It might sound daunting to pack for a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. After all, how can you really carry everything you need for six months in a backpack?
Believe it or not, packing for the Appalachian Trail really isn’t that different than packing for any other hike.
Below is a complete Appalachian trail gear list. But before we jump in, let’s briefly discuss weather and the seasons.
Hiking the Appalachian trail varies significantly from Summer to Winter.
The summer months of your thru-hike are hot and you won’t have to carry as many layers as usual.
Hikers can expect snow and cold weather during the first few months of their hike, but when warm weather rolls around there won’t be any point in carrying a puffy jacket, hat and gloves, or 20 degree sleeping bag.
When you reach Damascus, Virginia, assuming that the weather has been warm, it’s a safe time to mail home some of your cold weather gear. Don’t do it any sooner than that. The year I thru-hiked, hikers mailed gear home early and then had to retreat to towns when snow unexpectedly hit. It’s better to carry gear for an extra week or two than to not have it when you need it.
Have your cold-weather gear mailed back to you before you reach the White Mountains in New Hampshire. New Hampshire and Maine will likely be cold, windy, and have bad weather.
As long as you’re not an extremely heavy packer, a 50-liter backpack should be enough capacity for all the gear you need for your thru-hike. If you’re really into ultra-light backpacking, you may be able to use an even smaller backpack.
We recommend buying most of your other major gear purchases first, then choosing a backpack that is the best size to accommodate your gear. This way you won’t end up with a backpack that’s too small.
There are shelters along the Appalachian Trail, but it would be smart to bring your own shelter regardless. The man-made shelters usually fill up quickly in bad weather, and you won’t always make it to one before nightfall.
Popular forms of shelter along the Appalachian Trail are tents, hammocks, and tarps. There are lots of trees along the trail, so you’ll never have a problem finding somewhere to hang your tarp or hammock. You’ll usually be able to find a flat spot for your tent as well. It’s purely a matter of personal preference on what form of shelter you want to use, but if I had to recommend an ultralight tent I would go for the 1-person Alps Mountaineering Lynx tent and the Wise Owl Outfitters hammock.
There are two things to consider when buying a sleeping bag for the Appalachian Trail.
Some hikers choose to have two different sleeping bags for their thru-hike. One is for cold-weather and rated to 20 degrees F or lower. This sleeping bag is carried through the spring time and later in New Hampshire and Maine. In the summer time it gets mailed home.
In the summer, hikers can have a lighter pack by carrying a summer sleeping bag and also mailing home other cold-weather clothes and gear.
In terms of down or synthetic sleeping bags, both types have their own list of pros and cons.
The Appalachian Trail does tend to be humid, damp, and overcast. When your down sleeping bag gets wet, it is sometimes challenging to find an opportunity to dry it out because it’s so cloudy. Down will not keep you warm when it’s wet, unlike synthetic bags.
As for positive aspects of down sleeping bags, they tend to weigh less than synthetic. You probably don’t need two sleeping bags if you have down because it’s already lightweight.
Synthetic sleeping bags are convenient for the Appalachian Trail because they will keep you somewhat warm when they’re wet. It can rain a lot on the trail and stay cloudy for days, so this is a big consideration. Of course, they do weigh quite a bit more than down sleeping bags. If I had to recommend a sleeping bag I would go with the Hyke and Byke Eolus.
The two main options here are inflatable sleeping pads or foam sleeping pads. Typically inflatable sleeping pads will be much more comfortable. If you’re planning on sleeping in the lean-tos often, you may want to go with an inflatable because the lean-to platforms are wooden and uncomfortable.
On the negative side of things, inflatables do cost more and you run the risk of popping a hole in them.
Foam sleeping pads are mainly beneficial because they cost a fraction of the price of inflatables and you never have to worry about getting holes in them. Even though they do take up more space on your backpack, they often weigh less than inflatables.
A cooking set-up is something you could go without in order to carry less things. Only do this if you’re OK with not having a hot meal at the end of the day or a warm drink on a chilly morning. A good in between option is sending your camp stove home with your cold-weather gear. You might not want hot food in the summer anyway.
Fuel canisters and liquid fuel are both easily accessible in most trail towns. You don’t have to worry about not being able to find camp stove fuel.
For a compact cooking stove I recommend the MSR Windburner.
It’s highly recommended that you treat your water while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Farm animals sometimes live close to water sources and not to mention there are lots of other hikers around. There are many ways the water sources can get contaminated.
Water filters and purifying drops take more time, while Steripens are fast. Filters and drops typically cost significantly less than a Steripen however. The purifying drops can leave an aftertaste. Do some research on each method to figure out which one is most appealing for you.
