On my 2019 Appalachian thru-hike, I had a mix of thrifted, hand-me-down, and new (mid-range) gear. The choices were dependent on size, style, and whether or not I was willing to splurge. Overall, I was satisfied with how well everything held up. That being said, I’ll be going slightly lighter for my PCT trek in 2022. A lot of people focus on base weight, including a few guys in my trail family, but that was never something I worried about.
I started the trail with 38-40 pounds on my back. By the end, I was down to around 30-32 pounds with food and water. There was only one time during the entire 149 days when I actually ate everything in my food bag before reaching town. My appetite varied too much for me to nail down an eating schedule, and I always wanted extra food in case I needed a pick-me-up. I always had enough to share, which was something that became more important to me as the trip progressed.
During the hike, I mailed back some clothes, kitchen items, and other miscellaneous gear. Living with everything on my back made me seriously consider each item I owned. I am not convinced that all the ultralight gear and gadgets are for me, but I’ll probably upgrade my Big Three gear items (pack, sleeping bag, tent), before my next hike.
My Big Three
I bought my pack, sleeping bag, and tent about a year before my intended start date. REI was having great sales and I wanted to mentally commit to the hike and my planned timing. None of my Big Three were close to ultralight, but they were durable, comfortable, and got me thorough 2,200+ miles without much wear and tear. I also bought everything at least 20% off, if not more, by waiting for deals and purchasing in advance.
I bought this pack exactly a year before my start date. I knew Osprey bags were known for their durability, and when I tried it on at REI, I didn’t even realize there was a sandbag inside (the suspension is that good). The only negative is that the pack is around four pounds empty. After cleaning it with some soap after my hike, it still looks almost new. (*Linked version is the updated model.)
Big Agnes Rattlesnake SL2 Tent (Discontinued)
I wanted a tent that didn’t break my back, had two doors, and had enough room to sleep with my gear. After some hunting and waiting for sales, I found the one I was looking for. I didn’t see the purpose in buying a one-person tent since I wanted space for my pack inside (or to camp with a friend), but I wasn’t willing to carry more than three or four pounds for a shelter. I could have gone a little smaller and lighter, but it ended working out as Hops, my boyfriend whom I met on the trail, and I decided to split my tent and mail his home. It ended up being just roomy enough for the two of us, though I’d challenge anyone to live with their partner in 27 square feet. The Rattlesnake is discontinued, but this model is close.
I tend to sleep cold, so I wanted a warm bag plus a liner to get me through the early April nights. I chose this bag because it was well-reviewed on The Trek, often goes on sale, and is water-repellent. Eventually Hops and I switched to using just the bag (unzipped) with a twin size sheet.
I used an inflatable mummy-style pad for extra inflation and comfort. It lasted all the way up until my second-to-last week before deflating too much to use during the night.
Heading to Springer.
Toiletries included wet wipes, dry shampoo, sunscreen, toothpaste, toothbrush, Dr. Bronner’s, bug spray, first aid kit (stripped), Tiger Balm, and a tiny mascara for town. Thanks to recent Lasik surgery and sensitive eyes, I nearly always wore sunglasses.
Mirror / hairbrush combo: I don’t brush my hair anyway, but for some reason thought it might be useful in the woods. I still don’t brush my hair and can’t figure out why I carried it through two states.
Sports Bra: My wool sports bra was one of my best clothing finds. I wore this nearly every day, and it doubled as a standalone top during hot days. It was never itchy and never smelled as much as my other clothes.
Warm-Weather Shirt and Cold-Weather Shirt: I had two different hiking shirts. A Columbia tee for the first half, and a long-sleeve button-up for the second half. All the guys were getting cool button-up shirts, and I liked the extra sun protection.
Hiking Skort: After several days of rain in a row, my thrifted black shorts wouldn’t dry. At the next town, I threw them in the first garbage can and bought a quick-dry skort. I loved this skort because of its light weight and speedy drying. (*Similar model linked.)
