The stuff you need to walk across America
My buddy Mark Fleschler, who joined us for four days in the Rockies, resting on his stuff. Grizzly Creek, Glenwood Canyon, CO. July 21.
Truthfully, you don’t need a thing. I’m sure that any reasonably enlightened bodhisattva could glide across the country on simply sunlight, oxygen, and the goodwill of passersby.
But because we wanted to be self-sufficient (and not completely immersed in suffering the entire time), my girlfriend Natalie and I spent a year working, saving money, and gearing up for our 3400-mile walk across America. Though we each had done plenty of car camping, neither of us had backpacked before, so a big part of preparation involved acquiring stuff.
We certainly weren’t the first to do a coast-to-coast walk across the country, so I’m thankful to previous heavyweight hikers Hawk McGinnis, Matt Green, and Nate Damm for publicly sharing their gear recommendations online. Extra special thanks go to Tyler Coulson for writing the best how-to book ever on walking across America and to Kait & John Seyal for actually hopping on a long phone call with me in the final weeks of preparation.
So, in that same spirit of informing future generations of crazy cross-country walkers, here is everything we carried (plus some commentary):
- Water: From New York City through the Rockies, we did fine carrying just a couple gallons. Even in the sparsely-populated places of the Plains, you’re usually a day’s walk from any water source. Still, it’s smart to carry water purification tablets and/or a filter. We brought the Sawyer Squeeze and only had to use it a handful of times — but we were very very happy we had it those handful of times. In the Great Basin Desert (we crossed it from western Utah through Nevada), we carried a total of nine gallons of water to make it through the long 80+ mile stretches. For two people walking 20 miles/day, that works out to 2.5 gallons per day plus 1.5 gallons on the fourth day, when you reach the next water source. (If you’re curious to hear more, check out my piece on water.)
- Food: In the beginning of the trip, we would cook oatmeal for breakfast every morning. Eventually we realized this took too much time and effort and fuel, so we switched to munching on granola and Clif bars while walking. Lunch was either a tuna or peanut butter & honey sandwich. Dinner was pretty much always beans and rice (cooked with olive oil and a chopped bell pepper when available). We’d eat fresh food (fruits and veggies) whenever available. Trail mix all day every day. Also, I definitely recommend carrying an electrolyte supplement for the hot climates. When it reached 90+ degrees in Kansas, I couldn’t stay hydrated no matter how much water I drank — I wasn’t getting enough electrolytes. Gatorade or Powerade powder isn’t too expensive and you can add as much or as little as you want to your water.
Green River Cutoff, UT. August 7.
- Tent: My love and I spent over a hundred nights in our MSR Hubba Hubba NX, a two-person, three-season, freestanding tent. It is amazing. The tent stood up incredibly, minus some zipper hiccups in the dust-swept desert and one snapped tent pole near the end of the trip. That said, MSR’s customer service deserves all the accolades. Seriously, they rule. No matter what tent you choose, get something small, light, and nature-colored, and protect your investment with a footprint or tarp to prevent the bottom from tearing.
- Sleeping bag: Because we’re two people handicapped by the mental deficiency called “love,” Natalie and I went with the Big Agnes Cabin Creek 15, a two-person sleeping bag. It was fantastic except for this little joke: the bag is rated for 15°F (perhaps true if you start a fire inside of it.) For the rest of us, you’ll need some very warm sleeping clothes for nights that dip anywhere near the 20s. We survived a night at 15°F by sleeping in every single article of clothing we had.
- Sleeping pads: Doesn’t need to be fancy. Basic REI pads work fine.
- The buggy: Despite the fact that normal hikers carry backpacks (like my buddy Mark Fleschler in the title photo for this piece), many cross-country walkers agree that a cart or stroller is essential once you reach the Great Basin Desert (unless you plan on caching water ahead of time or having car support). We followed Tyler Coulson’s excellent advice and went for the DutchDog Novel Jogger-Stroller, an expensive piece of gear but worthy investment because it supports up to 110 pounds and won’t break down. The thing rolls on real tires so you should either be prepared to patch and replace tubes constantly (like I did), invest in Kevlar tires, or go tubeless.
My lady, flanked by our Bearikade and Coleman stove, slicing spam for supper. Somewhere south of Napoleon, MO. May 31.
- Underwear (2): My girlfriend and I both went with ExOfficio because they wick moisture while worn and dry quickly after a washing.
- Long underwear: On a walk this long and a country this broad, you’re bound to encounter some cold nights. One pair of long underwear will help you sleep right through them. My friend Greg Kroleski recommended this sleeve top and leggings, and I loved them.
- Pants/shorts (2): Some walkers swear by convertible cargo pants, but my girlfriend judged me for even entertaining the idea, so I ended up starting out with a light pair of Columbia pants (which I pretty much wore every day of walking) and a classic pair of Levi’s jeans (for when I wanted to look like a cool guy). As summer drew near, I sawed the Levi’s to make shorts. Natalie mostly wore yoga pants.
Natalie demonstrating her winter outfit, me demonstrating my summer outfit, Frisco demonstrating his year-round outfit. Ocean Beach, CA. September 29.
- Shirts (2): Originally I started out with three, but that’s one too many. All I needed was one light, long-sleeved shirt and one t-shirt. If neither is brightly colored, consider carrying a reflective safety vest for days on busy highways.
- Pullover: The Patagonia R1 hoody was not just my midlayer — it was my second home. Thank you Cameron James Windham for the recommendation.
