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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).