The gear review is finally here!
I did a gear update around 1500 miles. Most of my opinions are still the same; I'll reiterate here some of what I said then. I didn't cover everything though so this one should be more detailed. If you want to read the first, I posted it on July 25. And if you have any questions, I have steady internet access now and I can respond to comments!
I loved, loved my Osprey Atmos 50 pack. I went through two REI Flash 65 women's packs and the framesheet ripped out of both. I never carried more weight than was recommended with that pack so I'm not sure what the problem was, but I wasn't very happy about it. I ended up trading for the lightly used Osprey men's pack and I loved it. It was smaller but it fit me so well. I mentioned before that it was almost too small capacity-wise, but since my winter bag packed down smaller than my summer bag, I didn't have trouble fitting my winter gear into it. With a full food bag it was a tight fit, and I actually tried on an Atmos 65 at an outfitter in Vermont, but strangely it didn't fit me very well. I wish they made a 55 liter! But this pack has a perfect design--a main compartment, two front zip pockets, a front stretch pocket, stretch pockets on each side, and two waist belt pockets. It was perfect, and it held up through all the rock-scraping and other abuse I put it through.
My tent (Henry Shires Tarptent Moment) was sufficient. I loved the weight and size but had major condensation issues. Most mornings I would wake up, sit up, and the top of my head or my back would get wet when I was packing things up and moving around a lot inside. And the foot of my sleeping bag was usually wet as well. It wasn't so bad in the summer when it didn't matter, but waking up, crawling out of a warm sleeping bag, and accidentally rubbing the wall of the tent in cold weather was no fun at all. It was fine in light rain but in a storm I usually got wet; the bathtup floor didn't rise very high and it leaked at a few of the seams, despite my multiple efforts at sealing them. I carried the freestanding option pole the whole way, and used it enough to justify the weight to myself. It was nice for the tent platforms in the north, but using the pole didn't make for a good pitch, and made the tent even worse in the rain. For a dry climate this tent would be amazing, but for the AT I would go with a double-wall. I mentioned the MSR Hubba earlier, and it's a great tent, but the Big Agnes Fly Creek is also freestanding, and is more spacious and significantly lighter; this would probably be my choice tent.
My Thermarest NeoAir was amazing. Pricey but totally worth it. It weighs less than a pound and packs up smaller than any other pad I've seen. I didn't like blowing it up but I could sometimes get out of doing that by getting someone else's (Bear Bag's ) water or something. But seriously, it's worth it. I was worried about it not being insulated enough for the colder temperatures but that wasn't a problem. I know Thermarest was working on another version of it with insulation but I'm not sure if it's been released yet. And I'm sure it's a bit heavier, but probably still lighter than most others.
I absolutely loved my Lafuma Patrol Lite 45-degree bag for summer. Synthetic, cheap, and functional. My winter bag was an REI Sub Kilo 15-degree down bag. It's a discontinued model but a decent bag for the price I paid. The only problem I had was that I got the women's version, and I was about an inch too tall for it (though I'm only 5'6"). On cold nights I got frustrated because I couldn't pull it up over my shoulder when I was laying on my side. I probably would have been happier with the longer men's version, but obviously it was good enough. My opinion is that a down bag is definitely the way to go; I was worried about it getting wet and not keeping me warm but that wasn't an issue at all. Even when it was damp from the inside of my tent, it was never wet enough that it didn't do its job. I just kept it in a dry sack and it was fine. I would have loved a down sleeping bag for summer too but I already had the other one; the compactibility and lighter weight of down makes it superior to synthetic insulation. It is more expensive though.
I loved my Trail Designs Caldera Cone stove as well. I was happy I went with an alcohol stove and this one was sturdy and perfect. My pot was an REI Titanium .9-liter and was perfect sized, although I mentioned before I would not get a nonstick pot if I were doing the trail again. I didn't have any problems with it but it wasn't very versatile. I used a plastic MSR spork with a long, foldable handle, and I think it was the only plastic utensil that made it the whole way! I loved it. When I dug into cold peanut butter or nutella I was always worried about it but it never failed me. I saw a lot of people switch to titanium spoons, which are also a great option and practically indestructible. I carried my fuel in a 16-ounce small-mouthed Nalgene bottle. The bottle I started with leaked and I was always concerned about the durability of a soda bottle...leaked fuel=cold potatoes and dry ramen. This bottle was pretty indestructible as well and I carried it from Hot Springs, NC to Katahdin. I didn't ever have trouble getting a fuel resupply; I preferred to just buy a yellow bottle of Heet when I could find it, but most trail towns had some place where I could buy denatured alcohol by the ounce. I usually carried more than I thought I would need just in case I couldn't find fuel in a town, or if I forgot to get some.
