Sunday, February 19, 2012

Gear Selection...

The selection of gear for this 6 month long adventure was an undertaking, to say the least.  With so many years of hiking under my belt, my backpack was a pretty well-tuned tool.  Or so I thought until I started looking at online forums, websites, articles… and talking to a few people who had done the AT.  The topics seemed infinite:  trail runners vs hiking boots, hammocks vs tents vs AT shelters, filter or chemically treat your water, alcohol vs propane vs open fire cooking, synthetic vs merino wool, ultra-light vs ultra-prepared… the list seemed to go on and on. 

This is the part that, if you could care less about hiking gear, you may have to wait for the next article.  My apologies to those who are not gearheads…

Gear selection is kinda like upgrading a car in my mind.  Each aftermarket component adds a certain value, perhaps horsepower.  But, after multiple well planned upgrades, the total result is greater than the sum of its parts.  In terms of AT backpacking, its all about trying to save weight while still being well prepared for any conditions you might face. 
The major categories of gear come down to basically, 1) Traction, 2) Backpack, 3) Shelter System, 4) Sleeping System, 5) Water System, 6) Kitchen/ Dining System, 7) Layered Clothing System, 8)  Rain Gear, 9)  Misc Items (including First Aid and emergency equipment), and 10) Luxury Items.  Without going into it too much, here is a basic list of the items that I was previously carrying on my trips:

1)      Traction:                            Vasque Wasatch GTX (gortex) hiking boots
               Black Diamond aluminum hiking poles (telescopic; oval shape)
2)      Backpack:                          Kelty (unknown name; internal/external frame pack)
This backpack has been carried many hard miles.  Though a little on the heavy side (approx. 5lbs), this pack has a square alloy frame with “X”-style curved alloy cross members and taught synthetic mesh as a pad for your back allowing maximum ventilation.  I’ve loved this pack for as long as I’ve carried it, but for the AT, a smaller, lighter pack is in order.  Not to mention I have a big hole in the bottom of this pack from sliding down near-vertical rocks on previous trips.
3)      Shelter Sytem:                  MSR Hubba single-person tent

I have used this freestanding solo tent in a number of three-season situations in the past.  As it is a little roomier and, more importantly, longer than some of its competition, I find this to be the ideal choice for my 6’-3” frame. 

4)       Sleeping System:            Sierra Designs 20 degree synthetic mummy bag (5+ years old). 
Thermarest Neoair air matress (long)
Polypro (lightweight) Long Underwear top & bottoms
Smartwool Trekking socks
At one time this sleeping bag was light and warm for a synthetic at 4.75lbs.  However, over the years the synthetic has lost most of its loft (insulating efficiency) due to use, compression and age.  I would be surprised if this bag currently has a 40 degree rating.  As for the Neoair, this is the best purchase I’ve made in recent years.  Superlight and feels like you’re sleeping on a cloud, though it does take 37 breaths to fill it up. 

5)      Water System:                  MSR Hyperflow water filter
Nalgene 1L bottle
Camalback 3L bladder w/ locking bite valve
Sea to Summit 10L collapsible bucket

This high-output pump filter is a great option for many backcountry applications.  Lightweight and utilizing a capillary tube filter, this water filtration system provides quick refills from even the smallest water sources using the lilly pad style prefilter attachment included with the system.  The down-side to this system is that regular maintenance is required in order to keep it working well.  After a couple hundred miles, this will become a factor on the AT that would not be as great a factor in other situations. 

6)       Kitchen/ Dining System:               MSR Pocket Rocket propane stove,
Snow Peak 2L titanium pot w/ lid,
Snow Peak titanium spork (short)
Plastic camp cup
Camp Towel (small)
50’ parachute cord
This is a system that I have been using for years primarily while hiking with a partner.  If propane is your fuel choice, the PocketRocket is small, light and a great stove for any backcountry environment.  The 2L Snowpeak was a perfect size for two, but needs to be downsized for a strictly solo trip. 

