Don’t be a stubborn curmudgeon with broken knees!
Shed more stuff and optimize your life on the trail.
My backpacking gear list is down the page, but there’s a lot more than that here.
You’ll see 4 easy steps to evaluate your gear and create your own best list.
I elaborate on how I chose my gear, and I talk about the other items I’ve used or considered.
I’ve backpacked thousands of miles and learned things the hard way.
Feel free to copy from my list. Make it easy on yourself and enjoy your hike!
Admit it.. Your backpack is too heavy
So was mine.
Nobody ever taught me about backpacking. My parents weren’t outdoorsy, and the adults in my life weren’t either.
Yet when I was 19 years old I knew – more than anything – that I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.
So I had some learning to do.
Naturally I turned to the internet. This was in 1999 and 2000, when the good websites about the Appalachian Trail were a grand total of about… two.
Most of the guys giving advice at the time were stubborn old curmudgeons, set in their ways. Seeing as how I’m one of the most stubborn people you’ll ever meet, I took all of their guidance to heart.
I got “real” gear. “Sturdy” gear. “Reliable” gear.
I got awful blisters, wrecked my young knees, and never made consistently good mileage. I never re-evaluated my gear… because I’m stubborn.
Eventually I finished the Trail (Also because I’m stubborn), but it took me 7 months and 2 summers to do it.
I didn’t truly come to my senses until 2008, when I shaved a whole four pounds just by getting a new backpack (Gregory Shasta vs. ULA Catalyst). I’ve continued improving since then, hoping maybe someday I can be among the SUPER MEGA ULTRA LIGHT HIKERS.
Then I achieved Zen enlightenment and realized “ultra-light” is just a silly label that doesn’t have much of a concrete meaning.
Love Your Local Gear Snob
I’ve always had a mixed relationship with so-called gear-heads, gear junkies, pack-sniffers (Oh wait that’s something different), whatever you call them – you know the type.
Gear conversations on the trail are so much like petty small talk.
Are we out there to compare your things with my things? Of course not. Right?
I was a snob about not being a gear snob. “I’m too groovy and in-tune with the trail to talk about gear,” I told myself, in not so many words. The truth is, somewhere deep down I wanted to be a gear junkie, like them.
And you should want to be an ultra-light-gear-junkie too, because here’s the thing – smart gear junkies have lighter packs. Smart gear junkies don’t break their knees.
You don’t want broken knees.
I’ve completely overhauled my gear for 2019
I admit it. I got older and my gear list fell stagnant. In last year’s “ultimate” article I wrote all about how I tend to find things I like and stick with them.
In other words, I grew lazy and complacent. Besides, how could I justify buying new gear when the things I already owned were lightweight and working just fine?
So I stuck with what I knew. That’s valid, right?
But now in 2019 with a proposed 800-mile thru-hike of the Arizona Trail on the horizon, I have no excuse.
Time to go wild, max out the credit card, and build a new gear list! Yay!
Here’s how I did it:
Discover Your Best Gear List in 4 Simple Steps
Thru-hikers have a lot of time to think about their gear and efficiency, especially when crawling up a steep grade or descending for an eternity with screaming knees.
These four steps may seem self-evident, but take your time. Go in with an open mind, and a willingness to be critical of yourself. Soon you’ll be thinking outside the box and shedding those pounds from your shoulders.
1) Write a list, of course.
Write it out on paper, on the laptop… make a spreadsheet if you want. This is your starting point. List every last item you normally take on a backpacking trip. Nothing goes unlisted – passports, iPhone, car keys, Ziploc bags… it all gets written down.
If you’ve never been backpacking before, go ahead and cheat off of my lists down the page to get started. If you need to, use generic terms like backpack, shelter, etc.
2) Determine every item’s function.
Really. Think about it.
Consider a seemingly redundant example, like boots.
Boots protect your feet and your ankles. What else do they do? They keep your feet warm.
Do your feet need protection? Probably. Do your ankles need protection? Not necessarily. If your ankles don’t need protection, then you need shoes, not boots.
Maybe your feet don’t easily get cold. Or you remember that you have socks on your list, which also satisfy the function of keeping warm.
Maybe, now that you think about it, full foot protection isn’t much of a priority for you after all. If so, then you’ve just discovered that you can hike in sandals! Chacos! Why not?
Identify the various functions of every item in your pack. If you’re serious about this exercise, write down those functions.
3) Eliminate gear with an unnecessary function.
This is where things start to get messy. What is “necessary?” It depends on where you’re going, how far, and why… this subject of “necessity” has way more nuances than I’m going to dive into here. There’s too much room for variation.
At one end of the spectrum, I’ve done an overnight trip in the Grand Canyon where everything necessary was shoved into a small day pack… shelter and all, with success. At the other extreme, I’ve day-hiked the Canyon with a “necessary” 40-plus pounds of beer, ice, pizza, etc.
I will say this – for a thru-hike you need to be ruthless. You should find that most gear functions become unnecessary. Comfort and small luxuries have their place, but remember at the end of the day it’s all about getting from point A to point B (I’m assuming that finishing your thru-hike is a priority).
The often-peddled “tent footprint” is a great example of an unnecessary function. What does it do? It protects the floor of your tent, and it creates a lightweight shelter when you eliminate the tent body.
