Sleep In The Dirt

The Evolution of a Thru-Hiker’s Gear

Essays From the Field

Douglas Hurdle fell in love with the outdoors as a kid playing in his backyard and exploring the woods behind his house in Maryland. As a young adult Douglas moved to North Carolina where he continues to play and explore in the outdoors, only now his backyard has no boundaries and is only limited by how far he can travel in a day. In the summer of 2017, Douglas completed the Continental Divide Trail which served as the third and final trail to obtaining the Triple Crown of Thru-hiking. Read on to learn a little bit about what Douglas has learned along the trail over the years.

The thought of walking thousands of miles can be quite daunting, especially when some of the biggest decisions come well before you even take your first steps. What I found through trial and error of completing my Triple Crown is that there are a lot of things you can do before heading out on the trail, but the one that will have the largest impact on your whole hike is dialing in your gear.

In April of 2011 I began my first thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. I had been on a few overnight-backpacking trips before, but I had very limited knowledge about what I was getting myself into. I started the AT with a pack weighing almost 40 pounds. I quickly found out that that heavy of a pack would not serve, but I suffered along for the first 460 some miles until reaching Damascus, VA before finally making some changes to my gear. There are many ways to lighten your pack, and at the time, the only one that was obvious to me was to buy lighter gear. That is exactly what I did by replacing my pack and shelter.

Fast forward five years and I found myself at the border of Mexico and the United Sates getting ready to walk another 2,000+ miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. This time, thinking I knew it all since I was a “hardened” thru-hiker, I started with a pack base weight of around 20 pounds. I had all the right gear since I had plenty of time to research and figure out what I wanted. The only problem was I thought buying light gear was the only way of having a light pack, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Only after endless nights of sleeping in the dirt and becoming a true “dirtbag” did I find out that what you leave at home is almost more important than what you take with you. You cannot figure that out until you have hiked thousands of miles and learned what you are comfortable living without.

Not even a year later I was about to start my hardest challenge yet: the Continental Divide Trail. With a slogan like “Embrace the Brutality” I knew I was in for one heck of a trip. With the wisdom of being a seasoned thru-hiker, and having learned to love being uncomfortable and embracing the dirt, I was prepared to walk the 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico through the Rocky Mountains. But the CDT taught me that there is such a thin line between being a minimalist and survival. You want your pack to be as light as possible so you can crank out huge-mile days, but since you are literally on top of the divide for most of the trail you find yourself in a lot of harsh weather–like intense thunderstorms with insanely high wind gusts and freezing-cold snowstorms.

That’s why it is so important to choose the right gear to carry with you, and to know what to leave at home. Advancements in technology, construction and materials made it easier to choose gear that is lightweight but still provided maximum protection. A tent like the Fly Creek UL1 Platinum added very little weight to my pack but held up against storms much better than a tarp. For cold and snowy weather like the single-digit nights in Colorado, the Blackburn UL 0 degree bag was a necessary concession to the survival side. On the other hand, I found ways of lightening my pack – like leaving behind the stove/fuel, extra clothes, stuff sacks, camp shoes and a journal just to mention a few items. All in all, balancing my minimalist mindset with my survival needs, I was able to keep my pack base weight to around 10 pounds: almost a 30-pound difference from when I started the Appalachian Trail.

GEAR PICKS:

Tents:

Any of the Fly Creeks

Tiger Wall

Copper Spur Platinum

All with footprint

Sleeping Bags:

Hitchens UL 20

Flume UL 30

Orno UL 0

Blackburn UL 0

Mystic UL 15

Kings Canyon UL Quilt (for summer on the AT)

Pads:

Q-Core SLX

Third Degree Foam Pad

AXL Air

Insulated AXL Air

Pumphouse Ultra

Apparel:

Shovelhead

Farnsworth

Trekking Poles:

Passport Tension Lock 130

Find out what Doug is up to next at @douglashurdle.

See the entire Thru-Hiking Essentials collection on BigAgnes.com.

Comments (17)

17 responses to “The Evolution of a Thru-Hiker’s Gear

  1. Thanks Big Agnes & Douglas Hurdle for sharing a great first hand article from an experienced user.
    (with great equipment) I will share this with my staff and customers! Nice photos as well.

    Tracey
    Erehwon Mountain Outfitter
    Glendale WI

  2. Leave behind your “stove/fuel”? Really? Cold freeze-dried food is the pits! No coffee or hot chocolate! What do you eat? Candy bars? Did you have any cash/credit cards with you?

    1. Yep I decided to leave behind my stove and fuel and that’s not for every one of the ten people I started with only one other person and myself started stoveless and she switched to a stove later on. The only thing that really changed from what I would bring food wise was my dinners and for that, I would just cold soak either Ramen or couscous. And yeah lots of candy bars! I carried my debit card and a small amount of cash with me.

    1. Without a stove, you have to bring foods that soak well e.g. ramen, couscous, instant mashed potatoes, etc. And at the end of thirty mile days, all I want to do is eat and cold soaking those kinds of things was actually quicker than cooking mac n cheese.

  3. As someone who lives for articles like this here are a few points of consideration: ALL THE DETAILS! Every last one. What water filtration system was preferred? Shoes? Extra socks? Extra underwear? A video of all the gear laid out and of the repacking order. Fuel/stove in exchange for canister/PocketRocket, I presume? What’s that down-looking hat he’s wearing? Why a foam pad in lieu of an equally light, more comfortable air pad? This article could be 10 pages longer with a thousand more pictures. You guys make GREAT gear of which I own a lot. Please feed the need to live vicariously through stories like this in the future.

    1. Thanks for the interest! It is tough to fit all those details in and stay around 500 words but we are working on getting another blog out about all the gear used. I am also working on creating a video of what I carried on the CDT. To answer some of your questions: All I did for cooking was pour cold water over whatever I was eating most nights that was ramen noodles, the hat is a down beanie from Black Rock Gear, and I’ll explain about the pads in a future post. As far as photos you can always check out my website (douglashurdle.com) for your photo needs I have some from the CDT and PCT up there.

  4. Guys, there is a picture of him using a stove… BigAgnes just didn’t promote it. Did you really think it’s possible to go without coffee? Hahaha

    Rodrigo Fernandez (CEO Nattrip)
    Rio de Janeiro – Brasil

    1. Not actually me in that photo, even though not many people thru-hike the CDT I did hike with some and they happen to use stoves. I personally don’t drink coffee but if I did I would probably just pour those Starbucks Vias into some cold water and give it a shake, I guess it would be like an iced coffee.

  5. Just wondering the same thing as other commenters. Maybe you could do a follow up post on food since you traveled without a stove and fuel? And maybe you (or BA) could offer alternatives for those of us not willing to make that concession?

    1. That’s a great idea definitely will work on a follow-up post! And as far as alternatives to going stoveless just using the lightest combo you can find but you can save weight in other ways. For example, I carry a lot of heavy camera equipment because that is important to me but if you just use your phone to take pictures then you are saving weight that way. Really it’s just about finding what you are comfortable living without.

  6. When my wife and I hiked the AT in 1990 (things were a little heavier then) the way we could tell we shouldn’t be carrying something was when either of us referred to it as “the god-damned” whatever. And sometimes you just love to have something with you, even though everyone else thinks it’s crazy (like our friend who read his Michener novel every night). So I guess what I am saying is that I think it’s at least as much about resentment and affection as it is about weight.

    1. Yeah, things have definitely changed over the years. That is so true, it is the same with my camera a lot of people are happy to use their phones but for me, I need my camera even though it is pain most of the time.

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