Thru-Hiker Gear List
by J. Taylor Bell
originally published in The Trek with photographs (September 14, 2022)
Oh, those halcyon days of knowing exactly what was necessary on a thru-hike and what was absolutely frivolous and decadent. Simpler times they were, friends. But they seem to be well behind us these days. And if you don’t believe me, then strap in for this very toasty ride.
Many things that might be considered essential on other trails become (a bit) more optional on the AZT. Along with very reliable resupply options and town stops, mostly predictable weather makes it easy to know what to bring and what to leave behind. This gear list is a testament to how the Arizona Trail allows you to push the lower limits of your base weight.
Regardless of your prior hiking experience, this packing list will help you figure out some of the specific gear you will or won’t need to thru-hike the Arizona Trail—including multiple examples in different budget ranges. And in the ongoing public interest of spreading the joy of frugality, I, as always, recommend checking out /r/ULGeartrade and REI’s used gear section before endeavoring to buy anything new. Also, keep an eye out for used geal sales at places like Summit Hut, Peace Surplus, and other local outdoor retail locations.
Your general setup won’t change that much on the AZT, but some items are more essential in Arizona while other items and other standard gear is a bit more optional. For example, they call Flagstaff the cataract capital of the USA for a reason. Sunglasses are pretty much mandatory on this trail, unlike, say, in the Appalachians or the Pacific Northwest. Here are a few other items you definitely shouldn’t forget, and some you might want to leave at home.
Sun protection: The lion’s share of this 800-mile trail is intensely sunny. Sunglasses, high-SPF sunscreen, and UV-resistant long-sleeves are essential. I also encountered multiple people hard chilling with sweet-looking sun umbrellas. Personally, I didn’t carry one because I knew I would just end up getting pissed off at the wind instead of mercifully thanking it. And that’s a concession I just wasn’t ready to make. You might be stronger than me, though. And the AZT isn’t usually as windy as, say, the CT.
Three-season Layers: Oftentimes, one of the biggest shocks for first-time hikers in the desert is the temperature swings. I think that a puffy and at least a ~20˚ sleeping bag/quilt are essential. Yes, you will be brutally hot during the day, but you will also be very cold at night—especially due to the lack of humidity. It’s not unusual to see temperatures go from the upper 80s down to the 30s overnight—and you should plan on encountering temperatures well outside that range at least a few times.
Consider Not Bringing:
Bug Spray: Mosquitoes and ticks don’t seem to be huge fans of the desert and are almost non-existent along nearly all portions of the trail. Unless I just got incredibly lucky two years running, you can pretty much count on a mostly bug-free hike.
Bear Resistant Food Storage: Although there are a few small areas of the trail that bears still inhabit, they are exceedingly rare and skittish. If you’re lucky enough to see one, it will probably just run away when it sees you.
A Shelter and a Rain Jacket: This is terrible advice, and any prudent hiker probably shouldn’t take it… but hear me out. It’s very possible to cowboy camp the entire AZT if you know what you’re doing. I walked with two people who did it this year. And the rest of us only pitched our tents maybe a handful of times.
You might get one or two small storms, but you’ll probably know they’re coming because the weather is very consistent, and almost all of the AZT has phone reception. So you can either avoid them by posting up in a town for a night or just burrito into your Tyvek sheet like a true ultralight freak. At the very least, it’s worth considering a scaled-down shelter such as a minimalist pocket tarp.
And likewise, in both years that I’ve hiked the AZT, I left my rain jacket at home and conceded to carrying a 1.5-ounce emergency rain poncho just in case. In those two years, I used it twice. Once was in a blizzard where my puffy would’ve done just as well, and the other was overkill during a five-minute squall. You be the judge.
A Stove and Fuel: This trail can be a great intro to cold-soaking your meals because there are so many sweltering days when the last thing you’ll want is a hot meal. Swap out the Jetboil for a Talenti jar and never look back <3.
