Learning to backpack “the hard way”: How I wasted my money and (nearly) ruined trips through trial-and-error

Founder's Bridge over the Nantahala River, with Chris Willett and Daddy Mention. Notice that my 75L pack still wasn't big enough to fit all my stuff plus my sleeping pad, despite ditching a bunch of gear in Hiawasee and at the NOC. I bought trekking poles shortly after this photo was taken.

Nearly ten years ago, on May 5, 2002, I started my first long-distance hike: the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail. The AT was one of my first backpacking trips as well — the first had been only two months earlier during Spring Break, when I’d gone to Yosemite Valley by myself and had gone on two one-night trips, to Little Yosemite Valley and to the top of Yosemite Falls. I wasn’t an experienced day-hiker or car-camper either: I had done both activities only occasionally and casually as a child and teen.

Needless to say, I had a lot to learn about backpacking.

It’s almost hard to believe, but my backpacking credentials were actually not sub-par compared to my fellow AT thru-hikers. Very few of us had previous long-distance backpacking experience, and only some had more backpacking experience than me. Mostly, we were all on the same journey — learning to backpack “the hard way” through trial-and-error while walking north towards Katahdin.

Yes, I'm behind that backpack. Note the orange shirt draped over the backpack -- not sure why I thought this "quick dry" shirt would dry in those conditions.

Insights from the first 2,000 miles

When I reached that majestic peak three months later, the gear and supplies I carried on my back had almost nothing in common with my starting kit. I had a new sleeping bag, sleeping pad, shelter, stove, and water purification system – of course, all packed inside a new backpack. I had also ditched many items that proved unnecessary, including a solar-powered battery charger, sunglasses, reflective mirror, two extra sets of clothes, 50 feet of rope, and an extensive kitchen set (three utensils, plate, bowl, sponge and 8 ounces of dish soap!). I ate different foods, drank more water, and carried a first aid/foot care/repair kit that was much more streamlined.

My pack weight dropped by half — to about 17 pounds from 35 — due to these changes. But my primary goal was not necessarily to lighten my load—instead, it was to make hiking more enjoyable. A lighter pack helped. But so too did adding some items that I didn’t start with, like a set of trekking poles and ibuprofen.

Like my gear and supplies, the skills I carried between my ears also changed. For example, I learned how to calculate the exact amount of food, water, and fuel I needed between towns and water sources, to avoid carrying more than I needed. I learned that hiking more, not hiking faster, was the key to covering many miles per day. And I learned how to better manage rain, cold, humidity and bugs. Again, these skills made my experience more enjoyable, and allowed me to be safer and more comfortable even though I was carrying less gear.

Near Mt. Madison in Hampshire, looking south towards Mt. Washington. Look at that smile! Over the previous 1,750 miles, I had found a way to make hiking enjoyable.

Pursuing the mantra of further, faster, and lighter

The AT had taught me a great deal about the gear, supplies and skills that make hiking fun. But I didn’t yet know it all, and in the 9.5 years since I finished the AT I have continued to overhaul and improve my system. Some of these changes were inspired by what I learned from backpacking magazines, in online forums, and from knowledgeable peers. But many of these changes resulted from continued trial-and-error, especially in the course of groundbreaking trips in new environments and new seasons, when there was not yet a tried-and-true model to follow.

Learning to backpack through trial-and-error was ultimately effective — a decade and 30,000 miles later, I’m fairly competent out there. But, if I was just getting into backpacking today, hopefully I would have the sense to R&D those who have already figured it out — as in, “rip off and duplicate.” Given the quality of backpacking gear and the body of backpacking knowledge that exists today, there’s simply no reason to waste your money and your time learning the hard way.

The costs of trial-and-error

How much money did I waste in the process of developing a system that worked? It’s hard to calculate precisely, but certainly it was in the thousands of dollars. I ran some quick numbers, and calculated that I wasted at least $1,358 on gear that I thought would be applicable for the Appalachian Trail (or similar conditions) and eventually concluded that it was not. Here’s a breakdown:

  • Sleeping bags. Experimented with five models. Net waste: $505
  • Sleeping pads. Experimented with four models. Net waste: $70
  • Shelters. Experimented with four models. Net waste: $135
  • Trekking poles. Experimented with three models. Net waste: $30
  • Stoves. Experimented with three models. Net waste: $118
  • Water purification. Experimented with three systems. Net waste: $90
  • Backpacks. Experimented with three models. Net waste: $400

Click here for the PDF that details my experimentation

And I didn’t even try to calculate the waste on clothing, footwear, or any of the “extra” gear that I decided wasn’t actually necessary, e.g. my solar-powered battery charger.

Learning through trial-and-error not only has a tangible financial cost, but there is also an intangible cost—my Appalachian Trail experience was much harder and less enjoyable than it should have been. A sampling of my suffering just from that trip:

  • Severe shin splints and tendonitis of the iliotibial (IT) band for the first 500 miles
  • Painful maceration of the feet whenever my shoes and feet got wet
  • Borderline hypothermia in the Smokies during a cold-and-wet rainstorm
  • Sleepless nights during seasonal cold snaps in the Smokies, Roan Mountain, and southern Vermont
  • Sleepless nights in the Mid-Atlantic due to overheating inside my waterproof/breathable bivy
  • Sleepless nights in New Hampshire due to heavy rain while inside my bivy
  • Tortured by mosquitoes in Maine
  • Bad case of jock itch due to poor backcountry hygiene

I learned many lessons on other trips too. For example, on my Sea-to-Sea Route I learned that poncho-tarps are best used as “just in case” rain gear or shelter, not for regular use. In Southern California on the Pacific Crest Trail I learned that full-coverage clothing was cooler than my East Coast-inspired wardrobe of shorts and a T-shirt. On the Sierra High Route with Buzz Burrell I learned the value of having a headnet when the mosquitoes are bad (because neither of us had one). And on my Alaska-Yukon Expedition I learned the value of fleece, which retains its insulating abilities when wet much better than other insulations.

