Most hikers could write a book on this topic alone – it’s a very personal choice. This is an area in which You Really Should try out a variety of things beforehand and go with what works for you. It should be comfortable right away on your test hikes – if it’s not comfortable at KM #0, it’s probably not going to be your most loved item at KM #243.
In my opinion, if your Base Weight is only 10% of your body weight, you have the option of using… Trail Runners.
Most old-school hikers will go on in great detail about “Proper Hiking Footwear” given half the chance. Most often they’ll talk about footwear and it’s relationship to keeping your feet dry, the need to protect them from rough uneven terrain and the stress on your feet and ankles from lugging a heavy pack.
Let’s address those points:
Your feet are going to get wet, one way or another – from external moisture or sweat. In much the same way that your clothing should dry fast, so too should your footwear. Trail Runners dry faster than Hiking Boots.
Rough Uneven Terrain:
I’ll probably get criticized for this, but IMHO, in terms of hiking trails, the ECT is a pretty easy ride – there’s not much along the length of this trail to necessitate heavy boots. Once you get past the first two paths, southbound, it gets pretty civilized; boardwalks, stairs, bridges. There is some elevation gain / loss, but that’s to be expected. In terms of terrain and footwear, the hardest paths are at the start – Picco’s Ridge and White Horse – and near the end – the older and often wet Cape Broyle Head, Bear Cove Point and Island Meadow. Beyond that, it’s pretty much a walk in the park for a fit, enthusiastic hiker.
Stress from a Heavy Pack:
No argument here – If you have a loaded pack that weighs more than 25% of your body weight, you probably should use hiking boots with ankle support. I would question whether or not it’s a good idea to carry that much weight on your back for 300+ km, but…
I started backpacking with boots. I found them to be uncomfortable, slow to dry, heavy at the best of times and unbearably so when soaking wet. With each additional kilometre I’d pass beyond about # 15, they’d seem to get heavier and heavier. I switched and never looked back. My boots are strictly for winter use now.
Final Though: There’s a common saying on trail…
“One pound on your feet is equal to Five on your back”.
From what I understand those numbers are based on research done by the military. In any case, as it turns out, it’s true.
Stay away from cotton. Once you get cotton wet – and it will get wet – it has some very undesirable characteristics.
The Problem(s) with Wet Cotton:
It takes a long time to dry.
It gets heavy.
It stops insulating you from cold / wind.
The only cotton item that you take on a long hike should be your Bandana. There’s another saying within the hiking community – this one is definitely in the top 3, and it’s very much to-the-point if not somewhat overdramatic:
This saying stems from the fact that it’s relatively easy while backpacking to get yourself in a situation where Hypothermia is a concern. This is especially true on a coastal path, especially dangerous when you’re hiking alone, and especially likely if you’ve covered yourself in a fabric that retains moisture, will keep you cold and will take forever to dry. But please, don’t take my word for it – check out Why Cotton Kills: A Technical Explanation at Gizmodo.com / Indefinitely Wild.
Your clothes generally should be synthetic – polyester, nylon, spandex / elastane, etc.. There are modifications on those – fabrics / brands that supposedly insulate better / wear better / smell less – you can spend a ton of money – but keep this in mind: You’ll be hiking thru the woods – brand names and logos mean very little. Unless one garment in particular has something that you really need, this is a good place to save money that can be better spent saving weight on The Big Three.
The components you’ll need depend on the time of year you’ll be hiking. In the shoulder seasons, you’ll probably want some extra base layer components, to bulk up the mid layer and add more socks.
Underwear, Long Thermal Underwear, Synthetic Shirt (the turtle-neck long sleeve variety is particularly good in cold weather). Some hikers also like merino wool, although I’ve found this to be less rugged than it’ synthetic counterpart – YMMV. This layer also doubles as sleepwear, so you may want two sets in the shoulder seasons. Under no circumstances should this layer be cotton.
Mid / Insulating Layer:
Down Jacket / Fleece Jacket. Down is warmer than fleece, but you need to keep down dry. Note that this layer is often used by hikers to supplement a lighter than ideal sleeping bag – it may allow one to “beef up” a sleeping bag on a cold night, thereby making this layer a quasi multi-use item.
This is a difficult area in which to make a simple recommendation. There are a number of problems with the very concept of this piece of gear that are beyond the scope of this text. It’s further confused by manufacturer influences – outlandish claims, massive marketing budgets and the fashion of the day. You can quite easily go to any outdoor retailer and purchase a jacket or pants costing into the hundreds of dollars – a salesperson will be sure to help you – clothing is the highest margin section of the store and outer layers have the most exaggerated performance claims to lure you in.
In a nutshell, there are a number of fabrics that claim to be “waterproof-breathable” – Gore-Tex, eVent, Omni-Tech, PreCip, HyVent, etc. – those names are attached to different brands, each claiming to prevent water from passing through the garment, while also allowing moisture from perspiration to escape. While they use a few different techniques to achieve this, unfortunately, the problem with these fabrics is universal – they work fine in theory, but in the real world they fail. When you’re outside exerting yourself, most often they trap too much moisture from perspiration inside the layer (even if you’re like me, I sweat very little), or less often soak through and leak after extended exposure to rain.
