Thru Hike Pack & Gear
The AT Thru Hiker's watch phrase is "Leave it Home". Lighter is simply better. With a pack under 35 pounds you will hike farther and feel better at the end of the day. With a pack under 25 lbs. you can make some truly big miles while saving your body a world of hurt.
There are limitless lightweight backpacking techniques available to help cut pack weight. More tips and links to resources can be found below, but here are some quick suggestions to get you started on planning your trip.
WHAT TO TAKE: The first step to a light pack is establishing a light baseload, this includes the Big Three: Pack, Bag, and Tent (tarp). These three items typically make up 1/3 to 1/2 of the hiker's kit and often add up to 15 lbs.
BACKPACK (1-3 lbs.): The first rule is that your backpack should never weigh more than its contents. The second is that smaller is better. 3500-4000 cubic in. is big enough to hold a properly designed load. If it's not: you are taking too much!
SLEEPING BAG (2-2.5 lbs.): You can't get much lighter than down, but there are also many summer-weight (40°) synthetic options under $100, around 2 lbs., and adequate to conditions 8 out of 12 months of the year.
SHELTER (2-3 lbs.): Wether you carry a tarp or a light-weight tent your portable shelter should never exceed 2.5 lbs. per occupant. There are any number of, not inexpensive, ultralight solo tent options (think sil-nylon), but a cheap, lightweight tarp and a pair of hiking poles will take you through at least the summer months.
Note that in addition to your portable shelter, the Appalachian Trail includes 384 lean-to/shelters and fixed sites.
THINGS YOU ONLY THINK YOU NEED:
We've talked about what to take, now here's a brief list of things you are better off leaving home:
- Anything made of cotton
- A water filter
- A coffee cup/mug
- A chair and/or converter for for your Thermarest
- Your 1 3/4" thick Thermarest
- A second pair of anything not called: socks
- A 1 lbs. white gas stove
And here are some things you might try instead:
- Lightweight, fast drying synthetics
- Iodine or Chlorine Dioxide
- Your dinner bowl or water bottle
- A log
- A full length closed cell foam (or 3/4" thick self-inlating pad)
- What you're wearing
- An MSR Superfly and Canister or a 6 oz. Alcohol Burner-stove
GEAR NOTES & REVIEWS
I have prepared notes and reviews of all of the equipment that made its way into my kit in the course of my 2002 hike.
I was relatively new to ultra-light techniques when I set out on the Trail, and 2200 miles later I am a confirmed fan. Through pack discipline I managed to keep my load between 20 and 35 lbs the whole way and under 25 lbs for about 75% of the AT
I started the first leg of my hike (May-June) with a 25 lbs. load (including 7 days food and 1 qt. H2O) and ended my Mid-Atlantic sections at 20-22 lbs. (4-5 days food 2 qt. H2O)
My pack necessarilly grew heavier (28 - 30 lbs.) in late July when I hit the White Mountains (temps in the 30s, 60 mph winds) and then managed to stay needlessly pudgy (25 lbs.) through the first 180 odd miles of Maine.
At Damascus, VA (AT mi 455) in late October, with temperatures rapidly falling and high altitudes mounting, I was finally forced to surrender my ultra-light credentials. I switched out my GoLite Breeze (15 oz) for an Osprey Aether 60 (3 lbs 7 oz) and stepped up my load from 25 - 30 lbs to a solid 35 in order to include appropriate gear and rations to meet the seriously declining conditions.
GOLITE BREEZE: My pack through 80% of my hike (1700 miles) was a GoLite Breeze (4200 - 4500 cubic in.). It is a simple rucksack with no waistbelt, internal compartments or storm hood.
At 15 oz. it is both light as well as demanding of a light load, preferrably 20 - 25 lbs.
I have been really pleased with its performance. I have strong shoulders and after an initial break in period found the pack was like a second skin on the trail.
I have used a 35 gallon yard quality trash bag as a pack liner (and eventually added a Gregory pack cover) and my gear stayed bone dry a serious of endless vicious rain storms (as well as regular soakings in my own sweat).
OSPREY AETHER 60: When I reached Damascus in late October, I finally maxed out the GoLite. With the day and night time temperatures regulalry dropping below freezing, I simply needed more food and more clothing than I could manageably stuff into the Breeze.
I got a great deal on an Osprey Aether 60 ($170) at the Mt Rogers Outfitters. It was almost 3 lbs heavier than the GoLite out of box and it took me a good couple of hundred miles to adjust to walking with a waistbelt again (it really is unnatural).
In the end, however, I came to really like the pack. It is reasonably light, particularly given its serious padding and suspension. It packs quickly. I admittedly used a syl-nylon pack cover, but my gear remained bone dry through endless cycles of inundation.
