Thru-Hiking Season is Near – Do You Have the Right Gear?
Whether you are thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, or the Appalachian Trail, all three organizations that represent the trails recommend you start your northbound journeys somewhere in the month of April.* That means if you are considering any of the monuments hikes, hopefully you have started packing and planning by now. And to check over your work, or perhaps gain a little insight on your next big adventure, here for you today, for whatever trail you decide to blaze, is a checklist for the gear needed to make the big hike:
The Basics + the 10 Essentials:
Let’s start with the basics and then jump into the “10 Essentials” of wilderness travel. Keep in mind that all 3 thru-hikes will have you traveling roughly for 5 months covering 2,500 miles of trail, so keeping your gear light is key. Do what you can to shave weight from your pack, and you’re feet will thank you at day’s end:
No need to bring the 4-man party size tent on this hike. On many spots through the hikes, particularly the hutted trails of the A.T., you won’t even have to bust out your tent, but having some sort of lightweight shelter is still necessary. Check out the CatBirdTarp TM1 for a great lightweight option that is essentially a specifically designed tarp that utilizes your hiking poles to keep it off the ground. If you want some more protection from the ground, bugs, and weather check out Black Diamond’s Firstlight Tent.
Some sort of insulation between you and the ground is important to a good night’s sleep, and Cascade Design’s Therm-a-Rest series has a good share of the market in lightweight sleeping pads. Check out their Z Lite series for some of the lightest pads money can buy. As for sleeping bags, for the most part of your journey you’ll be sleeping in hot weather, but atop mountain peaks and at the tail ends of your trip you might want a little more warmth. To see a wide variety of lightweight sleeping bags, Marmot has a great line to choose from.
Although the first thing that might flash to your mind when considering hiking shoes is the iconic, ankle-high, long laced hiking boot, for the long distance traveler you might consider going a little lighter. With the amount of steps and incline you’ll inevitably encounter, lightweight hiking shoes from Keen or Merrell will treat you right.
The 10 Essentials
Navigation (Maps and Compass)
It can’t be stressed enough that you know how to use your compass (recommended: Suunto M-3) and that you take a look at your maps before you head out (available from trail websites**) before you hit the dusty trail. Even though, particularly with the A.T., a lot of the trail will be well traveled, it’s still important to know where you’re at concerning mountain passes, resupply points, water access, and trip planning.
Seemingly simple, sun protection is an important item that can be overlooked even by the most proficient hikers. Battle the rays in a variety of ways including a stylish Tilley Outback Hat, a UPF hiking shirt from Mountain Hardware, some sunglasses from Ray Ban, and instead of packing the weighty and messy tube of sunscreen, consider purchasing these lightweight backpacking bottles from Sea to Summit.
Insulation (Extra Clothing)
Clothes can be the heaviest part of your pack if you bring the wrong things. Start from your feet and work your way up, bring only what you need and consider the power of wool when considering its ability to miss out on a few laundry loads. Recommend system:
- Socks: SmartWool
- Wool Undies and baselayers: Patagonia
- Hat: Outdoor Research
- Illumination (Lights and Lanterns) – Leave the Maglite at home for your thru-hike and instead consider picking up a lighter, more versatile headlamp like the Tikka XP from Petzl. Just remember to pack either a backup or some extra batteries so you don’t ever get lost in the dark.
- First-Aid Supplies – The most important thing is to not only carry first-aid supplies, but to know how to use them. Adventure Medical Kit’s line of Ultralight and Watertight medical kits have a lot of everything you might need while keeping your load light.
- Fire Starter – Take a lesson from London’s “To Build a Fire”, the inability to make a fire can have costly consequences. And even though things shouldn’t get that dramatic for you on your thru-hike, having quick means to fire building should be high on your list. Check out this Nemo Equipment blog article to get a couple of different product ideas for your backcountry fire starter.
- Repair Kit & Tools – This will vary between people and expertise, but like all gear you want to keep it light. Consider a McNett Tactical Sewing Kit, extra shoelaces, an extra filter for you water purifier, and top it off with a Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman; and you should be set for everything that is thrown your way.
- Nutrition (extra food)- Another item that will vary between each hiker, things to keep in mind when food shopping include weight, calories (you’ll be burning a lot), and time between resupplies (typically 1 week). Mountain House has a great variety of freeze-dried meals, and nutrient dense snacks like Clif Bars can hold you steady.
- Hydration (extra water) – Staying properly hydrated on the trail is not only essential for your everyday living, but is key to finishing your thru-hike. Potable Aqua is a great lightweight resource to keep as an emergency backup or main water purification systems, and to avoid the iodine taste, Katadyn’s Ultralight Series can save the day.
- Emergency Shelter – Already mentioned in the basics section, a good tent or tarp is necessary for all 3 trails, but beyond that some additional protection from the elements can go a long way. Specifically a rain jacket, like the lightweight Marmot Minimalist Jacket, can keep you dry and happy all day long.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to planning your thru-hike. Before you head out there are many things to consider. Namely, your route and resupply points need to be known before you head out. Some hikers mails themselves resupply packs at designated post offices, while others carry a debit card to purchase new supplies at trading posts, and most hikers do a combination of the two.
Non-hiking life needs to be considered as well, including letting family and friends know how to get a hold of you, canceling your Netflix and putting your auto insurance on hold, setting up automatic bill payments, planning your arrival and departure from trail heads, and the million other things that will be still be happening as your enjoying nature. Plan ahead to play free in the great outdoors.
*Exact Start Dates:
- Pacific Crest Trail – Northbound: late April to early May ; Southbound: late June
- Continental Divide Trail – NoBo: late April ; SoBo: mid-June
- Appalachian Trail- NoBo: early March to mid-April ; SoBo: June to mid-July
** Trail Maps:
- Pacific Crest Trail Maps and Guidebooks
- Continental Divide Trail Maps, Guide, and Calendar
- Appalachian Trail Mapping and GIS Data
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