After I finished hiking the PCT, I received loads of questions from many hikers who are in the process of figuring out how to lighten their pack and make their hike more enjoyable. There are so many things to consider, and if you don’t have a lot of experience in backpacking yet, it can all seem quite daunting.
Gear choices are the number one topic of discussion among hikers, and what I receive most questions about. There are so many different opinions to be found online, many stated as facts, that it can be hard to see the ultralight forest through the trees.
To sum the rest of this article up for you in a nutshell: my advice is to do what’s best for you. I know, easy for me to say, right? Because how do you figure out what that is? Keep reading, and I’ll help you figure it out.
So…what is best for me?
A real thru-hike or long-distance hike will likely be so long that you’ll encounter every situation imaginable along the way. You will be scorching hot and ice cold. Be parched and soaking wet. Be dead tired and sleepless. Be hungry and stuffed to the gills. There will be times when you’ll need your raincoat and others where it will remain in the bottom of your bag for hundreds of miles. The problem is: before you head out, you won’t know which of these circumstances you’ll encounter and when.
Do you jump in head first and go all-out ultralight? Leave the rain coat at home? Sure, if it starts pouring down, you can pull a bin liner or trash bag over your head and ’embrace the suck’. You will be cold and miserable, but hope it’ll be temporary. At least you didn’t have to drag that pesky coat along all those miles.
Or do you bring the coat everywhere and anywhere, weight be damned? No risk of exposure for you!
With every item you pack into your bag, you will have to ask yourself this question. Is this item worth its weight to me?
What are the chances you’ll be needing it? And I mean REALLY needing it. And what if I encounter a situation in which I do need it, but didn’t bring it? Will it be inconvenient? Or life-threatening?
Know where you’re going
First of all, you have to learn the circumstances of the environment where you will be hiking. Will you be walking through a cold and windy terrain? Wet? Muddy? Or will it be dusty, dry and hot? Walking through a desert for three months might lead you to think that you’ll only need shorts, sunglasses and some sunscreen, but don’t forget that the nights there can get incredibly cold. I woke up to a tent covered in snow on one of my days in the desert.
A trip to the Scandinavian Arctic will probably mean leaving your shorts at home (although I definitely know some
idiots hardy folk that would disagree with me there.)
If you are unfamiliar with the terrain, get as much information as you can about the local circumstances before you leave. Don’t assume anything.
When I started preparing for the PCT, I looked at as many gear lists from other hikers as I could. I started comparing different lists and could start to discern things that all hikers brought and enjoyed having. This wasn’t always easy. I had a hard time imagining a single-wall tent would be sufficient after experiencing Dutch and Scandinavian camping. But once there, it was a perfect choice for me, for that particular hike.
There are vast differences between preparing for a hike through Scotland or Scandinavia and preparing for a hike through the American desert. But since I had zero experience with that last environment, I had to base my preparations on other people’s opinions.
If there is one thing I found, it’s that no matter how much you prepare and train in advance, it will still be different from what you expected once you get there. So leave some room in your budget for alterations and gear switches.
If at all possible, go on a few shorter trips in advance, to locations that are comparable to where you will be hiking. I went for a week-long trip to the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands before I left because it is hot and volcanic there. I took my backpack and hiked around, and it was fairly comparable to certain sections in California, so great to prepare myself and test my gear.
Want to know what I brought? Look here for my gear lists.
Pack your fears
It’s a well-known saying on trail: you pack your fears. What it means is that if you are scared to get cold at night, you’ll probably opt to bring an extra-warm sleeping bag. If your worst nightmare is to run out of food, you’ll likely end up bringing too much food.
I am a cold sleeper, so I did indeed bring that extra-warm (and extra-heavy) sleeping bag. And yes, it served me well on occasion, but there were way more times when I woke up in the middle of the night, sweating and cursing, and had to climb out of it. Eventually I caved, and opted for a different strategy. I bought a much lighter quilt and sent the sleeping bag to a point further along the trail, where I could pick it up for the colder sections of the trail.
I ended up using the sleeping bag in the Sierra’s and Washington, where the nights were much colder, and the quilt for the rest of the hike. It worked out fine, but I did end up having to spend a lot of extra money on buying the quilt and shipping the bags around.
What I could have done differently? I could have opted for a quilt or sleeping bag that was less warm and risk having the occasional cold and miserable night. Take some sleep clothes (which I did anyway) that can serve as an extra warm layer on cold nights, and layer up with extra clothing if need be.
Bonus tip: bring a small Nalgene bottle and fill it with hot water on really cold nights. They make for great hot-water bottles!
Every piece of gear has its own limitations. There are no perfect solutions. So, before you purchase new gear, try to ask yourself: what do I expect from this piece of gear, and are the specifications appropriate for the environment you’ll be in? What’s your budget? If you are on a low budget, better to buy a secondhand piece of quality gear than new and of lesser quality. A thru-hike will ask a lot from your gear.
Going ultralight is expensive. The USA is still the market leader for ultralight gear. Most brands are hard to buy in Europe or other parts of the world, and expensive to ship. The European market is slowly playing catch-up, but for now, America is the ultralight mecca.
Before you spend a year’s salary on an ultralight item though, try to test out what works for you. That will give you the opportunity to experience the advantages and disadvantages. Are the advantages advantageous enough to disregard the disadvantages?
Remember that ultralight materials are often more vulnerable and will have shorter lifespans. Not very sustainable. If you are hard on your gear, it might be wise to opt for a middle route. A bit heavier, a bit sturdier. The rule of thumb is often: the lighter, the more expensive. Shaving off the last few grams will be disproportionately more expensive. The brands that have the lightest of any item, will often charge hefty prices for those items (mostly due to expensive materials and expensive R&D). But if you’re not bothered by a few grams extra, that will save you some money.
