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What Is the Best Backpack To Hike the Appalachian Trail? 

 January 16, 2021

By  Keith Terrell

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is the adventure of a lifetime. Given that it takes 5 to 7 months to complete the trail, you’ll need to bring enough gear. All your belongings should fit in a quality backpack, but many often wonder about the right pack to bring.

Backpacks for the Appalachian Trail should be around 40L if you are bringing ultralight gear, but around 65L if you are bringing conventional gear. The pack should be light, adjustable, durable, and weather proof. It should also be as light as possible for your comfort on the trail.

Investing in the right backpack will make a big difference in the success of your hike. Read on for everything else you need to know when shopping around for a pack.

hiking the appalachian trail

The Appalachian Trail hike, also known as the thru-hike, is an arduous yet rewarding trip. There are many things one needs to prepare for the trip though it goes without saying that you need the best backpack you can afford.

Here’s what you need to think about when looking for a thru-hike backpack:

Capacity

Pack size is one of the most important aspects of choosing a backpack fit for your needs. Two things will determine a pack’s volume: how much gear you’ll be carrying throughout the trail (known as the base weight when the consumables such as food and water aren’t included), and how much food you will be bringing.

During the trail, temperatures and weather conditions will be changing constantly. For this reason, hikers need to bring gear that can be used in both warm and cold temperatures while also being prepared for rough storms. Allocate enough space for food to last you between resupply stops located throughout the trail. 

For instance, if you are taking the Continental Divide Trail, you’ll need food to last 6 days on multiple sections of the trail, so your food supply will be bulky and take up a lot of space. A backpack should be from 40 to 55L in capacity if you intend to carry conventional gear that can take you through varying temperatures and weather plus up to 6 days of food.

Ultralight and lightweight hiking backpacks are recommended if you are willing to invest in top-of-the-line ultralight clothing and gear. These can carry a base weight of under 15 or 20 pounds, and a maximum load of up to 40 pounds.

Generally speaking, you will want a backpack that is as light as possible once everything is packed into it.

Lightweight

Ultralight and lightweight backpacks can weigh 1 up to 3 pounds, though conventional backpacks weigh 4 pounds and up.

Weather

The weather during your hike will determine if you will need to pack thicker clothes to stay warm or if you’ll need just a few layers and a light sleeping bag. If you’d rather climb through warm weather, start the trail in Georgia and end in Maine. The mid-Atlantic and Virginia area of the trail are prone to hot summers, and on these days water can be difficult to come by.

However, all parts of the trail are vulnerable to snowfall from winter until early April. In the southern Appalachians, winter-like weather starts in the spring or fall, while in the northern Appalachians, snow can occur any time of the year. In New Hampshire and Maine in particular, snow can last until June.

Material

Thru-hike backpacks come in a wide range of various fabrics and materials. Look for those that are water-resistant, lightweight, and durable such as these:

Ripstop nylon

Ripstop nylon comes in many different varieties, and it’s one of the most popular materials used for hiking backpacks. That’s because it’s renowned for its superior durability, but it’s also affordable and lightweight. Though ripstop nylon itself is not waterproof, many backpack models treat it with water resistant finishes to ensure water beads up instead of getting soaked. Look for thicker ripstop nylon because thinner types can be prone to abrasion.

Dyneema composite

Dyneema is a revolutionary type of fabric that was recently introduced in the market. It’s advantage is that it’s extremely lightweight, though it tends to be more expensive than other kinds of materials. Many backpacks made with Dyneema blend it with other materials to improve abrasion resistance. It’s waterproof, durable, and extremely functional for a trip to the Appalachian Trail. Be wary of the Dyneema Composite Fabric as this is prone to abrasion.

Adjustability

Your backpack should be adjustable for two reasons: One, hikers tend to lose weight on the Appalachian Trail, so adjustable straps will ensure you’re comfortable throughout the journey; two, your appetite might change and you may find yourself wanting to bring along more food on certain parts of the trail so expandable features will come in handy. Compression straps and other features that allow you to adjust its size help when you want to decrease the pack’s capacity.

Size

Backpacks are available in several torso sizes, and it’s crucial that you get one that’s right for you. To do this, simply measure your torso using a measuring tape starting from your Iliac Crest down to the C7 vertebrae.

How Much Gear Will Fit in My Appalachian Trail Backpack?

Before you buy a backpack for the thru-hike, you should first determine what exactly you’re going to bring since in turn, this will determine how large a pack you need. Hikers have their own individual hiking and packing style, so there’s no one-size fits-all solution when it comes to packs. While some are willing to invest in ultralight gear and can survive with an ultralight pack, others prefer to go the traditional route even if it means bringing along a heavier pack.

