How to Pack for a Backpacking Trip

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, once 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.

The Gear

Pack
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.

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Sleeping Bag/Quilt:
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).

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(Picture from https://www.nemoequipment.com/product/siren/)

Sleeping Pad:
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)

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Stove System:
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).
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Shelter:
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.

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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.)

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The Wearables

Shoes:
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.

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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.

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Poles:
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.
Base Layers:
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.

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Mid Layers:
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.

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Outer Layers:
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.

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The Miscellaneous Essentials

Map/GPS:
You can bring a map and compass, use the AllTrails app or snag the Guthook app.
Toiletries:
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.
Headlamp:
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.
Insect repellent:
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 I also utilized friends with gear discounts. 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!

*Please note that this is based upon what worked for me. Everyone is different, and you should truly “hike your own hike.” I’m writing this to just give ideas of gear in case anyone is a bit lost on where to start.

How to Overcome Dumb Thoughts of Inadequacy and do the Outdoorsy Thing

There you are. Staring at a picture of Alex Honnold completely smashing a route, with zero ropes of course, and you’re wishing you could rock climb yourself. It’s a feeling of desiring to do it, not knowing how to get into it and also not wanting people to think you’re an entirely incapable noob. What if you go to the climbing gym or hit up some outdoor routes and you suck? Isn’t that embarrassing? I know I’ve felt this way, but it’s time to slap yourself out of it and, thanks Nike, “just do it.” Here’s how:

Take on an IDGAF attitude

Does it really matter what Joe from the gym thinks about your form? Do you care what Lindsay thinks about your ski line? No. Why does it matter? If they judge you for not being perfect then they’re not worth being around. Don’t judge yourself because you feel like others are judging you. So what if you look like a Jerry? If you’re out there trying, that’s all that matters.

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Find the right people

Find those people who are willing to take a few moments and help you with a new route, that scary ski jump or a technical climb. The outdoors community is mostly supportive and helpful. Everyone wants to share the excitement and love they feel when they get outside. Realize that people are stoked to help you learn and improve.

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Understand that it’s awesome to have a challenging project

Sure, you see Bob killing a climb or being able to ride more miles than you, but you have the excitement of working up to that. It’s fun to work toward a goal. There’s that drive and sense of purpose that wakes you up in the morning and leaves the adrenaline pumping for hours.

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Send it in your own way

You finally reach the top of the 5.9 climb that you’ve been working on since you started. It might have been a shaky send, but you’re there. You did it. That’s awesome. Revel in the awesome.

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Celebrate the send

Tell your friends. Grab a margarita. Do a cannonball into a lake with a war cry bellowing from your mouth. You achieved something no matter how small of a step it might seem in the scheme of getting to be at Honnold-level rad.

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Just put on those helmets, those boots, those skis and those harnesses. Leave self-doubt behind, or at least pretend until you forget all about the doubt. Breathe that fresh mountain air with some helpful friends and send it the way you want to send it.

How to Break Down a Thru Hike

The plans are set, the pack is stuffed and your shoes have been worn in just enough. As you start in on the hike and you have countless hours to think about how many more miles you need to go, it gets overwhelming and the enormity of it can almost make you stop in your tracks. Occasionally to the dismay of my hiking partners, this is how I’ve dealt with making a huge goal seem approachable.

1) Don’t count miles

Yes, you have to make sure you have enough food to get you to the next town. That requires a miles-per-day estimation, of course. While I’m walking, though, I try not to think of where we are in the day. I don’t want to know how far the gap we just passed is from our final destination. If I had the chance, I’d probably go nuts checking Guthook for how far I’d gone in the 10 minutes since I last looked. I’m not trying to make myself crazier than I already am.

2) Get excited for town

With lots of hard work being pushed into each day and mountain summit, it’s sometimes hard to feel like you’ve kicked back. The thru is obviously fun and challenging, but even the most serious hiker needs a break and time to over-eat food that isn’t ramen or Snickers. Town days help you to collect yourself, rest and balance the tough with the easy. I may or may have not used this time to eat full pizzas and take multiple naps in a day.

3) Collect conversations

The trail takes on a whole new meaning when you start focusing on the amazing people you meet. There are a huge range of people who are stupid enough to walk 2,000+ miles with nothing but a tent and some jerky. We’ve met people from many different countries, veterans with wild stories of their pasts, individuals using the trail to heal themselves and some who are just using it as a placeholder before starting another chapter of life. Nearly everyone on the trail has been friendly and fun to meet. At the shelter each night, we gather around the picnic table with our Pocket Rockets and JetBoils to swap stories over camp food.

4) Embrace the struggles

When we hiked 13 miles in a foot of snow then realized we had to hike 13 more miles on the closed road into town to resupply, we were feeling rough. The road was snow mixed with sections of complete sheets of black ice. All of a sudden, one of us would flail our arms, wipe out and slide down the road. Through the wind, snow and pain, I couldn’t help but laugh at how we looked ridiculous when we fell.

5) Don’t plan ahead

If I wake up every morning on the trail planning the final day when I hike up Katahdin, I’ll go nuts. Each day is (here comes the cheese) its own journey, and only looking at the end result is going to diminish the weird, hard and crazy times between Springer and Katahdin.

It still feels like we’re babies on the trail with having only made it what looks like just an inch on the big map. But now that we’ve made it to Hot Springs, NC and conquered the Smokies, it’s nice to know we have some miles and stories under our hipbelts. The stat that keeps getting thrown around is that 50% of hikers drop out of the AT at Hot Springs. Luckily, we’re some of the crew that’s carrying on.

Hit up my Instagram for more frequent updates: @cdismukes