Backpacks— I used a Deuter, which I’m totally in love with. If you’re ultra-light then this pack will be too heavy, but if you’re in the 20-40-pound range it’s perfect. It fits snugly against my spine and distributes the weight evenly. It held up really well to the wear and tear of the trail, especially the zippers and buckle integrity.
Zach started with an REI pack, which was too lightweight for what we were carrying, so it tore out within a hundred miles. He replaced it with a Mountain Hardware pack. It wasn’t designed for backpacking, but it held up well enough. And, well, it was free and we were broke. But if you’re not broke, don’t buy one for a thru-hike.
Tent— Kelty Salida 2. It was heavier than some tents, but comfortably fitted both of us and our gear under the rainfly. It was very easy to set up and tear down. In southern California, where we experienced winds upward of 60 mph, the tent held firm without any breaking free or snapping. The edges got wet when it rained, leaving us with a soggy-footed sleeping bag more than once, but worked well enough. Overall, it was a very good tent. We also used a footprint for it, although a lot of people just use old Tyvek sheeting instead.
Sleeping bag— Big Agnes double sleeping bag. It served us well, being fairly warm and lightweight, but I’m not sure we’d do it again— it was really bulky. It might’ve been better to get “mating” sleeping bags that would roll up to be smaller. Still, for our budget, we did pretty well.
Sleeping pads— Big Agnes blow-up pads. I have tried really hard to regret bringing these monstrous air mattresses, but I just can’t bring myself to… we slept so comfortably every night! Still, I would never recommend them to someone going on a thru-hike. They are huge, cumbersome, hard to blow up, and prone to leaks. So go buy something more practical! (But I still have no regrets.)
Water filter— we used a Sawyer Water Filter. The squeeze bags are worthless, so use bottles instead (a soda bottle works fine). The filter was very effective at first, then ran a bit slowly later on and we had to backflush it a lot. However, I was pleased overall with it and would definitely use it again. Just be sure to sleep with it next to you at night so it doesn’t freeze and break. (People who had the Sawyer Mini complained that it was really slow. By the end of the trail, people were just using Aquamira to purify the water. We met some people who had Steri-Pens, but everyone we met who had one was having trouble with the batteries. We also brought chlorine tablets just in case our filter broke. You can even use bleach in a pinch.)
Water bottles— we used empty Gatorade bottles, soda bottles, and a three-liter Camelbak my brother had given us. Some people might say the Camelbak isn’t worth the weight penalty, but it was really nice to be able to sip water easily, especially in the desert. (Except when we ran out since we couldn’t keep track of it.)
Stove— we eventually got a canister stove (do not bring an alcohol stove!). It was heavy, but it was free. We would’ve really liked to have had a JetBoil.
Kitchen utensils— we brought two camp bowls that nested inside each other, two sporks (one plastic, one titanium), one titanium butter knife, and a GSI Outdoors 1.4-liter pot with a lid. It would’ve been nice to have a slightly longer utensil (like a telescoping spork or something) for stirring stuff in the pot, but it worked out.
Stuff sacks— you need waaaaay less of these than you think you do.
Toiletries— a little bottle of Castile soap (a little bar would’ve been better— and besides, we almost never used soap), toothpaste, a toothbrush, floss, nail clippers, my retainer, a little hairbrush (most people could get by with a comb, but Zach’s voluminous hair cannot be tamed by anything less), a little bottle of sunscreen, a little bottle of GermX, and a little bottle of bug spray (VERY important in the Sierra!).
First aid— salve for aching joints (almost never used), bandaids (we brought way too many— six or seven for each stretch of trail is more than enough), moleskin (buy the blister-sized pads), large bandaids (we got rid of those early on— if something’s big enough for a big bandaid, you might as well use a bandana), triple antibiotic, tweezers, tons of Ibuprofen (we didn’t use as much as we thought we would, but it was nice to have), and anti-itch cream (Zach used this a lot). I also bummed some antihistamine from another hiker when I got a mysterious rash in the desert.
Reflective umbrella— Although it was useful to keep scorching heat off in the desert and rain off in Washington, it was pretty cumbersome, and I didn’t like hiking while holding it. We probably didn’t need to bring it.
Survival items— we brought a couple Bic lighters, some waterproof matches, a whistle/compass for me and a proper compass for Zachary, and a headlamp. We started with just one headlamp and realized that trying to hike in the dark with just one lamp was terrible, so we bought a second one. We also had a little multitool for cutting summer sausage, popping blisters, cutting rope, and so on. We also had a length of nylon cord, just in case— it was the only thing we took that we never used. Also: a bit of duct tape rolled up on a straw, and sleeping pad repair kit.
Maps— we had Halfmile’s GPS tracks loaded onto Zach’s phone, as well as a paper copy of each section tucked into a gallon ziplock bag for waterproof’s sake. We mailed ourselves a new section in each resupply box.
Bathroom— we carried a squashed roll of 1-ply toilet paper, a foldable plastic trowel, and a little bottle of GermX together in a ziplock.
Trekking poles— we bought a pair of Leki Makalu poles about a hundred miles in and carried one each. They were reasonably lightweight, and fairly sturdy, although we had to replace the tips twice over the course of the trip. Zach also managed to break his antishock spring, although mine still works. As a side note, trekking poles are awesome! Not only do they make it easier to climb hills, but they soften the impact of walking downhill, help you keep stable while crossing streams, and are useful for whacking vegetation and spider webs out of the way. Their most useful function, though, is giving you a “third leg” so that if you misstep, you can catch yourself. Whenever I hike with a trekking pole, I look at my feet less and the scenery more.
A phone— Zach’s Windows phone, which has a built-in GPS that helped us out a lot. We charged it with a little solar charger that we strapped to the top of Zach’s pack. We also charged it as much as possible whenever we were in town.
Camera— we brought a little camera Zach already owned because it was water- and shock-proof. It didn’t take the greatest photos, but I was never worried about ruining it, so that was good.
Kindle— we were reading Lord of the Rings and the Bible when we set out for the trail, so we decided to carry a Kindle instead of the hard-copy books, for obvious reasons.
Other electronics— we carried a little solar panel, our charging cords, and a device that allowed you to charge two USB devices at the same time, which is handy in towns where everyone’s trying to charge their stuff at once.
Diary— I carried a 4x6 spiral-bound notebook and two mechanical pencils, and kept up my journal the whole time. I only used about 3/4 of the pages, even with being pretty detailed. I kept it in a ziplock bag to keep it dry. Some people like to use smaller notebooks and mail themselves a new section in each town, then mail home the section they’ve already written, but that seemed like way too much hassle for me.
Documents— in a ziplock bag, tucked against the frame of my backpack, we kept our passports, a spare ID, our thru-hiking permits, our campfire permits, our debit and credit cards, our insurance cards, and some cash.
Other personal items— we carried a few bandanas (there are limitless uses to these guys! They came in so handy so many times), a pair of sunglasses each (I don’t like sunglasses, but you need them when you’re crossing snow fields or else the light melts your retinas), head nets (sooo useful in the Sierra!), and a watch for Zachary (to check the time and to set alarms).
As far as I can remember, this is a list of everything we brought. If we did another trip I’m sure we’d pack more efficiently, but I think we did pretty well considering our budget constraints and lack of experience. Not all of this gear was great, and our packs were pretty heavy, but hey, it got us to Canada! So I’m going to call that a win.