For anyone planning a thru-hike who happens to be reading my blog, this could be the most useful post I make. You’re welcome. For anyone who doesn’t backpack, this is probably the least useful post I’ll make. I’m sorry.
One of the primary concerns for thru-hikers is minimizing pack weight. I realized this before my hike because I read a lot of trail journals. For other hikers they had to learn it on their hike. It is difficult to trade out gear while you’re hiking, both from a logistical perspective and from a cost perspective. It is best to start with the lightest weight gear possible. For that reason you’ll notice that many of my comments will be focused on where I carried more weight than I needed, but I’ll also try to give impressions of what I liked about the gear I had and what I liked about other people’s gear to give an idea of potential things to look for.
This covers the big things. Didn’t read about something that you wanted some info on? Let me know in the comments and I’ll give you my thoughts.
Tent – MSR Hubba
My Hubba was the old-school style with the yellow rain fly. If you were to go buy one in a store now you’d get one with a green rainfly. That is already an improvement over one of my complaints which is that it sticks out like a sore thumb during the summer, making stealth camping difficult. Overall I liked the tent. It is easy to set up and has a good shape and size. However I wouldn’t use this tent again if I were going to do another thru-hike. I would get a much lighter tent. The one I took with me was about 3 lbs total. Tarptents weigh around 25 oz, or 1lb 9oz, meaning you could cut your tent weight in half by going with a Tarptent instead. The only complaint I’ve heard about Tarptents is that they tend to allow condensation on the inside which, during a heavy rain, can fall on the hiker inside. With the right planning and mitigation measures this would be a tradeoff I would be ok with. If you want to go even lighter you could go with a cuben fiber tent like the Hexamid. I only saw a few hikers using them but they are way light. If I were to hike again I would definitely get one of these lighter options.
To return to what I liked about my tent, it is longer than I am. I am somewhat short at 5’6″ and the tent is 86 inches long, giving me an extra 20 inches above my head and below my feet. I used this room to store my hiking clothes (which I didn’t sleep in), my Camelbak (to keep it from leaking since I slept with my pack under my legs), the stuff sacks for my tent and sleeping bag, and some other miscellaneous gear. The tent is also tall (40″ at peak) so I could sit up with no problem. The side entry is wonderful and I heard several people comment that they liked that feature better than head/foot entries on tents like the Big Agnes Fly Creek. That said, the Fly Creek is about a pound lighter than the Hubba and I think I’d go with the weight savings over the side entry any day.
Backpack – ULA Circuit
The Circuit was great. I really have no complaints. If you thru-hike you will see lots of Osprey packs, but you’ll see almost as many ULA packs. They are lighter than the Ospreys but, in my opinion, just as comfortable. Perhaps more importantly, the Circuit is smaller so it forces you to get rid of extra gear. This was a conscious choice on my part. I read several blogs/forums before I left where people said that Osprey packs and the larger Catalyst ULA pack were too large, so I got the Circuit and forced myself to get rid of stuff. I would recommend the same course of action to anyone planning to thru-hike.
Things I liked about the pack. I like the tapered water bottle pockets on the sides. It made it very easy to grab things that I kept in there (Gatorade bottle, data book pages, snacks, etc) and, more importantly, put them back without having to take off my pack. In a similar vein, the Circuit has holes for hydration bladders so you can thread the hose through. I saw so many people stopping to take their packs off the first week or two just to get their water bottles while I would just stick the bite valve in my mouth and keep hiking. I wasn’t a huge fan of the roll-top design but it wasn’t bad. The mesh pocket on the front was great for storing things like my pack cover and rain jacket that I might need to grab quickly. The hip pockets on the belt were incredibly large (!) and somewhat water-resistant.
If I had to hike again I might go with an even lighter pack. ULA makes a smaller pack called the Ohm which would be tempting if I could get the rest of my gear down so that it fit. GoLite makes lightweight packs that I saw many hikers using. You could also consider a Zpack if you want to go cuben fiber lightweight. Just keep in mind that if you do go that light that the rest of your gear will likely need to be just as light. For instance if you plan to use a Hubba then a Zpack probably isn’t the right pack for you.
