Gearing Up for the AT

Gear is a subject that hikers spend an inordinate amount of time and effort (and money!) on, especially hikers who routinely tackle trips lasting more than 2 nights. So what does a thru-hiker have to think about gear-wise compared to his more casual cousin?

To the inexperienced (and those who deliberately adopt a more laissez-faire attitude) the amount of focus on gear by some hikers can seem OTT and perhaps smacks of the same obsessive behaviour with details, facts and figures that is also found in male-dominated hobbies such as model building, gaming and collecting. Not cool, apparently. Countering that view is one that believes that your life may be on the line when hiking and that your physical comfort, mental well-being and ability to complete your hike (and enjoy it as well) can only be improved by carrying better gear and practicing better skills. Since hiking involves you experiencing every minute of every day – and night – and being unable to pop into a coffee shop to get out of the bad weather you weren’t prepared for, carrying the most appropriate gear has a massive impact on your hiking experience. It would seem odd to not make at least some effort to have a happier hike.

In other words, where one person will say, “why bother worrying about every ounce of weight or what the best gloves are for those conditions” another will say, “why NOT think about it and make a well-informed decision?”

The other reason many hikers spend their time online sneakily researching gear is that it is something they can usefully do while not hiking. It’s also something they can control and, seeing as how the Great Outdoors can be a bit unpredictable at times that is very appealing. If you put enough time into gear and skill research and practice before your hike you can probably reduce the ratio of unpredictable happenings on your next hike down to a mere 99%!

Joking aside, fail to prepare and you prepare to fail. This isn’t 1985 – you can learn more online in two hours than our predecessors could in a week. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking it is your gear that will carry you to the end of the trail: no rain jacket ever climbed a mountain for you.

Here is trail legend Warren Doyle talking about what you really need in order to complete the journey:



Things To Consider

So what is there to think about when it comes to gear? There is a big difference between backpacking and camping in terms of the gear you take with you. Camping enables you to take lots of large and heavy gear because you only have to shuttle it in from the car park and your long stay in a single camping place means you want more facilities to enjoy than a hiker who only spends a few hours a day awake in camp and needs to ‘make’ and ‘break’ camp every day and then carry everything on their back all day. People often struggle to transition from camping to even short backpacking trips because they try to re-use the same gear and their expectations are not reset afresh to what backpacking entails.

In the same way, backpacking trips lasting a night or two are not the same as thru-hikes. While the difference may not be quite as dramatic as between camping and short backpacking trips, all small issues are amplified over the course of a long hike. For example, being a bit too cold (a heat deficit) or having a pair of boots that begins to make your feet sore; these discomforts can be shrugged off when you will be home tomorrow but on a thru-hike could add up to a real problem.

The key difference lies in details that add up. A small amount of extra bulk or weight between a choice of two items; or how you cope with no washing facilities; how your relationships cope with absence; cold feet at night, every night; being permanently hungry; choosing a multi-purpose item versus two dedicated items; no water source so far today and tomorrow looks sketchy also; the list goes on and on and involves every single last aspect of your trip. That is one long list! So on the one hand you could view this as an intimidating amount of work or you could see it as a grand opportunity to optimise many aspects of your life during your thru-hike. After all, it’s your life.

So we have now concluded that there are many things to consider when it comes tacking a thru hike, that most of these issues are different to either camping or short hiking trips, and that ignorance is probably not bliss. So, where to start?

Getting Started

A common answer is “the big 3 (or 4)” meaning paying most attention to the heaviest, largest and most important items of gear: backpack, shelter and sleep system. Some will like to have footwear in there as well. Those are actually topics, meaning 1 item of gear does not necessarily address each topic (indeed, a hammock can address two of those topics). If you can do a good job with those then you are a good way towards a happy hike.

After those important topics are dealt with you will probably turn your attention to clothing next and then onto miscellaneous gear items (medicine, cooking, navigation, etc.).

So what exactly are we evaluating when deciding on a piece of gear?
1. What role does it fill in my system as a whole?
2. Does it do a good job?
3. How much does it weigh?
4. What does it cost?
5. How big is it when packed?
6. Is it robust enough?

The last 5 are pretty straightforward. Sometimes you may get a choice of items that could each do the job well but they each offer trade-offs with regards to the other points – e.g. an item may be lighter but more expensive, or smaller but less robust or harder to use. It’s easy to say, “keep everything as light, as small and robust as possible and hang the cost” but that may not be possible and more expensive items are not always best in every situation. Still, the aim would always to be get gear that is as small and light as possible while reliably doing its job(s) and holding up to the conditions it will encounter.

Building a System

The first point from the list above is where it gets interesting and is one of the aspects that separates thru-hiking from camping and day-hiking. Day hikers can carry a few more pounds, especially if they save time and money doing so. After all they might be out on the trail 1% as much as a thru-hiker so no need to sweat the details. The Big Idea here is that the TOTAL weight, size, robustness and functionality of your gear should be as efficient as possible. Almost all gear items relate to other items. Perhaps one does part of another’s job so the other item can be a bit weak in that area. Some items may simply be obviously multi-purpose (Mr Spork, have you met Mr Leatherman?) while others aspects of a system are less obvious. For example, if you ask a thru-hiker to show you his or her emergency blanket and rescue signal you may get presented with their used-every-day shelter groundsheet made from metallized material. Ask him what his trekking poles are for and you could be there for some time. Other items again may be chosen for more subtle reasons that would require some detailed background to be able explain to someone. One of these areas is clothing, dealt with in another article here.

The point is that you don’t just choose a functional role that you need a piece of gear for and go out and research what the best ‘x’ item is. With that method you end up with 10 items for 10 roles, 3 of which might have overlapping functionality. Maybe 1 of those overlaps is worth it you because you are especially concerned to ensure that role is adequately covered (e.g. in the safety area). But the other two may be a waste of weight and space.

For example, you may choose an awesome sleeping bag and a market-leading down jacket only to realise they both have a hood so instead you could have – for a slight loss of fashion points – gotten a hoodless bag and jacket and carried a specific insulated hood you can wear, or not wear, any time you like. This TOTAL system method would have you recognize a need for ensuring a warm head potentially 24 hours a day due presumably to possible wintry conditions. Then anyone looking at your jacket or bag choice alone would think they were lacking in warmth but they would not have the whole story.

Once a box is ticked, try not to tick it again. Look at alternative items that were on your shortlist; maybe a combination of those will actually achieve a better TOTAL result than always having ‘best in class’ individual items.

Weighty Matters

Finally, a word on weight. If all things are equal, lighter is best. But: all things are never equal. Other issues like cost, robustness, your own feelings and comfort level on a particular subject, weather, repairability, replaceability, experience, time available to find an alternative, trust in an existing item and a hundred other factors all influence your decision. And that’s how it should be. But do make weight a priority; hiking isn’t a weight-lifting competition.

It’s your hike. Listen to others, then make your own decisions.

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