Part 3: Planning an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike – Gear & Clothing
In Part 3 of our series on preparing to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, we go from the dullest topic, budgets, to the most exciting – gear! Everyone seems to obsess over the right gear before starting a hike. My gear recommendations generally follow the lightweight style of hiking, but I am not an ultra-light backpacker. Fortunately, a lot of modern gear allows hikers to lighten their load significantly, without sacrificing function, durability or comfort. As such, I recommend a base weight (without food and water) of 18 pounds, and it’s certainly possible to go even lighter.
This is mostly a summer hike, but you’ll need additional cold-weather gear for the beginning and end of your journey. Start with the gear recommendation below, and keep these supplies through at least Damascus, Va. Then, you can switch to a lighter load. But be sure to have your starting pack (with the supplies below) returned to you by the time you reach Hanover, N.H., and carry this load for the end of your hike.
These days, just about everybody hikes with an internal frame pack. Whatever your preference, your pack should weigh less than 2 pounds and never more than 3 pounds. Most people use a pack with a volume of 4,000 cubic inches to 5,000 cubic inches. To keep everything dry, line your pack with a trash compactor bag cinched at the top when packed, and always carry a sil-nylon pack cover.
I recommend a light double-layer tent – there are several good ones out there. Personally, I think the humidity on the AT would make hiking with a single-layer tent a nightmare, but some folks do it. Also, for the summer months, consider just a bug shelter or net and a light tarp you can rig with your hiking poles. In general, try to keep your shelter to no more than 4 pounds per person.
Sleeping Pad & Bag
A closed-cell pad works fine and is cheap, light and indestructible. I’ve also carried a three-quarter-length inflatable pad with a smaller closed-cell pad strapped to my pack to sit on and put under my feet at night. If you sleep average to warm, a 20-degree bag should keep you warm on all nights. If you’re concerned about your ability to keep your bag dry, use a bag with synthetic insulation, as cold rain is fairly common. (Synthetic insulation can still keep you warm when it’s wet, while a bag with down insulation will lose much of its ability to insulate you if the down gets wet.) Consider a lighter fleece blanket for the summer months. One tip: I never use a stuff sack for my bag. Instead, I carry it stuffed in the bottom of my pack inside the pack liner, which helps maintain the bag’s loft and warmth.
Synthetic clothing is recommended for an AT hike. It will rain often, particularly in the early and later parts of a typical thru-hike, and you will need to deal with cold (nights below freezing) on both ends of the hike. Use a light base layer for hiking. For underwear, I hike in cycling shorts (without the pad). I then wear nylon cargo shorts over the cycling shorts. I also wear a synthetic short-sleeve T-shirt and a ball cap. (Carry an extra T-shirt if you like to have something clean.) Building from there, I carry a midweight zip-T pullover and midweight bottoms, a warm fleece hat, and a lightweight waterproof/breathable jacket. During the cold portion of the hike add a fleece or light down jacket, a pair of gloves, a light balaclava, and a pair of rain pants. During the summer months, I add sunglasses.
Cook one-pot meals and eat from your pot. A spoon is the only utensil you’ll need. Most are carrying alcohol fuel stoves, many crafted at home from beer cans. There’s a myriad of stoves and systems with varying fuel types. Go light and simple whatever you decide. I also recommend a pot cozy – very light and keeps dinner warm longer. A light cup or bottle for drinks is also handy.
Water Carrier & Treatment
Most of your water will be from fairly clean springs and streams. I’ve used light chemical treatments for a long time with success, though many still carry pump-type filters. A bandanna filters silty water in a pinch. For most of the hike, you can carry water in a 2-liter hydration bladder with a drinking tube and bite valve. Just grab a couple extra Gatorade bottles for the few long waterless stretches in Pennsylvania, and dump when you’re finished. A large capacity vessel is nice for bulk water in camp.
I opted long ago to forgo classic boots for trail runners and a light pack, and have never turned back. To do this, your ankles need to be limber and in good shape. Expect to blow through at least three to four pairs of lightweight shoes on a thru-hike. I carry three pairs of light wool/synthetic socks, and wash them frequently. Ankle gaiters save your socks and keep your feet drier and cleaner. A pair of dry fleece socks is nice at night, and Crocs make great camp shoes.
A simple Swiss Army knife is a must, as is a small LED headlamp. A strand of duct tape rolled on itself fixes a lot of things, as does the 50 feet of parachute cord you’ll need for hanging food. Use a small stuff sack to carry your toiletries, such as a toothbrush with paste, floss, comb, Q-tips, a small bottle of soap, lip balm and a camp towel. You’ll need a small first-aid kit with a basic stash of pills: ibuprofen, anti-diarrheal, decongestant, multi-vitamin, etc. Carry your camera in a soft case strapped to a shoulder strap or your hip belt for quick access. (And don’t forget extra memory cards.) Finally, you’ll want your maps and trail data, plus your favorite paperback and journal.
Links to sample thru-hiker gear lists from Karen Somers (trail name Nocona):
For more discussion on gear, visit www.whiteblaze.net
Don’t miss part 4 of our series, which will cover the logistics of thru-hiking the AT.
Links to previous articles in our series:
Part 1 – Overview of planning a hike
Part 2 – Budgeting
Andy Somers lives in Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife Karen and two daughters, and works there as a civil engineer. Andy has hiked the full length of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, and has ridden a bicycle across the United States. In addition to his long distance hiking and cycling pursuits, he’s climbed the highest mountain in 39 of the 50 United States, including Washington’s Mount Rainier.