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5 Thru-Hiking Gear Items You Need to Buy in Advance

5 Thru-Hiking Gear Items You Need to Buy in Advance

Whether you’re planning your first thru-hike or any subsequent one, you need to buy a few pieces of thru-hiking gear months in advance. It can be frustrating to plan farther ahead, but if you do, you’ll be happy when you start your thru-hike.

Thru-hiking has gained in popularity over the last decade. With the advent of GPS apps in smartphones, it’s become more accessible. As you get into more niche gear, the lead time on items like backpacks, shelters, and definitely anything custom-ordered gets longer.

After 17 thru-hikes, I’ve run the gambit of planning from nothing but getting off the couch to massive spreadsheets.  Now, I’ve found a middle ground.  However, the one major thing I plan out in advance is my thru-hiking gear.

I compiled this list for you so you don’t get screwed when you go to buy an item a few weeks before your thru-hike.  Read on and save yourself a lot of frustration.

Thru-Hiking Gear That *Can* Have Long Wait Times, Sell Out, Or Increase $$

CDT gear list pre-trail photo.
A Few Key Items in the CDT Gear List

When purchasing thru-hiking gear, you’ll run into 3 key problems:

  • They’re small US-based companies with only a handful of people sewing gear in their garage and get overwhelmed with orders. 🪡 Thus, wait times increase closer to the main thru-hiking season, AKA Springer Fever.
  • Some smaller gear companies literally sell out of items and cannot get another shipment in time for your thru-hike.  📦
  • Prices are lower in the winter when summer items aren’t in demand.  Then, they increase as summer (and your thru-hike) approaches. 🏷️

I have experienced all three setbacks in buying thru-hiking gear in the past.  It sucked.  And I’ve had to use older gear until items came back in stock or switched up what I wanted. 

So, here are 5 key thru-hiking gear items that you need to buy months before your hike!

This post contains affiliate links. I have used every product mentioned, and if you purchase one of these products, I can earn a small commission at no cost to you.

1. Your Backpack 🎒

Woman thru-hiker on a desert thru-hike wearing an SMD backpack.

Don’t settle on your backpack!  In terms of thru-hiking gear, your backpack MUST be comfortable and work for your thru-hiking style.

By style, I don’t necessarily mean backpack colors, but if you like to go ultralight or just lightweight. 

➡️ My Recommendation: I’ve used 10 different backpacks and currently use the Six Moon Designs Swift X.  I LOVE it, and the flight vest has improved my hiking because I can easily access more small items.

However, some small gear companies can sell out of their backpacks early.  Other times, they cannot make enough to satisfy demand.

Do yourself a favor and get your backpack months in advance.

🚶‍♀️If you do, you can also take it on a test hike to make sure it fits and works for what you want to do.  Sometimes, it’s hard to buy a backpack without trying it on.  I HIGHLY recommend a thru-hiking gear test trip before your thru-hike.  Even just an overnighter.

2. Your Shelter (Tent, Tarp, Bivy…) ⛺️

Aside from your backpack, your shelter must fit your thru-hiking needs. 

🌌 Even if you mostly cowboy camp, you need a shelter that works for you when you need it!

Shelters enter the super niche thru-hiking gear category and can sell out easily, or production simply can’t keep up. 

You can always go get a Big Agnes from REI, but do you really want a tent with poles?  Do yourself a favor and get a shelter that uses the hiking poles you’re already carrying!

➡️ My Recommendation: As a couple, we use the Six Moon Designs Haven.  My favorite thing is that we can set up the bug net or tarp alone or together.  In an afternoon thunderstorm, we can set up just the tarp and keep the bug net dry.  On a clear night, we can just set up the bug net so we don’t have tarantulas crawling all over us.

We’ve also tested out their Lunar Solo, Skyscape Trekker (most spacious), and Gatewood Cape (lightest) for solo outings. 

3. Your Footwear

If your feet aren’t happy… you won’t have a good thru-hike.

As a seasoned thru-hiker, I know I’m going to use Teva Tirra Sandals, and each pair will last me 400-800 miles depending on terrain, pack weight (water carries), and river crossings.  I buy sandals in the winter when Teva is shifting colors, and sandals aren’t in demand, so they’re on sale!

Buy your footwear early and ahead of time.

If you’ve never thru-hiked before, I recommend purchasing footwear early when you can get a discount. Then, use them for an overnighter or weekend backpacking trip. 

