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What NOT To Take on the Appalachian Trail

Updated on December 29, 2014
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Leave This Gear and Clothing Behind on any Long-Distance Hike and Even Most Short Backpacking Trips

Well before I began my own A.T. thru-hike with 40 pounds on my back, including food for several days and a few liters of water, I was hearing stories of hikers who'd started up the approach trail to Springer Mountain and the first white blaze with packs weighing in excess of 75 and even 90 pounds.

I'd heard that many of those prospective thru-hikers had left the trail soon afterwards because it was just too difficult, while others sustained injuries from carrying too much weight. Of course, other hikers pared down their overweight backpacks and carried on, successfully making it more than 2,000 miles to Mt. Katahdin at the other end of the trail.

Regardless if you're aiming to be an ultralight backpacker or, like me, are comfortable with a "reasonably heavy" pack, don't take up precious room in your backpack or add to your pack weight with these unnecessary, extraneous, and possibly even risky items.

(And about that rocketpack pictured above ... if you really are interested in a beverage pack like this one and and other similar packs, see the bottom of this page.)

A Pack Weight Poll - Are you a kitchen sink carrier or do you go to the opposite extreme?

Which statement most accurately matches your backpacking philosophy?

See results

My Suggestions for What NOT To Take on the A.T. (or other backpacking trips) and recommended gear too

Source

A Humongous, Heavy Backpack

You really don't need all that room (or weight) on the Appalachian Trail

Okay, I know; you're going backpacking, so you NEED a backpack. And you're backpacking for a very long time over many, many miles. But, really, the main differences between what you need to carry for an overnight trip versus several days at a time on the trail are the amount of food, maybe some additional clothing, and, depending on availability where you're backpacking, the amount of water you might carry. But the other basic hiking essentials are usually very much the same.

So I'd advise against going with a pack that's much -- if at all -- larger than what you'd carry for a short trip. Think of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike or long-distance section hike as a series of short backpacking trips strung together. No need to carry one of those heavier, expedition-sized packs, like the Cuscus 75+10L pack (below). I'm not saying it isn't a good backpack, but at 5400ci and 5 pounds, I think it's really too much ... much more than you need for the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and many other long-distance treks.

A thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail is a journey, but not what I'd call an expedition. For an expedition, you'd need something like this....


A 5,400 cubic inch Cucus Backpack -- Too much pack for the A.T.

A 5,400 cubic inch Cucus Backpack -- Too much pack for the A.T.
A 5,400 cubic inch Cucus Backpack -- Too much pack for the A.T.

This Would Be a Better Choice for a Long-Distance Hike on the Appalachian Trail

There are so many choices out there when it comes to backpacks, not to mention other gear, so I'll just give you my two cents.

When I thru-hiked, I carried an external frame Kelty Tioga pack. It did the job, and it was very good for organizing gear with its multiple pockets, but I personally would never use an external again. (It squeaked, and the rigid frame got stuck too often on branches and rocks. It was also a bit wide.) These days, I prefer an internal frame Osprey pack for its quality, comfort, and features, including handy hip belt pockets. Like this one...

Osprey Packs Atmos 65 Backpack (Graphite Grey, Large)
Osprey Packs Atmos 65 Backpack (Graphite Grey, Large)

There are many styles and sizes of Osprey packs, and this is one of my favorites for anything from an overnight to week-long trips (or longer). And, really, thru-hikes are like a series of shorter backpacking trips, one right after another, with resupply stops in between.

Even the largest Atmos 65 at 4,200 cubic inches weighs just 3 pounds, 12 ounces, and smaller volume versions of this model are available at less weight.

Another really nice thing about this pack is its Fit-on-the-Fly hip belt, which has an adjustment system that allows the belt to be custom fitted while you're wearing it.

You can read all about the pack specifications, features, color and size option on Amazon.

See the product listing for price range, depending on size and color options.

 
Source

Leave the Deoderant Behind

Use that space for something tasty instead.

Sure, when you're at home or work or just wandering around in public, being stinky isn't really socially acceptable (unless maybe you're just home alone and don't mind your own stinkiness). But when you're out there backpacking the A.T., being stinky is the 'in' thing. Trust me! And, honestly, there's little you can do to avoid it.