Arizona Trail Gear List
If everything I rattled off until now doesn’t seem too farfetched, then consider this the definitive AZT packing list. All items are broken down into some more affordable and some more expensive options. But it’s worth noting that expensive doesn’t always mean better. And cheaper doesn’t always mean worse. Many cheap options are staples in the backpacking community (Talenti jars, Tyvek sheets, Smart Water/Essentia Bottles) because they are a great combination of quality AND affordability.
Streamlined backpacks are perfect for the AZT, as the food carries are mercifully short and the water carries are surprisingly breezy/predictable for the most part. If you opt for a pared-down shelter as well, you can afford to go crazy small and creative with your pack. I saw a few folks with 24L packs like the Joey, and if you’re anywhere higher than 50L, you’ll probably find yourself marveling at all the open space in your pack at least once. Somewhere between 35 and 45L is probably a safe and reasonable recommendation, especially if you’re a connoisseur of the fanny pack. If you’re unused to carrying a pack this small, though, then I definitely recommend that you buy the pack last to ensure all your gear will fit in it.
If you are being a reasonable human being and carrying a shelter on the AZT, I’d recommend a single wall shelter. Even a tarp would suffice. There are almost no bugs on the AZT, and you probably won’t get much rain. Something that keeps the wind out is a good idea, though.
A hammock would be a silly choice for this trail because hanging one from a saguaro would just be pure masochism.
What about a footprint?
Although the necessity of a footprint can be debated in the forest, I think it’s definitely a must-have in the desert. Too many spiky plants and too many sharp little stupid rocks will pop your air mattress or rip the bottom of your shelter in a second.
Furthermore, I think polycro is worthless in the desert because if it doesn’t get immediately ripped, it will probably blow away at some point. Get yourself a Tyvek and never think twice about it. Then take a sharpie and draw something silly on it that everyone else will see when you inevitably end up cowboy camping every night.
For both spring and fall hikes on the AZT, you will probably encounter freezing temps at night at least a couple of times. That’s just showbiz, baby. In general, a bag with a comfort rating around 20 degrees should be sufficient for shoulder season conditions. The versatility of a quilt is nice on the AZT because the lows can vary so greatly from night to night, depending on elevation. Learn more about sleeping bag temperature ratings here.
Somehow, I managed to make it through both years on the AZT with an unscathed inflatable sleeping pad. So yes, it’s totally possible to carry one. But there’s no doubt that you’re tempting fate when you do it. Thus, even if they’ve got lower R-values, I’d recommend a foam pad for the AZT.
Ultralight Freak Option: Gossamer Gear Thinlight 1/8″ Pad
Normal Freak Option: NEMO Switchback , Therm-a-Rest Z Lite™ SOL (I almost want to not recommend this pad just based on what a nightmare it was to get the correct capitalization and punctuation for this product)
If you’re a super-cold sleeper, though, below are some good inflatable sleeping pad options. You can always pair an ultralight 1/8″ pad, like the GG Thinlight, with any of these inflatables to give it extra protection from stabby things on the ground.
Cheaper Inflatable: Klymit Insulated Static V
Sleeping Bag Liner (Optional)
It’s a toss-up as to whether you need a liner for the AZT. On the one hand, I doubt there will be any nights that are truly hot enough to want to sleep completely outside your bag, unless you’re hiking very close to either end of summer. So in that sense, a liner is a bit superfluous.
On the other hand, I liked carrying my liner because I’m a baby—and, since I was cowboy camping with a quilt, it felt like the liner was my only defense against any unwanted zero- to six-legged visitors in the night. This is a problem that could’ve also been solved by using a full sleeping bag, I guess.
There’s always the convenient argument that liners also improve the versatility and longevity of your sleep system. If you do end up going with a liner, you probably won’t need anything more than a lightweight silk liner like this one.
