What to take? What works, what doesn't?
For long distance hikes, carry too much and we would be uncomfortable and only able
to move at a slower pace. Alternatively
if one gets caught up on being light weight and minimalist then you risk
setting aside gear that you’d need, spending time on the trail combating the
elements unprepared or trekking in discomfort.
The reality is that every hike is different and every person is different. Some people thru hike with only a tarp and sleeping bag, which is something given the range of weather conditions and insects we have encountered on the trail I just can’t do. Others dislike the weight of carrying a sleeping pad or air mattress, but after a long day of trekking I want to be comfortable. Some think that 2 pairs of clothes and 3 pairs of socks are excessive and a luxury, but for me the option to change out of my sweaty and smelly hiking gear into fresh(ish) clothing and a warm wooly pair of socks is a must at the end of the day. Once again every hike and every hiker are different. So the key isn't to do what everyone else is doing, it is to do what works for you.
Ultimately decisions about what goes with you and in your backpack do have to be made, since one can realistically only carry so much, stay comfortable, and venture about.
While this seems easy, the range of possible gear, the need to be prepared for different trail conditions, temperatures and weathers, as well as the desire to stay somewhat comfortable makes it all a challenge.
Writing about our gear is perhaps one of the most unnerving experiences for us. It begets a debate that leads to the most criticism, most judgment, and most rants. We have long since avoided listing our gear, not because we have some type of inside knowledge that we are keeping to ourselves, but simply because neither of us enjoy the comments, critiques, and emails that ensue. Hikers critique us for not being light enough, long distance trekkers comment that the Great Trail should not be counted as a path as it crosses and utilizes roads, photographers complain that our gear isn’t professional enough, birders critique that we should have better binoculars, carry a scope with tripod and have guide books on us…etc, etc, etc.. We know all this, and what we carry is the result of decisions we have made.
The truth is that we aren't gear or hiking experts. We don't have inside knowledge or specialist opinions. We still make mistakes and still change our gear around every time we go out. We are just two ordinary people on an extraordinary trek.
Before making your decisions you should definitely be sure to check out some of the great online forums, articles and books about what gear recommendations people are making - because there is lots of wonderful advice out there.
The thing to remember is that everyone has the gear that they feel comfortable with and swear by – which is a good thing but the key is to – find what you like, what works for you, and what you are comfortable with. It doesn’t have to be the lightest, the newest, the most expensive, or the trendiest – if it works for you then that is your gear. You will never need as much as you think and certainly won’t ever use as much as the outfitters are willing to sell you. The best piece of advice that we can give you is to : do your research, try some of the gear out (borrow from friends, buy lightly used). Use the gear you decide on for short local trips first, see what you need, see what you like, discard what isn’t working for you and then build up until you are comfortable with your kit to trek further.
Always remember to Hike your own Hike, and trek according to your interests and your own comfort level. And above all remember to have fun out there.
Gear Essentials and General Recommendations
Regardless of your final choices you have to address the core essential gear that you will need on a long distance trek and sometimes even a short camping trip. This means you need to look at:
(2) Backpack. Want to consider volume/size, comfort, adjustability and durability. Remember that you'll need a pack large enough to fit everything but not so large that you add in the unnecessary (yes we have learned that the hard way). If possible find one that dries out quickly too. Night dew, day time rain, freak weather, and the unexpected lead packs to get wet regularly. It makes the days on the trails go better if our packs dry out and our gear isn't continually wet.
(3) Sleeping bag. When looking at sleeping gear you want to consider its temperature rating (don’t trust the tag on this), its comfort to sleep in, and how compact you can get it in a stuff sack or backpack. For thru hikes be aware that you might need to change sleeping bags en route to adjust to changing weather conditions and seasons.
(4) Sleeping pad. While some will tell you that this is a luxury it is nonetheless a luxury you will love after a long days trek. Being able to sit or lie on something with a bit of bounce rather than trying to get comfortable laying on hard packed campsite, a rock or a root makes the small weight worth it. When looking at sleeping pads or inflatable mattresses you want to check out the size, length, weight, comfort, noise (some mats crinkle which can be annoying to some) and R Value (what determines how much protection you have from cooler temperatures).
