Approach Trail: How the Hell Do I Pack for 6 Months in the Woods?

The hiking community has undergone a major shift in the last 10 years towards packing less and packing lighter.  There is a reason for this.  You enjoy life a lot more when carrying a 30 pound pack versus a 50 pound pack.  You can hike further, appreciate your surroundings more, and morale at the end of the day is much higher. One of the best idioms I've heard is that your pack weight has a direct correlation with the amount fears of you have. The more you worry, the more you'll end up bringing. 

Overall, cut weight where you can but don't be afraid to bring things that will make you happy. I shave ounces, cutting straps and tags, but I also bring 6+ pounds of camera equipment. It's about balance.

Packing List

Here is a link to my packing list – It includes what I brought, how much each item weighed, and some general notes.  Each person is different, so feel free to take this list and make it your own. For example, you won’t need a bear canister for the AT and you likely won’t be carrying 6 pounds of camera equipment, but you may want to bring a book or a solar shower.  

The Big 3: Pack, Tent, Sleeping Bag

These three items alone can really dictate your pack weight. If you are going to really invest in good gear, this is the category to do it in.  Its good to try to balance out where you spend your money, but to each his own.  If you run cold, you may want to invest in a more pricey bag and cut costs elsewhere.

Pack – The days of 6 pound, 80L expedition packs are long gone.  Shoot for a pack that’s less than 3 pounds. I used the REI Flash 62 and I highly recommend it for multiple reasons – it’s pretty light (2.5 pounds), durable, and very reasonably priced.  That being said, everyone is different. Go to your local outfitter, get measured, load up all the packs, & walk around the store until you hurt in weird places. 

Wondering what size you need? A lot of people recommend bringing all your gear to REI and trying to fit it all each pack.  However, you may not be making your pack purchase last – Shoot for 50-60 liters. If all your shit doesn’t fit, then it’ll help you cut out some of that extra weight.

 The Tarptent Hogback 4 AKA the Taj Mahal

 The Tarptent Hogback 4 AKA the Taj Mahal

Tent – Don’t be the guy that comes without a tent, expecting to sleep in a shelter every night.  It won’t happen. These days you can find some great tents that are under 2 pounds. My personal favorite brand is Tarptent – we had a 4 man Tarptent Hogback (Taj Mahal as we called it) on the AT and the JMT, and that thing was amazing.  They are relatively easy to set up and lighter than most on the market. There were a few nights where the Taj flooded, but it was mainly due to poor site selection, not faulty design. I've also used the Tarptent Contrail, a 1 man tent that uses a trekking pole to set up.  It's a little cramped, but the minimilist design pays off as it is under 2 lbs, a steal for a $200 tent.

We all had Big Agnes Sleeping Bags and Pads.  The bags were awesome, the pads... not so great.

We all had Big Agnes Sleeping Bags and Pads.  The bags were awesome, the pads... not so great.

Sleeping Bag – Down vs. Synthetic: I have a down bag but I think my next one will probably be synthetic. Down is lighter but it loses all insulating properties when wet. There were a couple times during the trip that our tent flooded and I had to put the sleeping bag up and just sleep on my air mattress to avoid getting the bag wet. I think it’s probably a good idea to either a synthetic sleeping bag or jacket, so you can always have some warmth in bad conditions. (That being said, I've used a down bag and jacket for the past 5 years and I've survived). There have been some cool innovations in the sleeping bag world recently – my bag doesn’t have down on the underside (because compressed down hardly insulates) – but I have make sure to bring an insulated sleeping pad.  Shoot for a bag around 2 pounds and make sure to get a waterproof stuff sack for it (I use the 13L Sea to Summit Ultrasil).

 

 One definite benefit of an inflatable pad - it doubles as a float

 One definite benefit of an inflatable pad - it doubles as a float

Gear, etc.

Sleeping Pad – This is entirely a personal preference.  Some people can tolerate sleeping on the thin closed cell foam pads (make sure your sleeping bag has insulation on the underside if you go this route) – it’s a solid choice since its lightweight and cheap.  If I’m sleeping in the woods for months at a time, I prefer a little extra comfort. On the AT we all had Big Agnes Insulated Air Cores, which were incredibly comfortable, but they were terrible. The valves broke on all of ours and air would leak out. Big Agnes is an awesome company and they shipped us new pads on the trail, but the new pads also leaked. By the end, I think the 3 of us went through 11 pads. On the JMT I used a Thermarest Neo Air – this guy is awesome because it’s the lightest on the market. One drawback – its super loud, like sleeping on aluminum foil. Not a huge deal, but it may bug some people in shelters. 

