What’s in Your Pack? Thru-Hiking Edition
It’s the eternal question for any backpacker—what do you bring along, and what do you leave at home? Thru-hikers have it particularly tough, as the decisions they make determine their comfort and safety for weeks on end. This guide features about 30 things you should include in your thru-hiking pack, which sounds like a lot. But trust me when I say that once you’re out there on the trail living campsite-to-campsite, it will feel like very, very little.
This gear list is largely informed by what I learned on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2013. What hikers carry in their pack is an incredibly subjective debate that often gets more heated than it should. But for me, it’s been tried, tested, and proven to do the trick. It may not be exactly what you bring along, but hopefully, it will help you make smart decisions.
Pack : First thing’s first: you’re going to need a pack. In terms of size, you want a pack that will fit all of your gear comfortably, but not too comfortably. Extra space means extra weight. Extra weight means extra chance that your knees will mutiny. A lot of thru-hikers opt for packs in the 60-80L range, and hikers with lighter, more compressible gear will go for something in the 50-55L zone. Anything higher than 70-75 Liters is probably extraneous unless you’re doing 4-season trekking.
Sleeping system : This is your shelter (often a tent or a hammock), your sleeping bag, and your sleeping pad. The sleeping system accounts for a big bulk of the weight in a pack, so some serious ultra-light backpackers will skimp on conventional shelter in favor of a bivvy bag, a tarp, or shelter-hopping on trails where that’s doable. But these weight-saving measures are extreme, and at the end of the day—a long 20-mile day, let’s say—a good night’s rest goes a long way towards helping your body recover. So take a tent! Or a hammock. And definitely take a sleeping bag and pad.
Cooking system : Again, some ultra-lighters will ditch the camp stove and fuel and opt instead for an unappetizing dry-food diet of energy bars, uncooked ramen, and ungodly amounts of peanut butter. But boy is this a surefire way to chip into the enjoyment of a thru-hike. Food is one of the most rewarding parts of long-distance backpacking. Sure, the mountain vistas and one-with-nature vibes are nice, but what’s nicer is a warm, well-cooked meal after a 10-hour day of hiking. So pack a stove (the MSR Pocket Rocket is great), a lighter, a titanium pot, an interchangeable fuel canister, and ye olde faithful spork.
Toilet paper : For when nature calls.
Trowel : For when nature calls, and you’re a good Samaritan and respectable human being who practices Leave No Trace.
Water filter : Giardia is not a pretty sight.
Headlamp : Like it or not, if you’re embarking on a multi-month thru-hike, there will be night hiking in your future. Especially during the non-summer months when the daylight hours can’t keep up with your mileage ambitions. Plus you’ll want a headlamp for just about everything else that takes place in camp: cooking, reading, frantically aiming it in the direction of a nearby rustle and shouting “who’s there?” in a high-pitched voice…You know, the normal stuff.
Rain cover : A rain cover is great for ensuring your gear gets damp, instead of sopping wet.
Apparel : If you’ve ever gone on any vacation, you’ll know that overpacking clothes is easy to do. It’s no different on the trail for a thru-hike. So here’s a list of the clothes you should pack for a thru-hike in moderate weather conditions: 1 pair of trail runners, 2 pairs of wool socks, 1 pair of hiking shorts, 1 pair of underwear if the 1 pair of hiking shorts doesn’t have underwear liner built-in, 1 wool T-shirt, 1 lightweight wool pullover, 1 mid-weight fleece pullover, 1 buff, 1 beanie, and that’s about that. For people who get cold more easily, feel free to throw a puffy down jacket into the mix and a pair of long johns. But always pack less than you think you need.
Camp Clothes : For serious thru-hikers, what inevitably happens is that the idea of changing into dry, comfy camp clothes at the end of the day gradually loses its sheen. Either you’re too tired, or more realistically, there isn’t any “dry, comfy” anything left to speak of in your pack. Yes, this means you’ll be either sleeping in the nude or in your dirty hiking clothes. And yes, the latter is disgusting, but you’ll be amazed at the hygienic lows you can stoop to on a thru-hike. One camp clothing exception that I positively swear by is a pair of Crocs. Sure, you may scoff at them back in real life, but as a camp shoe, they’re lightweight, practical, and comfortable.
