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What to Carry: The Basics of Putting Together a Kit for Hiking the Appalachian Trail. Part II – Packs, Shelters, and Sleeping

Last Edited 17 October 2005

The Groups

In the preceding section I covered some things to think about in general when building your hiking kit. In this section I will cover some of the groups I listed and discuss the options you have as well as the pro’s and con’s of many typical choices you will have to make when equipping yourself.

1. Pack Group

• Backpack – the backpack should be big enough to hold all your gear and have enough suspension support to carry it comfortably. Though I mention it first, I often find it best to leave this purchase to last so that you can get something that will meet the qualifications listed above, and it will be as light and as small as you can get away with. It is obvious why light is important, but small is important in that I have found there is a tendency to fill packs with extra stuff when they provide extra space.

o External frame packs – these are the classic packs where a frame of aluminum tube is carried by a system of straps and a hip belt, and the gear goes into a pack that is attached to the frame. Frame packs are usually lighter than an internal frame pack of a similar volume and often you can find them cheaper than internal frame packs. External frame packs generally load with weight at a higher center of balance and are thus not as stable off trail as other pack options, but are generally considered well balanced for trail hiking. And with the frame system, it is easier to get air flow around your back – making frame packs cooler than other packs.

o Internal frame packs – the internal frame pack uses stays, which are generally made of aluminum, to provide an internal structure for load bearing inside the pack. Internal frame packs are usually considered more comfortable by hikers and have become the standard pack seen on the trail. Generally they weigh a bit more and cost a bit more than external frame packs. Since the pack is against your back from top to bottom, they prevent air flow and are not as cool as external frame packs.

o Frameless packs – these packs are generally just bags with straps. Some use some sort of pad to create a semi-rigid frame sheet for some extra support, but generally these packs do not do much more than provide a place to put gear. Frameless packs are lighter and can be cheaper which is making them popular with hikers trying to go lighter – but unless you can discipline yourself to a total pack weight below 30 pounds (more like below 25 pounds) then frameless should not be used. It is not a pleasant experience for many hikers to put 35 pounds of gear into a pack designed for less than 20 pounds and is a bad idea of how to save weight.

• Rain protection – backpacks do not normally come water-proof. And it is almost impossible to make them become water-proof. The standard strategy is to either cover the pack when it is wet with a pack cover or to use a liner.

o If you use a pack cover remember that they need to fit over everything including stuff you strap to the outside. The problem can be poor fit and/or punctures to the cover.

o If you use a pack liner the pack will protect the liner most of the time from getting punctured. But remember that the pack itself may get wet and will hold the weight of the water and may take a while to dry out in stretches of bad weather. Trash compactor bags make good liners.

• Stuff Sacks – you may want to include stuff sacks and/or compression sacks as a way to organize your stuff and possibly reduce bulk. More on stuff sacks later in the Sleeping Group.


2. Shelter Group

There are a variety of strategies that one could use. It depends a lot on what you are comfortable with. I will try to just hit some major points and strategies.

• Shelter hopping – this strategy assumes that you will always be able to find empty shelter space. To do this the hiker has to plan his or her mileage around the distances of shelters along the trail. The goal usually is to save weight by not carrying a shelter and to save set up time in camp once you get there by simply flopping out in the shelter. Obvious disadvantages are:

o Snoring and noise – basically you are with a group of people, sometimes in tight quarters, and not everyone has the same concept of personal space or mutual consideration of others.

o Varmints – shelters draw mice, bears, porcupines, chipmunks, skunks, and other critters. If you stay at them you may spend time simply trying to avoid loosing your food to one or having your gear ruined by small, sharp teeth.

o Space – all shelters are on a first come, first serve basis for human hikers of all types. There is no special consideration for thru-hikers or hikers that decided that they didn’t need to carry a shelter of their own. Shelters do have limits on how many can reasonably fit into them and you could find a shelter full beyond capacity on a miserable night, and where no one is willing to give you their space.

o Cleanliness – shelters do not have a cleaning staff, and some are near roads where local campers may come out and leave shelters trashed. You may end up needing to clean out the shelter before using it.

To wrap this up, if you do plan to shelter hop, it is still a good idea to bring some sort of personal shelter. 


• Tent camping – tent camping is still considered a “norm” for hikers. Tent camping allows the hiker to have a generally bug free and dry experience at the cost of some weight because tents can weigh anywhere from 3-10 pounds. But tents are not always as foolproof as some assume. You need to learn site selection and how to set one up in storm conditions to avoid getting swamped or blown down. If you decide to tent, you will have to find generally level and flat spots, and may need to consider a tent footprint to help protect the tent floor. Lastly, if you do tent, please don’t set them up inside shelter.

• Tarping – a good, lightweight option for a lot of hiker. Tarps do require skill if you want to stay dry, and they require the flat ground and space of the tent without giving you the protection from bugs you may crave in some seasons. There are a variety of tarps that can weight anywhere from 10 ounces to a couple of pounds. You can add bug nets based on seasonal requirements, and should consider a groundsheet to keep your gear off the wet ground when you set up. When you think of tarping, you will probably also need to add your own lines, stakes, and poles.

• Tarp/Tent – tarp/tents are hybrids that offer the protection of a tent with the weigh advantage of a tarp. Often these systems come with just about everything you need in a shelter and can weigh around 2 pounds.

• Bivies – a bivy is a bag that is waterproof. Basically you climb into it with all your stuff and sleep inside it with your sleeping bag. They offer very, very little room and many will not give you shelter if you want to open them up for ventilation in the case of sleeping out in a storm. People that use bivies often also carry a tarp or poncho to create a lean-to over their heads.

