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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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September 20, 2019

Forget half of what you read about pack weight (and put away the credit cards)

Before December of last year, there were really only two things I knew about the Appalachian Trail: It was incredibly long, and I wanted to hike the entire trail someday. Once I decided that I would thru-hike the AT this year, of course, I began extensive research immediately. Unlike Bill Bryson, my research didn’t begin looking into how many seconds it takes a grizzly bear to climb a tree and digest you whole (I enjoyed Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods, but there are no grizzly bears on the AT and I think some of his research focused on the less likely dangers of the trail). Instead, I looked at the characteristics of the 200 crazy souls who completed the journey each year, and I read books by people who had done a thru-hike.

One of the first things to jump out at me, of course, was pack weight. I don’t remember where I read this – I believe it was a Wikipedia article that I can’t find and may not have been accurate in the first place – but one of the first statistics I saw was that most successful thru-hikers carried a pack weighing between 20 and 30 pounds — including food and water. This would become my mantra in the early days of my thru-hike prep. I was going to fly up the East Coast with 20 lbs on my back, carrying such a light load that I could wear hiking sandals the whole way if I really wanted.

Boy was I wrong.

Once you get deeper into planning, priorities change, budgets and desired comfort become a reality, and life happens. For example, I have an ultralight tarp and a mosquito netting system that would make my “shelter” weigh barely more than 16 oz. But do I really want to rely on this, especially in early parts of the trail where temperatures can get pretty cold? Through snowstorms and torrential rain? No one is forcing you to thru-hike the AT, so the presumption is that you’re doing it for the enjoyment. No doubt, part of the experience is facing some level of adversity and relying on minimal supplies, but there is a line.

On day one, I thought I had pretty good gear for a long hike. My pack weighs only 26 oz, a Jansport frame pack with 4500 cubic inches of storage, but apparently this is the only piece of my equipment that would be considered anywhere close to light by ultralight purists. I also own a Eureka Backcountry two-man backpacking tent that weighs in at 5 lbs. I think I have stuck with Eureka over the years because it was pretty much the Boy Scout standard used in my first backpacking trips as a kid, and these tents stand up to all the wear and tear rowdy 12-year-olds can give it. But ultralight it is not. Ultralight tents often weigh in at 2 pounds or even less at prices that will make you cringe. Don’t get me started on the cost of sleeping bags. I have been a three season-only camper recently, using a 30 degree mummy bag, which I knew would have to be replaced. The cost of a 10 or 20 degree ultralight bag is staggering.

I also had to face the realities that I would need to carry more because of my type 1 diabetes and because I would be writing a book along the trail, as well as posting a journal of my trek in real-time. The diabetes supplies are non-negotiable, and the writing equipment will enhance my enjoyment of the experience. After all, this is not meant to be a vacation for me, but instead the coolest, most peaceful writing environment in the world.

So, should you give up on your AT thru-hike if you can’t drop two grand on the newest ultralight gear? Absolutely not. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if having a 20 lb pack is the only way you can make it up the trail, you probably should be worrying about a lot more than equipment.

First, let’s take a look at the history of ultralight and other backpacking gear. The technology and materials that have made ultralight equipment and other improvements possible have not been around all that long. Terms like cuben fiber and moisture-wicking fabric were not part of our vocabulary until the early 90s, and it was far longer before many lightweight technologies were put into use. Every year this technology improves, making the old gear seem heavier and useless. But is it? People have been thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for some time, and they did it long before any of these technologies existed.  Ultralight gear can enhance your experience, let you hike farther with less effort, and in some cases improve safety, but it’s certainly not a deal-breaker.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with these new technologies, and if money was no object I would be rushing out to drop $1200-1500 on a lightweight tent and sleeping bag. My point is, they are not a requirement. More importantly, ultralight backpacking is not a product, it is a philosophy. It is about using knowledge and ingenuity to reduce pack weight and remove unnecessary items.1 With skill, one can perform a thru-hike with less equipment by making better use of the items they do bring, and sometimes using resources available in the wild to replace equipment.