I don’t see any reason to wear boots on the AZT. There’s no real bushwhacking, no extremely technical terrain that could roll your ankles, and hardly any rock-hopping, boulder fields, or mud. Trail runners are definitely the way to go because they’ll dry much quicker in the rare case that they get wet, and they’ll definitely help keep your load lighter, feet cooler, and outlook on life brighter.
These are the main three trail runners that thru-hikers on every trail tend to stick to. But of course, pretty much any trail runner from REI is top quality these days. Just find what works best for you and stick with it.
Camp Shoes (Optional)
They’re called camp shoes, but I think they’re actually more useful in town sometimes. Because no one wants to put their gross, smelly shoes on after they’ve just washed that layer of desert dust off their legs. Regardless, I never carried them, but I totally get why you’d want to.
Less Expensive: Cheap flip-flops from the aisle in the Dollar General with the Jesus candles and school supplies
Gaiters (VERY recommended)
Most of the Arizona Trail features some combination of pebbles and pea gravel—or else extremely dry, dusty dirt. Both of these things will infest the bottom of your shoes in seconds if you’re not wearing gaiters, and you’ll be stopping to shake them out at least twice an hour. Once I started wearing gaiters in the desert, I felt like I had experienced a rebirth. There were two phases of my life, y’all: pre- and post-ankle coverage desert hiking.
Less Fun: Altra Trail Gaiters
More Fun: Dirty Girl Gaiters
Works Decently With Hokas: REI Lightweight Hiker Gaiters
Sun hoodies are ideal for the extreme amount of sun exposure you’ll encounter on the AZT. They pull double duty as long sleeves in the colder mornings as well. Any breathable and quick-drying sun hoodie is about as ideal as you’re going to get. Just a sun shirt without a hood is probably alright as well. But personally, I’m all about neck protection as that is often the part of your body that’s most exposed to the sun.
Pants, or Lack Thereof
If the AZT weren’t such a beautifully manicured trail, I’d say that wearing shorts in the desert would be a death wish. I’ve totally lacerated my legs when wearing shorts on other desert hikes because everything is pokey and wants to give you a little love stab. That’s not the case here, as the trail is largely graded for mountain bikes—or else so well-worn that you’ve always got a wide berth. The shortest shorts you can find are my runway recommendation. And then maybe a pair of tights to go under them for the colder mornings. Alternatively, I saved a couple ounces by foregoing the tights and opting for the more versatile and highly disco Montbell Tachyon Pants.
Less Expensive: Any pair of athletic shorts or swimsuits from a box store
Anything with a merino wool blend will be your best bet. Darn Tough still reigns supreme on the trail, but Injinji has gained a lot of momentum in recent years. Try them both out and see which one works for you.
Gloves and Beanie
A beanie is a good idea for the AZT, as you’ll be glad to have it when you’re sleeping. Gloves are less essential, but if you do carry them, you’ll probably use them at least a couple of times. For both hat and gloves, I’d recommend going as light as possible as they will both be dead weight in your pack most of the time.
Glove Recommendations: OR Sensor Gloves, Zpacks Brushtail Possum Gloves
Hat Recommendations: FarPointe Alpha Hat or another comparable Alpha beanie. Or else whatever you had lying around at home, it doesn’t matter that much.
Rain Gear (optional)
Welcome to the hill I’ll be dying on. My deepest apologies for harping on so much about it. But I really think that if you are confident enough in the rest of your gear and your comfort level in the backcountry, then you can forego the rain jacket. If you prefer to play it safe with proper rain gear, I don’t blame you. But I still maintain that it’s entirely possible to stay dry on the whole AZT as long as you time things right.
Regardless, since you likely won’t be hiking in any sustained rains, something lightweight and only water-resistant (not waterproof) is probably enough for most situations. The OR Helium strikes a good balance between weight, price, and usefulness on the AZT. The Enlightened Equipment Vertice and Frogg Toggs could be overkill in my opinion, but they’re lightweight enough to be good options too. I just carried an emergency poncho, and it’s still going strong.