(5) Clothing – outer garments including shirts, pants, shorts. Perhaps the best piece of advice about clothing is no cotton. For those setting out for the first time check out Merino Wool. Merino is generally cooler, odor resistant, cleans easier, and dries much quicker (check out Icebreaker, Smart Wool, etc). Some argue for the plastic athletic shirts that are popular, and it is a personal choice for everyone. However, we found that athletic clothing was (for us) a little like wearing a garbage bag and held onto odors more on the trail.
(6) Under Garments. Much like the rest of your gear and clothing with under garments you want to try to look at materials that are quick dry, comfortable, and scentless. Find under garments that are light weight and carry a couple of extra which you can change into while washing, at night, and to have something clean to change into to sleep in. The magical properties of changing into something clean after a day of trekking shifts your perspective and feels like you have been renewed for the evening! for us ExOfficio have been wonderful, but there are a range of good options out there.
(7) Socks. Given that you are literally going to thrive (or not) on your feet, socks are a key consideration. Once again we would suggest Merino Wool (check Darn Tough, Icebreaker, Wigwam) and advise carrying a few pair to be able to wash your socks each night, dry them the next day and have a clean pair to wear. At times we also have a woollier warmer pair just for nights to comfort our feet after a long day.
(8) Head covering / hat. Not a mandatory piece of gear and therefore, for some might just be extra weight. However something with a brim to keep the sun off your head and shade your face is essential in some areas - especially for those who burn easily. More than that, in regions where you might end up wearing a bug net a hat with a brim keeps the netting and the insects off your face.
(9) Outdoor gear – Rain Jacket. Rain Pants, Down Jacket. Buying Rain Gear means making a choice between a poncho or rain jacket and pants. While there are benefits to both, we have found that having a good rain jacket is also a wonderful piece of kit for staying warm on windy days. The key to good rain gear is to find a system that keeps you warm and dry but doesn’t lead to overheating. Just as you want to find a outer wear that is light weight, packable and dries quickly. The only other big tip is to keep your foul weather gear accessible and not at the bottom of your backpack under everything else!
(10)Footwear. Perhaps the key piece of gear that must be purchased as it will likely take the most wear and provide the most comfort or discomfort is footwear. In making choices about footwear a number of considerations come up – boot or shoe or sandal? Ankle support, trekking shoe or running shoe? What season are you trekking in? What conditions are you hiking in? How water resistant do you want your footwear to be (waterproof does not exist)? How quickly does this gear dry out? Do you want an extra pair of sandals or crocs at night to change into after hiking? Remember that feet swell (about a size) when hiking and so looking at a slightly larger size might be something to consider as well. For us Keen Boots (very durable), Keen trekking Sandals (cozy and light) and Merrel Moab shoes (wide toe box) have been the go to gear.
(11)Water / water gathering / water purification. Depending on where you are trekking you might be able to carry enough water or get water from reliable sources. However if you can’t that means you will need to address what the quality of the local water is like, what is in the water sources you have available to you on the trail and how to purify the water you have access to. This means that you have to consider whether to carry a water filter or purification tablets or a combination of both. Owing to the necessity to have drinkable water this is one of the few areas that we carry a filter and then also have tablets as a backup. To be perfectly blunt we also carry anti-diarrhea pills as well to avoid dehydration if we have not been as careful with our water as we hope to be. You also need to be aware that at times it can be tricky to get to water and so you need to be prepared with a means to gather water (collapsable bucket or filtration bag) as well as a means to dispose of grey water / wash water responsibly after using it.
(12)Water bottle. Since you need to drink water, need to carry water, and will likely be filtering it then you also need a water bottle. Get something lightweight, something reusable, durable and something that can either be easily recycled or cleaned. You also want to ensure that you have a bottle or bottles large enough to accommodation the amount of liquid you need to carry.
(13)Stuff sacks / compression sacks. While some people drop their clothes and gear into their backpacks and trek, it is worth considering a system of stuff sacks or compression sacks to help organize and keep your gear secure. These also help you in balancing the weight in your pack as well as in keeping your gear and clothes dry after a rainy day on the trail or on keeping things dry while you pack your backpack during foul weather conditions (my stuff goes around my tent in my backpack).