Have you learned through trial-and-error?

I was fortunate that I could afford to learn to backpack through trial-and-error. I had more time than money, easy access to gear, flexible jobs, and a willingness to suffer. However, most backpackers are not in this position: they have commitments to family and careers, limited free time for recreation, and a desire to make the most from each backpacking trip.

What lessons related to backpacking gear, supplies or skills did you learn the hard way, that you could have learned from someone else? What resources have you found best to avoid making the same mistakes that others have made before?

Posted in , , , on April 26, 2012


  1. Lee Griffith (Sherpa Master) on April 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    I learned in a 4″ downpour that you need to tie drip lines on tarp ridge lines to prevent wicking of rain down the ridge line. I also learned that trip that a smaller ground cloth under a tarp is better to give more water infiltration area. You can also pull up the edges with a little dirt or rocks and let the water flow under the ground cloth.
    Because of bad knees and back I learned early on to use trekking poles. Haven’t hiked a day without them since first picking up a set.
    I use our monthly Boy Scout trips to test out new gear and experimental methods. Car camping trips work nicely for this since you can carry backup gear if the experimental gear doesn’t work.

  2. Andy on April 26, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    Heavy boots suck and aren’t necessary, I will fill a big pack. A tarp works better for me than a one man tent.
    I thru hiked in the 90s, this year I’m heading out to the Long Trail with nothing I carried before. Your book was a big help in reoutfitting myself to get under 20 pounds with food.

  3. Steffen Miller on April 26, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    Six years of Infantry applied to backpacking. From my experience in the Army I have learned more from misery than one could want. Throughout Infantry School your usual load is around 75 pounds, give or take 10 pounds weapon dictated. This would keep me from backpacking for about two years.
    Later experiences to be noted.Cold nights of sleeping on the ground without any gear. Rain gear that doesn’t breathe, keeping you as wet inside as outside. Sleep system over 8 pounds. And most important clothing, although durable, not suited to a comfortable environment.
    Still in the Army I have applied comforts to my civilian backpacking versus military rucking. Military grade equipment is built to last, however, civilian equivalents are much lighter and just as durable. Any experience of pain and misery should not be forgotten but more or less used as a lesson to make future trips more enjoyable.

    • Aaron on May 22, 2013 at 9:24 pm

      Good old 11B here, too. I backpacked alot as a kid, but wasn’t taught anything about it, to be honest. I was a kid. Anyway, I attempted my first few trips with my Military issued gear. Epic fail. Went to a used gear sale and found out how awesome, good, lightweight gear is. Essentially, I’m still adapting this new mindset each trip I take, but I am still trying not to pack every damn thing I could ever possibly need for any situation. The Army just might as well have made me retarded, ya know? Nothing like a good 12 miler under kit, but that does not make an enjoyable hike/camp experience.

      • Chuck on August 30, 2013 at 6:47 pm

        another 11B here too, appreciating the insights from you guys…

        wondered about the usefulness of poncho liners and poncho hootches versus tents for long range hiking

        have figured out civ gear is the way to go but not sure of makes for ruck and if civ boots beat out say jungle boots, any thoughts?

        • Dave on December 14, 2013 at 3:22 pm

          Another former 11B. As I have gotten over the trauma of long field exercises in freezing rain and other crappy conditions, I have begun traveling and doing more outdoors. Started off with all my old military gear (at least the crap supply didn’t take back) and have slowly (cost and experience limiting) changed over a decent amount of gear to civilian gear. I am still struggling with the most expensive items. (I am a cheapskate and have trouble buying new, untested (on me) stuff that costs hundreds of dollars.

          • Tyler Jutte on May 14, 2021 at 12:06 pm

            Civilian gear compliments the field during army camping, not the other way around. I use my silpoly tarp in lieu of a poncho or the issued tarp, bring my sawyer filter when I’m with units who may not treat their buffalo properly, my sleep pad folds up smaller and keeps me warmer than the issued pad and of course my cook kit for making fluids hot when the weather gets cold. The only “lessons” I learned from the army that apply to my backpacking is darn tough socks, my caloric requirements and confidence in a caloric deficit, and general footcare.

  4. Garret on April 26, 2012 at 11:39 pm

    Are you sure you (and I) didn’t start the AT May 3, not May 5? I remember that solar battery charger. My stupidest item was a 1-lb. metal mesh backpack locking device. It won the Backpacker mag editor’s choice award, so it was clearly a must-have. I hesitate to call all this “waste,” though, as long as you learned from it. Maybe so in financial terms, but I prefer to chalk it all up to good self-deprecating story material and type-II fun.

  5. Jared on April 26, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    I learned to dehydrate my own food as part of controlling calorie vs. sodium intake. While sodium is important, you can earn yourself quite the migraine eating those zip-bag meals they sell at most sporting goods stores. Not to mention all the waste material!

    I also am a fan of the “recycled” soda bottle as a water bottle vs a nalgene when extra water storage is required. Low muss’n fuss.

  6. Erin on April 27, 2012 at 10:41 am

    We have learned nearly everything the hard way. Mostly because, like you, we tend to do things beyond the scope of ordinary recreation.

    That said, our very first long trip was 2 months, 800 miles, in the remote and chilly wilderness of the Alaska Peninsula. With a sleeping bag sewn from windproof fleece, an old green and silver rectangular tarp as a shelter, no sleeping pads, expensive mountaineering raingear that was terrible for rain, Sevylor trail boats and their toy plastic paddles for packrafting… I could go on and on. We learned very quickly about the merits of fleece as a baselayer in wet conditions there, via ditching our useless long underwear halfway through. We certainly could have picked up some better tips if we’d known who to talk to. But it was a great trip, and clearly brought us back for more.