Having said that, there are certain things that are non-compromisable and must be brought along with you for survival and comfort:

Clothing

 The clothes you bring for the Appalachian Trail should be in layers, allowing you to add or remove to adjust to the temperature changes. Here’s a list of the clothes you should bring:

  • Hiking shorts/pants
  • Hiking shirt
  • Underwear
  • Rain jacket
  • Warm hat
  • Sleeping clothes
  • Base layer top and bottom (optional during warmer months)
  • Insulating jacket
  • Hiking shoes/boots
  • Quick-dry towel
  • Socks
  • Gloves
  • Insulating middle layers (optional during warmer months)

Equipment

The available types of equipment for the thru-hike on the market are almost infinite. What you decide to bring will depend entirely on your preferences, skill, experience, and budget.

However, the most important things you should consider when selecting equipment are its comfort and weight. These include:

  • Shelter
  • First aid kit
  • Water treatment
  • Cooking equipment
  • Organizing sacks
  • Trowel
  • Trail food
  • Food
  • Headlamp / flashlight
  • Hydration system
  • Utensils
  • Lighter
  • Toiletries
  • Sleeping bag and sleeping pad

Appalachian Trail Backpack Size Options

Ultralight backpacks (35-40L total packed weight): These are the smallest backpacks that hikers usually bring to the Appalachian Trail. It can fit all of the the absolute essentials you’ll need (listed above) though you’d have better chances of using an ultralight backpack during warmer weather when you’ll need less thick clothing. It would also mean that your shelter would have to be compact, and it would also be ideal to invest in the lightest of all gear and clothing categories.

Mid-size packs: (40-55L): This volume is spacious enough to allow you to bring all the essentials listed, while providing a little more allowance for thicker clothing during winter hikes. If you hike during warmer months with this volume, you can also enjoy having more space for other optional items such as hiking poles, a stove, and electronics.

Multi-use pack (45-65L): A backpack this size is ideal for hiking during the winter. It has much more space for carrying all the essentials, some optional items, more clothes, a warmer sleeping bag, and a sturdier tent. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the right way to pack a backpack for the Appalachian Trail?

Taking a good backpack to the Appalachian Trail means nothing if you aren’t going to pack efficiently. Your belongings should be easy to access whenever you need them; there are many organization styles and systems available out there so practicing at home is highly recommended.

Here are some things to keep in mind when packing:

  • Segregate the items you’ll need during the hike; place them in easy access areas of the pack. For example, on the side pockets you can keep your water bottles, trekking poles, and guidebook; on the hip pocket, you can keep your headphones and mobile phone, snacks, a map; on the chest pockets, you can keep your compass, bug spray, hand sanitizer, and GPS unit.
  • For items that you’ll be using while on a break, place them in moderate access areas. For example, the top of the pack is where you can keep food and cooking equipment, rain jacket, your headlamp, and toilet paper; on the exterior front pocket you can keep extra layers or camp shoes. These items should be kept on the exterior pockets of your backpack in order to conveniently access them, though they don’t need to be easily accessible at all times.
  • Items you’ll be using while at camp can be placed in hard access parts of your backpack. These include your shelter tent and kitchen equipment placed at the mid-cavity of the pack; at the bottom cavity you can keep your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, first aid supplies, and extra clothes.

The next step is to ensure even weight distribution to avoid straining your back or shoulders. Here’s how to distribute your pack by weight:

  1. 1
    Light or mid gear: Bottom internal cavity; this is where all your bulky as well as mid to light items should be kept. It’s also recommended for things you won't need until you stop for camp.
  2. 2
    Heavy gear: Middle internal cavity; the heaviest things should always be kept close to your back. In some instances, you’ll be able to feel the items placed in the middle internal cavity so it isn’t ideal to place things with rough or potentially painful edges here such as cooking utensils. Instead, place smooth items such as your food bag or shelter.
  3. 3
    Mid or light gear: Top internal cavity; the top area of your pack is perfect for storing mid to light equipment that you’ll be needing during the trek. These include snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, layers, or other light gear.

Appalachian Trail Backpack Recommendations

Here's a few backpacks perfect for the Appalachian Trail that have been designed to make your hiking trip a successful and efficient one. Best of all, they’re available on Amazon and can be shipped directly to your doorstep:

-   Osprey Exos 58L
-   Teton Sports Scout 3400 Internal Frame
-   Loowoko Hiking Backpack 50L

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