Don’t get overwhelmed by the seemingly long (and expensive) gear lists that  thru-hikers post on blogs and forums. A well adjusted list takes years, and alot of experimenting, to perfect.

The good news is that you get to have fun figuring it out. On my first scouting trip, to figure out my essentials, I didn’t bring a proper backpack or sleeping bag. I learned a lesson I shall not soon forget. I have prepared a quick overview of the basics below. When considering gear to buy, at the start, try to borrow or rent as much as you can to see what your packing style will be.

The Big Three

You have probably heard the phrase “The Big Three” (or 4), which refers to items that  are the biggest, heaviest, and (many would say) most important:

  • Backpack
  • Shelter
  • Sleeping System (Sleeping bag & pad)

These are the most important areas to cut ounces and find your comfort zone. The balance to be found is somewhere within your comfort level, experience, and wallet. Like all gear, it is important that these items are chosen to fit the weight you plan to carry, temperatures, and weather you will plan to be prepared to face. Backpacks should be the last thing you purchase or at least purchased in accordance with what kind of gear you plan of carrying inside it.

When starting out, I tried to just bring a lightweight blanket with me for sleeping…during Easter break. In my mind, since I could walk around outside during the day wearing only shorts, I could get away with a light blanket. I could not have been more wrong. Hypothermia is the condition in which one’s core temperature drops below what is normally required for normal metabolism and bodily function. At 4 in the morning I began to involuntarily shake, thus I spent the next 4 hours crouched next to a very tiny fire trying to keep my body from hurting so badly.

A few innovative gear companies are Gossamer Gear, ULA-Equipment, Borah Gear, TarpTent, Western Mountaineering, Six Moon Designs, Lightheart Gear, GoLite, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs, and Zpacks.


After purchasing your “Big Three”, next you will need to work on a clothing system. This system, like the above, should be chosen to match weather/temperatures you expect and prepare subject yourself to. If you are going to be in hot weather, leave the down parka at home!

It is important, in Three-Season weather, to have the following:

  • Base Layers (torso and bottom)
  • Rain Jacket
  • Warm Hat
  • Gloves
  • Shirt
  • Pants
  • Underwear
  • Sunglass/Sun hat
  • Appropriate Footwear

I subscribe to the backpacking proverb “Cotton Kills.” You may here some army guys saying that back in the 80’s all they carried was cotton. We no longer live in the 80’s and the army no longer carries only cotton. Your body loses heat 25% faster when it is wet and cotton loses all of its insulating power when wet. Cotton, when wet, will steal your body heat. I’m not suggesting you spend $500 on a new outfit, but pick up some wool socks and a polyester dri-fit shirt from Goodwill. I carried some thick cotton socks with me on a 6 day trip. They got wet day 1 and were still wet day 6.

For your first trips, any rain jacket will do. To this day, my favorite rain jacket is a Frogg Togg Ultralight rain suit. Start out by hiking in moderate weather temperatures where all you would need is some fleece shirts you can pick up at Goodwill. For colder weather, if you can keep it dry, down is still the lightest insulation per ounce. Synthetic materials, unlike down, are preferred by some because they do not lose all their insulation powers when wet. Layering is King. Do not rely on one big jacket, because you will find that it is either too hot with it on and too cold with it off. Bring two lightweight fleece shirts and a wind/rain shell. In between stops you can control your core temperature by simply removing or adding a single layer.


There are a lot of options for cooking out there. Personally, I don’t think much more is necessary than a weather-appropriate method for bring water to a boil, but everyone is different. Alcohol Stoves, White Gas, and blended fuel tend to be the most popular among thru-hikers. For my first week-long trek I used an Esbit solid fuel foldable stove that I paid $5 for and a Walmart mess kit that I paid less than $10 for and still use.  Another thing to consider is how often you expect to be able to resupply water. The less often you will have access to safe drinking water, plan to carry more water.  You will likely need, at minimum, the following:

  • Stove
  • Fuel Container
  • Cookpot
  • Pot Cozy
  • Mug (double as measuring cup)
  • Utensil
  • Fire Starter
  • Water Container
  • Water Filter/Purification Method

Some great stoves to check out: Fancy Feast Alcohol Stove, Pressurized Jet Stove, WhisperLite, Snow Peak GigaPower, and Pocket Rocket. Each stove is suited differently according to temperatures, elevations, and how much water you will need to boil. For one-pot meals in moderate conditions alcohol stoves are a great-ultralight option. For larger groups in moderate weather, blended fuel is fairly inexpensive, lightweight. Blended fuel does not work well in below freezing temperatures because the fuels separate. At high elevations or when you need to melt snow, white gas stoves like the WhisperLite work best.

First Aid/Hygiene

Don’t think that it can’t happen to you. Even on a day hike, anything can happen. I was hiking with a friend who was carrying a large knife attached to his belt, when he went to take a seat during a break the knife stabbed through its sheath and stabbed him in the hand. Fortunately, I had brought along some disinfectant, gauze pads, and a wrap. We were able to stop the bleeding and prevent an infection. Keep in mind, you only need to carry whatever would be necessary to keep you safe long enough to get to a safe place or receive medical attention. The smallest things can become very big things if you don’t carry at least the minimum amount of first aid:

  • First Aid Kit (Disinfectant, bandages, etc)
  • Drugs
  • Emergency Whistle
  • Sewing Kit
  • Tape
  • Toilet Paper
  • Sunscreen
  • Toothbrush/Toothpaste
  • Camp Towel
  • Backup Fire Starter

Other Essentials and Luxury Items

Finally, don’t forget they items that you might need and/or want to make for a complete journey!

  • Map/Compass (Knowledge to use them)
  • Headlamp/Mini-flashlight
  • Knife
  • Trekking Poles
  • Camera
  • GPS
  • Music Player
  • Trail Journal

Get to the Trail

Remember, your first trip you won’t be climbing Everest or circumnavigating Alaska. Borrow or acquire what is necessary for an overnight trip with some friends and get out on some local hiking trails. You will best discover what is necessary and what is useless weight on your back by trial and error. Share any related stories you might have below!

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