How to (Really) Pack for the Appalachian Trail — A Look at My Gear After One Month of Hiking

“You know, my first time out I learned two things,” a man by the name of Hatchet told me as our cookstoves simmered in camp, “If you buy wrong you buy twice, and expensive gear is cheaper than knee surgery.”

He was certainly one who’d know. He was given the trail-name Hatchet because he began the Appalachian Trail with, among other things, a hatchet, a five-man tent, two hundred-foot lengths of rope, heavy-duty combat fatigues, a lantern, a flashlight, and a headlamp “just in case it got dark”.

This scenario is way more common than you’d think, even among experienced hikers. I spent many weekends backpacking as a kid, and used to sell equipment for a living, and still brought almost twenty pounds too much. The excess weight is killer on the knees, and replacing gear with lighter, more-effective versions is a pain on the wallet. So to help you avoid both I offer a comprehensive guide to my final gear load out.

This is not the stuff I started with, but the stuff I ended with and as such I think it’s a much more useful representation of what a long-distance hike really requires.

Three things to note before reading on:
  1. I was not a thru-hiker, but this is still a good place to start. Most of what follows is either the result of direct experience (like my clothes selection) or is gear I picked up at the advice of thru-hikers I met along the way. I spent about a month in the woods, but by the end I felt that my load-out could have sustained me quite a bit longer if necessary.
  2. Everyone hikes their own trail, and everyone’s needs are different. The trail is the ultimate teacher of what you really need, and you may find some of this excessive, and some of it lacking. The goal of this article isn’t to provide the last word on what you need, but rather to give you a look at exactly what I used and why and perhaps in doing so provide a starting point for your own adventure. There are a million ways to skin a cat, and packing for an expedition is no exception.
  3. Where possible I’ve included a link to purchase the gear that outperformed my expectations. Some of these are Amazon affiliate links (full disclosure) and help keep this blog afloat. If you find this post useful and are planning on making a purchase based on it I’d really appreciate it if you’d consider using the included link. Thank you.
With all that being said, I give you… my equipment:

Clothes:

Do you know what the number one thing people overpack is? Clothes.

It’s an innocent mistake. Back at home you have different clothes for every day of the week, plus your nice clothes, and the ratty ones that are just for lounging on the couch. Heading into the woods, you prepare for hiking, and sleeping, and weather, and swimming, and of course you’ll need something presentable in case you go to town, and then there’s—

Stop. Breathe.

Here’s the reality about long-distance hiking. Your wardrobe becomes vastly simplified: You have your hiking outfit, and your camp outfit, and a couple odds & ends for warmth.

Each morning you don your hiking clothes and begin the struggle through the mountains that will be that day’s hike. Within minutes you’re sweating and panting and you stay that way throughout most of the day until you get to camp.

The moment you get to camp the first thing you do is clean up (see hygiene) and change into your camp clothes.

Some thru-hikers opt for just one set of clothes which they wear always. For my own part I found changing into a dry, (relatively) clean outfit to be such a morale booster that it warranted the additional weight of a second set of clothes.

When it’s all said and done, here’s a good look at what your clothes should probably look like:

Dry Bag – All of my clothes were stowed in a single 18 liter Granite Gear eVent SIL Drysack which I was very happy with. I was able to avoid the rain for the most part, but my first day in the Smokies I walked through end-of-days downpours for eleven miles. I was soaked through, but almost everything in my pack was dry. The other cool thing about this dry-sack is that it comes in a re-usable packaging (a durable zippered mesh bag) which I used to neatly stow my water filter.

Shorts – I had two pairs of shorts. They don’t have to be anything special (one pair I had already, the other I found on the trail) but I do think that if you opt for something quick-drying like board shorts you’ll be more comfortable each day. Climbing mountains with a pack on your back you can bet you’ll sweat your ass off, so choosing something in black helps to keep you from looking like a sweaty mess in those summit photo-ops. Forget belt-loops on your hiking shorts — they’re royally uncomfortable beneath the pressure of your pack’s waistband. If you’re got some extra money to spend, here are my new favorite shorts (non-affiliate).

Shirts – I had two “performance fabric” T-shirts (one from EMS the other from Mountain Hardware) which I’d gotten from a thrift-shop. However, toward the end I hiked shirtless every day, rain or shine, opting to leave my shirts in the dry-bag where they’d be ready for camp.

Socks – Three pairs, wool. The wool keeps you warm and relatively comfortable when it’s wet, and three pairs meant I rarely had to hike in the same socks two days in a row. It’s difficult to dry clothes on the trail because many of the southern reaches of the AT are very humid. But with a day or two between uses there was time to clean and either air-dry them or toss them in my sleeping bag at night and dry them there. I bought some generic brand I found on Amazon, but if I were to do it again I’d spend the money on Darn Tough wool socks because they’ve got a kick-ass replacement guarantee, and I’ve worn them (wearing them right now) and found them to be extremely comfortable.