You’re probably carrying the tent body anyway, which renders the lightweight shelter function as unnecessary.
That leaves protection. Does your tent floor really need protecting? Are a couple of punctures in the floor really the end of the world?
I’d rather carry less weight, decreasing the likelihood of developing a stress fracture or lost cartilage.
“I developed this injury and had to quit my hike, but my fancy tent is still in shape!” Hmmm.
4) Satisfy necessary functions with less weight.
This is the final step. You’ve boiled everything down to what’s necessary.
Have you? Really? Go double check.
Now take what’s left and replace it with something lighter that satisfies the same function. Here’s an example of how I used this process in 2019:
For over 10 years I’d been using the ULA Catalyst backpack. It’s a great pack, and one of the lightest on the market! What is its function? Simple:
A backpack carries things.
What else does it do? Nothing, really. Note that it’s unnecessary for it to ventilate the sweat from my back, or to convert into a stylish fanny pack, or any of that nonsense.
So is there a lighter solution for carrying things? You betcha.
First of all, I’ve come to realize I don’t need all that volume (4600 cubic inches). So I could go with their smaller pack, the ULA Circuit. That would save me seven ounces.
Or, comparable in volume to the Circuit, there’s the Hyperlite Southwest 3400. With the Hyperlite I shave an additional nine ounces! So I’ve just shed one whole pound with a simple gear replacement.
Keep your eye on the ball, or in this case the function… the Hyperlite carries things just fine, too.
Another item on my gear list was the ubiquitous rain cover. Function? It keeps my things dry.
But guess what? The Hyperlite is made of waterproof material, eliminating the function of a rain cover. Say goodbye to three more ounces!
Respect the Big Three
Remember that replacing your gear is the last step.
Most hikers don’t get to this stage until they’ve accumulated some solid experience and made some begrudging sacrifices through ditching gear with an unnecessary function.
Gear costs money – I get it. Maybe you can’t justify going out and spending hundreds of dollars just to save a few ounces… but they add up!
If you cut the ounces, the pounds will take care of themselves.
The best course of action when replacing things is to look at your “big three.” These three key items are your shelter, your sleep system (sleeping bag + pad), and your backpack. They’re virtually always necessary, and tend to be your heaviest items.
They also tend to be your most expensive items! If you’re new to backpacking and on a really tight budget, try to get it right the first time.
Otherwise, just use some cheap crap until you figure out what you’re doing.
A great way to reinvent your gear list is to take a hard look at your Big Three. Replacing just one of these items can often lead to significant weight savings. Invest in your Big Three first, and hold off on that titanium spork for sometime down the trail.
There’s no shame in copying my backpacking gear.
Many of my own gear choices are actually ripped off of my friends. If I see something better, guess what I’m getting next? It’s okay, we all do it… and if you don’t, you probably should.
Popular gear is popular for a reason, and it isn’t just good marketing. I think I have a great gear list. You could do much worse.
If you’re smart, then you’re going to copy other hikers. It’s how we learn what works for us, especially on places like the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. A week spent on one of these trails is the best backpacking education in the world – better than any amount of online research.
In fact, particularly for the aspiring Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, I recommend starting the trail with the cheapest stuff you can scrounge up.
Start the trail with an extra $1,000 in your pocket. That way you have the freedom and good conscience to completely re-outfit yourself as you go.
See what works for other hikers – see what they have that you like – and simply buy new gear as you go. It will save you a ton of money and frustration.
Last Word Before the List:
There’s a few more things that you should know.
I don’t get free stuff. This isn’t a website where “our team” goes out and supposedly puts gear through wringer. It’s just me.
I read stuff on the web, like you are right now. I look around, talk to my friends, consider new things. I find what works for me, and I pay for it from someplace like REI.
Then I take it hiking.
I’ve gone so far as to list the retailer where I got each item, the date, and price I paid in dollars. That’s probably a little over the top, but it satisfies my inner OC-Demons.
The only compensation I get for this is through affiliate links. Websites are required to have affiliate disclosures and those annoying “cookie” notifications because that’s how we make money. When you go through an affiliate link and end up buying something, I get a small commission.
These links don’t affect my gear recommendations!
I buy the gear that I like and I use it. If it ties in with a possible affiliate link, great. If not, oh well! I’ll still use it and recommend it.
Simple Gear List – What I’m Using in 2019
First I present a simple backpacking gear list, organized as a chart.
My comments about specific items and alternate choices are farther down the page.
The list is divided into three charts. First is the basic items, which are almost always in my pack. Next is my clothing chart, followed by electronics and specialty items.
The charts below include designations for the item, model, and weight (in ounces). To see the vendor, price, and date acquired, go to the full-size charts.
Not all of these items come on every trip.
My base weight (determined by the manufacturer’s published materials) is roughly ten pounds.
To work out my simplest thru-hiking gear list, eliminate the items marked with italics – everything else is coming with me on the Arizona Trail in 2019.