Even my trail friend, Diamond Doug, who took a solar shower at the end of each day before putting on his signature Hawaiian shirt, got a bit ripe. And, yes, he actually carried a solar shower bag and felt the extra weight was worth it.

So face it, trying to mask said stinkiness with several swabs of deoderant just isn't going to work. It would be kind of like spraying perfume on dog poop.

Just take a bandana "bath" or use a wet wipe on your smelliest pieces. That's about the best you can do.


Shampoo and Conditioner (Image is in the public domain)
Shampoo and Conditioner (Image is in the public domain) | Source

Shampoo and Conditioner Can Stay Home, Too

Some folks, both men and women, shave their heads when they're thru-hiking, but most, like me, prefer to leave their fuzz intact. I just braided my ponytail and left it that way until I got to the next trail town or other place where I could shower.

Most of the time, showers along the A.T. had at least shampoo, but even if they didn't, my hair felt so clean and soft when I washed it after several days on the trail. It's good to let those natural oils build up sometimes, and since many of us are in the habit of showering and washing our hair almost daily at home, the trail is a great place to get some life back in our dried out tresses.


Denim
Denim | Source

Denim is Not a Hiker's Best Friend

On ANY trail

You've probably seen those photos from Appalachian Trail and other hiking books from the 70s and 80s, showing smiling hikers on sunny days wearing jeans. Maybe you've got photos of yourself wearing jeans while posing on a mountaintop with a pack on your back.

While that may have been the style at the time and considered appropriate material for the trail, I'd say it never was a very good fabric for backpacking, no matter how many times you may have worn denim pants while hiking. Denim is heavy. If it gets wet, it stays wet for a long time. And it chafes (in my experience, anyway).



See, I used to do it, too. This is me in 1988, hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire in jeans ... and in snow no less!

Columbia Men's Silver Ridge Convertible Pant
Columbia Men's Silver Ridge Convertible Pant

These pants are made of 100% ripstop nylon, with UPF 50 sun protection built right in the fabric.

They're very lightweight, but they're also very tough. I have pants like these, and they've really stood up well to all the bum-sliding I do. And the pant bottoms really make a difference when it's chillier in the early mornings and evenings on the trail.

 

Try These Hiking Pants Instead - Go synthetic and go convertible

Perhaps you're still stuck on denim when you go for a hike. And on a short dayhike in nice weather ... sure, jeans (or "dungarees" as my parents would call them) may be fine. But if you're intending to go on a multi-day backpacking trip or an end-to-end hike on the Appalachian Trail, I'd recommend going synthetic. It's much lighter, weather and wind-resistant, and dries much more quickly than jeans.

Personally, I prefer zip-off pants, easily convertible to shorts if the weather warms up enough during the day on the trail. Convertible pants usually have zippers or drawstrings at the ankles, so you don't have to remove your shoes to remove the lower pant legs or put them back on. Many styles also have handy pockets on the thighs and/or hips for stashing small things (like an A.T. Data Book, a camera, or snacks for instance) you want to have easily at hand.

Cotton
Cotton | Source

Cotton Isn't So Hot for Backpacking

Have you heard the expression "cotton kills"? Well, I can tell you that it's a true statement. I'm not only a hiker; I'm also a Search and Rescue volunteer, and I've found people deceased because they were unprepared for the conditions, including wearing cotton clothing that got wet and didn't dry, contributing to hypothermia.

Sure, natural is nice -- in this case, a natural fiber -- but that's not always the best choice of what's available. It's one thing if you're hiking in, say, the Grand Canyon in the middle of July and WANT to stay wet to help you cool down in the extreme heat of the day, but if you're in any other type of climate and/or don't have other clothing to change into should the cotton get wet (on purpose, from the rain, or from sweat), leave the cotton home. Even a cotton base layer can literally freeze. And wet cotton is heavy, so why carry the extra weight of that water around?

But don't just take my word for it. Read Why Does Cotton Kill? by "Section Hiker."

