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 gear list.
I elaborate on how I chose my gear, and I talk about other items I tried 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 took me backpacking, yet when I was 19 years old I decided 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 it was easier to find a Ring of Power than to find a good website about the Appalachian Trail and backpacking.
Most people giving advice at the time were old-fashioned and set in their ways. Since 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 continued improving since then, hoping maybe someday I could rank as a SUPER MEGA ULTRA LIGHT HIKER.
Then I achieved Zen enlightenment and realized “ultra-lite” is just a silly label that doesn’t have a very concrete meaning.
However, I feel that every hiker must learn this for themselves. If you insist that going “stupid light” is idiotic (without even trying) then you’re destined to be heavy and slow forever.
You won’t find your best balance until you make an honest effort to shed as many pounds as you can.
Love Your Local Gear Junkie
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. 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 completely overhauled my gear list
I tend to find things I like and stick with them, so my gear fell stagnant as I aged.
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?
In 2019 I decided enough was enough, and replaced a lot of my gear. Not much has changed since then, so I’m still using these items going into 2021.
Here’s more about the methodology in how to take a hard look at your gear:
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 than what I have, 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 or Pacific Crest 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. Then you have the freedom and good conscience to completely re-outfit yourself as you go, via the outfitters in trail towns and the wonders of online shopping.
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 with hard-earned money from someplace like REI.
Then I take it hiking.
In the full-size charts I listed 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 love of detail and disclosure.
The only compensation I get for this is through affiliate links. Websites are required to have affiliate disclosures and those annoying “cookie” pop-up notifications because that’s how we bloggers 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 2021
First I present a simple backpacking gear list, organized as a chart.
My detailed comments about specific items and alternate choices are farther down the page – there’s a lot of detail down there.
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 uses 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. I do not shave the handle off my toothbrush or own an ounce scale.
To work out my simplest thru-hiking gear list, eliminate the items marked with italics – everything else came with me on the Arizona Trail in 2019.
Links go to the exact items I use, unless otherwise noted.
|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|
|inflatable pillow||Sea to Summit||3|
|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|
|duct tape||Duck brand|
|watch||Casio Casual Sport|
|vitamins, ibuprofen, benadryl|
|camera||Nikon D5600 18-55mm||23|
|phone case||Lifeproof FRE||1|
|power bank||Anker PowerCore+ 10000||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||3|
|shorts||REI Active Pursuit 9|
|short sleeve shirt||generic polyester|
|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|
|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 about what I’m using, what I’ve used in the past, and what I’ve considered.
In all my life I’ve only ever owned three packs for backpacking:
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 loved 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, and the side pockets get torn up by thorns (If you go off trail a lot like I did). The plastic buckles would eventually snap from the Arizona sun, too.
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.
Most thru-hikers find the Catalyst a little too big for their needs and opt for the Circuit instead.
Hyperlite Southwest 3400 – brief review
I’ve been using this Hyperlite for 2 years, and I’ve fallen in love with a new backpack all over again! Granted, 2019 and 2020 were light backpacking years for me, but the Southwest shows little wear and tear. I expect to get many, many more miles out it.
Otherwise, the pack embodies function and simplicity. It carries things – a big main compartment, 2 hip pockets, 2 side pockets (that fit 2 Smartwater bottles each), and a large “mesh” back pocket. It also has a simple sleeve for a hydration bladder, and a slit for the hose.
Overall, I have nothing else to say about the pack, which is sign of excellence! The purpose of backpacking is not to be thinking about (or having a significant awareness of) your actual backpack.
The 5 Best Backpacks in 2021
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 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.
Go here to read more about the exact differences between these Hyperlite packs.
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.
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 first 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 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) REI Co-op Trailbreak (Budget & Beginners)
The REI Trailbreak is 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 (external zippered compartments, padding, etc.) and still maintains somewhat of a lightweight package at under 4 pounds. Note that there’s a one size fits all men’s version and women’s version.
Most of all, at a cost of just $150 it means you’ll be paying half-price vs the packs listed above. The brutal truth is that only 2 in 10 people that set out to hike the entire Appalachian Trail are going to achieve that goal. Against those odds, is a bigger investment worth it?
However, investing in a lightweight backpack, shelter, or sleeping bag is the easiest way to cut your pack weight. Decisions, decisions.
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 things dry) that usually requires an extra piece of gear (a pack cover).
Now here’s the absolute last word on backpacks:
If you can comfortably carry your stuff with a lighter pack than 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
- Is reasonably durable
- Sets up easily
- Serves as a sanctuary (when used with a partner)
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 nasty storm. 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 (The modern version of this is the REI Passage). 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 Tungsten).
Big Agnes Tents – experience and review
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. It’s not user-error – I’ve been careful with the zippers, staying out of sandy environments, keeping the zippers closed, 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 sticking with them.