✨ Pro Tip ✨ For new thru-hikers and footwear…buy them a half size bigger and test them out!  Test out a few different brands and styles to see what works well with YOUR feet.

➡️ Need boots? Afraid of sandals and trail runners?  My friend Sarah has the best boot guide ever to help you figure out all the terminology and how to find what works for you.  She’s put boots through the wringer as she hikes the 100 hikes of Washington. 

4. Your Sleeping Bag or Quilt 💤

Thru-Hiking Gear inside the Haven bug net: two backpacking sleeping quilts.

While you can get legit sleeping bags from REI, many thru-hikers go for more niche sleeping quilts.

Since quilts are lighter and more packable, all the ultralight gear junkies buy them all up. 

Just like your backpack and shelter, your sleeping bag or quilt is one piece of thru-hiking gear you’ll want to have early on to ensure it’s warm enough and fits you.

If you need a tall quilt, definitely get on that early…there are almost always fewer of them.

➡️ My Current Recommendation: We currently use Jacks R’ Better Sierra Snivellers with the couples add-on.  Previously, they used omni tape to connect the two halves of their couple’s version.  Now, they use a snap system.  We have since modified it by ripping off those horrible snaps and adding our own omni tape. 

Any Custom Thru-Hiking Gear Item

Woman in a van wearing an Enlightened Equipment jacket.
Custom Enlightened Equipment Jacket

For ANY thru-hiking gear item that you want to order customized, you NEED TO ORDER MONTHS IN ADVANCE OF YOUR THRU-HIKE.

I’m serious.  Check the lead times on custom gear. 

For example, Enlightened Equipment often has a lead time of 4-12 weeks depending on demand for custom items. I ordered a custom EE Women’s Torrid Jacket when they had a lead time of 6-8 weeks and it came right at the 6-week mark.

Another personal example: I ordered a custom Chicken Tramper camera case 5 months in advance of our Grand Enchantment Trail thru-hike, but I didn’t get it until a week before the thru-hike ended.  I ordered it 5 months ahead of time, and they had a 4-6 month lead time.  I barely got one email back from them after I initiated contact and then heard nothing until it showed up.  By that point, Karma scrambled and made me a camera case out of some Ripstop by the Roll fabric, which we could rush ship. 

Don’t let that happen to you.  Just because the companies say they have a lead time of x, add a month or two onto that time frame.

➡️ My recommendation: If you go custom…order well ahead of time.

Thru-Hiking Gear EXTRA Notes for 1st-Time Thru-Hikers

🙌 Congrats! You’ve made an EXCELLENT life decision to go on a thru-hike. Whether you’ll be one-and-done or ruined for life is to be determined.

I have a few recommendations for you, more than this list covers.

👣 First, on the subject of footwear. I touched a little on this. Don’t buy all your trail runners ahead of time UNLESS you are already an avid backpacker or trail runner.

A common misconception I see is that once you’re an adult, you think your feet can’t grow. This is FALSE. I was a women’s size 7.5-8 before thru-hiking, and now I am a women’s size 9-9.5!

Furthermore, your feet will swell! Especially in the beginning few weeks of a thru-hike as your body adjusts. Buying your shoes 1/2 size larger will help allow for that expansion.

If your feet grow like mine, several pairs of your pre-bought shoes won’t even work for you after the trail.

🤷‍♀️ Second, don’t be afraid to switch out thru-hiking gear items once you get out on trail. If you see a shelter or backpack that someone else is using and it works better, save some budget to update that as you go! You can always mail home what you’re using and sell it later or keep it as a backup.

Just because you’ve done extensive pre-hike research into thru-hiking gear doesn’t mean you have to use it if it’s not working.

And remember…you got this! 💪

Final Thoughts on Thru-Hiking Gear

SMD Haven tent with an Arizona sunset

Planning a thru-hike can take a lot of effort, especially for a first one. Do yourself a favor and buy your gear early to save yourself some stress.

I’ve run the gambit of hardly-any-planning like when we hiked the Oregon Coast Trail or when I hiked the Appalachian Trail for the second time. 

I’ve also planned extensively, like when we thru-hiked the Scottish National Trail

Either way – I’ve noticed that I am less stressed if I have all my gear, and I’m only planning things like mail drops toward the start of a thru-hike.

Curious about everything we carried on the CDT?  Here’s our complete CDT gear list!

Questions? Drop them below…