Underwear – For years now I’ve been traveling outdoors with ExOfficio underwear. It’s comfortable, lightweight, and fights the funk shockingly well. I carried three pairs; One for hiking, one for camp, one to wear while I did laundry.

Long Underwear – I carried one set of long underwear which staid in a gallon Ziploc bag inside the dry-sack. This was my emergency gear in case of hypothermia, and doubled down as something comfy to wear when lounging around camp at night.

Knit Hat – I carried a ski-hat for some added warmth at night and also during shirtless hikes in the rain. Once again, I’d recommend wool because it will keep working even when wet.

Shoes – For shoes, I opted for the Salomon XA Pro 3D Mountain Trail running shoes. I already had them sitting around, so they were a convenient choice, but proved to be quite popular among other hikers as well. There are a couple good reasons for this. First, they’re light and on the trail they say every pound on your feet feels like ten pounds on your back. Big old boots are rugged and durable, but they’ll drag you down, so many opt for light trail running shoes instead. Second, they’re not even a little bit waterproof (they’re mostly mesh). This means they get wet, but they don’t stay wet, and are very quick to dry.

Sleeping:

Ahh, glorious sleep. Even after a terrible day on the trail everything seems a little better if you’re able to slide into a comfortable bed at night. In addition to the equipment below I found a couple of tips that helped pass the nights easier.

First, I slept with my pen-light and toilet paper either tucked into my shoe or in my pocket. All the easier to answer nature’s call in the middle of the night. I also slept with my knit hat on, which kept me very warm, and slept with my head pointed out of the shelter for the extra fresh air.

Sleeping Bag – I began the trip with a super lightweight bag that was rated down to 40 degrees and was shocked — appalled, really — when I found the temperatures in America’s deep south regularly dipped below this threshold. So, I had my 20 degree bag shipped down to me and found an immediate, immediate, improvement in my sleep. I slept straight through the nights, was warm, and even felt like there was significantly more padding between me and the shelter floor. I woke up cozy and refreshed and this undoubtedly made the bag worth the extra weight.

Sleeping Pad – I opted for the cheap $20 version from Walmart. A simple roll-up piece of foam which provided just a bit of cushioning and some thermal barrier between myself and the ground. I liked the foam (you can’t pop it like an inflatable pad) but if I were to re-buy I think I’d test some inflatable versions (just for their small size) or opt for the Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite which can pull double duty as a convenient chair in camp.

Dry Compression Sack – Sleeping bags are puffy. In order to make them more manageable you can purchase a compression sack which helps to squeeze the air out. I got one from Sea-to-Summit which claimed to be waterproof. I will say that other people I met along the trail — people walking through the very same rain — raved about their Sea-to-Summit compression sack. Mine worked alright, but a couple of times I found large streaks of water on my sleeping bag when I pulled it out in the evening. Short of a waterproof compression sack, I’d say purchase any compression sack and then toss it into a double thickness of trash-bags.

Water:

There are plenty of things to talk about with other hikers on the trail, but one of the most common topics of conversation is water. Specifically, how the water sources in a given direction are flowing, and what other people are using to treat their water. This setup comes courtesy of a thru-hiker I met named Smokes who had done both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail and was out for a weekend hike to stay in shape before his trip on the Continental Divide Trail, the last jewel in his triple-crown.

Transport – I used a 3-liter Camelbak bladder as my sole water container. I bought the biggest one I could find because you can always fill it just part-way in order to save on weight. But it’s nice to have the extra capacity when water-sources are spaced far apart. Hang it next to your food-prep area and it becomes a convenient camp faucet too.

Filter – When it comes to filters I’ve tried many types and my favorite so far is the Sawyer Squeeze. It’s lightweight, has no moving parts, and requires only the occasional rinsing in order to keep it operating. Thru-hiker tip: Substitute the included plastic squeeze bag for a 1-liter plastic coke bottle. It’s more durable and easy to replace in towns along the trail.

Camelbak Adapter – I purchased the adapter which quickly connects the Sawyer Squeeze to a Camelbak bladder via the drinking hose. It’s cheap, easy to install, and helps guarantee that only clean filtered water ends up in the bag.

Aquamira Drops – Chemical treatment of water is a great backup when filtering is impossible, or the source just seems extra dubious. I used and liked the Aquamira drops because they didn’t have a harsh taste, they worked quickly, and were super lightweight. Many thru-hikers use only aquamira, claiming that filters freeze or clog too often. I never had a problem with my Sawyer, but did run into a few situations where the water was stagnant (or yellowish) and used the aquamira as a second line of defense against waterborne illness.

