AT Backpacking Gear: Sleep System

I’m preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike next year. In addition to physical and mental preparation, I’m working through what gear to carry. My goal is to have less than 25 total pounds for a week’s hike, including food, water and fuel. One of the key items is the sleep system, since getting a good night’s rest is paramount. Hiking for 6 months across the eastern United States is hard, physical labor and you can’t do it on a couple hours of fitful sleep. As I’ve said before, the weight of your pack is all about what you are afraid of. My biggest fear is being wet and cold and freezing to death, so it’s not surprising that this category is a heavy one, over 4 pounds.

Sleep system

  • Sleeping bag: Big Agnes, Juniper SL 25F, Petite, 34 ounces   $224
  • Silk liner: 5 ounces  $70
  • Sleeping Pad: Big Agnes, Insulated Air Core, rectangular, 20×66, 22 ounces    $85 (THIS ITEM HAS CHANGED. I NOW USE THE Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad, R, 20×72 AT 16 OUNCES)
  • Bivy SOL Emergency Bivy 4 ounces    $17 (NOTE: After a November shake down hike, I ditched this item. With a better tent, I didn’t need it)
  • Pillow Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Travel Pillow 3 ounces $30

Sleeping Bf96e7781-662c-483e-96db-d0b603c854afag

I chose a down bag to keep the weight-to-warm ratio high. I upgraded from my Mountainsmith Vision 15F bag (under 2 pounds) because of moisture. The down feathers and the outer cover of the Big Agnes bag are treated to repel water. That adds weight, but a wet bag is worse than useless—it’s heavy and it won’t keep you warm. I also plan to carry the bag loosely in a trash compactor bag inside my pack, rather than forced into a stuff sack. It’s been my experience that I’m colder each successive night of a long hiking trip. I theorize that the loss of loft in the bag is a big part of this issue. It’s the trapped air inside the loft that keeps you warm. If you keep crushing it into a tiny stuff sack the bag simply traps less air.

78536664-aeb1-4bd5-bec2-e0089996a351Silk liner

A silk liner will add 8-10 degrees Fahrenheit on a cold night. And it can keep your bag cleaner, reducing the number of washings (since that will eventually wear off the anti-water treatment). Wear it on the inside to protect your bag from your dirty clothes and body. Wear it outside your bag to protect it from the surroundings (like at a hostel). And in the summer I can use it as a light sleeping cover. This is an item I’ve had for years. Personally, I slip the silk liner over the outside of my bag because it don’t lose it in the dark recesses of the bag. I’ll also slip the foot of my sleeping bag into my backpack (and the trash bag liner) if my feet are still cold. I also keep an extra fluffy pair of socks just for sleeping in and will add my coat, gloves and hat if I need it.)

aa544dd6-8600-4cb8-8c96-b7f06ce7df1dSleeping Pad

This is an area that I could cut some weight on, but at least for the colder parts of the hike, I want the comfort and warmth of a full length air mattress. I sleep cold. The Big Agnes pad gives me some reflective heat AND it will insulate me from the ground. Plus it’s long and wide enough that I won’t have any part of my body on the cold, hard and possibly wet ground. I can switch to a closed cell foam to reduce weight. This pad replaces an older model Therm-a-Rest, which has served me well, but weights too much.

As an aside, I gave the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Sleeping Pad a very serious look. Though horribly expensive (about $200) they weigh less than a pound and have a shiny, space blanket material inside to reflect back your body heat. But honestly I rejected it because of noise. I don’t want to hear it every time I move. It would be like sleeping on a bag of potato chips. And it looks fragile.

(THIS ITEM HAS CHANGED. I’VE REPLACED THIS WITH THE Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad, R, 20×72 AT 16 OUNCES. Part of the change was weight, but also the amount of time/energy it took to blow up the mattress. The Therm-a-rest is partially self inflating.)

78a4e9f7-6941-4b4c-b066-dc3bc06f2b33Bivy (NOTE: After a November shake down hike, I ditched this item. With a better tent, I didn’t need it. If I were starting my hike in early March or–heaven forbid–February, I’d carry it.)

I’ve had the SOL Emergency Bivy in the trunk of my car for months and I’ve carried it once or twice on a trip, but I hadn’t even unrolled it from the tiny stuff sack until my last trip. At 4 ounces and $17, it’s surprising how nice this is. Totally reflective inside to trap heat so it might add up to 10 degrees F on a cold night. But the material is both tough and stretchy so it doesn’t tear like an emergency space blanket. It’s large enough to fit my sleeping bag, sleeping pad and me inside. And it doubles as a ground cloth. That’s a lot for 4 ounces. I’ll destroy it within a couple months of hiking, but by then it will be warm weather and I won’t need it. And they’re cheap to replace. Most bivys are $150+. Even the SOL Escape Bivy is $50 and double the weight. It’s possible that I don’t need both the bivy and the liner. I certainly won’t need this item in summer.

