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[CDT-L] Thruhiking - What are you carrying?



Now that the holidays - and other distractiions - are over, it's time t
get serious about this thruhiking thing again.  We've got 142 days till
we leave - and there are those with a lot less.  So - let's see if we
can finish this series soon and get on to other things - 

I know --- some of you are saying, "What does all this stuff you're
writing about have to do with preparation for thruhiking?  Why doesn't
you talk about what gear to use?"  And my answer is simple - the gear is
less important than you can imagine.  Of the people who finish the Trail
(any trail), you won't find any two who use exactly the same equipment -
because there's no perfect combination of equipment that'll get you to
Katahdin - or Canada - or anywhere else.  A couple years ago several of
the thruhikers on at-l compared equipment lists - what we carried in our
packs while we were on the Trail - and there was an amazing lack of
uniformity.  

Now - that being said, a large part of the traffic on every hiking forum
and email list concerns gear.  And that's NOT a bad thing.  One of the
prime ways of learning what gear is available, how good (or bad) it is,
how it works (or doesn't), durability, operation, price and a host of
other details is to read/listen to what others have to say about it. 
All of us learn that way (yeah, me too).  If you're gonna thruhike, it's
better that you get the best equipment you can find - within your weight
and financial limitations.  And the lists can be helpful that way.  So
are places like the Gathering and Trail Days - that's where the
thruhikers gather - and they know what worked for them.  If you want
personal recommendations for what to use on your thruhike, why not go
where the thruhikers are and ask them?  But remember - what worked for
them may not work for you.  Everyone's different - each of us has
different expectations, abilities, mechanical aptitude,  size and shape,
comfort level, preferences, etc. So learn as much as you can about as
many different kinds of gear and as many ways of doing things from as
many different people as possible. Then if one way doesn't work you'll
have the knowledge to try something else.  Some people learn just one
way to do things - and then if it doesn't work for them, they go home.  
;-(

When you're looking for equipment, there are a lot of factors to
consider - price, weight, and all the "ilities" (durability, utility,
maintainability, replaceability, .). 

Let's start with price - some people think you get what you pay for and
they go out to buy, for example, a pack for their thruhike.  So they buy
the biggest, baddest, roomiest, most comfortable and expensive pack they
can find.  And it usually weighs between 7 and 10 pounds. Cool - as long
as I don't have to carry it.  More than that - they expect it to last
for a "lifetime".  Sorry gang, but it doesn't work like that. I
thruhiked - and trashed a pack.  Ginny has thruhiked twice - and trashed
2 packs. The packs survived, but she wasn't willing to haul those holey,
smelly, dirty monsters on another trail.   I know of a few (read - VERY
few) people who have gotten a second (or even a third) thruhike out of
their pack.  One of those packs was a Dana - another was a Camp Trails
Adjustable II.  Price had nothing to do with performance - it was the
way they were used.  You'll do what you like, but my recommendation
would be to get the minimum weight, minimum price pack that'll do the
job and then donate it to the Boy Scouts after your hike is finished.  

I know - that's heresy.  There are a couple good reasons for it though -
the first is that it helps the Boy Scouts.  The second is that it
lightens your load.  And the third is that if you're a thruhiker, you're
probably a gear weenie - and just like boat owners, every year there's
some new and wonderful piece of gear (like a brand new pack) that just
begs to be taken home.  It's a lot easier to justify giving that new
pack a good home if your investment in the old one is in the $100 to
$200 range than if it's in the $500 - $600 range.  There's a lot less
commitment to "forever".   I warned you - this is my philosophy - you
don't have to use it.  :-)

Now let's talk about weight - some people think it's cool - or macho -
or necessary to carry a 70 to 80# pack.  I won't comment except to say
that those people are usually young, strong and male, or brand-new
backpackers, or very experienced backpackers (read - "set in their ways"
or maybe "if it ain't broke, don't fix it").  We all have some of the
"if it ain't broke" attitude - Ginny and I also have things we won't
give up even though it would lighten our packs.  But smart thruhikers
are always questioning everything they carry - every time they leave
town, they look at what they're putting in their packs and ask
themselves - "Do I need all this stuff?  Is it too heavy?  Is it still
useful?"  Sometimes the answer is - NO.  

If you talk to those who have hiked multiple long trails, most of them
will recommend that your pack weight be no more than 25% of your body
weight.  Personally, I'd recommend even less.  My normal pack weight is
15-18% of my body weight.  

Then there are the Jardinites - the ultra-lightweight crew.  And there's
nothing wrong with ultralight - if you have the experience to support
it; if you've tried the techniques in your backyard before you take them
out into the "wilderness"; if you really understand the restrictions and
caveats that go with the techniques; if you understand that ultralight
is a "system" and that using it piecemeal can get you in trouble - and
if you have the physical ability to make it work.  Most ultralighters
that I've met fail on one or more of the last 3 points. On the other
hand, we know people who thruhike the PCT with 12 pound packs.  But they
also have the experience, knowledge and physical ability to get
themselves out of trouble - and their "comfort level" is something that
most hikers wouldn't want to live with. There are a lot of thruhikers
who don't ever get to the ultralight stage - or even lighten up their
packs - until AFTER they've finished their first thruhike.  A lot of us
finish with packs that are heavier than they need to be.

Ginny and I - and most AT thruhikers (at the end, if not in the
beginning of the trail) fall somewhere in the middle.  We now carry a
combined base pack weight (2 packs - no food or water) of less than
45#.  And we still need to dump some weight. Going lighter means an
increased probability of finishing - and a more pleasant trip.  But we
keep in mind that for every increment of pack weight loss there's a
corresponding loss of comfort, convenience - and safety.  