For the Hiking Trail, Go With Synthetic Instead

Capilene, polypropylene, nylon, polyester, kevlar -- synthetic fabrics have many different names, but they're all man-made products created through a chemical process. Generally, synthetics are great for hikers because they're light, have good wicking properties (making them great for base layers), and dry quickly. They can also be waterproof (ie. Gortex) and windproof.

Synthetics keep you warm when it's cold and cool when it's warm.

I almost always hike in synthetic tees. When it's warm, they wick the sweat away from my skin and dry quickly. If its chilly, they make a good wicking base layer. On the down side, synthetics seem to get stinkier faster than cotton and hold the stink longer, but, ah well, the birds and other critters don't seem to mind. (I'm afraid I can't say the same, though, for nice motorists who gave us hitch-hiking thru-hikers rides into town.)

Save the Heavy, Bulky Sleeping Bags for Car-Camping

And slumber parties

I'm not saying you need to spend a few hundred dollars on a super ultralight bag, but, for backpacking (be it for one night or many), definitely go for light synthetic or down instead of one of those heavy (often cotton) car-camping or slumber party sleeping bags. Just be sure to keep down fill dry.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but I've seen some "interesting" choices of sleeping bags lashed to people's backpacks, including a double bag like this one for a couple who was hiking together. I don't know, but after a few days on the trail, I can hardly stand being with myself in a sleeping bag let alone anyone else.

A Better Choice of Sleeping Bag for the Trail

This synthetic bag weighs 2 pounds, 14 ounces and packs down really well.

Mountain Hardwear UltraLamina™ 15 Sleeping Bag
Mountain Hardwear UltraLamina™ 15 Sleeping Bag

This is a popular bag with very positive reviews. And I'll add my own thumbs up. With a 15-degree rating, this sleeping bag is good for late spring through early fall in the Appalachian mountains, but you may want to go with a warmer bag or add a lightweight sleeping bag liner for colder nights on the trail.

 

We All Love Our Pillows

But they're not very practical for backpacking

Hey, to each his or her own, and if you really want to carry a pillow -- one of those little backpacking pillows (some of which are inflatable), I hope, and not a full-sized bed pillow -- then by all means, do so. You're doing the carrying, unless you plan to take a pack mule (where allowed) or pack man ... er, or woman. But I prefer to stuff my extra clothing into my sleeping bag stuff sack and use that as a pillow. You know, the "multi-use" thing.

Granite Gear Round Rock Solid Compression Sacks,22L
Granite Gear Round Rock Solid Compression Sacks,22L

I prefer a compression sack for my sleeping bag and another for my extra clothing (which means I don't have to transfer clothes to the other stuff sack to make a pillow). I just don't compress it when I'm using it for a pillow.

 

So Stuff a Stuff Sack Instead of Taking a Pillow

At the end of the day, pull your sleeping bag out of its stuff sack and replace it with your extra clothing and outer layers. I sometimes place a fleece or even just a large bandana over the stuff sack, so I can lay my head against a softer material than the smooth fabric of the stuff sack.

You can even put your emptied backpack under the stuffed stuff sack for extra lift if you're more comfortable that way.

Machete
Machete | Source

Hatchets, Machetes or Over-the-Top Multi-Tools

There's no need for such tools on the Appalachian Trail

On my first night on the A.T., I saw a fellow backpacker trying to saw down a small tree because it was RIGHT where he wanted to put up his tent. Crazy, huh? And totally uncool. Needless to say, other hikers put a stop to that immediately, and the tree-cutter put his machete back in its holster. Not an appropriate "tool" for the trail.

Neither are big, heavy multi-tools with everything from bottle openers to screw drivers and seventeen different blades. Most anything you'll need to repair, open, pry, pick or punch a hole in while on the trail--any trail--can be accomplished with just a small number of implements. Some thru-hikers carried just a sharp knife rather than a multi-tool.

Definitely NOT the Right Tool for the Trail - Any trail, for that matter

But this is too funny ... AND expensive. Check this out....

Wenger 16999 Swiss Army Knife Giant
Wenger 16999 Swiss Army Knife Giant

This cool, conversation piece of extreme multi-tool my have 87 implements that perform 141 functions, but, needless to say, it's a bit much for something like an Appalachian Trail thru-hike ... or any backpacking trip for that matter. With a shipping weight of more than 7 pounds, I think this one is better for the workbench (or maybe the coffeetable) than the trail.

Funny, all those tools and it doesn't have a bottle opener.

 

Better Options for the Backpacker

I like this little Squirt. The Leatherman Squirt, that is. It's very small and very light, but it has everything I need for pretty much any little job or repair I've needed to make on the trail (any trail). I prefer the option with pliers as the main tool, which are handy for grabbing and pulling and twisting and turning.

With the keychain attachment, I can hang the Squirt from a lightweight carabiner on my pack along with other small things I want to keep handy.

Some backpackers prefer just a blade rather than a multi-tool, like this Gerber knife with a serrated edge.

First aid
First aid

Forego First Aid Kits That Could Treat a Family of Five for Five Months or So

That many medical supplies are not necessary on a thru-hike

Even if you ARE hiking with your family and carrying the first aid kit for the whole group, you really need just the basics along with any medications you may take. Me, I hiked the whole trail with just some band-aids, a little bit of Ibuprofin, a small tube of Neosporin, and some blister care items like Moleskin and Second Skin. Oh, and duct tape, which came in handy for covering "hot spots" and, if I did get a blister, keeping the blister care stuff in place.

While you may want or need a bit more of a first aid kit than I carried, you certainly don't need anything nearly as extensive as this one pictured here.

Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight and Watertight Medical Kit .3
Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight and Watertight Medical Kit .3

There are several options, including the smallest ".3" kit, pictured here, which weighs just .9g., and larger kits with more supplies.

 

Smaller, Lighter First Aid Kits for Backpackers

Of course, you can put together your own first aid kit with one trip to the drugstore and without spending much money. And keep in mind that you'll be able to pick up some supplies along the way, if you run low on basic first aid items or find you want something you didn't include.

Or you can pick up one of these handy, lightweight, pre-packaged first aid kits.

No Need for a Big Ol' Mess Kit

At home we often use a plate for the main meal, a bowl or separate plate for salad, another little plate for dessert, not to mention different utensils. On the trail, though, all those items add up to additional weight and bulk.

When I hiked the A.T. as well as other trails, I had one cooking pot, which was also my plate and bowl, and one utensil -- a spork. I occasionally used the pot lid as another surface to construct and put down my bagel sandwich in between spoonfuls of soup. Or sometimes I just used a handy rock or my leg. To me, backpacking is partly about making do and improvising rather than carrying all kinds of extras. That's part of the fun, and I think it's cool how little we can get by with for long periods of time compared to all the stuff we use and have at hand at home.

My Backpacker's Cooking System These Days

When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, I started off using an MSR Whisperlite Stove and a single pot. Eventually, I traded that stove out for simple Esbit Fuel tablets and a pocket stove. These days, I usually backpack with a Jet Boil stove like the one pictured here, along with the 1-liter cooking vessel, which doubles as my mug.

This set-up is nice and compact, because the stove and the fuel canister fit inside the pot.

The cooking vessel clips to the burner for safety, and, as the name implies, the Jet Boil is fast. I've been really happy with mine.

You can buy various accessories to go with the Jet Boil system, including a larger cooking pot if you need one.

See product listing for price range depending on color choices and other options.

One Pot Can Do it All - Aluminum is lightweight, but if you're willing to spend a bit more, titanium is even lighter and more durable.

Read about Pack Man: The Appalachian Trail Guru who helps northbound thru-hikers pare down their pack weights at their first stop, Walasi-Yi at Neel's Gap.

If You Really DO Want a Backpack -- or rather "beer pack" -- Like This One....

You can take a look at this and other similar items (for real!) on Rocket-Packs.com, selling vending beverage drink dispensers for cold or hot drinks.

© 2012 Deb Kingsbury

Have You Ever Brought Something Backpacking You Wish You'd Left at Home? - (Excluding your hiking partner, that is.)