Trekking Poles : Trekking poles might belong in “The Essentials” category, more than in “The Nice-to-Haves.” They’re a game-changer. Plus, they’re rarely, if ever, in your pack itself, so weight isn’t an issue.
Entertainment : Sometimes, it’s nice to unwind in camp with a little light reading, a game, or some music—especially during the summer days when there’s more daylight and more downtime. In these instances, it makes sense to pack a book, a deck of cards, or maybe even a small camp guitar. Just know that if you’re going to bring a travel instrument, you’ll probably end up with a trail name like “Kumbaya” or “Wonder Wall.”
Heavy-duty boots : A lot of thru-hikers learn this the hard way within the first week of a long-distance backpacking trip. The benefit of an over-the-ankle boot is stability and alleged waterproofness. Well, the bogs of Maine and the river crossings of California are here to tell you there’s no such thing as “waterproofness.” And after the obscene amount of blisters you’ll collect within two-days of wearing boots, you’ll practically be begging for ankle instability in exchange.
Camp pillow : Your empty sleeping bag compression sack stuffed with a pullover or puffy down jacket will do just fine.
Camp soap : One of the weirder things that happens on a long-distance thru-hike is that you become so filthy, so downright smelly and dirty, that you develop a hyper-keen, almost animalistic sense of smell for anything that doesn’t resemble the odor of feet and sweat. You can literally smell the cleanliness of day hikers from several hundred yards away, long before you pass them on the trail. Soap is liquid, and liquid is heavy. You learn to live without it.
Camp towel : That fancy quick-drying, microfiber towel will be cut up and turned into an overpriced dishrag within a week.
Fancy water bottles : Yes, you should avoid plastic in everyday life. But for 4-6 months on a thru-hike, get two 32-ounce Gatorade bottles and replace them at every town stop. This will lessen your weight load and also prevent you from tasting Halitosis every time you take a sip of water.
Knife : A lot of people love their knives, and you can’t convince them otherwise. But 99.9 percent of the day-to-day tasks you’ll do on a thru-hike require nothing more than a spork.
Dry Bags : Rather than just dumping all of your gear into a disorganized wad of smelly wool, damp down, and spilled peanut butter, let’s be civilized, people! Compressible dry bags allow you to separate your food, your sleeping bag, and your apparel. They also generally do a pretty decent job of keeping your gear mostly dry. For a sleeping bag, you can probably squeeze it into a 13L dry bag. For food, opt for a 20L bag, especially if you choose to take 6-7 days between resupply days. (You can also keep your camp stove and cookware in the food bag.) For apparel, having two separate 4L bags is a good way to keep your marginally dryer and cleaner gear at least somewhat removed from that one pair of socks that’s turned so stiff and crusty, you could use it as a hammer.
Food : This is where a huge majority of your pack’s weight comes from. On the day of a town resupply, your food can make up more than half of your pack’s total weight. Of course, this depends on the distance between resupply days. If you’re packing all of what’s been mentioned so far, your base-weight will likely be something like 15-20 pounds. When it comes to food, it’s a matter of preference: Do you want to have a lighter pack with more frequent trips into nearby trail towns, or can you manage a heavier load in favor of the convenience of not having to get off trail? A happy Goldilocks-compromise is packing for about six days out. This will mean your initial food weight on resupply day will be quite heavy—around 15-20 pounds—but it will be diminishing weight, and you’ll cut down on the frequency with which you’ll have to hitchhike into town.
At the end of the trail, everyone is different. What works for some people might not work for others. The gear recommended in this article is designed for the type of hiker who prefers more creature comforts over having a lightweight pack. For this hiker, being warm and well-fed is worth the additional 5-10 pounds. The one subject not up for debate? How downright wonderful, beautiful, life-changing, and completely worth it a long-distance thru-hike can be. See you on the trails.
Written by Ry Glover for Matcha in partnership with Gregory Mountain Products.
Featured image provided by Will Saunders / Gregory Mountain Products