The zippers seem to be improving:
I bought a brand-new Copper Spur for the Arizona Trail in 2019. The new tent is holding up great in 2021! Maybe Big Agnes finally got their act together and updated the zippers. I sincerely hope this is the case, because I’ve loved everything else about their tents for many years.
There was a night I spent in Grand Canyon where the designated tent sites were especially sandy, and an unexpected wind kicked up after sunset.
Immediately afterward, the zippers on the Copper Spur started to be predictably moody. From past experience I psychologically steeled myself for the worst – another zipper failure – but it never came to be! The kinks and sand seem to have worked themselves out with continued use.
My One-Man Tent
My one-man tent is a Big Agnes Fly Creek. For solo ventures I’m willing to go somewhat minimalist in a shelter. My only luxurious desire is to be able to sit up without hitting my head on the fabric, and 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! Confession: I carried the 2-man Copper Spur on a recent 2020 winter trip, just for myself. With short daylight hours and cold temperatures, I appreciated the extra comfort and space.
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.
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.
Next as far as 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 generally aren’t 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.
What I’m using in 2021:
With that in mind, I’ve been using the Marmot Hydrogen. It’s a bag rated at 30-degrees, with a factory published weight of 23 ounces. If I’m expecting cold weather I’ll bring extra clothes and/or borrow my girl’s sleeping bag liner.
I’m due for a new purchase in this department, which will be a Feathered Friends Hummingbird (20-degree), once I can afford/justify it.
5 best sleeping bags for thru-hikers in 2021
Overall, Feathered Friends is the most-respected manufacturer of sleeping bags. They’re simply the best.
CREAM OF THE CROP:
I intend to get a Hummingbird 20-degree bag from Feathered Friends as soon as I can justify the cost. This is the top sleeping bag I’d recommend for thru-hikers on the AT, PCT, and CDT. Frankly I’ve never owned one, but my partner loves her Swallow.
Western Mountaineering makes wonderful, lightweight sleeping bags too. Their Ultralite is a worthy consideration.
The REI Magma series (particularly the 15-degree) rounds out my best sleeping bags for thru-hikers in 2021. It hits the overall sweet spot to compromise between price and quality.
For an even more reasonable choice, 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.
BUDGET & BEGINNERS
At just $99, this Terra Sleeping Bag sounds like an amazing choice for beginners. It looks like it can easily see you through some cold nights, and weighs at just 2.5 pounds. Remember, there’s a chance you’ll discover you don’t even like this whole “backpacking thing” after all.
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 daily use 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.
My next purchase in this realm could be the Nemo Switchback. It’s a foam pad similar to the Thermarest that I have, but it’s reportedly thicker and more comfortable.
If you can’t deal with foam, the NeoAir Xlite is the best sleeping pad out there. In most cases it’s even lighter than foam – a rare quality in an inflatable pad.
Sleep like an old-school budget badass
At $50 the Nemo Switchback mentioned above does double duty as my pick for a budget sleeping pad.
But there is yet another, most tempting option. Go with an old fashioned blue foam pad. If this doesn’t make you feel like you’re thru-hiking like a boss, then I’m afraid there’s no hope for you.
I must be getting old!
Last year, my girlfriend bought us each one of these Sea to Summit inflatable pillows for our trip on the Arizona Trail. I’d always used bundled clothes and miscellaneous gear for a pillow, but agreed to give this a try.
Now I’m a convert! I love this thing and never go backpacking without it.
2.7 ounces for the “regular” size is more than reasonable. Additionally, I may even be saving weight overall through using this – it frees up my extra clothes to be worn overnight, ultimately allowing me to carry a lighter sleeping bag. Win!
Your shoes are your 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 like low-top shoes – I don’t backpack in boots or 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 was bought out by Adidas, and 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 Tennie, 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. It’s what I use.
The lightest model with a rechargeable battery via USB is the Nitecore NU25. For 2021 I’d probably opt for this. We all carry a powerbank for our cell phones nowadays, and it’s the best ultralight choice.
If you’re looking for a beefy super-bright headlamp, take a gander at the Fenix HL60r.
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. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I often sleep with my food in the tent. Shhhh.
Otherwise, your best option is to shell out the cash for the Ursack Minor.
Ursack is addicted to increasing the retail price of this bag. The bag used to cost 40 or 50 dollars just a few years ago. Now they want $100 for the same product!
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 last year I picked up the ever-so-slightly improved MSR Pocket Rocket 2. Why? No rational reason beside a desire to have the “newest thing.” Guilty as charged.
A lot of people seem to like their JetBoil Systems, 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… though it’s not what I use.
I used a 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 I finally sprang for a titanium pot, namely the Toaks 1350mm. I’ve been very happy with it, despite the questionable quality of its lid. This pot is the perfect size and shape for my needs.