Smartwool Shirt and Leggings: I’m not UL ,but I firmly believe in one hiking and one sleeping outfit. This wool ensemble stayed (mostly) clean and odorless. On a handful of very cold mornings, I doubled up and wore the leggings over my skort. (*Linked version is the updated model.)
Darn Tough Socks: I used Darn Toughs throughout due to their durability. I only needed to swap a pair in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, which I attribute largely to the use of sock liners. I preferred my shorter socks due to their ability to dry quicker, but the taller ones kept more debris out.
Sock Liners: I credit my blister-free toes to wearing sock liners every day. I carried two pairs and replaced them halfway through once the first pair developed holes at the balls of my feet.
Laundry Dress: I found a lightweight, quick-dry dress at a thrift store and carried it with me for most of the trail. Weighing less than a bandana, it was the perfect laundry day or town outfit.
ExOfficio Boy Shorts: Skip the undies and get a skort or shorts with a liner. I kept these around for swimming and to use as sleeping bottoms on hot nights.
Marmot Knife Edge Rain Jacket: I kept my rain jacket for the entire trip, but I often used it only for warmth. Unless the weather was freezing, I preferred to hike in the rain and then change into warmer clothes at camp. The pit zips were absolutely essential and made a huge difference in terms of usability/versatility as a layer.
REI Magma Down Hoodie (Discontinued): I got this hooded puffy on sale and kept it for the entire hike. In the summer months, it was my pillow. In the cooler months early on, I snuggled up under the hood. I liked the zip pockets and water resistance, plus it packed down well. Similar jacket here.
Thrupack Trail Days Hat: I wore this on rainy days (and was given the rapper alter ego nickname Y2K). No regrets.
I carried a few bandanas, usually one on hand to keep the hair out of my face, and one for random use.
Black Spyder Zip-Up: I’d gotten a Spyder quarter-zip from a work ski trip, which was the perfect intermediate layer for cold mornings. However, I found myself taking it off after 20-30 minutes of hiking and ended up switching to my rain jacket as an extra layer on chilly days.
Camp Socks: I had a third pair of long socks for wearing at night, but I decided they weren’t necessary. I regretted mailing them home several times after the fact, and I will probably get a lighter third pair for my next hike.
Athletic Leggings and Skort: I originally started hiking with a pair of black leggings and a black skort, thinking I’d switch them each day. That was too much work and too many layers, so I sent both home and hiked in shorts for the first two months.
Gaiters: I had a pair of gaiters for the first week or so, but they didn’t keep my shoes dry, and I didn’t have a problem with dirt in my shoes. I mailed these home from Franklin, North Carolina.
Hat and Gloves: I started with a hat and a pair of gloves I found at home. The gloves didn’t fit through the straps on my trekking poles (oops), and I ended up mailing them back.
I started in a pair of boots, which were amazingly supportive but would never dry. In Damascus, I switched to men’s Altra Timps (because my feet are huge), which I ended up wearing for the rest of the trail. I wasn’t too happy with my initial purchase, the original Timps, but they were my only option after I threw out my boots. I later bought a pair of Timps 1.5, which seemed to solved all my complaints and are my current go-to hiking shoes.
For camp, I had a pair ofTevas. I liked how sturdy they were, but I will definitely be looking for lighter sandals for the PCT.
Pocket Rocket: I got an MSR Pocket Rocket set, which I’d used years ago on my first backpacking trip. I kept the stove throughout, but I sent home the pot, holder, and mug. Originally, I had a tea mug, AND this pot, AND a third food-only pot… because I like to keep my tea separate and I didn’t trust my cleaning abilities in the woods. It took months of nagging from my trail family before I switched up my cooking gear.
Toaks Pot: This replaced my heavier pot setup. Once I started cold soaking dinners, it doubled as a tea mug.
Harney and Sons Queen Catherine Teaand Strainer: While I didn’t make tea every morning like I’d intended, I absolutely loved days when I could stop for a warm cup. You have to pick and choose your trail comforts, and I was happy to hike in one shirt in exchange for some nice tea (and caffeine) on occasion.
Sea to Summit Titanium Spork: There’s a reason almost every hiker has one. Get it and use it for everything.