    Now that we’re pushing the envelope of long distance wilderness expeditions with small kids, I find we STILL are learning everything the hard way.

  7. Roger-André Amundsen on April 29, 2012 at 9:55 am

    That Gore-Tex in footwear does not work. Rather it works, either for a very short time or with so much protection the boots or shoes becomes primary a Gore-Tex container, foot support second.

    Oh, the 75 litre backpack – not a daypack, not a 100-120 litre monster – but just right! Took me two trips with such thing to realize the error of my ways. Bit slow that way – hit me one more time – did it hurt as much as the first time?

    Oddly enough, this has to be learned through trial and error. Unless you happen across those crazy ‘lighten everything’ people, the conventional wisdom loves the high-tech membrane and the heavy pack.

  8. samh on April 29, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    That look on Suge’s (Chris’) face is priceless.

  9. Josh B on May 3, 2012 at 12:13 am

    While canoeing on a duckhunt for three days I found out less is more and expensive is cheap!
    Cheap hunting clothes wear out fast , less higher priced clothes work great and last longer also dry out fast,MC Callister wool sweat shirt with quarter zip is amazing! 300 dollar waders are lighter and warmer than cheap hodgemans, Carbon fiber paddles best investment , walking my dog to keep her weight down and a better diet paid off big time! As well as keeping myself in shape, more venison less beef!

  10. Joslyn on May 3, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Because I had limited resources when I started I fortunately made it from “wanting to backpack” to “wanting to go UL” with minimal buying errors. A pair of boots, a cramped and heavy tent, and one overkill cook kit were my only really dumb purchases. All in all only about $250. The research I did however, picking the brains of everyone on BPL, has saved me thousands!

  11. Steve Shumway on May 3, 2012 at 9:06 am

    I would’nt say all that time and money was a waste but a investment to to you your learning curve and over all knowledge. We’ve all had to learn something from going to the school of hard knocks. The point is that we keep learning. Thanks for shearing.

  12. Mitch on May 11, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    I learned on a 2 night solo that if your trash bag over your 8 lb 40*F sleeping bag is torn on a tree limb, and it starts to rain, that you’re not going to sleep much that night when the temperatures hit 35*F. On a 2 night trip to climb Mt Blanca (CO) in late October I learned the importance of knowing, not hoping, that your partner is properly prepared. Through internet research I’ve learned just how light gear can be, but that its not all applicable to all trips. Fortunately for me I barrowed much of the gear I used when I first started backpacking, and simply used my backcountry snowboarding pack (35liter) so I quickly learned what can stay at home just so I could fit the essentials. Some of the resources have been trailforums.com, backpacking friend’s stories/suggestions, and just getting out there to see what I like. I have a long ways to go yet, but I imagine I’ll learn a lot this summer section hiking CO of the CDT for my third summer of backpacking.

  13. Joe Hess on May 21, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    Backpacking with Kids (7 and 11) makes everything different. If I go alone my gear selection is slightly different than with our kids. Tent selection would be key for us. We had a 6lb two man tent a Kelty Gunnison, use that with another older North Face I think tadpole or something. So the two tents combined weighed in above 11lbs. Since I have to carry a tent and my wife carrys a tent we got the tarptent Double rainbow (two each), no total combined weight is 6lb, 3 for her and 3 for me. Other weight reductions include sleeping bags, pads, and accessories. With gear for a week I weigh in at about 35lbs with food and water, and my wife weighs in about 28lbs food and water. Remember we are carrying pretty much everything for our kids, they only carry sleeping bags and clothing at this point.

  14. Jess on July 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    I learned the hard way that you have to inflate those inflatable pads. (Somehow I still slept well that night though…) Also I hiked 1,000 miles on the AT with heavy leather boots. I think the first pair weighed well in excess of 5 pounds. Never got a blister though. 😛

    I managed not to waste too much money by getting into backpacking as a dirtbagger and being mentored by a gram weenie. I did buy a go light pack that just didn’t fit though.

  15. Paul on May 10, 2013 at 2:58 am

    Learnt the hard way on a storm battered ridge in South west tasmania that older cheaper raincoats do delaminate. Spent the rest of a week long trip wearing a fetching garbage bag as rainwear. As soon as I got back to Hobart before our next trip I bought the best goretex jacket money could buy. It was henceforth christened as ‘the magic goretex’ because the sun came out whenever I wore it.

    Learnt that a cheaper brand of pack that looks ‘just the same’ as the expensive brand will not perform the same as the expensive brand.

    After packing the same dehydrated evening meal every evening for a a two week trip I learnt that even I could get sick of ‘farmhouse stew” and variety in meals is essential when hiking

    Learnt from your book that you can teach an old dog new tricks

  16. Lasivian on May 14, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    FYI, your anti-spam quiz sucks. I had a very lengthy reply written up, and didn’t notice the spam check and the entire thing was deleted.

  17. Andrew C. on May 17, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    My “trial-and-error” experience was a 5-day section hike on the AT from Amicalola Falls to Neel Gap and I knew from the start that it would be a lot easier if I had an ultralight pack. I was lugging a TNF Terra 65 (4 lbs 11 oz) with a 40 degree synthetic TNF sleeping bag (about 3 lbs), Jetboil (1 lb), 2 Nalgenes, Camelbak 2L bladder, and a Katadyn pump filter. My pack weight was about 35 lbs. My biggest “error” was the fact that I wasn’t in shape for it. That’s where I was unprepared. I figured I’d get in shape on the trail which is what I would now call a rookie mistake. Now I’m an ultralight hiker with the health and skills that impress the “ultimate-campers” and “campers-by-default”.

