12 Favorite Gear Picks for the Appalachian Trail – The Trek

12 Favorite Gear Picks for the Appalachian Trail  The Trek

The items I carry for backpacking trips are generally consistent, with systems adjusted based on weather conditions, regional limitations, and trip length. Some (myself) can drone on about the variables of tents, sleeping bags, water filters, and shoes in an attempt to decide what’s best. There is no right answer. So instead of a full gear list, I’d like to credit a few favorite gear picks that elevated my 2022 Appalachian Trail southbound thru-hike from Maine to Georgia.

These are the oddball items, priced from free to under $200, that surprised me. They are listed only in the order that came to mind as I was making this list. The rationale is provided not to say they are the best but to provide insight as to why these items were significant for this specific trail experience. It wouldn’t be right if my gear recommendations didn’t include a disclaimer or two.

On a bigger scope, I believe acquiring gear should be approached with the perspective that it’s part of a bigger evolution. By this, I mean that the gear I started backpacking with is different than the items I carry now. My kit will continue to be adjusted with experience and time. New things are rotated in just for fun. I seek out opportunities to support cottage brands while saving money on items from dollar stores, hardware stores, and consignment shops. More than anything, I’m a huge advocate for simply getting out onto the trail as long as safe decisions are made for success. A bit of research and testing items (like water filters and tents) will go a long way before getting into a survival situation. After that, it’s all about personal preference!

Injinji Liner and Darn Tough Socks

Price: $12 to $24

Instead of liner socks, I started my southbound AT thru-hike with Injinji mid-weight toe-socks. The mid-weight socks worked well to reduce friction between my toes, but by Massachusets, I was still refining my sock system. Then, a friend offered to let me try a pair of liner socks as she was switching to a new pair. After trying the liner socks with a pair of Darn Tough lightweight socks (free from a trail magic event in Vermont), I was instantly hooked. There is a reason why this is a classic combination on long-distance trails. The liner socks eliminated friction between my toes, reduced blisters under the soles of my feet, provided a bit of extra cushion, and helped to reduce lateral movement in my shoes. They are now a hiking sock staple.

When it comes to socks on the AT, three sets worked best for me. A primary set of hiking socks (liners and Darn Tough lightweights), a secondary set of both for special use (after rain or as a treat for the morning going into town), and a third pair of mid-weight (non-toe) socks kept dry for camp. This system allowed me to always have options for rainy and cold conditions.

Darn Tough and Injinji Liner Socks: my new favorite hiking sock combination, paired with my Topo Athletic Terraventure 3 trail runners

Available at REI and Darn Tough

Tera Kaia TOURA Low Cut Basewear Top

Price: $68

This sports bra is one of my favorite clothing items and is one of the few items used every day from Mount Katahdin to Springer Mountain. It did all the things a hiking bra top should do. The top stayed in place, was comfortable under a fully-loaded pack, washed/dried easily in hostels, and is designed to double as a swim top. While I used the TOURA low cut v.1 for the AT, the updated TOURA v.2 has an even better fit.

A plug for the company itself, Tera Kaia is a women-owned company located at the base of the eastern Sierra Mountains. In addition to a range of tops and bottoms, they also offer a Basewear repair program to extend the lifecycle of their garments. We <3 a company that supports sustainable practices. Many folks will say thru-hike clothing should be burned after the journey. And to this, I say NO WAY! After a five-month thru-hike and some soaking to remove odors, my Tera Kaia top remains in rotation and (somewhat) as fresh as the day it arrived.

Available at Tera Kaia

Jolly Gear Triple Crown Button-Down Sun Hoodie

Price: $95

Jolly Gear is a cottage brand new to the market for 2022 but easily recognized by many hikers. I ordered my Casa De Luna Green button-down on pre-sale in the fall of 2021. Given the popularity, I’m obviously not the only person who thinks the button-down and hooded sun shirt combination is a fantastic idea. With functional and visually fun designs, Jolly has designed a revolutionary product that will forever change hiking shirts. I loved that the shirt was fun to wear, soft under my pack, showed minimal signs of wear, and had adjustable ventilation as temperatures changed day to day. The hood was often used in high winds, in rainy conditions, or to wipe sweat away. It’s also fun that new colors will be offered each year.

