There are several bits of equipment that are important to your hike outside of clothing, cooking, shelter and sleeping. Here are some of those.
One of the ‘Big 4′ items along with boots, shelter and sleep system, it holds everything you have with you other than the clothes you are wearing at that time. It must be capable of holding your lightest possible load and your heaviest (winter clothing, maxed out food and extra water you will pick up when you aren’t sure of the water sources ahead) while still being comfortable and without causing problems with your back, skin chafing and other such maladies.
On the AT the water sources and food resupply options generally could fairly be rated as ‘excellent’, though at times it will dip into ‘mediocre’ at best, with 8-10 hours between water sources in summer and a week without a straightforward food resupply and being a 24-36 hours away from the reach of search and rescue teams. Your backpack therefore has to be quite flexible, especially since it may have to cope with late winter, spring, summer and early fall seasons and the different clothing and equipment that entails.
With all this in mind I selected the Gossamer Gear Mariposa (2013 edition) which is a pack with a good track record of success on long hikes. It is provides 47 litres of capacity on the main pack plus 22 litres in various pockets. That is quite a large capacity but it’s basically frameless construction and light dyneema fabric means that any excess volume is not costing too many grams. It totals 1.7 lb / 777 g so if I end up wishing I’d gotten the smaller Gossamer Gear Gorilla (46 litre capacity, around 1.6 lb / 718 g ) I’ll just take it on the chin.
Yet again, Gossamer Gear is one of the high quality ‘cottage’ manufacturers in the US. To put the weight in context against a high-end mainstream pack, the 70 litre Osprey Aether weighs nearly 5 pounds / 2.2 kg, or three times as much as the Mariposa! It’s a very fine pack indeed but still, it would constitute a quarter of my total weight which is undesirable to put it lightly.
I’ve had the Mariposa since about April 2013 and taken it on a few short hikes. It works well though I haven’t had cause yet to load it up to the full 25+ pounds needed on some stretches of the AT. It has wide shoulder straps which spread the load well though one side only, oddly, rubs against my neck a bit. It hasn’t caused any problems so far but it might become necessary to keep a plaster or a Buff between them or something.
I initially got the medium pack with the medium hip belt but soon realised the hip belt was going to to be too big for my ~30″ waist in order to transfer the load to my hips effectively. It was only borderline now but a few weeks of caloric deprivation on the AT could leave it loose. So I was happy to see BackpackingLight.co.uk start retailing some GG products in the UK so I could avoid the stiff delivery and import duty charges that come with ordering stuff directly from the US. I picked up a small size hip belt and it fits much better – instead of being cinched to the very end of the adjuster it is now mid-way and therefore will adapt better to my frame getting smaller or bigger in the future. Strangely the original belt, while being the expected 2 inches (5cm) longer, weighed 2 grams less despite having thicker foam padding! The adjuster belt is a different material but other than that I cannot see an explanation. I was hoping to save ~10g, not lose 2!
Hiking / Trekking Poles
I shall be using my well-worn Leki Makulu Carbonlite XL trekking poles. They are unlikely to survive the entire expedition but I’ll deal with that when it happens. Trekking or hiking poles are hugely popular nowadays with long distance hikers in particular. They have a myriad of uses not least of which is take some strain of my post-operative knees and to act as a frame for my tent. After those two pretty rootin-tootin ones we get into such uses as depth checking and for bracing during river crossing, as a way to make yourself less attractive to bears and other critters, for extra balance and support in difficult or steep terrain and when night-hiking, as a weapon of last resort, and a host of other things.
A headlamp is pretty essential since the darkness at night is absolute. At any time (but especially in spring and fall when sunset is early) you want – or need – to hike on into the night in order to make a desired destination. Carrying a traditional hand-held torch is not practical or safe so hikers make use of modern-day miner’s lamps. Today’s LED lights throw out a bright light with relatively little power drain on the batteries compared to just a few years ago. These LED lights are also remarkably, er, light. In weight I mean.
