Selecting Gear: The Moment of Clarity

Eureka! Now I understand.  I’ve been spending so much time researching and planning for my A.T. thru-hike, but I’ve been doing it all wrong.  Quantity over quality.

There’s a lot of talk about the psychological and emotional preparations that are necessary, but honestly those aren’t my biggest concerns.  I may not physically be the strongest woman ever, but I’ve got grit (in my teeth. Does anybody have a toothpick?).  Oh, and also, I’m grounded (i.e. short) and realistic.  I know what it takes emotionally to conquer the A.T. (I survived middle school, didn’t I?), or at least I’m willing to find out.

Instead, my main concern is the gear.  I’m basically starting from square one.  The only piece of equipment I own is my 20 degree sleeping bag, and I’m not even sure it’s the right choice. And the more I comb through forums and websites trying to find concise and decisive gear recommendations, the more my head becomes jumbled with options.

When it comes to sleeping bags, one has to consider weight, synthetic vs. down (phew! I’m allergic to down so one less consideration), temperature rating, length, width/cut, blood type, and social security number.  Then there are the sleeping pads and tents.  Do you sleep warm? Or cold? Do you even know what those terms mean (because I tend to nod my head and smile when the gear experts start getting excited and chatty)?  Do you want the privacy of a freestanding structure, or is a lighter tarp tent enough?  And of course don’t forget your clothes (for the love of all that is…no, I changed my mind. I’m not going to go there.  It’d be funny, and I mean “oops, I just laughed out loud at my desk; now my boss knows I’m not working” hysterical, but that look on your face makes me think this is neither the time nor the place).  There’s the base layer, the insulating layer, the outer layer.  Polyester, nylon, smartwool.  Lions, tigers, bears (oh my!).

So many options. So much weight. So much money.  So many ways to make the wrong decisions and become more heavily laden.

Well glory be.  How lucky was I when I opened my email last Sunday night and saw in my inbox a calendar of my local REI’s upcoming events.  And what did I see but a “Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Gear and Food” workshop for Wednesday October 3.

I showed up at 7pm with pen and paper in hand.  The speaker Andres had set up a table full of gear that was representative of an average thru-hiker’s collection, which I perused for a few minutes before we started.  I also giddily underlined and circled items on the detailed Gear List handout that had been sitting on my chair upon arrival.

When Andres was about to get started, I had a look around at the crowd of about 20 and realized that I was the youngest person in the room by at least 10 years.  I’d say the average age was about 55 and that young only because I was thrown into the mix.  Either this means that the herds of thru-hikers lean toward the older retiree demographic, or younger folk confidently traipse into the woods willy nilly.  I’m going to go with the latter.

I, on the other hand, am eager to be counted with the salt and pepper crowd (an endearing term referring to the abounding wisdom and general willingness to learn, I assure you) since I clearly don’t know what in the whoosit I’m doing when it comes to equipment.  And what occurred to me when Andres began talking and wielding his trusty PowerPoint presentation? I’ve just needed a classroom and professor this whole time.  I’ve been out of grad school for five months now, and the inner nerd in me was so excited to come out.  For two hours, I sat enraptured, taking notes, asking questions about everything (yeah, I was that girl), checking out all the gear.

And you know what I realized?  It’s not actually that big of a deal.  Don’t get me wrong, I still have some work ahead of me, but really there aren’t that many pieces of equipment to consider.  And not only that, but Andres offered options and expounded upon each of the pros and cons.  I can stare at specifications in a store all day, but I inevitably get worried that I’m making the wrong decision.  If instead I’m provided a few distinct options with obvious differences, then it’s much easier for me to make a decision.

Let me do a simple exercise to illustrate.

Should I stay with my current job and sit in a cubicle for 8 hours a day, or should I leave and thru-hike the Appalachian Trail?  See, that’s an easy one.


Should I buy a free-standing tent that weighs 3 pounds and costs X or should I buy a stake-able tent that weighs 2.5 pounds and costs 1.25X?  Much harder.

Ultimately, to be face to face with someone who’s thru-hiked thousands of miles and happens to live, breathe, and eat gear makes all the difference.  I left the workshop feeling more knowledgeable, more organized, and most importantly more relaxed about the decision-making process.

