Appalachian Trail Part 1: Gear Assessment & Review

In an earlier post I laid out all the gear I planned to carry in my pack as I started my thru-hike of the AT. With 5 days of food and full water bottles, I was all-in at 31 lbs.

Gear I started the Appalachian Trail with

Thirty one pounds is a lot lighter than the 60 pound Lowe Alpine Contour IV I lugged in 1995 when I attempted to the Oregon Coast Trail for the first time. Swinging off the back was gear that didn’t fit inside – an extra pair of running shoes and full mess kit that banged noisily with each lumbering step. In hindsight I can’t imagine what all I had in that giant pack that forced external stowage. I had grown up camping and I had been in the Army. And yet I remained utterly clueless about how to backpack efficiently.

Not the Oregon Coast, but the same massive pack that I always put WAY too much in

On the morning of March 14th, as I filled out my name in the AT thru-hiker’s registration log at Amicolola Falls, I bit my lip in the “Pack Weight” column. Thirty one pounds seemed like a lot and I was embarrassed to jot down my honest answer. But a quick scan of others’ responses made me feel slight in comparison. Numbers in excess of 50 (one 65!) filled the column. Only one other hiker was in the 30s. My confidence piqued, and before I set out I threw a few extra snacks in my pack’s big mesh pocket. What’s another few ounces when you’re got a pack as light as mine?

As I write this now, it’s fascinating to me how much my personal heaviness was a judgment based on a comparison to others, yet had little to do with actual weight. One second 31 pounds was heavy, the next it was smugly light. So weird!

Anyhow, I carried my 31 lbs. across 173.1 miles and climbed/descended 21,000ish feet of elevation gain and loss. Conditions were typical for the spring season, mostly chilly, but at times bitter cold or even warm. I learned that “base weight” of a pack excludes food and water, and got wind of a guy just ahead who was rocking a whopping 9 pounder. Hikers mentioned his base weight in mystified whispers. We were less than a week in and legends had already been made.

I knew my 31 contained things I didn’t and likely wouldn’t need. Some of these would eventually go away (i.e. extreme weather gear), and others would stay just in case (i.e a first aid kit). I was fully comfortable with the weight on my back and figured I’d only make it more manageable as time advanced my learning curve.

Upon my arrival home, I unloaded my pack into 2 piles: What I used and what I didn’t use at all. While doing so, I also made a list of things I needed or wished I had while I was out there.

Here’s what I didn’t use:

DIDN’T USE: Gloves x4 (extra warm, medium warm, WP mittens, and liners), headlamp, compression socks, tick remover, essential oils, pass-along cards, hand warmers, extra Ziplocks, first aid kit (with lighter), a terry-cloth camp towel, and 3 masks (1 cloth and 2 KN95s)

I can’t lie, sharing this makes me a little uneasy. Because, I mean seriously, how many pairs of damn gloves did I think I’d need? Sheesh. This only proves what I already know – that I am wicked afraid to be cold. Especially wet and cold. Better to be over-prepared than under, apparently.

And to those of you who are curious about the headlamp – I swear I didn’t once use it while I was on the trail. I lived by the light of the sun and never bothered with one during middle of the night pees. The only time I did use it was at the Hostel Around the Bend in Hiawassee, GA (near Dick’s Creek Gap) when the power went out and I wanted to use a flush toilet. Ironic.

As for things I needed or wished I had while I was out there, this is a short list: A waterproof clothes bag (instead of a big Ziplock that was shredded in 5 days), a smaller pouch for my toiletries (instead of using my Thermarest’s pouch), and a pair of long pants that didn’t lose their shape with every wear (I’m tired of having a saggy butt, doggone it!).

Taking stock of these items will only aid my next go.

**********

As for a REVIEW of various items, I think I’ll limit this endeavor to the things I absolutely loved or loathed.

What I loved: My shoes, insoles, backpack, jacket, socks, bear bag, tent, charging system, and base layer hoodie

What I loathed: Honestly, nothing. I’ve been doing this long enough to know what works and what doesn’t, and I wouldn’t ever take unproven gear on an adventure like this. Granted, I don’t love all my gear, but it’s all practical and purposeful, which is enough.

Shoes – HOKA Challenger ATR 6: I’ve been in the running shoe industry for nearly 20 years, so I know footwear. I’ve tried countless options in an attempt to match my foot shape and durability needs, and this HOKA model is what I’ve landed on. I wish it lasted longer on technical trails because I’m definitely not getting the suggested 4-6 months/pair. Pretty sure I’ll be replacing them monthly. But given what they do while they are working, the cost will be worth it.