I wasn't sure in the beginning what clothes to bring but I was pretty happy with my choices. For cold weather, I wore a synthetic t-shirt and a synthetic long-sleeved t-shirt overtop, and running tights with running shorts overtop, and this was a good system. If it was really cold I would wear my rain jacket as well. I never hiked in my Patagonia Micro Puff synthetic jacket; I saved it exclusively for in-camp warmth, so it would always be dry when I needed it. I loved that jacket and would definitely buy it again. Patagonia's down jackets are much pricier but surely even better. I had a pair of Under Armor Coldgear thermal bottoms for camp which I loved...very lightweight and warm. I also carried a spare long-sleeved t-shirt and pair of running shorts for in town. I never wore these on the trail unless I absolutely had to, so that I would always have a clean set of clothes to put on after a shower and wear while doing laundry; my rain gear was dirty and smelly so I didn't like wearing that when I did laundry. For summer I sent home the thermals and my running tights, and switched out my spare long-sleeved shirt for a t-shirt. I sent home my jacket too. I carried two sports bras and this was enough; again I always saved one for town. I actually carried four pairs of underwear but that wasn't necessary; honestly I would have been fine with only two. In the beginning I carried three pairs of hiking socks and a thicker pair designated for camp use, which was nice in the cold weather. I sent those home when it got warm and only had the other three. Once I got to New Hampshire I actually carried another pair so I had four pairs to hike in. It was worth the weight to me; clean sock day was by far one of the greatest feelings on the trail. I usually wouldn't wear a pair of socks more than two days, and never for more than three, because the dirt and grime would start to irritate the skin on my feet. If the weather was warm, I would rinse my dirty socks and dry them on the back of my pack to wear again, otherwise I would just stuff the dirty ones away and use a clean pair. I also carried a fleece toboggan and fleece gloves for cold weather; I wore the toboggan from time to time and the gloves less frequently, but they were nice to have when I was just sitting around. I was usually warm enough hiking that I didn't need them. I started with a pair of waterproof gloves that I only wore a couple of times; if it's raining you're going to get wet anyway, so I sent these home and didn't miss them.
Rain gear. Oh, rain gear. Is there such a thing as good rain gear? I started with Marmot Precip jacket and pants. The pants were okay and kept me pretty dry. A lot of people sent their rain pants home for summer but I carried mine the whole way, although I didn't use them much. The jacket was another story. It soaked up water and took awhile to dry, not to mention it didn't keep me dry. I wasn't very happy about this but it wasn't such a big deal in the summer because I usually didn't wear it in the rain since it was so hot. Once I got to Maine I switched it out for an older White Sierra rain jacket, and I wished I'd had that earlier. As for a pack cover, I didn't start with one because I couldn't find one that fit properly, so I bought one at Neels Gap. I'm not sure it was waterproof, probably just water resistant, but it was fine. I lined my pack with a garbage bag as well, and most of my gear was in dry sacks, so I never really had a problem with wet gear. You can only do so much in the rain though; when it rains, you get wet and your pack gets wet no matter what.
I wore Keen Targhee II waterproof boots for the first 600-ish miles and then switched to Keen Voyageur hiking shoes, which I preferred. The shoes were more comfortable, and I don't know if I'll ever hike in boots again. I loved the rubber toe cap on both models and the shoes fit my wide-ish foot very well. They didn't dry quickly at all though, which was one downfall. I saw a lot of people wearing Salomon trail runners and they were all very happy with them; looking back I wish I would have tried a pair because they were light, supposedly supportive enough, and they dried very quickly.
I carried a 20-liter food bag which seems big but it was perfect. It was a Sea to Summit ultra-sil drysack and wasn't really durable enough to use as a food bag; I went through two and my second one had holes in it for probably 1000 miles. Sea to Summit makes more durable dry sacks so I would recommend one of those...a dry sack was nice because I did not enjoy sticking my arm into a wet bag and hoping my food wasn't mushy. I packed all my food in ziplocs inside my food bag for added protection. Most of my other dry sacks were the same kind and they worked perfectly. I carried two Outdoor Products (the Walmart brand) "dry" sacks, and these were not waterproof...water resistant at best.
Some things, such as my guidebook, notebook, camera, and phone, I just carried in ziplocs, which I would replace as necessary, and these worked fine. I double-bagged most things and didn't have any problems.
For water, I used a 1-liter Platypus Hoser system and carried two 1-liter Platypus PlatyPlus bottles. These were great and I only had to replace my hoser once; I was expecting these to be less durable than they were. One bottle had a normal cap and the other had a sport-bottle cap so I could use it as a little fountain for brushing my teeth; it was perfect. I said before it would have been nice to have a container for camp that held more water to avoid making multiple trips to a water source, but I made do without. I only had to carry three liters of water a couple of times, but it was nice to have that capacity just in case, and the bottles weigh next to nothing and pack down small. The only problem is filling them in poor (many) water sources, so I would borrow someone else's bottle for dipping when needed, or use the lid from the container I carried my stove in.
