The most important gear consideration is a well-fitting pair of hiking boots. Sneakers or running shoes will not provide enough support on the Appalachian Trail for your feet, so if you must buy only a single item of gear, this is the one to spend a little more on to make sure you get a good boot. Find a salesperson with real experience fitting hiking boots, such as those at REI, L.L. Bean, and Eastern Mountain Sports. REI has a great page on how to find the right trail shoe or hiking boot for you! Proper fit is the most important feature of a good hiking boot. Shop for them using the socks you intend to wear them with (see sock section below). Shop late in the day as people’s feet swell naturally as the day wears on. The purpose is to make sure that your toes don’t hit the front of the boot when walking downhill by trying them out on a ramp provided by the store or on a ramp in front of the store.
The type of socks you wear with your hiking boots is critical to your comfort. Traditionally a thin liner sock made of polypropylene is worn next to your skin. A wool sock (various thickness for various seasons) is worn over this. Wearing two pairs of socks allows them to rub against each other and not your foot when your foot moves within the boot. A more expensive but great option is purchasing Smartwool products, which are thinner and eliminate the need for a liner sock as it is an all-in-one solution.
A daypack is a must for hikes over 4 miles. You simply must have a way to transport water and, if the hike is over 4 miles, snacks. You cannot possibly carry enough food and water for a hike of 7 or more miles without a pack. In cooler weather, your pack is also used for shedding layers as you get warm and require less clothing, e.g., your fleece or other outerwear, so you store it in your pack instead of trying to carry it.
Bring plenty of water for every hike—dehydration leads to hiker fatigue. A rule of thumb is to drink 1 liter (32 ounces) of water every 2 hours. For the longer hikes in this series (8–10 miles), you should plan on carrying 2.5–3 liters. For the shorter hikes, 1.5–2 liters should be good. Some of this amount can be a sport drink, such as Gatorade, to replace electrolytes and provide a glucose boost. Water bottles can be used, but many prefer to use a pack with a bladder such as a CamelBak, which has a long plastic drinking straw and a bite valve.
What you should bring to eat while hiking on the trail depends on the hike length. For hikes over 4 miles, bring something to snack on along the trail for energy. There are many choices of food to bring on a hike: various power bars, fruit, nuts, trail mix, bagels, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and chocolate chip cookies.
Layers are the most important concept—dress like an onion! And it is important that the layers are made of polypropylene or other synthetic wicking materials. Cotton will get wet from your sweat, and it does not dry quickly, leaving you with poor insulation if it turns cooler. In colder weather months and in inclement weather, wear a synthetic base layer against your skin. On top of this, according to temperature, layer with fleece and wool. Both do a great job of insulating. The final layer is called a shell and may be a combination of wind-resistant, windproof, water-resistant, and/or waterproof. Better shells are breathable so that you do not trap your own moisture inside. The best known breathable and windproof and waterproof shells are made with Gore-Tex.
Waterproof rain jackets and rain pants are necessary. The weather can change quickly in the mountains, and during the cooler months, a long hike in wet jeans or hiking pants is not fun, and can lead to a drop in your body temperature that can be dangerous. There is a big difference between water-resistant and waterproof, and you get what you pay for. Cheap rain gear equals a very hot hike due to lack of ventilation; we highly recommend investing in Gore-Tex!
Remember to use a high-SPF sunscreen, and bring a hat or cap with a brim. Bug spray is also very important to guard against ticks that carry Lyme disease, as well as other biting or stinging insects. If you forget sunscreen or bug spray, please ask your hike leader as we have extra, but please don’t take advantage. It is there in case you forget. There is no reason to ever go without these when hiking with our group!
There are generally two reasons hikers use trekking poles: to reduce stress on their knees and for extra help in balancing.