The two most important pieces were definitely my tent and my day-hike pack. The tent was a 1-person Big Agnes model designed for backpacking (but conveniently light and compact even for lazy car-campers like me). It was quick to set up and plenty spacious for my needs. At first I used the raincover even on clear nights, but after that mosquito mess in Ogema I started leaving it off--and what do you know, half of those weird, rustley, potential-bear noises that had kept me up at night went away.
My pack, a 28 L Osprey (that link isn't quite it, but it's the closest model I could find in their current product line), was thrust upon me by the employees of the Eastern Mountain Sports in North Conway when I showed up for their mountaineering course without one. Though designed for snowboarding, it served my day-hiking needs just fine. It has way more pockets and features than anyone could conceivably use, like all modern hiking packs. I stuck to the two main pockets (it's reassuring to be able to segregate one's spare clothes from one's water bottle), a medium-sized pouch where I kept small things I hoped I wouldn't need (bandages, headlamps, a compass, water-filtration tablets, matches, emergency cash, etc.), and the pockets on the hip belt (where the Lars and my phone rode).
I did all my serious hiking in a pair of Elk Creek boots. They're fairly cheap ($60-70 on sale at Sears) and have thick soles and good ankle support, but I've never had a pair last longer than a year of regular use (this is maybe my fourth since starting college). The watertighness fades fast and the soles have a tendency to come unglued from the uppers. You get what you pay for, I guess.
After blasting my knees on the Northeastern Big Four, I picked up a pair of Black Diamond trekking poles. I only used them once, so I can't say much about their benefits and drawbacks, but without them I'd have eaten a lot more dust on my way down Borah Peak. They seem to be most useful on steep, yet relatively smooth trails (dirt or small rocks), and they're no help at all on a scramble.
While hiking, I generally wore a synthetic long-sleeved shirt and leggings with some combination of an 800-fill down jacket, a fleece sweatshirt, and/or a Gore-Tex rain/windshell on top. I carried a hat, gloves, and a scarf in my pack, but only needed them a couple of times. For the plains and desert high points where sun and prickly vegetation were more pressing issues than cold and rain, I swapped out my leggings for jeans and my synthetic top for a loose, long-sleeved cotton T-shirt.
I wound up with three sleeping bags by the trip's end: a bulky polyfill bag I'd used for sleepovers as a kid (which I wound up using as a ground pad after my half-length self-inflating pad proved a total bust), a light down Lafuma bag rated at 45 degrees which couldn't handle any sort of cold, and the bag I wound up actually using, a 20-degree down bag I picked up after the first leg of the trip. I rarely needed its full insulation, but it's nice to have that extra warmth only a drowsy zipper-pull away (rather than locked inside a car 20 feet from your tent). That particular model has no insulation on the underside, so it needs to be used with a ground pad. In lieu of a pillow, I laid my head on old clothes wadded up inside a sweatshirt.
For lack of a proper camp stove, my in-camp meals were heatless, generally some combination of tortillas, peanut butter, Nutella, raisins, and nuts. On one hand, I didn't have to worry about sourcing local firewood or running out of fuel, but on the other, this got pretty tiresome by the end. I tried to get in one hot meal a day while on the road. Fruits and vegetables kept horribly in the car, with the exception of apples and carrots (though even those only lasted a week before going moldy). For the trail I brought quick-to-eat "calorie bombs like preassembled tortillas wraps, energy bars, and the occasional candy bar (hey, when you're burning an extra 1000 calories/day on the uphill alone, you can eat whatever you want). Needless to say, I kept all this food inside my locked car at all times so the critters couldn't get at it (and the one time I so much as left the windows cracked overnight they nearly did).
I started out with a single 1L water bottle and added an extra 1.5 L bottle after the first leg. It was longer and bulkier than the other, but I definitely needed the extra half-liter on the more remote and arid high points. In my pack I carried both a filtration straw and purification tablets (and never needed either, thankfully), and in my trunk I kept a Costco-sized pack of disposable water bottles as a last-resort stash (which came in handy at certain campsites that lacked potable water.
On the road, I used both my smartphone (where it had a data signal) and written directions (where it didn't, and also for quick reference while driving). I always made sure to grab a local map before heading up a trail (or at least take a picture of the map at the trailhead). These maps were often the only directional resource I had on my hikes; very few high points (and none of the "real mountains") had reliable cell coverage from base to summit.
Other things I found useful along the way were: sunglasses (great both for hiking east in the morning and driving west in the afternoon), a drawstring bag (for hikes too short to warrant the full pack), hand sanitizer (because campsite bathrooms almost never had soap. Maybe it's a bearproofing thing? I dunno.), and toilet paper (because the woods never had that). For fun I brought along the Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds (the Eastern edition covers everything up to the Rockies), a handful of thrift-store paperbacks, my laptop (for hotel nights), and over 72 CDs worth of music (all of which I am now thoroughly sick of).
And that’s about all I needed to keep myself alive for six weeks on the road. Is there anything you’re surprised I could live without?
And, for the statistically-minded among you, here are some figures for the trip (I forgot to include these in the epilogue):
Leg 1: Appalachia, Deep South, and Lower Midwest
- 4,455 miles driven
- 48.6 miles hiked
- 10,838 feet of elevation gained and lost
- 17 high points summited (PA, MD, WV, VA, KY, NC, TN, SC, GA, AL, FL, MS, LA, AR, MO, IN, and OH)
- 2,380 miles driven
- 47.2 miles hiked
- 15,014 feet of elevation gained and lost
- 9 high points summited (DE, NJ, CT, MA, NY, VT, NH, ME, and RI)
- 7,665 miles driven
- 77.6 miles hiked (counting side trips)
- 17,084 feet of elevation gained and lost (counting side trips)
- 12 high points summited (IL, MI, WI, MN, IA, ND, SD, NE, KS, OK, TX, and ID)
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