What Not to Carry on Your First Thru-Hike
Fear and overzealousness often lead to an overstuffed pack, which you’ll regret for hundreds of miles. Our thru-hiking columnist has advice on what not to take when you’re heading out.
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Genius, at least, had come by his ironic trail name honestly: He did not know what he was doing, or that there was a smarter way to do it.
Some 500 miles into his northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Genius still lugged a backpack that looked as big as a coffin, every pocket and pouch and zipper straining against the unnecessary bulk he’d shoved inside. As he hiked uphill, he appeared to be buried beneath his belongings. When members of my trail family (myself included) began to hector him about it, he bristled and sang the virtues of redundancy—multiple water filters should one clog, several jackets should one get soaked, and so on. His pack weighed perhaps 50 pounds while each of ours was maybe 25 or less. Genius seemed cocksure of every gram. His hillock of gear would keep him safe and comfortable, he insisted, so long as it didn’t first snap his spine.
To be fair, no one really knows what they’re doing on their first thru-hike. During those beginner days, I toted the third volume of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle and a pair of white Crocs, totaling more than two pounds of unnecessary weight. A member of my posse—that is, the trail family I met during the hike’s first five days—packed a hidden pistol (don’t do that), while another packed a collapsible dog bowl for preening himself in camp (whatever gets you through the night, I guess). But we unsteadily learned, letting the trail tell us what we didn’t need and shipping the excess home as we marched north. Genius, though, refused to let his experience morph into wisdom, clinging to each item like his life truly depended upon it. Genius, if I can be cruel but real, was dumb.
I am not an ultralight backpacker, some fastidious authoritarian here to tell you that you must cut your toothbrush in half or cold-soak every meal you eat in order to endure, let alone enjoy, your first thru-hike. I do neither of those things. But after more than 7,000 miles, I do think I understand why hikers overpack on trail and how you can think about your gear in order to prevent hoofing something that’s for too heavy for your frame for several hundred miles.
Mentally, taking too much gear stems from a mix of fear (But what if I need that?) and overzealousness (If I own a piece of gear, isn’t now my time to use it?). But more weight on your back means more strain on your joints and a more arduous experience. The burden zaps the enjoyment. Let’s get to work, then, on whittling your pack down to what you need to be successful without feeling miserable.
Plan to Re-Supply Along Your Hike
Imagine, for a moment, that we are embarking on a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to New York. What do you need? Do you pack every morsel of food you might eat during that 40- hour drive? Do you fret about somehow stowing away every ounce of gasoline you’ll need for the 2,800-mile trek? Do you pack enough first-aid gear to open a rural hospital? Of course not. You can find every resource you need along the way, even as you cross the Mojave, ascend the Rockies, and cut across the corn fields of the great North American craton in the Midwest. Need something? Stop. Stretch your legs. Get it. Carry on.
I hate to dispel your extreme wilderness visions, but most popular modern thru-hikes will offer the same relatively ready access to resources as a modern road trip. There are exceptions, of course: spans like the inner corridor of the Sierra Nevada along the Pacific Crest Trail or the wonderfully isolated Hayduke Trail through the American Southwest, where help can indeed be several days away. But the AT? The Arizona Trail? The New England Trail? The Camino de Santiago? Gear and food is never that far away. Think of towns and hostels as rest areas full of resources. The key is to pack what you need to make the next depot.
Minimize Your First Aid and Toiletries
Don’t take the medical kit you keep beneath your kitchen sink. Aside from prescriptions, take only what you need to stanch the bleeding, temper the sting, calm the stomach, and alleviate the aching joint. Don’t take all those toiletries that sit atop your bathroom sink, either. You can soap and deodorize and moisturize all you want, and you’re still going to smell like what you are, which is a thru-hiker, at least for right now. Dehydrate some wet wipes and learn to long for town showers. Do take a toothbrush, but don’t bother with cutting the handle.
Forget Extra Clothes—or “Extra” Anything
Towns are also, of course, where the laundry machine lives. Think of this as where you get new clothes, though you’ll actually only be washing them. Don’t pack your entire closet, or even many extra clothes at all. Learn to live in very little, and you’ll only have more gratitude for all that you have when you return home. This applies to all manner of outdoor gear for your thru-hike. Buying one nice new thing for yourself can be a motivational treat at the outset, sure, but take the things you already own and find out stepwise what needs to be replaced. Many trails boast nearby outfitters, and upgrading gear during a thru-hike is one of a journey’s little thrills.
Remember: You Are (Most Likely) Not in Danger of Starving to Death
When you reach a town to indulge in such luxuries as showers and washing machines, you’ll also be resupplying—that is, buying the food you need for the next stretch. The easiest way to overburden your backpack is to get too much food. Before your hike begins, try to keep track of all you eat during a day of intense exercise, and extrapolate from there. During your hike, do not go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, or you will overspend and overpack. Also, don’t only pack stereotypical hiker foods, from Pop-Tarts and tuna packets to tortillas and Power Bars and Folgers Instant Coffee. Get something that excites you, that will make the beginnings, middles, and ends of the hard days feel worthwhile.
Your Phone Can Usually Tackle the Task
And you don’t need a book, a camera, a recorder, a journal, a compass, a flashlight, or—and I know this will be controversial—a comprehensive paper map or guidebook that walks you through every twist and turn of the trail. Your smartphone can do all of these things without consistent cell service, whether that means you use it for audiobooks by day or taking notes by night. Yes, your phone may break, perhaps zapped by rain or shattered against a granite slab. That happened to members of my trail family during my first thru-hike, so we took care of each other. Again, sorry to zap your Chris McCandless dreams here, but you likely won’t be isolated for long on your first thru-hike. Most everyone you encounter will be willing to help; altruism among thru-hikers is the sport’s underrated through line.
I know that almost everything I have told you not to bring here introduces an element of danger that, in the end, could make Genius seem pretty smart. Maybe your water filter clogs, and you get giardia. Maybe you run so low on food that you walk into town with only two gummy bears left, bereft of protein. Maybe your phone breaks and you actually get lost.
All of these things are entirely possible, but for me, they are among the chief intoxicants of this new hobby of yours, thru-hiking. So much of our lives is about mitigating risks, about ensuring above all our safety and comfort. I have rarely more felt alive, though, than on the trail, brushing up against the sharp edges of risk—down to my last few bites in the Sierra Nevada, rain-soaked and trying to find shelter in the Cascades, bleeding from the chest a few days out from town high on the Colorado Plateau. I am endlessly grateful those situations always worked out, of course, that I’m around to share those stories at dinner parties. I am just as grateful that, when they happened, I wasn’t over prepared, weighed down by my own fears. I had space to encounter the outer edges of comfort, to face the terms of my own existence.