When I started hiking the Appalachian Trail March 1 of 2014, I knew I wasn’t the strongest hiker out there. I couldn’t carry as much weight as I used to and I had little experience camping and hiking in winter conditions. I was prepared to learn a lot. The one thing I thought I knew was gear. I was very sure I had chosen the right equipment for my hike.
So it is very humbling to admit that only a handful of items were still with me by the end of the trip. I changed everything except:
- One long sleeve, button down shirt, which I still wear.
- The trash compactor bag (not just a trash bag) I lined my backpack with. This held up well and kept everything dry.
- A simple down jacket from REI (which I used as a pillow in warm weather).
- Silk bag liner (which I sent home in the summer).
- Silk long underwear (which I sent home in the summer).
Before I totally forget the details, I wanted to put down all of the changes I made to my hiking gear and why. These changes obviously increased the cost of my hike immensely, though in most cases I had purchased the original item from REI. I highly recommend buying equipment from REI because they have an outstanding return policy. They are not, unfortunately, easy to buy from while you are on the trail, but they will let you ship anything back if you are a member and it was purchased within a year.
I started with a 27F Women’s Big Agnes Bag. I ended with a Western Mountaineering 10F Down sleeping bag, (cost, roughly $550).
Why I changed: The Big Agnes bag is a perfectly good sleeping bag; it simply wasn’t warm enough for me and for the conditions. I had originally planned to start the hike April 1, but started a month earlier than that. I needed more warmth for what turned out to be a cold, extended winter season. Also, I sleep cold.
I switched to a lightweight, summer bag the first week of July. It was down, so a bit pricy, and rated for 35F. It worked well, but was not dry down, so needed airing out in the sun often to keep it really dry and fluffy. By July, it was too warm to use most nights, but I kept it.
I started with the 70 liter, GoLite Jam. I almost immediately changed to the ULA Catalyst (cost $250). By summer, I changed to the ULA Circuit (cost $250). ULA packs were very popular on the trail this year and almost everyone I talked to loved theirs. The packs are virtually identical, only the size is different.
Why I changed: The GoLite Jam was the most horrible pack I’ve ever owned. It didn’t hold the stated weight (30 pounds) and all the straps were showing wear by day three. One broke on the third day of my hike. The worst was the fit, which got more painful with each step. If I’d had to use this pack for the whole trip, I’d have thrown in the towel that day.
At day 3 at Mountain Crossings, I was fitted with a ULA Catalyst. I’ve never had a better fitting pack in my life. It has never shown any wear, is water resistant, versatile and roomy. The only reason I went to the ULA Circuit is that after a while I needed less room. I kept reducing my gear weight, and needed less volume. The Circuit was smaller and a pound less in weight. I cannot recommend these two packs highly enough. Also, please visit this the outfitter and hostel at Mountain Crossings when you go through Neels Gap, GA. Let them go through your pack and lighten your load. Don’t be embarrassed. It will keep you hiking longer than any other thing I can recommend. I bought the Circuit at the Mt. Rogers Outfitters in Damascus, Virginia and they are also good, knowledgeable folk with solid advice for hikers.
Why I changed: In a mix up, I briefly lost my Big Agnes Fly Creek tent, 3 days before I reached Franklin, NC. At the time, I didn’t think I would get my tent back and so bought a replacement at Outdoor 76. I needed the item immediately and there were no Fly Creek tents available in town. The Big Agnes tent is excellent. Both the Fly Creek and the Copper Spur models were very popular on the trail this year.
The day after I bought the new tent, my old tent was returned to me. I decided to keep the new one because it was only 2 pounds (about a pound less than the Fly Creek) and used my hiking poles as support. I was very happy with this tent. There are several ways to set it up and though condensation is a problem in the most closed down set up, I think it’s the best single walled tent I’ve seen. At Outdoor 76, they cut a ground cloth of Tyvek for me for an addition $8. Please visit this outfitter when you go through Franklin. They were kind and gave me good advice.
Why I changed: The Big Agnes pad is a fine sleeping pad. It is even possible to sleep on your side with this pad–something you can’t often say. But it weighed 18 ounces and I simply had to cut the weight of my load. Also, I didn’t have the lung capacity to blow up the full length pad by the end of the day. The ThermaRest was 9 ounces and because it was ¾ length, it was easier to inflate. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable, but it was adequate for me. This would not have been a good solution for everyone, nor the best one for cold weather. BTW, I had initially spurned the NeoAir because it sounded like a bag of potato chips when I lay down on it in the REI store to try it out. I don’t know if they changed the model or if it simply wasn’t as loud as I had thought, but I didn’t find this to be an issue at all.
Why I changed: The Snow Peak is a good stove. I’m not knocking it. I changed because I found I didn’t really want to cook; I wanted to boil water. And I wanted the water very hot, very fast. Plus the Piezo starter on the Snow Peak didn’t work as well in very low temperatures. Of course, nothing works as well in very low temperatures, so that’s not a surprise nor a reason not the buy the Snow Peak. This is one of the few times I got something that weighed more, but I didn’t need to carry a spare fuel canister since the JetBoil took 2-3 minutes to heat the water instead of 8+ minutes. But the truth is I don’t care much about cooking when I’m hiking. If I were camping, that would be different. When it was cold, I was most concerned with hot water for coffee or soup. Once it got warm, I skipped the soup and found other ways to get my caffeine. Personally, I found the JetBoil almost impossible to cook in. Meals burn easily in it. Others had better luck, so perhaps I’m not attentive enough. But if all you want to do is boil water, this is your stove.
MISCELLANEOUS CLOTHING CHANGES
I also changed most of my clothing.
SOCKS: I’d started with Thor-Lo hiking socks and almost immediately went to Darn Tough. They may be pricy at $ 19 each, but they really take a beating. They still look good after 1,000+ miles. I used silk sock liners for the first two and a half months until I had pretty much destroyed the liners. Silk is expensive and it is fragile (when wet), so it’s no surprise they didn’t hold up for as long. I wore them because I have extreme issues with blisters. The silk felt so good on my feet and the liners lasted long enough to let my feet toughen up. They were well worth the money to me. I had two pair of liners and I wish I had brought four.
SHIRTS: I had started with a few poly shirts. I replaced them with Smart Wool. Wool doesn’t hold body odors as long and it kept me warm. I loved the wool–until the temperature hit 90F. At that temperature, the shirts suddenly felt like a furnace and I had serious chaffing issues under the arms. When it’s that warm, though, your shirt doesn’t matter much. I bought a couple cheap shirts from a thrift store made of some poly material.
SHORTS: I mostly hiked in basketball shorts. I liked the length (almost to my knees) and the pockets. I wore them over silk long underwear or leggings when it was cold.
SHOES: I buy Merrells. Period. Use the thick, hiking sole ones, not the thin “barefoot” style. You need the extra sole, especially in Pennsylvania where the rocks are killers.
SMALL STUFF: I also made some minor changes to small gear, mostly to save weight. I bought a tiny headlamp, very small knife and got rid of anything I didn’t absolutely, positively need. By the end of the hike, my full pack (summer gear) was always less than 20 pounds, even with a liter of water and 5 days of food. With winter gear, it would not have exceeded 25 pounds. I cannot stress enough how important a light pack is.
I hope this information will be helpful to those who are hiking in the future. Again, this is what I learned from 4.5 months of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
NOTE: I have plans to hike The Camino in the future. All this gear may get another tough use.