5. The Bathroom
When entering the woods you must decide exactly how much hygiene you
are going to perform and how much grooming you want to do. Most men
turn into “Grizzly Addams” in the woods with long beards and some only
take baths in towns, but again there are exceptions that shave and
shower daily. Women can go with hairy legs and shaven heads to keep
things simple while on the trail while some still wear make up and
deodorant daily. You will have to decide what you can live with for
yourself because most other people out there will be stinky and sweaty
at the end of the day anyway and probably more worried about eating
and sleeping than how you look.
But hygiene is probably one of the best things you can do to keep
healthy while on the trail physically and mentally. The feeling you
get after cleaning up can boost your morale or wash off some of that
tired feeling. And while many people put lots of thought into water
purification and treatment in order to prevent illness, simply washing
your hands can do a lot more for you. Add to that the fact that a
dental problem like an abscess tooth is very painful and would
certainly end your hike but can be prevented by daily brushing. And
finally, even a simple case of rash (in hiker slang Monkey Butt) can
make a hiker significantly uncomfortable day or two of hiking, but
simple attention to keeping yourself clean can prevent this from
starting in the first place. Hygiene is needed on the trail!
So now that we have determined we need it, how do you do it? Well that
is not in the scope of this article. For information on trail hygiene,
there is an excellent article on WhiteBlaze: Trail
Hygiene. After reading that, you will decide what you need to
carry. Here are some ideas:
• Tooth brush. A child’s toothbrush does not take up much space and
will still work for an adult. If you feel you need to make it
smaller, you can trim down the handle, but be careful not to make it
so short you can’t reach your back teeth.
• Tooth paste. There are nice small sized travel tubes that can last
you a month or more on the trail. Some people also use tooth powder
when they can find it or even baking powder since it can also serve
to help when treating rashes. Or one last option: go without
toothpaste. The brushing action alone (with some water to rinse) is
enough to keep your teeth clean
• Disposable dental cleaners. Lately there have become available
small pads that you put on the end of your finger and use like a
tooth brush. These could replace both your toothbrush and paste.
• Floss. Dental floss can be used to clean your teeth and you can
also use it as sewing thread when repairing gear. Floss usually sews
through nylon easy, is usually tougher than cotton thread, and will
not rot when staying wet for long periods.
• Hand sanitizer. Alcohol based hand sanitizer is good because it
can be bought in small bottles and is flammable – you can actually
use it to help start fires. When you use the latrine or right before
cooking and eating you can squirt a little on your hands and clean
• Pack towel. These super absorbent, quick drying towels are great
for backpacking. They work much better for a hiker than a cotton
towel would because they absorb a lot for their size and dry
quickly. If you can’t find one, you can try a car shamy cloth (the
synthetic kinds) which is about the same stuff. One mistake people
often make is getting one that is too big – mistakenly thinking they
need one the same size as a bath towel. Most hikers can get by with
a pack towel the size of a hand towel or even wash cloth.
• Soap. There is some debate about the need for this, but if you
decide you need soap, I recommend mint scented soap. The reason is
mint is a naturally occurring weed in the Appalachians that bears
(and other animals other than grazers) do not eat. The scent of mint
soap will not smell like a possible food source to critters and
entice them to chew into your bag – or you.
• Razor. If you plan to shave, a disposable razor can work for a man
for multiple shaves before it needs replaced – and it weighs very
little. Instead of shaving cream, you can use soap to make a working
6. Navigation Group
You may have heard that the Appalachian Trail is one of the best
marked trails in the world. It is well traveled, hard to get lost on,
and a blind man could navigate it (in fact one already has). That
said, it is still very advisable that you have a way to help navigate
other than start at blaze #1 and keep going north. There are times
when winter snows can cover the blazes, times where weather makes you
need to get off the trail and/or bypass some sections, times where
emergencies could cause you to need to find help ASAP, and times when
you just want to know what you are looking at and what else is around
you. Unless you hire a guide to do this for you, there is an easy way
to make this happen – trail guides and maps. These documents are like
the safety belt of the trail for a backpacker.
There is a plethora of trail information out there. The Appalachian
Trail is probably one of the best documented trails ever. You can get
trail guides that tell you what you will see almost every 0.1 to 10
miles, and you can find some guides that tell you just enough info to
know where re-supply and shelters are along the trail. The choices are
yours to make, and maybe you don’t want to know too much about the
trail before you get there. It is you choice. But just like wearing a
seat belt in your car is something you can decide not to do and take
the chance you never need them.
