Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Outfitting for the AT - What I'll Wear

An Appalachian Trail thru-hike spans all the seasons. From winter in the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina, pleasant spring weather in Virginia, brutally hot and humid in the mid-Atlantic and southern New England sections, and fall thru New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.  Snow, mud, bugs and lots of rain.

Typically, thru hikers will swap out winter gear and clothing for summer weight stuff in mid Virginia, and back again in Vermont.  So we need to look at clothing for the shoulder seasons, and for summer. As is so often the case when outfitting for backpacking, we've got to find the right balance between weight and function, and hopefully, eliminate duplication by using items that provide multiple options.

Shoulder seasons

Late March in Georgia and North Carolina might be spring, but the trail runs around 2500', with several peaks well above 5000'. We can expect snow and overnight lows dipping into the low teens. One might wear a mid-weight base layer, long trousers, fleece top and a goretex shell one day, and a short-sleeve T shirt the next. The trick is to have options so that you can hike comfortably without weighing your pack down.

Base Layers - This is the next-to-your-skin layer. AKA long underwear, long handles, union-suit, woolies ... Good ones wick moisture away from your skin, and transports it to outer layers while providing insulation. I'm taking a mid-weight set, and a light-weight set. I plan to hike in the light-weight set on all but the coldest days, and change into the midweight set in camp. That way, I'm sleeping in dry, warm stuff, and the other set gets a chance to air out and maybe even dry. Synthetic stuff wicks well, is tough, dries fast, and is inexpensive, but it retains hiker funk even after washing. Merino wool wicks well, is comfortable, takes longer to dry, is expensive, but one smells better wearing them. I'm wearing merino stuff made by SmartWool.

Don't even think about cotton. It doesn't wick, it just soaks up sweat, and it takes forever to dry. Once you get it wet - either from rain or sweat - it has no insulating properties. As a general rule, cotton is not a fabric of choice among backpackers - except for their bandanas.

Underwear - I'm taking two pair. One to wear, the other to wash and hang off the back of my pack to dry. I have tried a number of synthetic briefs by REI and Patagonia, but I really like the ExOfficio Give-N-Go Boxer Briefs. They are a nylon/spandex blend, which wick well, dry quickly, has an antimicrobial treatment that allegedly helps control odors, and they provide just a little compression around the thighs which helps prevent any chafing there.

Shirt -I plan to take a lightweight, nylon, long-sleeve, button-up hiking shirt that can be worn over a base layer, or alone depending on temps. Mine is the Outdoor Research Long Sleeve SoDo Shirt, it's quick drying, it's vented, but it has no back-flap or any of those velcro tabs for fishermen right where the pack straps go. It's even relatively stylish, and with long sleeves and a UPF 30 rating, it'll help keep the sun off me in summer.

Trousers - Some take a pair of convertable trousers so they can zip off the legs when it gets nice. Some carry long trousers and separate shorts giving them "town clothes" to wear while washing trail clothes. Others forgo long trousers to save weight - Shorts over long underwear is certainly the height of hiker couture. I plan on taking my old Columbia's Silver Ridge II Cargo Pants. They're made of a light rip-stop nylon, they wick well, and dry quickly. I'll wear my rain pants if the winds pick up, to warm up when not hiking, and when doing laundry in town.

Insulation - When we're actively hiking, and spending half our time climbing, we're generating a lot of heat, and don't need to be wearing much except on the coldest days. What we want is to be able to regulate our heat. And that means layers that you can add and subtract depending on the temperature, and our level of effort. After a base layer, a thin fleece as a mid layer will provide insulation while still wicking sweat away from our bodies. Many prefer to save weight here by using a pullover or half zip. I opted for more versatility and greater venting options by going full-zip. I gotta admit, I fell in love with Patagonia's R1 Full-Zip Jacket. It's made of a quilted polartech fabric that's light, compressable, wicking and warm. I can wear it as a mid-layer under a shell, as a light jacket over a base-layer or T-shirt. or alone

When you stop hiking, you can get cold real fast. When it's time for a break, or when you're done hiking for the day. It's time to put on something warmer. What's prescribed here is a down or synthetic-fill jacket, stowed someplace in our packs where it's accessable, and where it'll stay dry. Down is light, highly compressable and warm. Synthetic fill will retain insulating properties when it gets damp, but it weighs more than down, and is not as compressable as high quality down. Also, I don't expect to be hammered with the kind of temps that require a big puffy, expedition weight coat, so we opted for Patagonia Down Sweaters - There are others that are arguably better, but I could get them cheap through Ski Patrol. They are 800-fill down, light as a feather, and should be all we need on the AT except in the coldest of weather. If it gets that cold, we'll either put our shells on over it, or wrap our sleeping bag around us like a serapes.

Wind and rain - The AT is infamous amongst hikers for the amount of rain that falls some years. Rain and cold is a recipe for hypothermia if you allow yourself to get wet, and you can't stay in your tent every time it rains. An old saying goes "If you wanna get to Maine, you have to hike in the rain." So one has to deal with it intelligently. A good quality rain jacket and rain pants provide both the ability to stay dry, and can be used to extend other insulation when it gets cold and windy. The trick is to find something that will allow one to hike in the mountains without sweating so bad that the rain shell becomes a liability. GoreTex and eVent are the best known of the breathable/waterproof fabrics. Many of the better manufacturers have proprietary fabrics that do the same thing. Some provide pit zips for venting. Others forego those to keep weight down, and provide for venting through pockets. I found last year's Marmot Nano on sale in a color that'll assure you'll see me coming. It's made from GorTex PacLite, it's seams are all taped, it has water-resistant zippers, a great hood, its pockets are accessable with a pack on, and it only weighs 8 ozs.