Now it’s time to get serious and start purchasing equipment.  Or, well, ya know, maybe next week. The weather’s too nice to shop.  I think I’d rather go for a hike.  Yeah, decision-making…next week…

Meandering on,



45 thoughts on “Selecting Gear: The Moment of Clarity

  1. I’ve always marveled at the prep it must take to hike the AT. I did just katahdin in May and it was so cool to meet the few people coming through at the end of their “hike.” It sounds like you’re going about preparing the right way though!

  2. Above all, enjoy the selection process and remember that, during your hike, you will likely be shipping some gear ahead of you a few towns as you realize (for instance) that you might not want to freight a tent in the Smokies where shelters are plentiful. You’re right on target, so fear not!

    • Thanks for the encouragement! …and the advice. I guess the need for a tent will all depend on how crowded the shelters are tending to be, huh? Hadn’t thought of shipping stuff forward only a few towns (as opposed to shipping to/from home). Good idea.

  3. You’re right to focus on gear. I learned the best tips from a Yosemite Ntl Park ranger that I dated for several years. If you don’t get good gear, you can end up miserable, cold, etc. Do you speak Gortex?

  4. Let me know if you have any questions, I would be more than happy to try and help. I may not have hiked the AT, but I have done the JMT 4 times now and heard a lot about the AT from people I have met.

  5. Hike with a large lightweight tarp rather than a tent. A tarp can be set up in many configurations depending on weather and wind. Your hiking poles can do double duty as tarp poles. A tarp can be put up quickly during the day to provide shelter against the elements. A tarp is almost like sleeping under the stars, doesn’t get humid inside and is easy to shake out. I did that for 7 days on the West Coast Trail in BC. Worked great. Don’t worry so much. Once you’re on the trail you will realize there are things you would have changed or not brought (or wish you had).

    Take 3 sets of clothes. One washed and drying, one wearing, and one for in camp only. Tarp, rope, hiking poles, sleeping bag & mat, food. You’re not taking a stove so that lightens the load, although wouldn’t it be nice to have porridge in the morning or tea or soup?

    Another time I slept under a tarp in a campground (west coast). Nearby campers who had travelled from the east cost were horrified at the thought. They were so afraid of the outdoors at night that they slept in their car rather than set up their own tent.

    Planning the trip and equipment is good… but try to not agonize over it all. Take what you’ve got. Go, experience, walk, be prepared for an emergency, yours or someone else’s. Don’t expect the worst, just be able to make a decision based on what you’ve got to work with. Be creative and have fun.

    I am looking forward (vicariously) to your adventure!

    • I seem to have opened a can of worms with this post. You are definitely an intrepid traveler. I may prefer something a little sturdier to protect myself from the elements (i.e. I anticipate a lot of rain and bugs on the attack). I’ll let you know what I actually decide…when I finally get to that point!

  6. On the flip side, I hiked a few miles this summer with two teens who were on a three-week venture on the AT passing through Hawk Mountain, PA. I always get energy from young folks, with four of my own, grandkids and running with the Back on My Feat crew, but I got the sense those two teens were getting energy from me, as well. In other words, it’s reciprocal.

    • Oh totally! Don’t misunderstand me. I’m excited to make friends along the way of all shapes, sizes, ages, etc. In fact, at the REI workshop I exchanged emails with a woman (maybe in her 60s?) who will be leaving from Springer mid-March as well. My first fellow hiker friend!

  7. Just do it. Nike’s got it right. I started at Katahdin in 2008 with 95lbs. My moto: just get stronger. Granted the journey took me 50 weeks through the winter, but I finished carrying 65lbs and could blaze past all 20lbs newbies just starting out. You really cannot prep for what’s to come. Don’t worry to much about the gear. Try out a 3 day camping trip and bring that gear. You’ll drop a lot of it along the way, (but Not AT the SHELTERS!!). Just start hiking! It is an amazing experience!!

    • Whoa whoa whoa. 96 pounds?! 65 pounds?! You, sir, are in a different league than I. Even so, I get your intent, and I’ll try to chill out about gear. On another note, are you saying people frequently leave (heavy) gear at shelters…essentially littering?