  18. Randy on September 9, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    Hello Andrew, wondering what would be your winter sleeping system like say you are planning to back back PA~NJ AT trail. And what do you think about 750 dry trek down bag vs. 800 regular down bag for above conditions?

    • Andrew Skurka on September 17, 2013 at 8:31 am

      “Winter” isn’t enough information here. Does that mean January or March? For a weekend or a month? That said, I’d probably go with a 20-degree mummy bag, combined with my clothing, which would probably include a warm down parka and a pair of puffy pants. I’d go with a mummy instead of a quilt because quilts are too drafty in temps below about 20 degrees, even with a bivy. I’d want the bag to be oversized so that I could wear my clothing at night without feeling constricted, and I’d want a full-length zipper so that I could ventilate on warmer nights and avoid overheating.

      If I was planning to sleep on the ground, I’d bring a RidgeRest Deluxe foam pad. If I was planning to stay in the shelters, I’d bring a thinner foam pad and an air mattress.

  19. Rob Michael on January 6, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    I am so appreciative of your lessons both those that worked and those that did not. As I prepare for the AT what I learned from you will serve me well. The comments from all the other posters are extremely useful also. Thanks for sharing, thanks for caring and thanks for being out there enjoying our country.

  20. doug zdanivsky on February 24, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    So far I’ve learned that I’m willing to bear with more weight for added comfort/convenience..


    Digging a cathole with a GSI trowel as opposed to a tent stake, and wiping my bum with good ol’ 2-plyTP as opposed to snow (brrrrr!!)/grass/leaves..

    My pocket rocket + cannister weighs more than an alcohol stove, but it is way faster and convenient.

    My self-inflating sleeping pad is much more comfortable in my old age than the closed-cell Thermarest I used for way longer than I should have!

    No bunched-up clothing in a stuff sack will ever rival my dedicated thermarest compressable pillow!!

    My memory will never rival that of a heavy camera..

    • Luke on October 8, 2014 at 6:06 am

      My thoughts exactly, which is why I will never be able to call myself an ultralight backpacker. My base pack is 20 pounds. I’m cool with that. My ridiculously heavy item I never leave home without is my Thermarest Deluxe Camper sleeping pad. 2lbs 10oz. But, like you, I can not spend a night on a blue foam mat or z-rest. My pillow right now is a Lake & Trail brand self inflating one I picked up from Meijer (a large department/grocery store in MI & OH) for 10 bucks. LOVE THIS THING!

  21. Jan aka BeeKeeper on May 15, 2014 at 7:14 am

    If you don’t like synthetics in real life, you’ll really not like them on the trail. Replaced sleeping bag and puffy with the down versions, sleeping bag after just one outing.

    Packs with lots of organized sections are just a waste of space and cost in extra weight. One- size-fits-all packs have a weight penalty.

    Gear is personal, just because it works for one doesn’t mean it’ll work for another. Recommendations are good, but trial and error real-life use is the cost of finding the best individualized selections.

  22. Gordon on June 3, 2014 at 6:00 am

    I’m a little confused by the sleeping-pad comparison section of the pdf linked to above. It suggests that you would currently use an air mattress, such as the Therm-a-Rest neoAir, but elsewhere you say that a foam pad is “more reliable”. Do you use both, depending on the circumstances? And, as to reliability, is it really that much of a problem to patch the neoAir in the field?

    • Andrew Skurka on June 3, 2014 at 6:04 am

      I use either, depending on the trip. A foam pad usually wins for intense outings and winter; the NeoAir gets the nod for more casual summer trips.

      Yes, patching an inflatable pad in the field can be a real nuisance. It’s a big surface area and a tiny hole; submerging it in water makes it much easier, which is something you probably won’t want to deal with at 3am.

      • Gordon on June 3, 2014 at 9:47 pm

        Thanks very much for the quick reply! But I thought a major justification for the NeoAir’s price tag was the (claimed) R-value of 5.7. If you are not going to use it in the winter, it seems like you could go with a significantly cheaper air mattress.

  23. LightDan on August 14, 2014 at 3:02 am

    You have made a mistake on the PDF where you count your losses in experimentation.
    You have substracted the price of the currently worn items. The real loss is, if I was able to do the math correctly in my head 2170$.
    If you sold the discarded items, that’s the number you shold substract.
    That just proves your point even more though, do your homework instead of losing money on the trail.

  24. Rooster on August 28, 2014 at 4:48 am

    I’ve just completed the state of ME (Maine), starting at Katahdin and stopping in Gorham, NH. one thing I learned is that although boots and gaiters (OR Crocodile Gaiters) do add more weight, among all the folks I met in the trail I was most definitely the ONLY person with dry feet the entire way. Of course at most water crossings I removed the boots. I also learned that, although it is much lighter, I will not use a Sawyer Mini. Every time I collect water, it is a peaceful, zen-like moment, and I truly enjoy pumping away with my PUR Hiker. No struggle or strain, just enjoying the wonderful view of the brook or sunset on the pond. I’ve also learned that haste truly does make waste. I could almost watch the second hand go backwards in my watch whenever I’m in a hurry, but when I’m in no rush I make excellent time and often summit a Mtn and am shocked that I’m there already. To keep clean socks daily, wash socks at the end if the day, wring them out and wear them to bed. You’ll have clean, dry socks every day. Whiskey is so much better in the trail. A sip after a good hard day is very rewarding. Always use a pump sack (I use a garbage bag with a piece of 5/8″ hose) to fill your NeoAir. I weighed mine in Andover, ME and it had gained 8oz just from the moisture of my breath. Get a headlamp with a red light setting so you can use it without disturbing other folks in the shelters or lean-to’s. always carry duct tape (wrap around a lighter or trekking pole to save space). And of course always carry a handkerchief and earplugs.

  25. krishanu karmakar on September 29, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    Hi there, thanks for helping innumerable backpackers with your book, and blog. I just wanted to point out (rather just mention) that your pdf (presumably from an excel) underestimates the wasted money in each category.

    In each category it takes the total of the ‘failed’ gear and subtracts the ‘current/successful’ gear from this total. That is underestimating the ‘wasted’ money. In each category the wasted money is just the total cost of ‘failed’ gear, period.

  26. Walt d on December 27, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    I learned that an ultralight cuben fiber packpack (24 ozs) does not handle loads of more than 25 pounds. I carried around 45 this year on the PCT in SoCal including food and 6 liters of water in the desert. Big mistake as my back took the brunt of my folly. Seriously, these ultralight backpacks are not good enough for long distance thru-hikes when you must carry several days of food and several liters of water between far distant water sources – just too much for these packs IMHO. I also learned that while ultralight silnylon tarptents are good in shedding water and moderately good at shedding wind, they require repeated tightening of the guylines and/or moving the stakes back to keep the fabric taut. I found this a hassle.

  27. Josh K on March 24, 2015 at 8:21 am

    I remember the first time i went hiking, what a mess.first bad decision was to carry my entire water supply with me for 4 days instead of use a filter. HORRIBLE CHOICE. I also carried a memory foam pillow. HORRIBLE CHOICE. I also carried two extra days worth of food. I carried a change of clothes for each day. I bought a cheap back and the buckle at the front broke 30 minutes in due to the 30 pounds of shit i was carrying. Needless to say you don’t need all the extra “just in case stuff”

  28. Ken M on April 16, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Me = Backpacking Newbie (April 2015) deciding to finally act on my desire to long distance hike after 15+ years of reading and dreaming about the AT. Never a couch potato in those 15 years though – always an avid AZ Sonoran desert and CO / WY front range mountain biker as well as a day hiker (never carrying a serious backpack with gear though – mainly H2O and power bars/first aid kit).

    “What resources have you found best to avoid making the same mistakes that others have made before?”
    Internet research and Outfitter store employee badgering with ?’s, more ?’s and even more ?’s. I crave articles such as this detailing lessons learned and current gear used so I can avoid many of the mistakes or tough learning experiences of others. Gearing up right now with used / heavier / no-so-ideal equipment to get the feel for what “I” really need and if I can even succeed at my goals. Past injuries may hold me back from full achievement.

    Thanks to all who’ve shared above but mostly to Andrew for beginning the conversation!


  29. Ambrose on June 23, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    I don’t do much hiking nowadays due to illness. When I was younger I had to learn what can goods I could do without. This was before dehydrated foods. If I packed it in I packed it out. I’m trying to get out more and learning I can’t pack the way I used to and I’m not young and strong anymore. Alaska hiking is great and offers a great bounty of trail food and I hope I can put my book learned survivalist skills to the test.

    • Barb on September 3, 2016 at 1:29 pm

      I use to carry books….bible bird and flower….along with the can food, now I carry GPS, SPOT, phone for camera and survival downloads, bearspray and gun…I need to go and so I need to lighten the pack. I wear Bogs and leary of giving them up.

  30. Luis Bozan on December 23, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    Started hiking many years ago. Discovered UL-backpacking when fourth child was born (all with same mother). Now as a single father (kids with me 50% of the time) and the youngest being 4 y o I’m still learning thru trial and error.
    Always rehearse your different knots for the tarp guy lines before each trip. Otherwise rain storms will affect your tarp settings. Luckily good gear keeps warm kids warm no matter what.
    Kids (at least mine) are really warm sleepers. The wet bed is not urine, it’s sweat: naked in a silk inlet only, in temps ranging from 50-55 F, was the solution.
    Kids (mine are 4-10 y o) don’t ration their food intake – they eat until they’re full. At-home food consumption is less than calorie intake on 4-6 miles hiking days with 7-24 lbs on their backs. Which made me lose 13 lbs on a 2-week trip. Hmmm…maybe not a fail.
    Kids (at least mine) are also soft sleepers. Sleeping on the air mat (synmat ul) was a “punishment” in their eyes, solely foam pad was more comfortable.
    A pair of clean socks for the trip back home was not a good thing, apparently: this meant that “stinking-feet competition” at home arrival was cancelled.

    • mekineer on May 19, 2021 at 1:47 pm

      “Which made me lose 13 lbs on a 2-week trip. Hmmm…maybe not a fail.” LOL

  31. Una on January 21, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    Love this article and the responses. Thanks everyone. I think that backpacking for ladies is slightly different than for men simply because of the weight of the pack. I’m rather thin (125 lbs) and slightly built. I can hike 20 miles at a time, no problem, but the weight does hinder me.

    I used to backpack with my boyfriend quite a bit in my 20s, but after moving to Atlanta, I couldn’t find anyone interested in backpacking. After finding a wonderful online hiking group 20 years later (atlantaoutdoorclub.com), I got back into it regularly in 2012. I had to buy all new gear, of course, and without joking, I bought everything too big, too heavy or the wrong thing entirely. I had never backpacked before where I had to carry all of the gear myself; I’d always shared that burden with my boyfriend.

    On my first weekend backpack trip, my men’s 85-liter expedition pack weighed 50 lbs! Now THAT’S funny! My trip leader told me my pack weighed more than twice what his weighed. I replaced it with a 65-liter REI Crestrail pack, which I love! I did not have trekking poles and promptly twisted my ankle and toppled over in the first half mile of the hike, like a nincompoop. Doh! My trip leader gave me one of his trekking poles, and I learned probably the most valuable lesson. I now use poles on every single backpack trip. I wore low-top hiking shoes (Merrell – hated them) and turned my ankle several times. I now wear high-top Keens (one size larger than my normal shoes) and LOVE them! I’ve never had a blister (I wear silk liners and a pair of sports socks) and the toe box is nice and wide with a big guard to keep toe stubbing painless. I brought a small camp stove (in the box!) that was metal and folded into a big square, with a sterno can for fuel. The same kind we used to use in the 80s. Ha ha! It was heavy, hard to assemble and didn’t heat water quickly. That went to Good Will as soon as I got home and was replaced with a Jetboil system. I brought a complete change of clothes, when all I needed was fresh underclothes, like everyone else at camp; it was only a weekend trip! I brought a 3-man tent that weighed 6 lbs. I replaced it with a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 that weighs 3 lbs. I brought a synthetic sleeping bag and small blanket that weighed I don’t know how much. I replaced it with a Sierra Designs 20 degree down bag that is the size of a football when in a stuff sack. I brought a Thermarest sleeping pad that was miserably uncomfortable because it was too thin. I replaced it with an ExPed Synmat UL, that weighs 1 lb. The only thing I got right was my food, water and water filter.

    So, that’s a pretty embarrassing story to tell. 🙂 I’ve learned the most by talking with fellow backpackers about their gear, checking out their sleeping pads and tents, and just sharing info on what’s worth the price and what’s not. I also like that there are now videos available for all of this gear online. And great posts from experienced backpackers, like Andrew’s here, are extremely helpful! Happy backpacking, all!

    • Melissa on March 24, 2016 at 9:39 am

      Hi Una, I was curious how much your pack weighs now. It sounds like we have very similar gear but I can not seem to get mine below 35-38lbs with food and water for a 2 day backcountry hike.

      • Melanie on July 9, 2016 at 5:41 pm

        HI Melissa, i’m about to embark on a 10 day backpacking trip, and my pack is a 51L Gregory Jade. My full pack weight (including water, fuel and 10 days worth of food) is about 43 lbs and 6.5 oz. If your pack weight is 38 lbs for only 2 days, then here are the things you need to look at:

        – How much does your tent weigh? Is it for one person, two or three? A lightweight tent should weigh less than 3lbs
        – How big and heavy is your pack? Mine weighs in at 3.5 lbs and is only 51 litres
        – How heavy is your sleeping pad? Mine weighs less than 1 lb
        – Are you bringing extra clothes? You only need the clothes on your back and a warm fleece jacket and maybe hat and gloves if it gets cold in the morning
        – Are you bringing extra shoes?
        – Games / books / computer?? (you don’t need any of this)
        – Are you packing canned food? These weigh a lot. Try packing dehydrated foods like ramen or egg noodles which rehydrate in water in less than 10 mins.

        All things to consider. Try doing some research on ultralight or lightweight backpacking.
        Good luck!!

        • Barb on September 3, 2016 at 1:54 pm

          No change of clothes…..
          I broke through snow into a river….I had a sterno can and no change of clothes….I looked up and saw a forestry cabin in the distance . It was empty. Though no wood stove in alpine it provided shelter.
          I vowed to always carry xtra clothes.
          Learning things the hard way makes the best memories..

          • mekineer on May 19, 2021 at 1:53 pm

            I have extra clothes I wear to sleep, which make up for a not warm enough sleeping bag, and helps keep me warm if I have to pee at night.

  32. Matt Hayes on February 29, 2016 at 3:18 am

    What advice do you have for avoiding shin splints and tendonitis?

    • Andrew Skurka on February 29, 2016 at 9:02 am

      Shin splints and tendonitis are similar in their causes and treatments. Rest is good, but it does not address the core issues, and your symptoms will probably return when you resume exercise again. Post-exercise ice application helps to reduce inflammation, and I’ve found that it can keep the pain level manageable but not make it disappear. But long-term I have found that deep stretching and massage (or DIY using a foam roller or tennis ball) are the most effective.

      • Matt on May 18, 2016 at 9:10 am

        If you go to a running outfitting store they have wrap bands (about an inch or two wide) to go around your knee and support the IT band. If you ask for an IT band wrap they will know what you are talking about. Injured my IT band when prepping for a half marathon. It was a life changer 90-95% pain reduction. It takes a couple times playing with it to get it on right but once you get it right you will love it.

  33. jumper on March 1, 2016 at 6:31 am

    For 2016, who has ultralight gear recommendations based on experience they can share. Especially interested in clothing for AT NOBO.

    My experience is very dated coming in 2016, having backpacked in Boy Scouts the Smokey Mountains AT in 68 and 69, followed by a career revolving around the 82d Abn Div (11C) and converting a Boy Scout troop to backpacking in The Netherlands about 12 years ago, the prospect of turning 60 on the AT needs some “comforting advice”.

  34. Scott on April 28, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    I see many 11b and former 11b posting on the comments here so hope you can russel up and answer to my question. Been looking at a poncho and liner to start taking out with me. My question regards to rain. If it’s belting it down, and the poncho is used as a shelter, how do you stop the liner, and therefore you, getting soaked? I hear mythical stories of these things keeping you warm, but how good are they really? To put in perspective, I’m British military, so most of our EX’s are in the cold and wet.

  35. Phil on May 26, 2016 at 7:23 pm

    I’m preparing for an AT thru-hike in 2017. I’m not an experienced hiker (this is a bucket list item). Right now, my total pack weight looks right at 40 lbs. I’ve been training with 45 lbs. on my back hiking up and down Stone Mountain. But, I’m a bit concerned that 40 (that’s total weight, with a full compliment of food and water), is going to be too much to sustain. What do you think? And, is shaving a couple of lbs. by buying a lighter tent, etc., going to really be worth it?

    • Andrew Skurka on May 26, 2016 at 9:16 pm

      I think you should aim for about fifteen pounds without food and water. Assume 6 to 9 pounds of food at most (4 to 6 days between resupplies), and about two pounds of water.

      Yes, if you are going to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail, spending some money to get your pack lighter would be worth it. At 40 pounds currently, I bet you could probably spend no money and lighten your pack simply by getting rid of stuff you don’t need.

  36. Leena on July 1, 2016 at 2:04 am

    Dear Andrew,

    I have a nice 35L backpack, and was wondering how many days this would be good for at a time, if I’m doing a “thru-hike.” I’m 5’3″, female and heavyset. Looking to shed about 60 lbs off of my body, so that I can buy smaller clothes and thus cut weight and bulk-age from my pack. My pack has space for 3 liters of water on the side, and I could probably strap my tent, pad and other bulky items to the outside as well. That being said, is 35L on the inside enough space for, say, 4-5 days camping?

    Thanks for a truly outstanding blog.

    • Andrew Skurka on July 1, 2016 at 12:11 pm

      35L for a 4-5 day trip will be tight for most, and the rest of your setup would have to be very minimal, e.g. 1-lb shelter, alcohol stove, streamlined clothing, etc.

      But there is only one way to find out: try to put all of your gear and food into it.

      In general, I think 50-60L is the sweet spot for most backpackers. Stretch it to a week, but still small enough for a quick overnight or long weekend.

  37. Jeremiah on August 9, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    Preparing/planning an AT thru hike next year. Have a few questions I would appreciate some guidance on: boots or trail shoes and will I wear out a pair on trail? Any experience with hammock vs tent? Have hammock system, used a few single nighters. How much of an issue are biting bugs on the AT (NOBO start no later than April 1) and how dealt with. I know ticks are bad up near NH. Thanks! This is all regarding an AT thru hike.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 10, 2016 at 1:48 pm

      1. 400 miles for trail running shoes, 600 miles for hiking shoes, plus/minus 200 depending on the brand and model.

      2. For the AT, I’d go with a hammock, no doubt.

      3. Mosquitoes will plague you all summer, but pressure is never bad. Deer flies are annoying. Your biggest worry should be deer ticks from about Virginia north. Lyme disease is a major issue for AT hikers.

  38. Geoff on September 16, 2016 at 5:37 am

    When I started hiking in Scotland over 50 years ago the gear available to a school-kid was a lot more primitive. Even though I was a national level athlete I could barely lift my pack and it would reduce me to exhaustion on long off-trail mountain days.

    For the pack itself you could choose between ungainly steel-framed Norwegian Bergens or primitive unframed canvas climbing packs we dubbed “potato sacks”. It goes without saying that the potato sacks didn’t carry well.

    On our feet we wore our steel shanked winter mountaineering boots that must have weighed 5lbs a pair. Our shelter was a canvas car-camping ridge tent that must have weighed 12lbs dry and god knows how much wet (and in Scotland it was usually wet!). Our stove was an enormous brass Primus and we used heavy army mess-tins. Our sleeping pads were rubberised canvas beach lilos and our bags were ungainly constructions of feather and cotton. Our clothing was tweed breeks, wool sweaters, waxed canvas anoraks and new-fangled nylon cagoules.

    We were young and fit and had a great time, but we soon learned to wisen up and improvise. Then from the mid-60s hiking and climbing equipment was revolutionised and the best shop in the country was right outside my school. I bought the first curved axe (Chouinard), the first rock-climbing slippers (RDs), the first internal frame sack (Lowe), the first Karrimat (pre-production sample!), the first kernmantle rope (Edelrid), switched to lightweight nylon boots and had Rab Carrington make me an alpine down bag on his kitchen table… Life on the hill became a lot more fun!

    These days my base weight for 3-season alpine trekking is around 11lbs, which must be less than a quarter of what I started out with, and my minimal shoes come in at 4 lbs less, which is equivalent to at least 20lbs off my back. A true revolution!

  39. CJOttawa on November 16, 2016 at 9:58 am

    I’ve learned there’s a lot of collective wisdom in the hiking community and listening to it can avoid a great deal of frustration.

    Example: the ubiquitous 1L Smartwater bottle.

    I tried a myriad of soft and hard sided bottles and bladders. They were all less versatile, heavier, and more expensive.

    Some things you just have to find out on your own. 🙂

  40. Amy on January 16, 2017 at 11:41 pm

    Hi there,
    I’m planning to thru hike AT NOBO 2018. How many days of food and how big of a water bottle do you recommend? I’m planning on bringing my 50 lb German shepherd mix, anybody have any advice? Definite saddle pack for her but still have to research how much food I should bring for her as well. I plan on researching trail snacks as well, how frequent are edible plants? Anybody ever bring fishing equipment in AT? How much $$ do you recommend for the whole trip? Thanks everyone! A lot of valuable information on this feed!

    • Andrew Skurka on January 17, 2017 at 8:05 am

      Hi Amy –

      Sounds like you have a lot of questions. You’re smart to be planning this far in advance. If you get tired of searching for credible and relevant information online, keep in mind that I offer a coaching service now. It will pay for itself may times over.

      Necessary food and water is a function of (1) distances between resupply points and water sources and (2) your daily mileage. Both variables vary. On average you could probably resupply every 25 miles, but you’ll want to skip most towns — they get expensive, make you lazy, and it’s time-consuming to get in and out of them.

      2 to 3 quarts of capacity should be okay for the AT.

      I know little about hiking with dogs. But there are good dog-dedicated resources out there.

      It’s more efficient and pleasant to simply carry your food, rather than relying on edible plans or fish. I’m sure that there are opportunities for both, but it’s no Alaska.

      You can develop a budget fairly easily. Transportation to and from the trailheads, trail food, town food, motels, resupply shipments, plus any overhead expenses like lease, cell phone, health insurance, etc.