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.
But it is complicated. In the end the aesthetic sound of titanium scraping on titanium got under my skin, and I reverted to a long-handled plastic spoon from my old kit. I can’t find its equivalent online, so if it’s ever lost I’ll replace it with this cool-looking sliding spoon.
I donated the titanium one to my girlfriend. She likes it. I wish I didn’t mind the titanium scrape-age, because it’s perty. So fancy.
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 that go into it. To these hikers I say, “Have you ever researched what they put in your municipal tap water?”
In addition to Aquamira, the three most common treatment methods 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 Gandalf!), 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 to be a pole of choice among most thru hikers, primarily for their light weight.
The popularity of the Alpine Carbon poles seemed to span through a broader range of hikers. These are the heavier choice, 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.
Save a pretty penny on poles
For my next trekking poles, I’ll be tempted to give these a spin. As stated above, I had good luck with cheap poles in the past. They’re 10 ounces each – lighter than my fancy Black Diamonds. I guess I can a dummy sometimes.
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 the 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 three valid reasons for still carrying a Nalgene bottle.
- You might want a precise water measurement for cooking your evening meal, though most cookpots now 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.
- Finally, the wider mouth on a Nalgene type of bottle is better for filling your water at the source, and fills quicker in frigid streams (cold hands!). A way around this is to use your cookpot in a pinch at shallow or otherwise inconvenient sources.
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!
Pants, Shorts, Long Johns
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!
Occasionally I’ll go back to a shorts / long johns combo. It’s just more comfortable, making me feel as if I’m in my pajamas all day.
Rather than going with basic gym shorts (like Under Armour) I paid a stupid amount of money for fancy shorts from REI. They held up great and I’ve grown to love them now in 2021, so I think it was good purchase after all.
Backpacking in cotton underwear is not recommended. It was almost a decade ago when I found Exofficio boxer briefs, and I still really like them.
Nowadays there’s a lot more budget-friendly options. For example here’s a search on men’s performance underwear on Amazon – all probably passable choices. Your local Walmart or Target should carry men’s boxer briefs made of synthetic material, too.
Frogg Toggs are silly-looking, inexpensive, and get the job done too.
I haven’t been in an environment that requires rain pants in a long time (not since Denali NP in 2014). If I were headed back there, I’d stay true to the Marmot Precip build and go with the matching pants.
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.
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 my kit, but later I found myself opting for button-down shirts like the Columbia Bahama and Silver Ridge. I like the ventilation and overall style, but eventually these shirts made me feel like a stiff old man.
I have the rest of my life to feel like an old man, so I’m moved back toward a more basic long-sleeve shirt – specifically the NRS Men’s H2Core Silkweight Hoodie. I wear it all the time now, especially when cycling or running, or even around the house. I love this shirt!
I tend to lose gloves, so I eventually gave up and started getting the bundles of six pairs from Walmart. Last year I thought I’d give fancy gloves a second chance, and got some from REI called the Polartec Powerstretch. So fancy.
These gloves kick ass! My hands get cold easily, so these REI gloves have seen a lot of use in the last couple years. They impressively haven’t developed holes in the fingertips after gnarly use on sharp Grand Canyon limestone. Most of all, I haven’t lost them yet!
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, though I’m in a transition where I tend to prefer the look of a trucker baseball hat to match my sun hoodie. The hood is made of light, thin material that’s perfect for this and doesn’t muffle sound.
I had 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 2021, my best recommendation is to use your mobile phone for photography. It’s clearly the lightest option, and the photos can turn out wonderful.
Until I can justify buying a full-frame mirrorless camera, I’ve increasingly just been 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 2021 seems to be the following:
The iPhone 12 Pro Max has the best camera, followed by the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 and the Google Pixel 5. Photography articles always mention Huawei phones, but when is the last time you saw anyone in the US with one?
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 disagreeable to the values of backpacking… but 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 on 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 to charge.
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 find your device’s capacity 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.
I use the Anker Powercore+ 10000. It works great and I never run out of power, using my phone as a camera, journal, and reading books on it at night.
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 as 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. The latest version of this classic product is the Gen4 device.
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 to catch up to DeLorme.
I still use a SPOT Gen3 device, with a separate Garmin device for field navigation if desired (and more often my cell phone). This setup has worked for me in the past, and I’m not inclined to re-invent my emergency/digital navigation setup at this time.
I like the convenience of keeping my SPOT subscription and tossing the device in my pack.
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).
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 on the Hyperlite’s waterproof material.
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.
If you want an extra badass rain cover, get yourself some trash compactor bags. Now you’re thru-hiking like a boss.
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, you can get 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, reasonable weight, and less headaches (the cheap ones tend to slip off your shoes).
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 in 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!