Shopping and Packing for a Section-Hike on the A.T. through Shenandoah National Park

I spent eight days backpacking through Shenandoah National Park on the Appalachian Trail. Click here for my Trip Summary to find articles, maps, and details around trip prep, packing, and lessons learned.

This article picks up where “Preparing to Section-Hike the A.T. through Shenandoah National Park” left off. There, I covered long-range planning tasks including training, testing gear, determining water and resupply points, and completing a backcountry permit. This post moves on to those final-stage tasks that I always think should be quick, but rarely are: shopping and packing.


Food is important, but not simply for the energy it provides. After a training hike, Lynn wrote “At one point, eating became a chore…I did not enjoy any of the meals.” No, no, no, not good! There are two easy fixes: 1) take food you like (seems like a no-brainer, but rash decisions are made when trying to cut pack weight); and 2) take a stove. To me, a stove is worth its weight in gold. Cooking provides a soothing ritual, even if just boiling or re-hydrating, and hot food warms and satisfies in ways that a sandwich or energy bar never could.

Hanging out at a hut, cooking dinner and journaling.

Most food/supply shopping comes down to personal preference, but a few items bear mentioning:

  • Breakfast/Lunch/Snacks: A brief list of favorites:
    • Breakfast: Fancy instant oatmeal (like Quaker Real Medleys) or regular instant oatmeal with extras mixed in (raisins, nuts, coconut, ...), breakfast biscuits, instant coffee (required!).
    • Lunch: Crackers and summer sausage, tortilla with peanut butter and honey (get honey packets at KFC), bagel with cream cheese and ham (made ahead and eaten on Day 1)
    • Snacks: Beef jerky, deluxe mixed nuts, salted almonds, trail mix, peanut M&Ms, protein granola bars, powdered drink mix (like Crystal Light raspberry lemonade), and a little candy for fun :)

Dinner with no clean-up! These are freezer-quality bags (regular bags can't handle boiling water) and the mugs provide much-needed structure (it's awkward to eat straight from a plastic bag).

  • Dinner: Lynn and I relied solely on dehydrated meals from Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry. They’re spendy, but light, easy, and filling. Mountain House Mac & Cheese was our favorite; the two of us easily polished off the 3-serving size. For most dehydrated meals, we wished for a small shaker of creole seasoning to liven things up.  Other hikers often cooked Knorr pasta sides for dinner which are cheap but require actual cooking and pot-cleaning. I’m a big fan of simple re-hydration, "cooking" in a resealable freezer bag so no clean-up.  Stove Top Stuffing has been a long-time favorite; it’s even better with a can of chicken or turkey mixed in, but canned goods aren’t exactly backpacking-friendly. Instant mashed potatoes and couscous are also quick and satisfying.
  • Fuel: I purchased two small canisters of isobutane for my Jetboil but probably should have gone with one large canister. Our friends at Jetboil note that one 100-gram canister boils 10–12 liters of water.
  • Travel Containers: Lightweight, durable, easily-refillable travel containers can be hard to find. I didn’t think about this far enough in advance and almost got stuck with a 3 oz container for my lotion/sunblock combo - major overkill for an 8-day trip. In the end, Lynn gave me one of her spare bottles and I repackaged.
  • Supplies: Miscellaneous “don’t forget” items include packets of wet-wipes, spare batteries for headlamp and digital voice recorder, and freezer-quality resealable bags for cooking and storage (both quart and gallon).

Our weather was phenomenal, pretty much like this every day. Lucky!


The weather gods smiled upon us and delivered a solid string of sunny, rain-free days. With highs in the mid–80s and overnight lows in the 60s, we required little clothing and our packs remained relatively light. My pack weighed in at 18 pounds without food and water, and 26 pounds fully loaded with 4 days of food and 84 ounces of water (a 2-liter bladder plus one 20-ounce bottle).

Rather than insert an unwieldy table as I did for our Ireland backpacking adventure, I’ll list gear in loose categories and add post-trip commentary.

  • Shared Items, mentioned here and again in the relevant category below: Tent with ground cloth, Jetboil stove and fuel canister, compass, bear bag and rope, Aquamira water treatment drops and 4L water tank, trowel, bug spray, hand sanitizer, soap.
    • Lynn felt she would have used more hand sanitizer had she had her own bottle. We only got to shower once, so could have shared shampoo as well.