As for water purification, I started using Aquamira and switched to bleach in Harpers Ferry. Aquamira was fine; it had a slight but not unpleasant taste, but it was expensive and the five minute wait for the chemicals to mix was annoying. In Harpers Ferry I rinsed out one of my old Aquamira bottles and filled it with bleach, and used that the rest of the way--3 drops per liter, 4 if the water is pretty questionable, and wait 30 minutes. Overall the wait was longer but I didn't have to stop on the trail and wait before I could even put it in my water. I'm pretty sure bleach does not kill giardia (Aquamira can but it's not "extremely effective"), the biggest safety concern with water on the trail, so I wouldn't recommend using it. That being said, it was easy and lightweight and I didn't have any problems with it; neither did three other people I hiked with who used bleach. Steripens seem like a good option but every Steripen I saw on the trail was accompanied by complaints from the owner. They seemed to have trouble mostly in cold weather. There were several filters out there as well, but I didn't want to deal with the hassle and maintenance of one.
I didn't carry much for first aid, and thankfully I didn't need much. Neosporin was a must, and medical tape. I used all but one of my antiseptic wipes as well. I carried some bandages but used maybe two or three the entire time, and I carried moleskin but it never really did its job for me. One of the best options for blisters is Band-Aid brand blister bandages. They are expensive but are the only thing I found that would stick on my foot and stay there, and they assisted with healing as well. I carried a few safety pins and some guaze, and used them sparingly. For repairing things I brought a couple of needles, thread, and McNett Tenacious Tape, all of which I only used once. Of course I carried duct tape but I didn't use that very often either. I carried Immodium and Benadryl the whole way and never used them, but I definitely used the Ibuprofen!
I carried sunscreen and only used that a few times in the beginning when there were no leaves on the trees. I carried sunglasses but didn't use them much and could have done without. Bug spray was an absolute must...I carried some all the way to Maine (there were a couple of weeks where I was going through an 8-ounce bottle every 5 days or so), and made the mistake of throwing it away in Andover; the mosquitoes bothered us basically all the way to Katahdin. I never used my ear plugs and actually gave them away in Virginia I think; some people loved them but I slept fine without them.
I started carrying two MSR PackTowl Ultralite towels, one for general use and one I kept clean for showering on the trail. I lost the first one and replaced it with a cheap bandana, which worked just as well for washing up in the evenings. The second I carried the whole way and it was nice to have when I showered at a place that didn't provide a towel.
One of my favorite pieces of gear was my closed-cell foam sit pad. The same piece of foam went with me the entire way. It was perfect for sitting on the ground, sitting on wet rocks, and sitting on dirty shelter floors. My Leatherman Micra multitool was perfect as well. I really only used the scissors, and mostly only for cutting medical tape. I lent it to some of the guys for mustache trimming as well! I carried knock-off crocs for camp wear and they were great, although they lacked traction, so I learned to go get water with my hiking shoes still on.
My Petzl Tikka XP 2 headlamp was perfect--super bright and a red light for nighttime in shelters. More importantly it felt good against my head. I replaced my batteries for the first time in Harpers Ferry; after that I had to change more often but I was very impressed by this thing.
As for guidebooks, I loved AWOL's AT Guide. This seemed to be the favored book on the trail as well; the people with the ATC Thru-Hiker Companion complained about it a lot, and liked to look at other people's profile from the AT Guide. AWOL's book had detailed information about water sources, shelters, and landmarks, and included an awesome elevation profile and detailed town maps. The Companion seemed to leave out necessary trail information and gave more historical information. I reccomend AWOL's book for sure.
And finally, possibly my most crucial piece of gear: my trekking poles--Leki Khumbu Aergon Speedlock. These things were amazing. They are about the cheapest Leki poles you can find but they saved my life more times than I can count. I was happy I went with the speedlock because I saw a lot of the twist-lock poles fail. I had to replace the tips twice but that's to be expected, and my poles never bent or caused me any problems (once I figured out how to tighten the fastener to keep them from collapsing), and I depended on them to support my entire weight probably thousands of times. Whenever I think about trekking poles I remember the Smokies when we were hiking through snow. Fiber was behind me and I heard him slip on the ice. I looked back as he steadied himself and breathed a sigh of relief, and then he brought his poles to his face and kissed them. I laughed at the time, but as many times as they've helped me, I think my trekking poles deserve a million kisses.