How to Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail,  Part 4: Choosing the Right Gear

How to Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail, Part 4: Choosing the Right Gear

If you’re thinking about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, you’ve probably wondered what kind of gear you'll need to carry.  Before my 2022 thru-hike, I spent hours upon hours researching backpacking gear, trying to figure out what I needed, what I didn’t, and how to best spend my money.  There is so much information out there!  From hundreds of YouTube videos and online gear reviews, it was easy to get analysis paralysis.  But after six months on the trail, I learned a lot about what a thru-hiker really needs (and what they don’t) to make it all the way.   In hindsight, I wish I had spent less time worrying about my gear and more time physically and mentally preparing for the hike. 

Girl sits on a bed with an array of backpacking gear

Earlier this year, I put together a post detailing all the gear I actually took on my thru-hike, what I sent home, and what I added to my pack during the hike. 

How Much Do You Really Need?

The general rule of thumb for backpacking is that you should not carry more than 20% of your body weight, and that includes your full pack, food, and water.  So if you weigh 150 pounds, then your pack shouldn’t be more than 30 pounds fully loaded.  I find that 20% mark to be challenging to meet for some hikers, especially petite women like myself.  I’m only 5 feet tall and at my lightest weight on my thru-hike, I weighed 115 pounds.  There was no way I was going to get my pack weight down to 23 pounds with 4-5 days of food in it.  During most of my 2022 AT thru-hike, my fully loaded pack weighed between 28-31 pounds.  So take the 20% guideline and use it as just that- a guideline!  But you really don't want to carry too much, and it’s a good idea to try and get your pack weight down as much as possible before you start your journey on the AT.  As you progress through the trail, you’ll start to whittle down your pack weight even more.  There’s a saying we use on the AT that really helped me to get my pack down to just the essentials:

Ounces lead to pounds and pounds lead to pain.


A young woman with a large backpack and trekking poles stands in front of a sign for AT thru-hiker basecamp
My pack looked huge at the start of my thru-hike! The rangers at the visitor center at Amicalola Falls State Park weighed my pack at registration.  It was 31 pounds. "Not too bad", they said.  My knees, ankles, and feet did not agree.

A heavy pack not only slows you down on the trail, but it puts unnecessary stress on your muscles and joints which can lead to overuse injuries like tendonitis and stress fractures.  So every small effort you make to cut ounces out of your pack will help to give you a more comfortable hiking experience.  I have helped many prospective thru-hikers “shakedown” their packs and offer suggestions to get rid of things like extra stuff sacks, duplicate items, and personal care products. And they often say “oh that doesn’t weigh anything!”  But, it does! And it adds up. Every little ounce counts.  I recommend purchasing a small kitchen scale to weigh the items you plan to pack, and then using the website to list and categorize your gear.  This will help you decide what to bring and what to leave at home.

Small kitchen scale
A small kitchen scale is a valuable tool when deciding what to pack for your thru-hike.

But does that mean that all weight is bad weight?  Not necessarily.  When selecting your gear, you’ll need to find a balance between three variables:  Weight, Comfort, and Price.  You can’t have the best of all three, and you’ll have to compromise on one or more variables.  

Weight: The lightest weight gear may not be the most comfortable and it’s usually more expensive.  For example, ultralight tents often have condensation issues and can cost $700 and up.

Comfort: The most comfortable gear may not be the lightest, and it’s usually more costly.  For example, a super comfortable inflatable sleeping pad is heavier and costs more than a cheap foam pad.

Price: The cheapest gear will likely be heavier and sometimes less comfortable than other options.  Inexpensive brands are sometimes lower quality and use heavier materials, but not always.  A great example are Frogg Togg rain jackets.  They are super cheap, but tear pretty easily and aren’t breathable like more expensive brands.

You have to decide what aspects are most important for you, and it may vary depending on the piece of gear.  Maybe a heavier pack is worth the weight if it’s most comfortable for your body.  Maybe you can go the cheaper route on your clothing items and splurge on a tent.  And if you’re on a tight budget, you may need to buy a heavier tent.  And that is OK! 

There is no best piece of gear that fits everyone.  You have to find what is best for your needs and your budget, and don’t stress about it too much!  Your gear is only the first step in a successful thru-hike.  There will be many more steps to come!


A blue hammock hangs under a blue tarp.  There is a backpack and some supplies on the ground underneath.
I began my thru-hike with a hammock set-up because I had read about all the benefits of hammocking.  Turns out, the hammock wasn't for me!  I sent it home and bought a tent in Damascus, VA.

The Gear You Need (and some you don’t)

So we’ve talked about how much weight you should be carrying and some tips for getting your pack weight down.  But what kind of gear do you really need? And what can you leave behind?  I’ve made a detailed post of all the gear I carried on my thru-hike along with which items I ended up sending home and which things I added to my pack.  Below, I’ve put together a checklist for what gear you (probably) need for an AT thru-hike.  But remember, everyone is different and what you need may vary from the list depending on your start date, which direction you are traveling (NOBO, SOBO, or Flip-Flop), and your food strategy (hot meals, cold soak, bear can vs bag, etc.)

