There is a phrase on the AT: “Cotton kills.”
To which I used to respond: “HIM? No. Cotton is just a big, soft, ball of fluff. He would never do such a thing.”
But now I know that cotton would do such a thing (we’ll be seeing warning labels on q-tip cartons soon). Cotton does not breathe well and does not dry quickly. Being wet when it’s cold – even when temperatures are above freezing – puts a hiker at risk for hypothermia, an internal drop in body temperature that can cause serious damage and even death. Surprisingly, the most common weather for hypothermia onset is 40 degree rain, and it has been said that it can even happen in temperatures as warm as 60 degrees.
The right clothing is a physical necessity for survival, so stay away from cotton (even secondhand cotton can be hazardous to young children).
A. Daily wear:
1. Shoes: I just switched these out from Brooks Cascadia 9’s (probably the best trail runner ever, in my opinion), to Hoka ATR trail runners. Hoka’s are maximalist, meaning they have extra cushioning for your feet as opposed to taking a more barefoot style approach which is popular right now. They are going the opposite direction and people are paying attention. I had my Brooks for probably close to 600+ miles, and in the last 50 miles or so, the tread was bare in my pressure points which is the middle ball of my left foot and the right outside ball area of my right. My feet were getting very sore in the ball areas and it felt like rocks and roots were going to come through the shoe and into my foot! When I tried on the Hoka shoes, I tried them in multiple sizes, with inserts and without, and ended up going with Superfeet Carbon insoles that are supposed to last 2 years and correct some problems I have developed in my feet, namely those hot spots. My arch was collapsing under the weight of my body and pack, causing me to lean forward and the toes on my right foot to turn outward. This lead to stretching of the shoe, uneven wear in the tread, and can lead to labored walking, so basically walking was harder for me than it should have been. The owner of Mount Roger’s Outfitters in Damascus told me he bet I rolled my right ankle a lot, and he was spot on. He said if I didn’t get after market insoles, I would pay for it later in life with knee problems and even hip and neck problems. He uses them in his everyday shoes, and he testifies that they make all the difference. We’ll see what the next 500 miles of Virginia holds for Hoka’s and Superfeet!
2. Socks: I have been wearing Darn Tough Vermont socks and they really are darn tough! I bought a pair of WrightSock Cool Mesh II socks to take with me on the trail, but they got very dirty and eventually wore a hole after only one week. Guess where? My left foot in the ball pressure point. I’m carrying them still since they are super comfortable, but now they are my sleeping socks. I switched from my SmartWool heavy socks to these now that its supposed to be warmer! I’ve slept in them in the cold though the other night and they did just fine. I carry 2 pairs of DT socks for hiking, and rotate them everyday and rinse them out as often as I can and air dry them so I always have a dry pair.
3. Gaiters: Outdoor Research gaiters have saved my socks and shoes a lot of wear! Wish I had started with them. These are light weight, polyester pieces that go over my socks and prevent a lot of dirt, rocks, sticks, etc. from getting into my shoes, wearing on my feet and causing blisters and degrading my socks and shoes. Before I got them I had to stop at least once an hour to dump debris out of my shoes; now I do it probably once a day during lunch. These are a must-have for me.
4. Compression Shorts and lightweight Nike running shorts: Nothing special here. Compression acts as undies and keeps my legs from rubbing. No need for body glide or anything and no chaffing so far. Short running shorts are the best for mobility. I have worn this setup in 7 inches of snow, but I did pick up my next item to have for the next cold spell and to add into my sleeping clothes for summer.
5. Merino Wool Lightweight base layer pants: I just picked these up in Damascus. Less for cold, more to have for when my thermal weight sleeping pants get too hot. I am wearing them in cold for now though until I send my heavy winter gear home. Cons: expensive, pros: comfy and last a lifetime.
6. Mountain Hardwear (spelling correct) polyester tee: lightweight running shirt. Breathes well, dries fast. ‘Nuff said. Poly also tends to hold smells less than some other fabrics.
7. Patagonia Capliene 3 Zip Up Long Sleeve Shirt: Patagonia Capilene line of base layer clothing is used on Everest Expeditions. They put a lot of time and effort into designing clothes that are warm when cold and even warm when wet, cool when hot, breathable and fast-drying. This shirt is awesome, although I am going to send it home and keep my sleeping version of the same shirt, Capilene 4 (Thermal) instead of this one.
8. Arcteryx Atom LT Jacket: warm jacket, used when really cold. It is okay if this jacket is worn in rain; it has a DWR waterproof coating but is not a rain coat. Drizzle is okay, but rain is not. It is made of synthetic filling, not down. If down gets wet it loses its insulating abilities. And when I say wet, I’m not talking about falling into a river. I mean even absorbing sweat and ambient moisture. They can treat down to be more water resistant, but its never water proof. Synthetic fill jackets are most popular on AT where its wet a lot of the time.
9. Mountain Hardwear Hat: light hat used to keep sweat at bay and head from getting sunburn.
10. SmartWool Merino wool beanie: you know what this does.
11. Mountain Hardwear Gloves: supposed to work with phone, works okay but not great. Keeps hands warm, even when gloves are wet.
12. Cheap Bandana: wipe my nose, napkin when eating, dry sweat, headband, you name it, I use it.
13. Buff: scarf, headband, hat, dust mask, used when robbing banks to conceal my identity. Just a lightweight utility item that I could do without but carry anyway.
B. Sleep Wear – these are always at all costs kept DRY! Kept in a waterproof bag, inside my trash compactor pack liner.
1. Sleeping socks: outlined above. Keeps feet dry/warm and helps hold my salve/ointment on so that it does not get on my sleeping bag. Switched from thick SmartWool to light WrightSocks.
2. Pants: REI Thermal weight pants. Cheaper than Patagonia but heavier – plenty warm though. Will send home in summer and keep Merino Wool pants I just got for sleepy times.
3. Patagonia Capilene 4 Thermal Weight Zip Hoodie: probably my favorite shirt ever! So warm, hood fits like a sock, lightweight, breathable. Love it. Buy it! Expensive ($120) but worth every penny in my opinion.
4. Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket: lightweight, synthetic fill in case it were to get wet somehow, also has DWR waterproof coating but I wouldn’t chance it. Can wear it to bed but it is usually too warm, so I just wear around camp. Will keep and send Arcteryx home most likely in warmer months and keep this (or maybe send both home in June).
C. Rain Gear:
1. Marmot Preicip Jacket: light, waterproof coat with pit zips to help my armpits breathe a little, although all rain gear gets clammy and can get just as wet inside from sweat as it does outside from rain.
Trail update: Will is in Virginia, his fourth state! The AT passes through 14 states from Georgia to Maine. West Virginia is the shortest. Maine is the most rugged. And Virginia… it’s the loooongest. More than a quarter of Will’s entire 2,189 journey will be spent here.
Thank you all for reading! Leave a comment if you have any questions about the gear!