Gear selection was tricky. For one, I’m a complete cheapskate. Secondly, I actually had very little money. Working three part time jobs had been my reality since getting remarried and moving to a new town, giving up the security of the full-time teaching position I’d had for the last 17 years. I was making about a third the income I had previously been accustomed to, and I had two step-kids who were nearing college. Spending big money on the lightest gear possible seemed frivolous and selfish, so I bargain-hunted. I already had a Slumberjack sleeping bag that was at least 10 years old–so old that I couldn’t find it online and verify its temperature comfort rating, but I assumed since it was a mummy bag, it would be warm. (Spoiler alert: this assumption could not have been more wrong.) I also had a cheap dome tent from K-Mart that I thought would be fine, and a Pur water filter, which was an antique, but serviceable. The more I researched, the more I began to realize that what I had was not likely sufficient, or else hopelessly heavy, for a summertime hike of ten days on the Appalachian Trail.
My first major purchases were my tent and backpack. I bought a Mountainsmith Morrison two-person tent on clearance, and a Gregory Amber 44L backpack at a discount, too. I chose the tent because of its reviews as a good budget option, choosing the two-person option as a hedge against my claustrophobia. Five and a half pounds didn’t seem so bad. I excitedly set it up in my dining room when it arrived via UPS on a rainy October day. My backpack was a bit of a gamble, since I hadn’t been properly fitted, but I figured I’d load it up, take it for a few walks around the neighborhood, and return it if needed. After a few weeks of walking with it loaded with about 20 pounds, I was convinced it was a good fit.
I began walking religiously–trying to log at least four or five miles a day. The local parks provided a little bit of elevation, and I was surprised to find that just walking on a more uneven surface was a different kind of workout than walking the streets in my neighborhood. Through the winter, the treadmill took the place of my outdoor walks, but I still tried to get outside as often as possible. Surgery to remove bone spurs from my foot threw a temporary wrench into my training, but I thought it would be best to get that issue taken care of before undertaking our summer adventure on the AT. By the time the snow began to recede, I was ready to start training in earnest, not just fitness-wise, but learning some skills.
For Christmas, my husband had given me a backpacking stove–a base model Primus that had “durable but on the heavy side” reviews. I practiced using it, first in my kitchen, and then making cocoa out on the trail in my local park. Other walkers looked on with some curiosity, watching me filter water from the stream for my cocoa. One noticed my antiquated filtering system and showed me his Sawyer Squeeze, demonstrating its ease. While I felt guilty about abandoning the expensive Pur filter that I’d owned since college, a $20 Sawyer Mini from Walmart became my next item of gear.
Throughout the winter, I read more memoirs, and developed a serious YouTube habit, watching videos about everything from cooking to pooping while on the trail. Gear reviews, travelogues–it seemed like everyone who had ever set foot on the trail had made a video about it. I was surprised at how many people began their Appalachian Trail through hike without any backpacking experience. A lot of them discussed learning along the way, swapping out gear at different trail towns, and abandoning unused items in hiker boxes at hostels. Their stories were simultaneously encouraging and terrifying. If they could do it, I was sure that I could, too, but I was also struck by the mantra “Embrace the Suck,” which popped up in more than a few videos.
By springtime, I felt like I had enough gear to actually go backpacking, so I joined a MeetUp backpacking group and signed up for a trip with them.