If you're looking for suggestions on specific gear items, check out some of my favorite resources:

  • Outdoor Gear Lab - in-depth, side-by-side comparisons of popular backpacking gear
  • Switchback Travel - gear reviews and adventure information for backpacking, hiking, and camping
  • - backpacking gear guides, gear reviews, FAQs and trip reports
  • - gear reviews, tips, and stories from the trail
  • Treeline review- comparisons and reviews of top backpacking and hiking gear
  • Clever Hiker- backpacking gear reviews and tutorials
  • Gearjunkie- reviews out outdoor gear including hiking and backpacking gear
  • Garage Grown Gear- not for gear reviews, but a great place to support small businesses creating backpacking and ultralight gear

Thru-Hiker Packing List:

The Big Three:

  • Backpack
  • Backpack liner/trash compactor bag or backpack rain cover
  • Shelter (tent or hammock)
  • Tent stakes and guylines
  • Sleeping pad (3 season, R value 2-4)
  • Sleeping bag or quilt (20 degree recommended)

Cook Kit:

  • Water filter
  • Dirty water bags (2 L recommended, CNOC 2L bag is great!)
  • Water bottles (2 L recommended- many hikers use SmartWater bottles)
  • Cook pot (750 mL recommended)
  • Stove
  • Spoon or spork
  • Lighter (mini bic)
  • Fuel canister
  • DIY food insulator pouch (optional, but great for freezer bag cooking)
  • Bear bag w/rope or bear can
  • Ziplock bag for trash


  • 1 pair hiking shoes / boots 
  • 1 pair trekking poles
  • 2 pairs of wool hiking socks
  • 1 pair of warm sleep socks
  • 1-2 pairs of synthetic or wool underwear / bras
  • 1 pair of hiking pants/leggings/ or shorts
  • 1 hiking shirt 
  • 1 mid-layer top (such as fleece)
  • 1 puffy jacket (down or synthetic)
  • 1 set of base layers- top and bottom for sleeping
  • 1 warm hat or beanie
  • 1 Buff
  • 1 bandana
  • Rain jacket or poncho
  • Stuff sack for clothes (can also be used as a pillow)

Electronics / Navigation

  • Cell phone
  • Cell phone wall charger and cord
  • Rechargeable battery bank with charging cord
  • Headlamp
  • Personal locator beacon / Garmin (optional, but highly recommended for safety)
  • Dry bag for electronics (a large ziplock will also work)
  • FarOut App (downloaded on your phone)
  • The A.T. Guide book (downloaded PDF on your phone or the hard copy book)

Personal Care

  • Toilet paper or bidet
  • Trowel
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Biodegradable soap
  • Toothbrush 
  • Toothpaste
  • Floss
  • Wallet with cash, credit card, ID
  • Prescriptions
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray (for summer only)
  • Lip balm
  • Contact lenses and solution
  • Sunglasses
  • Nail clippers
  • Menstrual products
  • Bag for personal items (a large ziplock will work)

First Aid and Gear Repair

  • Ibuprofen / pain reliever
  • A few Benedryl 
  • A few Imodium
  • Strips of Leukotape
  • A needle
  • Emergency blanket
  • Ace Bandage
  • 4 Bandaids
  • Small tube of Aquaphor / vaseline for chafing
  • Small tweezers
  • Backup water purification (tablets or drops)
  • Duct tape (wrapped on trekking pole)
  • A few pieces of gear repair tape (like Tenacious Tape)
  • A bag for first aid items (a small ziplock will work)

Optional / Luxury Items

Luxury items are non-essentials that help to make your hike more enjoyable.  I've listed some luxury items below that you might want to take on your thru-hike, but note that some of these might be essential for you.  For example, if you can't get a good night of sleep without an inflatable pillow, then I would say that's not a luxury item for you, it's a necessary part of your sleep system.  I carried several luxuries on my thru-hike, some I sent home and some I added to my kit during the hike.  

  • Cup / Mug
  • Inflatable pillow
  • Sleeping bag liner
  • Ear plugs
  • Sit pad
  • Pocket knife
  • Journal & pen
  • Camera
  • Hiking umbrella
  • Fanny pack
  • Headphones
  • Hand warmers (in colder months)
  • Book or kindle
  • Small backpacking towel (like PackTowl)
  • Bear spray (I don’t think this is necessary on the AT)
  • Pee funnel (for women)
  • Wet wipes / baby wipes
  • Deck of cards, games
  • Town clothes (a lightweight dress, romper, or separate set of clothing for town)
  • Rain pants

Hikers playing a card game in a dimly lit shelter
I picked up this deck of cards in a hiker box at Neels Gap in Georgia.  My hiking partner and I played Rummy most nights while eating dinner, and I ended up carrying the cards all the way to Katahdin.

Do I Need Ultralight Gear?