7)       Layered Clothing System:            Under Armour (cool) short sleeve compression top (x2)
Under Armour (cool) long compression shorts (x2)
Under Armour (warm) long sleeve top & bottom
Columbia synthetic zip-off pants
Columbia synthetic long sleeve (rollable) button-down top
Fleece (heavyweight) top and bottom
Fleece Gloves
Wool beenie hat
Smartwool Trekking socks (x2)
Synthetic camp t-shirt
Synthetic gym shorts
3 syl-nylon stuff sacks (x2 small, x1 medium)
Not a bad 3-season clothing system when combined with a rain shell for low temperatures.  However, I can tell you from experience, synthetic clothing tends to retain and amplify unmentionable odors.  After a few days without a shower, this may be an issue for some people.  There is a little bit of redundancy in this list that makes it heavier than it needs to be. 

8)       Rain Gear:                                    North Face rain top (with pit zips and pocket vents)
Bass Pro Gortex pants (with zips for boots/ gaiters)
Camp Trails sil-nylon pack cover
Aside from the pack cover, I’m keeping all of this gear for the AT.  The North Face top has supreme ventilation, which can be a big problem with the less breathable waterproof materials, including gortex.  

9)      Misc Items:                                     Petzel LED headlamp (w/ red lense)
Gerber pocket knife (small; super light)
First Aid Kit (including blister kit)
Fire Starting Kit
Emergency Space Blanket
Plastic Shovel
Duct Tape
Xtra Small syl-nylon stuff sack

10)    Luxury Items:                                Digital Camera
Cell Phone

With no reputable hiking equipment stores in South Florida and all of the conflicting opinions and topics running through my head, I headed off to Asheville, North Carolina.  Luckily, my mother has a house in Asheville, which we will be using as a regional base camp for my AT trip.  Along with my supportive mom, we hit one outdoor outfitter after another with a notepad in hand filled with all the research I had compiled after weeks behind the laptop.  All the gear I thought I wanted.  Three days, six stores, 24 hours of hardcore, intense, marathon-style shopping the likes of which would make your high school prom queen proud.  Every store had at least two, it not a few, very experienced backpackers on hand. It was a real blessing to have access to so many individuals who were more than happy to talk for hours about any backcountry topic you could shake a stick at.  In the interest of fair coverage, these shops were Blackdome Mountain Sports (, REI (, Diamond Brand (,  The Frugal Backpacker (;  diamond brand’s discount store), Bluff Mountain Outfitters (,  and the Nantahala Outdoors Center (“NOC”; . 

Though all of the businesses I mentioned above were top notch and very helpful, without a doubt, the NOC was the most helpful to me personally.  I was lucky enough to have scheduled my visit to their remote location in Wesser, NC during their first “Thru Hikers Clinic” of the year.  This 3-hour presentation by a pair of seasoned employees (Jimmy "Alpine" Ingram and A.J. "Apple Juice" Tobey) was held in a private cabin on the NOC campus and was exceptional in its content and delivery.  A dozen or so folks were in attendance, including a well-behaved dog.  I was, surprisingly, the youngest one there.  Both employees had thru-hiked the AT and were extremely seasoned outdoorsmen in other regards as well.  They covered all the major components of a good AT thru-hiking gear system while sharing some very humorous stories about some much less humorous mistakes they had made on the trail.  No matter what you knew before you walked in there, everyone learned something. 

After the seminar, we ate the last of my mom’s “pre-trail magic brownies from the Birdfeeder” and went back to the main store. ("Trail magic" is a term used by thru-hikers to describe certain wonderful happenstances that occur while on the trail, such as someone randomly leaving gallon jugs of water at a road crossing on a really hot, dry day to be found by needy thru-hikers).  On the 2nd floor, the same 2 employees performed a “shakedown” of my equipment.  Spreading all of my equipment of the floor, they picked through and discussed the pro’s and con’s of each item.  In some cases, they just threw an item in the “reject” pile, only stopping to give an explanation after a well-intentioned chuckle.  Having an experienced thru hiker do a proper shakedown of your equipment is an absolute must for anyone thinking of attempting the AT. 