• Maps. Maps are always the first thing people think of when
planning their navigation equipment. Unfortunately the entire set of
maps needed to cover the AT is large and they are not cheap. This
leads people to often ask if they can do without them. The answer is
yes, but at a risk. Just as you can drive for 20 years and never
need a seat belt, the one time you do need it you will be glad you
had it. Maps are not a magical aid that can tell you where you are
either. If you carry them, you should have some idea of their usage.
One thing to consider when hiking the AT – it is free to hike the
AT, but the AT is built and maintained by local clubs and the money
spent on maps go to support them. So for the price of the maps, you
help your safety and support the maintenance of the trail you are
going to walk.
• Compass. It could be reasoned that without a compass, a map is
useless. Well it isn’t totally true. There are methods using stars
or the tips of shadows to determine north and orient a map. There
are even ways to use a watch dial to do this and even figure out
azimuths to travel on. BUT a compass can weigh a half once, so why
not splurge? You can even get a compass that has a thermometer and a
whistle so you can play tunes on it when it gets hot enough…. But
seriously, get a compass to go with a map. You can get them that pin
on your pack, attach to your watchband, or like me – get a watch
with a built in digital compass.
• Guide Books. As discussed before there are many different books
out there you can choose from. Some of the standard ones are:
o The AT Data Book. This book small book simply tells where some
things like roads cross the AT, where water can be found, and
basic info about some of the shelters and towns along the AT. It
is published by the ATC so money spent on it supports the trail.
o The Thru-Hikers Companion. This book from ALDHA is made to work
with the AT Data Book. It gives more detailed information about
things along the trail that thru-hikers are interested in:
Shelters and trail towns. ALDAH members along the trail collect
the data and then ALDHA works with the ATC to provide this data so
some of the money goes back to the trail.
o The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook. This book is slightly larger than the
data book and contains the information found in the Data Book with
the author’s information he collects about the trail via phone and
mail with various service providers along the route. It is
published by a private individual.
o ATC Section Guides. These books (and there are a lot of them
required to cover the entire AT) can be fairly thick and usually
cover a section of the trail for each volume in detail – giving a
great deal of information about logistics of each trail section
and detailed information about places you will encounter in the
section. Sometimes it even gives historical information about the
places you will pass. Because of the size and quantity required to
cover the AT, they are usually not carried by long distance
hikers, but they can be fun for some section hikers needing to
know something about how to get in and out of a section of trail
and have time to “smell the roses” along a section. Information
for these guides comes from the section maintainers of the local
AT clubs and they are printed by the ATC , so the money paid for
them go back to the trail.
• Mapdanna. This recent invention is a bandanna that includes the
data from the AT Data Book with an overview map of the part it
covers. Since you get it all on a bandanna, it can be a dual use
item and prevent you from needing to carry a Data Book. A part of
the profits from the Mapdanna go back to the ATC. Note, these maps
are not detailed enough for real navigation.
• Light. One thing you may not associate with navigation right away
but should is a light. The light is used when you find yourself on
the trail after dark trying to find that campsite or shelter. It
helps you in the late evening or early morning to read you map or
trail guide. And it helps you to find your way to the privy and back
in the dark. It can be as simple as a small keychain LED or as big
as a headlamp. Your preference.
• Paper and pen/pencil. Something that can be included is a way to
write notes about places as you go for your journal later. They can
also help you to leave messages for people at shelters in case there
isn’t a shelter journal (not all of them have one).
• Watch. A watch can be a navigation aid. Depending on the watch,
you may be able to use it as a compass (see above) but you can also
use it to determine when you need to be somewhere and where you are
in relation to that place/time while doing so. Say you have to be at
the Post Office by 1200 on Saturday or end up staying two extra days
in town – a watch would help you keep track of that. It is easy to
forget what day of the week it is let alone the time of day when you
are in the woods and a watch is the simple solution. But, if you
don’t need to worry about when you are supposed to be somewhere,
then maybe you might want to slip the handcuff of civilization and
live without one. Also, the longer you hike, the better the feel you
will gain for estimating the amount of trail you can cover in a
given time. So by using a watch, you can estimate how far you have
walked, and may even be able to guess with some certainty how many
miles you have left to cover to get where you are trying to go.
