This winter, we started a series aiming to break down the overwhelming process of planning a thru-hike. We aren’t necessarily focusing on the Triple Crown Trails — the AT, PCT, or CDT. Rather, this is a chance to take a look at the other thru-hiking options out there, which means you can find a trail that fits your needs for timing, distance, location, and difficulty.
Last time, we talked about how to choose your trail. This week, we’ll go over the basics of gear selection.
No two hikers have the same gear setup — though most fall into one of three categories. Here’s what to consider when you start building your backpacking gear system.
1) What type of hiker are you?
This is the overarching gear question that will influence the rest of your choices. Hikers who like to carry more comfortable, heavier gear—plus certain luxury items—will probably be hiking fewer miles each day and spending more time at camp. If you fall into this category, you’ll want a padded, larger capacity pack that can handle a base weight of up to 18 or more pounds. Most hikers in this category want a freestanding tent with a good amount of livable space, and an inflatable sleeping pad for ultimate comfort.
A hiker looking to cover more miles with a lighter pack will carry fewer items, and be more conscious of their weight. This might mean a tarp-tent instead of a freestanding tent, a frameless pack, a quilt instead of a sleeping bag, and a closed-cell foam pad for quick deployment after a long day of hiking.
Most hikers fall somewhere in the middle, and will be carrying a blend of the two styles. This could mean foregoing the cookware but carrying a warmer sleeping bag, or always carrying camp clothes but opting for a lighter shelter.
Try out your gear and don’t be afraid to tweak it before your trip, and always remember that one person’s setup isn’t guaranteed to work for you. In fact, it probably won’t.
2) What season are you hiking?
You probably won’t need a complete gear change depending on the season, but there will definitely be differences in the warmth rating of your sleep system, the coverage of your shelter, and the layers you hike in.
A summer thru-hike is the easiest gear to plan for. Warmer weather and (usually) less precipitation means fewer layers, less contingency planning, and less concern about shelter coverage. It’s also probably going to be the lightest load you’ll carry, with summer temperatures on many trails rarely dipping below freezing at night, even at the higher elevations.
Spring and fall mean cooler nights, less daylight, and less predictable weather. You’ll want to plan for warm days and colder mornings, which means additional layers. Shorter daylight hours mean shorter hiking days as well; if you plan to hike after dark, make sure your headlamp has the power to get you all the way to camp.
Winter thru-hikes in the northern climates are for more experienced backpackers, but there are plenty of trails in the southern part of the US ideal for a winter thru-hike. A winter thru-hike in snowy regions means you’ll need a sturdy shelter that can shed snow, a zero-degree sleeping bag with treated face fabric and treated down, and plenty of layers to change into at camp.
Southern climates for winter hikes can be treated like shoulder-season hikes up north — less chance of snow and exposure, but also short daylight hours and sometimes less frequent water.
3) What climate and terrain is your trail?
Understand the conditions and expected climate of the region you’re hiking in, and make sure the gear in your pack is suited for the trail.
Your gear for a desert hike will look different than your gear for a mountainous thru-hike. Take into consideration aspects like sun exposure, water frequency, and trail conditions.
A desert hike will necessitate gaiters to keep sand out of your shoes, more capacity for longer water carries, and you might want a long-sleeved sun shirt.
A mountainous trail means sturdier shoes, beefier trekking poles for rugged terrain, and a warm, insulated jacket for high-elevation nights.
Knowing the details of your gear and intended use will make the experience safer, more enjoyable, and mean less adjustments once you’re out there.
4) What does the resupply access look like?
This might not seem as critical as season, climate, and comfort preferences, but the distance between resupply is surprisingly important for your gear list. A trail with more access to towns gives you more wiggle room for screwing up your gear.
Look at the schedule for your hike and the resources in the trail towns along the way—tiny towns without outfitters or big-box stores might be good for a resupply or mail drop, but they won’t have the option of replacing a popped sleeping pad or dying headlamp.
The distance between towns is important as well. Shorter times between resupply means lighter food carries, which translates directly to a lighter pack. If you’re going seven or eight days between resupplies, your pack will be far heavier than a three-day resupply. Remember, once you have your base weight and extra gear in the pack, you’ll still need to carry your food and water. A week’s worth of food can be shockingly heavy, and water weighs two pounds per liter.
When it’s all said and done, no gear error will ruin your hike — safety and emergencies notwithstanding. There’s usually a way to fix your errors, and at most, you’ll endure discomfort or inconvenience until you get to a town or can order replacement gear.
Maggie Slepian is a full-time freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. She is the co-founder of BackpackingRoutes.com, and spends as much time outdoors as possible. You can follow her here, or find clips and contact info at Maggieslepian.com