The holiday season is rapidly approaching, and I know that means many to-be thru hikers are in the market for gear. I can’t blame you. I spent hours upon hours this time last year searching for seasonal deals on websites like Sierra Trading Post, REI, and backcountry.com, not to mention a dozen or more visits to stores in my (at the time) local DC market. And who knows? Maybe you are putting together a gift request list for your loved ones (in case you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Festivus, or whatever).
With that in mind, I figured it’d be helpful to some of you out there if I provided a detailed analysis of my wardrobe from the trail. This is the first of several posts since I don’t want your eyes to glaze over (too much). Like my last post, I’ve provided a photo of the clothes I brought with me down to Georgia as a starting point.
One recommendation before I dig in is for the ladies. Women tend to be colder than men. I swapped gobs of stories with women on the trail about shivering sleeplessly through every night in the first month (or more) on the trail, but rarely did the men I spoke to understand. I know that there is pressure to make your pack as light as possible, but I highly recommend, especially you ladies out there, that you overpack slightly in the beginning. I’m not necessarily talking three hiking outfits, but it might not hurt to opt for thicker socks or heavy mittens or a sleeping bag liner. I did and was still often cold.
Without further ado, see below for my review and recommendations regarding the Hiking Outfit.
This may not look like much, but it was the outfit that I hiked in for the first 274 miles, all the way to Hot Springs, NC. And at that point, the only thing that changed was one pair of socks.
1. Speaking of socks…I always carried two pairs of hiking socks: one that I wore and one that I pinned to the outside of my pack to air out and/or dry. Since I have circulation issues in my feet, in particular in the cold, I opted for knee high wool socks (Icebreaker was my brand of choice, and I was highly satisfied). If you’re looking for them, they are marketed as “skiing socks.” Any long “hiking socks” that you buy will come up, at best, to your midcalf. I found that, not only did the longer socks stay up better and keep my calves warm, but they also provided a semi-compression feature, encouraging circulation in my lower extremities.
When I got to Hot Springs, I bought a pair of Fits brand ankle-length socks. In the middle of Virginia, I swapped out the other pair for Smartwool brand ankle-length. In Vermont, when those were wearing out, I bought two pair of Darn Tough ankle-lengths. By the time I got to Maine, I wish I had swapped back for a long pair (but didn’t).
Both Smartwool and Fits have a lifetime warranty that I took advantage of when those socks wore out, and both companies provided great customer service. However, I’m most impressed with the Darn Tough socks. They both lasted the last five hundred miles and are still in excellent condition.
2. Merrell Moab ventilator boots. I would describe these boots as one step up from trail runners. They offer good ankle support but aren’t so rigid as to force the foot into a mold. They were not waterproof, but very little actually is on the A.T. With enough rain, snow, slush, puddles, etc., even “waterproof” boots became wet, at which point they didn’t dry as easily. There were several nights – in the Smokies – that my boots froze solid, and I had to bash them on the shelter floor in an attempt to put them on. As with any boot in that environment, I recommend loosening the laces and pulling out the tongue the night before as prevention.
I went through five pairs of boots on the trail, using each pair for 450 to 600 miles. In retrospect, I may have benefitted from swapping out more frequently since I had so many foot troubles. And I can’t blame the shoes. I contend that, with my gait as short as a child’s, I was taking twice as many steps as the average person (I’m completely serious; you should ask some of my trail friends). With 190 pounds (with my pack) pounding down every step of the way, that’s a lot of wear on a pair of boots.
Incidentally, Merrell has a policy of replacing a pair of boots for thru hikers – free of charge. I had already bought the boots by the time I found out, but it was a nice bonus.
3. Superfeet shoe insoles with arch supports. I’ve used Superfeet insoles for years in my running shoes so figured they’d be a good add to my hiking boots. I used them religiously throughout and have a few recommendations. First, the company contends that they last over the life of one and a half pairs of shoes. With my running shoes, that always worked, but on the trail, the constant pounding on the balls of my feet proved fatal. While the arch supports remained rigid, the material beneath the balls of my feet wore almost completely through.
Once I learned my lesson the hard way, I ended up switching them out every 500 miles, spacing it so that I would be wearing half worn boots (as in 250 miles on the boots, and I’d swap out the insoles. Then 250 miles in on the insoles, I’d swap out the boots) to prevent too much of a shock to my feet at one time.