MY SLEEPING BAG(S)
FEATHERED FRIENDS SWALLOW (20&DEG;): I started and ended the trip with a 20° Feathered Friends Swallow (down/epic) (35 oz) and was extremely pleased with its light weight, compressability and excellent chilly weather performance.
I gave up the Swallow in New York as the temperaure came up. I reacquired it in Glenncliff, NH in time for Whites and again in Pearisburg, VA for my last 600 odd miles to Springer.
The Swallow was genuinely comfortable at temperatures close to its nominal rating but was, not surprisingly, a little marginal below 20°
The performance of the EPIC shell was satisfactory but far from perfect. The bag was admittedly exposed to chronic moisture for days on end, and I slept gear -- in particular my socks -- dry most nights. That said, although the bag never "failed", it was always damp and probably lost 5-10° of effective warmth to moisture.
REI TRAVEL SACK (55&DEG;): For warm weather hiking I opted to go with an REI Travel Sack (55°) (nylon/synthetic fill). I slept in everything I owned at least a few nights in this bag, but: It was cheap (<$50), light (22 oz.), dries quickly when wet, and frankly given the performance of my Feathered Friends it would be impossible to find a lighter, cooler sleeping bag without going this hardcore.
I hiked the Travel Sack from Bear Mountain, NY to Glencliff, NH (387 mi) and again from Harpers Ferry, WV to Pearisburg, VA (387.9 mi). And although I kept the "sack" exactly three nights too long on my hike south, it was generally the perfect tool for the job.
It is less bulky and probably a little warmer than a fleece liner. It can be mummied against bugs on all but the hottest nights. It can mummied against cold pretty effectively to 45°.
It, however, fails pretty hard at 35° even with rain jacket, hat, pants and gloves -- as I proved one night under a tarp on an open bald 5000' above Pearisburg, Va.
The Travel Sack was an addmittedly unorthodox choice (REI makes it for indoor and fixed camp use) and certainly not something to carry into the White Mountains. However, even if you don't want to be quite that hardcore, I highly recommend acquiring a summer true summer weight bag (40-55+) to carry in at least the mid-Atlantic sections of the hike. You will appreciate the packability and reduced weight, and -- more to the point -- will actually be able to sleep inside your bag during the core summer months.
MY SLEEPING PAD(S)
My sleeping pad was a doubly important feature of my kit in that it was also used to 'stiffen' my unstructured rucksack (see, above). This ruled out egg-crate style pads out of the gate and meant I'd either go hard-core with a simple closed cell foam pad or whimp out and go with some variant of a Thermarest.
I whimped out from the start on sleeping pads deciding before left that I was willing to invest an extra 4 - 8 ounces in a self inflating pad.
By the time I reached Springer, I had tried at least 3 different Thermarest pad options, each extreme in one direction or another, the last of them, a Full-Length Thermarest Standard (circa 1996) (which I stuck with for my last 1000+ miles) has the feature -- full length -- most recommended to anyone over the age of 25.
THERMAREST ULTRA-LIGHT 3/4 LENGTH: I started the trip with a Thermarest Ultra-Light 3/4 length pad (16 oz.). At 1 lbs. it was competitive in weight with all but the ultra-hardcore Mt Washington.
Sad to say, at 190+ lbs I simply exert to much force on my sleeping area and am just too old and sore to stick with the Ultra-Light.
THERMAREST LUXURY EDITION 3/4 LENGTH:
I switched out to the luxury edition (1 3/4 in.) 3/4 length (28 oz.) for the last 2/3 of my northbound hike.
In general I thought the extra pound was worth every one of its 16 ounces of pack weight. However, the 3/4 length just left too much of my sore knees/legs unsupported.
In addition, extra padding was substantially harder to roll in my GoLite Breeze than the ultra-light pad.
THERMAREST BACKPACKER FULL LENGTH: Ironically, (typically) the oldest Thermarest in my gear closet turned out to really fill the bill. Almost on a whim, unable to decide between the Ultra-light and the Luxury Edition heading back out of Harper's Ferry, I pulled an old well-used full length backpackers pad from the bottom of my gear trunk and couldn't have been happier with the choice.
The full-length gave true coverage to my 6'1 frames. And even though it was at least as thin as the ultra-light pad, the ability to put the sorest part of my body (my legs) on something soft(ish).
TENT & SHELTERS
HENRY SHIRES TARPTENT: I started (and ended) my trip with a Henry Shires designed TarpTent sewn for me by my friend Chris. It is very light (24 oz.), has generous room and is at least mildly bug resistant.
Early in the hike, I mainly packed the TarpTent defensively. That is to say that on a few nights I pitched the TarpTent when no other shelter was available.
This is in part because I was simply lazy and didn't feel like pitching and drying a tent every night. This was in part because the tarp is silicon impregnated nylon and I sleep warmer than Satan.
