Archived Outdoors

An ounce of comfort: A.T. hikers share the extras they take on trail

The Appalachian Trail stretches out toward the view at Max Patch. Holly Kays photo The Appalachian Trail stretches out toward the view at Max Patch. Holly Kays photo

II I don’t own a bathroom scale, which means I had no way of measuring the exact weight of the rust-colored pack I strapped on my back before climbing from the base of Max Patch April 13. And that was fine, because I was just there for a quick overnight — 2.5 miles in to the Roaring Fork Shelter on the Appalachian Trail that afternoon, then 2.5 miles out the next morning.

The bag held all the essentials, plus some extras — a book, DSLR camera, notebook and way too much food for one night. Plus, of course, a leash and a bag of kibble for my four-legged sidekick. I didn’t think too hard about any of it. Over that short of a distance, an extra pound or two doesn’t mean much.

But the hikers sharing the shelter with me at Roaring Fork were in a different situation. Some were hiking sections, anywhere from a couple dozen miles to a couple hundred, but most were planning to walk the entire Appalachian Trail, starting on Springer Mountain in Georgia and ending at Mount Katahdin in Maine — 2,198.4 miles.

Over that long a trek, you need things like nail clippers, shower soap and multi-season layers that just aren’t necessary for a night or even a weekend on the trail. And every ounce matters. The further you hike, the heavier it feels, and the more you ask yourself — do I really need all this stuff?

By the time I made my way through the expanse of trout lily blooms skirting Max Patch in mid-April, more than 2,500 Maine-bound hikers had left Springer Mountain in 2023. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, about a quarter of them are likely to finish the trek.

More than half of successful thru-hikers began their adventure carrying 15-25 pounds on their back, plus food and water, found a 2021 survey of A.T. hikers from thru-hiking website The Trek. The average weight comes in at 20 pounds. By the trail’s end at Katahdin, the average dipped to 16 pounds.

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Those pounds must include everything a hiker needs for cooking, sleeping and shelter. They need to provide clothing for a spectrum of temperatures and weather conditions, a water filtration system and supplies for first aid and hygiene. There’s not a lot of space for extras.

But the average thru hike is two weeks shy of six months, and that’s a long time for a strictly no-frills lifestyle. Despite the physical cost of carrying any surplus weight, many hikers include one or two carefully chosen bonus items in their bags, termed “luxury items” in A.T. parlance.

A luxury item could be as simple as a good book to enjoy during the evenings or as specialized as a compact chair for lounging around the campfire. When asked what extra items they’d stowed in their packs, the hikers who slept at Roaring Fork April 13 gave a predictable spectrum of unpredictable answers. There was the man from England who carried deodorant and a button-up shirt to boost his sex appeal during zero days in town, and the woman from Virginia who toted a sewing kit and lucky rabbit’s foot on her walk home to Blacksburg. Some hikers named items that no longer had a place in their packs — one guy had carried a bath bomb around until he used it up in Gatlinburg, and another started the hike with a flask of bourbon before deciding that the extra weight just wasn’t worth it.

“When you connect back with your core human needs of food and shelter, it creates a deep sense of trust within yourself,” said Maggie “Margaret” Williams, 19, who carries the sewing kit and rabbit’s foot. “It’s very empowering in the sense that you remember that you don’t need all the little things society tells you that you need in life, and that really, you’re much happier without all those things. And so I like to be reminded of that.”

As always, “hiker midnight” came early at camp. The sun set shortly after 8 p.m., and the hikers retreated to their tents and sleeping bags soon afterward. The next morning, I packed up my tent — wet from a vigorous nighttime rain — and walked back to the parking lot, passing a parade of northbound hikers along the way. A woodpecker hammered away in search of bugs near the forest’s edge, marking the transition between the woodland and meadow songbird choruses.

