Figuring out gear on the Appalachian Trail was trial-by-fire for me. I hit Springer with much of the wrong stuff, and many heavy items. You can do better!
By the end of the trail, I had lightened up considerably and was tough and lean to boot. I'm really a mid-weight hiker, but I try to do better each time.
Below I will outline the gear I finished with. Gear has become lighter and more sophisticated since 2003, so be sure to take a look at my PCT and CDT gear for ideas as well.
Granite Gear Nimbus Ozone backpack, 48 oz
I found this pack at Neels Gap. I loved it! I started with a Lowe Alpine that a friend gave me. It weighed seven pounds when empty! I don't like to buy new things when I have something perfectly good at hand, but this doesn't always work on a thru-hike. The Nimbus Ozone is a nifty mid-weight pack that can hold up to 40 pounds, which is great for those just-resupplied hikes out of town. There are no zippers to break, rather there is a tall collar with cinch that folds up as your load gets smaller. My complaint about this pack is that the foam back pad soaks up sweat and rain, which is difficult to dry in the humid East. Granite Gear has excellent customer service and really cares about its reputation on the trail. Neels Gap didn't have quite the right hip belt and shoulder straps for my frame, but the Granite Gear rep at Trail Days fitted me with a complimentary set of small/narrow shoulder straps and a small women's hip belt. Many sizes of strap and hip belt are available, and the pack comes in at least two torso lengths. I recommend ordering directly from Granite Gear so that you can customize your order.
Equinox pack cover, 3.4 oz
I didn't know pack covers existed until I hit Neels Gap. It sure came in handy during the Wet Year of 2003. The silicon-nylon cover is light. It has an elastic cinch so that it can be adjusted to fit a fuller or less-full pack. One problem with this cover is that water tends to pool at the bottom as it lacks drainage grommets. I made a habit of reaching back and pouring the water out before setting my pack down. I used trash bag liners for the entire contents of my pack as well as for my clothes and sleeping bag.
Patagonia silk weight shirts
I think Patagonia now calls these Capilene 1. I had a long sleeved-shirt for April and the beginning of May as the trees were bare and sun was an issue for my lily-white self. Eventually I switched to a short-sleeved shirt, which I later discarded in favor of a Hind workout shirt. The shirt had become so nasty, so permeated with sweat, rain and mildew, that it emitted an awful ammonia stench. Some folks look for light-weight poly/synthetic button downs at thrift stores. I think this is a nice way to save money, avoid buying something new, and possibly add some flair to your look.
North Face nylon shorts
I've never been skinny. Fit and lean, yes, but skinny, never. Even when I summited Katahdin my legs were strong and beefy. The shorts I chose were merely the ones I picked after trying on a million pairs. They were just roomy enough in the leg that they didn't cause any chafing, which is a common problem for men and women on the AT. I cut out the mesh liner to reduce weight and also to eliminate yet another piece of cloth that was capable of soaking up and retaining moisture.
Patagonia mid-weight thermals, top and bottom
I think these are comparable to the Capilene 3 these days. Darn Patagonia and their ever changing systems. At any rate, one top and one bottom is enough for 95% of the nights on the AT. In the summer, I dropped down to silkweight/Cap1 pants and probably kept the mid-weight top.
Marmot Precip pants and jacket, 8 and 12 oz
I wore these a lot. In 2003 it rained most days of April, May and June. Do they keep you dry? I'm not sure, but they do keep you warm while hiking. I love the pit-zips in the jacket. I wear it a lot as a windbreaker or warm layer in the cold New England mornings. The pit-zips make for great ventilation as you warm up but before you are ready to remove a layer. The Precip rain gear is relatively durable, but after time the white inner layer will peel away. They still make for good windbreakers. I'm still using my Precip pants six years later.
Sportif fleece jacket
I named mine Sassy Pink and I still wear it all the time. These days it is probably considered heavy, but in 2003 the micro fleece material was pretty cool.
Patagonia Capilene bra
I liked the support of this bra, but the thing was always wet. The Appalachian Trial is very humid and can be very rainy, so I would recommend finding a thin bra that will dry faster than this one. Patagonia says it is quick-drying, but I think they mean it dries quickly overnight in a dry and air-conditioned room. Trust me, this one won't dry overnight in the humid mountain air. Even if it does, it will be covered in dew in the morning. I recommend the Isis Daisy bra.
I carried multiple pairs of synthetic black undies.
rag wool Polyclava
Can't remember who makes this. Sadly, I shrank mine in the dryer. But it was amazing while it lasted. It was a rag wool beanie that unfolded into a balaclava. This was just something I had in my closet. The balaclava was great for spring and fall.
EMS fleece gloves
I picked these up in Manchester Center, VT. It really began to get cold in Vermont!