To keep my bottom half dry, I opted for a pair of Mountain Hardwear Epic Pants. Made from their proprietary Epic fabric, they are breathable and waterproof, and weigh 8 ozs.

If the truth be known, none of these fabrics will wick perspiration as well as one ever wants. The trick is to be hyper-aware of one's level of perspiration, slow down and vent adequately. In the summer, I'll often forego a rain jacket and just accept that I'm going to get wet ...

Hats- Another old saying is "If you're cold, put on a hat." A wool or fleece hat will help keep one warm in the coldest of temperatures. Along with a dry base layer and wool socks, a hat will help provide a warm night's sleep when the temperature outside drops below the rating of your sleeping bag. I'm bringing my fleece-lined merino-wool hat. It's another item I got through Ski Patrol, and it weighs 2 ozs. Some also carry a wide brimmed rain hat such as the Marmot PreCip Safari Hat, to keep the rain off their face and neck. My rain jacket's hood has a built-in visor that works just fine for me.

Gloves - Here I kinda went against my principles of providing options through layering. I suspect that a pair of Smartwool liner gloves, with a GoreTex or eVent mitten shell would be an ideal combination on the trail. Some forgo gloves altogether, and put a pair of socks on their hands when they need it. I fell in love with Mountain Hardwear Epic gloves. They are lighly insulated, they breath, they are waterproof. And they only weigh 2.5 ozs - lighter than my liners and goretex shells combined.

Shoes - Sorta delving into religion here, but suffice to say that there is a trend away from heavy boots towards light trail runners. Questions have been raised about whether any boot short of a ski boot truly offers support, and it is said that a pound less on your feet is like five pounds out of your pack. On the other hand, a higher shoe will help keep the snow out in March. So we started looking for a light, mid-height boot. Now, one really should go to an outfitter to make sure the unique shape of their feet will fit well in any shoe. Mine are wide at the toes, narrow at the heel, and I have shallow arches. We found Salomon's 3D Fastpacker Mid GTX Fast Light Backpacking Boots fit us fine. They are like high-top trail runners in construction, and they have a GoreTex liners, which is a mixed blessing. The liner will help keep feet dry - till water gets inside. Then they take longer to dry than non-lined shoes. I haven't found a light, non-lined, mid-height boot that is not lined. These should be great in the snow with a pair of light gaiters.

Socks - We're taking three pair. One is dedicated to wear whilst sleeping. They'll stay in our packs with our sleeping bags so they're dry at night. The other two are rotated like underwear. We'll the freshly-washed ones to the outside of our packs to dry. I like Darn Tough's Merino Wool Boot Sock. They feel good, they wick, they're tough, and they're made in the USA.

Weight of all clothing I'll generally be carrying in my pack during shoulder seasons hovers around 50 ozs.

Summer Time

As spring gives way to summer, days are initially pleasant, with some bouts of cold. As we head north, we expect the possibility if some brutally hot days. Even then, we need to be prepared for things to change rapidly in the mountains. T shirts and shorts might be the norm, but we need to have the means to stay dry and warm. We'll also get into areas thick with mosquitoes and ticks, and we'll need to protect ourselves from them.

When we're approaching Perrisburg, VA, we'll contact my sister to send us our box of summer weight equipment and clothes. We'll send home the mid-weight base layers, down sweaters, fleeces, long pants, rain pants, mid-height boots, heavy socks, and gloves. We'll keep the lightweight base layers as insurance against unexpectedly cold weather. The windshirts can be layered with long-sleeve shirts, short sleeve tees, or worn alone to provide protection from the sun. We'll keep the rain jackets for when it's raining, and it's too cold not to wear them.

In the summer box, we'll get our low-cut trail-running shoes. I've been wearing Salomon's Men's XT Wings Trail Running Shoes. They fit me great, have a wide sole for better stability, they are not GoreTex lined, and they're relatively light. My long pants will get treated with permitherin to guard against biting things. We'll also get lighter-weight, low cut, merino wool socks and short sleeve tee shirts. I like SmartWool's short sleeve shirts, but I have yet to find one in a light color that would be comfortable in the hot summer sun. REI's new version of their Sahara T-Shirt is made of a polyester fabric with a soft, cottonlike feel. Shoulder seams are rolled forward to avoid pack straps. They wick well and dry fast, and their "Relish" color is a very light green. Which goes with my Pack, so it has that going for it...

Summer clothing I'll generally be carrying in my pack is right around 35 ozs.

The Other Shoulder

Somewhere around Vermont, I'll swap back to our winter stuff in anticipation of cold fall weather in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and on to Mt Katahdin.

As always, we welcome your comments and invite you to follow our journey by plugging your email addy into the box at the right.

Three is the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four thou shalt not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.
- Brother Maynard (in reference to the number of pairs of socks one should carry)


  1. not sure if its an option or not, but once you have your gear squared away, i suggest taking it to a hiker friendly outfitter. The one here in orlando helped me cut my weight way down. They will help you question the needs of certain items compared to the wants. i think with 2 of you going you can cut a lot of weight by sharing stuff.

  2. Thanks for your comment. We are sharing shelter, cooking gear, personal, sanitation & first aid stuff, navigation stuff ... Our shoulder season base weight is 18 and 17 lbs. We expect to be carrying under 30 lbs with 5 days of food and one liter of water each.


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