Wind Gear (Optional)
Although there are some windy days on the trail, they’re usually of the warm, dry variety. And if they’re not, then you’ve got a nice puffy that works too. I don’t see a wind jacket as necessary, but I do like having the wind pants on hand for those occasional windy days, since they also serve as water-resistant bottoms or a second layer on cold nights and mornings.
A good puffy should provide most of the insulation you’ll need in the desert. There were a few cold mornings/nights that I was glad to have it, as well as some chilly higher-elevation campsites. It can also serve double duty as a water-resistant jacket in case you do get any precipitation in a colder situation.
Personally, I love the synthetic Enlightened Equipment Torrid. Not for its durability but for its endurance. After over 5,000 miles, mine has about a million pieces of Tenacious Tape over countless little rips and tears, and yet it still holds heat like nobody’s business—and comes out of the washing machine fresh as ever.
Hiking Fleece (Optional)
After foregoing a mid-layer the first year, I carried an alpha fleece on the AZT this year. Hopefully, you won’t ever be in a situation where you really need one, but at the same time, there are so many great mid-layers out there right now that are so DANG cozy. And with the weight you save from not carrying a stove, rain gear, or heavy-duty tent? You can easily tack on a few ounces for your favorite microgrid or alpha direct hoodie.
Camp Base Layers (Optional)
Base layers are always a fun thing to take on a shorter hike, especially in shoulder season. On the AZT, though, I don’t see them as strictly necessary. You won’t freeze without them, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy having them on chillier mornings if you do take them. You know? The same way you won’t die without a hot meal, but you will sometimes enjoy your hike more if you have them, probably. Maybe. Who knows. HYOH.
Anyway, merino is better, but synthetic works totally fine. I’ve had the same Smartwool base layer for almost a decade, and it’s still doing just fine. So if you are thinking of going this route, I’d say it’s worth it to just invest in the merino once and hopefully never have to worry about it again.
Less Expensive: REI synthetic base layer tops and bottoms
More Expensive: Smartwool Merino 250 base layer tops and bottoms
I am 100% subscribed to the fact that you should go as cheap as possible with sunglasses. They are totally essential, but they will almost certainly take a beating, too—if you don’t lose them first. Just some cheapos from Walmart or REI are fine. Then there are Pit Vipers if you’re trying to make some kinda statement (or if you have a sweet mullet). They actually work kinda well, to be honest, because they’ve got that nice wraparound.
Less Expensive: Whatever fun stuff you find off the rack at the gas station or grocery store
I saw some hardcore hikers who I have mad respect for out there with umbrellas this year, and I gotta say that I’m still not sold. The main argument is that an umbrella will allow you to hike through the mid-day heat of the desert a bit more easily. But man, I don’t know, that still doesn’t sound worth it to me. That heat can be brutal, y’all. Many hikers prefer to simply wait it out in a shady spot and hike during the cooler hours.
But if you’re hellbent on powering through it, then by all means, consider the umbrella. But be prepared for it to be rendered useless by the wind at times—which will make it more dead weight than I think it’s worth.
Whereas it might sound lovely in, say, Washington or Colorado, there were plenty of evenings in Arizona when the thought of a hot mac ‘n’ cheese or ramen almost made me wanna throw up a tiny bit in my mouth. You’ll spend so much time under the sun on this trail that you’ll be GLAD those beans and that Maruchan are totally tepid. I think a nice Talenti jar for cold soaking is all you really need for Arizona. But regardless, if you’ve perhaps got dietary restrictions or you’re only carrying, like, nothing but Mountain Houses, then here are some quick recs.
Aluminum pots are cheaper and heavier, titanium is lighter and more expensive. 750mL is a nice size for an individual hiker. You can save weight and money by eating and drinking directly out of your pot rather than carrying a separate mug or bowl.