Second, whenever my boots got wet, which was often, I would pull the insoles out overnight to air out and dry and encourage the material to bounce back.
4. ExOfficio underwear. I started and ended with two pairs. In Virginia I swapped out one pair for Smartwool, hoping that the natural material instead of synthetic would stop the chafing around my bikini line. Ultimately in New York, I bought a pair of spandex shorts (Nike DriFits) and stopped wearing the underwear altogether. At first I was thoroughly grossed out, but I got over it quickly since the gently clinging material rubbed less.
In fact, for any of you out there that are not complete sticks (and maybe even if you are a stick), I would recommend spandex shorts or maybe boxer briefs instead of underwear – right from the beginning to prevent a veritable assortment of chafing experiences. You can wear them with hiking pants in the beginning and then on their own as the weather warms up. That’s what I plan to do for my next thru hike.
I still held onto the underwear in case I wanted to go swimming in a lake/stream or wanted to sleep in my tent on a warm night without being too hot (and without being naked!).
5. Zip-off hiking pants. These were great in the beginning since they were so versatile. I could stay warm in the snow or zip off the pant legs on a warm day, and they dried quickly if they got wet. However, once it started warming up, they started chafing…everywhere. The inseam rubbed my thighs. The pockets rubbed hips. The belt loop (with the help of my pack) rubbed my back. Ultimately, as discussed above, I started wearing spandex shorts and sent the zip off pants forward in the mail from New York to New Hampshire (before entering the White Mountains). When it comes down to it, the pants just became too big and ill fitting. Next thru hike I’m going to reassess.
6. Compression bra. I find sports bras suffocating but don’t have the option to go without so went with a Bali brand compression bra that I’d owned for years. The material dries faster than your average bra and doesn’t tend to stretch. And since I wasn’t running, I didn’t really need the support of a sports bra. I used the same bra for the entire trek.
The only major downside that I experienced is that the underwire and the clasps in the back – believe it or not – began to rust. I ended up cutting out the underwire, and the bra still supported me fine. As far as the clasp, I did my best to clean it off and keep that area dry – easier said than done. Even so, I have a second identical bra at home (I threw the rusted one out) and plan to use it for my next thru hike…at least after I cut out the underwire.
7. Short-sleeved wool shirt. I bought several lightweight short-sleeved Icebreaker brand wool shirts, expecting to swap out every couple of months. After the first couple of months, one sprang a hole. I didn’t think much of it because it had been through a lot, but the second one sprang a hole within a week of my first wearing it.
When I called the company about it, the woman on the phone asked if I’d put it in a dryer. I had, which was a no-no explicitly stated on the tag. Oops. My bad. Either way, it wasn’t a big deal. I’d bought the shirts for cheap on Sierra Trading Post and had another sent from home.
I highly recommend wearing a wool base layer. This isn’t the itchy, thick wool of your nightmares. It’s high-tech, thinly woven wool made for breathability while hiking. It has antimicrobial and anti-odor properties, and you can absolutely tell the difference between wool and synthetic. Trust me; I ran a months-long observational study.
And as far as short-sleeved versus tanktop: a short sleeve not only hides potentially unshaven armpits (not mine, of course, because I always aim to fit in with societal norms…and seeing a wild animal out of the corner of my eye every time I raised my arms startled me), but also adds protection against chafing in your shoulder area from your pack straps.
8. Long-sleeved wool shirt. I had a long-sleeved midweight Smartwool shirt that I’d gotten on clearance from REI’s website. I wore it often through the Smokies but rarely thereafter. By the time I made it to Virginia, I was ready to offload it because it had become completely useless. Once the temperature hit like 45 or 50, I regularly hiked in just short sleeves. As much as I have poor circulation and get cold easily, once I start moving I’m like a furnace and easily overheat. So the long-sleeve went home.
As far as the shirt itself, it was great, with no visible thinning spots despite a month and a half of use. Highly recommend for colder weather.
Keep an eye out for more in the near future. I’ll follow up with a post or two regarding my camp outfit, rain gear, hats, gloves, and coats. Until then, happy gear shopping.