Cookin' diner on top of Beauty Spot

Cookin' diner on top of Beauty Spot

Stove - Any small canister stove should do you right. Its not too difficult to find fuel canisters along the way.  Some hikers go with the tin can design fueled by denatured alcohol. I personally prefer a real stove as it cooks faster and is only a couple extra ounces heavier.

Water Purification – On the AT we mainly used a Steripen, but we also brought iodine as backup – which was necessary.  Steripens are great because they are light and purify water quick - unfortunately, they are finicky bitches. Getting the sad face multiple times in a row will make you want to throw the thing against a tree. These days, I’m a Sawyer filter convert (I have 3).  These things are great – they are cheap and lightweight. You fill up a bag, attach the Sawyer, squeeze water through, and voila – it's immediately pure.  Even better – you can attach your Sawyer in-line with your platypus hose so that all you have to do is fill your platy bag at a water source, then suck through the hose. No pumping, no squeezing, no sad faces. Sometimes you might have to backflush it so you don’t pass out trying to suck water through, but overall it’s the most convenient filtration system I’ve found.  (Note: While the Sawyer Mini is effective, I prefer the Regular Sawyer – it’s only 1 extra ounce (3 oz. total), costs only $40, and allows for better water flow)

Spices – It’s nice to have something to spice up your meals, especially if you cook the same thing every night.  Srirarcha is always a good choice. 

Hygiene Group -

o  Don’t forget TP.  Also, bring some hand sani.  Don’t be that guy with shit hands.

o  Pack towel – we hardly used ours, but they were good to have in a pinch.  Chop it into a 6”x6” square to save some weight.

o  Contacts – If you wear contacts, make sure to stock up before your trip.  Send yourself extras along the way.

Navigation Group -

o  Trail Guide – Do not bring the entire guidebook.  This is an easy way to cut weight.  Chop your guide up and mail future sections to yourself as you go along.

o  Headlamp – Get a decent headlamp. I brought an ultralight one to save weight, but realized on our first night hike that it wasn’t going to cut it.  You don’t need anything crazy, but you need to be able to see at night.

o  Paper/pen – Don’t buy the “Rite in the Rain” shit.  It's not waterproof.

First Aid Group -

  Davis dancin' down the trail on the JMT

  Davis dancin' down the trail on the JMT

o  You don’t need anything too intense for a first aid kit.  Some bandages, gauze, and duct tape will do you fine. I like to include some extra items, because I tend to have strange issues on the trail (in the first week I had poison ivy all over my body, an ingrown toe nail, a rolled ankle, and a bad case of diarrhea).

o  Ankle wrap – I have shitty ankles (Thanks Ma). I rolled my ankle hard in the first week and continued to roll it nearly every day after that.  At first, I wrapped my ankle, but by the end I just abandoned it. To each his own.

o  Pills – As I said, I had weird issues on the trail. Benadryl in case of an allergic reaction, Tums and Loperamide for Diarrhea/other GI issues, Ibuprofen (Vitamin I) is self explanatory, a couple Sudafed can come in clutch.

o  Glucosamine – Not all hikers take this, but I definitely recommend.  Glucosamine helps restore and heal joints, and it was a difference maker for us. P was having terrible knee pain/swelling.  She started taking Glucosamine and within a few weeks her problems were resolved.

 Me n' all dat camera gear

 Me n' all dat camera gear

o  Body Glide/Gold Bond – One or the other usually does the trick, but it's definitely nice to have both.  You’ll definitely have some chaffing along the way. Don’t be the guy that asks to borrow someone else’s body glide.

o  Emergency Blanket – I started carrying one on the AT and it was essential – midway through summer we mailed home our sleeping bags in exchange for fleece blankets.  Of course, the temperature immediately plummeted 20 degrees below average.  We had to bust out the crinkly emergency blankets and everyone camping around us hated us (they are truly loud as shit), but we stayed warm.

Luxury Group - This is where you really can decide what you personally want. I didn’t carry a phone on the AT, but David had his (make sure to get a lifeproof case). Headphones are good to have because some days you just need to jam out to get up the mountain. Carrying 5 pounds of camera equipment kinda sucks, but for me it’s well worth it.

