Thru-Hiker's Gear List

Thru-Hiker's Gear List: How To Pack for a Long Trail

If you’re planning a thru-hike—an extended backpacking trip of a few weeks to a few months or more—you will soon become obsessed with gear planning. You’ll find lots of advice, and people who passionately tell you the right way to pack. The most important thing to remember is that the right way is the one that works for you. 

In general, the lighter the better is a good philosophy to adopt if you’ll be hiking 15-25 miles a day. But that still leaves a lot of room for variation when it comes to shelter, a kitchen kit, sleeping gear, apparel, and personal items. Use this guide to core gear categories to get started (see our backpacking packing list for the rest), and make sure you test your new kit before setting out on a 2,000-mile hike. 

Backpack

It’s natural to start here, but actually you should consider getting a backpack last. The lighter and more compact the rest of your gear is, the lighter and more compact your pack can be. Consider these factors when choosing: 

  • Overstuffing a pack can stress the fabric and seams and zippers, and carry the weight uncomfortably. It’s better to use compression straps to shrink the pack down if there’s extra space. 
  • Ultralight packs have minimalist suspension systems, so make sure there’s enough support and padding for the weight you plan to carry. Packs that weigh around 2 to 3 pounds generally offer a good compromise between low weight and comfort.
  • The lightest fabrics and construction need TLC. If you prioritize durability, choose a pack that’s made with heavier material, or consider splurging on an ultralight pack made with durable (and more expensive) fabric, like Dyneema.      

Shelter

You can save a lot of weight here, and the choice is largely between a fully enclosed tent and a tarp. 

  • A tent is warmer and protects from bugs, wind-driven rain, and pooling water, but the lightest models today (around 2 pounds for a two-person tent) are expensive. 
  • Tarps are relatively affordable, very light and compact, and hikers who become skilled at rigging them say they have adequate protection.     

Ground Cloth

A lightweight ground cloth is handy for using in conjunction with a tarp, protecting the bottom of your tent, and packing and organizing food and gear. 

Sleeping Bag

Don’t cut corners here. You’re going to be hiking long miles and need quality sleep to maintain energy day after day. 

  • Insulation: Down is light and warm, but synthetic fill is often a better choice for extended wet conditions. 
  • Weight: Aim for a bag that weighs less than 2 pounds for three-season temperatures. 
  • Quilts: Some hikers like quilt-style bags for the weight savings and extra room. 
  • Maintenance: Whatever type of bag you use, wear long underwear to protect the insulation from grime and body oil, which reduce loft over time. Also avoid crawling deep in the bag, as moisture from your breath can also reduce loft.   

Sleeping Pad

This is a key part of your sleep system, both for warmth and comfort. The best sleeping bag won’t do the trick if you’re laying on the cold, hard ground. For most thru-hikers, whatever you choose should weigh a pound or less.  

  • A simple closed-cell foam pad is affordable, durable, and great for sitting on during breaks and in camp. Downsides: Bulky, and not as cushioned as an inflatable mattress. 
  • An air mattress is incredibly comfortable for the weight (they can be as much as 4 inches thick), and they pack down tiny. Downsides: They cost more, and are not as durable as closed-cell foam (watch where you lay it down and bring a repair kit).

Kitchen Kit: Stove, pot, utensils, and fuel

Ultralight cooking philosophy splits into three camps: canister stoves, alcohol stoves, and no stove. 

  • Canister stoves are fast, adjustable, and easy to use, but the weight of the canisters adds up, especially on long sections between resupply. 
  • Alcohol stoves are extremely light, but slow and non-adjustable, and can be messy (and are often prohibited when wildfire risk is high). 
  • No-stove hikers simply cold-soak their meals and manage to survive without coffee. 
  • Regardless of stove type, the lightest pots (and most expensive) are made with titanium.  

Food 

Long-distance hikers burn thousands of calories a day. The most important thing is to pack food you like, with an emphasis on calorie-dense foods like nuts and cheese for snacks and dehydrated meals for breakfast and dinner. You can buy dehydrated meals, but some hikers prefer to make their own to save money and use custom recipes. Plan a variety of foods so you don’t get tired of any one thing. 

Water Treatment

All backcountry water should be treated before drinking, but there are several ways to do it. 

  • Ultralight “squeeze” filters are the most popular choice for thru-hikers, because they weigh just a few ounces and last a long time (in normal conditions and with regular backflushing). 
  • Chemical tablets are also extremely lightweight, but some change the taste of water and all require a waiting period before you can drink. 
  • Electronic devices that use ultraviolet light or ozone to purify water are lightweight, fast, and easy to use, but they require batteries (or charging) and, like all electronics, can malfunction.

Water Storage 

For most hikes, you’ll want to be able to carry at least two liters of water (more on routes with long, dry sections). A hands-free reservoir and/or plastic water bottles will do the trick. Just avoid heavy, insulated bottles. 

Headlamp

There are plenty of lamps that weigh 3 ounces or less. Just be sure to avoid wasting power to minimize the batteries you go through on long trips. Lock headlamps off (or flip one battery) so the light doesn’t unintentionally turn on while it’s packed, and always use the low setting when you can. 

Trekking Poles

Technically these are optional, but most thru-hikers consider them mandatory. They reduce impact and stress on your joints, provide extra purchase in slick conditions, and are required for pitching tarps and some ultralight shelters. 

Hygiene

Maintaining good hygiene on a long-distance hike isn’t just a matter of keeping your partners happy. It’s good for your health. At minimum, pack a toothbrush and toothpaste, hand sanitizer, and biodegradable soap. A bandana or small camp towel are great for taking a sponge bath (some hikers swear by wet wipes). Use a lightweight trowel to bury human waste and pack out used toilet paper or use natural alternatives like leaves. 

First Aid Kit 

Pack the basics and any personal meds. You can buy a ready-made kit or assemble one yourself. The key items: blister care (like moleskin), gauze, pain meds, bandages, tape, wrap, and disinfectant.

Battery Charger

Most likely you’ll have a phone and/or other devices. Solar chargers are great for long-distance hikes; small battery packs are also good but you’ll need to charge them at resupply stops. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.