Exhaustive (exhausting?) gear review from my thru hike

In the beginning of March, I was frantically getting together all of my gear and finishing up last-minute preparations for my thru hike. It’s hard for me to believe, re-reading my blog post from then (click here to read), that that was less than nine months ago. It feels like a lifetime. In any case, I thought it would be a good idea to use that post as a starting point since I had included just about everything I was starting with in that post.

Fair warning: this post is long long long. But hey, people have been asking me for a gear review, so here it is.

I spent way too much time inserting letters and numbers to these pictures.

I spent way too much time inserting letters and numbers to these pictures.

A. Gregory Deva 60 Pack – size small. Female pack; male equivalent is the Baltoro. Using this pack was the best decision I could have made for this thru hike. While I was planning, I tried out several different packs. In fact, the Deva was originally my last choice due to its weight – hefty at 5 pounds 11 ounces. However, I changed my mind once I realized that the extra weight is attributable to the pack’s extra cushioning and structural support. In the beginning in particular, I came across a good number of hikers that were suffering from sores on their hips, backs, and shoulders for lack of cushioning, but I had no troubles at all.

I also love the fact that this pack has so many compartments and access points. Again, this probably contributed to the weight. But I’m a terribly disorganized person, so this feature helped keep me sane.

I definitely beat the crud out of this pack. I’d often toss it on the ground during a break, and I lost count of the times I sat on my butt to slide down a rocky outcropping or slick slab, bringing my pack thunking behind me. Even so, I finished my trek with the same pack, whereas many hikers I know swapped out by the end. The mesh water bottle pocket on the side did tear (but not the elastic, so I could still use it), and the material on the hip belt began to fray toward the end. Luckily, Gregory has a lifetime warranty, so I recently sent my precious pack to the company for some TLC.

I will say that I might consider a systemic change on future thru hikes to preserve my body a little better. What I mean by this is that carrying 35-42 pounds on my back for months at a time really did take its toll on my body. I was bruising easily and had a steady assortment of cuts, not to mention all of the sprains, strains, aches, and pains along the way. I think bringing my pack weight way down would serve my body better in the future. But it’s not like I can just put all of my stuff in a 1 to 2 pound pack to lighten by 3 to 4 pounds because those ultralight packs aren’t made to carry so much weight. So I would have to make many changes to my gear – and likely my food choices – to lighten the load before even thinking about getting a lighter pack.

B. Granite Gear Dry Sacks – 18L. I used two, one for my food/bear bag and one for my camp clothes. Contents always stayed completely dry. Didn’t harbor any smells. Clasp never strained, despite the weight of the food while hanging. Glad I spent a few bucks extra considering performance. I have heard you can get a decent dry sack at Walmart, although I have heard about moisture getting in.

C. REI Lightweight Stuff Sack. I used several. All of the contents inside were in their own ziplocs. These sacks are not waterproof but do dry quickly and are machine washable.

I used Microsoft Paint because it's all I had available.

I used Microsoft Paint because it’s all I had available.

1. Big Agnes Flycreek UL2 tent – weighs 2 pounds 2 ounces. I had purchased this tent at an REI members-only sale on a whim. I had been looking for the one-person version, but none were available on sale. I’m so glad. For an extra four ounces, I had a much larger space to enjoy myself in the evenings. I always brought my pack into the tent to rest my feet, and I definitely wouldn’t have had the space in the one-person version. Also, on a couple of occasions, other hikers came into my tent either to socialize or to sleep (in the case of gear issues), and there was plenty of space. I used to joke that I had a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen in there.

When I purchased the used tent, it had a couple of small holes in it. I patched the holes for a few dollars and not once on the trail had any kind of issue with rain leaking in. (I mean there was that one time in Maine that I set up camp in what turned out to be a bowl and ended up in a puddle several inches deep, but even then I slept through the night dry and only started getting wet when I began moving around.) Despite not using a footprint, I had no issues with the strength of the material, and I was fairly indiscriminate about where I set up camp. There would often be sticks, stones, and roots underneath; yet, I made it thru my hike without any holes forming.

Oh, also, super easy to set up and break down.

2. Sea to Summit Silk Sleeping Bag Liner. This product was a complete disaster. I purchased it because I figured it would give me a few extra degrees of warmth and keep my sleeping bag clean. Unfortunately, within a week the whole thing was shredded head to toe along the seams. When I called the company, they were aware of the production issue and offered to swap me out for a new one. Between the seam tear and the feeling of claustrophobia from the easily snagged material, I was not in the mood for a second. Instead, the company was good enough to swap me out for a Thermolite Liner that added 20 degrees of warmth and felt more like stretchy cotton jersey material – so more comfortable. It was heavier at 9 ounces but completely suited my purpose. It added much needed warmth in the first couple of months, and once the weather warmed up, I often slept in it with my sleeping bag unzipped, facilitating a happy in-between sleeping temperature.