I have met a lot of hikers and thru-hikers since beginning this new journey of mine, one being a young veteran “doulosdoG” who has 500+ miles under his belt, but is planning a YoYo AT thru-hike this year, I believe raising money per mile for the Salvation Army. He doesn’t have the cash to buy all the latest gear, but what he does have is the dedication to examine, in ridiculous detail, every millimeter of equipment he brings on the trail. When I first started talking to him about gear weight, giving him the weight of some of my equipment in ounces, he stopped me right there and explained “I don’t measure in ounces, I measure in grams.” You know those metal tabs you grab onto to open and close zippers? Yeah, he cuts those off and makes his own lightweight pulls. Metal is heavy. That is what ultralight backpacking is about.

Another big weight concern was my bear canister. A bear canister is a device, usually shaped as a cylinder and made of hard plastic, which keeps your food locked up and sealed so that bears can’t smell it or get into it. Rule of thumb is to keep the canister 100 feet from your sleeping area just in case. Living just south of the Adirondacks in upstate New York, using this on my thru-hike seemed like a no-brainer. In fact, bear canisters are required use for overnight backpackers in many parts of the Adirondacks, and are recommended for overnight backpackers in all of Adirondack Park.2 Yet, in all my reading, I did not find one single thru-hiker who had a bear canister in their gear list, instead opting for the old-fashioned bear bags hung up in trees. This made sense to me in a way — bear canisters are heavy. They typically range from 3-5 pounds2, although mine is about 2.

So, almost immediately, I nervously discounted the idea of using my bear canister. I say nervously, because much of my AT thru-hiker research came across conversations like this:

Hiker 1: I just spent $60 on a super-lightweight food bag.

Hiker 2: Yeah, like we’re really going to actually throw rope up and hang those things in trees…

Fast forward to a few days ago, when I bought the pdf version of David Miller’s AT Guide, one of the most popular guidebooks for AT thru-hikers (I couldn’t stand to wait for the hardbound copy to come in the mail). Sure enough, a quick search for “canister” brought me to page 6, where it was noted that bear canisters were highly recommended through Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, but actually required for all overnighters through parts of Georgia.3

Since bear canister use doesn’t seem to be very common, I’m sure you can get away without using one. (By park rangers, not necessarily by black bears). As for me, a bear canister has gone back on my gear list. My pack may weigh 2 pounds heavier, but I suspect I’ll sleep a little better, and have zero chance of having my food stolen by bears in the night. When you’re three days away from your next stop, missing food can become an emergency. At best, you’re looking at a detour to the nearest road to hitch a ride into town. At worst, you’re looking at some very hungry hiking. As an insulin-dependent diabetic, for me the loss of all carbohydrates could be a life-ending catastrophe.

You could use my ultralight gear argument against me here, saying that bear bags have worked for decades. My response to this is that as more human activity occurs on the Appalachian Trail, bear-human interactions are becoming far more common.3 In this particular case, equipment has changed because the conditions have changed.

But if unaffordable equipment is keeping you from thru-hiking the AT, stop worrying. Focus your available finances on the equipment you need for safety first. For example, carrying a 30 degree sleeping bag when hiking through a section known to get as low as 10-20 degrees to save a few pounds of pack weight is a bad idea. I’m not saying that pack weight doesn’t matter; I will continue to spend the next month trimming as much weight as I can through education and making multiple uses out of individual items. But I’m not going to panic if my base pack weight is 22 pounds and not 12. The average soldier deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan carries a pack weighing 60 to 100 pounds4, and I guarantee they’re facing more than you’re going to see on the AT.

So suck it up, be creative in your packing, and I’ll see you in Georgia.


1 Stienstra, T. (2008). Good time to take inventory on gear – and yourself. SFGate. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Good-time-to-take-inventory-on-gear-and-yourself-3224428.php

2 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. (2016). Bear resistant canisters. Retrieved from http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7225.html

3 Miller, D. (2016). The AT Guide 2016 Northbound Edition [PDF Version]. Jerelyn Press: Titusville, FL.

4 Murphy, P. (2011). Weight of war: Soldiers’ heavy gear packs on pain. National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2011/04/10/134421473/weight-of-war-soldiers-heavy-gear-packs-on-pain

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