It’s that time of year again. Winter, in the places it actually exists, is slowly starting to turn into spring, and it feels like the time to start making summer plans. For lots of people, that means heading outside to do some hiking.
Personally, I’m planning on doing a bit of that myself: over the next few months I, and thousands of other people, will be attempting to walk from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail, which spans around 2,650 miles through California, Oregon, and Washington. There’ll also be people doing a similar journey in different places, such as the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast, the Continental Divide Trail through the Rockies, or any number of slightly shorter regional hikes like the Florida, Colorado, or Pacific Northwest trails.
I’m sure everyone reading right now would absolutely love spending four to six months in the wilderness, walking upward of 25 miles a day over steep terrain. But doing so requires a lot of equipment, and it can be hard to know what to bring or where to even start researching.
Hikers attempting to “thru-hike” a trail need to pack the gear necessary to stay alive — shelter, appropriate clothing, ways to cook food and protect it from animals — and know how to use it. Poor planning can lead to a miserable experience on the trail that could prematurely end someone’s hike or even put their life in danger if things go really wrong. And while good planning doesn’t guarantee that you’ll finish the entire trail — statistically, most people who set out to do a thru hike don’t succeed (I’m built different though, surely) — it sets you up to have an enjoyable and relatively safe experience, no matter how far you make it.
And besides, even if you’re not looking to actually hike the trail yourself, who doesn’t love a good gear post?
As a note, while this list is just so long, it’s not necessarily 100 percent complete. It has all the important things, and I bought the specific gear I mention and link to based on research I’ve been doing over the past four years. But while I’ve hiked hundreds of miles with it already, I wouldn’t say that anyone should replicate my setup exactly. What you take on a hike like this is a deeply personal decision, and you should probably take a look at several lists before deciding on gear for yourself.
Plus, at roughly 11 pounds, my pack is way too heavy for the true ultralight purists, and it omits some comfort items — a pillow, camp shoes, sleep clothes, and a midlayer / fleece, to name a few — that more traditional backpackers would consider essential. The truest compromise is the one where everyone makes fun of you.
By the way, if you want a TL;DR list of the stuff I’m taking with no extra info, you can check out this site called LighterPack. (Yes, pretty much every enthusiast community has its own special site for creating databases; it’s just how nerds roll, even outdoorsy ones.) You can also listen to me chat about the PCT with my colleague David Pierce on The Vergecast, if you’re into that sort of thing.
With that out of the way, let’s get started:
Of course this had to come first; this is The Verge after all. I’m planning on almost entirely disconnecting from the internet at large during my hike, but my friends and family would prefer to hear from me every once in a while — and would also like me to have digital maps and a way to contact emergency services if something goes wrong.
To that last point, I’m bringing the Garmin InReach Mini, a satellite communicator that lets me text and get weather forecasts during the very frequent stretches without cell service on the trail. It also lets my family track my hike in near real time because it’s logging my position every few minutes and sending it up to the satellites. With reasonable tracking settings and relatively light texting, it’ll last around five days between charges.
I’m also, obviously, bringing a smartphone; we don’t need to talk about which one here because it would be a whole thing. I’ve been told by PCT alumni that you can usually only expect to run into cell service once or twice throughout the day, so for the most part, it’ll be an offline source for maps, podcasts, and music. Plus, it’s good to have a phone when you’re in town and can use Google Maps to find grocery stores and hotels.
There are a few apps that I consider vital, even though I know people have hiked the trail decades before they were available. First and foremost is an app called FarOut, which acts as a map for the PCT, pointing out landmarks, campsites, water sources, and more, as well as a sort of thru-hiker bulletin board. People can leave comments on waypoints saying things like “this water source has dried up, use the next one in four miles” or “this campsite / hostel has ants, stay away.”
There’s also the InReach’s companion app, which lets me text without having to use the actual device’s terrible typing experience, Pocket Casts for on-trail podcast listening, Seek for identifying plants, and PeakFinder for identifying mountains.