3a. North Face Aleutian 3s 20 degree sleeping bag – women’s cut. I owned this sleeping bag beforehand so decided not to purchase a new one. It was on the heavier, bulkier side at 3 pounds 2 ounces, but – heaven help me – I love the thing to death. It’s so warm – with additional insulation in the feet and hips, to accommodate a woman’s cold spots – and spacious – with additional room in the hips. And it’s short at 5ft 6in in length, so there’s not a ton of extra room for cold air to settle in the foot area. And it’s synthetic, so I never had problems with it keeping me warm once it got wet. There was one time in the Smokies when all of my friend Techie’s gear got wet, including his down sleeping bag, and I couldn’t help but be grateful that I had synthetic on that miserably cold, wet night.

When the weather warmed up, I finally bought a Marmot Nanowave 45 degree sleeping bag over Mother’s Day Weekend (sales!) and used it until I hit New Hampshire. It was much lighter at 1 pound 11 ounces, which was an amazing improvement not to be taken for granted. But it never lived up to the Aleutian, mostly because it was made for a man. I know some women are perfectly comfortable in gender neutral bags, but I am not one of them. In fact, anybody in the market for a gently used Marmot Nanowave 45? One might be available for sale sooner than you think.

3b. Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Compression Sack. I went through two of these. In each case, the strain from my winter sleeping bag seemed to be too much, and one of the straps finally gave way. The second time, I sewed the strap back on with floss, which held through the end of my trek. Seems like the company might need to use stronger thread on the product.

4. Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Sleeping Pad – short. Why, oh why didn’t I listen to forum discussions on White Blaze about this product? This sleeping pad frustrated me to no end. This product annoyed me as much as eating grapes with seeds in them (which, incidentally, is what I’m doing right now). Who in their right minds would buy grapes with seeds? It’s infuriating.

The sleeping pad was fine – great, in fact – for the first 700 or so miles. Then it started leaking air, but I couldn’t figure out where the hole was. I finally realized – with Techie’s help – that it was coming from the area around the vent where you blow the air in. We attempted to seal it with the repair kit I brought specifically for the task, but it didn’t work.

When I called Big Agnes, they said they would send me a new one if I sent the old one back. However, the company no longer made the one that I had purchased – the short mummy – so would send me a different model – the short rectangle. I was grateful for the exchange, but the new one ended up being six inches longer than the old one, which takes up significantly more space in a tent (you’d be surprised). But OK, fine, I was happy with my new, comfortable inflatable sleeping pad…until it began to leak about 700 miles later in Massachusetts. One more time; thank you for another exchange, Big Agnes.

Well, when this latest one leaked a couple of weeks from being done with my trek, I decided I’d just sleep flat through the end. And actually, it wasn’t half bad. When the sleeping pad was inflated firmly, I was comfortable. When I was flat, I was comfortable. It was the unpredictability on my hips when it was leaking that caused me discomfort and soreness the day after. So, I’m not positive, but I think for my next hike I’ll use a foam accordian sleeping pad. No chance of it springing a leak, and it’s also about half the weight.

And you can't even read them, can you? I mean I can't read them. They're too small.

And you can’t even read them, can you? I mean I can’t read them. They’re too small.

i. JetBoil Sol Personal Cooking System. This stove was awesome. I didn’t see any stove on the trail even remotely as efficient in terms of time to boil and fuel consumption. In fact, every once in a while, my friend Lentil would ask if he could use my stove when he was running low on fuel; he knew the JetBoil would take him farther. I cooked at least once, if not twice, every day, and a middle-sized (8.9 ounces) fuel canister would last me many hundreds of miles. I got most of my fuel canisters from hiker boxes half-full, so I’m not positive exactly how many I used. Best guess is about 4 total.

I found every single feature useful. The strainer in the lid was helpful when I cooked mac and cheese and wanted to get rid of excess water. The pour spout was useful for drinking hot beverages. The measuring cup was my go-to for portioning out quinoa, rice, or oats. The cozy, of course, kept me from burning my hands. And the auto-ignite was extremely useful since I learned early on that I can’t use a lighter. Actually, I lied. I didn’t learn until Maine that I couldn’t use a lighter.