The tent Lynn and I shared for 7 nights. Cozy!

  • Camping: Tent with ground cloth, sleeping bag, sleep pad, waterproof pack liner (instead of pack cover), foam sit-pad.
    • I brought my 30-degree mummy bag and was WAY too hot each night; hard to get comfortable.
  • Cooking: Jetboil stove, isobutane fuel canister, insulated mug, spork, resealable freezer-quality bags (quart and gallon), insulated bag cozy, flexible plastic cutting board.
    • I carried one isobutane canister and swapped it for a new bottle at resupply halfway through.

Our fully loaded packs. Note the extra Pepsi bottles on my pack. I saved them as "just in case" water bottles, and was glad to have their extra capacity a couple times.

  • Water: 2L Platypus Hoser, 20-oz Gatorade bottle, Aquamira water treatment drops, 4L water tank
    • I should have taken another empty bottle. I saved a couple soda bottles from campstore purchases, and they were useful to refill on long days with iffy water sources.

At another hut. My 4-liter water tank is sitting on the left edge of the picnic table. We filled it with water from a nearby creek and then added Aquamira drops to treat.

  • Survival/Essentials: Compass, pocket knife, headlamp, bear bag and rope. Small essentials kit with: thermal blanket, lighter, duct tape, cord, needle/thread, bandaids, moleskin, safety pins, rubber bands, and extra bite valve.
    • I ran out of duct tape (too many hot spots on the feet!)
  • Clothing: 1 pair convertible hiking pants, 1 pair running shorts, 2 tech t-shirts, 1 half-zip long sleeve, 2 sports bras, 2 pair underwear, 2 pair hiking socks, 1 pair toe sock liners, 1 pair regular sock liners, hiking boots with new gel inserts, sandals, hat, rain jacket.
    • I needed 2 pairs of toe sock liners; as it was, I used the same toe-liners all 8 days (eww). I wore the shorts just once when doing laundry (my pants were in the wash).
  • Toiletries: Shampoo, face lotion with SPF, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, bug spray, hand sanitizer, lip balm, hair bands, travel brush, earplugs, ibuprofen, allergy meds, wet-wipes, TP, feminine hygiene supplies, pBottle, trowel, tech hand towel, bandana.
    • We could have shared one container of soap and shampoo, I rarely used the face lotion, and never flossed. The small towel was nice after showering but could have just used my bandana. I ran out of ibuprofen (sore from both hiking and sleeping) and liners (used 2/day). The pBottle is an extra collapsible bottle I’ve used to relieve myself more discreetly in the woods, but I never used it on this trip; we had plenty of privies and actual bathrooms along the way, and when we didn’t, there was privacy.

Taking a photo through my JOTO waterproof case.

  • Technology: Wristwatch, iPhone with JOTO waterproof case and charger, Kindle, digital voice recorder with spare batteries.
    • I loved the JOTO case but should have removed my phone for photos; the case got grimy and photo quality suffered. Didn’t need the spare batteries; the recorder made it through 8 days on one set.
  • Other: Notebook and pen, plastic grocery bag, cash, credit card, driver’s license.

Weigh and Re-Pack

Ha! The first pass is always shocking. It never fails that I package food and snacks, weigh, and then promptly ditch about half. It’s the snacks that kill me; I really only need about 100–150 calories each hour but want a lot more. When Lynn and I compared food, our jaws dropped at each other’s piles: hers seemed teeny to me, and mine ridiculously large to her. What can I say - food makes me happy and keeps my spirits (and energy) high.

A sampling of the snacks and meals I took backpacking.

When hiking with a partner, it also pays to pull gear out, compare, and ditch duplicate items. Every ounce adds up, and seems to weigh more as the days wear on.

Don’t Forget the Last Minute Items!

A few essential items get tucked in last-minute and can be easily overlooked in the rush to get out the door. I had a post-it in my room with reminders for:

  • ID, credit card, and cash
  • Fully charged phone and phone charger
  • Fully charged Kindle (with books loaded)
  • Filled water bottle and bladder

This 109-mile trek encompassed months of planning, hours of packing, and 7 1/2 days of hiking, but once home, it took less than an hour to unpack and stow my gear. Go figure.