Links go to the exact items I use.
|backpack||Hyperlite Southwest 3400 Large||32|
|shelter||Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2||44|
|sleeping bag||Marmot Hydrogen||23|
|sleeping pad||Therm-a-rest Z Lite Sol||10|
|trekking poles||Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork||17|
|headlamp||Black Diamond SPOT||3|
|multi tool||Swiss Army Evolution 14||3|
|food bag||Hyperlite Drawstring XL||1|
|stove||MSR Pocket Rocket 2||3|
|pot||Toaks 1350 titanium||5|
|watch||Casio Casual Sport|
|vitamins, ibuprofen, benadryl|
|camera||Nikon D5600 18-55mm||23|
|phone||iPhone 6s plus||7|
|power bank||Anker PowerCore+ 10050||8|
|emergency beacon||SPOT Gen3||4|
|gps navigation||Garmin eTrex 20x||5|
|shoes||Altra Lone Peak 4.0||20|
|long underwear||OR Alpine Onset||5|
|underwear||Exoficcio Boxer Brief|
|shorts||REI Active Pursuit 9|
|short sleeve shirt||Under Armour||4|
|long sleeve shirt||NRS H2Core Hoodie||10|
|puffy jacket||REI Co-op 650||11|
|rain shell||Marmot Precip||13|
|sun hat||Solar Escape Outback||5|
|beanie||Columbia Watch Cap||4|
|gloves||REI Polartec Power Stretch|
MiscellaneousNothing on this list is coming on my 2019 thru-hike
|water bladder||Camelbak Antidote||6|
|food bag||Ursack Minor||5|
|day pack||Hyperlite Daybreak||20|
|traction devices||Kahtoola Microspikes||13|
|bear canister||BearvVault BV500||41|
|bug spray||Repel 100 (98.11% DEET)||5|
|water bag||Sea to Summit||3|
How I Chose My Gear
Here I talk what I’m using, what I’ve used in the past, and what I’ve considered.
Believe it or not, in all my life I’ve only ever owned three packs for backpacking:
- Gregory Shasta (2000 – 2008
- ULA Catalyst (2008 – 2019)
- Hyperlite Southwest (2019 – ?)
The Gregory Shasta was my first pack and saw me through the Appalachian Trail. It weighed almost eight pounds… empty!
ULA Catalyst – brief review
I love my ULA Catalyst! It was my first lightweight backpack and it saw me through so many adventures.
Note that I didn’t use just one Catalyst for this ten year stretch – I replaced it and bought a new one in 2014. Over time the frame starts to punch through the bottom of the pack, the side pockets get torn up by thorns (If you go off trail), and the plastic buckles tend to snap. Maybe I could have returned it to ULA and got a replacement for free (Or not), but I consider this to be normal wear and tear.
Proof of how much I love this pack – I replaced it in 2014 with the exact same make and model!
The 5 Best Backpacks in 2019
In my opinion there’s only five backpacks that an aspiring thru-hiker should consider:
1) Hyperlite Southwest 3400
This is one of the lightest packs on the market that can comfortably carry up to 40 pounds. Hyperlite’s focus on using Dyneema® Composite Fabric (formerly called cuben fiber) has taken the industry by storm.
I chose this as my new pack in 2019 for two main reasons. First, it’s one of the lightest packs out there – its only equal is the Mariposa (below).
Why did I choose this over the Mariposa? Simple – the Hyperlite is waterproof, whereas the Mariposa requires a pack cover in case of rain.
2) Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60
The Mariposa is an excellent choice for a smart thru-hiker. Gossamer Gear and Hyperlite (above) are now the top two players in the game with these backpacks. Each can carry a decent load, and each is built for the long haul.
It’s true that there’s lighter packs out there than even these, like the Zpacks Arcblast and Osprey Levity (by a hair), but none can haul up to 40 pounds comfortably.
You’ll be thankful for that extra capacity for big water hauls, technical climbing gear, your new packraft, or a 12-pack of beer.
3) ULA Circuit
It was almost twenty years ago when ULA’s lighweight packs flooded the thru-hiking market. Since then it’s been virtually impossible to hike a long trail without seeing one of their packs.
The Circuit is simply a lighter and somewhat smaller version of the Catalyst.
4) ULA Catalyst
The Catalyst is still certainly worthy of a mention for its ability to carry heavier, bulkier loads in a lighter package. This is an especially worth consideration for expedition hikers that plan on doing winter treks, canyoneering, packrafting, etc. Note that the Hyperlite Southwest 4400 is similarly up to the task.
5) Osprey Exos 58
The Osprey Exos is an exceedingly popular choice, and my number one pick for new backpackers. When someone with zero experience comes to me for a recommendation, I point them toward this pack. It has everything a beginner loves (a sturdy fit, zippered removable lid, sleeping pad straps, etc.) and still maintains a lightweight package.
Final word on backpacks
Remember, a backpack’s function is to carry things. That’s all. I’m especially favorable toward Hyperlite packs because they carry things as light and efficiently as possible, and perform an additional function (keeping thing dry) that usually requires an extra piece of gear (a pack cover).
If you can comfortably carry all your stuff with a lighter pack than any I’ve listed here, then do it!
Tents and shelters
What is the function of your shelter? Yours may simply be to keep you dry in a pinch, especially if you’re on the Appalachian Trail, where lean-to shelters are available. These are the main functions I look for in a shelter:
- Keeps me dry
- Keeps out the bugs
- Serves as a sanctuary (when used with a partner)
- Sets up easily
The lightest shelters are obviously tarps, but these don’t keep out the bugs. A single-walled tent or “tarptent” would do the trick, but here’s the thing:
I don’t like the idea of using a hiking pole to stabilize my shelter, and (confession) I’m not comfortable in my ability to rig a sturdy tarp in a pinch. So I like classic, good old tents, which have fortunately become a whole lot lighter in recent years.