Food:

Arguably one of my favorite parts of any trip is the food I’m promised upon arriving somewhere. The fare on the AT is, shall we say, not bad. Actually, it’s just about all bad but after a day of schlepping all your belongings through the mountains virtually everything tastes fantastic. Below is my humble little kitchen. The only thing missing here is a canister of iso-butane fuel which can commonly be found in various stores in camping stores.

Stove – This is a simple little option I found on amazon for $6. The reason, I think, for the low price is that there may have been a mistake in engineering which results in the stove spraying a cloud of cooking fuel into the air the moment it’s connected to a fuel canister. That being said, it does work quite nicely and I used it several times a day to cook noodles and rice and much else. The vastly more popular option is the Jetboil, which people seem to like for its efficiency and the add-ons like a french-coffee press. Also there’s no cloud of fuel with that one but I guess it comes down to what you find important.

Lighter – Nothing fancy. Cheap little BIC to make stove lighting easier.

Anodized Aluminum Cup – This cup doubled easily as a pot and had a couple nifty benefits which landed it in my gear loadout. To begin with, it’s anodized aluminum which is tough, light, and helps avoid sticking. It’s also got graduate measurements stamped on the inside and outside of the mug to aid in measuring water for ‘dem freeze-dried hiker meals. Finally the price was right on Amazon and so into the cart it went.

Utensils – These I actually borrowed from a friend after forgetting mine at home. It’s a neat little set that includes a spoon, fork, and collapsible chopsticks. If you wanted to you could get by with just the spoon. Sporks are also quite popular on the trail.

Heavy Duty Dry-Bag – This one’s important. All of my food was stowed inside a super tough 30-Liter Baja dry-bag from SealLine. I’ve owned a number of SealLine bags over the years (had this one for about five years now) and have always been impressed by how durable they are. This is critical for your food-bag, which must be hung out in the woods each night. A heavy-duty bag helps trap odors, deter nighttime ransackers, and keep your food dry even if it rains all night long. They say the bears are a problem in the woods, but for my money the mice and squirrels present just as much risk to your food.

Health & Hygiene:

I like to be clean. Some see the woods as an invitation to get grungy, I see it as a game to stay clean and comfortable in a gritty environment. This serves more than just vanity. Having good hygiene keeps you feeling good, and healthy, and improves morale on long days of endless plodding.

Antibacterial Wipes – There are actually several brands that offer travel packs of scented antibacterial wipes and they’re easy to find in convenience stores and campstores alike. As soon as you get to camp, find a spot behind a tree, strip down and wipe off the grime and sweat of the day with one or two of these puppies before putting on your camp clothes. This is a tip I picked up from a thru-hiker and it changed my life.

Camp Towel – Just a small Sea to Summit microfibre towel, not much larger than a typical bandana but it’s a multipurpose little tool that can be used to wipe down gear, dust off bare feet, or wipe a sweaty brow.

Goldbond Powder – Worth its weight in gold. This stuff prevents chafing in even the most miserable weather, and not just in the crotch-u-lar area but also where your pack-straps rub your waste and shoulders. Toss it in your shoes to fight odor or even help dry them. Trade it to hikers for the deed to their house. Never leave home without it.

Hand Sanitizer – Good for after a visit to the privy. Use it to sterilize your hands before you cook or eat, slather it on your feet to help dry them on rainy days, or use it as a last-ditch fire-starter. Don’t drink it.

Firstaid / Repair Kit – Rather than list every item in the first aid kit, I’ll tell you a little bit about the items I found most critical. But first understand that I’m not a doctor and don’t pretend to know what’s best in terms of medical care. Continue at your own risk and don’t be an idiot. That being said, item number one is a good antihistamine. There are bees everywhere on the AT, and it’s not a matter of if you’ll get stung, but when. Second, some kind of topical antibiotic ointment for treating wounds. The reality is that if you’re wounded badly enough you can use your shirt (or camp-towel) as a bandage but you need something to help fight infection. Finally, duct-tape (for obvious reasons) and a set of quick-draw threaded needles. These can be had for a dollar or two at most supermarkets or convenience stores. They’re pre-threaded needles with just enough to sew on a new button or stitch a seem and I used them for both. When building your first-aid kit or repair kit it’s important to consider caring for yourself or another person. For that reason you may opt for a lightweight pair of surgical gloves to prevent blood-contact on a patient, or antihistamines even if you don’t ave allergies.

Mobile Office:

Okay, this one’s probably not going to be found in the pack of your average thru-hiker. But for those of you who can work from the road and are looking for a way to keep an eye on things during your trip here’s what I used to document the trip and continue running my business while I traveled.

Notebooks – If you’re a notebook geek, then drop everything you’re doing and check out the 180 Degree Artbook by Canson. It’s got blank acid-free pages perfect for journaling or sketching, a magnetic closure, and is designed for every page to open perfectly flat. I bought two the 5.5 x 8.5 inch and a smaller pocket version. The large was my journal and stayed in a ziploc in my pack until I was in camp for the night. I carried the smaller one in my pocket for jotting down notes and ideas throughout the day. Big fan.