I made it back to my car around 11 a.m., just as the first wave of the day’s forecasted rain began to fall. I flicked on the headlights and started the windshield wipers, wondering how my new acquaintances were faring on the rainy trail toward Hot Springs, and, ultimately, Maine. Last year, 1,349 people made the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s 2,000-Miler Listing. As I settled back into the dry warmth of civilization, I wondered: how many of the hikers I’d met at Roaring Fork — and the “luxury items” they’d brought with them — would make 2023’s list?

What’s your ‘luxury item?’

out at jacob thompson

Jacob “Firemaster” Thompson, 27

Scottsburg, Indiana

“An extra pair of socks, that’s a big one for me because my feet stink really bad after a few days. Who else has three, four pairs of socks? I did have a bath bomb, I swear. I got to use it when we were in Gatlinburg. But the plug was messed up. I had to keep my foot on it when I was laying in the tub. It just helped me relax. It’s a muscle one, so it was supposed to be good for your muscles. I’d been watching the Joe Rogan podcast and he does sauna and soaks, like really, really, hot, so I’d been doing that for years now at this point. But the bath bomb thing, I don’t know, it just sounded like a good idea. As soon as we get into Hot Springs, I probably would [get another].”

out at alex renfrew

Alex “Renegade” Renfrew, 35

The Lakes, England

“A little stick roll of Old Spice deodorant. No one has deodorant here, so I feel like it is a luxury item. Every town I walk through I want to ask someone out, so Old Spice helps me. I also have my shirt as well. I bought a checkered shirt as a luxury item so I could look good in town.”

out at rob wolbert

Rob “Guns” Wolbert, 54

Mansfield, Pennsylvania  

“There’s a lot of downtime. I realized after the first couple of weeks that a book is too heavy. The only time I read is at night and I like to save my light for if I really need it, so I figured cards would be a good thing, plus a good social thing. And they’re durable.”

out at tiffany wardTiffany Ward, 25

Dayton, Ohio

“I’m reading the ‘Lost City of Z.’ It’s just nice just to chill and get out of my own head. I usually read right before bed, that’s about it. It’s a heavier book, but it’s worth the weight to me.”

out at daniel clarkDaniel “Lucky Colleague” Clark, 60

Cambridge, England

“I never found a pair of gloves that was actually waterproof that didn’t weigh an absolute ton. My hands keep warm because there’s enough space, so there’s air. They’re waterproof. I don’t have any luxuries, really. My mobile, and there’s so much you can do on your mobile.”

out at mike johnson“CB Mike” (center) hikes with brothers Thomas and Albert Bussiere. Holly Kays photo

Mike “CB Mike” Johnson, 63

Cocoa Beach, Florida

“My luxury item is a little flask of bourbon, a Nalgene plastic type flask. It would probably hold a pint of bourbon. My son and I, when we did sectional hikes, like two or three days, it wasn’t a problem. It weighed a little extra, but just a little nip of bourbon at night before you go settle in really hit the spot. Just kind of warms you up from the inside. But on a thru-hike I’m thinking, I did it on a sectional, I’ll do it on the thru. And yeah, about three days into it. I said, ‘Yeah, this thing weighs too much, I’m not even using it,’ and I ditched it. It’s gotta go. I said, ‘You know what, I’ll get a beer when I’m in town or something like that. I don’t need it anymore.’ Going up those mountains, every ounce counts.”

out at maggie williams

Maggie “Margaret” Williams, 19

Blacksburg, Virginia

“I started with living out of my car and then the car broke down. And then it just turned into just living out of the backpack. I’m using [the A.T.] to get home for the most part, to Virginia. I have noticed not a lot of people have what I consider my office and my art studio. So I have my sewing kit with an embroidery hoop and then patches that my great-grandmother was going to make a quilt out of, so I use them to patch all my things. So I just have a couple colors of thread and all my patches. I have like three books with me. My sketchbook. I only have paper maps. I have a taxidermied rabbit’s foot that my friend taxidermied themselves and a miniature cowboy hat for good luck and to remember my friends by.”

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