In the early days I had a Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight. In 2008 I picked up an REI Quarter Dome, which was a good, sturdy little tent. Later I sought to shave even more weight, and I’ve been using Big Agnes tents ever since (Though my car-camping / river-trip tent is a Marmot Catalyst).
Big Agnes Tents
My only caveat about Big Agnes is their zippers – they’re horrible! I’ve owned several different variations of their Fly Creek and Copper Spur series, and the zippers have failed on virtually all of them. This cannot be user-error, as I’ve been careful to be easy on the zippers, keeping them out of sandy environments, leaving them closed when packed up, etc.
Moving up from the ultralight Fly Creek series to the slightly beefier Copper Spur, I’ve had a marginally better experience with the zippers… so there’s still hope! Everything else about Big Agnes tents is amazing, so I’m holding out for as long as I can.
I bought a brand-new Copper Spur for the Arizona Trail in 2019. If the zippers fail gain, I’ll consider it the last straw and probably switch to a NEMO tent.
My One-Man Tent
My one-man tent is a Big Agnes Fly Creek. For solo ventures I’m willing to go quite minimalist in a shelter. My only luxurious desire is to be able to sit up without hitting my head on the fabric, so the UL1 does the job (I’m 6’0 and 180lbs).
A lot of solo hikers are happy to carry the 2 man version of this tent as their solo shelter – it’s just that light!
Other tents I’d consider for solo use:
Favorite Tent with my Girl
I think the best 2-man tent that’s actually going to be used by a couple is the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2. This is the tent I chose for a 2019 AZT thru-hike. I am 6’0, she’s 5’0, and we’re comfortable in here.
Previously we’d used the Fly Creek UL2, but it didn’t take long to decide that having a little more space and a second door would be worth the weight… in other words, we’re less likely to murder each other!
My other recommendations for couples basically mirror the one-man choices above.
Lighter and Better Shelters
Just because I’m stubborn about sticking to a traditional double-walled tent doesn’t mean that you should be, too. In fact, I’d venture to say that I’m truly not “thru-hiking like a boss” without switching to a simpler shelter.
If I were to do so, here’s where I’d look:
|Manufacturer||one man||two man|
|Hyperlite||Echo II||Ultamid 2|
|Gossamer Gear||The One||The Two|
|Mountain Laurel Designs||Solomid||Duiomid|
|Six Moons Designs||Skyscape Trekker||Lunar Duo|
Hammocks are an increasingly popular option, especially in wooded areas like the Appalachian Trail. Here’s some advantages:
- lightweight – best ones are 2 pounds or less
- inexpensive – good quality doesn’t break the bank
- warm – stay off the cold ground
Finding a good set of trees can pose a challenge, but on the other hand you no longer need a level, clear campsite!
I have limited personal experience with hammocks, so I’m in no position to make further recommendations on them. Several hikers use them and love them – hammocks are a viable option, so an “ultimate” gear list would be incomplete without this note.
First of all, you should probably forget about using a sleeping bag made of synthetic material. Down feathers are infinitely lighter.
As far as the temperature rating is concerned, a 20-degree sleeping bag is the most ideal, all-purpose 3-season rating. It’s really the sweet spot.
Look at the big picture:
I view my sleeping bag as a piece of my overall clothing system. For example, it’s extremely rare for me to bring rain pants on a hike. If my legs are so cold that I need rain pants, then I’m probably finished moving for the day and in camp, where I have my sleeping bag available to stay warm. So rain pants aren’t really necessary.
Also keep in mind the extra layers of clothing available to you at night. If you’re carrying a puffy jacket, then that should never get wet and always be available to wear as you sleep (unless you’re using it as a pillow).
20 degrees is most versatile, but…
…sometimes you can get away with a lighter sleeping bag. If you can, you should. Remember, this is one of your “big three” items, with the potential to save some significant weight. On a mid-summer hike you can get by with a 30-degree bag, or maybe even a 40-degree one.
My pick in 2019:
With that in mind, for the Arizona Trail in 2019 I’m going with the Marmot Hydrogen. It’s a bag rated at 30-degrees, with a factory published weight of 23 ounces. I’ll be out there in March and April at relatively high elevations, so I’m not comfortable going above a 30 degree rating.
Additionally it is Arizona, after all, and I’ll be sharing a tent with a warm partner. So I count on being able to get away with a 30 degree bag just fine. I figure it will come in handy for mid-summer hikes in the future, too.
The 3 best sleeping bags for thru-hikers
Overall, Feathered Friends is the most-respected manufacturer of sleeping bags. They’re simply the best. Frankly I’ve never owned one, but my partner does.
My next sleeping bag purchase will be their 20-degree Swallow 20 YF. This is the top sleeping bag I’d recommend for thru-hikers on the AT, PCT, and CDT.
Western Mountaineering makes wonderful, lightweight sleeping bags too. Their Ultralite is a worthy consideration.
Marmot rounds out the top 3 list of sleeping bags. The Helium has been around for a long time – a virtual institution among thru-hikers.