I shall be using a Petzl Tikka XP 2 which features a red light as well as a normal white light. Red light is good for preserving night vision so is useful in camp especially if other people are about. I am hoping to pick up the Spring 2014 edition which boosts the maximum lumens from 80 to 120 and features ‘regulated power’ meaning it continues to kick out the full lumens right up until it runs out of power rather than the light gradually dying out as the battery fades.
It is often not safe to drink the water from the various backcountry sources such as lakes, streams, rivers or even puddles when times are hard. The bacteria and viruses that can be present due to things like human pollution, animal waste and dead animals upstream can cause horrendous problems with symptoms ranging from mild ‘stomach upsets’ to serious illnesses. E.coli, salmonella, rotavirus, Hepatitis A and a variety of others can be consider ever-present dangers. While many water sources, especially those at higher elevations, may be perfectly safe to drink directly from, it is impossible to tell which are safe and which are not. In 2013 there was a bad outbreak of norovirus on the early part of the AT forcing many people off trail for several days, and giardia is an ever-present issue.
While a few people choose to drink unfiltered it is most common to treat water in some way. Different treatment methods have their pluses and their drawbacks with regards to weight, time required to treat the water, after taste and availability of resupplies.
- Boiling water is possible sometimes but usually is only practical when making dinner or breakfast. It would require so much fuel to boil daily drinking water that you would have to carry too much fuel to make it worthwhile.
- Chemicals (e.g. iodine, chlorine or bleach, Aqua Mira is the most well known brand) but, while light, that takes a long time to work.
- Ultra-violet light. The most modern approach to water treatment is a Steripen product (e.g. Traveller) which blasts the water with UV rays to kill viruses and bacteria.
- Physical filtration. Forcing the water to pass through a fine mesh (of sorts) physically traps the nasties and only allows water droplets through to the exit end.
All the methods except for filtration also benefit from pre-filtering whereby you would physically filter the water (say through a coffee filter, t-shirt or Buff) in order to remove debris which otherwise would protect the nasties you are trying to treat (Cryptosporidium protozoa are protected by egg shells making them already hard to kill with chemicals and UV light so you don’t need them also getting protection from gunk).
So different people choose different treatment methods, including none at all. I have chosen the Sawyer Mini filter system which is a small (palm-sized) plastic tube with an entry point and an exit point. You simply fill up a flexible bottle or bladder/pouch with dirty water and then screw the filter directly onto the pouch and squeeze the pouch to force the water through the filter and out into your water bottle (or mouth!). It is unique in that it utilizes a 0.1 micron filter which is smaller than any nasty is and thus cannot let any pass through.
Here is a video of Stick giving the Mini a first test (jump to 6:30 to see it action):
On most sections of the trail you are strongly encouraged to ‘bear bag’ your food and other ‘smellables’ (e.g. toothpaste) each night.
Most people believe this is principally to ensure that bears do not a) eat you or nearby people by accident because you kept you food in your tent (a bear might call your tent ‘packaging’) and b) bears and other critters do not eat your food. It is not. Those are secondary reasons. The principal reason for bear bagging is to protect the bears.
Any bear that becomes habituated to humans and comes to see them as a food source will eventually be shot and killed as he will, obviously, become routinely a danger to humans.
Bear bagging means, each and every night, using a rope to hang your bear bag at least 12 feet up from the ground and 6 feet from the tree trunk and the supporting branch, preferably using a branch that a bear cannot safely get out onto.
There is a good guide to the easiest method here and there are plenty of videos on YouTube if you are interested. Here’s one with a bonus cat:
I actually own a kevlar Ursack bag that is bear-proof and therefore allows you to get away without such a time-consuming hanging process (which is hard to do in the dark) as you can just tie your bag to a tree to prevent it from being dragged away. But I have decided not to use it as it is relatively heavy.
I will make use of an Opsak food bag (to reduce the amount of odour being released) inside a tougher mouse-proof-ish outer bag in 1.43oz/sqyd cuben (a Zpacks Blast Food Bag) plus 50′ of hanging line (possibly the same as my tent guylines to provide backup).
As well as being painful pests in summer the mosquitos and other bugs can carry diseases such as West Nile virus and encephalitis. Using DEET products on exposed skin is necessary but a head net (if you are wearing a hat or cap) may be a useful way to spend 11 grams (0.4oz).