  8. I’ve benn camping since I was 1 year old… well, my parents took me camping wen I was 1, but we’ve pretty much been doing it every year, and the most important thing I’ve learned is you really need to work out what works best for you step by step. Buy the cheap tent, set it up for a weekend and sleep in it. If you haven’t done anything of the like before, IT’S GOING TO BE AN ADVENTURE! If your sleeping bag isn’t made for sub0 (centigrade), take an extra set of clothes. Don’t wear the clothes in the sleeping bag, but use them to insulate yourself from the ground. The ground is where you lose the most warmth to. If you wear them in the bag, you’ll just sweat and waste useful fluids, and, more importantly, you’ll cool out more quickly. Take a hatchet, lighter fluid and a pot; you’ll get 10 times the volume of water out of the lighter fluid with a little practise (always boil water from streams!) This will also cover basic hygiene. Food is the only thing I don’t know how to acquire in the wild (don’t know how to handle a firearm), but 6 lbs of high-carb food should get you through 10 days easily

    • Thanks for the laundry list of insider knowledge! I’ll definitely take some of that info…and leave other tidbits. It will definitely be an adventure. : )

  9. I think I’ve discovered two truths while doing my own gear hunting for next year…

    1. Everyone has a different opinion. Most of them are pretty insightful, but as adamant as someone is about a specific piece of gear being a must have just remember it’s an opinion. There’s a reason just about every hiker winds up on the trail with a different gear set-up. Different stuff works for different people. What’s right for someone else might not be what’s right for you. Which brings me to truth number 2.

    2. It’s really hard to know if a piece of gear is going to work well for you before you buy it. Yeah you can try clothes on, lay in a sleeping bag on the floor of an outfitter, and so on…but until you really get your gear out there in the field it’s hard to know if its going to suit your needs. It’s unfortunate and inconvenient but it seems to happen a lot. I’ve made several purchases that I’ve already had to switch out or return because they didn’t suit my needs as well as I’d hoped, and these were things I’d spent a good bit of time researching. It’s sometimes kind of an annoying trial and error process, but I’d also consider it kind of fun. So save your receipts or shop at REI (their return policy is amazing!)

  10. I have absolutely no experience as a hiker. Hell, I don’t even like walking from one end of the mall to the other. However, your concerns reminded me of similar ones Cheryl Strayed wrote about in her recent memoir, “Wild,” which recounted her trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. You might want to take a look at that book. In any case, good luck!

  11. Wow, that’s awesome you’re planning to hike the AT! My husband and I were literally just talking over dinner we need to plan some kind of hiking trip soon. (Neither of us was raised in the scouts or did camping, and it’s on our bucket list to do together.) Just wanted to say, thanks for stopping by my blog!

  12. Jordana, the lighter in weight things are the better. A hikers carries seven pounds or less if possible and this time of the year the weather is always changing from warm one day to very cold the next. I and another family member had prepared to hike the AT as well and learned very quick that the time better to hike it was in the Spring. Good luck and will check from time to time on your progress…Bev B

    • As I continue to do research on gear, I think I’m aiming for maybe 15 pounds before food/water but definitely less than 20. Hopefully I’ll get there when all is said and done. Does your comment mean I’ll bump into you on the trail?

      • So— I ask this as a person who knows jack-squat about serious hiking— you’re starting in March? Isn’t that still potentially wintry and snowy? Or— are you supposed to start in March to make sure you finish before the weather starts getting wintry and snowy again in the northern bits of the trail?

      • Yes and yes. There’s potential for snow, but it’s also important to have enough time to get to Maine before the wintry weather begins. And no big deal, really. I was never a fan of all of my fingers and toes anyway.

  13. Pingback: Good thing I braved the weather. More REI Exaltations! « My Meandering Trail

  14. Wow, this was the longest reply string so far so I’ll torment you by putting another log on the fire though I really have nothing to add except to annoy you one more time this week before going back to class tomorrow. Oh, except that I’ve read REI is the bomb as far as returning equipment in the middle of the hike without even going to a store. Just call cust svc and they’ll drop ship replacements to you on the fly. Nice, huh?

    • Haha, OK, I’ll bite. Yes, I love REI. Hopefully nothing will break, but if it does, I’ve purchased most of my gear from REI (with a few items of clothing from Sierra Trading Post), so I know I’ll be OK.

      Good luck with your next batch of classes!

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