Another thing I’ve decided to bring is a Canon G7X Mark II, a point-and-shoot with a largish sensor. I like the pictures that come out of it way better than any phone camera I’ve seen, and I don’t think any software tricks or periscope lenses are going to hold a candle to a physical 24–120mm-equivalent zoom lens. Given that this hike is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I want to make sure that I won’t be distracted by crappy night mode or overdone HDR if I look back at pictures from it in 10 or 20 years. I’m also bringing a tiny tripod that I’m pretty sure could double as a tent stake in an emergency.
Keeping all that powered in the multiday stretches between towns will be a Nitecore NB20000 powerbank. As its name implies, it has a 20,000mAh capacity, which should charge my phone around five times. (Given how little I’ll be using it, that’s probably around a week’s worth of charging — or more if I stretch it.)
It also has a few features that other comparable chargers don’t have. For one, it’s made out of carbon fiber, which keeps the weight down. It also does passthrough charging, so when I get to town, I can plug it and my phone into my two-port Anker power brick, then plug my InReach into the battery, and all three devices will charge up at the same time.
Most of this stuff will live in a ziplock bag placed in another waterproof bag because I don’t want to take any chances with rain and river crossings.
A backpack made of recycled materials
Having a good backpack is essential for backpacking (duh), so for the PCT, I’ve gone with one that’s both simple and lightweight while still being durable enough to last a few thousand miles.
Part of what makes my pack of choice, the Waymark Thru 40 UL, fit for the task comes down to what it’s actually made of. The main body is sewn from a material called Ecopak. According to the company that makes the fabric, Challenge Sailcloth, it’s made of polyester and film that’s 100 percent recycled from water bottles. It also happens to be water resistant, so it should keep all my stuff dry (though I do put my most critical pieces of gear into a plastic liner just in case water manages to soak through the seams). There’s a reason Ecopak and the similar Ultra fabric have gotten so popular with small backpack companies.
The pack itself is basically just one giant pocket: a tube made out of Ecopak to shove things into. All you get in terms of organization are two open pockets on the side (I keep water bottles in them) and a mesh pocket on the back, which is where I store a variety of things, like my electronics bag and wind pants. Oh, and there are loops to hold an ice axe and trekking poles when you’re not actively using them. I’ve also added two pockets to the shoulder straps. One’s for an easy-to-access water bottle, and I’ll put my phone, earbuds, chapstick, and other miscellaneous things in the other.
Overall, it has around 40L of carrying capacity. Unfortunately, you can’t buy this exact pack anymore. Right after I got mine, Waymark updated the Thru to add an internal frame and what appears to be a nonremovable padded hipbelt. While those changes definitely make the pack more comfortable when you’re carrying a heavy load, they also made it a full 10 ounces heavier. I’m happy I got mine when I did, though I do wonder if frameless 40L packs seem to be going out of style for a reason. (You can still get them if you look hard enough — Atom Packs and LiteAF have some options.)
A place to sleep
Unless you’re a hardcore backpacker, you may be surprised to learn that some people don’t even use tents, opting instead for an ultralightweight tarp that leaves them mostly open to the world, while still protecting them from wind and rain.
That ain’t me, though — I want to be protected from bugs and mountain lions (and I don’t want to hear your opinions on how much a tent would do to stop a hungry animal). So I’m bringing the Zpacks Duplex, a two-person tent that sets up using trekking poles rather than requiring its own set of poles that you have to carry around in your backpack.
The reason I went with a two-person tent, even though I’m relatively weight conscious, is that it’s only around 200 grams heavier than Zpacks’ lightest one-person tent, and it comfortably fits me, my inflatable sleeping pad, and my backpack. That means that, if it rains, I won’t have to be worried about keeping all my gear dry.