Less Expensive: GSI Stainless Steel Bottle Cup/Pot
A canister stove that runs off a propane-isobutane fuel mixture is probably the best choice for this and any trail. I think that the days of denatured alcohol stoves are quite numbered out west (due to wildfire concerns). A small four- or five-ounce canister of fuel is a bit of a risk since some of the smaller towns don’t always have fuel (or hiker boxes), so I recommend sizing up one to be safe. Or just cold soak.
Whatever is lightest and serves the food you’re planning to eat is best. Go for a long-handled version if you plan to eat a lot of prepackaged freeze-dried meals, or a foldable handled spork to take up less space if you’re just going to eat out of a jar.
Less Expensive: Wendy’s does totally have the best plastic spoons. I guess because of the Frosties?
Always carry a small Bic lighter as a backup for your stove and for emergencies.
Unless you’ve done the desert section of the CDT already, many of the water sources on the AZT are going to totally blow your mind. But not in a good way, more in like an “I didn’t know I could drink that without dying” kind of way. Anyways, your filter is gonna work overtime on this trail, and it’s gonna be your best friend, so treat it kindly and backflush it often. And try not to give it too much chocolate milk.
Recommendations: Most hikers use the Sawyer Squeeze to filter their water. The Platypus Quickdraw is an up-and-coming alternative. Some hikers prefer the Katadyn BeFree because of its speedy flow rate and scoopable pouch—which can come in handy on some of the more shallow and gamey AZT sources. They all cost around the same amount (~$40).
Nalgenes are needlessly heavy, bladders are hard to use and the lines can easily freeze, and both options are relatively expensive. Simplicity is the name of the game here, so just grab two 1.5L SmartWater or Essentia bottles from the grocery store and call it a day. I think you need a minimum 4L carrying capacity for the AZT, 5L for comfort. So an extra bladder bag like the Evernew is a good thing to have in your pack as a backup.
There are parts of the AZT that are truly better hiked at night. And that’s no slight to the trail itself, it’s just that I think an essential part of experiencing the desert is hiking under the vast expanse of stars for a while (the road walks in and out of Patagonia are prime candidates). Plus, you’ll be hiking the trail in shoulder season. With the shorter days, you’re bound to be out before sunrise or in after sunset at least a few times. For now, it seems like the NU25 (with a more minimal bungee cord substitute for the strap) reigns supreme. They last for ages, charge quickly, and weigh the least.
I don’t even see this as an optional choice on most trails anymore. And for the AZT in particular, there’s a lot of cell service—multiple times a day usually—so you’ll use even more than you think. 10,000mAH is a good amount of extra juice to have. But if you’re pretty minimal, you can save a couple ounces and go lighter.
More Expensive: Nitecore NB10000
What about solar panels?
They’re viable on the AZT, but we don’t recommend them because a battery bank is still a cheaper, lighter, and more reliable option.
GPS Device (Optional)
Optional but always recommended. Especially if you are hiking solo. Or if you are trying to do an FKT and want to make sure nobody can second guess your route. Be sure to factor in the cost of the satellite subscription plan and optional rescue insurance when comparing prices.
More Expensive: Garmin inReach Mini
I do say optional, and that’s a hard optional, because if you have both of your AirPods in then, you will probably won’t hear the rattlesnake you’re about to step on. And yes, you will almost certainly come close to stepping on at least one rattlesnake. Consider keeping just one earbud in. And anyway, you’ve already got whichever ones go well with your phone, so there’s no recommendation in terms of brand.
A dual, or even triple, port wall charger is the way to go. It can minimize your time in town lingering all smelly in front of Dollar General when you’re able to charge everything at once instead of having to wait on things to charge individually.
First Aid and Toiletries
First Aid / Emergency Kit
Here are all the essentials:
- Antiseptic Wipes (2)
- Triple Antibiotic Cream (tiny tube or spray bottle)
- More Ibuprofen than you think you’ll need, because you’ll probably give some away too
- Antidiarrheal (diarrhea in the backcountry puts you at risk of dehydration)
- Antihistamine (for allergic reactions to pollen, poison ivy, bee stings, etc. Obviously not a substitute for epinephrine if you need that.)