• Hammocks – recently on the scene are the camping hammocks. These shelters offer the benefit of getting up off the wet ground and generally good rain protection. The main draw back to hammocks is the lack of internal space (inside the hammock) for gear on most models, and the effect of convective heat loss when hiking in cool to cold weather. Hammock hikers have come up with strategies to overcome many of these issues, but you will want to do some research on this option before you jump into it.

3. Sleeping Group

Before I start, I want to interject some personal opinion here, so bear with me. The two things that are the biggest threats to hiker safety are lightning and hypothermia, and hypothermia is probably the easiest to fall into so the most dangerous of all things to plan for. A sleeping bag (or whatever) is your last line of defense when cold weather overcomes your clothing system. Even with good clothing planning, fatigue, poor nutrition, and illness can sap away your body heat and leave you retreating into your bag. So when choosing gear, this is one area I feel it is best to avoid cutting corners.

• Sleeping bag – this is the standard, tried and true bedroll of the hiker. Sleeping bags can come in many shapes such as box, mummy, and flavors in-between. They also can come in a variety of fills with mind-boggling names such as Polarguard, Hollofill, and simple ones like down. Basically it boils down to a couple of basics for most people

o Down – despite what you may read from a manufacturers claim, there is still not a synthetic material that offers the loft to weight ration of down. If you want a light and warm bag down usually makes the grade. Down is also recognized as a fairly durable fill if you take the proper care as outlined by manufactures. This means cleaning correctly and storing for long periods of time un-stuffed. The main drawback to down is how poorly it works when it gets wet, wet down clumps together and falls flat so that it does not provide insulation. That said, many hikers go for years with down and never have a problem with that since they take precautions and many bags have DWR (Durable Water Resistant) shells. The last thing about down is it can get expensive – down is rated by fill, 600 being on the low end, 800 is the high end, and you can pay a lot for 800 fill bags.

o Synthetic – synthetic materials are usually cheaper, and do not have the weight to loft ratio of down. The one thing that synthetic usually does is retain more loft if it gets wet. A wet bag will still not be a warm bag, but it can be warmer than a wet down bag. Another issue with synthetics is their tendency for fills to break down over time with use and loose loft.

• Quilts – some hikers have been switching to quilts. The idea is with a sleeping bag, the section you are laying on is smashed flat and provides little to no insulation. With a quilt, the method is to tuck the quilt in around yourself or your sleeping pad. Quilts are usually made from the same things sleeping bags are made from and can save about ½ a pound over a similar rating sleeping bag. Since they are not a continuous cover, there can be problems with cold air leaking in.

• Fleece bags and blankets – occasionally I see or hear about someone switching from a sleeping bag to one of these. Often the story ends up with the hiker not being comfortable. Think about this – most of these things weigh about as much as some good sleeping bags, and a sleeping bag can be opened up in hot weather if needed. Fleece is not generally as warm and will not compress as well in your pack as a comparative weight sleeping bag or quilt.

• Poncho liners – military poncho liners weigh about as much as the fleece blankets and bags, but they are made of quilted synthetic material, so they are usually warmer and compress better than one of the fleece things. BUT, they are only good for most people down around 60, and sometimes not even that low.

• Sleeping bag liners – A way to add warmth and flexibility can be to add a liner to your sleeping bag. But think about this – 6 ounces of extra down in a down bag will add more to the sleeping bag rating than 6 ounces of liner material. Another benefit to a liner is the ability to launder the liner frequently whereas you may not want to do that as often with a sleeping bag.

• Pads – pads are a way to cushion your body from the hard ground or shelter floor. Pads are also key because they add insulation – you can almost always bet that a manufacturer’s rating of their sleeping bag assumes the user is using some sort of pad. Pads are basically two types:

o Foam pads – these pads are generally cheaper, lighter, and offer good insulation. But they are usually not as comfortable with ground sleepers as the inflatable pads. The benefit to these pads are they don’t puncture and go flat, and you can usually get them in wider widths than an inflatable pad. Since you can get them cheap, you could probably deal with changing them out if they ever do flatten from use. One note – there are some pads in this category that are open cell foam – they can soak up water like a sponge so pay attention.

o Inflatable pads – these pads are the more comfortable pads and recently efforts are being made to get the weight of these pads down to the same level as foam. Typically they are some sort of air-tight nylon with open cell foam inside (some expensive ones use down) so that when you open the air valve, the cells expand and inflate. Generally these pads are heavier and much more expensive than the foam pads and have the possibility to get a puncture when you least want it. They often come with a repair kit, but it is not always easy to effect repairs when on the trail.

• Stuff Sack/Compression sack – not all sleeping bags come with a storage system. Often you will have to get some sort of bag to carry your sleeping bag along in. Some of these bags can be very water resistant, and some are just nylon bags.

o Stuff sacks – stuff sacks are just sacks you stuff things into. A strategy to avoid over compressing or repetitive compressing of a sleeping bag is to get a bag that is larger than you need for your sleeping bag. This way it packs in loose and you can use it to take up the extra space in your pack.

o Sil-Nylon bags – sil-nylon bags offer good water resistance over a standard nylon sack.

o Dry Bags – dry bags are usually rubberized nylon and are designed to be totally water tight. You can use these to protect a sleeping bag against a lot of possible contingencies, but they are usually more expensive and heavier than the other options.

o Compression sacks – compression sacks are some form of bag from one of the other categories above that have extra straps on them to compress your sleeping bag into a smaller unit. For the most part, unless you are trying to stuff a big sleeping bag into a small backpack, you will probably find this option overkill.