Typically water sources are plentiful along the Appalachian Trail. You will pass by multiple streams and springs in a day. This is convenient because you don’t really have to worry about running out of water.
We recommend having capacity to carry two liters of water at a time. This will be plenty for most sections of the trail. You may have to adjust and get another water bottle if there is a long period of time without rain or a summer heat wave. It’s possible that some of the water sources will dry up during times such as these.
Trekking poles are a matter of preference. Some hikers like using them and others are fine without. If you have bad knees, it would be a good idea to hike with trekking poles. It helps to distribute weight and take the strain off of your legs.
The Appalachian Trail can be quite steep in sections, and trekking poles will help you hike more confidently on strenuous uphills and downhills.
For a great pair of hiking poles, check out the TYTN Carbon X poles.
There is often cell phone service along the Appalachian Trail, so you won’t be totally disconnected unless you want to turn off your phone.
It will be days between towns and opportunities to charge your phone. Leave it on airplane mode to extend the battery life. On cold nights, sleep with your phone close to your body to keep it warm because the cold will drain the battery.
Get a power bank if you’re planning on using your phone frequently for photos, podcasts, or music. Solar charges don’t work very well on the Appalachian Trail because most of the trail is under the shade of trees and days are often cloudy.
A good choice of hiking shoes is critical for a successful hike. The two main options are hiking boots and trail runners.
Boots tend to last longer, therefore you don’t have to spend as much money on footwear during your hike. They are good options for hikers who tend to roll their ankles, as you get more support. However, they take longer to break in and are more likely to give you blisters.
Trail runners are lightweight and many hikers feel they’re more comfortable to walk in. They don’t take as long to break in. The risk of foot pain is reduced because you have less weight on your feet while walking.Merino wool socks are the best to hike in because they dry quickly. There’s no need to layer socks. Just get a few comfortable pairs and switch them out every few days.
There’s also the matter of deciding if you want a pair of camp shoes or not. At the end of the day, it’s nice to get your feet out of your hiking shoes and let them air out. Additionally, if your shoes get wet during the day it’s good foot care to take them off. The only reason not to have a pair of camp shoes would be if your exceptionally concerned with having a low backpack weight.
Choose hiking clothes that are made of quick-drying and lightweight materials that preferably maintain some level of warmth when wet. Synthetics, merino wool, and fleece are good examples of this. Avoid things like jeans and cotton because they take a long time to dry.
If you want to save some money, it’s easy to find synthetic shirts and fleece jackets at thrift stores. Then you can save your money for more expensive items like a down jacket or other gear.
When choosing hiking clothes, remember that it’s important to layer. For example, in cold weather a good system would be a long-sleeve synthetic shirt, a fleece jacket, and a down jacket. As you hike and get hot, you can take layers off. This system is better than just having one big winter coat because the coat can only be worn in very cold weather and will be heavy to carry.
One important thing to be consistent with is to always have a dry set of clothes you can put on at night. Hypothermia is a risk in chilly, wet weather. This risk greatly increases if you get to camp and only have wet clothes. There will be mornings during your hike when you will have to get dressed in your cold, wet clothes from the day before in order to keep your nighttime clothes dry.
Pack the clothes you’re not wearing into a waterproof stuff sack so they won’t get wet. You can even use this clothes bag as a pillow at night.
In the summer time, wear shorts and a t-shirt or tank top while hiking. It will be hot and humid. In the colder months, you will want to have a pair of pants or leggings and a long-sleeve shirt.
Have a top and bottom base layer that you can throw on when the weather gets cold. This is typically leggings or tights for the bottom. You’ll also need a long-sleeve shirt for your top base layer.
It’s smart to keep your fleece jacket with you for your entire hike. You won’t use it often during the summer, but there will be occasions when the weather turns on you and you’ll be happy to have the extra layer.
It will rain on the Appalachian Trail. Have a good rain jacket with you for your entire hike. You really only need rain pants during the shoulder season because you probably won’t put them on anyway when it’s warm and raining.
If your backpack is not waterproof, you will need a rain cover. It just slips over the outside of your pack and keeps it dry. A good trick is to get a trash compactor bag and line your backpack with it. You will then pack all of your gear inside of it. This way if any water does creep inside of your pack, your things will still be dry.
As I said previously, you really don’t need to carry these things throughout the summer. They will only be necessary in the early and late months of your thru-hike.
Have a down or synthetic jacket for cold weather. Get this jacket in one size up so you can wear all of your layers underneath of it when you need to. A hat and gloves will also be important. If you’re in a pinch without gloves, you can put a pair of socks on your hands to stay warm.
If your sleeping bag isn’t sufficient by itself, get a sleeping bag liner. It doesn’t make a huge difference, but it does add a few degrees of warmth to your bag.