Best Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail: 2021 Thru-Hiker Survey

Every year here at The Trek, we survey Appalachian Trail (AT) hikers for the gear they used on their 2021 hike. In this post, we’ll cover all of their backpacking—including the most popular models on the trail last year. and the primary weight of hikers and their level of satisfaction with choosing their packages.

traveler sample

Three hundred and ten hikers participated in the survey, all of whom walked a section or hiking trip at AT in 2021. Nearly three-quarters of them were hikers, and the rest were hikers. For more details on the demographics of hikers, check out our post containing general information from the survey.

Frame type

Similar to 2019, about 80% of hikers used an inner frame pack. Tireless bags have increased in popularity slightly since 2019 (from 12% to 16%), while tire bags have continued to become less important (5% used outer tire packs in 2021 compared to 9% in 2019).

satiate

The majority of hikers (92%) expressed satisfaction with their choice of backpack, while 48% said they were very satisfied. Only 25 respondents had negative feedback about their packages. Gossamer Gear, Osprey, and Zpacks received the most negative feedback (note: these were also some of the most used packs so that’s to be expected).

Below are quotes from those who were unhappy with their packages. I’ve included them all as requested in the Tent and Shelter survey results:

  • “I know better but I started with a very cheap backpack. The lining in the shoulder straps unsurprisingly fell apart.”
  • “Zpacks Arc Haul Crashed Me, Constantly Needs Repairs”
  • “The Zpacks Arc Haul zip rode very uncomfortable after 100 miles”
  • “Both Zpacks That I Failed”
  • “65 liters was too much space. It could have been done with 55 liters”
  • “Water collected in the Xpac’s ULA circuit at the bottom. Then eventually it started to tear in multiple places. The tire broke the bottom but somehow made it”
  • “I started with an Osprey Aura, and it was overkill. The squeaking while walking really bothered me and 4.5 pounds was too much”

packet switching

Seventy percent of those who hiked finished the same group they started with. A quarter switched to a different model, while five percent replaced their bag with the same model they were using before. Those who swapped out tend to opt for a lighter package. It is not clear from the survey data whether those who changed packaging but stuck to the same model had replaced the manufacturer with their originals.

capacity

More than half of the survey respondents had a bag between 55 and 64 liters with a total average of 55 liters. The pack capacities of the hikers ranged from 28 to 79 liters, while that of the hikers ranged from 15 to 80 liters.

Hikers packs through the average (medium) capacity of 52 liters, but anything between about 43 and 61 liters was popular. Bottle capacities ranged from 25 to 80 liters. Regardless of the outliers, section hikers and hikers share the same abilities as can be seen in the graph.

base weight

Base weight refers to how much the backpack weighs when it is filled with everything except food and water. This often fluctuates while hiking, but is more consistent than the total weight of the package with food and water. Hikers in our survey reported an average base weight at the beginning and end of their hike.

Three-quarters of the base hikers weighed between 10 and 25 pounds, with an average of 20 pounds. The mean was not significantly different between the completed hikers and the non-finished hikers/individuals. The lowest base weight for hikers was 7.3 pounds while the heaviest pack was 38 pounds. For hikers, the base weight ranged from eight to 45 pounds.

For hikers, it was clear that hikers tended to get lighter as they continued to walk. By the end of their height, the average base weight was 16 pounds, down from 20 pounds at the start. Only one park finished the trail with a base weight of over 30 pounds, with the lightest weight at the end of the trail at just six pounds off the base weight. 80 percent of those who finished weighed 20 pounds or less, indicating that anyone planning to go hiking should try to get their base weight as low as possible so that less than 20 pounds is a realistic goal.

The best brands and models.

Finally, we asked hikers about their favorite brands and models. The Osprey Exos/Eja held first place with 33 responses, while Gossamer Gear Mariposa climbed to second (25), followed by Hyperlight Mountain Gear Southwest and Osprey Atmos in third with 17 users each. Below is a full breakdown, organized by brand. We’ve included any bags that received more than five responses:

Osprey (86)

Exos (Men) – 25

Hala (Women) – 17

Atmos (Men) – 11

Iga (women) – 8

Gossamer Gear (40)

Mariposa – 25

Como – 5

Z Bucks (37)

Ark Hall – 16

Bow Blast – 13

Hyperlight Mountain Gear (35)

Southwest – 17

Windrider – 14

ULA (18)

Circle – 10

REI (17)

Flash – 14

Gregory (17)

No bag has more than two answers.

Granite Gear (14)

Crown 2 (10)

summary

Most sectional hikers use inner frame packages, but lightweight frameless packages are not uncommon. The vast majority of hikers were satisfied with the pack they used, with 70% successfully passing the full course of the bag they started with. The average pack capacity was 52 liters, with an average base weight starting at 20 pounds and dropping to 16 by the end of a successful outing ride. The Osprey Exos/Eja was the most popular bag, and the Gossamer Gear Mariposa bag came in second, followed by Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest and Osprey Atmos.

Conclusion

Many thanks to the hikers who took part in the survey! Congratulations to all of you! Check out our previous posts for general information on hikers, 2021 overhead sleeping systems, 2021 top tents, and 2021 top boots. Next week we’ll cover stoves, food, and water, followed by favorite places for hikers in the AT. To stay up to date with subsequent hiker poll posts, sign up for The Trek newsletter.

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data warning

Data was collected from recruited participants via our social media platforms, Backpacker Radio and TheTrek.co. Participants submitted anonymous surveys between October and November of 2021. Some data cleanup was done during data analysis where obvious misspellings were made or brands/models were clearly the same. We also changed any start dates that point to 2022 to 2021 and were unable to find any obvious duplicates in the data. Having said that, please keep in mind that you cannot always believe the answers to what you ask strangers on the internet.

Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm (@chris.helm).

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