Essential backpacking gear for long distance hikers

I was recently asked to share my recommendations on essential backpacking gear for an Appalachian Trail hike. I briefly considered sending pics of my ski onesie and a nice mobile home, but changed my mind after realizing that they might expect me to sell my onesie (which is actually my dad’s, and more of a family heirloom than a trend-setting accoutrement).


sexy ski onesie

Sexy Ski-Onsie (not for Sale)


I do have some experience with long-distance hiking (including several amazing sections of the Appalachian Trail), but I’m about as far from attaining hiker expertise as Romania is from the Appalachian Trail. Beyond suggesting comfortable shoes, dietary flexibility (some of the bigger bugs start looking tasty after a few weeks of oatmeal and Ramen noodles), and a pack that is as light as you can make it without sacrificing those “essential” items, I can’t think of very many “gotta-have” items.

And this is one of the most valuable lessons a long distance hiker will learn.

Recognizing the difference between gear that is 'gotta have' and 'wanna have' separates those who finish their hike, and those that soon find themselves looking for another hobby.Click To Tweet


Now that I think about it, most hikers have very different ideas about what “comfortable shoes” are. I like to hike in shoes that Monica calls my “monkey feet” (and are officially called Five Fingers®). They are basically socks with snug appendages for my toes and a rough bottom to provide extra traction on slippery rocks. They are incredibly light and ideal for hiking when crossing rivers or during heavy rains. However, after a few days of heavy hiking, my feet are so sore that I’m gingerly stumbling up the trail like it’s on fire. Some like hard-shelled, waterproof shoes that more closely resemble ski boots than hiking apparel. The vast majority of hikers that I’ve spent time with wear a trail-running shoe that is fairly light but has plenty of padding and some ankle support. I still believe that it’s important to wear comfortable shoes, but you’ll have to decide what “comfortable” means for you.


Monkey Feet

My “Monkey Feet”


brooks cascadia trail runners

My first pair of Brooks Cascadia Trail Running shoes carried me over 1100 miles on rugged terrain. If you look closely, you can see the holes and worn tread. Both are signs of a beloved pair of footwear.


As far as food is concerned, your digestive tract will guide your dietary choices. In my experience, quantity takes precedence over quality (i.e. 4 Pop Tarts make a better breakfast than 1 packet of oatmeal, but both is best), and just like dogs, I prefer wet food to dry food (so long as I don’t have to carry the food while it’s heavy and wet). I’m not a vegetarian, but I’ve been amazed/jealous of the variety of nuts and dehydrated foods that these interesting creatures drag out of their packs. I don’t practice medicine any longer, but in my medical opinion, and given that the typical hiker is metabolizing roughly 5,000 calories on an average day, long distance hikers should plan to include multi-vitamins in their daily diet. And Subway. Eat as many Subway subs as you can. They will help you to hike farther, faster, and I’m fairly certain that the Cold Cut sub will prevent cancer.



I’ve seen lots of different packs as well. Big ones, small ones, ultra-light (and ultra-expensive) ones, as well as bulky contraptions with filled hefty bags tied to the sides. After each long hike, I usually get a slightly smaller pack. I’ve found that I treat my pack like a shopping cart at the grocery store. No matter what I planned to buy before I walked through the doors, I usually end up filling my cart. (The grocery store people know this too, which is why those carts are so huge). Now, I’m down to a more reasonable 65-liter Osprey pack. My list of “essential” items will not be the same as yours. Most people probably don’t feel they absolutely have to bring along the iPad, iPhone, ApplePencil, Kindle, portable battery, and a pet rock. And that’s OK. “Most people” are still probably very decent, and reasonable in their native environments.


Additional resources

I’m not an expert. However, I know that long distance hiking can be incredibly rewarding if you are well prepared. And miserable if you don’t have the right gear/diet. My humble suggestions may not trigger any epiphanies (don’t worry, it’s not completely your fault). Fortunately, there are quite a few great resources out there to guide preparations for a 6-month hike on the Appalachian Trail. Two of the most popular websites are: the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which provides a systematic overview of logistic, physical, and mental suggestions to aid in a successful hike. The Trek contains excellent gear recommendations and the wisdom of hundreds of seasoned hikers in the form of searchable blogs. For those interested in living vicariously through others, there are several delicious memoirs. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is a hilarious account of a pair of unlikely hikers trying to figure it all out on the Appalachian Trail, and Lost on the Appalachian Trail by Kyle Rohrig provides an inspiring glimpse into the struggle and grandeur of a hike that goes on, and on, and on.


So, what do you think… Are you ready to take a hike?


Update: I recently completed a thru-hike on the Appalachian  Trail! You can read about a more extensive discussion of lessons learned here


Deciding what your "essential" gear is will mean the difference between a great hike, and an early trip back home
essential backpacking gear | hikers | comfortable shoes
For backpacking gear, difference between "gotta have" and "wanna have" is finishing hikes, or finding a new hobby


  • Reply TLE (TallLankyEngineer) March 31, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Any idea of your itinerary at the beginning? I may be ready to join you for part of the trail…

    • Reply Gabriel Burkhardt April 1, 2016 at 11:25 am

      That would be AWESOME! I would love to catch up with you again brother, especially in the thick of the Appalachian woods. I will start from Springer Mtn in Northern Georgia on April 18. I’ll get in touch with you when I get back to the states and we’ll compare possible itineraries to see if they line up.

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