- Sewing Needle (heal ripped clothes, tents, shoes, etc. using dental floss as thread)
- Leukotape(thru-hiker’s blister prevention/treatment of choice. A little bit wrapped around a golf pencil or your trekking pole is adequate, don’t take the whole roll)
- Emergency Fire Starter (Cotton balls in Vaseline, dryer lint dipped in wax, etc. In a pinch, you can use corn chips, like Fritos, or pine cones found around the campsite instead.)
Trowel and Toilet Paper
In desert ecosystems, bury your poop in a cathole four to six inches deep, four to six inches wide, and 200 feet from water. Most AZT terrain is mercifully easy to dig in. The larger problem is often finding a place that isn’t totally exposed for a mile in every direction.
Less Expensive: Snow stake
More Expensive: The Deuce
Do I need special camping toilet paper?
Any old TP will do, and you’re going to need some because there aren’t many leaves or rocks to use as substitutes. Just make sure to pack it out after you use it. The days of burying TP are over, amigos.
- Toothbrush (cut in half to save space) and toothpaste
- Hand sanitizer
- Floss (doubles as thread for emergency repairs)
- Vaseline, Bodyglide, etc. (optional but nice for those prone to chafing and blisters)
- Lip balm with SPF
- Baby wipes (optional but nice because there are many water sources that you won’t be able to rinse off in at the end of the day)
- Kula clothand/or pStyle for hikers of this persuasion
- High SPF sunscreen, please, I’m begging you <3
Odor Proof Sack / Stuff Sack
It’s always a good idea to keep your food in one place. And having it inside of an Odor Proof bag is a good way to keep the field mice and kangaroo rats out in some campsites. You can also just have it in a stuff sack if you’re sleeping with it, though.
Carrying a small knife is optional on the AZT. Realistically, the knife belongs in the cooking section because you’ll probably only use it to slice some sweaty cheddar. The baby Swiss Army knife is the best option since it has a few other potentially useful features as well and only weighs 0.7 ounces.
Like most thru-hikes in the USA, the AZT is largely safe place for everyone, and you’re never too far from other folks/help if you do end up in an unfavorable situation. If you’re worried about self-defense, though, a keychain pepper spray will probably be more functional than the knife.
99% of people at this point are probably using the FarOut, formerly known as Guthook, map for the Arizona Trail. The trail is mostly well-marked and easy to follow. That said, having a hard-copy map and compass (and knowing how to use them) is the best and most reliable way to stay found on any trail. It’s worth downloading a compass app onto your phone if you don’t already have one.
If you fancy yourself an amateur cartographer, or like playing it extra safe, there are some very cool & interesting looking maps over on the Arizona Trail Association Trail’s website. Of course, I also recommend just spending some extra time on their website to see what else you can learn, because they are my favorite trail association and do a ton of awesome stuff for hikers and communities.
Unless you’re planning on cowboy camping the whole trail (which, as I said before, is totally possible) you’ve gotta carry at least one pole for your shelter–even if it makes you look like a total UL bro. I think that Gossamer Gear’s poles are currently the best marriage of weight and durability, but I did also have a heavier pair of Black Diamond Alpines that lasted for over 4,000 miles.
Common Luxury Items
- Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow
- Sit Pad (removable back padding is one advantage to using the Gossamer Gear Kumo.)
- GoPro (your tramily will probably thank you later for it.)
- Fanny Pack (Cotopaxi makes very spacious ones, HMG Versas are waterproof, LiteAF has a ton of cool designs (although another hill I will die on is that these aren’t luxury and are in fact borderline essential)
Taylor Bell (he/him) is a wildland firefighter and an extremely enthusiastic birdwatcher. He also has a collection of poetry titled HELLO CRUEL WORLD (Wendy’s Subway, 2021) and will be starting PhD research at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia whenever it’s safe. Peep some extremely occasional twitter banter, or wave hello @jtaylorbell1 @disco_steww