Backpack: I hike ultralight, and am a fan of frameless packs- I brought the lightest backpack I knew of at the time, the Gossamer Gear G4 (14oz). It took some time to get used to organizing all of my gear using the pockets, but I came to like the simplicity and love the comfort, even carrying weights of up to 33 pounds. If I hadn’t been using a foam sleeping pad, a Zpack Zero would have been an attractive ultralight alternative. The most popular thru-hiker backpack was the ULA Catalyst; I never warmed up to the ULA designs but would recommend GoLite if you are looking for a beefier alternative (my girlfriend carried the Jam 50 and loved it). Like Osprey, ULA has a great reputation for its no-questions-asked return policy, and both brands gained considerable loyalty through this.
Sleeping Bag: Stoic Somnus 30. This is my favorite piece of gear. Weighing 20 ounces and sporting 11 ounces of 850-fill down in a Pertex Quantum shell, the Somnus has the same specifications and design as the Nunatuk Alpinist, but at a third of the price. On cold nights (i.e. Washington) I would cover my legs with my down jacket, and found that I could get away with sub-freezing temps. Unfortunately, this is no longer produced
Sleeping pad: I used a Thermarest Z-lite, cut short to reach from collarbone to below knees. I love the low-stress convenience of a closed-cell pad, and a cut-down z-lite wins on weight (6oz) and price ($ 30). However, by the time I hit Oregon my z-lite was beat up and felt paper-thin, and I started thinking about investing in a more expensive, more delicate inflatable matress like the Neo Air.
Shelter: I used the Integral Designs SilPoncho (10oz) as both my raingear and shelter. Fortunately I finished before it started raining hard, or I would have had a wet and unhappy time in Oregon and Washington. It takes practice to set up a tarp, and even more practice to set up a poncho-tarp: there is an extremely awkward moment when you stop wearing the poncho but haven’t yet strung it out as a tarp. Fortunately, I only used it for 3 days of rain and about a week of dew.
During the Sierras, my girlfriend joined me and we used the Tarptent Double Rainbow, a lightweight (2lb 8oz) tent for a reasonable price. We found the tarptent spacious, well-ventilated, fairly easy to set up, and robust in winds. I love the double doors and vestibules, which were a key criteria for me. This is probably the most popular 2-person tent on the trail, followed by the Fly Creek UL2. There are some issues with the durability of the zippers after several months of continuous use.
Cook system: I used a Caldera Conewindscreen with a Snowpeak 900ml pot (1100ml pot when my girlfriend joined me), fueled with Esbit tablets. The Caldera Cone system was incredibly reliable, and this setup is still my go-to for lightweight multi-day trips. I would recommend having a larger pot for two people if you’re doing high mileage.
Water Purification: We used Aqua Mira throughout the trail, pre-mixed daily in an opaque dropper bottle. Although Aqua Mira is probably the most common thru-hiker water treatment strategy, like Esbit tablets it’s difficult to find along the trail and should be shipped ahead to key resupplies.
Water Storage: I carried a 3-liter Platypus Hoser hydration bladder fitted with a Camelbak valve. Having an on/off flow valve in addition to the bite valve is critical; many hikers were chagrined to find that they had accidentally emptied their hydration bladder by setting their pack on top of it- a big problem if you’re in the desert.
Trekking poles: I started the trail carrying the snazzy, ultralite, and ridiculously expensive Gossamer Gear LT4 adjustable trekking poles. I snapped a pole section coming into Castle Crags, and had previously broken both pole tips. Frustrated with Gossamer Gear’s poor customer service, I shipped my poles back home and found that I was able to hike just as fast, or faster, without them. If you feel that you need trekking poles, I would recommend going with some aluminum poles with user-replaceable tips. If you feel the need for carbon fiber poles, opt for Black Diamond’s poles: they have a great replacement policy.
I wore one pair of underwear, one synthetic T-shirt, racing splits or zip-off shorts, and broad-brimmed sun hat. I used a light-colored linen long-sleeve shirt for Southern California, and found it incredibly comfortable. For warmth I had long johns, a neck gaiter, a jogging skull cap, thin jogging gloves, and an 11-ounce 800-fill down “sweater.” While this was warm enough for me, my girlfriend brought about twice as many clothes and was still chilly in the Sierras- know what works for you, and be ready to send gear home (or send for it) as needed.
Cool Weather: I switched out my linen for a synthetic long-sleeve shirt, but otherwise didn’t change my clothing. In hindsight it would have been nice to ship some more warm layers (fleece upper and warmer gloves) to Cascade Locks.
Socks: The Darn Tough sock brand is probably the best-kept secret in the outdoors industry: a lifetime guarantee, and socks that don’t wear out for 1000 miles (and I’m rough on my socks!). I tried many sock systems (liner socks, thin socks, synthetic socks, toe socks) and this is what worked for me and most thru-hikers.
Shoes: It doesn’t matter what shoes you use, as long as they feel like slippers and are sized like boats. I typically wear a size 10 street shoe, and wore size 12 shoes for the trail… and then in Northern California found that my feet had swollen and I needed to buy size 13 shoes to appease the angry blisters which had appeared on my toes and heels. If possible, stick to one model of shoes for the whole trip: switching shoe gave me shin splints, ankle pain, blisters, and knee pain as my feet and muscles adjusted. I went through five pairs of shoes on the trail, but I am clumsy with my footwork as I walk and had to occasionally restitch/shoe goo the stitching around the toebox.
Gaiters: I love dirtygirlgaiters.com for cheap, awesome, stylish gaiters that keep dust, dirt, and rocks out of your shoes. If you brush your feet together while walking (like I do), prolong their life by applying a thin layer of seam sealer or shoe goo in the high-wear areas.
Maps: I used the Halfmile’s maps, printed double-sided in full color, and really appreciated them- these are the best and most popular maps out there. While they’re free to download, printing them may be expensive ($ 150+); do this well ahead of your departure to see if you can get a cheaper price. In mountainous areas, a larger map may be nice to be able to identify distant mountains and landmarks.
Headlamp: I carried a petzl e-lite, which was perfect as I rarely used it. If you plan on hiking at night, bring a full-size headlamp like the Petzl Tikka.
Watch: I bought a cheap digital watch from Target. I never felt that I needed a compass/altimeter/thermometer/heartrate monitor on my watch.
Phone: I brought my smartphone, and was glad to have it to call my girlfriend, order gear online, coordinate rendezvous, and look up mailing addresses in town. Making calls for 10-30 minutes/day to check in with my girlfriend, and turning off the phone when not in use, the battery lasted at least 4-5 days… enough to get to the next resupply.
Camera: I am a big fan of the Canon Digital Elph line; it is a feature-rich point-and-shoot and seemed fairly popular on the trail. I carried a charger with me and charged in towns (typically only needed once/week), and never needed an extra battery.
eBook Reader: This was my first trip with an e-reader, and I fell in love with my Kindle. In Southern California I would take a 2-hour reading siesta at lunch, and Galina and I read to each other in the evenings throughout the Sierras. I used my library’s digital collection to download new books when I was in town.
Fishing kit: In the Sierras I carried a cheap spool of 4lb test line strung with a clear bobber and a fly. Simply swinging this and casting directly off the spool (no reel or rod) I caught many of our dinners… an awesome new addition to my backpacking gear.