So now let's get to the important part of the gear discussion - and the
part that's rarely discussed anywhere.  I won't tell you which tent or
boots or pack or water filter to use.  But I will tell you that whatever
you use, you should know how to use it - before you get on the trail. 
There are people who start a thruhike on the AT not knowing how to set
up their tent or light their stove or even pack their pack.  Not smart. 

If you're gonna spend 6 months depending on a stove for your meals and a
tent for shelter, you might want to start the trail being comfortable
with them.  Whether you're starting your hike in Georgia - or the New
Mexico desert - that means NOT being afraid of your stove and having to
ask someone else to light it for you - or fix it for you if it clogs. 
It means NOT spending 30 minutes trying to figure out how to put your
tent up while it's raining or snowing on you.  It means NOT taking an
hour just to stuff your pack - and then having to do it again because
pieces start to fall off as you start up the trail - or because it
develops a severe list to port.  And YES - I've seen all of those - and
more - in beginning backpackers and thruhikers.  

Like anything else in life - you get comfortable with something by
practicing with it.  If you're gonna be comfortable with your equipment,
it means you'll have to use it - before you go on the trail.  And that
means you need to do some backpacking BEFORE you start the trail. 

Sometimes - although very rarely - you'll run into a piece of gear that
just WON'T work for you --- the "perfect" sleeping bag that just won't
keep you warm, the stove that you just CAN'T get to work for you (even
if everyone else in the world thinks it's great), the "perfect" pack
that just can't be made to fit right, the tent that leaks no matter how
often it's been seam-sealed.  It happens.  I'm an engineer - and a
really good mechanic. But several times in my life there's been a piece
of equipment that I simply DON'T get along with.  You can say what you
want about anthropomorphizing inanimate objects - but there are some
machines that simply don't like me and won't work for me.  And, believe
me, it happens to you, too.  It's another really GOOD reason to take
that gear out and test it before you commit 6 months of your life to
it.  It gives you a chance to replace gear that WON'T work for you -
before you start hiking.  

Whatever equipment you use, you should also know how to maintain and
repair it - again, before you start the Trail.  If your stove clogs and
you don't know how to fix it, you have a problem.  Do you know how to
patch your Thermarest? Or replace your water filter cartridge? If not,
then learn.  Read the instructions, talk to the salesperson who sold it
to you, ask a thruhiker, whatever it takes for you to be knowledgeable
enough to keep your equipment operable for 6 months - and that's a LOT
different proposition than a weekend trip.  

OK - you're on the trail and your water filter
quits/clogs/breaks/whatever. Or your pack comes apart at the seams.  Or
maybe your sleeping bag develops a massive down leak.  Or your boots
blow out. So what do you do?  Who do you call?  How do you get it
replaced - FAST? Do you have the 800 number for the manufacturer?  Do
they stand behind their equipment/warranties?  How fast are they willing
to ship what you need?  If they won't work with you, do you have the
number for Campmor or the outfitter you bought it from or --- anyone
else?  Can you get it replaced locally (like the next town) - or will
you have to wait 6 weeks for it?  Those are the kind of questions that
go with "replaceability".  And some of them aren't really answerable
before you're on the trail - but some of them are.  Get the 800 numbers
- and carry them with you.  Call the 800 numbers - and talk to their
customer service people - you may decide to carry someone else's
equipment.  Check out the location of the outfitters along the trail
that you're gonna hike - how close are they?  How can you get there? 
And sometimes - how expensive are they?  And then, how will you get back
to the trail?  
 
One last thing about gear --- don't EVER put others down because what
they're carrying is too old - or too much - or too new --- or not enough
- or whatever.  There are a multitude of reasons for that, but I'll give
you just two.  First - it can be REALLY embarrassing to make a
disparaging remark about someone's gear and then find out that they
started the trail 3 weeks after you - and will finish 3 weeks ahead of
you.  Or that they've thruhiked 4 or 5 times. Think about that one.  And
then, remember that Earl Shaffer finished the AT (again) this year with
equipment that most of today's hi-tech "backpackers" wouldn't even allow
in their house. Could you do it with the equipment he used?   And third
(yeah - I know), how would YOU feel if someone said that about you? 
What most people don't realize when they start a long trail is that
someone WILL say those things about them after they've walked a couple
thousand miles.  Just remember that everyone carries what they want, or
what they can afford or what's available.  And they're the ones who have
to live with their choices.  Unless they ask for your opinion, they
don't want or need to hear it.  As I was taught - unsolicited advice is
just veiled criticism.  

It's not about equipment - it's a head trip. And I'll keep on saying
that.

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To:            Aaron Unger <purplcows@jps.net>, Andrew Yip <AndrewY@micrografx.com>, at-l <at-l@backcountry.net>, "brian.kiesel@convergys.com" <brian.kiesel@convergys.com>, Brick Robbins <brick@fastpack.com>, cdt-l <cdt-l@backcountry.net>, Darcy Bergman <darcy@wave.net>, "David_Clark@candle.com" <David_Clark@candle.com>, Fay Weir <weir@sfu.ca>, Henry Shires <HShires@aol.com>, Jerry McMillan <jerry_mcmillan@pairgain.com>, Jim <HkrTrash@aol.com>, Joanne Lennox <goforth@cio.net>, Larry McDuff <lpmcduff@juno.com>, Lucian Hicks <lucian@sierranv.net>, "Margo J. Chisholm" <margo@tothesummit.com>, Mary Roch <mags@mosquitonet.com>, Nathan Martin <NCMartin@lbl.gov>, Peter Haskell <pchaskell@hotmail.com>, Sandra Medearis <smedearis@hotmail.com>, Slyinmd <Slyinmd@aol.com>, Steve Baygents <steve@qcel.com>, Timothy J Fearn <timfearn@juno.com>, Owen <jrowen@ibm.net>