There’s a crazy range of what people believe is necessary on a backpacking trip. First, you have Jerry. You’ll see Jerry hiking with a 75L pack, sleeping bag dangling behind him and maybe a full-sized skillet. The second individual you may see is Carl. I once ran into a dude, now called Carl, on the Appalachian Trail doing a thru-hike. He had one of those drawstring bags you used to tote your middle school gym clothes around in. That was his entire pack. He was living out of that for 6 months straight. Carl was an animal, and also was not amused at how many questions I was asking him about his gear. I’d love to be that lightweight, but I currently have a base weight of 16 pounds which is a happy medium. Here’s a breakdown of what will get you through a backpacking trip:*
A little about ultralight backpacking
Ultralight backpacking, on a certain level, is about how far you’re willing to sacrifice comfort/ease for weight. For example, going for lighter weight shelters (bivvy, tarp etc.) can sometimes mean it will be less durable or less comfortable. If you forgo the mesh of a tent, you could fall prey to thirsty mosquitoes waiting for an ultralighter to naively set up camp on one of their settlements. So, I definitely recommend going on small trips to test out how far you’re willing to go. Packing your backpack should be mostly about what you’re comfortable with using.
You don’t have to go as big as you think. I carried my AT gear in a 36L and a 40L. Osprey is a classic that hikers choose. They’re starting to branch out into lighter bags. My initial bag was an Osprey Kyte 36L, however, which weighed almost 4 pounds. I swapped it out for a Gossamer Gear Gorilla 40L (about 28 oz) in Virginia and did not regret my decision at all.
Quilts are a sleeping bag without the mummy hood and the back of the sleeping bag. In a normal sleeping bag, you’ll squish the down that is underneath you while you sleep. Reducing the loft (aka you squishing the sleeping bag under your butt), decreases the down’s ability to keep you warm. So, a quilt doesn’t even bother having the part you would normally squish–it relies upon your sleeping pad to keep your body heat circulating within the bag. Also, down packs in smaller than synthetic bags which will save you pack space. Once you get used to them, quilts are awesome. I used the Nemo Siren 30 Degree Quilt. Again, check the weather before you go out. Don’t be caught sleeping under a 30 degree quilt in 10 degree weather (trust me, it’s not a walk in the park).
(Picture from https://www.nemoequipment.com/product/siren/)
Sleeping pad preferences are based on a few things: comfort, R-value, durability and packability/weight. The most comfortable pads are the inflatable ones, but they are at a higher risk of popping if you’re putting them through a lot. Self inflatable pads that utilize air and foam are heavy, but are still usable if they spring a leak. I ended up with the Z-Lite Thermarest and cut it in half. Personally, I was able to sleep well on it, it was small and it didn’t weigh much. The R-value was a bit low for how cold the hike was in the beginning, but I still managed. R-value is a ranking system that describes how well the pad will insulate you. (My pad is the yellow egg-carton looking thing on the rock in the midst of that gear dump)
Hikers can go stove-less which will save space, but not necessarily weight. If you have a stove, your food will most likely be lighter since it can be dehydrated. I know I love a warm meal at the end of a hard day’s hike. So I packed the MSR Pocket Rocket and the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Soloist Cookset (I removed the mug).
There are a wide variety of options: freestanding tent, non-freestanding tent, bivy or tarp. A freestanding tent uses the classic poles you normally see, and you do not absolutely have to stake it into the ground. A non-freestanding tent utilizes ropes and poles with which you are required to strap/stake the tent to the surrounding environment. A bivy is basically a tube slightly larger than your body. It has waterproof lining underneath you and mesh above your head held up by a pole. A tarp is a tarp. You hang/strap/stake it down, and it does not provide bug protection. I kept it safe with the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1.
Filter System: There are tablets, chlorine and filters. The filter route doesn’t require a wait time, and it’s usually pretty simple. I went with the Katadyn BeFree, but most people used the Sawyer Squeeze. Both work really well, but I was kind of obsessed with my Katadyn. Also, the bags that come with the Sawyer filter tend to break easily while my Katadyn bag lasted like a champ. (My friends, below, are using the Sawyer Squeeze.)
With a lighter(ish) pack, I decided to go with trail runners for my thru-hike. I loved the lightweight support and the quick drying time. I tried both the Brooks Caldera and the Altra Lone Peaks. The Brooks did well with cushion and the Altras did well with creating room for your toes to spread out in the wider toe box. To accompany the shoe, I donned Dirty Girl gaiters to make sure no dirt or sticks would get inside my shoes. It may take some time to let your ankles get used to trail runners. Don’t get too upset after the 500th time you roll your ankle; I promise, it’ll get better.