0cb41cb8-687d-4efc-9a32-36e629397611Call me a wimp….

..but I need a pillow. Lately, I’ve been carrying my clothing in a stuff sack that has a silky feel on one side and a brushed surface on the other (fairly heavy for a stuff sack). I’ve used it as a pillow by stuffing extra clothing into it. That works as long as you have extra clothing to put into it. But the essence of Ultralight backpacking is to avoid  “extra” weight. I’ve just added the Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Travel Pillow to improve my sleep. I’ve ditched the stuff sack and will just keep it inside my sleeping bag. According to the advert, it weights 2.4 ounces. My scale says it’s 3 without the stuff sack. Grrrrrr


(With changes, this category now includes a Therm-a-Rest Stuff Sack Pillow, rust at 2 ounces. The total weight is now 60 ounces)

AT Backpacking Gear: Backpack

I’m preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. In addition to physical and mental preparation, I’m working through what gear to carry. My goal is to have less than 25 total pounds for a week’s hike, including food, water and fuel. To do this, I’ll need to have my base weight (non-consumable items) well below this total. This is key to Ultralight backpacking.

My new backpack, a Jam 70 from GoLite
My new backpack, a Jam 70 from GoLite

Most of the weight comes down to these four things, and I need their total to be under 10 pounds:

  • Backpack
  • Shelter system
  • Sleeping system
  • Cooking system (minus the food)


Today I focus on my choice of backpack, which is very key. It determines how much volume and weight you can carry. After a lot of consideration I bought a GoLite, Jam 70L, $120. It only holds 30 pounds, expands to 70 liters, but it’s made of “stronger-than-steel Dyneema® and Ripstop Nylon.” It also sheds water (which is not the same as waterproof, BTW). It weighs more than I wanted, though. The Jam 70L is listed at 31 ounces, but I weighed it at 33. I could have bought the 50L, but that would have only saved an ounce (and $10). With the unique “load lifters controls” at the bottom of the pack, I’ll have more room for bulky, winter gear during the colder months and can easily cinch up the bottom and sides during warmer months when the room isn’t needed. It’s important that I’m able to take up the slack in the pack from the bottom since I want the weight carried high on my body. A consideration that came up later is my desire to pack my down sleeping bag loosely. It’s not the bag that keeps you warm, it’s the trapped air. Keeping the bag loose means you don’t squash down the loft of the insulation every day by forcing it into a tiny stuff sack. But the most important consideration with any sleeping bag is keeping it DRY. It’s doubly important with a down bag.

No doubt, one of the reasons I bought this pack is that I had great experience with an earlier GoLite product, an early Sil-Nylon version. It was a bit fragile, but I’ve managed to patch it successfully (if not attractively)with duct tape. I always hated the orange color, though, so it’s a good thing that backpacking is not a fashion statement. The Jam was named Backpacker Magazine’s 2012 Best All-Around Ultralight Pack. That helped too.

Second Guessing

Thirty three ounces is 21% of my total goal weight for the key four items (10 pounds = 160 ounces). Is that too much?

Here are two thoughts I’ve mulled around:

1). I may have bought the wrong pack. My friend Skittles carries something the size of a day pack. Maybe I need to go back to my ugly orange pack? Or maybe he’s just a more rugged individual than I am? The weight of your pack is a measure of your fear. What am I afraid of? Well, being wet and cold and freezing to death. Yeah, that’s it.

2). Here’s a radical idea: Mike Clelland says in his book Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips to cut away anything you don’t need. “Get the scissors and go to town on your pack. This is one place you can really clear away some significant ounces.” Yikes!

Well, I have to admit that the straps on this thing are exceptionally long, so maybe I can trim them off. And I never use the inner hydration bladder pocket. (Maybe it works for you, but one leak is all you need to soak your sleeping bag and clothes.) Mike recommends deeper cuts—like modifying the opening  or removing the side compression straps—but I’m not sure I can make myself do that. Yet.

The straps on this pack are very long, so I snipped off what I didn't think I'd need, then sealed the edges. This is an ounce of excess.
The straps on this pack are very long, so I snipped off what I didn’t think I’d need, then sealed the edges. This is an ounce of excess in the bowl of my scale.