  41. Isaac Tarling on February 26, 2017 at 10:52 am


    Three of my friends and I are aiming to complete the Te Araroa trail in New Zealand next year (January 2018) which is nearly 2000 miles. As of yet we have not completed any official trails but are about to start training for it in the following weeks. As at the time of completing it I will only be 18, and due to my inexperience on the matter, is there any advice you could give to minimise our chances of failure.


  42. Evan on March 18, 2018 at 1:09 am

    Do you have any advice for heavyweight backpacking? I’m conditioning for military service and plan on enlisting as infantry, which requires carrying very large amounts of weight over long distances, so I do my backpacking with a heavier load. I’m learning to manage the weight well enough, and it won’t be long before I can manage a decent pace, but I’m a bit worried about wearing out my joints too quickly and getting stress fractures and other injuries, what can I do to help prevent this from occurring?. I plan on picking up trekking poles as soon as possible to hopefully help prevent injury and wear-down.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 19, 2018 at 6:57 am

      1. Build up to the weight
      2. Build up to the distance
      3. Rotate pushing your maximums with both weight and distance — to maximize both fully eventually, take them on independently.
      4. Don’t overdo it.

  43. Jungle hiker on September 9, 2018 at 5:35 am

    this guy reads like a seasoned campaigner. Im ex army, grew up in and now live back in tropical rainforest region. This is a tough region to get gear for being it is so hard on gear and not often hiked in so the market is small. The millions of people living in similar regions would disagree but generally do not have much buying power 🙂

    So much gear is based around folks who consider hiking is daytime walking in open air in a temperate country. Unfortunately if you don’t fit the mould you are constantly scouring equipment lists to find the few things that work, usually its finding gear without all the added options, colors, additions that extract money from suburbanites. Some of my pet gripes, things I had to learn the hard way, or still battle with 🙂

    Waterproof boots everywhere. Here these rot feet , even trapping the water inside the boot. Low sided shoes not a great option as they will get sucked off in mangrove mud or creek sand, many light high sided boots are just so expensive, especially as gear fails quickly here with what is six sided abrasion from the foliage. Military styles are heavy and cost an arm and a leg. Old school basic hiking shoes with light single thickness leather, convas, cordura mesh bodies, basic treads and grommets, which should be so to cheap to make,……. are so difficult to find! Because you can’t sell them for $200 to ‘trail walkers’…

    Tents are often made too hot. Noseeum mesh which has taken over even in tropical type inner domes and tents is often tight for airflow- old school mosquito mesh weave has fallen out of fashion, again because temperate countries are terrified of their ‘noseuums’, whatever a noseeum is. Do these noseuums give you guys Dengue fever or malaria? Then let us have some inners just with open weave mosquito mesh again, and the ability to sleep when its still 85 degrees and 90% relative humidity at 1am in the morning 🙂

    Prices are too high for a lot of lightweight gear. If you live in the triopics it can become expensive through replacement, this region eats gear faster than anywhere else. Again temperate hikers will extoll the virtues of ‘XYZ’ brand because the wore it for 6 weeks on pre-cut trails in Brazil or some british soldier wore it on exercise in belize. Wearing it long term cross country and storing it in a region where mould spores infiltrate everything and grow in storage changes your perspective on expensive fabrics, or the level of your bank balance, one or the two.

    Hiking poles and tents/tarps based on hiking poles…. they can become difficult to drag with you, you may also be swinging a machete in the heaviest terrain.

    Tent and bag sizes, I’m 6’3″ and 238lbs, big, but hardly a giant. So many brands are restrictive even for guys a bit smaller than me. The UL and lightweight market takes any weight savings it can. This means often driving sizes down to the major market which is apparently guys no taller than 5’11. Lets be a little more reasonable here manufacturers, tents are not shoes.

    Bright or non earth colors, reflective guylines, flashy logos. Alpine guys get a pass, I can understand it. Everyone else, mark your position on the GPS or map and use your flashlight to find your tent at night. Some of us are in nature to look like nature, some of us visit regions where safety depends on it. Let us have some more OD, forest green, browns and stealth options please.

    As I acknowledged the fact the market for hiking gear being small here, should I have an axe to grind against markets not catering for more for us?

    Answer, yes, to a degree, Purely because internet discussion is steering some things in life out of control, not the least of which is price. As a result boring, basic old school, non flashy, light but durable options that should cost little to make are less attractive for companies to put out.

  44. Elle on August 4, 2019 at 9:31 am

    It is funny to me how much of lightweight and ultralight backpacking methodology was actually pioneered by Ray Jardine but few give him the credit he deserves. He wrote a still relevant tome on the subject as a guide to the PCT in 1991. After my first run of the JMT my way of approaching backpacking was revolutionized by his book “Beyond backpacking- hikers guide to lightweight backpacking.” His wisdom is unwittingly handed down via hikers today but few actually know of him. In fact his designs were the basis of the Golite brand. If you really want affordable gear sew it yourself- his kits are very easy to follow and the gear lasts! A few things I learned from him that is now standard for lightweight hikers: running/trail shoes instead of boots, re-purposing clothing, using standard water bottles instead of heavy bottles, using duff/sand to wash pots, how to select optimal campsites, back country latrine methodology, repackaging food, tarps vs tents, river crossing instruction, lightweight gear, quilts vs sleeping bags and the list goes on and on. Granted much of this was pioneered in NOLS and Outward Bound and refined by Ray Jardine. In fact almost any sport that he sets his gaze on is revolutionized (e.g. climbing gear, hiking methodology, kayaking, to name a few). If you want inspiration for your next adventure and want to learn something new spend some time on his webpage: http://www.rayjardine.com/index.shtml. This guy never stops and is continually pursuing refinement of his methodologies and I hope all will give him the credit he deserves!

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