There were a number of things I decided to replace, upgrade or leave behind due to the recommendations of the NOC guys and all the other store employees and forum commentators.  Here is the new list of gear with changes and upgrades indicated:

1)      Traction:                                       Salomon Fugitive GTX (gortex) boots

2)      Backpack:                                     ULA Circuit (2lbs 8oz!)
                                                   ZPacks cuben fiber pack liner (waterproof)

3)      Shelter System:                             MSR Hubba (no change)
MSR Hubba footprint

4)      Sleeping System:                          Western Mountaineering Ultralight 20 degree down mummy
                                                             (850+ weight down; 1lb 15oz!!)
Sea to Summit Event waterproof compression stuff sack
Cocoon silk mummy bag liner
Neoair (no change)
Smartwool Trekking socks (no change)
REMOVED sleeping clothes

5)       Water System:                               Platypus Gravity Works ceramic filter
Platypus 4L “Dirty” bladder
Platypus 4L “Clean” bladder
Platypus bite valve and hose
Nalgene 1L bottle (no change)
REMOVED collapsible bucket

6)       Kitchen/ Dining System:               MSR Pocket Rocket (no change)
Snow Peak .9L titanium pot w/ cup lid
Snow Peak titanium spork (short; no change)
Camp Towel (no change)
50’ reflective tent cord

7)       Layered Clothing System:            Exofficio synthetic boxer briefs (x2)
Icebreaker merino wool light-weight long underwear top & bottom (x1)
Icebreaker merino wool mid-weight zip top (x1)
Patagonia Primaloft synthetic zip jacket
Columbia zip-off pants (no change)
Fleece (medium-weight) pants
Outdoor Research Metor Mitts w/ fleece liners and waterproof shell
Mountain Hardware fleece hat w/ “windblocker”
Buff merino wool neck warmer
Smartwool Trekking socks (x2; no change)
Icebreaker marino wool t-shirt
x2 small sil-nylon stuff sacks (x1 REMOVED)

8)       Rain Gear:                                    North Face rain top (with pit zips and pocket vents; no change)
Bass Pro Gortex pants (with zips for boots/ gaiters; no change)
                                                                   Sil-Nylon backpacker’s poncho
                                                                   Outdoor Reseach Verglass gaiters

9)       Misc Items                                    Petzel LED headlamp (w/ red lense; no change)
Gerber pocket knife (no change)
First Aid Kit (including blister kit; no change)
Fire Starting Kit (REMOVED magnesium starter)
Emergency Space Blanket (no change)
Whistle (no change)
Toiletries (no change)
Duct Tape (will wrap around hiking poles)
Mini Compass/ Thermometer key chain
AT Guide/ Map
Xtra Small syl-nylon stuff sack
REMOVED plastic shovel

10)    Luxury Items:                                Olympus Tough 610 Digital Camera (6.7oz)
Extra Olympus Battery
Stick Pic
Joby Gorillapod video
Apple iPhone 4s (w/ otterbox)
Apple iPod Nano
Apple USB cable
Olympus USB cable
New Trent 9900mA USB Battery backup (8.8oz)
Solo 2 satellite tracking beacon (3aaa)

                                       * (Gorilla Pod not shown)
I don’t mind going on and on about gear, but I want to try and cut this as short as possible.  Any additional questions you may have can be addressed as comments.  Here are a couple comments of mine for each gear category:

1)       Traction:  I have traditionally weak ankles, so I made the call to purchase another set of gortex high-top boots.  I am highly considering switching to a non-gortex trail runner when the weather begins to warm up and my legs have gotten into trail shape.

2)      Backpack:  What can I say, with the ULA Circuit weighing in at just 2.5lbs and with the large mesh outer pouch, it is a great pack for light-weight long-distance hiking when your pack weight can be kept below 35lbs.  (Mine is roughly 22lbs w/o water and food). 

3)      Shelter System:  Added the footprint to the otherwise successful MSR Hubba solo tent.  The footprint can also be used in shelters to cut down on heat lost due to drafty floorboards.  Also, I will be packing my poles and stakes separately from my tent/fly/footprint to avoid damage to lightweight tent materials and increase their packability. 

4)      Sleeping System:  They call the Western Mountaineering Ultralight 20 degree bag the “Gucci” bag of the sleeping bag world.  Weighing in at just under 2lbs and American made, this is the most comfortable sleeping bag I’ve ever crawled into.  I will be adding a silk sleeping bag liner to help on the coldest nights.  As I will likely not be wearing my thermal underwear bottoms while hiking, these will do well for camp/ sleeping clothes, so the dedicated sleeping clothes were ditched. 

