INCREASING SPEED FROM 30 TO 10: THE EVOLUTION OF A BASE WEIGHT ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL
Words and Photos from Abbigale Evans
When I first started my Appalachian Trail thru hike, everything hurt. I woke up two days after the approach trail and could barely walk. My feet flared with intense pain every time I took a step — I wasn't even past the first thirty miles, and plantar fasciitis had taken hold of them. And yet, here I am now, uninjured, on the other side of Katahdin. How did I do it? A lot of determination and dropping a ton of weight from my pack.
I realized at Neels Gap that if I wanted to finish, I needed to make some changes. It was as simple as that. If I didn't slim down my gear, I wasn't going to be able to carry everything. A lighter pack meant that I would alleviate some of the weight on my body that triggers plantar fasciitis, and I could potentially go farther (which I did.) My pack weighed about thirty pounds.
I thought I had already narrowed my pack weight down when I did a shakedown hike before my thru — I switched out my Big Agnes Tent for a Gossamer Gear's The One and switched my Osprey Aura Backpack for a ULA Circuit. However — it still wasn't enough. Although my tent, sleeping system, and backpack were lightweight — there were still a few categories where I had overpacked. I'm excited to soon push the boundaries of my comfort zone on my upcoming thru hikes and drop even more weight with an Unbound 40. Who knows — maybe I'll even switch my shelter to a tarp. Only time and some more miles on trail will tell!
I had way too many extra clothes. I had three shirts, four pairs of socks, a sun hoodie (the AT is almost always in the shade), rain pants, gloves, REI Sahara Zip Off Pants, and gaiters. Usually, when you're packing, you don't think too much about adding an extra shirt, but a thru hike is very different. Every piece of clothing matters. If you bring it, you're carrying it for the next 2,000+ miles — so it's best if you actually use/wear it. I wound up ditching my underwear and becoming much more minimalist with clothing. I wore compression shorts and a tank top daily, along with one pair of Darn Tough Socks. I kept another pair for sleeping. I wore a Smartwool long-sleeved shirt and pants to sleep in.
In the winter, I added my Mountain Hardwear Fleece and Arcteryx Puffy. I believe it's best to take the leap and send home your puffy, hat, and fleece when it gets too hot. That alone saved me a few pounds off my back. I also never wore gloves or rain pants on my hike. If I got too cold, I would put my sleep socks on my hands — and I just put up with being wet. Even without gaiters, I didn't get many rocks in my shoe, so I was glad I ditched them.
I realized that maintaining a compact clothing system meant avoiding packing for what I worried about. Even though I was anxious about the cold going north — I was still at a comfortable temperature in my compression shorts and a tank top for most of the time. If I got cold, I would throw on a hat and wear my buff as a scarf. I found it was most effective in cold temperatures to style your outfit around layers you can quickly take on and off without having to stop. A hat/buff combo kept me surprisingly warm — and if I got too hot, I could just whip it off and shove it in a side pocket. In short, you can always have clothes sent back to you if you're uncomfortable. However, once you feel the weight off your back, you might just expand your tolerance of discomfort.
I switched to cold soaking. My mentality became: do I want warm food, or do I want to get to Katahdin? I decided I wanted to get to Katahdin. I ditched my MSR Pocket Rocket, my steel pot, and metal spoon. I bought a Talenti Jar and a plastic spork — and that was it. Less bulky, and you don't have to worry about cooking! Your food can soak while you walk, and that's a beautiful thing. Again, I learned how to expand my tolerance of being slightly uncomfortable to be more comfortable and more efficient while I was walking throughout the day.
I also learned how to resupply more effectively. Instead of getting all frozen burritos and Smuckers Uncrustables on a resupply (yes, that did occur), I started sticking more with SPAM and ramen. It was inexpensive and lightweight — and somehow, I wasn't getting tired of it. The longer I hiked, the more conscious I became about the weight of food and the danger of overpacking for a resupply. On some of my heavier resupplies, I could feel pain in my achilles a lot more than when I limited myself to lighter foods. I started to only carry three days of food and stop frequently in towns instead of carrying five days of food and stopping in towns less frequently. This made my life a lot easier — and a lot less painful!
At the start of the trail, I had a much more romantic notion of thru hiking than what the reality is. I thought I would have time to gaze for hours at a mountain while painting a glorious watercolor, read several novels, become something like a National Geographic photographer, and write tons of poetry. Instead, the reality was that I was waking up, doing an intense hike (similar to a workout routine, except it's the entire day), and by the time I got to camp, I was exhausted, hungry, and hurting. At day's end, I just wanted to eat and zonk out. So, I ditched the romantic notions, the watercolors, and the camera. Instead, I listened to music on my headphones and jotted down notes about what I did each day in my notes app (which was much more achievable.)
On this thru hike, water was plentiful. I realized there was no point in carrying more of it than necessary. In particularly wet sections — sections where I was stepping over a stream every mile or two miles, I only carried a liter or, at times, even half a liter. One liter of water weighs 2.2 lbs — so that was a lot of weight I didn't need to be carrying! Save your feet the hassle, and be smart about what you carry. Every hostel also has a Sawyer backflush — so you don't need to carry one on trail.
As for this section — I just got rid of everything I didn't have an immediate purpose for. I did not like the tent footprint from Gossamer Gear — it was essentially a sheet of plastic and gathered every bit of dirt inside my pack. I switched my four stuff sacks to three lighter Hyperlite Stuff Sacks that served the same purpose. I decided I didn't need a whole pound of first aid supplies and would be okay with just some bandaids and Vaseline. If an emergency happened, the best thing to do would be to get to town anyway. I started using Farout instead of my AT Guide (the book itself was heavy enough.)
As I learned how to efficiently resupply, carry the proper amount of water, and after ditching a bunch of stuff from my pack, I was able to go much farther. I believe my body would have adjusted to the hike either way over time, but it would have been a much more painful and slow process if I continued to carry so much extra weight. I started out only being able to do eight to twelve miles a day. After lightening my load at Neels Gap, I was able to start doing more 15s. Once I hit Virginia — I was cruising at mid to high 20s daily.
I realized I was going to be in some amount of pain regardless on the thru hike since I started later in April. Either I was going to do slow miles with a heavy pack and have to flip flop (and still be hurting from the heavy pack), or I'd have a lighter pack and do bigger miles going Northbound the whole way (and still be hurting from the bigger miles.) I'm happy with what I chose and wouldn't want it another way. Dropping weight from your pack is just a matter of finding out what you're comfortable with.
The table below compares what I was carrying at the start of the thru hike and what I carried towards the end.
Abby Evans (Sh*twater Fireball Queen of the Salamanders) hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2023 and loves to write about gear and outdoor misadventures. They look forward to more long trails in the future and hope to triple crown before they're thirty. You can find them cutting their toothbrush in half, eating cold ramen, and embracing the struggle on a trail near you!