Advice to Thru-hikers

(especially for the Appalachian trail)

I spend a month or two each summer hiking the Appalachian Trail and other long distance trails including the Pacific Crest Trail, the Colorado Trail and others. I've worked my way from Georgia to Maine, and still hike a chunk each year... it's no longer about me, but the Trail; I no longer hike to prove something or conquer the Trail: I hike the Trail because I love it. It is home for me.  And, I also teach camping and backpacking at Indiana Wesleyan University—so hiking is “research” for me too.

Numerous people ask for advice from time to time and I welcome e-mail contacts, but here's some quick advice for hiking. These are my quick comments and they are one man's ideas, easily contested by another. But this is my writing, so here are my opinions (which have changed in the past, so I assume they will change again in the future, so don't put too much authority in them.) Be sure to write if you have any questions:

1. BOOK:

For lightweight backpacking get Ray Jardine’s book.  If you want a reading guide for it—write to me (or even if you want to see some grand summaries of the book by my students).  For the AT you’ll want "Wingfoot’s" stuff on planning the thru hike on the Appalachian Trail. Search on line for it at GORP or Of course I still love  Colin Fletcher's "The Complete Walker" (ancient but recently updated—I feel I owe him since he was the first great backpacking book and I consumed it in the 1970s)


New Balance sneakers—especially 804s have been my tried and true trail shoes even on the AT—for sure on Western trails.  I have tried “boots” then switched to a lightweight Solomon shoe and liked them too. Forget $400 shoes... the lighter-cheaper the better in my opinion.  Cheap shoes enable you to cut-slit and otherwise adapt the show to your feet instead of the other way around.   Remember "1 oz. on your feet equals one pound on your back." Of course if you are going to carry more than 40 pounds, you’ll need heavy boots—but if you’re going to carry 40 pounds then you have nothing more to get from me.

3. PACK:

A cheap one is fine... I used a $50 external frame Kelty I bought in 1972 for 25 years and then opted for a Jack Wolfsin in the late 80’s.  Then I stripped down the JW pack to 2 pounds 3 Oz, then I went with Go-Lite’s 15oz pack when I got my “dry pack” (supplies without food and water) down to about eight pounds.  Internals are more comfortable and easier to carry, but sweatier. I no longer use a pack cover... I just put the inside stuff in a garbage bag when it is rainy.


Light - lighter - lightest. Carrying a pound for one mile is the equivalent energy of lifting a Volkswagen over your head... so save- save- save. A pack that feels good in the living room, will ache like crazy on the trail after five miles. One year I got my pack down to 18 pounds "Dry pack" (that is without food and water) and eventually I reduced it to 12 pounds by the end of my AT hike in 1998 (again, that’s “dry weight”). When water and food for three or four days is added it rises to 18-24 pounds. That's was radical then, but as I age it seems too heavy—now I’m at eight pounds dry pack—and sometimes in warm times less. At my age I need a head start on the younger hikers -- and besides, I already carry about 15 extra pounds of stored energy in my belly, so I eat that the first month or so!


Most serious hikers use them -- two of them. Ski poles are fine, the height of your hand when arm is extended level. I paid $9.95 for the first ones I used, then later coughed up the cash for collapsible Leki sticks. "Weekenders" seldom use them, and some speed-walkers don't use them, but I believe "sticks" are the single greatest invention since shoulder straps for backpacking. Save your knees, back, and ankles... maybe even three months in a cast.  If my TOTAL weight is under 20# I don’t need them and they slow me down.  But I generally kiss them every week for saving a serious fall and possible ruin of a trek.


I used to carry a 10 oz water filter, but now I simply take a tiny bottle of household bleach and put in one drop per liter (two drops for swamp water) (three drops if there cows are dropping right into the water as you drink—as on some Western trails) then shake it and let sit for 15 minutes. But I almost always really wait a half hour, and when it is raunchy water I wait an hour—tests have shown the longer you wait the better the treatment.  Is bleach 100% effective?  Nothing is 100% effective in the real word—just in the lab. (see study of AT end to enders where the differential of actual sickness was inconsequential between filter-users and bleach users… and not much even between no-treatment at all!) I'd rather wait a half hour to drink than carry an extra 6-8 oz. all day as a filter. I just carry an extra 8 Oz. of water instead.


Down is lighter and I love down and have 4-5 down bags.  But I usually use syntethetic which is heavier and less compressible.  My favorite now is a Mountain Hardware synthetic with a dri-lofty cover that actually can get rained on (softly) and keep me dry. I say forget down (unless you're going out for 6 months). For the AT in summer you can get a mummy bag under 2 pounds. My purported “summer bag” is 2 pounds and goes down to 40 degrees (they say, but I get cold at 50 degrees). However I had to fork over $220 for my "moonstone" bag... a wonderful bag. And although any bag works, you'll probably have to give away more than $150 here – but I have both the North face Catwalk and Cat’s meow that I got on sale for $99 and they are great!  The most expensive investment of all, your bag could last the rest of your life(if it is down) and for 20 years if synthetic).  I still have and use a down “Alaska Sleeping Bag” I bought in 1959.  Of course there are some August Thru-hikers who don't use a bag at all, but sleep in their bivy sack alone. Not me, I shiver too easily.