5)      Water System:  The Platypus GravityWorks system won out over the MSR Hyperflow due to the regular maintenance and multiple internal components involved with the Hyperflow.  The GravityWorks system is basically two 4L water bladders attached in the middle by some tubing and a ceramic filter.  Just scoop a bunch of water out of the stream, hang in a tree, and in a couple minutes: PRESTO… clean water.  Maintenance?  Briefly hold the clean water bag above the dirty water bag to backflow the system.  Too easy to say no…

6)      Kitchen/ Dining System:  I decided to start with propane fuel and my MSR Pocketrocket.  The new .9L Snowpeak pot is a great size for 1 person and nests perfectly with the medium sized propane cylinders I always use.  The reflective tent cord replaces my parachute cord for my bear bag line and laundry line.  Never again will I lose my bear bag or be clotheslined in the dark by my own para cord!

7)      Layered Clothing System:  The big change over from synthetic to merino wool is something that I’m trying for the first time on this trip.  I have noticed that the Under Armour and polypro that I had been using previously really trapped the odors.  The rumor going around is that the merino wool cuts the odors down significantly.  That alone was worth the change over for me.  A lightweight merino wool top and mid-weight merino zip jacket provide thin, warm base layers.  The Patagonia primaloft synthetic jacket is a great piece to add to a layering system, as it is thin, warm and zips down the front for maximum versatility.  The rain system will provide a wind shell for the most extreme temperatures.  The ExOfficio boxer briefs came on behalf of a unanimous recommendation from anyone who had worn them on the AT.  Though synthetic, they say these are as good at fighting odor as stopping chaffing.  The Mountain Hardware fleece hat with windstopper and merino wool Buff were also nice upgrades for the low end of the temperature scale. 

8)      Rain Gear:  The only thing I did differently this time is switching out my pack cover for a backpacker’s poncho that also covers your backpack.  It weighs only slightly more than a pack cover, however, the pack cover would always let water soak my backpack by running down my back to where it is unprotected by the pack cover.  With the poncho, the backpack will be fully protected from rain.  Also, it can be used without the other rain gear in warmer conditions where ventilation is preferred.  Gaiters were also added for additional protection in the wet and slush of spring. 

9)      Misc Items:  No major changes were made to this section.  Though, it is interesting to note that the employees of the NOC targeted my little orange trowel as the first item to be discarded from my pack.  They noted that this bright orange poop scoop is the most common hikers box item found in the first 100 miles of the AT.  They suggest I use a stick or my heal to dig a trench instead.  Or, better yet, flip over a rock.  When finished, unflip same rock. 

10)   Luxury Items:  The Olympus Tough 610 series camera was an easy choice for this trip, as it shoots 720p video and is waterproof up to 15ft, freezeproof to 15 degrees, and shockproof up to 5ft, so rain, cold and abuse will not be an issue.  The Stick Pic hiking pole mount and Gorillapod video version were added for a professional touch to my pictures and video.  The iphone is said to have a better battery life, so it was selected over a droid.  The ipod nano has better batter life than the ipod mini and more storage space.  Listening to music on the trail will be nice.  The NewTrent USB backup battery (9900mA version) will allow me to recharge my camera and apple devices multiple times via USB cable while on the trail.  Just need to recharge the NewTrent battery when I get into town every few days.  The Solo 2 is a satellite tracking beacon that will allow you folks at home to track me in near real-time on a GoogleEarth map.  It will also allow me to contact the authorities in the event of a life-threatening emergency. 

There may be a couple small additions before I hit the trail and there will certainly be some modifications once I’m out there.  I will try to keep you posted on all changes. 

Again, questions and comments are welcome. 


  1. Props to Birdman's Feeder (Mom) without whom most of these upgrades might have been skipped. Doing it right seems like an expensive proposition but all of the new stuff could last 15+yrs!

  2. Agreed. If it weren't for the Birdfeeder, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to go to all of these great outfitters until I was already many miles into the trail. And, by that point, I would have been too committed to my system to completely retool my system.

    There are very few, if any, things that I'm left wanting for before this trip. I am very curious to see how my gear will change throughout the next 6 months.