Return of the SLOBO: Rocketship Underpants
―from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
Oh! The dreaded gear installment!
One would think that, after hiking thousands of miles, working at an outfitter, and keeping up with innovations in the backpacking industry, old Goatman would just be waiting to tell you everything he knows about the gear you should take on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. The problem is this: I am not you. I’m not packing for you, I’m not resupplying with you, I’m not throwing your bag on my back, and I’m not hiking a single mile of the trail for you.
The gear I use is simply that: it’s what I use while on the trail. I could type up a spreadsheet with weight and cost and every other variable listed out, post it here, and be done with this article, but all you would know is what I take on a hike and not what you, dear reader, should take on a hike. Again, I am not you. I don’t have your feet, I don’t worry about your fears, and I happen to be as strong as one donkey and one mule combined in man form, thus rendering the weight concerns of your average human meaningless to me.
You may be asking yourself: “Well, Goatman, what exactly are you going to talk about in this article besides being a mutant-hybrid pack creature?” Good question. Let’s get to the meat of it. Despite current fashion or gear trends, the gear you take on the AT should do the following things for you: keep you safe, keep you happy, and keep you moving.
Gear Should Keep You Safe
Seems pretty simple. I don’t wear a rain shell when the skies are blue just to look cool. I wear it when it is raining to keep dry and warm. I might wear it above treeline to keep the sun and wind off, but otherwise, it is sitting in my pack, waiting for the weather to turn nasty. I don’t put it in a bounce box just because it looks like a nice couple of days ahead. It is not useless weight just because I carry it as much as I wear it; it is still serving its function as a piece of bad weather gear when tucked away.
Try and check the weather predictions along the entire AT for a six month period. Nonsense, right? You don’t pack for the perfect days. You pack with the hard days in mind and you pack to lessen the effect that hard days will have on you, whenever they come.
This can be extended to almost anything in your bag: a headlamp is only useful in the dark, but get caught without one on an overcast night when you get stuck out late on the bogs and see if you don’t wish you had one.
Before leaving something at home, ask yourself, “Am I sacrificing safety by not having this with me?” If you are fine with the risk imposed, then by all means, get it out of your pack. There are things that work as a safety blanket more than they work as functional gear. You will learn the difference on the trail if not before.
Something we tend to emphasize that bears repeating: do not set foot on your thru-hike with gear that you have never hiked with before. Think you need a 7 inch bear hunting knife for safety? Well, take it out on a weekend trip and see how many times you actually need it. Guess what? People have hiked the AT with less useful things and made it every step of the way. Were they being stubborn? Undoubtedly. Could they have lightened their load? Of course. Did it matter in the end? Not one bit. No one is standing at the terminus, counting all of the calories you wasted carrying extra stuff. There’s no thru-hiker report card being filled out. Either you make it or you don’t. If the things in your bag helped you make it, then they were useful whatever they were.
Let’s step back for a moment: What do I mean by safety? Safety on a thru-hike for me means successfully hiking from town to town and eventually reaching the terminus without grievous injury to yourself or anyone around you. This does not entail carting around a 3 lb. first aid kit that you don’t even know how to utilize to its full extent. This does not mean bringing a gun. This does mean, however, choosing socks and footwear that do not cause blistering, loss of toenails, or nerve damage to your feet. It means having appropriate layers of clothing to deal with the rapidly changing temperatures on a long distance hike. It means having shelter from the elements when you get caught out in them. It means having a sleep system that allows you to truly rest at night and regain your strength for the next day. It means carrying enough calories to see you through to the next resupply and/or buffet. And it means having water purification so you don’t poop yourself off the trail.
Gear Should Keep You Happy
I realize that happiness is relative. I’m not worried about whether or not you define yourself as happy every step of the AT. You won’t. You will experience the entire gamut of emotions on the trail, including simultaneous emotional combinations that you didn’t even know that you had in you (i.e. “I’m sad that I’m out of peanut butter, which I hate as of now, but I’m hungry, which makes me angry, but my pack is a pound lighter and that makes me happy.”)
The point I want to make is that if you’re not going to be happy at times, it shouldn’t be because of your gear.
If you’re going to be sad, angry, or frustrated, it should be because of some existential longing within your soul or some jerk you met, not because your pack doesn’t fit correctly (because you bought it off the internet without thought to torso size or load capacity.) I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I can fit a pack to your back with precision. There are few problems with gear that can’t be fixed. Remember that hike you’re going to do with all of your gear before you head out on the AT? That would be the time to figure out what hurts and why. And to fix it.
Happiness isn’t just decided by physical means, however. Everything can fit great, your pack can be light and comfortable, and your head can still be a mess. Sometimes, you just need your lucky rocketship underwear. What I mean by this is: don’t skimp on your luxury item, whatever that may be. I hiked the length of Maine with a 600+ page copy of my favorite book. It probably weighed upwards of a pound (I don’t want to know.)