It’s also made of a high-tech fabric called Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), which has the benefit of being both extremely lightweight and exceptionally water resistant, especially compared to traditional nylon or polyester tents. (In principle, it’s kind of similar to Ecopak, but it’s significantly lighter.) If you look into DCF at all, you’ll probably see claims about it being “the world’s strongest fiber,” but realistically, the biggest draw is that it weighs next to nothing and is generally durable enough to withstand the conditions you’d encounter on a thru hike. Sure, there are claims that it’s stronger than steel, but there’s more to durability than how hard you can pull on a material before it rips — and there’s probably a reason that mountaineering tents generally use heavier-weight fabrics. For my purposes, though, it’s good enough.
So if the Duplex and other tents like it are so great, why doesn’t everyone use them? It’s exactly the reason you might expect: cost (and also maybe concerns about condensation). Zpacks charges $699 for just the tent — you still have to buy trekking poles and eight (!!!) stakes. The company also says it’s built to last for “at least one full 2500-plus mile thru hike.” So yes, if I wanted to do another one of these, there’s a very real possibility I’d have to buy a whole new tent.
But man... 581 grams is tough to argue with, especially when a two-person tent that’s made with more traditional materials and that uses standalone poles can weigh over a kilogram. Heck, the Duplex is lighter than my old one-person tent and handles rain significantly better. Also, according to Halfway Anywhere’s survey of PCT hikers, basically everyone else uses this tent, so I have to use it if I want to fit in with the cool kids.
Stuff to sleep on
When it comes to sleeping gear, the most important piece is my down quilt that’s rated for 10 degrees Fahrenheit (desert nights can be cold, especially in April). The difference between a quilt and a traditional sleeping bag is that there’s no back to it, which makes it a lot lighter. Instead, you use a sleeping pad to keep your warmth from seeping into the ground and strap the quilt onto it to prevent drafts.
My sleeping pad is an inflatable one from Thermarest, even though it means I’ll have to spend three minutes every night blowing into a valve. Its high insulation value is one reason I picked it, but I also love how (relatively) comfy it is. I’ve used both a traditional foldable foam pad as well as a barely even there one-eighth-inch-thick one cut to torso length, and it’s hard to imagine wanting to use either for 120 nights or more.
I will, however, be bringing the ultrathin foam pad to sit on when I take a break or to take naps on after lunch.
Clothes for every condition
Choosing clothes for backpacking is tough — on a trip as long as the PCT, you’re likely to run into wind, snow, rain, scorching sun, and everything in between, but you can’t bring a bunch of outfits for each condition. That’s why layering is super important.
My everyday hiking uniform is a pair of shorts, a sun hoodie, a hat, and a pair of weird toe socks to prevent blisters. (The shirt and shorts I’m only bringing one each of; the ones I’ll be wearing. I am bringing two pairs of socks, though.) I’ll also have a Buff, and a pair of sun gloves.
If I need extra warmth, I have a pullover jacket and a pair of gloves that live in its kangaroo pocket. The synthetic Climashield Apex insulation in the jacket doesn’t compress as well as down, but it will still keep me warm if it gets wet.
Speaking of, I also have a cheap rain jacket. After a few years of adventures, I’d say it’s only waterproof-ish, and it’s not breathable like more expensive jackets, but I’m not expecting a ton of rainy days. That’s why I’m not bringing any rain pants, though I am bringing wind pants, which should be helpful for staying warm in super breezy conditions and at night. They also make me look like a trash bag with legs, so that’s fun.
Also, a note on laundry: you might think that hiking all day in the summer heat would make your clothes dirty and smelly. And you would be correct. You just stop noticing it after a while because pretty much the only way they get cleaned is when you hop in a lake for a swim or stop in a town that happens to have laundry facilities. (Yes, a motel room sink counts as a laundry facility.)
Lots of shoes
Okay, I’ll only have one pair of shoes with me at any given time, but I know for sure that I’ll wear through five or six pairs throughout the hike. I use trail runners (and ones that have a reputation for being kind of fragile) because I find them to be so much more comfortable and lightweight than traditional hiking boots. Sure, a hardcore pair of boots could last the entire trail, but I’d hate walking in them so much that I’d quit before durability would become a factor.