Number 1 Rule: Make sure you look good.

Number 1 Rule: Make sure you look good.

Clothes

This goes without saying, but don’t bring cotton. Search around for what fits/feels best. And make sure you look good, always.

Rain Gear – Truthfully most rain gear sucks.  It either is not waterproof or it doesn’t breathe well, so it starts raining inside your jacket.  I personally don’t bring rain pants anymore.  On the AT I brought Rain Chaps – 2 oz. rain pants without the crotch. They looked weird, but they saved 5 ounces on all the other rain pants. Midway through I chopped them into shorts, or “Chorts”, as I called them.  It was nice to keep my shorts dry, but it honestly wasn’t necessary. Get a lightweight rain jacket and get used to being moist.

Plan on going through 2-3 pairs of shoes over the course of the trail

Plan on going through 2-3 pairs of shoes over the course of the trail

Shoes - These days most thru-hikers are moving towards trail runners. There's a saying, "a pound on your feet is worth 5 on your back". I hiked the AT in Montrail mid height boots that were pretty light, but honestly they didn't provide any real extra ankle support (I have bad ankles and I ended up rolling an ankle at least once a day, even in boots).  Plus, wearing high top boots doesn't allow your ankle to build strength and you're more at risk of a high ankle sprain, which is much worse. Light boots tend to survive as long as a pair of good trail runners and I went through 3 pairs on the AT. I switched to Brooks Cascadias for the JMT and it was a thousand times better. Cascadias are definitely the hiking community's favorite for trail runners, as they are durable, light, and extremely comfortable. On the JMT, 5 out of 6 of us wore Cascadias. 

Liners - Not everyone uses sock liners, but by midway thru we all started using toe-sock style sock liners made by Injini. What worked best for me was carrying 1 pair of classic style liners and 1 pair of Injinjis and switching them off every day. We all found that the Injinjis do a great job of preventing blisters due to the toe separation. Make sure you don't get any that are too thick. Also, make sure you have on liners (if you are going to use them) and hiking socks when initially trying on shoes/boots.

Shirts/Jacket – I typically carry 1 short sleeve, 1 light long sleeve, 1 thicker long sleeve, and a down jacket. My Montbell Ex Light Down Jacket is one of my favorite pieces of gear – at less than 6 ounces it provides as much warmth as jackets twice the weight. It's no frills, but it gets the job done.

Shorts/Pants – I bring 1 pair of shorts (the shorter the better), 1 pair of long johns (possibly 2 if early/late in the season), and a pair of wind pants. My Montbell Dynamo UL Wind Pants are also a favorite – they weigh less than 3 ounces, are water-resistant, and can save you half a pound over comparable rain pants.

Town Clothes – You may want to bring an extra set of shorts/shirt for town.  Otherwise you’ll be doing laundry and eating out in your rain jacket and pants.  You can definitely save weight here, but it was awfully nice to throw on fresh cotton after a shower. A cotton shirt is OK here – in fact it's life changing .

Camp Shoes – You can save some weight by not bringing these, but its really nice to let the dogs out at the end of the day.  We weighed and tested every shoe we could find, from flips flops to crocs.  We found that Hounds, the Walgreens version of Crocs, were the lightest and most swagtastic.

The balaclavas in action

The balaclavas in action

Trekking Poles – Some people don’t bring em. I personally have been using them for over 10 years and I can’t imagine hiking without them.  They help you push up and stumble down the mountain, and serve as great crutches for those long days. I had a pair of Lekis last me over 10 years. I'm now using a set of the REI Traverses with cork grips  They've worked pretty well, except for a few times when the screws have loosened and the pole collapses unexpectedly, sending me tumbling down with it.  Overall, huge fan of trekking poles though. 

Hat – I sent my ball cap home in the first week on the AT.  You’re pretty much hiking in a green tunnel the entire time, so you don’t need that much sun protection. However, it is definitely nice to have a light beanie of some sort. In colder times I also bring a balaclava – guaranteed warmth.

 

Overall, focus on chopping weight wherever you can. Less weight is definitely more enjoyable. But don't be afraid to pack things that make you happy.  You'll really appreciate them on the tough days.

 

Let me know if you have any other gear related questions.  Make sure to check out my other resources in the Hiker Box