(14)First aid / hygiene / bug protection / gear repair kit. This is going to vary from person to person. Most of the time we carry far more first aid and hygiene products than we ever use. We carry toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, and personal hygiene products as necessary. In addition to which we carry things like Advil for minor soreness and muscle problems, bandaids and alcohol for blisters, a needle and thread, tweezers, a small role of duct tape, nail clippers, anti-diarrhea pills, and gravol. Similarly we also carry bug protection (whether bug spray or lightweight bug nets) for those tough black fly and mosquito days as well as gear patches to repair minor wear in our gear and tent.
The next choice you need to make is about a stove. Many people don’t backpack with one and some
consider it a luxury, but a warm tea at night or warm meal in the morning can
also be a heaven sent and help keep spirits up.
If hiking with a stove is your thing then decisions about what size, and
weight of one to carry as well as whether to have one that requires a specific
fuel canister (giving way to considerations of availability, size and weight). If you are looking at a fuel stove then try to build a cook system that fits together so that it takes up less room in your backpack. Alternatively
there are great non-fuel stoves that rely on you starting and using an open
flame to cook on, but these require diligence in using them, knowledge of how
to get them lit, as well as making sure that there are sources of fuel (dry
sticks) to cook with.
(16)Cookware / Swiss Amy Knife (reasonable size with sharp knife). If you are cooking on the trail then you will also need some cookware which can include or exclude a number of possible items. You can have pots (lightweight, compact work best) as well as bowls, dishes and cutlery in your kit. Ultimately this is all about what works for each person. We have found that between two of us a compact pot with lid and 2 spoons are enough for us to cook in and eat out of. The only extra then is having a small sharp knife or multitool that has a decent blade to cut bread or cheese as needed. This is certainly one of those areas that you want to test out things and figure out what you can live with and without on the trail.
(17)Hiking polls. A potential extra for many and a potential must for others. This is all about personal comfort and choice. Many trekkers, including myself, swear by them as taking pressure off the legs, helping crossing rivers, stabilizing in tough terrain, being helpful in setting up tarps, and potentially serving as a nice form of protection that is ready and in hand. Others, like my trekking partner, find them an annoyance that get in the way. Regardless, they are worth considering and trying. For those who like using them my best advice is to find ones that are easily adjustable, compact for travelling (airplanes and trains), and ones that you can easily find replacement tips as they wear out.
(18)Head lamp. This is another potential extra having a lightweight, hands free, strong and long lasting lamp on you. For long distance hikers I think it is a must to have a torch of some type on you and I’d recommend one that lets you do things like set up a tent or cook hands free. However I also carry my lamp on me on day hikes too. Much like having a backup water filtration system, a light weight lamp that you carry on you is a simple backup that is available for those unexpected situations like finding yourself in the midst of a dark storm or staying too long on the trails and being able to find your way back.
Extra : Trail Guide / App. Know the trail or path you are setting out onto. If you aren't acqainted with it, get the local guide, read the signs at the trail head (take a picture of the trail map) or download one of the amazing free trail apps out there (All Trails, Guthooks, Great Trail App). Having an guide or an app on you helps you know the area, can help you navigate if you get lost, but also means you have your phone on you in case of emergencies.
With the range of decisions to make, options to balance, and range of gear available this process can seem overwhelming. We have all been there and years later still make changes to what we carry in our packs.
We all begin somewhere and learn that we don’t need as much as we think we do and that there is only so much one can carry and still enjoy the trek.
Just remember that the key to all of this is to find what you like, what works for you, and what you are comfortable with. It doesn’t have to be the lightest, the newest, the most expensive, or the trendiest – if it works for you then that is your gear. You will never need as much as you think and certainly won’t ever use as much as the outfitters are willing to sell you. The best piece of advice that we can give you is to : do your research, try some of the gear out (borrow from friends, buy lightly used). Use the gear you decide on for short local trips first, see what you need, see what you like, discard what isn’t working for you and then build up until you are comfortable with your kit to trek further.
Always remember to Hike your own Hike, and trek according to your interests and your own comfort level.
In our next blog we will share some of the gear that we have used, what brands we carry and have come to rely on, and what we have changed in the course of our years spent trekking along the world’s longest recreational pathway, The Great Trail.