To Carry or Not To Carry: Deciding What to Bring on a Thru-Hike

When you’re backpacking, you have to carry every single item you will need on your back. Your pack is one of the most important things you carry, since it holds everything else and distributes that weight to your body. Backpack size is determined in liters, referring to the internal volume (carry space) of that pack. Regardless of the pack you carry, you have to fit EVERYTHING you need inside of it and be able to carry that weight for a really long time.

When first starting out, most people don’t think 20, 30, even 40lbs is very much weight. You can lift that, get it on your back, even walk around and barely feel it. How about after five miles? Twenty? 7 days straight? Thru-hikers tend to start sending items home or leaving them at stops along the way pretty quickly to shed weight because when you’re in it for the long haul, EVERY OUNCE COUNTS. So much so that “ultralight” backpacking is becoming popular, utilizing expensive new technologies and often just going without certain items previously thought absolutely necessary. I plan to pack light, but since I am not independently wealthy, I will not be considered “ultralight”.

me with pack
Me on the NCT with my big internal-frame pack, hauling about 35lbs- everything I needed for a week in the wilderness.

The “Big Three” items that every backpacker needs are 1) a pack, 2) a shelter, and 3) a sleep system. These items should make up the majority of the weight that you carry. My pack is a custom-made frameless 40L pack, meaning I can only carry 40 liters’ worth of stuff. I will probably clip/strap a few things on the outside, but this small size limits the amount of extra “junk” I can bring along. I will be carrying a very light one-person tent, a piece of Tyvek house wrap as a waterproof protective layer under my tent (“footprint”), and 6 titanium tent stakes. I have a down sleeping bag (“mummy” style), a thermal sleeping bag liner because I am always cold, a tiny inflatable pillow, and am still deciding on an inflatable or a foam pad.

I’ll be carrying all of my dehydrated food and need to protect it from bears and other animals like rodents (“mini bears”) while camping. This means using a bear canister or a bear bag. A canister is a very tough container that a bear cannot open or penetrate. A bear bag suspends your food in a tree so that the bear cannot access it. I will be carrying one or the other at all times. I also will carry a small isobutene stove, a lighter and fuel canister, a cooking pot, a cup, and a spork to cook and eat the majority of my food. The rest I will “cold soak” in a peanut butter jar before eating.

Many people bring excessive clothing, but if you have the right combination of layers, this is totally unnecessary. I will have one shirt, one pullover, a wind/rain jacket, a pair of zip-off pants, 2 pairs of underwear, 2 pairs of socks, and 2 pairs of sock liners. I’ll have a sun hat for the desert and a beanie for the mountains, a pair of gloves, and minimalist trail running shoes. They say a pound on your feet is like 5 on your back, so the lighter your shoes are, the better.

colorado kit
Everything I took with me on our 10 day hiking trip in Colorado, excluding food.

The rest are small, lightweight but necessary items: first-aid kit, water filter, Smart Water bottles, phone, maps, battery pack, charger, headlamp, trowel (for digging “catholes” in the woods) & TP, sunglasses, toothbrush, a pair of extra contact lenses, 2 bandannas, lightweight wallet, a lacrosse ball, an extra hair tie, and a mini Swiss army knife. That’s it. That’s all that fits; that’s all I’m willing to carry.

Many hikers ask, “What will get me to Canada?” when choosing their gear. Too many items = too much weight = failed attempt. Too few items = risk, discomfort, low morale = failed attempted. Based on my past backpacking trips and a LOT of research, I think this “kit” is my sweet spot (detailed post to come).

What more could I possibly want for 5 months in the woods?



  1. Are you doing anything special for Toilet Paper or bug repellant? I’ve experienced bugs leaving me alone after a few days in the same place, but I was wondering if that would apply when you’re travelling so many miles at a time.


    • I will spray my clothing Permethrin and will have a head net for parts of the trail. Some people use big repellent spray but I hate how it feels on my skin and won’t be able to wash it off. As for toilet hygiene, I will have TP and wet/baby wipes that will have to be packed out. I have a final gear post in the works since I’ve changed a few things since I wrote this- stay tuned!


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