Every year, a new class of hopeful thru-hikers take on what may seem like some fool’s thought experiment — hiking the length of the United States carrying only what will fit into a pack.
You can do a lot to prepare your body and your mind for this most epic of journeys, but you can’t do much to prepare your gear. Unlike your body, which (generally) only grows stronger as it levels up over the course of the trail, the journey breaks down gear, as it’s put to use day after day.
I would like to suggest that you make this particular situation easier on yourself by not getting too attached to your gear.
If you find yourself standing here, there’s a good chance you have no idea what you’re doing. (Campo, California , the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.)
What many first-time thru-hikers fail to realize is that the gear you begin with does not have to be the gear you end with. You can easily replace, upgrade, or ditch your gear during a thru-hike.
Yes, I know, you spent a lot of time carefully selecting the gear with which you would start your grand adventure, but that was pre-trail you. That version of you knew nothing.
No matter how much research you did, no matter how many blog posts you read, no matter how many YouTube videos you watched, there’s simply no way to know what works best for you until you’re actually out on the trail.
Additionally, a freak storm, the accidental slip of a knife, a rogue ember from a fire, or a nefarious rodent can easily spell the end for a piece of your gear. Sure, your bear canister and your massage balls may be virtually immune to wear and tear, but most of your gear is going to take a beating on the trail.
Don’t fret, friend, this is an opportunity, not a tragedy.
My first attempt at backpacking. I was convinced I had it all figured out. I was wrong. (Southern California, Pacific Crest Trail)
Talk to anyone with a history of hiking and ask them what gear they have today that they had five, three, or even one year ago. And no, I’m not talking about that salty old man you know who carries an external frame pack he’s had since the 70s and boots that he broke in walking the John Muir Trail before GPS was in its infancy. Chances are that much of your hypothetical hiker friend’s gear will have changed since they first began taking extended overnight trips into the wilderness.
Why? Because as you hike you learn what suits your particular style of hiking best, and you see what works for others.
Your needs on the trail are going to change — because of both external factors, like weather and topography, and internal factors, like a reassessment of creature comforts.
The short of it is, there’s nothing wrong with changing out your gear. This is one of the reasons many thru-hikers will tell you that a wise thing to do before setting out on your grand adventure is to save up more money for the trip.
Find three hikers and I’ll show you three different sets of gear that each hiker thinks to be the “best” (New Mexico, Continental Divide Trail)
It’s important to note that many of the product reviews you’ll read (particularly those on retailers’ websites) are written by weekend warriors and day hikers. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with these reviews, but it’s wise to keep this in mind. You, an embarker upon of insanely long distances, are not necessarily the target demographic for the majority of backpacking gear on the market.
While meeting your particular gear needs as a mileage crusher is somewhat more challenging, it’s not impossible. There exists a specialized community of outdoor retailers for whom you are the exact demographic; we commonly refer to these brands under the umbrella term ‘the cottage industry.’
Testing out the Djedi DCF-eVent Dome from LOCUS GEAR in Japan’s Northern Alps
These brands aren’t the ones you’ll find stocking the shelves of your big-box outfitters, but they are the brands who know exactly who their customers are. They’re the brands started and owned by hikers just like you — you know, the ones touched by the ultralight superiority complex.
These smaller companies may not be able to offer you a non-expiring, no-questions-asked replacement guarantee should you wreck your gear, but these smaller companies care about why your gear fails and are interested in building a better product that will be held in high regard by hikers (not simply purchased by the largest number of hikers, although that’s a nice secondary effect). They’ll work with you on customizations and they generally have the ability to easily change products or production methods in response to feedback from customers.
The outdoor gear industry is constantly evolving. Whether it’s the reintroduction of the fanny pack into the world (seriously, get yourself one if you haven’t already) or ultralight tarps supported by only your trekking poles slowly becoming the norm, things are always changing.
Your gear is not a part of you — no matter how much it may feel that way. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new gear, especially gear that makes you hesitate or think to yourself “I could never use that”. You might end up surprising yourself. I can tell you from my own experience that even looking back at versions of myself who thought themselves wise in the world of backpacking, there’s always room for growth.
Tyler “Mac” Fox, began backpacking with the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013 and now runs the hiking and adventure travel blog Halfway Anywhere. Since then, he’s hiked the Continental Divide Trail, traversed the Japanese Alps, and spent months exploring the mountains of Nepal, Tasmania, New Zealand, and the West Coast of the United States. Please consider supporting Halfway Anywhere on Patreon.