Backpacking Stove – Snowpeak Giga with Piezo
This stove worked just as it was designed to. I had a lot of people on the trail ask me about it. It is extremely lightweight, weighing only about 3oz. Although I had read reviews about people having trouble with the piezo crapping out soon after buying it, I didn’t have much trouble. There were a few days that I couldn’t get the stove to light using the piezo, but I think it was due to either the stove getting wet or the humidity. In those instances I was able to use a match or a lighter instead and it worked fine once it was lit. I never had to clean it. One advantage it had was that I could lower the gas flow enough to simmer rather than simply boil my food. This was especially useful for some of the dehydrated meals I had that had either fish or chicken in them because those meats seem to take longer to rehydrate.
If I were to hike again I think I’d probably use the same stove. There were a few times when I wished I had a Jetboil or a MSR Pocketrocket simply because they could boil water faster. However the downside to those stoves is the difficulty to find a simmer setting on them. They are designed to boil water quickly and as a result it is very hard to get the temperature on them low enough to cook your food at anything less than a boil.
Cook kit – Snowpeak Titanium Mini Solo cookset
Although my cook kit worked well, this is one area where I sometimes wished I had gone with a different piece of gear. The kit was incredibly lightweight, so that was a plus. If I hadn’t wanted to make coffee to have with my dinners I could have left the cup at home and saved an ounce or two, but I enjoyed having coffee in the wilderness. The downside to this cook kit was how much my food tended to get stuck to it. Cleaning the pot after dinner was a chore almost every night. I did find about halfway through the hike that adding instant mashed potatoes to my dinner at the end of cooking tended to make cleaning easier, but there were still nights where I would spend upwards of 10 minutes scraping my pot with my spork. Granted there are easier ways to clean a pot – scouring pads, pot scrapers, etc – but in any case you still have to clean the pot. I would much rather have gone with something that was more of a non-stick surface. I saw many people using GSI Pinnacle Soloists or similar and they seemed to be very happy with them. That cook set does weigh twice as much as the Snowpeak set though, so it is a tradeoff. The only other disappointment I had with my cookset was that I stored my fuel canister and my stove inside the pot but the pot would only hold the smallest size (200mL) fuel canister. It would have been nice to be able to carry a larger fuel canister to save money. Granted I could have carried the fuel canister in my pack instead of inside the cook kit, but then I would have had to make more space in my pack and I wouldn’t have had my entire cook kit in one handy bag.
Trekking poles – Leki Makalu
I liked my trekking poles well enough. They had the “SLS” adjustment mechanism. I never took the trouble to collapse the poles, opting instead to stash them in my tent vestibule every night fully extended. The result was that at the end of the trip I couldn’t get the poles to collapse, even with a pair of vise grips. I ended up throwing them away since there wasn’t much chance I would be allowed to take them on the plane with me. With my post-hike knowledge I would go with a flick-lock mechanism instead. This makes poles much easier to collapse, making it more likely I would do it every night. I also heard anecdotally from other hikers that the flick-lock mechanism doesn’t slip as much. As for weight, I think this is probably the piece of gear where weight matters the least. I ran into several people with lightweight poles that they had had fitted before they started and then they had broken along the way. It is incredibly hard to get replacement fitted poles. People with adjustable length poles had a much easier time finding replacements when needed. No matter what pole set you use, plan on breaking some tips along the way.
Sleeping bag – Mountain Hardwear Phantom 15 and REI Halo 40
The Phantom 15 was probably overkill. The bag was excellent but I only had to completely zip it up maybe twice on the whole trip. It was a warm year and in a colder year I might have been thankful to have it, but this year I could easily have made do with a 20 or 25 degree bag, and I tend to be a cold sleeper. As for things I liked about the bag, I’m definitely glad I went with down. I had never had a down bag before but I won’t be going back to synthetic. While it is more important to keep the bag dry, I never had a problem with that. I kept the bag inside its own trash compactor bag so even if the inside of my pack got wet my bag stayed dry. This paid off several times, especially the night in the Whites when I was camping with Five Pair and we got absolutely soaked. My sleeping bag may have been the only thing that stayed dry that day but its a good thing it did because otherwise It would have been a very cold night. Other things I liked about the bag included the mummy style (far superior to rectangular), the baffle design which drastically increased the insulation on cold nights, the interior pocket (which would have been great for my phone but unfortunately I didn’t find until later in my hike when I had already locked into my routine), and the zipper which – although it often caught the sleeping bag material – never caused any rips or tears. The only thing I would have changed was to have a full-length zipper rather than 3/4 (although this didn’t bother me too much since my feet are almost always cold).