I get it – down sleeping bags are expensive! For a budget alternative, take a look at the Kelty Cosmic. Don’t expect it to last forever, but I bet you could squeeze a single thru-hike out of it just fine.
Rather than using a traditional sleeping bag, down quilts are an increasingly popular option. I don’t have personal experience in using a quilt, but it’s easy to gather that the Enlightened Equipment Revelation is the best and most popular model.
Your sleeping pad plays a more important role than comfort:
It keeps you warm! More body heat is lost to the ground than the open air.
Sleeping pads generally come in two sizes – full length and short. There’s little reason for anyone to use a full-length pad. I’m 6’0 and I’ve always used the “short” pads. It’s easy enough to put your backpack or some extra clothes below your feet at night.
The only excuse I can come up with for a full length pad is an obscenely cold winter trip, or maybe a body height of 6’4 or more.
Therm-a-rest dominates the market in sleeping pads – most thru-hikers carry something from this brand. Their two most popular pads are
the Z Lite (foam, my choice)
NeoAir Xlite (inflatable)
I like the Z lite foam pad. Granted, a foam pad is less comfortable, less effective, and more bulky, but they’re so much easier to manage for day after day on the trail.
You don’t have to inflate/deflate it. You don’t have to worry about it getting popped. You can use it mid-day for a clean, comfortable surface on which to rest.
I trim even more weight from the Z Lite by cutting off at least two extra folds.
If you can’t deal with foam, the NeoAir Xlite is the best sleeping pad on the market. In most cases it’s even lighter than foam – a rare quality in an inflatable pad.
A combined sleep system
Big Agnes has an interesting concept going with their sleep system.
The down insulation underneath you gets compressed overnight, and is rendered useless. So Big Agnes makes sleeping bags that have no insulation on the “floor.” Instead, you can slide one of their custom pads into the sleeping bag itself, ensuring that it stays in a fixed position.
I considered this, but decided that the setup sounds too restrictive. Most of all, I would not have saved any weight through the arrangement. Their best sleeping bag for my purposes, the Anvil Horn 15, weighs in at 2 pounds and 5 ounces.
Your shoes are you most important piece of gear.
They define your relationship with the trail. What’s a car without tires? Nothing, just a hunk of machinery.
Rule #1 – Take Care of Your Feet.
Blisters will ruin your hike.
A sore foot will ruin your hike.
Don’t let it happen to you.
Wear comfortable shoes! Use something tried (by you) and true! This is the one and only rule about what you put on your feet.
Everything else (Including what I say below) is useless if your feet are not truly comfortable.
My 3 favorite shoes for backpacking
I don’t wear boots and I don’t wear sandals. If you’re looking for advice about those, look elsewhere.
I chose Altras for my Arizona Trail hike in 2019.
In recent years I’ve gotten into more off-trail, technical adventures (see #3 below). Now that I’m getting back onto a real trail, I wanted something lighter – more of a trail runner. This fits the bill, and then some.
Why? Two words:
Most fitness shoes have a “heel to toe” drop of at least a few millimeters. In other words, your foot doesn’t sit on a flat plane within the shoe. Your heel is elevated.
Altras are not only zero drop, but they have a wider toe box, too.
Ever since reading the blockbuster book Born to Run, I’ve been more mindful of how my feet interact with the ground. I haven’t done any marathon running in years, but when I do go running, I now wear Merrell Trail Gloves or even silly FitKicks.
Altras bring that concept to my backpacking. Not only that, but they’re popular as hell on the triple crown trails right now.
Merrell Moabs are the most-respected shoe in the hiking community. They’ve been around forever – an institution. I’ve hiked a whole lot of miles in these.
They tend to fit a wide of range of people, blister free. They tend to be durable, and last a long time. I’ve logged over a thousand miles of backpacking on just one pair of these, easy. What more can you ask for?
It was a few years ago when the Grand Canyon hiking community turned me on to Five-Ten brand shoes. These are billed as a rock climber’s “approach shoe,” where the rubber soles are designed to be extra sticky. They make you feel like Spiderman.
This is great when you’re blazing your own route on a rocky precipice near a fatal cliff. Shoes with great traction are especially validated on routes like the Hayduke Trail and Sierra High Route.
Unfortunately Five-Ten has been bought out by Adidas, and it looks as though the venerable Camp Fours are discontinued. I still have a good pair, but if they wore out this year I’d look into the Five-Ten Guide Tennies, and especially the La Sportiva TX3 or TX4 (leather).
Black Diamond Spot is your basic go-to headlamp. It’s lightweight, it lets you control the brightness level, and it has a red light. Done.
I like using disposable AAA batteries in my headlamp, but Black Diamond also makes one with a rechargeable battery via USB, the ReVolt.
I was happy with a Petzl Tikka (current model) headlamp for a long time, but Black Diamond has outdone them in recent years. If you’re looking for a beefier and super-bright headlamp, check out the Black Diamond Icon.
Swiss Army Knives come in all shapes and sizes. Most are too heavy for a savvy ultralight backpacker, but the “Evolution 14” is worth its weight to me… blade, scissors, tweezers, toothpick, can opener, bottle opener. What else do you need in life?
Most backpackers will be happy with a basic Swiss Army knife, but I like having the added scissors, can opener, bottle opener, and corkscrew. No more, no less.
