Weighty decisions for my thru-hike

It’s undeniable that the less weight we carry on our bodies, the less strenuous our backpacking trips will be on our hips, knees, and feet. When undertaking a long-distance backpack trip, with day after day after day of countless steps, even a little bit of extra weight adds up over time and can spell the difference between a successfully completed trip and an injury-shortened attempt.

We’re all different, and we all have weight we can do something about and weight we can’t. For me, I’m almost 65 and have a somewhat stocky build: I’ll never be mistaken for an elderly Jeff Garmire. That simply makes it all the more important for me to consider carefully what I choose to take with me on a long-distance hike.

If I’m doing a weekend trip, or a shorter backpack with lots of downtime, I may very well want to take along quite a few luxury items. A lightweight but comfy camp chair will be high on my luxury list, as will some tasty alcoholic beverages and maybe some heavier foods and cookware. But for a thru hike like my upcoming 290-mile Benton MacKaye Trail trip, I know from past experience that I need to be pretty disciplined at keeping my base weight down.

With these considerations in mind, now that I’m about to hit the trail I’ve made some weighty decisions:


I’ve loved hiking with an umbrella out west in the sun, but it’s also made trips much more comfortable for me in rainy conditions. There’s something comforting for me in not having rain drip down my face and body. The silver mini-umbrellas sold by various gear companies won’t keep you totally dry like a golf umbrella could, but they at least keep rain off your head, face, and backpack straps. My umbrella amounts to an extra 8 ounces or so of weight – including the gear to attach it to my backpack – but that’s a half-pound that’s worth it to me. I’m taking it.

Ursack or bear bag?

Bear bagLet’s assume that a bear canister is already ruled out. It is, at least for me: I just can’t afford to take along 2-1/2 pounds of heavy, bulky plastic. So I’ve had to decide between an Ursack/Loksak combination which weighs about 10 ounces, or a bear bag with rope, carabiner and rock sack that weighs just over 3 ounces. I’m not a fan of bear bagging and will likely be seen throwing a rock bag many times before I finally get a good placement … but I’m going with the lighter option.

(Actually, the weight difference may be a little bit less, because I may want to have a smell proof Loksak lining the inside of my bear bag, to make it less likely that a bear will try to turn my bag into a pinata.)

Camp shoes or bread bags?

Lightweight camp shoesOn my previous thru hikes I’ve dispensed with camp shoes and have instead simply taken along some bread bags. If my trail runners are soaked at the end of the day, to walk around my campsite I’d simply take out the insoles (so the insides of the trail runners will dry faster), slip on a pair of dry socks, put a pair of bread bags over the socks, and put my feet back in my runners. My feet stayed dry while their heat helped dry out my runners.

(Note: If you’re thinking of using bread bags or another type of vapor barrier liner for lengthy walks, you’ll need an inner liner sock. The Backpacking Light podcast has some good info on VBLs for hands and feet.)

But while bread bags alone have been fine for the Colorado Trail, the BMT may be rainy for days on end, and may have several substantial stream crossings. So I’ve now decided to take along  some lightweight Teva-like sandals that I can wear with or without socks, either in camp, on the trail, or in town. These sandals are the lightest I’ve seen in this design that are suitable for hiking – they’re under 8 ounces total unlike the 12 ounces to over a pound for other camp shoe options I’ve seen – but it’s another half-pound of weight on my back.

Batteries: one or two?

BatteriesOn the Colorado Trail in 2021, I hiked with one 10,000 mAh battery to keep my iPhone, FitBit, and headlamp charged up. It worked fine, but there were more than a few times when I worried that I’d run out of power before hitting my next town. As a result, I seldom listened to music or read books along the trail, even though there were places where I would have loved having some distractions.

On my 170-mile Collegiate Loop trip last year, I decided to go with two 10,000 mAh batteries, and I was glad I did. Suddenly I didn’t have to think about whether my phone was running out of power. And that’s what I’m going to do on the BMT as well.

I do find it amusing, however, that the total weight of my two batteries, charger and cords is about 20 ounces: the same weight as my Durston X-Mid 2-person Pro tent!

Stove or stoveless?

On the Colorado Trail I had a 2-ounce stove, along with the butane canister it requires. On the Collegiate Loop I ditched the stove and tried going stoveless. While I was fine with going stoveless for two weeks in warmer weather, I’ve decided to take along a stove on the BMT. I did find a BRS 3000 burner that weighs only about an ounce, but using a stove means adding about a half pound to my overall pack weight (including the 4-ounce smaller butane container).

I am trying, however, to make all of my food eatable without requiring hot water. Cold soaking is a good option not only to save weight but also to save time and hassle. I’ve had more than a few on-trail meal times when I’ve wanted to just eat my food without caring whether it’s hot or not.


I used a clear polycro groundsheet on the Colorado Trail, but I didn’t like it very much: it tore relatively easily, and I actually left it behind during a zero because it was clear and I just didn’t see it! Condensation was also an issue.

