5 Things No One Tells You About Packing for a Thru-hike

1. Stuff isn’t just stuff

“Pack light!” everyone says. It’s the night before I leave for Atlanta to start thru-hiking the AT. I have already boxed up my office and apartment, and now I’m deciding which items make the final cut for my pack.

“The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction,” wrote the fourteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart. How much more can I subtract? I wonder. Please, can’t I pack those hand-warmers and that peony lipstick? I’m pretty sure my soul would not grow well without trimmed toenails, so the clippers stay.

Stuff = not just stuff. Every piece I leave behind, every memento someone handed me saying, “I thought this would be light enough for your pack!” every essential article of clothing that must be returned to a drawer- these things carry weight. Possessions symbolize comfort, safety, and connection to places and people I love. What will I regret bringing? What will I regret leaving behind?

2. No one really has this all figured out

I’m told some prospective thru-hikers make elaborate spreadsheets in which they itemize every piece of gear down to the ounce, and then total it up and see if it meets the desired total pack weight. They meticulously weigh each thing and make judicious choices about what will optimize their thru-hike performance.

I am not those people. I like to figure it out as I go, gathering advice from sources I trust and then hoping for the best. When it comes to numbers and strategies and quantitative thinking in general, my eyes sort of glaze over and I start looking for chocolate.

But tonight, I am wishing I were one of those people. The kind who did not drop calculus class one week into senior year. The kind who maybe tested out their total pack weight before the 11th hour.

Here is what I suspect, though: the whole gear thing shakes out differently for each person, and most folks off-load things as they go. Like going to college or leaving for a foreign country, there’s no way to really know until you get there. I’m still whittling down my pack, but I’m not panicking.

3. You need a few things you love, and only you know what they are

Can you go without a journal? Yes. But I’m not. Could I leave behind the little fortune-cookie-style strips of paper that my friends wrote blessings on? Maybe, but no. Could I give up the little St. Bernard medallion from my neighbors because up till this week I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a patron saint of hikers? Sure. But is this really the time to turn down divine help?

4. Ask for help

People know things I don’t. This is such a relief. I agonized over how clumsy and sprawling my pack was (which caused back-pain just walking up and down the stairs of my parents’ house), and then my nurse sister-in-law and engineer brother and dad got involved and it changed everything. They are pros at loading dishwashers, as well as car trunks full of gear for two kids, and they spent close to an hour rearranging my pack Jenga-style. When I put it on again the center of gravity shifted and I felt my freak-out subside. I’ll keep asking for help along the way. People like to show what they know.

5. It’s just stuff

Stuff = more than stuff, but it’s also just stuff. If I miss something or send something back or curse the day I packed that one heavy piece of gear (spot GPS, I’m looking at you), so what? It’s not permanent.

In the end, stuff isn’t what’s going to carry me through the AT. Soul will. Mine, others’, and that of the trail itself.

So subtract away. And let the soul underneath start to sprout.

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