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
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 pros and cons 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
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
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 didnt 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
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 dont 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
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
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 manufacturers 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 dont 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
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.