What do you pack when you’ve got to carry it all on your back?
If you’re intrepid enough to tackle a long-distance trail, you’ll also need to be strategic enough to plot out your route and decide what to bring, what to leave behind, and where to resupply. Don’t be discouraged if you topple over under the literal weight of your indecision the first time you pull your backpack on with the essentials crammed inside (and strapped to the outside and bursting out of the top). Get up; don’t give up. You’ve got #TrailGoals, damn it. And now you truly understand what they mean when they say “every ounce counts.”
While the anticipated weather, terrain, and access to food and water along the trail of your choice will ultimately determine what you can’t live without, here are some suggestions to get you started.
Top Picks for You
Boots (And Socks) Made for Walkin’
Although every journey begins with a single step you’ll take thousands—maybe millions—of steps on a long trail hike. You’ll need sturdy socks and a reliable pair of kicks that can go the distance. Merino wool wicks moisture away from your skin and dries quickly, so socks made with this natural fiber, like People Socks and Icebreaker, are a good go-to for all seasons. Consider the terrain and weather when choosing the best boots for your trek—you won’t want heavy leather boots if you’re hiking across the hot desert, for example, but these Irrigon Trail Mid OutDry Extreme hiking shoes are breathable, ultra-lightweight, waterproof, and have sturdy tread to keep you from slipping on rocks.
Give your boots a test run before you hit the trail. You may need to size up to account for swelling and avoid blisters. It’s also important to keep your feet clean and dry, so don’t forget to pack a pair of camp shoes. Minimalist sandals like Earthrunners or a simple pair of ethically-made Indosole ESSNTLS Flip Flops let your feet and boots breathe during breaks and around the campsite. If there will be river crossings on your route, opt for something with sturdier straps, such as the ever-popular Chacos, that won’t slide off in the water.
Sunscreen for Days and a Good Pair of Shades
Sun protection is a must for an extended outdoor adventure. But sunscreens that contain chemicals and typical sport sunglasses made of disposable plastics are passé (not to mention, harsh on people and planet). Fortunately, eco-friendly alternatives—like these durable, lightweight Johnny Fly Co sunglasses and effective, natural sunscreens—are available. Raw Elements Sunscreen is all the things: chemical-free, non-nano, non-GMO, certified natural, UVA-UVB broad-spectrum protection, and not tested on animals… unless you count the adventure and ocean enthusiast friends that the lifeguard-turned-CEO sent samples to while developing his products. Raw Elements holds up against sun, sweat, wind, and water; no dripping in your eyes or mouth. And with healing ingredients like cocoa butter, mango butter, and beeswax, you might even emerge from the wild with more hydrated skin than when you started. Raw Elements also makes an SPF 30+ tinted face sunscreen and Lip Rescue balms as well.
A Hat by Day and a Beanie by Night
Your sun protection collection should contain at least one hat. Take cover with this foldable Buff Pack Trek cap made of moisture-wicking fabric that also provides UPF 40+ protection. On trails where the temps dip after the sun goes down, you’ll also want to bring a warm hat like the Buff beanie (pictured above available Fall 2019) for chilly early morning starts and cool nights around the campfire.
Long trails likely mean long stretches of time between laundry days. Choosing odor-resistant clothing can lighten your pack load (if you wear an item for multiple days, you can pack fewer pieces) and keep you stink and stain-free. Ably Apparel tanks, tees, and other essentials are not moisture-wicking in the way synthetic athletic wear is, so some hikers with diehard dedication to polyester might advise against it. But the Filium technology Ably combines with fabrics like cotton and modal makes for soft, breathable, quick-drying, and odor-resistant clothing designed to be worn multiple times in between washes. Icebreaker also makes high-quality layers using merino wool and Tencel for odor resistance, comfort, and durability. Don’t underestimate the importance of good undergarments. Icebreaker’s Hot Pants, sports bras, and Cool Lite boxers are all excellent odor-resistant options. And THINX creates moisture-wicking, odor-controlling period panties that help eliminate the need for single-use, disposable period products—fewer products to pack and less waste to worry about. The Sport and Training Short are perfect for active adventurers.
A Sleeping Bag for Sweet Dreams
Long-distance hikers often give and earn trail names. Surely, you want to be dubbed something much more badass than “Grumpy.” Getting adequate rest is crucial to surviving a long trail. You’ll need a sleeping bag suited to your size as well as the weather conditions. Pay attention to weight (ideally, nothing over three pounds), materials (are they compressible? Water-resistant?), and warmth. Made of ethically sourced duck down, the mummy-shaped Cotopaxi Sueño Sleeping Bag can keep you cozy from spring through fall but it is a bit on the heavier side at two pounds and 13 ounces. If you’re looking for something lighter, the one pound and four ounces Zpacks Solo Quilt created by and for thru-hikers is a great option.