So I got out my scissors and began trimming extra-long straps and tags. I removed one set of the side compression straps that I thought were redundant and pretty useless. I found a few labels to remove. But it only added up to an ounce. Still, it’s an ounce. If you do this, remember to take an open flame to the end of the nylon straps after you trim. Just lightly melt the edge to seal them. Fast and easy with no sewing.

I’ve kept the hydration pocket for now, but it may go later. I’d like to keep it for storage.

Pack Cover

And, though I bought the pack cover that goes with the Jam, my good hiker friend Skittles assures me that no pack cover will keep a pack dry in a serious downpour. He recommends Glad compactor trash bags as a liner for the pack. They are durable, weigh about an ounce and are cheap (a box of 4 cost $3). The white color makes it easy to find things inside of them. Not taking the cover will save 4 ounces (But I spent $15 I didn’t need to).

DSC_0393And there are other advantages of the Glad trash compactor bags. They are large enough to carry my sleeping bag loosely while still leaving room for clothing and other items that must stay dry. It can also double as a small ground cover beneath me in the event of damp ground/flooring. And, though I’ve never tried it, I’ve read that they can go over the bottom of a sleeping bag to help keep it dry and keep you a bit warmer in very cold conditions. That’s a lot to get for one ounce of weight!


Hiking Gear: Water purifying system

I’m preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. In addition to physical and mental preparation, I’m working through what gear to carry. My goal is to have less than 25 total pounds for a week’s hike, including food, water and fuel. Today I focus on the water system.

Water Purifying System

The Appalachian Trail has lots of running water. Of course, it’s mostly running in rivers, springs, and ponds. So you need water carrying containers and a way to purify the water you find along the trail.

It's sturdy, but weights in at about 7ounces, before you add water. And you need two.
Sturdy, but weights about 7ounces, before you add water. And you need two.

I’ve long since ditched those nice fancy water bottles (at about 7 ounces each and $10-12) and just carry a couple empty soda bottles, plus a spare lid. It’s not fancy, but the bottles weight almost nothing—an ounce each when you remove the label and the little plastic ring near the lid. If I lose or damage one, I don’t feel badly. Plus, I’m recycling! For years I’ve been using the MSR Sweetwater Water Filter Pump and I’ve been very happy with it. When it clogs, it’s easy to take apart and clean out with the brush (included). A new system cost about $90 at REI. Replacement filters are about $45. BUT it weights 26 ounces (including filter, tubing, pre-filter, brush) and a backup filter is another 16 ounces. And I still have to carry an additional treatment to kill viruses, so add another 2 ounces! Based on my own hikes and on the advice of a longtime backpacker, Skittles, I believe that most of the water along the AT is fairly clean. My goal will be to use clear, sediment free water and treat it with something to kill virus and bacteria.

MSR Sweetwater filter pump I've used for years has been dependable, but it just weighs too much.
MSR Sweetwater filter pump I’ve used for years has been dependable, but it just weighs too much.

I will bring liquid water treatment—either a bleach based solution (like MSR SweetWater Purifier Solution – 2oz, $15 and I already own a bottle) or AquaMira (a tried and true hiker standard). I’m not big a fan of the taste of water treated with iodine tables –though that is the lightest option and cheapest option, at $7–but will consider them. I’ve eliminated the ideas of using one of the new Steripens. To facilitate easy water carriage and give me something to let particulates settle out, I’ve purchased a collapsible water bucket. It will do double duty to wash clothing or dishes (or me!) and is large enough to soak a foot in. I’ve purchased the Sea to Summit Folding Bucket – 10 Liters, $30 and won’t use the little carrying case, 2.8 ounces. This allows you to carry water back to camp for washing up. Convenient and you don’t contaminate the water source with soap or your icky body funk. Oh, and just in case I need to filter large particulates out, I’ll use this collapsible funnel and strain the water through my bandanna. What I hadn’t anticipated was how much easier this funnel would make it to fill the mylar bags in the Sawyer system (below),


I’ve switched to the new Sawyer squeezable filter. This is new to me and I used it for the first time on my November shake down hike. Worked great and I’m excited about it. I paid $49.95 at REI.

I'll opt for two recycled soda bottles. Remove the labels and even the little plastic ring. It all adds up.
I’ll opt for two recycled soda bottles. Remove the labels and even the little plastic ring. It all adds up.DSC_0387

Current total for Water System Category

Total: 11 ounces

Weight saved by not bringing the filter pump, 26 ounces, plus another 16 ounces if I had a spare replacement filter.








