{Note: Michael is nearly 200 miles into his SOBO PCT journey but here are a few thoughts he went through when preparing for the trip.}

There is an abundance of blogs where AT, PCT or CDT thru hikers dedicate a post to an itemized and detailed gear list. I’m not going to do that and re-invent the wheel. Instead I will provide commentary based on years of wilderness experience and highlight a few gear items in detail. I do appreciate reading other hiker’s gear lists as I always learn something new. There are just so many.

The key point to remember about what is the best gear for a long distance hike is that there is more than one right answer. The best stuff for long distance hiking today, such as packs, sleeping systems, shelters and accessories is being made by cottage industry manufacturers such as Hyperlte Mountain Gear, Gossamer Gear, Z-Packs, ULA, Western Mountaineering, Feathered Friends, AntiGravity Gear, and several others. I shop more and more on line now directly from cottage industry manufacturers. Sadly, REI, which I’ve been a member of since like 1982 keeps going more corporate, carrying popular mainstream brands. That said, I still spend a fair amount shopping there, especially for shoes and apparel. There are a couple of mainstream gear manufacturers such as Big Agnes, and MSR/Cascade Designs that are addressing the needs of ultra light backpackers with innovative lightweight and high performance gear like tents and sleeping pads.

A peak at "what's in my backpack"

A peak at “what’s in my backpack”

I can tell you this. Even though I’m a gear junkie and keep up with the latest and greatest in the ultra light hiking and backpacking world, I am just not a true ultra lighter. At my age, I’ve paid my dues and I want a little comfort. I just can’t sleep on a 1/4” foam pad cut to torso length using my extra socks for a pillow. So, I have an inflatable mattress from Gossamer Gear which weighs a little less than a pound. In lieu of that, I’ll use a slightly heavier inflatable pad from Exped or Thermarest. Sea to Summit makes some nice pads too. And that goes on top of a Ridgerest (by Therm-A-Rest). That extra 8oz is worth its weight in gold. If my pad deflates in the night, at least I will still have some padding and insulation from the ground. In fact since I’ve been using a Ridge or Z Rest under an inflatable pad, I’ve never had a “flat” on my sleeping pad. I bring a Sea-to-Summit Pillow. And I’ve opted for a Western Mountaineering Alpenlight 25 degree bag with overfill. Yes it weighs 2.2 lbs but it is large and roomy enough for me to move around in. Lauri can get away with a sub 2lb., 20 degree bag. I can’t.

My base weight is 18lbs. Add camera gear at 3.5 lbs and another 1.8 lbs for an ice axe and microspikes for snow travel and I’m far from ultra lighting. But it’s not too bad. I’ll be able to shed the snow travel gear hopefully before I leave Washington. Well, at least I’m getting my food right. I’m close to the 2 lbs per day on rations following the formula of my food packing at least 120 calories per ounce.

Since I’m blogging about the trip and I’m going alone initially, I am carrying battery powered things I normally would not take on a backpack trip including my iPhone 6s, a DeLorme inReach SE, with charger cords and a spare battery with USB that will run both of them for a bit longer. I also need reading glasses now to see maps and small LCD screens. I could shave a pound leaving the glasses and above mentioned gadgets behind. This is the price I pay for age, a little security with the inReach, and pro photo gear. Guess I’ll go cut that handle off my toothbrush now to help shave some ounces.

Of all the gear one takes on a long distance hike there are two that are most critical to get right: your footwear (shoes, socks, insoles) and your pack. I hope the reasons are obvious. Get those wrong and little else matters.

PACKS. For years, I’ve been a die-hard Gregory Pack fan. I’ve tried a couple of ultra light packs from ULA and Hyperlite Mountain Gear. I like them but they are uncomfortable when loaded with more than 25lbs. With my camera gear, I am just beyond ultra lighting. I like the HMG for day hikes and an overnighter even with photo gear.