On the Collegiate Loop I dispensed with a groundsheet altogether. My tent’s floor survived without a scratch. But I’ve decided that on the BMT I want a groundsheet both to protect my tent floor a little more, and to lie down on during midday breaks. So, at another few ounces’ weight penalty, I bought a 5×7 Tyvek groundsheet. I cut about a foot off the width to save a little weight. I expect I’ll be using this groundsheet a lot.

By the way: wash your Tyvek sheet several times: it’ll make it softer and easier to pack.

Sleeping pad?

Both on the Colorado Trail and the Collegiate Loop, I’ve used a Gossamer Gear 1/8 inch foam pad as well as my Thermarest inflatable pad. The foam pad has served several purposes: added insulation and protection from punctures underneath my inflatable pad, a vestibule floor when I’m not on my inflatable pad, a nice pad to take a rest on – either lying down or sitting on the folded-up pad – and a “floor” to help me sort my stuff when I have it all out to dry on a sunny morning.

I’m taking the pad along with me, even though the Tyvek groundsheet may take over some of the pad’s purposes. If I really decide I don’t need both, I may mail back or hiker-box-donate one or the other at a resupply stop.

Knife? Compass? Bear deterrent?

Knife with nail clipperMy knife is a tiny Swiss Army version that has one key function for me: a nail clipper. When you’re on the trail for several weeks, there will come a time when nails need trimming.

I’ve bought a combination compass/thermometer that weighs about an ounce; I’ll keep it on a belt loop of my pants. Hopefully it will stay with me at all times, including on nocturnal bathroom trips. After reading horror stories about Appalachian Trail hikers who’ve gotten disoriented or lost, I want at least a rudimentary compass with me at all times.

Compass/thermometerOn the Colorado Trail I had some pepper spray with me for a while, but ended up ditching it when I realized the risk of bear, lion or angry dog encounters was miniscule. Bears and loose dogs are supposedly more likely to spot on the BMT, so I’ve gotten a one-ounce noise grenade (that’s what I call it, anyway) that puts out a piercing 130 decibels when you pull out a pin.

Medical kit?

I have an assortment of blister pads, bandaids, gauze, Leukotape, tweezers and tick removers, pain relievers, antidiarrheal pills and, um, pills for the opposite problem. My kit also includes a cheat booklet, an emergency reporting form, and a permanent-ink pen. For serious injuries it’s important to have a written guide to fall back on even if you’ve had first aid training: it’s easy to forget important steps in injury assessment and care when the pressure is high. My medical kit weighs about 5 ounces.

Navigation and trail info?

The BMT Association has a fantastic variety of trail guides, both printed and online. I’m taking along their excellent thru-hiker guide and have made notes from the other guides. I also have the FarOut app for the BMT, and am happy to see that earlier hikers in 2023 have already started to make contributions. I also have a Garmin InReach Mini to assist with navigation although FarOut should be all I need.


I’ve used my $90 Granite Gear Crown 60 on both the Colorado Trail and Collegiate Loop, and it still looks new. I was hoping to use my awesome Volpi UL40 frameless pack on this trip, but I just can’t squish everything into it that I want to take along. I bought a larger backpack online but returned it when I decided that even though it weighed about 8 ounces less than my Granite Gear pack and wouldn’t require my 4-ounce pack cover, it just wasn’t as comfortable on my shoulders and hips. So my good old Crown 60 will be with me on at least one more trip.

So … what’s the damage?

Poop kit

Poop kit: Bidet, trowel, soap, hand sanitizer, and some toilet paper.

I’m not an ultralight hiker. I’ve seen true ultralight hikers carrying 40 and even 35 liter packs with room to spare, with base weights well below 10 pounds (the traditional UL dividing point). My base weight of gear for the BMT (“base weight” for me means everything you’re carrying on your back: not the clothes you’re wearing every day, not your trekking poles and shoes, and not your food, fuel and water) is about 15-1/2 pounds. Add in about 4 pounds of food between typical resupplies and about 2 pounds in carried water, and I’ll be carrying a maximum of about 22 pounds: far less than the 50-60 pounds I used to carry in my backpacking youth.

The best three tips I can give novice thru-hikers are: 1. Invest carefully and deliberately in lightweight gear, especially for the “big three”: pack, tent and sleeping system. 2. Ounces add up to pounds: be as ruthless as you can in leaving behind things you likely won’t miss. 3. Don’t be “stupid ultralight” when it comes to staying warm, dry, hydrated, fed and on route.

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Comments 2

  • Brian Crabtree : Apr 4th

    Good luck on the BMT. I live in Atlanta and have been hiking the BMT a weekend at a time about once a month. I’m about 100 miles into it at this point. Great trail, but you’re right about water crossings. The first crossings that require wet feet are north of Big Frog mountain, not long after entering Tennessee.

  • Chris Harrison : Apr 6th

    I had never heard of an Ursack until reading your article! Like you, I’m trending toward lighter weight gear for backpacking. I envy all of your trips and I am grateful you share your experiences. During my last backpacking trip, I shouldered about 32 pounds, so there’s room for improvement! I wonder what you are using for water treatment? Perhaps a future article! Happy trails, Rolf! I’m going to read you other articles!


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