Many spots now require a stove if you are going to cook. Most AT hikers use an MSR, the "Multi fuel type" or "International" types (kerosene or gas). Not because you want to use Kero, but because it uses regular gas out of the fuel pump -- which means you can fuel up anywhere. Don't forget a lighter, of course. You'll need a gas tank/container too... they cost about ten bucks. Two pints lasted me a week of cooking when I used an MSR. One of these stoves will cook for five people, though almost all "long distance hikers" (100+ mile hikers in one hike) carry their own. A single large pot is enough, and a lid is a good idea.

I forsook this stove one year on the AT carrying no stove at all... and cook no food, but that's probably too radical for most (I eat the stuff raw... chug down dry instant oatmeal with a couple glugs of water for breakfast, peanut butter & jelly, crackers, dried fruit and cheese for lunch, and for dinner I pour water into rice while I'm still hiking the last few miles and let it rehydrate in my pack. Many backpacking meals will rehydrate this way though they taste awful. I then I eat the reconstituted stuff lukewarm for dinner, (pretending I am back at college). Of course all food is the same temperature ten minutes after you eat it.  But like I say, that's probably too "basic" for most, even though it saves the weight of the pot, lid, gasoline, and stove which "buys" you the first several pounds of food "weight-free."

Then I found another option in Scotland... the "Kelly Kettle".   While It has not been available on line for years, it now is [updated April 2002] at the following address, [item number 45K17.80]   The "Kelly Kettle" is an ingenious twig-burner stove invented in Scotland which weighs the same as an MSR without the fuel bottle but will boil several cups of water in a few minutes with a handful of twigs you can reach from a single sitting position. I used this in the 100 mile wilderness of Maine in 1998 and was able to keep my total pack weight for 11 days of food and supplies down to 26 pounds plus water. The "Kelly Kettle" is essentially a chimney which sucks the air up through it as the water surrounds the chimney providing plenty of surface area to the flames. At one point I was reading a little paperback book while hiking and I discovered it took only 35 pages to boil two cups of water (that's only 17 sheets) -- so I often ignored the sticks in a downpour, though the inferno the chimney created was hot enough to dry out even soaking sticks. You can't get the "Kelly Kettle" in the USA yet, but it is only a matter of time until somebody figures out how to import the device the Scots use to make tea by burning Heather. The only drawback -- like a sleeping pad, it is bulky -- but, of course, that keeps your weight down by filling up the too-large sack anyway!


But I have actually abandoned even this and now use a ‘Pepsi Can Stove” (search on that and you’ll find the instructions).  About an Oz it does all my cooking for me the last three years—and it cost me exactly 5 cents.  Now I have 6-7 old stoves to show my backpacking students before telling them to not waste their money on them—then in the next hour they all make a Pepsi-can-stove with no moving parts they can use for life.


Forget cotton... "Cotton Kills." I hike in a polypropylene tee shirt (ski shop) which is actually not polypropylene at all but "Capalene" which is better and doesn't retain BO (made by Patagonia) (not the BO, the Tee shirt). This set me back $30 but I can wash it each night and put it on immediately and it dries out in ten minutes. Actually the previous paragraph was written in the late 90’s—now I hike in a $10 “Starter” soccer shirt from Wal-mart and have found it to be every bit as good as Capalene—the only difference being when it gets a spark melting through it I don’t care as much.

Shorts: lightweight "swimming suit-ish" nylon pants with pockets and built-in net underwear... I used to use "Kelly Hansen" then is used fancy pants from Columbia, which can be "worn 'till dry."  I could wash them and "wear them dry" in about 20 minutes. Now I am back to $9 nylon running shorts again—and these are best (remember I teach backpacking to poor college students and thus try to find cheap ways to do things that are just as good as expensive ways). I take no change of clothes except one set of nylon boxer silks to sleep in.  Since I usually wash my clothes out daily and put them back on to dry, I save the weight of a change of clothes.  I hate carrying clean closes.  And I hate carrying dirty clothes.   Presto! More saved weight. Of course, if you're going in the winter, things are different. And, if I'm going to be above timberline for days on end, such as on the Colorado trail or High Sierras I add a fleece, and even rain gear.


I do two things here: (a) On the AT I mostly just get wet and dry out when the sun comes back out like the birds do.  In the summer it is the best choice. or (b) If I fear hypothermia I use Go-lite’s one pound rain suit.