The term “ultralight” or UL is often used in the backpacking community to describe gear and practices that reduce your overall pack weight.  To understand what it means to be ultralight, you need to understand a few other terms:

  • Pack Weight: This is the total weight of everything in your pack, including food and water
  • Base Weight: This is the total weight of everything in your pack minus consumables (food, water, fuel)
  • Worn Weight: This is the weight of what you are wearing, including clothing, shoes, and trekking poles
  • Consumable Weight: The weight of all consumable items in your pack, including food, water, fuel, sunscreen, bug spray, etc.  Pretty much anything that will decrease in weight as you use it.

Ultralight gear is focused on reducing your base weight, ideally to 10 pounds or less.  This typically means investing in very lightweight gear (which is also more expensive) and minimizing your gear to just the absolute essentials.  Backpackers that carry ultralight packs usually don’t have the wiggle room for luxury items like camp shoes or inflatable pillows.  But what they lack in luxuries and comfort, they make up for in lighter loads and faster miles.  

A trekking pole tent set up on a grassy area above a mountain view
Trekking pole tents are a good way to save some weight.



Ultralight Principles to Lower Your Pack Weight

Do you need to have an ultralight set-up in order to successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail?  NO!  But I do think it’s helpful to keep some ultralight principles in mind when choosing the best gear for you.
  • Only pack what you need.  Consider the trail conditions, the weather, and the number of days until your next resupply.  Then, only carry what you absolutely need to get to your next stop.  You likely won’t know exactly what you need when you start your thru-hike, but you’ll figure it out quickly.  Go through your pack frequently and take note of any items you haven’t been using and send them home or put them in a hiker box!  This is what makes shakedown hikes so valuable.  Go out on a practice hike for a few days or a week, then go through your pack when you get home.  You’ll likely find some things that were unnecessary and you can take those out of  your pack.  
A female hiker is smiling as the snow falls around her
I needed cold weather gear when I started my thru-hike in March.  After the weather warmed up, I sent my heavy winter gear back home.

  • Reduce redundancies.  In most places on the AT, you are no more than a few days away from town and a few miles away from a road crossing.  With the number of shuttle services now available along the trail, you can get picked up pretty much anywhere if you need to get into town to replace a lost or broken piece of gear.  You don’t need an extra headlamp or an extra water filter.  You don’t need multiple pairs of hiking pants or a backup pair of shoes.  Check for redundant items and get them out of your pack.

Two people sitting on a curb in front of a grocery store with bags of groceries.
I was never more than a few days from town, so I could pick up replacement items or have them shipped to a nearby hostel if needed.

  • Choose multipurpose items. Choosing gear that can serve multiple purposes is a great way to reduce your pack weight.  A lightweight foam sit pad can be used to sit on a rocky spot at lunch time, to lay out and stretch before bed, to add extra insulation under your sleeping pad, and as a wind shield for your cook pot.  Your extra clothes can be packed into a stuff sack and used as a pillow at night.  Trekking pole tents are another good example- these tents use your trekking poles to hold up the body of the tent in place of tent poles.  Why carry both if you don’t need to?  

A small metal pot with handles sits on top of a backpacking stove.  There are mountains in the distance.
I realized on my thru-hike that I could use my cook pot to boil water for my meals and also to drink my hot tea in the morning.  So I was able to send my backpacking mug home to save some weight.

  • Don’t over-carry food and water.  This is a big one, and also really hard to master.  It takes some time to figure out how many calories you need each day and how much water you drink on the trail, which varies with the number of miles, the elevation change, and even the weather.  It’s really easy to overpack your food and water and end up carrying more weight than you need to.  In the early days of your thru-hike, you may experience a decrease in appetite and eat much less than you expect.  Most thru-hikers consume between 3500-5000 calories per day, and that much food can get very heavy.  Water is also very heavy, and I have seen many thru-hikers carry way more water than necessary in the start of their hike.
A view of a lake with mountains in the distance
Water is very abundant on the AT, so I didn't have to carry much while I was hiking.


Food:  You should expect to carry around 1-2 pounds of food per day.  So for a 4 day resupply, that’s around 8 pounds of food. 

Water:  Each liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds, so if you carry 2 L, that’s an added 4.4 pounds to your pack weight. I recommend carrying 1-2 L while you hike, but you’ll need more to camp at night.

That’s over 12 pounds of food and water weight when you leave town with your four day resupply!  You can reduce your pack weight by carrying only what you need.  You will usually cross many water sources throughout the day, so stop and fill up often.  Check the FarOut app for reports on upcoming water sources and to gauge how much you need to carry.  For most of my thru-hike, I was able to carry about 1 to 1.5 liters of water while I was hiking and then “camel up” at a water source by drinking as much as I could before hiking on.  Remember, there are many road crossings on the AT, so if something happens and you run out of food, you can get a ride into town for more.  


Grocery basket full of food
Pro tip: Don’t take a grocery cart into the store when you resupply.  Use a basket instead so you can feel how heavy it is!

There are tons of great backpacking gear companies out there and resources to help you find the best gear for you.  If you want to read more about what gear I used on my thru-hike, how to budget for a thru-hike, or resources to help you plan, check out some of the other posts on my website.  And if you’d like help planning your thru-hike or doing a shakedown hike on the AT, send me a message.  I’d love to help!

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