In full transparency, during the hottest months, my hiking shirt was switched to a button-down t-shirt found at a consignment shop. I did this to use the Jolly Gear as a hooded lightweight mid-layer option, later switching back to the Triple Crown Button Down as my primary hiking shirt in the fall. In all ways possible, this shirt was a sentimental icon of my thru-hike from Katahdin to Springer as I stepped out of mental and physical comfort zones. It was even used once as a pillowcase while staying with a trail angel – that’s a story for another day!

Jolly Gear in Maine. The hat was soon after sent home and replaced with a Buff as a headband. I’m just not a hat person.

Available at Jolly Gear

“Tyvek” Groundsheet

Price: Free (available online for $14.99)

This is where ingenuity gets fun. Weighing in at six ounces and costing no money out of pocket, the groundsheet I carried was an off-brand version of woven house wrapping material, free from a family member. You’ll often hear this referred to as a Tyvek groundsheet (Tyvek being the best-known brand). This is one of my favorite gear picks for the Appalachian Trail for a few reasons. The woven material is durable and does not retain moisture. This means it is easy to shake off, and there is no carrying extra water weight. I used this ground cloth as a protective layer under my tent, in shelters, and while cowboy camping. I also used it during breaks to stretch on and as a place to sit on wet grass. Being the lazy shelter dweller that I am, carrying a designated ground cloth came in clutch to place on shelter platforms and forget about all the mouse poop collected over the years, as well as protecting my sleeping pad from dirt or sharp objects.

Other common ground sheet options included standard sil-nylon/poly-sil tent footprints, polycro plastic sheets, and rain ponchos. Remember that the perfect size groundsheet will be sightly smaller than your tent footprint, while slightly larger than your sleep system if you are planning to use it in shelters and for cowboy camping.

In the hostel desert of the Mid-Atlantic, the Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington allows hikers to camp on the campus and offers low-cost showers. Also pictured are my Zpacks Altaplex and Hammock Gear 30-degree Econ Burrow quilt (my summer weight quilt).

Available on Amazon

Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite Inflatable Sleeping pad

Price: $199

You’ve seen it. You either love it or love to hate on it. A thru-hiking staple for many, I’m talking about the infamous yellow Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad. I love this pad for three reasons: it’s comfortable, has remained durable, and isn’t as loud as other brands.

Note: the women’s model has recently been discontinued. And I’m devastated. This review cannot comment on the newer NeoAir XLite NXT Sleeping Pad.

Regarding sizing and the specific model, I’m 5’9” and used the Women’s NeoAir XLite. The women’s pad was designed to be shorter and warmer than the traditional model. The R-Value of 5.4 provided great insulation for sub-20 degree F nights, was almost too warm for some summer nights, and I grew to love using a shorter sleeping pad to allow my feet to hang off the end of the mattress while laying on my back. Sleeping on my side or back, the height of the inflated mattress was perfect for catching zzz’s over less-than-perfect rooty sites.

When considering durability, my NeoAir XLite has lasted two years of backpacking along the eastern United States. I say this with the greatest intent of not jinxing myself. With proper care and the use of a ground cloth, this thing just keeps kicking. The provided repair kit was actually used once on the AT to repair a friend’s inflatable pad of a different brand.

Lastly, it’s not as loud as some other brands. The loud crinkly noise absolutely decreases with use. My advice? Both closed-cell foam and inflatable sleeping pads are noisy. Just accept it and find a sleeping mat that feels comfortable.

This is the best photo I have of my sleeping pad. Usually, I was laying on it.

Available at REI

ULA Ohm Pack – Switching to a Bigger Capacity and Going Frameless

Price: $260

The ULA Ohm is a well-known fan favorite for long-distance hiking. What surprised me was that I enjoyed using a pack with a larger carrying capacity and going frameless. I started the AT with a cottage brand 40-liter pack. While I loved this pack, I’d also been experiencing intense neck/shoulder pain. Contributing factors to the pain probably included a too-small torso size, a lack of load lifters, and my tendency to over-resupply. In southwestern Maine on Little Bigelow Mountain, I called Shaw’s Hiker Hostel/Poet’s Gear Emporium. I’d stayed at Shaw’s the week prior and knew they carried a range of pack options. After discussing sizing over the phone, they happily offered to ship a ULA Ohm down to Rangeley, Maine. I share this as an example that switching out gear along the thru is possible and very common.