Side Note: CAMP SHOES. Some people are vehemently against these things, but after a two-week rain storm, I had to try some. With lackluster lightweight options in the Field and Stream, I was about to leave empty handed. My mom then chucked a pair of Sperry-looking shoes across the aisle and into my hand. It was a miracle. These things make you look a little douchey, but they’re so light, comfortable and dry quickly. Bonus, they’re not too bad for going into town and looking like a normal human. Check these Columbia shoes out.
Leki poles have a great lifespan and warranty. Once the tips are worn down, you simply replace the tips as opposed to buying all new poles. Poles help distribute the weight on your back, and they also save your knees a bit on the descents. I don’t like to hike without them.
Wool. Wool. Wool. It sounds scratchy, but it’s not. Wool is a natural fiber that regulates temperature, and it will keep you warm despite finding yourself drenched from a storm. It will, however, wear out a bit faster than synthetic materials. Always have one set of base layers to wear while hiking and one pair to keep dry in your pack for when you get to camp. Note: the green shirt you’ve seen in basically every single picture of me on the AT was wool, and I wore that all the way from Georgia to Maine.
Fleece is a great way to stay warm while wet as well. I had a Patagonia R3 hoody for the entire AT, and had my puffy shipped to me for the colder areas. Make sure to pack a buff, gloves and a beanie for the cold.
Even through snow storms, I did not carry an official winter jacket. I put on my base layers, my fleece, (sometimes) my puffy and slapped my rain gear on top of those layers to keep the snow and cold away. I had a lightweight rain jacket and some cheap REI rain pants. I sent my rain pants home as soon as the weather started to be consistently warm. So, check the weather for your adventure before deciding to opt out of the rain pants.
The Miscellaneous Essentials
You can bring a map and compass, use the AllTrails app or snag the Guthook app.
I know you’re in the wilderness, but don’t let basic hygiene go out the window. Pack the toothbrush, toothpaste and hand sanitizer. What I also found worth the weight were baby wipes; ladies, I don’t know about you, but I get pimples between my boobies if I don’t clean them for a while. There’s also TP. You can use leaves instead of toilet paper if you’re feeling ballsy (click HERE for a pro/con list of what options are available for your wiping duties). What is not mentioned in that post is something I heard about on the AT. Through the grapevine, I discovered that someone started using a Mio bottle as a bidet. They rinsed and cleaned the bottle then filled it with water and proceeded to squirt their butt in attempts to clean themselves. It’s an idea I’m intrigued by, but cannot attest to how well it works as I’ve not been adventurous enough to try the bougie backpacker bidet.
You could use your phone light, but some areas (ex. Mount Katahdin) will fine you if you have to be rescued and do not have a headlamp with you. Also, who knows if you’ll decide to night hike or not.
First Aid Kit:
Just throw in ibuprofen, medical tape, gauze and some Neosporin-type cream. Anytime you need items like a splint or a tourniquet, you can create those from clothing or sticks in the forest. Get creative and you won’t have to carry those heavy and awkwardly shaped wraps and splints.
Whether you go the natural route or go the DEET route, you will need bug repellent. Do it for your sanity, please.
I didn’t buy all of this gear overnight. You look at the prices, and I’m sure that your eyes start to bug out from your face. I had a lot of gear from when I was younger, I asked for gear for my birthday and Christmas and used any deals I could find. Building a gear set that you’re stoked on may take a while, but it’s worth it in the end. Feel free to hit me up with any questions, or let me know what gear you’re in love with yourself!
Nice write up. I’m hiking the PCT in long sections and have a very similar kit, although my next purchase will be a lightweight pack to replace my deuter 60+10.
Thanks! Jealous you’re getting to experience the PCT. That’s cool to hear it’s a lot of similar stuff considering the extremely different terrain. What’s your favorite/most useful piece of gear that you’ve used on the PCT?
Hmmm….. I love the difference my Dirty Girl gaiters make in keeping crap out of my shoes. My hiking poles are important for me too — for taking some of the load off my legs and more than once they’ve kept me from face-planting.
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Super informative post! I thought I couldn’t get into backpacking because I’d have to buy a bunch of new gear–looks like I already have some of what I need. 🙂
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Thanks! Yo good to hear you have most of the gear set. Let’s gooooooooo 🙌🏻💪🏻🏕️