This is how Mike C deals with water treatment:


Gear to Hike the Appalachian Trail

This is a food scale that I already own, but a digital scale would allow me to be more precise.
This is a food scale that I already own, but a digital scale would allow me to be more precise.

I’m preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. In addition to physical and mental preparation, I’m working through what gear to carry. My goal is to have less than 25 total pounds for a week’s hike, including food, water and fuel. This is called Ultralight Backpacking. I’ve been interested in it for years, and it’s the best way to keep hiking into middle age and beyond. Here’s what’s included on gear list. I need to keep the weight of the top 4 items on this list under 10 pounds to make my goal :

  • Backpack
  • Sleep system
  • Shelter system
  • Cooking gear
  • Water purifying system
  • Clothing
  • First aid
  • Emergency items
  • Food
  • Fuel

Based on the recommendations of Mike Clelland‘s book, Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips, I‘m weighing each piece of equipment. I’m using a food scale I already owned, but if I had to buy new, I’d get a digital one. It’s far more accurate.

This is how Mike C. sees Ultralight Backpacking:

Physical preparations

I’m also preparing myself physically. Part of me thinks that it might not be possible to really get in shape for the challenge. Nothing will be enough! But I have to do what I can. At my age and fitness level it’s important that I don’t move too quickly and try to do too much. Currently this is my workout routine.

Monday-Friday, at least 3 days a week:

  • Walk 2 miles. The walk can be outside (with my pack) or on my treadmill (at an incline that will increase each week).

Saturday and Sunday:

  • Minimum 3 miles, outside, with 25 pound pack
  • Additionally, stretching, sit-ups, incline push-ups, and a couple upper body exercises with weight, at least 3 times a week.

Once a month, I will go on a test hike—Putting in 6-8 miles in the mountains with a pack each day. I’ll also use these trips to test equipment and new techniques.

Obviously, I’ll need to increase the mileage as time goes on, but frankly, with a fulltime job it will be hard to increase the weekday exercise a lot more.

Backpacking the Appalachian Trail, how to prepare

Want to hike the AT? It's easy. Just follow the white blazes....for 2,200 miles.
Want to hike the AT? It’s easy. Just follow the white blazes….for 2,200 miles.

One of my life goals is to backpack the entire Appalachian Trail in one year. I’ve asked for the time off from my job next year in order to accomplish it. Though the odds of getting the time off from work are low, I’m still preparing.

The Appalachian Trail is a foot path, almost 2,200 miles long, stretching from Georgia to Maine. I estimate it will take me 6 months to hike the whole trail (that’s an average of 12 miles a day, 7 days a week). A healthy 18 year old boy could probably do it in 4, but…well…I’m not 18. Why would I want to do this? I wish I could say. It will be physically difficult. I’ll be cold and hot, wet and tired much of the time. I’ll sleep in three walled shelters that leak or my tent set up on ground that is never as level as it seemed before the night started. This is a young man’s game and I am neither young nor male. It doesn’t make a bit of sense. But I still want to do it enough to give up six months of my life toward the goal. Go Figure.

In addition to physical and mental preparation, I need to work through:

  • Gear—all the items I’ll carry with me
  • Food—and how to resupply along the trail
  • Daily Mileage charts—including locations of water and shelters

I’m starting with gear and lots of walking. I’m using several resources to select gear, but I’ve got two main sources. 1. The guidance of my personal backpacking hero, Skittles–who I met on his first long distance hike of the AT(he’s done it twice along with several other major trails) and 2. The advice of Mike Clelland, who has a website and book: Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping.

backpacking, 2What is Ultralight?

Quoting Mike C: “It defines the base weight of a fully loaded backpack at the beginning of a trip. When you subtract the weight of consumables inside the pack (food, water & fuel) the remaining weight must be under ten pounds to be called ultralight.”

Short version: I can’t carry the 45 pound pack I used to. Ultralight is not just a goal, it’s a necessity. I’m not a kid anymore and I can’t abuse my body and still expect to finish. AND I want to actually enjoy this trip as much as possible. As I go forward, I’ll be posting about my changing list of gear and my goals to reduce the weight to just what I need to be safe, warm, dry and fed.

If you are interested in Ultralight backpacking, I highly recommend that you buy Clelland’s book and you watch all his videos. If you’re on the fence and not sure about the Ultralight idea, this is the video to watch. Mike shows you everything in his backpack: