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Snowstorms, weeks of rain, humid mid-Atlantic summers: Your gear goes through a lot on a thru-hike of the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. The rocky, rugged path has more elevation gain than any of the other long trails, and thru hikers’ gear needs to be light enough to carry, but versatile and tough enough for the four- to six-month journey.
On a thru-hike across fourteen states, even the smallest flaw becomes amplified. The too-short strap or the unstable pot stand can turn from annoying to injury-causing (I have the scars from my backpack to prove it).
Small and light is the ticket here: Thru-hikers spend less time in camp than the typical backpacker, so they gravitate towards gear that keeps them happy on their feet.
Everyone’s different, and the best gear is the gear that works with your skills, experience, age, fitness levels, and health conditions. But on the AT, there are some experiences everyone will have: you’re going to get wet, live with bugs, and you’ll almost certainly have to slog through some hot, humid climbs up mountains.
On both my thru-hikes of the AT, I chose to use lightweight and even ultralight gear, which reduced the pain and exhaustion of climbing steep, rocky, rooty terrain. For me, the AT was hard enough as it is. No need to have heavier gear to make it even harder.
A word of warning: lightweight gear only works if you know how to use it. Before starting your thru, test all your new gear to see how it works, both on its own and as part of your system. These time-tested picks are a great place to start.
Try to keep these major items below 2 pounds each.
As for any long trip, your pack should be the final thing you buy: Get your other gear first, and test it out together. You’re looking for a model that fits you well and doesn’t rub, which can leave nasty abrasions, blisters, and even scars. I like the Gossamer Gear Gorilla or its bigger cousin, the Mariposa, which are only two pounds but, with abrasion-resistant 70-denier ripstop or 100-denier Robic, reinforced with 100- or 200-denier high-strength nylon, are burly enough to manage the food carry across Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness. Tip: On the AT, rain is inevitable. Waterproof your bag with a pack liner like a trash compactor bag.
The AT is famous for its wooden three-sided shelters, which are generally spread out around every 10 miles. Beyond that, however, the rocky, rooty, rugged terrain on the AT makes it hard to find a good tent spot. That’s one reason why I prefer a hammock shelter on the AT—good setup spots for them abound. Regardless of whether you like hanging in trees or staying on the ground, a good AT shelter is lightweight, durable, easy-to-set up, keeps out bugs, and holds up to storms. The all-in-one Hennessy Hammocks Hyperlite Zip is a good balance of weight, price, and durability. At less than 2 pounds, it includes bug netting and a tarp to keep out rain. For those who prefer a traditional tent, the freestanding two-person Tarp Tent Double Rainbow pitches with a pair of trekking poles and is time-tested on the AT.
Sleeping Bag or Quilt
Temperatures on the Appalachian Trail range from below freezing to mid-Atlantic hot and humid, so no single sleeping bag is going to be perfect for every night. Many AT hikers enjoy starting the trail with a 20- to 30-degree sleeping bag, swap out to a lighter model (or even a silk liner) when summer arrives, and then switch back to the heavy bag for New England. If you’re using a hammock, I recommend a quilt; The Katabatic Palisade is warm, compact, and easy to use. For those looking for a more traditional bag, the Western Mountaineering Ultralite has full coverage and a hood, but weighs less than 2 pounds. Both the Palisade and the Ultralite will feel like overkill during the peak of summer, so be prepared to switch out to something lighter (the Katabatic 40 Degree Chisos quilt or the Western Mountaineering Megalite are both good options) or sleep on top of your bag for a few states.
A good sleeping pad will go a long way toward keeping you comfortable in shelters, where hikers sleep on hardwood floors (some of which aren’t flat, like the infamous baseball bat flooring of parallel logs used in older shelters in Maine). To save weight, I like to a ¾ or kids’ length pad. At 10 oz and only $35, the short version of the Thermarest Z-lite Sol is an affordable foam pad that is a favorite of many thru-hikers. (Side sleeper? Spring for the Thermarest NeoAir X-lite.)
Appalachian Trail Apparel and Accessories
Of the 20-plus long trails I’ve hiked, I still say that my clothes from the Appalachian Trail stunk the most. Indeed, AT thru-hikers have a reputation for worse-than-usual-backpacker odor. Hikers spend a lot of time hiking in hot, humid climates, creating a perfect surface for odor-causing bacteria. Choose your clothing knowing that after the trip, it may be unwearable.
Light Puffy Jacket or Vest
A lightweight puffy jacket is a good item to carry for at least the first and last 500 miles of your trip, if not the entire time. No matter your hiking style or goals, you’ll want one of these to help manage the extreme temperature swings on trail. Because the AT is such a wet trail, many hikers appreciate the warm-when-wet benefit of the synthetic Montbell U.L Thermawrap. It’s only 8.5 ounces, and even if it does get wet, it dries quickly. For the warmer sections of the AT, you may want to switch to the vest version of the jacket, the Montbell U.L. Thermawrap Vest.
It’s almost impossible for someone to thru-hike the AT without walking in the rain for at least a few days straight. On the AT, thru-hikers must balance moisture management with overheating from the steep climbs. I like the Montbell Versalite, which weighs only 6.4 ounces. It adds enough warmth, but not too much, and vents well through its pit zips. This means you don’t have to constantly be taking off your pack to switch layers.
Carry an extra pair, either wool or a quick-drying synthetic. Consider using long underwear as sleep clothes and in colder conditions.
On a 2,000-plus mile hike, you’re sure to get a few blisters no matter how good your shoes are. While boots are more common on the AT than on the PCT, almost all hikers out for the long haul choose mesh trail runners. Moist feet can lead to blisters, chafing, or trench foot. Mesh trail runners hold water less readily than boots. Plus, studies have shown that each pound on the foot is equal to at least five on the back, so a lightweight shoe can lead to less pounding.
Still, AT hikers need enough support and cushion to deal with the rocky, rooty, rough terrain of the AT. I opt for the nimble Altra Lone Peaks, which make movement along an obstacle-laden trail like the AT feel more like dancing than tromping. Expect to replace your thru-hiking shoes every 400 miles, especially since many hikers find their feet “grow” up to two sizes over the course of their hike. You don’t need to stick with the same models the whole time; I’d be tempted to use a more cushiony model like the Altra Lone Peak 4 or more cushioned Olympus for the uneven tread of “Rocksylvania.”
AT hikers walk through mud and puddles, and sometimes, their feet won’t be dry for days. Quality hiking socks will hold up for hundreds of miles, even when wet. I find the Darn Tough light hikers fit so well I can barely feel them, which cuts down on the kind of rubbing that can lead to hot spots or chafing from moist footwear. Since there are lots of colors and designs, it’ll keep you from accidentally taking some other hiker’s socks from the laundry line at the shelter. I carry enough clean, dry extra pairs so that I never have to reuse socks before they dry.
The AT is infamous for mosquitoes, black flies, and Lyme disease-carrying ticks. While the experts suggest hiking in tick and bug country wearing long sleeves and pants, many AT hikers find it uncomfortable and impractical to cover up in the heat. Thus, bug spray and bug lotion are a must; woe to the hiker who enters the 100 Mile Wilderness without it. Check yourself for ticks each night, and consider using bug head netting in the shelters. Before you start the trail or part way through your trip, consider treating your clothing in Permethrin, and learn the signs of Lyme and West Nile.
First Aid and Emergency Bag
I include a blade, tooth care, blister care and prevention, krazy glue, and over the counter meds for stomach issues, allergies, fever, and pain. A whistle and mirror are essential emergency signaling equipment, while a needle, thread, and duct tape will cover most gear repair.
While it may seem difficult to get lost on the AT, having maps, a compass, and the skills to use it may save your life in a white-out in the White Mountains. Hikers (including yours truly) have stepped off trail for a bathroom break, only to become temporarily lost in the AT’s dense tree cover. Some hikers use a phone app, but don’t count on it as your primary form of navigation: the AT’s rainy weather is a phone killer. (If you're relying on your phone, you'll need to carry an external battery pack, too.) In addition, carry paper databooks, town guides, and maps.
If you’ll be doing serious night hiking, carry a waterproof headlamp like the Black Diamond Ion. Otherwise, I recommend the 0.25 ounce Photon Freedom Micro LED keychain, which is bright enough for nighttime bathroom breaks. It comes with attachments to use as a hat clip and necklace, too.
With the trail more crowded than ever, following Leave No Trace rules matters. The lowest impact way to poop is in the numerous privies next to shelters on the AT. If that’s not an option, thru-hiking potty trowels like the Deuce of Spaces weigh 0.5 oz and make digging a cathole the easiest part of the day. Be sure to pack out used toilet paper.
Despite what you’ve heard, a good water filter is essential to prevent against waterborne illness on the crowded AT corridor. I like the Sawyer Squeeze filter, which easily screws onto a Smartwater bottle or can be used as an inline filter with a hose and bladder hydration system. It’s light weight and long life (a million gallons!) make it a near ubiquitous choice among thru-hikers.
Stove and Cook Kit
Most thru-hikers opt for an alcohol, canister, or integrated stove system, at least for the first and last part of the trail. The mid-Atlantic can get so toasty and the trail comes near so many delis, you may opt to go stoveless.
The AT crosses areas frequented by bears, and some of the critters have become accustomed to pilfering food from hikers, as well as pulling down bear bags. Check regulations for where bear cans are required.
How to buy shoes: Most hikers will need to replace trail running shoes every 400 miles. For first-time thru-hikers, I advise starting the AT with a pair of shoes that you’ve worn in and trust, but haven’t used too much. If that pair worked out, when you’re 300 miles into your trip, use the internet to order yourself a new pair of shoes. Have it mailed to a hostel or Post Office near the 400 mile mark of your trip (note: Post Offices cannot accept mail from non-USPS delivery services). If your first pair didn’t work out, find a gear store near the trail and try on some shoes to find something that feels better. Otherwise, you can use the internet to size up or choose a different brand of shoes and have that pair mailed to yourself.
What to ship: The best thing about thru-hiking is you won’t need to start the trail with 2,000 miles’ worth of food and gear already picked out. Use your guidebooks and maps to find the best address to send yourself gear as the weather changes.
Don’t be fooled by warmer temps in early spring. On my first AT thru-hike, I made the mistake of letting the heat convince me to send home my puffy jacket right before entering the highest elevation part of the trail. It snowed on April 29 and I crossed icy, frozen trail in shorts and a windshirt. Most AT hikers like cold weather gear for the first and last 500 to 600 miles of their trip.