- Jacket: Natalie and I both went with Arc’teryx jackets—I got an Atom because the REI guy said it breathed (and because I found it on sale) and Natalie got a Cerium because she’s a popsicle.
- Hat: In colder temperatures, a stocking cap might be nice for staying warm in bed, but I have so much hair that simply keeping my R1 hoody up usually did the trick. More importantly, a wide-brimmed hat with ventilation up top is crucial for sunny days. I got a crappy one at Walmart for $15 but it blocks the sun as good as any.
- Gloves: Keep those hands warm.
- Poncho: Honestly, a rain jacket would be a lot better, but I already owned a $5 poncho so that’s what I used. Good enough.
- Rain pants: Probably not essential, though it was nice sometimes.
- Sleeping socks: Thick and warm. If you keep your feet clean, one pair should be good enough.
- Hiking socks (4): Wool. I enjoyed having a range of thicknesses, though thicker is usually better.
- Sock liners (2): Quite possibly the best gear recommendation I got from Kait & John were the Injini toesock liners. I never once got a blister while wearing these.
- Shoes: I wore two pairs of Vasque Mindbender trail-running shoes across the country. From New York City to St. Louis, I wore them in size 10.5. From St. Louis to San Francisco, I moved up a whole size to an 11.5 — I’m told this is normal. Natalie originally had tons of blister issues with her Merrells, but then she got some Salomons and wore them every single day for 2,000 miles from St. Louis to San Francisco.
- Sandals: We both got Chaco Z/2 Unaweep Sandals, which are amazing. Natalie wore hers only while hanging out, but I actually wore mine to walk, alternating between these and my shoes for the last 2,000 miles.
- Bandanas/handkerchiefs: There are many uses. You’ll see.
- Knife: You can spend as much or as little as you want, but the Leatherman Wave worked great for me.
- Lighters: To light stuff on fire.
- Magnesium fire striker: A backup option… for lighting stuff on fire.
Lake Amador, CA. September 21.
- Headlamp: For seeing in the dark! As with the knife (and everything else), you can spend more or less, but I adore my Storm from Black Diamond.
- Phone: Very useful. Especially if it’s “smart.”
- Back-up charger: Also a strong recommendation from Kait & John, carrying the Goal Zero Nomad 7 Solar Panel meant we never had to worry about being stranded without power.
- Books: Natalie was smart and brought a Kindle. I was old-fashioned but limited myself to two physical books: one prose and one poetry.
- Notebook: I wrote in mine every single day. Very nice memento.
- Road atlas: We mostly carried this because Nate Damm said Google Maps failed him on his walk, but we hardly ever needed to use it. It’s still a cool thing to have though. Maps rule!
- Dry bag: I very rarely put my phone in it, even when it was storming around us, and my phone still works just fine. The Sea to Summit Dry Sack we brought ended up just being Natalie’s Kindle case.
- Umbrella: We carried a large one until we accidentally left it at a Couchsurfing host’s house in Indiana, and it was not missed. Though it was nice to swing at the occasionally aggressive stray dog, we never found it very practical to carry while walking (either for the rain or sun). And when you’re stopped, there are better ways to stay dry/in the shade.
- Tarp: Immensely valuable for blocking heavy rains or hiding from the desert sun. In Nevada, we’d set up our tent poles and rain fly (sans tent) and then throw the tarp on top. Beautiful shade without hindering the breeze.
- Bear spray: Never had to use it but… you never know.
- Bear can: Thanks again to Cameron, the Bearikade Expedition MKII was hands-down the must absurdly expensive piece of gear we brought on the trip. I went for the biggest option because there were two of us and I didn’t know how long we’d be between grocery stores, but you can probably find something just as useful for at least half the price. That said, if you don’t mind spending the money, it’s a solid piece of gear and serves as the perfect stool even when you’re not in bear country.
Marshall, MO. May 29.
- Stove: We swear by the Coleman Bottle Top Propane Stove. For one, it’s not hard to find those inexpensive Coleman propane cans. And two, it takes up so little space.
- Pan: A 10″ pan was perfect. We cooked in it and ate out of it. We also carried an oversized, lightweight plate that could double as a lid when boiling water.
- Tennis ball: A couple Couchsurfing hosts gifted us this simple little object very early on (in Pennsylvania) because it makes giving massages easy as rolling a ball around.
- First aid: Doesn’t need to be fancy, but a basic kit will come in handy.
- Sunscreen: The only real consideration is that it have a high SPF and block both UV-A and UV-B. If you have sensitive skin, my dermatologist recommends “baby sunscreen,” whose main ingredient is zinc oxide.
- DEET-based repellent: Natalie used this only a couple times, I never did. Just check yourself for ticks every night/morning.
- Anti-chafe cream: You only need this if your thighs rub together or against your pants. We never needed it but Natalie tried putting it on her feet when she was having blister issues. Vaseline probably works just as well.
- Deodorant: I don’t wear this but Natalie (and other civilized people) do.
- Moisturizer: Another luxury, but a really really nice one in the desert.
- Oregano oil: We’d take a couple drops of this if we felt any sickness coming on, and managed to fight anything away in less than 24 hours.
- Floss: More important than a toothbrush!
- Toothbrush: Still important.
- Toilet paper: For making origami.
- Trowel: For burying treasure in the desert.
As I hinted at the beginning of the piece, you don’t really need all this stuff to walk across America. Without doubt, the buggy allowed us to carry more luxury items (books, toiletries, bike tubes, a tennis ball?!) than the typical backpacker could saddle. But, in the end, everything listed here made the walk a little bit easier. Stuff.
Sappa Park, Oberlin, KS. June 25.