Written by 2017 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker and NOC Team Member, Hot Sauce. Check out our AT Thru Hiking Gear Collection hand picked by Hot Sauce and other gear experts!
Fun Fact: Betsy got her trail name because she ALWAYS has hot sauce with her!
In its simplest form, a hike is just a walk in the woods. But adding gear for your walk helps you go farther, be prepared for emergencies, or fill a hungry hiker belly up faster than a hitch into town. Proper gear for your hike is vital for efficiency. Gear can’t make you hike faster, but it can help to avoid the frustration of slowing due to blisters, inclement weather, and wasted time like filtering water through a slow filter. Proper gear can also keep you safe and prepared for any unforeseen circumstances. The joy of the backcountry is being away from it all, but it’s a double-edged pocketknife because you are further from basic needs and medical attention. So carrying a simple first aid kit can help get you there. And finally, proper gear can keep you comfortable. All hiking takes place outdoors, so equipment to help make the uncontrollable weather or terrain more bearable makes all the difference in continuing or quitting a hike.
The most important and core gear for a backpacker is usually lumped together as the BIG THREE: 1. Shelter 2. Sleep Set-up 3. Pack (it contains the really important stuff like snacks).
Hikers can get very particular about the big three. This is where most gear funds are spent when preparing for a long-distance hike and can be the quickest place to shave weight if you are into ultralight backpacking.
Hiking the trail, I met another hiker early on with the Hyperlite 3400 Windrider Pack. At first, I wondered how a white pack could stay clean on a 2,000-mile hike, but then I quickly realized I was delusional if I thought I could keep even myself clean this entire hike. The trail talk started, and the hiker spoke about the new backpack and its fantastic ability to keep water out. I was sure they were just happy not to carry a pack cover (or an inner trash bag), but then they surprised me by dumping two gallons of creek water into the pack and washing their clothes by hand inside. I christened them with the trail name “Double Duty” and took the insight (and quest) to find at least two uses for every item I carried!
The value of a trekking pole is immeasurable. From a simple addition of stability in every step you take to the critical use of splinting a broken bone ten miles into your hike. Still, it’s about personal preference and how much (or the weight of) gear you are willing to carry. There are a few backpacking tents out there now that require using a trekking pole for pitching, so keep in mind that hiking with them may mean less gear to carry overall. Another thing to consider when purchasing your poles is the handle material. Some hikers swear the more sustainable cork handles don’t cause blisters, while others may prefer a foam handle for easier disinfecting and de-funk-ifying.
There are two immediate needs for clothing. It needs to be able to dry fast and be layer-able. There is a saying amongst thru-hikers on the trail… No Pain, No Rain, Mo Maine. You will not make it to Maine without getting wet! It’s how fast you dry out that matters. Wet footwear can cause trench foot, and wet clothes can rob you of body heat!
Having never been to GSMNP, I was excited for the terrain to change from the Georgia and North Carolina PUDS (Pointless Ups and Downs without any reward of a view) to the magical misty smokies I had dreamed of. I just didn’t recall seeing many sunny photos of the Smokies. Insert foreshadowing. As expected, my hike through the park was wet, and I opted not to stop halfway in Gatlinburg for respite. After days of the wet drizzle on the outside of my rain gear and the damp sweat on the inside, I learned that my baselayer would dry quick enough if I found shelter to enjoy lunch while my rain gear hung up. This made the trek back to the wet trail less miserable than if I was still damp and cold.
There are four or five different versions of every piece of gear out there. You can decide on your gear based on weight, price, uses material, breathability, and functionality. Putting together a system that works for you is the most important. Try out gear, ask the questions that matter to you, and remember that only you can finish your own hike.
My Most Loved Gear
- BUFF – This was my most used piece of gear! From stopping the sun on my neck to emergency filtering coffee grounds, I now carry one everywhere I go, in the real world too.
- Luxury item – My pillow. I didn’t start the trail with an inflatable pillow. After using my extra clothes in a waterproof sack as my headrest for the first month, I was ready to toss them all off the summit and risk hiking without any. :D So I bought an inflatable pillow. It was one of the few items I didn’t find another use for other than sweet, sweet sleep after miles and miles of hiking; totally worth it.
Like any other thru-hiker, I could talk gear all day. What works for one hiker may not be the best solution for another hiker. There is a phrase for that on the trail as well… Hike your own hike. So thanks for taking this little hike down memory lane with me, and please stop me if you see me at NOC. I would love to talk trail or gear any day!