- Crocs or huaraches (the flip-flops that the Raramuri-Copper Canyon Mexico long distance runners make themselves from old tires). If you pay more than $50 for a pair of shoes for hiking or running you’re being conned by the gear industry. I hiked in trail running shoes as a novice and my feet were sweaty and screaming to be free. I couldn’t wait to rip them off at the end of the day. Crocs and huaraches dry instantly, let your feet breathe, and lets them support themselves in the way that two million years of evolution intended.
My preference is for the Crocs without vent holes—either the ‘bistro’ or ‘specialist’ line. They provide some toe protection against trail hazards but most importantly they keep my feet dry in dew and shallow water.
Dry feet are essential for long distance hiking. Crocs and huaraches take almost no time to dry out. Hiking in wet feet is a prescription for blisters. I wear socks under my crocs, and carry a second pair in a zip-lock bag. If the socks I’m wearing get wet I change them and ‘hang’ the wet pair outside my gear to air-dry as I hike. If it’s raining I stop hiking or I break out my Go-Lite umbrella. In all the climates I’ve hiked in, rain is actually only falling less than ten percent of the time. Do not avoid hiking because of a *forecast* of rain. You’ll waste loads of good hiking time. Trust me on this. I’m a professional meteorologist.
- Walking stick. Essential piece of gear, but you’ll need only one. You will want to keep that other hand free almost all the time. Gear sellers sell them in pairs because it means twice the profit.
Do not buy a walking stick. Find one. It’s called a stick for a reason. The best wood I’ve found, commonly available in most areas east of the Mississippi, is yellow poplar, also called tulip poplar. It’s amazingly light weight and super strong. Do not get a big honking crow-bar of a stick. It doesn’t have to be more than about half an inch in diameter—just thick enough to support your entire weight without bending or snapping. My favorite—the one at left in the photo—is ergonomically superior to, has more uses than (e.g. for hooking things out of reach), and weighs less than the collapsible Leki stick (second from left) that I bought as part of a pair back in 2007 when I was a total hiking novice.
A walking stick is most essential for keeping balance in situations such as fording streams. Second, it helps you climb when your legs are weary. Your arms become your third and fourth legs. Two hands on one stick work just as well for that as two sticks. Third it is a weapon, and you’ll use it more for that than for any other purpose if your trail has any road walks—against neighborhood dogs. You’ll never hit one. Dogs are fast and they’re total cowards. But you’ll want to have the stick to threaten them.
In the picture you’ll find a couple of broom handles. I picked them up for free, recalling that Jennifer Pharr Davis famously used one in her first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (see her book ‘Becoming Odyssa’). They’re not wooden but hollow metal with a plastic stub and handle. Very light. But I’ve not yet field tested them. I’m too attached to my Tulip Poplar stick.
- Ground-cover/tarp/poncho – and Tent. Get the biggest black plastic trash bag you can find. Carry two or three. One serves to keep your clothes dry. One is a spare. They do puncture easily. Cut a hole in one for your head if you really must hike in the rain, but no arm holes. But if you do that you’ve just ruined a perfectly good 50 cent piece of essential gear.
If you think you really must sleep in a tent, I’ll bet it’s because of privacy issues. If it’s because of wind or rain, the bag will do. Instant shelter, almost no set-up time.
Do not buy any sort of rain jacket. The more experience you have hiking the less you’ll use it. A good hooded zip-up fleece with lots of pockets is a much more versatile layer for the weight.
- Sleeping Bag. Grandma Gatewood had the right idea. She carried a blanket and made a bed of leaves or boughs—both beneath and as cover. As with the hiking stick, let your environment provide. I actually carry nothing--no sleeping bag--because even a blanket is a useless lump of weight except when you’re standing still. Wear your clothes. Make a cocoon of leaves and boughs for that extra warmth.
Hikers these days seem to have diverged from survivalists; but we are blood kin. I blame the incessant propaganda from the gear peddlers. Get back to your roots. At least give it a try. Go out into the woods with a fire starter, a good knife, a plastic water bottle, a piece of paracord, the clothes on your back, and the *KNOWLEDGE* of 100,000 years of hunter gatherer existence, and you’re good to go.
- Belt pack. A big one. The bulk of mine holds my food and water, and it’s been with me for 15,000 miles. Also pick clothing with lots of pockets (cargo pants, fisherman-style shirt, big pouch pockets on fleece and jackets). Anything you carry on your back is dead weight unless you stop to take it off. I stopped using a backpack about two years ago.
- Underwear: Cotton, not polyester. Briefs, not boxers. Worn with a half-wedgie at all times. (Do I need to explain this? TMI, dude.) This is the only sure-fire, non-medical protection against chafing. If you have found another one, I’d like to know about it.
- Bandana. This is perhaps the most essential piece of gear there is—a cotton square of cloth about 2x2. It serves as a towel to dry your feet after a ford. It keeps the biting bugs off your neck and head. It’s a sweat band and a hat and a balaclava. One of its unheralded but critical uses is as an emergency layer of clothing, most effectively worn under your t-shirt, spread out to cover the front of your core from shoulders to belly. This has saved me from utter misery several times.
- Zip-lock freezer bags. Carry a dozen or so. Keeps your stuff dry.
- Sawyer water filter. A small concession to modern technology because the world I hike in is no longer pristine, even in many seemingly wild places.
- Camper knife/multitool, including tweezers. Ticks carrying Lyme disease are a big deal. Good idea to even carry a small mirror and self-inspect daily.
No other utensils or pots. Bring food you don’t need to cook. Learn what you crave on the trail because it’s completely different from what you think you like back home. Use your knife to make any utensils you need.
- Minimal first aid—Band-Aids (the “Sheer Comfort-flex” version of that brand name sticks best and lasts longest) and Neosporin (or equivalent) and some Benadryl (antihistamine) tablets because I get allergic reactions to bee stings. Sun screen because I’ve already had a skin cancer scare. That’s it. Never needed anything else (yet) in 15,000+ miles.
- Leave no trace. This does *NOT* mean ripping up the ground, disturbing the ecosystem, by digging cat holes. It means going far from the trail, then a little further (marking your route as needed), and presenting nature with your treasured gift. This is a big pet peeve of mine. If you bury that nutrient rich bundle, some other animal is just going to dig it up.