Last year I sprung for a custom fit pack from McHale Packs out of Seattle. The website is a bit confusing. I still don’t know exactly what model I have. The fitting process was a little long, but in the end the pack is fantastic. It is modular and I can adjust it for day hiking with camera gear to outfitting it for a heavy expedition. My pack alone weighs close to 4 lbs., not exactly ultra light. I can make it a bit lighter by leaving lid, bear canister straps and accessory pockets behind.

This is the most comfortable pack I’ve ever had. It should be for what I paid for it. I can walk all day with pack loads 0f 40 lbs without any back pain. I paid a pretty penny for it – close to $1000. With as much hiking as I do, especially with heavy camera gear, I could justify the price. It is important that your pack FITS, and that you can walk all day long without pain, or hip or shoulder pad blisters. If you don’t have that, none of the bells and whistles matter.

SHOES. FIT is the most important thing over anything else. The powers that be in 1976 warned us to not come to Philmont Scout Ranch without a good pair of sturdy leather hiking boots already broken in, otherwise your boots might end up hanging on the ranch gate when you leave. My mom was very frugal and sent me on my first real backpack trip with cheap boots. My boots never lasted the trip and for all I know are still there. Since then and up until recently, I’ve been an ankle high, waffle stomper soled, leather alpine boot guy.

Nearly forty years later, I have been liberated! I now go with trail running shoes and have never felt better! I really like the double layer Wright Socks and I use custom orthopedics. After trying most of the major brands of lightweight hiking, trail running and adventure racing shoes, I guess I’m still an Italian shoe guy. I use La Sportiva brand shoes now. It’s the fit and feel more than anything else. I think the “ankle support” was a false sense of security. If you want ankle support, train! Hike and do strength training exercises for your ankles, foot and calf muscles.

I’m not a big fan of Gore-Tex in footwear. And this is from a guy who’s been hiking wet, muddy trails and wet tundra in Alaska for 28 years! Eventually, you are going to go through a stream, or mud bog and water will infiltrate your shoe from the top. When that happens with a Gore-Tex shoe it will take FOREVER to dry. For snow and short muddy trail sections, I have a pair of vapor barrier socks that weigh next to nothing that fit over my regular socks to keep my feet dry. If and when they get wet, those socks and my shoes will dry more quickly.

I discovered Dirty Girl gaiters while hiking a trail in Alaska. Yes they are the best thing since sliced bread. OK, they could offer a few more masculine patterns. How about a nice solid blue or a medium grey that could double as a white balance card? Is that too much to ask for?


STOVE: Anti Gravity Gear alcohol stove with Caldera Cone that custom fits my .6 liter MSR titanium pot. When the plastic fuel bottle is empty, it weighs a lot less than an empty steel fuel can used with a Pocket Rocket or Jet Boil. Going without stoves is admirable. It’s just not for me – yet.

SHELTER: Hyperlite Mountain Gear with bug insert. Weight is 2.6lbs with stakes and ski straps to put two trekking poles together. Remember this was intended to house both of us. I carry the tent, Lauri carries the stove and fuel. Now I’m carrying both. This tent is bomb proof and passed the all-night-pummeled-by-jet-stream-winds test with flying colors. I could go without the insert and save over a pound. In the fall I will, but for now I need a bug free zone when I’m at camp.

CLOTHES: There are several good choices of high performance and light gear for cold wet weather. My favorites are Patagonia and Outdoor Research. I think a few others, like Marmot and Mountain Hardware are just as good.

COLD AND WET: For cold wet weather I have a non-cotton, moisture-wicking layering system. I have an expedition weight Patagonia Capilene zip top from the early 80’s. The color, red, is hideous. But it is still the lightest, warmest layer I have. I carry Patagonia’s Houdini Jacket and puffy vest and a lightweight OR beanie and gloves. For rain and cold wind, I love my OR Axiom Jacket.

What piece of gear have you found to be your go-to piece?