HOKA Challenger ATR 6 after 10 days on the trail

Insoles – Superset Heritage Orange: Ever since these suckers came out a million years ago, they’ve been in all my active shoes. I’ve run 100-milers in them, walked across the USA in them, and have them in every pair of shoes I’m using on the regular. On the AT I’ll replace them with every new pair of shoes, which is pricey, but again, given how well they work for me, is well worth it.

Before and after shots of my favorite insoles after 10 days on the trail

Backpack – Gossamer Gear Gorilla 50: I absolutely love the fit and feel of this 29.8 oz. pack. It’s like the best and most comfortable hug I’ve ever gotten. But given how it’s wearing along rub points, I am a little concerned about whether or not it’ll summit Mt. Katahdin with me. It’s not meant to lug more than 30 lbs., so maybe this wear and tear is partially my fault. Still, I was a little dismayed upon inspection to see holes on the waist belt from where it’s making contact with the shoulder straps, and torn components in the massive and totally awesome big mesh pocket on the back.

Me and my Gorilla 50 in the Grand Canyon doing a R2R2R last year

Jacket – Patagonia Micro Puff Hoodie: Hands down, the lightest and smartest piece of warm gear I’ve ever owned. Ultralight, water resistant, down-like warmth, and sexy. And when I need a little extra cush in the tent, I bundle it into its own front pocket and use it as a pillow. It rocks my world.

Rockin’ the Micro Puff in Glacier NP in 2020

CEP Merino Compression Mid-Cut Sock: When I walked across America in 2018, my buddy Luke who worked at CEP at the time sent me a pair of these socks. I literally used 1 pair of socks for my entire 3259-mile walk from LA to Brooklyn, and was (obviously!) forever sold on their merits. They don’t slip, don’t lose their shape, are tremendously durable, and have never gotten a hole. The style and footpad patterns have changed a little since I first fell in love, but they remain my go-to for any sort of long run or walk.

I walked more than 700 miles of streets in Spokane with these suckers on, and have the first 170+ miles of the AT under them, too

Bear Bag – Ursack Major Bear Resistant Bag: This isn’t a traditional bear canister, and doesn’t satisfy the occasional requirements for one, but it basically does the same thing and is WAY easier to pack and haul. I suggest including an odor-proof critter bag liner inside it to keep everything besides bears from also taking interest in your delicious Top Ramen and Clif Bars, too.

Doesn’t look like much, but it is

Tent – Zpacks Duplex: A luxurious 19 oz. palace in the woods. Sure, I don’t need all the space a duplex offers, but after a long day of walking, it’s nice to be able to fully sit up or sprawl out or do some yoga or stretching inside the tent without issue. A taut setup with trekking poles combined with the “bathtub” floor ensures total dryness in a torrential downpour. The AT was my first time using it for multiple nights and it came through with flying colors. One minor bummer – it requires the base to be staked in, which on trails besides the AT may prove to be a challenge. But for now, it’s a worthy home away from home. A worthy investment in comfort. (FYI: I use a swatch of construction TYVEK as my groundcloth. It rocks.)

Palatial digs after a long ass day

Charging System – Goal Zero Venture 75: Dustproof and waterproof power bank that will charge my iPhone 13 5x before it needs to be re-juiced. And given the fact that 1) My phone only needs charging once every 3 days, and 2) Every ~5 days I will go into towns for resupply, with this system I’ll never lose access to the FarOut app that’s keeping me safely on trail without internet access. Bonus that this system offers me peace of mind so I don’t fret when using my phone to do daily IG posts or texts/phone calls to loved ones. Sure, it weighs a bit more than I’d like (20.35 oz), and it also may be a little overkill for what I truly need, but it keeps me worry-free and I like it.

My pound-and-a-half peace of mind

Base Layer Hoodie – Patagonia Capilene Air Hoodie: Hands down, my favorite piece of gear. Fashionable, functional, and a great fit. I’ve been using this merino hoodie based layer as an all day apparel piece on the AT. I sleep in it, I use it while breaking camp, I change into it during lunches to dry out my merino t-shirts, then I rock it with my Micro Puff to stay warm as the sun sets. And because it’s merino, it never stinks. Major bonus. I’m a huge fan of the color, too (I also have a black one). This top is a quality piece for which I am getting my money’s worth, and then some.

LOVE the color of this Patagonia base layer!

Thanks to everyone for tuning into my hike so far. If you don’t already, please make sure you follow this blog and my Instagram account (@tomgriffen).

After a week of work I’ll be returning to the Appalachian Trail – most likely on April 4th – and picking up where I left off at the Fontana Dam Marina. Lots lots lots more lessons and adventures to come!

Peace and love to you all.

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