1 Book to Read – That’s right, just one. I actually started with several books and ditched all of them to save weight. I thought I’d have more time to read on the trail, but the reality was that it was a very social experience and the only time I really got was after everyone else had gone to bed.

Trail Guide – I have a long complicated history with guidebooks, and generally hate them or at the very least distrust them. AWOL’s guide to the AT is a refreshingly competent look at the trail, written by someone who’s been there and complete with the features you really need as a hiker: mileage and elevation, plus maps of all the best restaurants in each town. It’s written in both Northbound and Southbound versions so you can buy the copy that matches your direction of travel and I’ve heard it comes in bound and un-bound copies so you can pull just the pages you need if you’re doing a shorter trek. The ATC’s guidebooks are certainly more famous, but out on the trail everyone is using AWOL’s guide.

iPad Air 2 – This is going to seem ridiculous to purists, but I brought my iPad with me so that when we stopped in town every week or so I could check in on my clients, return emails, and draft blog posts without hunching over my smartphone. The important thing to realize here is the lifeproof case that surrounds my iPad. I bought my first expensive phone three years ago and immediately put it inside a LifeProof case. I still have that phone, and it’s never even been scratched. All of my important electronics go in LifeProof cases because they’re that good. Important note: I’ve read that true LifeProof is not available on Amazon. The cases you find there are knock-offs or at the very best, second-hand and are not backed by the company’s warranty. Spend the extra money and get yours from a reputable dealer like Best Buy or better yet direct from LifeProof’s website — they’re worth it.

iPhone 4S – Also with a LifeProof case, I kept this puppy on airplane mode and it served as my waterproof camera for up to five days at a time without recharging. It also helped arrange rides to and from the trail, book rooms, and check the occasional email from the top of a tree. I’m convinced I could go longer if I turned it off at night, but haven’t tried that yet.

Charging Cables and Headphones – Perhaps the cables are self-explanaitory, but the odd little cup they’re in is not. It’s not a urine sample container (I don’t think). It’s a waterproof container made by Nalgene — makers of fine waterbottles — and it’s intended for storing kitchen ingredients. I used it for loose change, charging cables, and headphones.

Envelopes & Stamps – One of the fun parts of the trail (even with an iPad) is unlinking and getting back to basics. I carried envelopes and stamps so I could write letters home, dropping them in mailboxes as I went.

Pen Light – This I bought out of necessity. My beloved Black Diamond headlamp died days before leaving and I’d already bought so much I just couldn’t bear to spend the money replacing it. Really, you can use just about any flashlight you like. But headlamps are popular because they leave your hands free to work, and some come with red lights which keep from blinding the people around you and maintain your night vision.

Gallon Ziploc Bags – The great savers of all my gear, I used these puppies for practically everything. My notebook, my book-book, my AT Guide was opened to the segment I was hiking then inserted into a ziploc for easy weatherproof reading.

Pack:

It’s difficult for me to go into specifics on my pack because it lacks any kind of identifier. So instead I’ll give you some trail tested advice on what to look for if you’re buying a new pack.

First, and most importantly, think of your pack as an investment — skimp on it at your own risk. As with any investment you want to buy it from someone who truly knows the landscape, so take the time to get the opinion of a pro at a smaller, more tailored gear shop like an REI or EMS. Ask to speak to someone who can fit the pack for you, and who can teach you how to adjust it properly as this is what will keep you comfortable on the trail.

Though I have no affiliation with them I’ve always been a fan of Osprey’s packs. They are full of little pockets and toggles — like hip-belt pouches and treking-pole stows — which are just refreshingly well-designed. I’ve also always liked their AirScape back panels which make hiking so much more comfortable. Walk in an Osprey pack and you’re certain that you’re using a piece of equipment designed by someone who’s actually gone outdoors before, and that’s rare these days. If I were buying a new pack, it’d be an Osprey.

Finally, don’t go out of your way to get anything that claims to be waterproof. There have been many interesting improvements in equipment in recent years which have brought things like backpacks closer to the realm of waterproof, but as far as I’ve seen there’s still nothing that can beat the double garbage-bag for sustained water resistance. If the pack you want happens to have “waterproof zippers” or some other waterproof feature, fine. But don’t be sold on waterproofing alone.

Also, don’t waste your time or money on a pack cover.

Wrapping Up

That’s it. You may notice a couple things missing like rain gear, or a pocket knife and the truth is I started with them but found them to be nothing but dead weight along the way. If I were doing it all over again I might add an ultralight tent or a camping hammock if only to give me a spot to sneak away and read without being an anti-social weirdo. But by and large I was happy with this equipment and I hope the info here was helpful to you.