The ULA Ohm advertises a carrying capacity of 63 liters and recommended max weight of 30 pounds. Around 34 liters of the pack volume is in the main compartment; the remaining capacity is in the front mesh, side pockets, and hip belt pockets. That extra side pocket space provided constant joy for the ability to carry extras out of town, like apples, avocados, a spare Telenti jar, or an extra water bottle during drought months. (Again, I chronically over-resupplied.) A shock cord added to the front of the pack was used to hold down my camp shoes as well as bags of chips.

Later on the trail, I went frameless. Again, I’d been experiencing shoulder pain on one side, likely related to a 10-year past unresolved issue. Removing the frame and employing full use of the load lifters allowed the pack to not pull as far away from my shoulders. While the switch to frameless worked for me, I would not recommend going frameless unless you have the opportunity to try it out for an extended period of time. The 1.2 oz removable U-frame suspension hoop was carried as a decoration on the outside of my pack for five days in Virginia. When going frameless, always keep in mind the pack’s maximum carrying capacity and organize objects so that the weight sits central and close to your back.

Featured here is my ULA Ohm, dependable Leki trekking poles, Kula Cloth (another favorite), Teva camp sandals, ground sheet, and sit pad.

Available at ULA

Sit Pad

Price: Free (available online for $9.99)

Another luxury item. I originally used a small piece of 1/8” foam as a sit pad. Then I sent it home to use the removable foam back pad of my ULA Ohm pack or groundsheet. This worked well in the summer because who needs redundancies in the backcountry, right? However, in Virginia, we were shifting to winter gear, and a friend was ditching a closed-cell foam folding pad for an inflatable mattress. What to do but cut it up and make some sit-pads! In cold and wet conditions, an easily accessible sit-pad is life-changing. I would use it for almost every meal or break, on benches, logs, rocks, or the ground, and place it under my feet at night at the end of my sleeping pad. Every single person in my trail family had a designated foam sit-pad by the end of the thru-hike.

On this October day in Daleville, VA, we cut a foam sleeping pad into sit pads and learned that hitchhiking in Virginia is illegal.

Available on Garage Grown Gear

Buff (Neck Gaiter)

Price: $20.00

Used for wiping sweat away, holding back unwashed hair, as a balaclava, as an ear-covering in cold/rainy temperatures, and in the beginning, as a covering for my inflatable backpacking pillow. I started the AT with a Buff brand gaiter from The Trek store and then picked up an additional lightweight Outdoor Research Echo Ubertube from an outfitter in Damasus. I finished the thru-hike with both, each used for different reasons. Some things to consider are how the material stretches as well as the bulk of the material if intended for use around your neck or as a headband. Also think about if it will be too warm for use while hiking, moisture retention, and how fast the material will dry. These are easy to pick up along the thru-hike. Side story: a mouse once chewed holes and left droppings in my primary hiking Buff when it was placed next to my sleeping pad overnight in a shelter. I was sure happy to have a second option until reaching town to wash clothes!

Available on The Trek (Buff) and Outdoor Research

Body Wrappers Ripstop Pants

Price: $21.00

A nylon unisex pant originally designed for dancers to use as warm-ups, these ultralight 4-ounce “dance pants” can be spotted on trails across the US. For multiple years these have fit perfectly into my kit as an all-season, multi-use pant. They’ve been used as camp pants in the summer, hiking pants while walking through thorny bramble, as a wind layer over shorts in cold conditions, and over leggings on cold nights in my quilt. As someone who hates to hike in pants, these have been the perfect throw-into-your-bag-and-forget-about-it option.

