Where to Prioritize your Spending with Long-Distance Backpacking Gear

Blogs about the best fabrics for sleeping bags and pros and cons of shoe options are helpful when preparing for the Appalachian Trail, but as I prepared for my own thru-hike, I knew access and price would create barriers to my ability to actually follow the wisdom of others.

I know many other thru-hikers faced with shoestring budgets, and after hiking 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, I’ve learned a lot about where to spend and where to save. I’ve figured out the parts of my pack that are simply worth more, as well as the parts I could live without in a pinch.

If you’re preparing for your own hike, reflecting on your gear choices or simply looking to learn more about gear comprising the packs of long-distance hikers, consider the priority you place on various gear choices. Looking back, this would be my focus if I were to do it all again:

High Priority Items

#1 Shoes

Maybe this one is obvious, but with how important our feet are while hiking long distances, it’s vitally important to have the best possible shoe system to protect the only vehicle you have from Georgia to Maine. I’ve hiked in sandals, trailrunners and boots, always attempting to find an affordable option and usually coming up short. Spending big on your shoes and socks (and replacements for each) is the best place to start when allocating money to your hike.

#2 Sleep System

Similar to our shoes, our sleep system keeps us warm, safe and comfortable. Whether you’re hammock or tent-bound, your sleeping bag/quilt, sleeping liner, pads and other forms of gear will be your only slice of comfort out in the woods.

#3 Pack

What holds all of our gear is almost as important as the gear itself. Having the right pack means finding the right combination of weight, durability, fit and price. Not all packs fit and feel the same, but the most common pack brand on the trail is the Osprey. However, as gear is becoming lighter, brands like Z-packs and LiteAF are making waves in the community as well.

Medium Priority Items

#1 Tent or Hammock System

This is your home. Your only barrier between you and the elements. There are plenty of systems out there that will work just fine, but the focus of this area is weight, seasonal rating and comfort. With as many options as there are on the market, I placed this item in lower priority — it’s harder to go wrong. I personally recommend an Eno hammock system or a Six Moons Designs or Z-packs tent. The most common shelter I’ve seen on trail is the Nemo tent system, which is durable and adaptable at a reasonable price point.

#2 Water Filtration System

There are a few brands dominating the water filtration game (Sawyer and Katadyn being among them) and you really can’t go wrong with any of these systems. The key to this area is ensuring you have a light, not-so-tedious filtering system that will last. Clogging is a common issue with water filters, and many recommend purchasing full-size or easy to clean filters to ensure the longevity of the piece.

#3 Tech Supplies

I know, I know, we’re living in the woods so why is technology so important? In this section I’m lumping any electronic items including your headlamp, power bank, headphones and charging cords into one. All of these items should be light, durable and adaptable to the trail. For example, look for wall plugs with multiple USB connections so you can charge multiple items at once.

Low Priority Items

#1 Clothes

This area is where I have the most regret with my gear. Spending hundreds of dollars on fancy clothes from big brands can be wasteful. Focus instead on what feels the most comfortable among the clothes you already have, and fill in any gaps, rather than purchasing all new items.

#2 Trekking Poles

Everyone has them, and pretty much everyone has different ones too. Whether they’re from Wal-Mart or REI, hikers don’t need to fret too much over this item despite their daily use. Any poles should be supportive enough. I have enjoyed the use of my carbon fiber REI poles that are durable and lightweight for under $50.

#3 Comfort Items

This catch-all list item is meant to encapsulate our little extras that make the trail a little more enjoyable. Your cookware, journal, kindle, camp shoes, toiletries etc. should all come into your pack once the key pieces are taken care of. When you have solid gear choices, some luxury items just don’t feel as necessary — always save the weight where you can.

My thru-hike wouldn’t have been the same without my gear successes (and more commonly, my gear failures). I’ve learned to adapt and see how little we truly need to survive and be happy. If I ever thru-hike once again (PCT??) I will definitely be focusing my efforts in this order; however, building a gear system is entirely dependent on what works best for you.

If you have to carry it, you might as well enjoy it.

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Comments 6

  • JhonY : Aug 16th

    Hammock or Tent? Is there a reason you left out TARP?

  • Doug Laher : Aug 22nd

    There is no mention of any gear to keep you safe. Microspikes, crampons, ice axe and most importantly a GPS emergency beacon are critical, especially on the PCT or CDT. . It makes no difference how epic the hike is if you can’t return safely to your loved ones. Believe me, I know from experience. #embracethealternate


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