THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE TRAIL: CHOOSE YOUR PACK WITH TINA CURRIN

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MARK SIREK
MARK SIREK Administrator Posts: 296
edited March 25 in THE GEAR LAB

Words and Photos by Tina "Cash Money" Currin, @tina @tinacurrin

Ah, the transition from the icy clutches of midwinter to the tentative embrace of early spring — always an auspicious moment for hikers. The trails, once imprisoned by frost, begin their slow thaw. Long-distance permits, like tickets to an exclusive party, may now be clutched in eager hands. Springer Mountain and Campo, those social hubs of thru-hiker enthusiasm, witness the first stirrings of the season. 

For me, March is the time to unearth my gear from its winter slumber, delve into the latest trail buzz, and ponder ways to stack the odds in my favor for the warmer months to come. With more than 10,000 miles under my boots (ok, Hokas) in the last five years, I've come to realize that my needs and whims morph with each long trail, and the more finely tuned my gear, the smoother the journey ahead.

It all starts with selecting the proper pack. Choosing the right bag for the right adventure is crucial for comfort, efficiency, and enjoyment. If you're considering spending time on any of the Big Three (AT, PCT, CDT), it's important to realize that these trails offer vastly different environments and challenges. The technology of hiking bags has evolved to meet the specific needs of thru-hikers and section hikers alike. 

Here are a few points to consider to match your gear to the trail and your personal hiking style.

Trail Demands and Durability:

The Appalachian Trail—and the East Coast in general—is known for its humid climate, dense forests, and frequent rainfall. Backpacks with water-resistant or waterproof materials are essential. Durable fabrics like Dyneema can withstand the rugged terrain and dense underbrush, and an abrasion-resistant bottom safeguards your essentials as you casually drop, sling, or perhaps theatrically throw your pack during those well-deserved breaks.

On the AT, my very first long trail, I used a 40-L Southwest pack. I had just enough space for the extra cold and rain gear needed to withstand the weather's wild mood swings. I cannot overstate the morale boost of pulling a dry sleeping bag out of your pack when the world around you is completely saturated, or how nice it is to not have to fuss with a pack cover when the sky opens up unexpectedly, which it will. Constantly. 

Had the Junction existed at the time, I likely would have opted for the combination of front-pocket mesh and hardline bottle pockets, which provides a best-of-all-worlds approach to storing perennially moist gear and reducing catch points on denser sections of trail. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails span the deserts of Southern California and New Mexico to the forests of Washington and Montana, with varying climates and terrain in between. A pack with a versatile design that can handle temperature extremes and lighter, abrasion-resistant material is recommended. For each of these trails, I worked hard to reduce my base weight so that I had extra room for things like long food and water hauls, as well as bear can, when necessary. 

A 40-L Junction worked wonderfully for me on the PCT. Remarkably, it emerged from the journey looking as if it had just rolled off the production line — a testament to its durability but also a nod to the fact that a lighter or more thru-hiking-focused pack may have been an even better companion. 

Had it been available, I would have been smitten with the Unbound, which has large side pockets and bungees for storing desert essentials like umbrellas, extra water, and sit-pads, as well as ample storage space for stashing snacks on longer food carries. Breezy stretches beckoning for a lighter load? You can detach the hip belt and revel in the newfound freedom. Bounce it ahead, so when the Sierra demands a bit more stability, it's waiting to provide extra support. And, when you inevitably start sporting a shrunken waistband, you can swap the hipbelt out for a smaller size. On these variable trails, flexibility is key.

Capacity and Packing Style:

For most packs, capacity is measured in liters, and the ideal size depends on the terrain, weather, and individual preferences. Pack capacity usually ranges from 40 to 70 liters for most thru-hikers. Ultimately, your packing style—whether you're a minimalist or enjoy a few extra comforts—will dictate the size. Minimalist and section hikers might opt for a pack like the Waypoint, which is a svelte 35 liters, while those carrying more gear might prefer 55 liters or more. 

