An introductory guide to choosing the right gear and getting your mind right to succeed on one of America’s greatest thru hikes.
By Jake Pugh, Director of Sales & Marketing, Catoma
It’s AT season. Beginning in February, and increasing significantly in March into April, about 3,000 hikers will leave Springer Mountain, Georgia headed North. A smaller number will leave Mt. Katadhin in Main headed South, with the same intention. To thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
To complete the 2,190+ miles of the Appalachian Trail is one of the great feats in hiking. It’s rugged elevation changes in the South, unpredictable weather through the Smokies, the Roller Coaster of Virginia, and grueling rockslides of New Hampshire are just some of the hurdles for hikers wanting to join the 2,000 Mile Club.
Of utmost importance is one’s mental state and determination. Hikers decide to take on this journey for as many reasons as there are hikers. I can tell you a lot about the “How” but only you can decide your “Why”. An ability to draw on positive motivations for strength in the grueling stretches is one of the most important tools you can take with you. Practicing mindfulness and establishing a routine can be a door to a new way of thinking. There are many mindfulness guides out there and countless tales of adventure to be read, but I recently read a very humanizing account of what it’s like to stretch one’s self out of the comfort zone over the course of many miles. If you’re interested in reading it, pick yourself up a copy of “To Wake the Sleeping Self”. https://amzn.to/2PENzO3
Of near equal importance is one’s gear. Many adventurers say, “There is no bad weather, only bad gear.” If that is true, then six months afield certainly calls for extra attention placed on selecting the right gear. It takes a lot of research and experience to pack for a trip of this magnitude, and it should not be taken lightly.
This year, one of Catoma’s dear friends Brad Godwin has answered the call to hike the AT. Of course, we wanted to pick his brain about how he was preparing for this trip and what he had decided to take with him. His path led him to a combination of ultralight and ultra-rugged gear that suits him and his process best. You can keep up with Brad’s adventures on Instagram at @bgontheat.
The 3 items that make up the core of a backpacker’s gear list are the items that can offer the most weight savings and demand the most performance. That is the pack, the sleeping bag, and the tent. There are a handful of great ultralight pack manufacturers these days, turning tough, hyperlight Dyneema fabric into minimal but high-performing bags. Brad went with a Z-packs Arc Blast 55L (https://zpacks.com/products/arc-blast-backpack?variant=9215556059172) weighing in at an astounding 21 ounces. Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Mountain Laurel, and Atom Packs are just a few other designers making bags of this type.
For his sleeping bag, Brad chose an Enlightened Equipment Ultralight Down Quilt (https://enlightenedequipment.com/down/ ). It is a hybrid quilt/sleeping bag design that weighs in at around 25 ounces for a 20 degree rated quilt. Made of 10D nylon fabric and Ethically sourced natural down, this bag is brilliantly simple and well built.
Brad has been using Catoma tents for 10 years and settled on the Catoma Wolverine for his tent for his thru hike (https://catoma.com/product/merchandise/shelters/1p/wolverine-ebns/ ). It’s quick setup, spacious double-wall design, durable construction, and modular nature make it a great tent for extended hikes. It was originally designed for fast and light military operations in the field and is easily adapted for backcountry use. While not an ultralight tent, the Wolverine offers something that Ultralight tents do not. True durability. Made of Mil-spec 70D Ripstop with heavily reinforced stress points, the Wolverine is meant for long durations of demanding use. It weighs 4.5 pounds, but is arguably the most important piece of gear in the thru-hikers kit. Brad chose not to risk the horror stories of long cold nights in a leaking ultralight tent. This version of the Wolverine incorporates a couple of upgrades to the seam-taping and construction, so we will be checking in regularly to see how it is performing in severe weather.
After the big ticket items are settled, it’s time to narrow down the rest of the kit. Brad was very methodical about this, taking a handful of practice hikes with different items in his kit as he decided what was going to make the cut. A couple of weeks before his trip, Brad took final accounting of all his gear and double-checked the weights. We highly recommend this practice for any hiker. It can help you get the full picture of where your pack weight is being allocated. You might find some items that simply are not worth carrying once you realize their true weight compared to more essential items. Try not to carry anything non-essential with only one use. Be selective of redundancies. Some things are necessary to have multiples of, others are not.
Finally, the art of the re-supply. The AT is well traveled and there are many great guidebooks to help the thru-hiker plan for stops. Brad has planned to drop into town about once per week for a shower and resupply. One very valuable resource for doing this efficiently is the AT Guide, a pocket handbook that shows mileage, stops, side trails, etc in a mile-by-mile format. (https://www.theatguide.com/)
There are many shelters along the AT that can give the thru hiker some added respite from the weather from time to time. Some hikers even rely heavily on the shelters, planning their mileage appropriately to spend most of their time at shelter sites. Space is limited though, so you can’t plan to sleep 100% of your nights at shelters. If you can score one, though, they are a nice change of pace.
Some of the sweetest moments on the trail come in the form of some down-home hospitality and thoughtfulness from others, known as “Trail Magic”. It can come in many forms ranging from a water jug re-supply purposely left for others, a free ride to town, even a home cooked breakfast in the wilderness. An old hiker turned trail angel trail-named Fresh Ground has made a lifestyle of travelling up and down the trail during peak season feeding hikers from his home away from home. His charming character and cooking skills have made him a legend on the trail. He accepts donations, so if you’ve been the beneficiary of Fresh Ground’s Leapfrog Café, consider tossing him a few bucks so he can keep feeding the hikers a little taste of home out there. ( https://www.facebook.com/FreshGroundLeapfrogCafe/ )
Ultimately, the trail becomes home. Time will slow down and speed up according to nothing but your own pacing and intention. You’ll make new friends and find new ways of thinking. The time may be right for you, too, to answer the call and join the 2,000-mile club.
If you’re looking to hike the AT, we hope this brief intro has inspired you to begin your research and start shaping your mindset. If we at Catoma can answer any questions about our products or processes in any way that might help you, please reach out to us on social media or email ( jpugh [ at ] catoma.com ) and we will be more than happy to lend you any advice we can. Get started and get out there.
And remember…. “It’s just walking…”