The last thing I will say is that even though you may have a stack
of maps and an entire guidebook for the trail, you don’t have to carry
it all at the same time. You can divide your maps for someone to mail
you as you move along, and even take the guidebook apart and have it
mailed with the maps sections the pages cover. This can save weight
and it can keep you from destroying all your maps and guidebook for
the entire trail in case something was to ever happen to that stuff
while on the trail.
7. Repair/First Aid Kit
I lump these into the same area because some items from one may work
for the other – like duct tape can be used to make a bandage or
prevent blister, or it can be used to fix a pack strap or broken
sandal. I don’t intend to go down the entire list of what should be in
a first aid kit because it has already been covered in What
Makes a Good First Aid Kit. Instead I will add to that with what
you can carry for repairs without needing to add an entire socket
• Floss. As mentioned before it can serve as water resistant thread
when stitching up your pants or tent.
• Super Glue. This stuff can fix many things temporarily or even
permanently. I have even fixed a broken wire connection to a circuit
board of someone’s CD player using Super Glue.
• Duct Tape. But who didn’t already know that.
• Safety Pins. These are good for quick fixes on things, or holding
together material as you sew it. There is even a good technique to
put draw cords back where they belong when you accidentally pull one
out using a safety pin.
• Sewing needles. These are needed with the floss when sewing
something up. It doesn’t have to look pretty, it just has to work.
• Extra batteries. A technique I use is to make sure all my
electronics use the same sized batteries. So my light, MP3 player,
camera, and whatever else I may carry can share batteries. This way
if my camera batteries die, but I need that one good photo shot –
then I can grab the AAAs from my headlamp to make it work. Since
these could be in the repair kit a while and not be used until it is
critical, I like to use lithium batteries because of the 10 year
shelf life. Nothing sucks quite like needing your flashlight when
the batteries are dead, and finding out your spares are just as
• Fire starter. I throw this in there because occasionally you will
need a fire for heat in a safety situation. A couple of cotton balls
soaked in Vaseline will usually do it even in the rain if you know
what you are doing. There are other things you can use for this, but
that one is my favorite and it is easy to re-stock it in a trail
town. Ohh, and they weigh next to nothing.
• Knife or multi-tool. I like a tool like the Leatherman Micra or
some of the small Victonox Swiss Army Knives. With these I can
usually make a new stove, rip stitches out of material, change a
watch battery, trim my nails, cut sausage (clean it between the nail
thing and the sausage thing) and other tasks that happen throughout
the course of a hiking trip.
• Repair kits for specialty items. Often a stove or inflatable
mattress will come with a repair kit. This may be a hint that you
might need this sometime in its use. It would suck to be out with a
punctured mattress and think about that repair kit they even gave
you with the product that is sitting back at the house while you
sleep on the hard shelter floor.
• Extra fire source. Someday your lighter will give out, you will
run out of matches, or your reliable lighter/matchbook will be wet
and need to dry out before it will work again. Simply add something,
either a small disposable lighter or some matches, to your repair
kit so you have a back up.
I am sure there are other good ideas for multi use items to include
in a repair kit that I have not even begun to hit. The idea is to find
a few things that can work for multiple items in as many situations as
possible. The strategy should be to get it fixed until the next town
and evaluate there whether you can continue with it, get it repaired
better, or totally replace it.
8. Luxury Items
Now for a can of worms…
There are those that believe you do not need luxury items and then
there are those that will not go on a trip without a chair, cards,
tunes, lounging hammock, fishing gear, crossword puzzles, journal,
camera, video games, musical instrument, stuffed animal, college
homework, poetry books, animal identification cards, or whatever. The
goal is to find out what you want to carry that will not kill you on
your feet and back. And when you do this, it is probably more
important when starting to think of what you want to do at the end of
a long, hard day of work where you just had the worst day of your
life. What is it that you need to bring your spirits up without a lot
of effort to get out and use it? For me it is a drink of whiskey, some
mellow music by Jimmy Buffett, and the chance to read a little in a
book that isn’t about work.
Just think of this: when you go camping, you like to have things to do
that occupy your time since you aren’t programming computers, tarring
a roof, or watching TV. When you hike, you spend a lot of hours
walking and thinking, and sweating and thinking, and thinking about
food. The simple fact you stop walking and fix something to eat is
going to already be something for you to do and something to look
forward to. And the less you carry, the better you attitude may
actually be once you get to camp.