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    • profile image

      NC Shepherd 5 years ago

      Well, I might have been better off without my partner on my second hike. Oh, you mean gear? I'm pleased to say that I had my pack just right on the AT. Didn't have to jettison anything or add anything. I did exchange a couple things at various points (cold weather gear, different sleeping pad), but overall I had it planned pretty good.

    • MacPharlain profile image

      MacPharlain 5 years ago

      Congrats on another great resource for hiking the Appalachian Trail!

    • Fcuk Hub profile image

      Fcuk Hub 5 years ago

      Yes I always forget something at home :)

    • Cinnamonbite profile image

      Cinnamonbite 5 years ago

      Actually, you helped me here with some packing. I'm gearing up for a trip across the US, stopping for a day at the Grand Canyon. I was planning on wearing jeans, but maybe I should rethink that. You're right. I have pictures of me in the 70s hiking it in jeans (and I posted them on my lens too! LOL)! They don't breathe, they don't keep me warm either. Maybe something else is a better way to go. My biggest problem is that we've had temps in the 80s and 90s for months and y'all are still down in the 50s and 30s. Looks like a freezing cold temp in the 60s and low 70s is the best I'm going to get the whole time I'm away and that means I have to pack a lot of layers and a heavy coat. Maybe even a hat.

    • Fran Tollett profile image

      Fran Tollett 5 years ago

      Very interesting lens. I learned a lot about taking a long backpacking trip. Great job!

    • AustriaChick profile image

      AustriaChick 5 years ago

      Loved your lens. Learned things I had never considered before! Thanks for sharing

    • Paul Ward profile image

      Paul 5 years ago from Liverpool, England

      Readable and authoritative - a rare combination. Blessed for the quality of information.

    • Lauriej1 profile image

      Lauriej1 5 years ago

      Wow! Great lens!

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      Very good first-hand experience here. I didn't know synthetic clothing could be better. I prefer cotton but that makes sense.

    • BarbRad profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

      I've never been backpacking, so I haven't had to face this. It's still good to know, though, just in case.

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 5 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      Nope, but I regret a pillow almost every single time.

    • profile image

      grannysage 5 years ago

      I'm so impressed. If I ever were to go backpacking, which is not an option at this time of my life, I would definitely take your advice, all of it. You definitely know your stuff and make it sound fun too. Even if the sleeping bags look like coffins, lol.

    • profile image

      AngryBaker 5 years ago

      wow... great info... the Appalachian Trail has fascinated me for years... one day I'll get there.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Sounds to me it is best to used Your Advise, besides it makes Common Sense to me and I am just a Beginner! ;)

    • profile image

      getmoreinfo 5 years ago

      I am always learning new things by reading about your hiking experiences, it is funny how people think they can carry so much stuff, I guess it is one of those "live and learn" type lessons.

    • profile image

      TravelingRae 5 years ago

      When I did the Chilkoot Trail a couple of years back, our guides went through our packs to make sure we weren't carrying more than we needed. Mine was fine, but I was laughed at for thinking I'd need a whole roll of duct tape for a seven day hike. On the first day, one of the guides sheepishly took some to cover a blister and I used some to repair a rip in my pants. On the second day, we met a hiker from another group whose boots had fallen apart. I traded my duct tape (to keep the boots together) for extra coffee that I eventually traded for peanut M&Ms. Duct tape is a must! :)

    • profile image

      TravelingRae 5 years ago

      When I did the Chilkoot Trail a couple of years back, our guides went through our packs to make sure we weren't carrying more than we needed. Mine was fine, but I was laughed at for thinking I'd need a whole roll of duct tape for a seven day hike. On the first day, one of the guides sheepishly took some to cover a blister and I used some to repair a rip in my pants. On the second day, we met a hiker from another group whose boots had fallen apart. I traded my duct tape (to keep the boots together) for extra coffee that I eventually traded for peanut M&Ms. Duct tape is a must! :)

    • DiscoverWithAndy profile image

      DiscoverWithAndy 5 years ago

      Awesome lens! I haven't backpacked for a while now after a bad run-in with LOTS of ticks, but soon. Right now it's just car camping, but I'm plenty fine with that. I'll definitely have to check through your lenses before doing anymore hard-core backpacking though :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Very informative. Thanks!

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