I was skeptical of the REI Halo when Christy bought it for me. In Virginia I had decided that the Phantom was overkill and that for the sake of the decreased weight and increased comfort due to less insulation I would switch to a warm weather bag. I tasked Christy with finding one that didn’t break the bank but was still high quality. She definitely found a good one. The bag was very comfortable and worked well even on the colder summer nights up in Vermont in July. It did zip on the opposite side than the Phantom which took some getting used to, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker. Good bag and I’d recommend it as well.
For anyone planning to hike the AT, I would consider going with a 20 or 25 degree bag. Maybe you can save some money by getting one bag that lasts you the entire hike. Definitely get down though, and full-length zippers and interior pockets are a plus.
Sleeping Pad – Thermarest Ridgerest SOlite 3/4 length
I did tend to be jealous of other people’s sleeping pads. I partially blame my sleeping pad for my inability to get a good night’s sleep in the shelters. I wasn’t excited about taking an inflatable pad with me, both because of the extra weight and because they tend to attract holes that require patching. Instead I went with the Ridgerest because it was lightweight and because it seemed durable. It turned out to be extremely durable and I liked having it on the outside of my pack where, if I wanted, I could take it off right away when I stopped for a break and use it as a seat cushion. When I would take a nap on the side of the trail I would lay the pad out far enough to get my back on and roll the rest under my head as a pillow. Having it on the outside of my pack also gave me more space inside for things like food. The thing took a beating and hardly shows it. Still, it wasn’t the most comfortable thing to sleep on in the shelters. In my tent though it seemed to do just fine. I definitely recommend some sort of sleeping pad simply for the insulation value, but if you plan to sleep in shelters I might tend toward the inflatable pads. The winner on the trail this year in the inflatable pad category seemed to be the NeoAir. People would swear by those things. They’re expensive though, so choose wisely. If you go the inflatable route, take some Tyvek or similar to lay underneath it to prevent leaks.
Get a hydration bladder. It doesn’t have to be a Camelbak, but get something similar. I met so many people who only had Nalgene bottles and they quickly got sick of having to stop in order to drink water. Meanwhile I would keep chugging along for hours at a time without having to stop because I could simply sip on my bite valve whenever I was thirsty. It definitely helps keep you hydrated. Not to mention it is lighter than a Nalgene.
If you simply refuse to get one, at least get a pack where you can grab the water bottle and put it back without taking the entire pack off. The Circuit works well for this and although I had a Camelbak, I would often keep a bottle of some sort of tasty fluid (Gatorade or similar) in a side pocket in case I felt the desire (as I often did) to drink something besides water. The slanted design of the side pockets allowed me to easily pull the bottle out of the pocket and put it back without having to take off the pack.
I ended up trying several stuff sacks along the way. I recommend the Sea to Summit vacuum bags that allow you to squeeze the air out of them after closing. The feature is nice and actually works. At the same time they are made out of a more durable material than the basic silnylon bags. The weight difference is minimal but the difference in material really pays off in terms of durability. The silnylon bags I had tended to get holes and other people had problems with mice eating holes into them.
I used Vasque Mindbenders. They are trailrunners, not much different from sneakers but with a heavier sole. Of course every hiker needs to find a shoe that fits them well, but I would recommend going with a trailrunner over a larger boot. They say every extra pound on your foot is like 5 in your pack and I simply didn’t run into any instances where I wished I had a bigger shoe. The one case where I think a bigger shoe would pay off is in Maine early in the year when it is still boggy. If you plan to go through Maine in late July/August you should be ok in trailrunners. I also liked that when my shoes got wet they dried out quickly.
I did end up going through 4 pairs of shoes. Mostly this was due to my feet getting bigger. I discarded my first 2 pair not because they wore out but because they got too small. Only 1 pair actually wore out, and that was the pair I wore through the rocky parts of the trail in PA, NJ, and NY.