A Mobile Home
Home is where the tent is. So spend some time thinking about what features are most important for you and the trail you’re trekking. Consider the climate, companions (do you need a one or two-person tent?), durability, size, and weight. The Nemo Hornet Elite is a long trail favorite for good reason: it’s ultra-lightweight, free-standing, has a lifetime warranty, and—with a rain fly that nearly reaches the ground—it can weather the storm. If you want a reliable tent with a roomier feel and a lower price point than the Hornet Elite, the REI Co-op Quarter Dome is another hardy home away from home.
The size and features of your backpack are largely dependent on your height, preferences, the length of the trail, and the resupply options en route. But one thing you certainly can’t do without is water. A minimum of three liters per day is recommended and much more (about one liter per hour) is necessitated in a variety of situations: at high altitude, on hot and humid hikes, and for hikers with medical conditions such as migraines. A hydration bladder like the Source Outdoor Widepac Hydration System makes it easy to stay hydrated and the antimicrobial Grunge Guard technology eliminates the need to obsessively clean it. Slide the bladder into a reservoir-ready pack like the Osprey Ariel or Columbia Trail Elite Backpack. Both packs feature specially designed back panels that allow for ventilation, hip-belt pockets for easy access to small items such as snacks and sunscreen, and unique technology for comfort and weight distribution. The Ariel’s Anti-Gravity technology, in particular, makes for a more comfortable fit. If you’re hiking where safe drinking water may be scarce, be sure to bring along a purification device such as the Steripen.
Think big and pack small: lightweight, non-perishable foods with minimal preparation and maximum nutritional benefits can deliver the calories, carbs, electrolytes, protein, fats, and fiber to fuel you. Nuts, tuna, and dehydrated snacks have long been hiking staples. But innovative options are emerging. Honey Stinger Organic Waffles are a sweet, high carb way to start the day, organic Barnana Bites are a potassium-packed treat, Green Belly Meal2Go bars deliver one third of your daily nutrient needs yet require zero cooking and clean-up, and Good To-Go makes “trail gourmet” dehydrated meals like Thai curry that can be ready in minutes with just a bit of boiled water.
A First Aid and Personal Hygiene Kit
Hygiene and first aid products depend on your individual needs, the trail conditions, weather, and frequency of resupply stations. A basic hygiene kit should include unscented sanitizer, bamboo toothbrush and tooth powder (check out The Dirt All Natural Tooth Powder), biodegradable soap (bonus points if it’s an all-purpose cleaner like Dr. Bronner’s and can be used as shampoo, dish soap, and laundry detergent as well), unscented biodegradable wipes, a lightweight trowel, and an antimicrobial, quick-dry towel like the NanoDry. The bare essentials for a DIY first aid kit include antiseptic, ibuprofen, bandaids, bandages, tweezers, scissors, gauze, antibiotic ointment, and antihistamine. If you require any prescription medications such as an Epipen, that should be at the top of your packing list.
A Journal for Jotting Down Memories
Long trails push people to their limits… which naturally leads to reflections, revelations, and likely some laughs and tears. At the end of each day, sit in solitude and pour your brain on the page. You never know what your notes might inspire in the future—a blog, a book, an open mic night, or even just a memento for yourself or your family. The Karst Stone Paper Pocket Journal is compact, eco-friendly, waterproof, and a lot lighter than the name might lead you to believe. And the perforated pages mean you can share your scribbles with a fellow hiker or passerby if the mood strikes you.
One of the best things about #TrailLife is the chance to get off the grid. You may want to go cold turkey and disconnect completely. But don’t forget a GPS device for safe navigation and a camera to capture the journey. Find your way with the Garmin GPSMAP 64st, a handheld navigation device well-loved by long-distance hikers around the world. If you prefer to skip the cost and extra weight of a handheld, you can download the Gaia GPS app on your phone instead. Mobile phone cameras have come a long way, so your phone may be sufficient for your photo and video needs. If you want more creative control and it’s worth the weight (and cost) to you, a mirrorless camera like the Nikon Z 7 with a 24-70 mm lens is a solid choice.
And Don’t Forget...
Preparing for a long-distance trail requires a fair amount of forethought. Failing to put in the work ahead of time could land you in uncomfortable and even dangerous situations. Test out your equipment. Train your body. Map out water sources and where you will replenish your supplies. Factor in break days. Purchase health and travel insurance. Leave your route and plans with a trusted friend or family member. Your trip starts long before you hit the trailhead. If you’re dreaming of a long-distance hike and you’re researching it now, seems you’re already on your way.