Sawyer Squeeze: I kept my filter for the entire hike, always treated my water, and backflushed it two or three times.
Flint: I brought this because I knew it would always work to start my stove, though perhaps not on the first try, and because I’d never used lighters. Still in great working condition.
Most of my original gear was stuff my family already owned (two brothers in Boy Scouts). I sent home the food pot, MSR pot, and separate tea mug, as well as my sister’s Nalgene in favor of Smartwater bottles (they’re just too convenient). I also had a combination silverware tool and leatherman I’d received from a former student I tutored. I carried it as long as I could, but it was ultimately too heavy.
Black Diamond Trekking Poles: I carried these for my whole hike. The nylon netting eventually came off, but by that point I’d gotten used to using these more as posts, especially going downhill. I might think about an adjustable height pole for next time, but I did like how light and compact these were. (*Linked version is the updated model.)
Anker Battery Charger: I bought this years ago for traveling, and it has never let me down. As long as it’s dry, it can charge my phone several times if the phone’s on airplane mode.
Assorted ZipLock and Garbage Bags: These saved my phone and gear on so many occasions.
Thrupack Fanny Pack: I loved having my phone, lip balm, sunscreen, ziplocks, and who knows what else right in front of me at all times. It also doubled as my extremely fashionable handbag on town days.
Tiny Pepper Spray: I promised my grandma I would carry this for the whole hike, and I did. It was about the size of my SPF lip balm, sat in my fanny pack, and was never touched.
Opsak: I liked keeping my food in an odor-proof bag to cut down on mice activity. There were never known bear problems where I camped, but there were plenty of mouse attacks, and this helped.
REI Pack Cover: I kept this handy and used it on every rainy day. The cover made a huge difference in keeping my bag from getting waterlogged and smelly, and it held up for my whole hike.
Folding Bluetooth Keyboard: I bought one for traveling years ago and kept it for nearly the whole hike. I don’t like typing on my phone with my thumbs, and this was a huge difference in writing my Trek posts and keeping my daily journal updated. The battery life is incredible.
Headlamp: This one was multicolored, functional, and only ran out of batteries once. A definite must.
Sit Pad: I started with a foam sit pad, which I gave to a friend after winning a Big Agnes pad at a raffle at Uncle Johnny’s. I liked the barrier on cold and wet days, and the extra cushion under my hips at night.
Umbrella: I started with an Amazon Basics folding umbrella, which finally broke a during a torrential downpour heading into Standing Bear. My tramily found a Gossamer Gear umbrella in Damascus at a gas station, and since mine had been destroyed, I added this lightweight version to my ensemble. (Boorah: If this was yours and you forgot it, let me know!) This made a difference on rainy and sunny days (no sunburn), and walking around town on zeros.
Ultralight Trowel: I started with a plastic one, but I switched to a lightweight version at Neel Gap.
Ursack: I liked the Ursack early on for holding my food and being rodent-proof, but I always had more food than would fit. The weight was ultimately too heavy to justify, though on shorter trips (or with better planning during resupply), I’d probably keep it around.
Kindle: There were nights early during my hike where I would hole up in the shelter or my tent and read before bed, or first thing in the morning, but I started appreciating a faster camp-to-trail transition at the beginning of my day. Plus, there were so many people to meet in the evenings that I often preferred to talk, or I got to be so tired I’d fall asleep right away.
Headphones: I’ve used Bluetooth earbuds for years, because you can use the buds independently. I only ever use one at a time, so the battery life has never been a problem, and they stay in even when I’m sweating. Later on, I found it difficult to get into most media and spent a lot of time just walking in nature.
For all the potential hikers out there, it’s much less about what you bring and much more about your attitude. If you want to carry a three-liter wine bladder through the Smokies because it makes you happy, do it! If hiking is your passion and you’re always cutting ounces, that’s great too. People have done the AT with ultralight gear and with vintage, external frame packs. It’s a chance to figure out what’s truly essential in your life and to make adjustments accordingly: what works for me might help you think through your gear, but everyone will always have a different list.