11. TENT.

The best AT tent is the Sierra Designs "Pocket clip flashlight" which weighs about 4 pounds with all the jazz coming with it, and holds exactly one person, most thru hikers carry one and they cost about $200. I have one and use it for car camping.  I did lots of the AT with an Oregon Research "Bivy bag" which costs about the same, but weighs about a pound or less. It is a sack for your sleeping bag and is both waterproof and "breathable" with a hoop over your head so you have a tiny space in your 'room'. I love it and have slept through huge thunderstorms in it totally dry. (Well, sort of dampish from sweat, but not rain).  One other advantage of a Bivy, is that you can put it almost anywhere, use it in a lean-to for bugs, and move it easily. Of course you've got to remember to close the mouth in big storms. In Vermont I slept through a steady rainstorm with the mouth open and discovered that the Bivy keeps water inside just as well as keeping it outside! On the AT when the crowds are not expected, you can forget the Bivy altogether and make sure you get a spot in the lean-to.   But I store my Bivy as something to show my students now-- I use a 15 Oz impregnated Nylon “tarp” that can sleep two—that’s 8 OZ per person if there are two, and if I am solo only a pound for sleeping shelter.


I used to carry a half-bar of motel soap, but don't any longer... water works without soap, (besides if you sweat profusely you stink less). I used to carry a toothbrush (with the handle sawed off), but now I use a bandanna. I still take a little bit of roll-on deodorant poured into a tiny motel-shampoo-bottle and apply it with my fingers (sometimes to my feet too-but that is debatable yet). I usually carry a plastic disposable BIC shaver and shave every day using only water. (Though I keep saying I’m going to stop this and grow a beard in the summer.)

13. SOCKS.

I used to carry one change of "Fox River Hikers" Then I left them for ultimax socks, which I later left for "SmartWool" whom I've been faithful to since, except on hot trails like the desert part of the PCT where I use only sock liners, and even then sometimes just buy “junk socks” that seem to work every bit as good as expensive ones. I carry two pair and hang one pair out to dry with diaper pins on the back of my pack and change them every hour the first week out, every two hours the second, and so on until I finally forget to change them at all by three weeks and beyond. When I get soaked by rain I never change until both the shoes and socks are pretty dry. However, the way to get blisters is to have damp feet. I also take 2 Oz of baby powder the first two weeks to "dress" my bare feet before changing socks every time. Preventing blisters is the key; there is really no treatment except taping them over with "Duck tape" which you can wrap around your water bottle.



I use one-liter soda bottles. Soda bottle are cheep and they work fine. I take two of these along plus a collapsible "Platypus" 2-liter bag.  On a hot August day in the desert I use 5 liters of water a day. I have tried to "Super-saturate" which most all thru-hikers do... which basically is standing around for 15 minutes and guzzling down 2 liters of water before leaving the campsite, or spring... "drink 'till you pee" hikers call it, with the notion that your body retains it for up to 2 hours. But this is debatable—some say your body can’t absorb more than a liter per hour anyway.


I write my log on postcards and send them home at every post office or even through people I met at crossroads, to save weight.

16. BIBLE.

I didn't take one. Like Christians did for 1300 years, I recalled what I already knew.


I used to take a tiny mag single-AAA light at $7. It was plenty. Then I got one of those little key ring diode lights.  Then I got a diode headlamp 9which are great if you night hike) Now I am back to the tiny keychain light—and I can hike at night with it too.  If you get one of these get the ones with the switch that will stay on—you don’t want to wear out your fingers pressing it to walk for 3 hours at night. Lights are over-rated for long backpacking trips—if you get up in the morning and hike all day, you won’t need one—when it gets dark you will sleep—and you don’t need a light to sleep.



I used to carry the luxury of a self-inflating "Therm-a-rest" which weighs in at almost 2 pounds. Then I got their one pound model.  Then I switched to a "Z-Rest made by the same folk at about half the weight and half the comfort.  Then I dropped to a Ridgerest. My wife and I hiked 1000 miles of the AT in 1972 before pads and never even thought one needed a pad.  I figure that if I'm having a hard time sleeping I must be walking too little. I'd really like to carry none at all but can't get up the nerve.

19. THAT'S IT.

Really... honest, that's all you need, and in fact, probably more than you need. It totals about 8-9 pounds dry. I figure the "joy is in hiking" more than in the camping. If you really want to go camping—go car-camping.  But if you like hiking, then shed as much weight as you can.  Backpacking is just that -- walking all day. I often get up at 5:30 am and walk every day until sundown, sometimes even an hour after sundown. I seldom make supper at "camp" but 'cook' it at some glorious overlook, then go on several hours more until dark. Thus I go light -- since I intend to hike all day. Sure, I take lots of rests, some for several hours, with all my stuff spread out in the sunshine, but mostly I hike, and think, and sometimes talk with whomever I run into. Most hikers hike alone, and play leapfrog all day... running into each other at lookouts etc., often agreeing where to spend the night together ahead of time.

I wouldn't argue that a person has to go this light. Do whatever pleases you. This is just how I do it... ...any other questions?

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