A reader (Mark) pointed out in the comments that the corkscrew is good for loosening tight knots. Great point!
The Ursack Minor is a great food bag. I’ve had one deflect countless rodents for years!
In my 2018 article, I wrote the following: “If the Ursack Minor is too heavy for your lightweight sensibilities, get one from Hyperlite and watch the little critters shred your cuben fiber.”
So guess what I did in 2019? I got a stuff sack from Hyperlite, intended as my food bag. We’ll see how it goes.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. On my thru hike in 2019 I’m going to sleep with my food in my tent… as my pillow, in fact.
I’m not going into all the details of various types of stoves here (Or the merits of not cooking at all, for that matter).
What I will say is I’ve owned the original MSR Pocket Rocket stove for over ten years, and I’ve absolutely loved it. It boils fast, you can adjust the heat, and it’s simple to use. It’s not too heavy, and the fuel is efficient too (Though an empty canister does weigh 3 ounces).
My original Pocket Rocket still works great, but this year I picked up the ever-so-slightly improved MSR Pocket Rocket 2. Why? No exceptionally rational reason, besides a desire to have the “newest thing.” Guilty as charged.
A lot of people seem to like their JetBoil Systems too, or you can always build yourself a denatured alcohol stove for free (Do a Google search for “Pepsi Can Stoves”).
If all you need to do is boil 2 cups of water for dehydrated meals, you should probably just get the titanium pot through the picture above, and be done with it.
I’ve had this stainless steel pot for an eternity. It has a two liter capacity, because sometimes I’d cook huge meals for myself. A typical dinner would be two boxes of mac and cheese with a sleeve of tuna, or maybe a pound of spaghetti.
In trying to lighten my load in 2019 I finally sprang for a titanium pot, namely the Toaks 1350mm.
For some reason the manufactures are building taller, thinner pots nowadays, as opposed to those with a wider base. Why they do this is beyond me, as it lifts more volume away from your heat source, and the higher center of gravity is more likely to set you up for a disastrous spill. Keep this in mind when you do your shopping.
For many years I used a simple lexan spoon from this set. That’s wonderful, but how could I be so boring when there’s so many awesome titanium weapons out there?
Don’t ask me why. Life should not be this complicated.
Aquamira Drops are far-and-away my favorite method for treating drinking water. First of all, I get the primal pleasure of dipping my water bottle directly into the natural source. Then I mix the drops for 5 minutes, and add the solution to my water. I wait 20-30 minutes, and drink.
No pumping, no squeezing, no clogging. The only downside is that sometimes you get bits of dirt and leaves and fun squiggly organisms floating in your water. Don’t worry, the dirt is good for you and helps you thru hike like a boss.
Some folks don’t like Aquamira because of the chemicals they’re putting into the water. To these hikers I’ll say, “Have you ever looked into what’s in your municipal tap water?”
In addition to Aquamira, the three most common treatment methods on the trails today are:
For many years the Katadyn Hiker filter (Formerly PUR Hiker) was the most popular method of water treatment. It’s what I used for a while, but it’s super-annoying and old-school.
A reader felt that the above description wasn’t fair to the Katadyn Hiker filter, and asked for me to elaborate on it. You can see my reply down in the comments.
Trekking poles were first starting to catch on twenty years ago, when I got into hiking. It looks like they’re here to stay.
I resisted them for a long time, preferring to use a stick (like I thought I was Gandalf or something), or nothing at all. My logic was that photography was a priority, so I wanted my hands free to grab photos in the spur of the moment.
Eventually I compromised by using a single pole. It was a generic one (Wilcor brand), which held up for hundreds of miles.
The Distance Z seemed a pole of choice among most thru hikers, primarily for their light weight.
The popularity of the Alpine Carbon poles seems to span through a broader range of hikers, acting as a more established choice. These are the heavier of the two, but weight doesn’t seem to matter as much for something that’s in your hand. What won me over was their cork handles (Less likely to get nasty) and more sturdy appearance.
Like most hikers, I originally started out with Nalgene bottles. After a while we tend to figure out that generic plastic bottles are the lighter (and cheaper) choice.
In 2008 I picked up my first Camelbak bladder. I’d started doing a lot more hiking in the hot desert of Grand Canyon, requiring up to two gallons of water capacity! When you’re hauling this much water, it makes sense to use a bladder. Note that Platypus bladders are lighter than Camelbak.
I grew accustomed to the convenience of drinking on the go, but it turns out that three plastic bottles are lighter than a 3 liter Camelbak bladder. I’d always liked to use Vitamin Water and Gatorade bottles, but it turns out that Smartwater bottles are even lighter, and do the job well.
I see two valid reasons for still carrying a Nalgene bottle. You may like to have a precise water measurement for cooking your evening meal, though most cookpots provide markers for this.
On cold nights a Nalgene can be handy for the classic hot water bottle trick, where you fill it with boiled water and keep it overnight in your sleeping bag.
On my early thru-hikes I carried my wallet items in a ziploc bag. The small billfold that’s removable from plenty of men’s wallets was great for protecting my ID and credit cards.
On shorter trips I’d run in to a problem. I’m too lazy to bother reorganizing my wallet for every little backpacking trip, so all-too-often I’d end up carrying my entire wallet in the backcountry, complete with random business cards and the like.
