pickle by shelter-hopping is if you meet a hiker who makes you uncomfortable or that you don’t like and you rush ahead in hopes to outrun them, they could catch up just as dusk is falling and without your own shelter, you are stuck with them for the night. A few other considerations are how you feel about other peoples sleeping habits (i.e. people who snore) and how nice you are about your sleeping habits (i.e. being the person who snores).
If you had been considering simply shelter-hopping the entire trail and I haven’t changed your mind, I would still urge you to bring some kind of shelter. If you are all about the weight, go with a tarp, they can be easily set up, even easier to take down and weigh almost nothing. If I have changed your mind, here are your shelter options: Tent, hammock, bivy sack or tarp system.
Related reading: Tent, Hammock, or Tarp? A Flowchart
The classic route is the tent. If you are planning on hiking with more than one person, a tent may be the shelter for you! They can be very simple to put up, once you learn how. However, it can be a nuisance to have to stop hiking early in order to find a good spot to pitch a tent. Placement of the tent can be very important in how comfortable you sleep because usually all that is separating you from the ground is a layer or two of fabric and hopefully a sleeping pad. Trust me when I say I know the awful feeling of thinking you have found the perfect stop to pitch a tent, they laying down to find there’s a rock right under your shoulder.
When buying a tent, you’ll also need a ground cover and a rain tarp. Overall, the set up could weight anywhere from 2 to 5 lbs. Depending on the size of your gear you may want to get a two person tent rather than a one person tent to give you some extra wiggle room as well as a spot for your gear. If sticking to a one person tent, you should consider a tent with a rain fly that allows for a covered entrance/vestibule with enough space for a backpack and a pair of boots.
If you are going for easier set up and less of an environmental footprint, I would consider a hammock. Often very light weight (between 1 and 3 lbs for a whole set up) they can easily be set up anywhere with at least two trees. Some of the top hammock brands you would want to look into are Hennessy and Eno. Hammocks can take a little getting used to but many people swear by their comfort. If you are winter camping, you will probably need an under quilt to retain enough heat.
Next system to consider would be the bivy sack but tread lightly. While being extremely light weight in most cases, they have very little ventilation and even less wiggle room.
Last, but not least, there are tarps. Tarp systems can be super light (less than 8 ounces), set up in a variety of places and styles and can afford more space for you and your gear. However, if you choose to go with a tarp set up, you should practice your set up as many times as you can because you will be the one getting soaked if your tarp caves in.
There are many options to choose from when planning a hike, and whatever you do choose should be a reflection of your comfort rather than the opinions of others. Remember to HYOH and don’t let the gear junkies have you doubting your choices.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
You make some great points in each section that I haven’t read elsewhere. Also, quite concise. Thank you!