After you start hiking a few days, you may always get rid of something
you thought you needed. You can always have something you didn’t think
you needed but you now miss sent out to you in a mail drop. If it is
something simple, you may be able to get it at your next re-supply in
town. So before you kill yourself with things that sound like fun,
take only what you think you can get away with, and then decide what
to change as you go. It isn’t rocket science – you don’t have to think
too long or hard on it.
That said, I will leave this list alone. You make it what you want.
OK, this wasn’t one of my categories. But I will be finishing the
series with the next article on clothing. So before I go there I want
to cover some stuff on the example packing list and maybe even a few
items that make it into packing lists you may have seen on the web.
This is the place where I will throw all those other implements in
like hiking poles, wallets, and other assorted items.
• Hiking Poles. A lot of hikers are using trekking poles lately, and
you may think that you absolutely must have them – well you don’t.
Of course you may want to save your knees on down hills or use a
tarp-tent that needs a hiking pole for support. Or maybe you just
want to use them. In any case, they are actually somewhat
controversial as their use can cause extra damage and erosion to the
trail. There are rubber tips that are available that help prevent
that – so if you are going to use poles, think hard about getting
• Bandanna. Even thought this could be listed under clothing, a
bandanna is used for so many things that it really is a standard
piece of gear for most hikers. You can use if for a towel, pot
holder, pre filter, hat, dishrag, etc. Also of note, since most
people will avoid cotton for all their clothing, they may do the
same since there are now synthetic material bandannas available. But
if you try to use a synthetic bandanna in some of these applications
you will end up with a melted bandanna.
• Lighter or matches. You may need to light a stove or build a fire,
melt a nylon cord end, or whatever. I prefer the disposable lighters
that you can adjust the flame, others like matches.
• Pot Cozy. This is a piece of kitchen gear some hikers have to keep
food warm. Others just use a fleece hat.
• Zip lock bags. One of the most helpful pieces of gear you can get.
There are all sorts of ways you can use these to keep your gear
sorted and dry. Freezer bags are tougher than normal ones, and can
last a long time. Avoid the ones with the pull handle like you find
on zippers – they don’t seal well and the zip handles can break off
making them useless.
• MP3 player. The new “cool gear” for hikers. These very small music
storage and playback devices can include FM radios for hearing local
weather and can store many, many hours of music for very little
weight and space.
• Camera. This helps you to save the memories of your trip and share
them with others. They can be as simple as a disposable one use
camera, or they can be as complicated as an SLR 35mm camera with
lenses, flashes, and tripods. The favorites lately are the digital
cameras that can do it all while being light and easy to use, use
small, easy to get batteries like AAAs, and use removable media like
data cards which are easy to mail and light to carry lots of spares.
• Journal. Some hikers like to keep a journal of their activities so
that later they can read them and remember things that may fade over
time. Some will share their journals on-line or make a nice
scrapbook after the hike using the pages. I once thought I would
never forget the things I saw and did, but eventually started
keeping a journal. Now looking back I am amazed at how quickly you
can forget the details.
• Pocket Mail. These devices allow hikers to record their journal
and e-mail them in towns. It also allows them to store personal
e-mails and review them or answer them later.
• Wallet. In any case, you will probably want some form of ID. You
will also probably need to carry some cash, and maybe some phone
numbers, calling cards, insurance cards, or whatever. Instead of a
full up leather wallet, many hikers use a small zip lock bag for
their wallet to keep the stuff in it dry and to keep items in it
from falling out. One company even offers a bi-fold zip-lock wallet
that is made out of sturdy plastic and weighs very little.
• Carabineers. These are the metal snap link devices used to secure
one piece of gear to another piece of gear. They were originally
designed for climbing, but now there are many small ones out there
that weigh less which are not designed for holding the weight of a
climber. These small carabineers are good for attaching water
bottles, keys, or most anything to the outside of a pack while
making them easy to attach and remove as needed.
I am sure there are more possible items that could be added to this
list. But instead of trying to include everything, I will just say
that the forums WhiteBlaze are a great resource. If you do a search on
a piece of gear, you will probably find more information and opinions
about it than you were interested in reading in the first place.