I however continued carrying the TarpTent because: it certainly worked when I needed it, and all other options were simply unacceptably heavy (and/or are also sil-nylon)
Between Bear Mountain and New Hampshire I also managed to actually sleep in the TarpTent a few pleasant -- and at least one very unpleasant -- nights. It could draft a little better and is best described as "bug resistant" ("bug proof" being a wild overstatement). But, it's roomy, stays dry in serious rain and provides a modicum of privacy.
I switched back to the TarpTent for my hike to Springer and camped it exactly two nights: one night in Central Virginia at the edge of a bald summit and one night in Southwest Virginia when I arrived at a near to full shelter in the Grayson Highland.
Although the TarpTent is a decently light, alternative shelter -- an about the most packable item in my kit, it was probably overkill for my hike south. I didn't need the bug protection (although the netting also screens some wind) and probably gotten by with an even simpler syl-nylon tarp for all I used it.
MTN HARDWARE STINGRAY: In the White Mountains I switched out the TarpTent for my Mountain Hardware Stingray which is more (but far from completely) compatible with the wooden tent platforms found on the Trail north of Glencliff.
The Stingray is a great tarp and managed to keep me dry and cozy through several major storms. However, it is a bit heavy (about 1/2 lbs. heavier than the TarpTent) and has a very large footprint. As such, it was extremely difficult to pitch on the small AT platforms and tent pads (which are really designed for free-standing, weekend and group tents).
The Stingray is really a two-person tarp I happened to already own for kayaking trips and is just overkill for a solo hiker on the AT.
MY BACKPACKING STOVE(S)
MSR SUPERFLY: I started the trip with an MSR Superfly canister. I liked the Superfly's light weight and was impressed with high BTUs it threw. I found worked well with each of the 3 different brands of canisters I came across on the first half of my hike and reliably got 4-5 days of use at a pop.
All in all, if a hiker were to carry a canister stove, this is the one I would most strongly recommend.
However, more for reasons of peer pressure than practicality, I switched about 100 miles into my hike (near Harrisburg PA) to a lightweight, Trangia alcohol fueled backpacker's stove which I carried for the remaining 2000 miles of my hike.
TRANGIA BACKPACKER'S STOVE: The Trangia backpacker stove and its alcohol fueled home-built coke can progeny are by far and away the most popular cooking platform among long distance hikers on the AT.
I was really drawn to the simplicity of the alcohol stoves I saw along the trail as well as the general availability of its denatured alcohol fuel source -- it will also burn dry gas (methanol) available at pretty much any gas station or convenience store.
The alcohol flame is a little cooler than canisters and white gas, but it only adds 3 or 4 minutes when you boil your water in 10 and 20 oz. increments -- or about the futzing and pre-heating time required to fire up a Whisper Light.
I boiled approximately 20 ounces of water on my Trangia stove for about 140 of my 150 nights on the Trail. At 10 minutes a pop, that's about 1400 minutes, 2800 ounces, 25 hours or about one day of my life.
SNOW PEAK TITANIUM MINI SOLO COOKSET I was really, really pleased with my little Snow Peak cookset. It wasn't cheap (like 55.00) and is definitely solo sized. However, it is light, it is compact and the little measuring cup became thoroughly indespensible -- as the measurements on my Nalgene bottles became quickly unreadable.
AQUA MIRA CHLORINE DIOXIDE: Two-part chemical water treatment. I treated my water with this two-stage chemical anti-bacterial solution for about 75% of the hike. Unlike the in fact cheaper iodine, chlorine dioxide does not kill viruses (not a big issue in N. America) but knocks out water born biological agents and will not kill off the fauna in your stomach lining with extended use -- as iodine can.
A bit more expensive (about 12 bucks a pop x 4) than iodine, Aqua Mira does not discolor water and has little or no taste.
MSR MINIWORKS: Mechanical, backpacker's water filter.
Hiking poles are essential to me. First, I have terrible knees. Second, I use them as tent poles. As such, I would be really up the creek if mine failed.
I began the hike with a pair of REI branded, Komperdell manufactured poles. They were a good buy at $80.00. They were very light, had nice foam hand grips and padded wrist straps. Unfortunately, they were simply not durable enough to make the distance.
At about the 500 mile mark, the locking mechanism on one pole became permanently problematic. While I could continue to hike with it, I could no longer adjust the upper section when pitching my tarp and was forced to improvise in order to accomodate its fixed length.
At about 600 miles I began having problems with one of the grips part of which had begun working its way down the pole.
While REI stands behind their products, their return policies are not friendly to long distance hikers. Although they were willing to switch out the poles, they required that the original poles be brought to an REI store for the switch.
As there are no REI stores convenient to the Trail (and none at all in northern New England) I was forced to switch to a pair of Lekis in southern NH.
A quick comment: Although I had problems with the REI/Komperdells (and further problems with REI itself) I would in fact recommend these poles to anyone who typically hikes <100 miles/year.