Another option is a traditional “non-breathable” PVC-type rain jacket – people that work outdoors wear them – fishermen for example. Those are generally heavy, but lightweight options are available. You’re not going to get wet from rain, but there’s no chance that moisture from sweat will pass through either.
Consider this… since you’re most likely to use this layer when humidity is at or near 100%, when the air is already saturated with water vapor, where do you expect the moisture from your sweat to go? Despite all the claims and Gore-Tex-type-hype, this is simply a problem resulting from a physical limitation – it’s science. The point here: When you are recreating outside in wet conditions, you are going to get wet. This is not something that one piece of clothing can prevent.
Getting wet from perspiration poses the biggest challenge – it can be uncomfortable when hiking in warm weather, and dangerous in cool, cold or windy weather. Personally, I’ve been wet quite often from the inside (and occasionally from the outside) wearing my “waterproof-breathable” jacket (11oz), and just as often from the inside (but never from the outside) wearing my “non-breathable” jacket (16oz).
Using either of these options, the best practice is the same – maximize ventilation to minimize trapped moisture in your base / mid layers. Pit Zips help immensely with this, but your best defense is just being aware of the problem – take a break occasionally and open up your outer layer as much as possible. The point with any outer layer: ventilation is key.
Another consideration specific to a thru hiker is weight – consider that this is an item you’ll surely use eventually, but likely somewhat intermittently. When I started backpacking, I’d take my non-breathable jacket every time, just in case – 1lb for a piece of gear that was likely not going to be used, and if it was, would do a generally poor job.
An item in this category that thru hikers in particular tend to favor is the Frogg Toggs Dri Ducks Rain Gear. It’s lightweight, waterproof, breathable and inexpensive. Unfortunately it’s also not terribly fashionable and somewhat fragile – not suitable for bushwhacking. If you plan to stick to the trail however, this isn’t a problem. I’ve been in light to moderate rain in my FT jacket and have yet to get wet. In terms of a weight / usefulness ratio, it’s hard to beat – a men’s medium jacket weighs just 5.6oz, and the pants just 4.2 oz.. That’s a full rain suit – if you should decide to take the pants – for just under 65% of the weight of my “non-breathable” rain jacket.
Very important. Get good, comfortable, non-cotton socks. A very popular brand among distance hikers are Darn Tough Socks; as the name suggests they are well made and come with a lifetime warranty. Wear them out – send them back – they send you a new pair… I’m not joking! In the shoulder seasons especially, take a pair to wear specifically for sleeping. Figure out how many pairs of socks you’ll realistically need, then take one more pair – sealed in a ziplock. Personally, in the summer I take 3 = 2 pairs to wear + 1 in a ziplock in case I get everything soaked. In very cold weather I add 2 more heavy pairs. Don’t skimp on socks. Under no circumstances should your socks be cotton.
Zip-Off / Roll-up, whatever. No jeans / cotton!
Needed in all seasons. In cold weather, a baseball cap can be worn under a winter beanie. The Baseball Caps they sell to Golfers work well and are usually non-cotton.
Generally just a warm weather item. However, some hikers have been known to push the envelope (or at least brush aside fashion sense) when they wear them with their base layer. In this way they can be used as lightweight pants. Running shorts are popular.
I have the optional tag here, but it’s considered essential by most. See the bit on multi-use.
There are 2 main types:
These go around your leg, outside your pants, below the knee and extend down over your footwear. It’s basically a fabric sleeve that wraps around the back of your calf and joins with a closure (zipper or velcro) down the front of your leg. They keep debris out of your footwear and keep the lower part of your leg protected from wet vegetation. Some people use them, some don’t. For a visual @ YouTube there’s a video on Alpine Gaiters by Outdoor Research.
This is a piece of gear for which my opinion has evolved significantly over recent years. Initially I regarded it generally as dead weight for summer use – something that could be easily left at home with little consequence. In anything other than extreme dry conditions though, a pair of lightweight gaiters are definitely worth their weight during a distance hike – they’ll keep your lower pant leg, socks and shoes – and therefore your feet – far cleaner than they would be otherwise. The gaiters I use weigh 5oz for the pair and I’ve added a field replaceable foot strap – the weak point on any gaiter – so they can be easily repaired during longer hikes. After hiking all day and upon arriving at camp, they can be rinsed of dirt and hung to dry – and they’re ready to go the next morning. I have many times in recent years come off trail after having hiked for several kilometers through deep mud, removed my gaiters, and been totally clean. When coupled with a lightweight, fast drying trail runner and spare socks – and a nightly shoe / sock rinsing regimen – there’s no reason a hiker’s shoes / socks / feet can’t be relatively clean for the duration of a multi-day hike.
These are for summer use, designed just to keep rocks and debris out of your footwear. They’re mainly for use in dry, rocky arid environments. Not really applicable to the ECT – I’ve just including them here for clarity – but if you have a particular problem with debris in your shoes, they may be worth checking out. For thru hikers the brand of choice seems to be Dirty Girl.
Seasonally you’ll need to add the obvious…
Gloves: A liner + outer layer combo works well. I’d even take 2 liner layers and have one warming next to your skin in cold weather.
Warm Hat / Winter Beanie / Toque: You lose a lot of heat thru your head. I wouldn’t skip this in the shoulder season.
Balaclava: This is very useful on cold days or more often, on cold nights.
Warm Socks: As mentioned above.
Continue to the next page: The Experienced Backpacker.