A few items worthy of note: 1. In Massachusetts, the measuring cup cracked. Since it would’ve cost like $15 to replace (including shipping), I just duct-taped it…and again when it cracked on the other side further down the trail. 2. The handle on the cozy somehow half-melted. It’s fine, if a bit crunchy. To this day, I’m not sure how that happened. 3. I did not bring the tripod fuel stabilizer or the pot support.

ii. Sea to Summit Alpha Light Spoon. I ended up getting rid of the Light My Fire spork and only using the Sea to Summit spoon. Honestly, it was the only utensil I needed. It was long enough to get to the bottom of dehydrated meal bags. It was strong enough to spoon out (or chip out) frozen almond butter and Nutella without breaking. The narrow edge doubled as a knife to cut cheese. And let’s be real, I’m still trying to remember why the utensil known as a “fork” exists.

iii. Nalgene wide-mouth cantene – 96 ounce. This cantene was a gem. It weighed just over 2 ounces empty, had a sturdy wide bottom for setting down when full, and had a wide mouth for easier filling in streams and easier pouring. At $11, it was also a fraction of the cost of alternatives such as Platypus. I used this almost exclusively for camp, in particular when the water source wasn’t within spitting distance (meaning I used it often). It did get a very slow leak somewhere in Pennsylvania, but I was still able to use it. When I was desperately trying to reduce pack weight before the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I finally left it behind.

iv. LifeStraw vs. chemicals. My feelings toward water treatment evolved as the trek went on. I used the LifeStraw almost exclusively for the first 1,400 miles or so, only occasionally using Aqua Mira so that I could mix and drink Gatorade. The LifeStraw was great to have in those states where it was hot (i.e. needed to drink more) and  water wasn’t readily available everywhere – as in the mid-Atlantic states. Having it on hand meant that I didn’t have to wait 25+ minutes for water treatment to be effective.

By the time that I made it to New York, I realized that I wasn’t using the Aqua Mira (and drinking enough Gatorade) because it took five minutes of waiting around before the chemicals could be mixed in with the water before waiting another 20 minutes to drink. I know five minutes doesn’t sound like a lot, but I didn’t have the patience for it. Bleach, on the other hand, didn’t require that lag time. Three drops of bleach to a liter, wait 20 minutes, and voila. So, when we were in NYC visiting my friend, I bought a bottle of bleach, emptied the bottle of Aqua Mira, and filled the dropper with bleach (and when I say “I,” I mean “Lentil,” on my behalf).

From that point on, I used the bleach progressively more. By the time that I made it to New Hampshire, I was ready to put the LifeStraw in the “send home” pile to save weight.

Incidentally, by the time I made it to Maine, more often than not I drank without treating my water. Up there, the streams were flowing so well and the water so delicious that I didn’t even bother.

v. little Swiss Army knife. Found useful for cleaning out my fingernails nightly, cutting back calluses, trimming toenails. Good stand-in once I decided to leave my nail clippers behind.

Oh well. I'm not taking them out. The pictures are already altered.

Oh well. I’m not taking them out. The pictures are already altered.

Oh geez, more gear? But I’m so tiiiiired. I’ve been at my computer all daaaaay. And really, do you even want to hear about my Kindle (broke within a week; used an app on my iPhone instead), my sit pad (awesome. You’re jealous you don’t have one), my AT Guide (best available on the market), my pStyle (never going to squat to pee again), my trekking poles (love/hate. Love when they worked. Hated when Maine broke their spirit), or any of my other miscellaneous gear?

I didn’t think so. You’re tired too.

OK, well, if you change your mind and want any more info on my gear or any of my clothes (which I didn’t even attempt to broach), just let me know.

Until then…

Meandering on,


24 thoughts on “Exhaustive (exhausting?) gear review from my thru hike

  1. I work at a hotel in Waynesboro, Va. Many hikers come and stay in our town while hiking. I have enjoyed your blog. It helps me understand what hikers experience while on their trek. Thanks so much for your posts.
    Sue Neil B.

    • That’s nice of you to say, Sue. And on behalf of hikers, thank you for accommodating us in the hotel where you work and being so interested in our experiences. It’s not always a given that hotels (and towns, for that matter) welcome hikers.

  2. I’d love to hear all about everything! I’ve never done a backpacking trip, and really think I want to, but you addressed some of my questions. (what about nails??) that keep popping up. Stuff sacks, sleep pads, tents, etc. are ALL important to someone who knows NOTHING, but has a great desire to jump in, and get out there. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    • Aw, thank you! I do think I’ll do the PCT in a couple of years, but in the meantime I am writing a book on my AT experience. And it’s coming along swimmingly.

  3. Loved reading this and your cost breakdown! The detail you put into both posts was greatly appreciated.

    I recently bought a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 online at a great deal. However, after reading your review of the UL2 I actually had a dream last night where I was desperately trying to trade in my UL1 for a UL2! I haven’t even used my UL1 yet. It was odd.

    I know you’re playing around with the idea of writing a book. My suggestion would be to pick Zach Davis’ brain (I think I discovered your blog because it was featured on his site). He’s definitely a wealth of advice (which you may already know).

    Good luck!!

    • I’m glad you found the posts helpful. Don’t worry about your UL1. It’s a great tent, and you do save several ounces with it. There is no one right way to thru hike. Just try out the tent and see if you like it.

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