Then I discovered that Hyperlite makes an awesome little wallet for backpackers. Problem solved! When I carry it in everyday life, it gives me the slick feeling of carrying over my lessons from backpacking into the “real world.”
I used to burn through socks like nobody’s business. Smartwool was my go-to brand (Don’t they feel amazing when they’re brand new?), but they were far from durable. After a while I switched to Thorlo, which I found to be longer-lasting.
Then Darn Tough socks came into the market, and that’s what I’ve been using ever since. They’re not as thick, soft, and cushy as the brands mentioned above, but they basically never wear out.
I never considered using gaiters until just a couple years ago. I always viewed them as heavy and completely unnecessary, something used only by hunters, swamp rats, and old boy scout leaders who believed in digging trenches around their camouflage tents.
Dirty Girl Gaiters changed all that by making them lightweight, fun, and even fashionable. No more thorns and pebbles in my shoes!
Historically I always backpacked in gym shorts, with a pair of long johns on hand for chilly weather (And yes, occasionally rain pants too).
I switched to convertible hiking pants when I started going off-trail more in the Grand Canyon. My long johns were getting torn to shreds. I grew to really like convertible pants, and all those pockets!
For the AZT I’m going back to a shorts / long johns combo. It’s just more comfortable, making me feel as if I’m in my pajamas all day.
I went with Outdoor Research long johns and REI shorts. Mid-weight bottoms are a happy thickness for most thru hikes.
Rather than going with basic gym shorts (like Under Armour) I paid a stupid amount of money for fancy shorts from REI. It was a silly impulse buy… we’ll see if it was worth it.
Backpacking in cotton underwear is not recommended. I like Exofficio boxer briefs.
Frogg Toggs are silly-looking, inexpensive, and get the job done too.
I have a beloved fleece hoodie that’s been with me on every major backpacking trip for the last fifteen years. I got it from a Kohl’s department store all those years ago. It’s a little heavy, but still serves as a functional security blanket.
In my effort to cut weight I’m finally leaving it behind and switching to a puffy jacket. The REI men’s Co-op 650 fits the bill, without being too heavy or breaking the bank. Other jackets I considered were the classic Patagonia Down Sweater and and super light Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer. I almost sprang for the Ghost Whisperer, but a few reports about their flimsy zippers turned me off.
It makes sense to backpack in whatever synthetic t-shirt you can find at your local Target or Walmart. I have an Under Armour t-shirt that I like.
For the hot, sunny desert I’ve switched to long-sleeve shirts for the last few years. A basic long-sleeved polyester shirt had always been part of kit, but I found myself opting for button down shirts like the Columbia Bahama and Silver Ridge.
I liked the ventilation and overall style, but eventually these shirts started making me feel like a stiff old man. I have the rest of my life to feel like an old man, so I’m moving back toward a more basic long-sleeve shirt – specifically the NRS Men’s H2Core Silkweight Hoodie. Marketed as a paddling shirt, it’s especially comfortable for backpacking, too.
I tend to lose gloves, so I eventually gave up and started the getting bundles of six pairs from Walmart. This year I thought I’d give fancy gloves a second chance, and got some from REI called the Polartec Powerstretch. So fancy.
The Columbia Watch Cap has been my favorite go-to beanie for many years. I tend to lose beanies too (Something about gloves and beanies), so I ended up purchasing several of these over time.
I hate wearing sunscreen, so it’s critical for me to have a nice sun hat too. Currently mine is the Solar Escape Outback.
Another option is get the NRS hoodie and a mesh baseball hat, and just hike with the hood up all the time. The hood is made of light, thin material that’s perfect for this and doesn’t block sound.
I’ve always been willing to accept the weight of an entry-level DSLR, like the Nikon D3000 and D5000 series. But with each passing year, it seems that mirrorless cameras and even mobile phones are catching up.
For thru-hiking in 2019, my best recommendation is to use your mobile phone for photography. It’s clearly the lightest option, and the photos can turn out wonderful.
I haven’t made a final decision yet, but I’m increasingly tempted to leave the DSLR behind on my next big hike. In the past I was willing to accept the extra weight for high-quality images, but the benefits in carrying a light DSLR or even a mirrorless camera are rapidly shrinking. Until I can justify buying a full-frame mirrorless camera, I’m leaning toward simply using a phone (At least for a long distance hike).
The Best Smartphones for Thru-Hiking
Without a proper camera, the best phone for hiking essentially becomes the one with the best camera. A number of websites dive deeper into this subject than I ever will, and their general consensus in 2019 seems to be the following:
The Google Pixel 3 has the best camera of any smartphone. The more obscure Huawei P20 Pro is second-best. The 3rd and 4th positions are generally rounded out by the latest iPhone and Samsung Galaxy.
The use of all this technology on the trail begs the question of keeping your gadgets charged. Enter the power bank, nothing more than a rechargeable battery.
Something about carrying a mobile charging station on a backcountry adventure seems adverse to the overall values of backpacking. If you’re carrying a mobile phone and relying upon it, then you’re already guilty as charged. Depending on how much you intend to rely electronics, you may want to consider a power bank.
They come in all shapes and sizes, so it can be daunting to choose the right one for your thru-hike.
Three Steps in Choosing a Power Bank
1) First make sure it has Quick Charge 3.0 input and output. Your power bank is worthless if it takes forever.