Trail runners also usually dry a lot faster. Whenever anyone asks me for hiking footwear recommendations, I explicitly tell them not to get “waterproof” shoes. My reasoning is that their feet are probably going to get wet anyways. Even if they’re not wading through treacherous rivers like I will be, feet tend to sweat when you’re hiking. Most waterproof shoes are going to trap that moisture, keeping your socks soaked. And sure, that may happen with my shoes, too, but if I take them off for 30 minutes, they’ll completely dry out. That hasn’t been my experience with even the fanciest of waterproof materials.
I’ll also be wearing a pair of hiking gaiters, which hook onto your shoes and help keep rocks and sand out.
My last note on shoes is that there absolutely are people who would disagree with me and who love their waterproof boots. And if that’s you, absolutely more power to you — the great thing is that everybody can choose what works for them, and they shouldn’t be judged for doing so.
While some people ship themselves food in mailboxes, I’m planning to resupply on the trail. That means I’ll be hitchhiking into towns along the way, finding a grocery or convenience store, and stocking up on enough food to get me through a full week of hiking. While what I eat will be limited by what’s available (and what I haven’t gotten burnt out on), there are still a lot of things I have to consider while shopping:
- My kitchen supplies are as follows: a small gas canister stove, a metal spork, and a 600mL titanium mug / cookpot. If something can’t be cooked in that, I can’t cook it. (Campfires are forbidden in most places on the PCT.) Ramen and instant mashed potatoes fit the bill nicely.
- I prefer not to cook for breakfast and lunch, so things like bagels and peanut butter or wraps with vegetables are great.
- There is no refrigeration on the trail.
- I have to carry days’ worth of food on my back, so it has to be lightweight and relatively compact. I will make an exception to the compact rule for potato chips.
- Generally, you need around 5,000 calories when you’re hiking all day. You do not want to come up short.
- I will eat as many candy bars, snack cakes, and packages of skittles as I want. (Apologies to my dentist and also my mom.)
Also, a note on water: I’ll be drinking out of rivers, streams, ponds, and the like, all of which can have some nasty stuff in them that’ll make me sick. To keep that from happening, I’ll be filtering it through a Sawyer Squeeze, which gets rid of bacteria and protozoa.
A bear can
For most of the PCT, it’s fine to keep your food in a regular bag, but there are several sections where you’re required to carry a bear can — a big plastic container that animals can’t get into or break open. Part of the reason is that you don’t want to wake up and discover that a bear ate your food, but it also protects the wildlife, too. If you leave food in a regular bag and a bear gets to it, it’s going to keep harassing hikers because it now associates them with eating. And a bear that becomes a nuisance or danger to humans is not going to survive very long.
Now that the Desolation Wilderness also requires bear cans, I plan on using my BearVault BV 500 from Kennedy Meadows South (the start of the Sierra Nevada section on the PCT) to Tahoe City or Truckee — about a 450-mile stretch that could take anywhere from 20 days to a month and a half to hike. It’s heavy and bulky, but given how hard it may be to resupply in the mountains this year, I don’t think my smaller BV450 will hold enough food.
I will almost certainly have to deal with an epic (and perhaps historic?) amount of snow this year, especially in the Sierras. This raises the obvious concern of slipping on snow and falling, which could lead to serious injury or even death.
There’s no piece of gear that’ll make up for good technique and common sense in the mountains. As a citizen of the north, I know that walking on snow is easier in the mornings because the summer sun hasn’t softened it up yet — I also know that an ice ax won’t be much help if all it has to grab onto is powder or slush. Likewise, it’s not going to stop me from sliding down a mountain if it’s on my backpack rather than in my hand.
There’s only so far that knowledge can get you, though. I’m not an experienced mountaineer, so if things are still super gnarly by the time I reach the Sierras, I won’t hesitate to change my plans and temporarily skip them.
Okay, let’s talk about going to the bathroom in the woods
Here’s the deal: I’ll try to be as mature as possible about this if y’all promise to do the same. But yes, going miles and miles into the wilderness means giving up on wonderful man-made toilets and sewer systems that keep waste away from water and food sources.