Why? Well, the short answer is that I’m an avid reader and collector of books. It is part of who I am and, without this aspect of my life, I feel less connected to myself and what I’m doing on this Earth. I don’t like reading; I love reading. My vision of hell is a waiting room with nothing to read. And my vision of heaven? To be in the woods, miles away from civilization, with a book in my hand as the sun goes down. It is as simple as that. I made the decision to carry the extra weight so that, in the rare moments that I wasn’t hiking, eating, or sleeping, I could wind down and do a bit of what makes me happy no matter where I am. And I brought this particular favorite book as a symbolic boon for my hike.
There are lighter, more weather resistant, more practical items that I could have brought to keep me busy when not moving, but that was not the point. Carrying this book made me happy, so I carried it. Don’t let other people dictate what keeps you smiling. That doesn’t work. You won’t look at any AT pack list that includes Giant Pretentious Modernist Novel, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring one.
Gear Should Keep You Moving
Being safe and happy isn’t what hiking is all about. If these were your only goals, you might as well stay at home. Hiking isn’t always safe. Being in the woods can be dangerous and there are certainly a lot of things you can do to minimize the risk, but at the end of the day a bit of the Fear is part of the experience of hiking. As for happiness, I don’t think I need to repeat that this is a conditional state that you will move in and out of on the trail just as you do at home or any other place that you happen to be.
What hiking is all about is movement.
There is a saying on the trail: “It’s not about the miles, it’s about the smiles.”
However, in the paraphrased words of SLOBO extraordinaire the Bartender (’13): “That’s bull, man. If it were all about the smiles, I’d be back in Monson, drinking beer and hanging out. It’s gotta be about the miles if you want to finish.”
You’re not a hiker when you’re sitting around town. You’re not a hiker before or after your trip. You are only a hiker when you’re on the trail, making miles, and putting another footstep towards your goal. The gear you take with you should help with your progress, not hinder it.
This is where your pack weight comes in. It’s trendy these days to try to go as “ultralight” as possible. There’s good reason for this: the less weight in your pack, the less strain on your body, the more miles you can potentially do on the same amount of calories. Makes sense, right? Yes, it does, unless you are going so “ultralight” that you are sacrificing your safety or your happiness (see above.) There is a balance to be met, just as in all things.
So the point is to keep moving. No one knows what keeps you moving better than yourself, but there are a few universals. If you are injured, you will have to stop and rest. Your gear should not be the cause of injury (once again: shakedown hike! Please, for the love of all that is good in this world, shakedown hike!) If you don’t have the gear to move through and survive inclement weather, you will have to hole up in town. If you underestimate the amount of calories to pack out, you will find yourself tired, grumpy, and disoriented on the trail. A light pack isn’t going to help with any of these. So, yes, please, think about the weight of your pack and make sure that it isn’t weighing you down unnecessarily, but cutting weight just to cut weight is foolish if you are sacrificing your safety or happiness.
This is also the point where the longevity of your gear comes into play. Going into town is both fun and necessary at times, but going into a town you weren’t planning on going into in order to find a replacement for malfunctioning gear is a huge waste of time and energy. I realize that hikers are all about frugality, but there comes a point when it is more cost-effective to buy quality than to settle for something less that you will have to replace (possibly multiple times.) Case in point: I thought paying over $10 for a titanium long spoon was crazy when I could buy a cheap plastic spork that weighed less for a couple of bucks. And then I broke my plastic spork eating noodles. And then I broke my second plastic spork eating mashed potatoes and now I’m eating my dinner with filthy, burnt fingers for days before I can replace it with the spoon I originally snubbed as being too expensive.
There are definitely things that you can go cheap on, but when it comes to gear that is keeping you on the trail, you’ll find that spending the extra dough to get gear that is proven to last and warrantied against damage will save you a lot of time, effort, and money in the long run. The spork is a silly example in that I didn’t need it to keep moving. Had I skimped on my footwear and socks, however, I would have been limping back into town. Had I skimped on my backpack, I could have found myself at war with what should have been my dearest asset, whether that meant the straps rubbing me raw or the pack becoming nonfunctional.
Again, the goal is to keep moving. Keep this in mind when gathering your gear. Keep an eye on weight. Too heavy and you’ll be huffing and puffing every step. Too light and you might be sacrificing safety and happiness.
No one can pack for you. There are hundreds of example pack lists available on the internet. Look at them, learn from them, but in the end, you will come up with your own system that works for you. In all of my years of hiking, I have never come upon another hiker that is carrying the exact set up as I am. Why is that? Am I wrong? Is she wrong? How about that guy over there?
Find what works for you. Test it. Make sure it does what you need it to and that it will last. If you need advice, we at RRT are always here to help. In the end, no one else is going to hoist your pack and hit the trail for you.
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