2) The figure to measure battery power is called mAh. This is the juice you’re working with. Power banks are titled with their maximum mAh capacity. Additionally, all of your battery powered gadgets have a “mAh” listing – it’s easy to found out what they are via a google search, like “iPhone Xs mah.”
3) Now that you have all your figures (like the mAh capacity of your phone or camera), make your best educated guess regarding your power needs on the trail, weighed against how often you’ll have the opportunity to fully charge your devices. Choose a RavPower or Anker power bank with QC 3.0 and the appropriate mAh.
GPS devices come in two breeds – emergency beacons and navigation. The Garmin InReach Explorer takes a first step in combining these functions, but it isn’t quite there yet in the navigation department. However, a reader in the comments section (Pat) says “the InReach will connect to your phone via Bluetooth, giving you a full function GPS with offline maps.”
Intended for areas without phone reception, a GPS emergency beacon is designed to send a 911 “call” to local Search and Rescue, complete with your exact location. This niche is dominated by SPOT and DeLorme (DeLorme has been acquired by Garmin), and a subscription is required.
SPOT’s first devices gained traction about a decade ago, leading to their Gen3 model. This is a one-way communication device, including features for 911, a “help” message to your friends, an “okay” message (a good way to check in daily from camp), and tracking.
DeLorme pulled a huge market share from SPOT when they introduced two-way communication – basically the ability to send and receive text messages. Another key feature that set DeLorme apart is its ability to receive weather reports.
Later SPOT introduced its two-way SPOT X device (In an effort to catch up DeLorme), but I feel it’s only a matter time until Garmin creates an ultimate device that acts as an emergency beacon and includes excellent field navigation.
I still use a SPOT Gen3 device. DeLorme (Now Garmin) is clearly the better product line, but I haven’t yet brought myself to justify the investment in making the switch.
I should first mention that a navigation device isn’t necessary to find your way up the popular long distance trails. GPS navigation does come in handy on the Hayduke Trail and the Sierra High Route (though it’s still not necessary), and of course when you’re off the trails completely.
I have an old-school Garmin eTrex 20x device, which is perfect. the eTrex 10 doesn’t support detailed maps, and the eTrex 30 has a little too much muscle.
The Gaia cell phone application is a viable choice too.
Frankly I’m not one to excessively geek out with GPS (It seems like a deep, time-sucking rabbit hole to me), so that’s about all the advice I can provide in this department.
While we’re on the topic of electronics, I suppose I’ll plug my favorite headphones. They’re light, simple, sturdy, stay put, and sound great. Best of all, they’ll adequately contribute to your hearing loss (Not like those god-awful iPhone earbuds).
The popular Osprey Talon 22 is the best day pack for most purposes. I owned this pack for a number of years, and my partner still loves hers, too. The Osprey Stratos 24 is another great pack for those who’d like more space.
After my Osprey fell victim to the usual thrashing that I give things, I eventually replaced it with the fancy (and pricey) Hyperlite Daybreak. Like all packs from Hyperlite, it’s inherently waterproof (A great choice for the Zion Narrows).
The ability to keep things dry is the Hyperlite’s main advantage. As opposed to extended day hiking, I especially like it for quick, spur of the moment outings where it’s a handy place to keep my camera dry in the rain or snow. It’s great for bicycle commuting too, where I can be confident that my laptop and other civilized items will stay dry in a random downpour.
The Hyperlite does, at times, make me miss my old Osprey. This is most evident when using a hydration bladder, as the Hyperlite doesn’t have a designated cut for threading the hose. My back also tends to get especially sweaty with the Hyperlite, where the waterproof material directly rests.
Most backpacks require you to use a pack cover to keep things dry in the event of rain. I think some of the best and lightest covers are made by ULA.
Hiking poles are always recommended for dealing with treacherous ice and snow, but it’s less often that you’ll hear about traction devices. Rather than full fledged mountain-climbing crampons, some companies make some basic, lighter spikes. I’ve found them to be useful in the winter at Grand Canyon, and I like them for early season trips in the mountains.
The best of these are the Kahtoola Microspikes. They provide the best combination of reliable traction, less headaches (the cheap ones tend to slip off your shoes), and relatively light weight.
A cheaper and lighter option is the Slide Stopper Cleats. I owned these for a while and they always wanted to slip out of place. Eventually I learned that I had to tie them into my shoelaces, but then they still insisted on giving me problems as the metal cleats would slide up the outside of my shoes. Still, they were better than nothing.
Many National Parks require you to hike with bear canister – a necessary evil when it comes to keeping your pack weight down. The Parks will loan you one of their stock versions of a canister, but the ones they tend to offer you are super heavy. If you plan to spend a lot of time in the Parks, it’s worth investing your own.
For more than a decade, Bear Vault has made the best and lightest canisters that are approved by the Park Service (Sometimes rangers will ask you to show it to them). In most cases, you’re going to want the full capacity of the BV500 (As opposed to the BV450).
While we’re on the subject, I recommend carrying bear spray in Grizzly country (Yellowstone, Glacier, etc.), but not in places like Yosemite where you’ll only find black bears. For more about bear safety, see my 12 Ways to Avoid Getting Eaten by a Bear.
Let me know in the comments!