Q&A: My Favorite Piece of Gear

On the Appalachian Trail, we rarely engage in the status-based one-upping or schmoozing conversations of the non-hiking world.  We rarely discuss the jobs we held back home or pop culture, and there isn’t even much talk of politics, perhaps because we’re so far removed from the news media.  Instead, we have a few favorite conversation topics of our own.

In the southern half of the trail, it’s really difficult to get away from conversations about gear.  Up north, all we talk and think about is food.  And, weather and bodily functions are always good topics.

I generally don’t enjoy talking about gear.  Too often, such conversations feel as close to one-upsmanship as we get on the trail, with one hiker advising another about reducing pack weight with a tone of superiority:

“You know,” he says, straightening his shoulders, “I once had a canister stove, but after I created this homemade alcohol one, I’m never going back.  Hey, man, what’s your baseweight?”

You get the idea.

On trail, we have a saying for times like this: “Hike your own hike.”  With gear, that means bring what you need or want, leave what you don’t; take the advice you find helpful, and ignore what you don’t.  Most hikers carry at least a few things that others consider superfluous, but, when you’re living out of a backpack for months, I think it’s important that you love what’s in that pack.

DSCF1324

My sister spent a week on the trail with me during my thru-hike. Here, she and I are “cowboy camping” in Virginia. You can see my heavenly, yellow-orange mattress under my sleeping bag.

So, while the Jardi-Nazis (followers of Ray Jardine’s ultralight backpacking philosophy) might chastise me for it, my favorite piece of gear is my 2.5″-thick air mattress.

During my month-long hike of 2011, I slept on the standard foam pad and hated it.  So many hikers are tired enough at the end of the day that they don’t care what they sleep on.  I was certainly tired enough to fall asleep easily, but I’d wake up hurting and unrefreshed.  While I’d loved sleeping on the ground as a child — admittedly, I lived in Florida, so it was soft and sandy — I didn’t find it as appealing as a side-sleeping young adult.

Between my 2011 hike and my thru-hike, I decided to invest in an Exped inflatable sleeping pad, and (::puts on best television commercial voice::) it dramatically changed my backpacking experience.  I often call it one of my favorite possessions, not just one of my favorite pieces of gear.  At 15.2 ounces (newer models weigh less), it weighs about as much as a full-length ThermaRest Ridge Rest, but I look forward to sleeping and enjoy waking up on it.

(And, what backpacker doesn’t enjoy greeting the day with the sound of releasing the deflate valve?  #sarcasm #thruhikinghumor)

For the last few Mondays, I’ve been answering questions that I’m often asked about hiking.  But, it would be more fun to answer questions from you.  Are you planning to thru-hike and have some questions about long-distance hiking that I might be able to answer?  Are you a trail enthusiast who’d like to know more about the AT?  Are you another thru-hiker interested in sharing your experiences?  Let me know in the comment section!

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