The rules for peeing are pretty easy: do it as far away from water sources as you can, and you’ll be alright. Pooping, however, requires a bit more planning — and how you have to do it may depend on where you are. The rules are not the same everywhere, so always make sure to check what the local best practices are before you head out. With that said, for most of the PCT, the best practice is to bury your poop in a hole that’s at least six inches deep and that’s 200 feet away from campsites, the trail, or water sources.
Digging that hole is a lot easier if you have a trowel; personally, I use this super light one made of aluminum but with duct tape wrapped around the handle to keep it from digging into my hands.
While you’re supposed to bury your waste, you’re not supposed to leave toilet paper behind. That — you have to pack out with you, usually double-bagged. If you think that keeping used toilet paper in your backpack sounds gross, I absolutely agree. That’s why my bathroom kit also includes a little gadget that turns a water bottle into a bidet. Yes, it did require a fair amount of practice to use effectively, but I’m very glad I took the time to learn. I do still keep a little bit of TP in my bag just in case.
One last note on bodily functions: I don’t have any firsthand experience with it, but I’ve heard plenty of people say that dealing with menstruation on the trail is a lot easier if you use something like a DivaCup. (Of course, I’ve also heard from a few people who prefer the traditional pads and tampons.) Either way, the steps for dealing with the blood and other discharge are the same as you would with poop — you can empty a menstrual cup into a hole that you dug or pack out any used sanitary products in a bag.
And it goes without saying, but you must use hand sanitizer after doing anything from this section. Being in the wild is no excuse for poor hygiene.
Not everything is going to fit into neat categories, so here are a few other important things I’m bringing, in no particular order.
- A first-aid kit — I won’t tell you what your first-aid kit should or should not include because I don’t want that kind of liability. I will only say that Imodium or some other antidiarrheal medication is a good idea if you’re going to be in places where water and food are scarce.
- Sunscreen and SPF chapstick because sunburn sucks
- A cork massage ball
- A bug head net
- An alpaca ﬁber beanie
- A RovyVon Aurora A5 flashlight — the belt clip turns it into a headlamp if you’re wearing a hat
- A toothbrush and toothpaste tablets
- A small thermometer — if my water filter freezes, it’s no longer safe to use. So if the temperature snaps below freezing and I wasn’t keeping the filter in my quilt with me, I need to know.
- A fanny pack — because fashion is important (also because I want a convenient place to put my camera, wallet, and permit)
What I’m not bringing
I know it sounds like I’m bringing a lot, but remember that it all fits in a 40L backpack. I won’t be bringing any extras or duplicates of anything. If my shoes, tent, or anything else breaks, I’ll have to repair it well enough to get to the next town. (My first aid kit includes a needle that can be combined with dental floss to make a pretty nifty sewing kit.)
There are also a few comfort items I’m leaving behind. The most notable is a pillow, but I’m also not bringing a backpacking chair or anything. While the latter is a relatively popular item for weekend backpacking, most thru-hikers don’t take them because they spend significantly more time hiking than they will at camp.
Finally, the last thing I’m not bringing: friends. One of the questions I’ve been asked the most when I tell people about this hike is, “So wait, are you doing this alone?” The answer is yes and no. While I’m not starting with anyone, I’m almost certain I’ll meet people along the way.
There’s a common saying in the hiking community that “the trail provides,” which is usually meant to reassure people that they’ll be able to find what they’re looking for, be it friendship, food, or a reason to keep hiking another day. I don’t really agree with that. In my experience, the only things the trail itself pro vides are some admittedly grand views, along with endless hills to climb. However, the trail community — the people hiking with you, and who live nearby and offer rides, meals, and even places to stay to hundreds of people each year — does absolutely provide. I don’t need to bring a friend because I know I’ll make so many along the way.
Also, I couldn’t find anyone mad enough to do it with me.
Photography by Mitchell Clark except where noted.