It's best to consider the maximum amount of gear you'll need on any particular adventure—what will be your longest food carry in this pack? How about the coldest or harshest weather you'll encounter?—and then work backward. You can always roll and compress extra pack fabric, but you can't add capacity when you suddenly need to carry 5 liters of water and seven days of food or extra rain and cold protection for safety. I've found that 40 liters is the Goldilocks size for many long trails, and 25 to 35 liters is a great weekend or fast-pack capacity. 

Consider the ability to attach and store gear externally, too. Do you prefer a sleek design with fewer straps and pockets? The Southwest, Junction, or Windrider might be for you. Or would you like the versatility to carry something like a foam pad or tent on the outside of your pack or to stow lots of snacks in various pockets? Check out the Unbound or the Waypoint 35, which have large side pockets and additional accessory attachment points.

Hiking Style and Comfort Preferences:

Your hiking style—whether you hike fast and cover long distances each day or take a more leisurely pace with frequent breaks—will also influence your decision. Some hikers need extra padding on shoulder straps and hip belts, while others prefer the simplicity and freedom of movement of a less structured pack.

The weight of the pack itself is also a critical factor. Durable yet lightweight materials can significantly reduce base weight, making the hike easier on your body. Look for packs with an internal frame or even frameless designs if you're carrying a lighter load. Hyperlite packs offer removable, internal single-stay suspension systems designed to distribute weight evenly and reduce strain, so you can adjust the level of support based on your preference and overall carry.

Load management technology, such as specific torso lengths and hip belt sizes, also enhances comfort and reduces fatigue. An ergonomic design that distributes weight evenly across the hips and shoulders is essential for long-distance hiking, so make sure you take the time to measure your waist and torso size and pick the appropriate pack length for your body.

●   Minimalist: If you're a minimalist, focus on ultralight backpacks that strip down unnecessary features to save weight, like the Waypoint 35.

●   Comfort Seeker: If comfort is your priority, look for packs with extra padding, a sturdy frame, and larger capacity, like the Junction

●   Thru Hiker: For those tackling an entire long trail in one go, a medium-capacity pack with a focus on durability and comfort over long distances is key, like the Unbound.

●   Section Hiker: If you're only doing sections of the trail at a time, you might get away with a smaller pack, like the Waypoint 35 or even the Elevate 22.

●   Hip Belt and Shoulder Straps: Padded and adjustable features distribute weight evenly to avoid strain. Some shoulder straps and hip belts boast additional pockets. Take measurements and try a variety of styles to see what fits your body best.

●   Frame Type: Internal frames offer stability and are standard in most modern packs; frameless packs may offer more freedom of movement but require a low base weight to be comfortable. Packs with removable frames offer flexibility to meet changing conditions.

●   Access and Organization: Check for pocket distribution and accessibility while on the go, your preferred style of water bottle pockets, and the appropriateness of solid exterior pockets versus quick-drying mesh, depending on weather and terrain. 

Embarking on any iconic long trail is nothing short of a grand adventure, but distinct environments demand careful gear selection. By considering capacity, weather, style, load management, weight, and durability, hikers can find the right pack for the right trail. Remember, a backpack is not just a bag to carry your essentials — it's the foundation of a hiker's self-sufficiency in the wilderness. Choose a pack that compliments the unique dance moves that set your journey apart from the rest, and you'll have a faithful partner for miles to come.


Comments

  • bugglife
    bugglife Member Posts: 98
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    Writing - 9/10 (bear with me)

    Knowledge, wisdom, and guidance contained within - 10/10

    That 4th photo, tho (maybe in the Sierras?) - 11/10, chef's kiss.

    The last sentence reminds me of my first photo professor telling that I shouldn't fight with my tripod, I should think of it as a dance partner. Well done. Thank you for being so generous with your insights.

  • tina
    tina Member, Moderator Posts: 56
    edited March 17
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    Aw, shucks. Thanks a bunch. Good spot on the photo — that's a few miles from Whitney, near Guitar Lake. One of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

  • bugglife
    bugglife Member Posts: 98
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    @tina Ha! There was a reason it looked familiar. I believe the peaks in your photo are the same as the ones on the right when I went to Whitney in 2022. Our paths crossed, even if many moons separated them.

  • tina
    tina Member, Moderator Posts: 56
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    That's an incredible photo. Makes me want to go back right now!