Asolo TPS 520 GTX boots
Beautiful leather boots. These fit my feet very well. I recommend trying on lots of brands and sizes of leather boots if that's the way you want to go. I loved these heavy clunkers. They kept my feet dry and clean and well protected. The AT is very rocky, and these kept me from stubbing my toes all day long. The AT also has many bare rock surfaces where the Vibram soles served me well, especially in the rain. I now hike in trail runners, but still love boots. My best advice for breaking in leather boots is to wear them around the house for 60 hours while cooking, reading, and watching TV before logging 60 hours of walking in the boots. After those two break-in periods, put on your pack and log another 60 hours. Tedious, but good for training and well worth it.
I used the heaviest weight Smartwool socks with white Wigwam polypro liners. I had another pair of dry socks for sleeping.
Mountain Hardwear Nut Shell Ventigaiters
I think the zipper is overkill and the mesh allows dirt and debris to get inside the gaiter. However, this is what I had, so I kept using them. I love tall gaiters for their protection against the sun, muddy trail, and poison ivy. I looked pretty cute in them, too. I recommend gaiters no matter what height for good foot care. They prevent debris from working its way into your socks and causing blisters and the general breakdown of the sock. Of course, this isn't the case with trail runners, but it does keep irritating debris away from your ankles.
Sierra Designs Clip Light something or other 2 person tent, heavy
This used to be the classic AT tent. It is too heavy, and doesn't have enough ventilation or headroom. On the AT you can probably get away with a small tarp, because most nights you will probably use shelters. You do need an option when the shelter is full-- I know they say the shelter isn't full until everyone is inside, but I have been one of 20 in an eight person shelter and I'm not sure we could have fit anyone else. Also, having a shelter means that you have the option of camping between shelters to suit your mileage. Dew and condensation are two things to consider, especially with single wall tarps and tents.
Tyvek ground sheet
You will want a ground sheet for the very wet AT. You will at some point sleep in a puddle.
old North Face Blue Kazoo 20 degree down sleeping bag
A bit heavy, but awesome. I owned it before I thought of hiking the AT, so I went with it.
REI Travel Down 40 degree down sleeping bag
Compact and very light. Perfect for those hot, sticky AT summer nights. I had mine sent to Pearisburg, VA.
old school Ridge Rest
I've had mine since about 1992, and it still works great. It has a few wounds and may not be the lightest, but it remains comfy and uncompressed.
Etowah Outfitters alcohol stove
A nice little alcohol stove with cross-bar pot stand. I do love my MSR Whisperlite, but this alcohol stove weighs so much less. I primarily used Heet in the yellow bottle, but I'm sure these days you can buy denatured alcohol by the ounce at hostels and outfitters.
MSR titanium Teapot. 4oz
Perfect for one Lipton, one package of ramen, or one box of Near East couscous, and cute as can be. It holds about .8 liters.
Lexan spoon, .5 oz
Regular plastic spoons are lighter, but will melt if used while cooking.
Water and Treatment
Platypus bladders and hose
These work great. The Platypus will develop weak spots around the neck due to the crumpling of the bladder as water is sucked out of it, but only over time. I try to be gentle with mine. I keep them at the top of my pack to reduce pressure and stress. You will only need a capacity of two liters for the AT, and rarely will you need to carry this much. Aqua Fina one liter bottles with a wide mouth are strong and cheap. You can put these bottles in the side pocket of your pack and insert the Platy hose if you like to use a hose.
Aqua Mira liquid solution water treatment
This was new and exciting in 2003. I still like this water treatment option. It has a slightly sweet taste that I don't mind at all. I started the AT with a Katahdyn Hiker pump filter, which I like and use for weekends, but it was a bit heavy for the AT. At some point I also used a Visine dropper full of bleach. I used three drops for two liters. It smells like a swimming pool. I'm not sure whether this is better or worse than iodine or Aqua Mira in the long term, but it is the cheapest option. You can buy a bottle of bleach for a few dollars, refill your dropper, and leave the bottle in the hiker box for someone else. Keep the dropper of bleach inside an plastic bag to avoid any leaks which will eat all of your synthetic gear.
Leki ultralight titanium trekking poles from 2002
I'm not sure my knees would have made it through the AT without poles. These were indispensable for going down hill as they allowed me to shift some of my weight to my arms and shoulders and go easier on my knees on steep descents and long steps down big rocks. I preferred Reason's Super Makalus to my lightweight ones, however, because I think the shocks are beefier and kinder to the arms. Poles are great for what I call the Power Boost, which just means pushing yourself forward with the poles on the flats and ascents. After a few hundred miles of using poles, you'll be rolling up your sleeves and showing off your muscles. I've put almost 5,000 miles on my poles and so far have only replaced the tips a few times.
OK, so I started with the data book, state guides and maps, and the ATC town guide. But Reason had the Wingfoot guide, which gets to the point and has most of the info you'll need. You're not going to get lost unless you drink too much beer and forget which way you came in to a shelter, so you don't really need the maps and long state guidebook trail descriptions. The profile maps are nice, but chances are someone else will carry them for you :)
Check out my PCT and CDT gear lists for more ideas.