Leaving Damascus in my favorite shoulder-season dance pants and Fayettechill fleece

Available on Amazon

Livingston Fleece by Fayettechill

Price: $98.00

Another top-five favorite piece of gear from the whole thru-hike is my Fayettechill fleece. I’d been eyeing this mid-layer option for a while online, met folks on the AT that loved theirs, and knew that I’d likely buy one if I encountered them in-store. Cue to Marion Outdoors Gear & Resupply in Marion, Virginia. They are a recently opened combination store and hostel (The Merry Inn). On the trail we joked as a group about finding a make-believe ultralight store that would satisfy all of our thru-hiker dreams; Marion Outdoors was that store. I left with a Fayettechill in hand and donated the mid-layer I’d been carrying to their hostel loaner clothing.

The grid fleece material used by Fayettechill is common in the athletic industry because it’s breathable and lightweight. I like that the pullover sweater has a boxy fit, is long enough to wear comfortably under a pack (a men’s small), and has an adjustable cinch hood. When it comes to clothing, my ultimate recommendation is to find layers that are easy to wear and layer. Nothing is worse than laying cold in your tent but avoiding pulling on an insulating layer because it’s too complicated or the material is too stretchy/restricting.

Available at Fayettechill

Unpaste Tooth Tabs

Price: $8.99

While hiker stink is a bragging right, smelly breath is not. It’s important to maintain decent dental hygiene while backpacking. I wanted a toothpaste option that was low-waste, low-weight, environmentally conscious, and saved space in my pack. So instead of gel toothpaste, I used chewable toothpaste tabs for the entire trek. One 125-piece packet of Unpaste tooth tabs will last around two months if you brush twice daily. While the original packaging is fully compostable, I carried mine in a small resealable plastic bag as part of my toiletry kit. These left my teeth feeling clean without the ick of goopy, colored toothpaste. Many hikers will swallow toothpaste for Leave No Trace purposes. While I did not fully sign onto that practice, these 100% natural tabs will hopefully leave less of an impact on your body and the environment compared to other options. Just be sure to dispose of waste properly.

Unpaste Tooth Tabs and Pika Outdoors Summit Suds, alongside floss, my recommended travel-size toothbrush, a compact brush/mirror, and tweezers.

Available on Garage Grown Gear

Pika Outdoors Summit Suds

Price: $7.99

This is another toiletry alternative that I highly recommend checking out. I’ve used Pika Outdoors Summit Suds for two years of backpacking. The biodegradable powder suds are sent in a 3-ounce compostable packet. Transfer a portion of the packet into an empty hand sanitizer bottle with a squeeze-top and leave the rest at home to be sent later the trail. Just a small bottle’s worth will provide lightweight, mess-free soap for months. I used this soap on average at least once a day on my hands (less than a penny’s worth in size, just enough to create a small amount of lather). The 1.0 fluid-ounce bottle I carried was refilled once in New Jersey. I also carried liquid hand sanitizer.

Available on Garage Grown Gear

BONUS ITEM: Trash bag pack liner

Very few things are 100% waterproof. Especially on the Appalachian Trail. Your gear will get wet even when sleeping in shelters and following every best practice. What’s most important is finding systems to keep things as dry for as long as possible. In my pack, all the items that needed to stay dry were carried in my trash bag pack liner. And then, within the plastic pack liner, I had a stuff sack to keep dry clothing separate from my loosely stuffed quilt. Having clothes separate was the organizational system that worked for me.

Before spending $$$ on a specialty manufactured pack liner, check under your kitchen sink, in a nearby garage, or at a local store for trash bags that will serve just as well. The key is to find trash bags over 1.0 MIL in thickness. A thicker material might last longer, but also means more weight and will be slightly bulkier when cinched at the top. Small holes can be repaired with leuko- or duct tape. Replacing a ripped trash bag is easy. Being cold because you depended on the water resistance of your pack is not easy.

The favorite gear picks listed here are items that brought me joy and functioned well. What worked for me may not work for you. Things I consider when making purchases include 1. utility, 2. weight/space, 3. price, 4. the maker, and, 5. does it bring joy?

What’s most important when organizing a gear list is to focus on systems that are comfortable, easy to use, meet your needs, keep you safe, and keep your sh*t dry. All the other fine details will iron out along the way. There are always options to switch things out, rent/borrow, buy second-hand, buy from a local outfitter, or order online. Whether going for one night or multiple months, what’s most important is simply spending time outdoors!