A No-Nonsense Packing Guide For Thru Hiking
8 Things To Learn From A Hiker Who Overpacked
What gear will I need for 200+ miles of hiking through snowfields, rain, and scorching heat?
How do I plan ahead weeks worth of food?
Is it possible to pack all of this and keep the weight of my pack down?
Preparing for a long distance thru hike (possibly your first) can be stressful. Looking back, I’d tell myself to relax. Embrace your inner minimalist and you'll be rewarded. Full disclosure, when preparing for the John Muir Trail, I over packed.
When I told people how much my pack weighed they didn't know whether to think I was brave or dumb. I learned the hard way how important it is to plan ahead and keep your pack's weight down. After I got on the trail, a few other hikers mentioned that your pack should never be more than one third of your body weight, and with a little effort it should be very easy for anyone to get their pack below 35-40 lbs. Here are 8 things to keep in mind as you prepare for a thru hike:
1. Nothing Should Be New on Day One
It is important to take your gear on a test drive, so lace up the shoes you plan on wearing, put some weight in your pack and log some training miles. Ideally, hike a trail you know well so you can judge how your body feels with your new gear. Hiking with your gear will help you build strength and also learn how to manage the weight that shifts around as you hike up and down the trail.
2. Pick Your Pack LAST
Don’t overthink it. Your backpack needs to be just big enough (not big, big enough). I went with a large, burly external frame backpack. It fit everything, had pockets to make gear accessible, and supported the (massive) weight I was carrying. The downside is that it was almost too big, and gave me the freedom to overpack. I recommend buying your pack after you’ve decided everything you’re going to bring along (and challenge yourself to use a smaller pack).
3. Whatever You Do, Take Care of Your Shoes
Your footwear will be the thing that you interact with the most. And the right pair of hiking shoes can make your experience a lot more fun. Notice I am saying shoes, not boots. There is some debate over what is best, lightweight comfort vs. stability and resilience. Personally, I went with a nice pair of trail running shoes. The main reason I did this was because the summer of 2017 was one of the wettest summers ever on the JMT, and wet feet are the enemy when you are walking 10-20 miles a day. Even when you aren't slogging through slushy snow fields all day, you can expect to be forced to ford through rivers multiple times daily. My opinion of “waterproof” boots is that they are mostly just “drying proof” boots. The features that promise to keep water out makes it hard for any liquid (i.e. sweat) to evaporate and dry out, leaving your feet soggy for longer. On the hike I found that, on a sunny day, my completely soaked shoe would be more or less dry in less than 20 minutes of hiking.
You know yourself best, if you feel you will be more comfortable in a sturdier hiking boot then go for it. Whatever you choose, be sure to break them in before hand, pair them with a great pair of socks, and learn your potential “hot spots” to help avoid blisters on the hike.
4. BO is a Badge of Honor - and a Space Saver
Here is the secret to keeping your pack light and your soul happy on the trail. Embrace the stank. You are going to smell, bad, on this hike. But so will everybody else. The sooner you let go of that fear (and the extra 3 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of underwear, and change of shorts) the better off you are. I suggest finding an ideal hiking outfit and plan on wearing it every day. Keep it simple, go for comfortable, quick drying base layers and lightweight, functional layers to add on in case of weather.
5. When it Comes to Food, Remember The Trinity: Hydration - Nutrients - Happiness
The food was, for me, the most stressful part of preparing for this trip. This part is all about knowing yourself, and trusting yourself.
- Hydration: You’ll be drinking a bunch of water on your trek so bring along a water filtration system. You’ll find that a topic of much debate on the trail is which water filtration system is best? There is no right answer to that question. Personally I suggest getting water purification droplets, Aquamira is what I used. Small, light, and simple to use.
- Nutrients: I find that I function best on a lighter breakfast packed with energy. Oatmeal with flaxseed, granola and peanut butter was plenty of fuel for me to get my day going. I would usually give myself 1 or 2 protein bars to snack on in the afternoon so I knew I was getting the nutrition I needed. And being the inexperienced and uninformed chef that I am, I went with the pre-made backpacker’s meals you can get at any adventure outfitter for dinner. They are moderately priced and made for hungry hikers so you know you will get plenty of nutrition.
- Happiness: Make space to treat yourself. A bag of trail mix, gummy bears, or even a PB and J were great snacks for keeping my sugars up and easing my appetite. Never underestimate the value of a little comfort food on the trail. I also suggest bringing a little extra seasoning or hot sauce if you can (they’ll spice up any meal).
6. Build a Streamlined Energy Kit
I hike with my SolarPanel 5+ strapped to the outside of my bag to gather sun during the day so I can charge my batteries at night. It allows me to keep my phone charged for taking photos and using GPS. Solar is great for thru hiking because if you’re generating your own power, you don’t have to pack in extra battery packs. You will hear a lot of complaining about malfunctioning solar panels on your hike, but it won’t be coming from anybody with a BioLite panel. The simple system worked perfectly, and allowed me to make a few friends (and trade for a few snacks) because I was always able to offer fellow hikers a little charge. Another necessity is a reliable lantern for illuminating your tent and navigating around camp at night. I brought my PowerLight Mini for late nights reading, writing in my journal, and reviewing maps.
7. Find Your Single Comfort Crutch
What’s unique to you that brings you joy? After a long day on the trail, it’s really nice to have something that makes you feel a bit more at home to help you recharge. Maybe it’s an extra pair of shorts to sleep in, a couple of chocolate bars, or a journal. Yeah it might be a little extra weight, but live a little why don’t ya! Figure out what little comfort is going to get you through and bring it along (don’t go overboard, just pick one). For me it was my fishing pole, there are some great, simple, light fishing rigs out there if you are a little creative.
8. Your Closest Friends Will Be Sunscreen, Bug Spray, and a Simple Knife
You’ll be outside all day and need supplies that will protect your body from the elements. Never forget bug spray or sunscreen. When walking over a snowfield, put on LOTS of sunscreen; you are basically hiking up a giant mirror. And don’t forget the underside of your nose.
You will also use a knife more than you think. You might be tempted to bring a multitool, and they can be handy in a pinch. But just take the time to look at the weight of you multitool and the weight of your knife, and then ask yourself “when was the last time I was hiking and wished I had a pair of needle nose pliers.”
Appendix: The Cutting Room Floor
I was surprised by how little I needed. A lot of little comforts that you think you’ll want, you just end up not caring about. I could’ve done without: moist toilettes, an extra hand sanitizer, Dr. Bronner's, deodorant, multiple change of clothes, and an extra pair of sunglasses. Generally, bring a little less of everything you think you need, except food. You cannot bring enough snacks.
The JMT contains some of the most serene natural beauty one can witness. There is something about being in the backcountry, isolated for days on end, that you just cannot experience on your average afternoon hike. I, like anyone who has done the JMT, will look fondly back on my summer in the Sierras for years to come. It can seem challenging to get your pack’s weight down, but don’t get lazy. Put in the extra time to get your pack feeling as light as possible and you will thank yourself every step of the way.
Have you gone on a thru hike? What are your tips for packing? Share your thoughts on our latest Facebook post.