The big four
You can save the most weight by replacing the ‘big four’ items by lighter versions: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and backpack.
My Z-Packs Duplex weighed 580 grams/20.5 oz. without stakes. The minimum number of stakes needed was six.
My walking poles double as tent poles, which is very convenient if you were planning on hiking with poles anyway. Less so if you don’t use poles. I am personally quite a fan of hiking with poles, especially in the mountains. They saved my knees, ankles and balance on multiple occasions, not to mention their usefulness in crossing rivers.
The Duplex is a single-wall tent, made out of Dyneema (also known as DCF or cuben fiber). It’s a very costly material, so any DCF tent will be an investment, but it is exceptionally light and strong, though it has its limitations. It won’t tear and doesn’t stretch or sag, but sharp objects such as cactus needles and sharp branches will punch through it.
Single-wall tents build up condensation on the inside in damp areas. Any time I use it in the Netherlands, I wake up with condensation on the inside, which can dampen the foot box of your sleeping bag, and occasionally, drops will fall down from the roof.
On the PCT though, it stayed dry almost every night, so this disadvantage disappeared there. The tent is not very stormworthy though, so in high winds, you might be better off cowboy camping.
In Washington, I switched to a Durston X-Mid Pro 2. Same idea, more or less the same weight, but a slightly better design in my opinion.
Down Cumulus Panyam 600 sleeping bag – 1090 grams/38.5 oz
Custom made with extra down filling and a water resistant fabric for the foot box, because of my single-wall tent (see above).
I later switched to the Enlightened Equipment Enigma 20F 950FP down quilt, which was smaller and lighter with only 550 grams/19.4 oz. A sizeable chunk of weight saved here, but also a sizeable chunk taken out of my budget.
Your choice starts with the filling: down or synthetic? Down is always lighter, but needs to be kept dry no matter what, or it will become useless.
Then shape: mummy, blanket or quilt?
The quilt is very popular among thru-hikers on the PCT. It’s still fairly unknown here in Europe, but check it out if you’re not familiar with quilts yet. It’s basically just the top half of a sleeping bag. As down is useless when compressed, the idea is to cut the part of your bag that is underneath you, being compressed by your body. You attach the quilt to your sleeping mat with straps that are meant to prevent cold air from streaming in when you move. An important consideration here is that you need a sleeping mat with proper isolation from below to complement your sleep system.
A quilt allows for much easier movement in your sleep, tossing and turning is no longer problematic! Quilts do not have a hood though, so during cold nights, I would complement it with my beanie and sometimes even the down hood of my puffy jacket.
Thermarest NeoAir Xlite W – 350 grams/12.4 oz.
I have tried many inflatable sleeping mats in my life. The drawback is that they might leak, and if they do so during your hike, you’ll end up on the cold, hard ground.
Luckily, this never happened to me. Worst I experienced was a slow leak, which resulted in me having to blow up the mattress once or twice and that would usually be enough for the night.
I also saw lots of people with just a foam pad. They take up a fair bit of space, but are very light and never spring a leak. They R-value (isolation) isn’t great though. You might be able to get away with this if you are a back sleeper, which is like winning the lottery for a comfortable night in the outdoors, I guess. Personally though, I’d never sleep a wink on something so thin. My bones need some comfort, especially if they’re aching from a long day out on the trail.
The mattress I’ve found to have the best balance between weight, comfort and isolation for me is the Thermarest NeoAir Xlite Women’s version. It has a fairly high R-value, warm enough for nights close to freezing, very lightweight and reasonably thick and comfortable. The Women’s version of this pad is shorter than the normal version, but I usually just put my bag underneath my feet, which works fine. I would always wake up a few times each night to roll over but ended up falling asleep pretty easily again after that.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 – 850 grams/30 oz.
Lightweight, but still comfortable for loads up to about 33 lbs. Comfort rapidly decreases above that weight, but it’s still doable. Very convenient side pockets and large front mesh pocket big enough to hold my tent.
After more than 1000 miles with this pack, my left shoulder started hurting if it was full, but after a day or two, the pain would decrease once the load lightened. I reckon it’s quite possible that any pack would have started hurting after such a distance, so I’m not blaming the pack, though I would try out another one on my next thru-hike. You probably won’t notice any problems with a pack until well into your hike though, so finding THE one can be quite a lengthy process.
After reducing your base weight (the weight of your pack without consumables such as food and water)by replacing these four items, you’ll be well on your way to a lighter load, but once you start digging into this, there are hundreds of smart tricks and hacks to lower your base weight. Some are smart and inventive, some flat-out ridiculous or funny. Where to draw the line is up to you.
My ultimate goal was never to carry as little as possible, but to carry as little as I could without sacrificing (too much of) my comfort and fun. Because that’s what it’s all about in the end. I’m there to have fun and enjoy myself, and I know I won’t be able to do that unless I’ve slept well or can make myself a nice hot meal at the end of a long, cold day.
More weight means less speed, which means you need to bring more food, which, in turn, means a heavier backpack. But I did not set out to break any speed records, I’d rather take my time to enjoy.
In the end, therefore, it’s all about the question: what items can you really not live without? And what can you leave home? Try it out for yourself, you might be surprised at what you find.
And oh yeah, one last thing: if that one essential thing you can’t do without happens to be your teddy bear, your inflatable pillow or your skateboard, don’t let anybody tell you not to bring it. It’s totally your call and nobody else’s. Hike your own hike.
More questions about what to bring? Let me know in the comments!