Planning a thru-hike in the UK but not quite sure how to pack?
It’s personal. But the important thing is, no matter whether you’re new to thru-hiking or you’re an experienced tramper, long-distance multi-day hiking is a marathon, not a sprint.
Forget day-hike packing; shoving every snack you can find into your pack, bundles of extra layers you definitely won’t need and an extra lunch, “just in case”. Packing for a thru-hike has to balance comfort with efficiency and functionality, and so with most things in life, start with a list and include everything you can think of; from your hiking poles and trail mix to socks and blister plasters.
Remember too that the season and location of your thru-hike will affect your packing list; if you’re planning a thru-hike of the South West Coast Path during the summer you’re likely to get plenty of sunshine and less rain. Whereas the West Highland Way could mean midges and plenty of rain.
Every hiker will have a similar list when it comes to the main gear but there can be some crucial differences within these, so let’s talk about considerations when packing for a UK thru-hike.
Weight, at times divisive, is a recurring topic within the thru-hiking community. The first thru-hike I did was the Appalachian Trail in the USA, I knew I would struggle if my pack was too heavy so I upgraded my kit to ensure that my pack was as light as possible, but that doesn’t mean you have to replace every piece of kit you own with the lightest options available, it just means finding what suits you.
You want your pack to be as light as possible, and you to be as happy as possible; ask yourself what can you do without, how can you save weight and what ‘essential’ means to you. Consider these questions for yourself while on day hikes leading up to your thru-hike and even test out different kit combinations.
For example, an ultralight hiker’s pack might weigh as little as 4kg, but with that comes compromise.
If it’s your first thru-hike, be realistic; pack what’s going to keep you comfortable and plan to let go of some things on the way. If cutting your toothbrush down to two inches long is going to make you feel better, do what you have to do, but plan to only take what you need.
A good night’s sleep and warmth are essential for rest and recovery on trail, no matter whether you’re hiking 100 or 1000 miles.
For my UK thru-hikes, I opt for an inflatable sleeping pad and a quilt, but I also carry a blow-up pillow and merino base layers for colder nights which can also be layered for hiking on colder days. Some would consider these luxuries, whilst for me, they’re essentials. Knowing that I will be warm and comfortable if the weather changes do mean I can relax and enjoy my thru-hike. And if, or rather when, I get caught in the rain I’ll have dry clothes to change into when I’m in the tent.
However, some prefer a traditional sleeping bag and roll mat combination, the mat being a lighter option without the fear of punctures.
When it comes to the tent, if you’re planning on taking your four-man family tent you may want to reconsider. Tents aren’t cheap but they can add some serious weight to your pack. So, it may be worth considering a lighter, more compact option. Lightweight tents are also designed to be easier to erect and dismantle, saving you time and energy at the end of a long hiking day.
Carry plenty but not too much. It’s a fine line, but guessing quantities or over-packing food are both bad– trust me, being hungry sucks and hanger is real, but being weighed down by your own food because you packed too much is a whole new level of cruel.
Take the time to plan out your daily meals if you can, and roughly measure out the quantities. For example, if you’re having oats and trail mix for breakfast, grab your hiking cup and eye out the correct amount for the number of days you’re out there so you can ration easily on the trail. It also makes it easier to work out what you need when you have to resupply.
If, however, your UK thru-hike is going to be peppered with wonderfully convenient shops and cafes, why carry too much at all? Before you leave the noodles behind though, open up that Hiiker App and look ahead to plan your resupply points, noting the opening times and days of your intended stops.
To stove or not to stove
I love a hot pot of instant noodles as much as the next hiker so initially, I couldn’t imagine trail life without a stove, but as with everything, there’s no harm in trying it. We did a thru-hiked stove-less and to be honest, we didn’t miss it. As long as we had food, we were happy no matter if it was hot or cold.
What’s the alternative? Cold-soaking, in a leak-proof pot for several hours which does mean dinner’s ready when you want it. No more waiting those painfully long 3 minutes for your water to boil when you get to camp, just instant nosh as soon as your butt hits the floor. It does come with the compromise of cold coffee every morning though, so if a hot brew to wake up is your ‘non-negotiable’ then take a stove and enjoy every sip. There is no right answer – only what’s right for you and what you’re willing to carry.
Check out the route on the Hiiker App before you head off; look at the water sources and assess whether a filtration device will suffice or whether you need water purification tablets. Remember if you’re going stove-less you can’t boil your water, but equally, if you’re planning on boiling your water, you need to carry enough fuel to boil and cook with.
Thru-hiking clothing is all about layering. UK weather is predictably unpredictable so it’s best to be prepared with some warm layers even in the middle of summer. Despite the annoyance of the extra weight, it is worth it. We thru-hiked the South Downs Way in the middle of July and endured days of cold rain and wind, so pack for ALL weather.
For the Cotswold Way and the South Downs Way, I packed one hiking t-shirt and shorts for the day, merino base layers for the night, a lightweight packable puffy and a waterproof jacket, and three pairs of merino socks. You can’t beat a dry, clean-ish pair of socks when you crawl into your tent at the end of a great day of hiking.
The big no-no that seems to resonate with most hikers is wearing cotton to hike – it’s heavy and cold when wet and takes longer to dry than its synthetic or merino cousins.
Wearing a pack for a day is very different to wearing a full pack for several so make sure your pack is going to be comfortable for your planned thru-hike. You may also find that your day pack is too small for the kit that you need for a thru-hike.
But what size pack do you need? This will depend on the size of your tent, sleeping bag, food bag, your sleeping pad of choice, how many toiletries you plan to take etc.
Some ultralight hikers will go with as small a pack as possible forgoing a hip strap, whilst others, like myself, find a hip strap reassuring as it helps with weight-bearing and saves the shoulders from doing all the work.
A thru-hike in the UK requires that you consider a rain cover; does your pack come with one or do you need to carry one just in case? On our USA and UK thru-hikes, we lined our backpacks with a large sturdy bin-liner to ensure everything inside would stay dry which worked perfectly.
Loo roll is a priority for most, as is a toothbrush and toothpaste, sun cream and hand sanitiser, but after that, it’s wholly personal. Some hikers would forgo many toiletries as heavy luxuries, whilst for others, they are worth it for the peace of mind.
Things like a first aid kit, emergency blanket, Vaseline or balm, wet wipes, plasters or antiseptic cream can be game-changers. If something ensures you stay comfortable and you don’t mind carrying it, then do it. You can always ditch it on route if you find you don’t need it.
There are often questions about items such as an emergency blanket but being forced to spend a cold wet night above treeline during one thru-hike we were extremely grateful to have had ours.
A head torch is always a good idea for a thru-hike as relying on a phone light could let you down if you run out of battery. There may be times when you have to hike at night hike because you’ve not found a stealth spot to camp, if you have to pack up and get going early in the morning, or when nature calls in the middle of the night and you really need to dig that cat hole.
Battery packs have also become a pretty essential piece of kit, allowing hikers to charge their phones on the move, especially important if you’re following your route on the Hiiker App, to let friends or family know you’re safe, or if you’re documenting your trail as you go, however for others looking to reduce weight, they simply rely on being able to charge up at cafes or restaurants as and when on the route – which will always depend on the UK thru-hike chosen.
The things you could hike without but definitely don’t want to – these are your luxury items.
Camp shoes, pillow, gaiters, sitting mat, waterproof phone case, book, camera, drone, floss, earplugs, eye mask… For some these items could make or break a trail.
As with anything though, it is all personal. Everyone thinks their way is the best way, but if you know, you know.
On the other hand, if you don’t try new things you’ll never know if you’re missing something huge. Your packing list will most probably evolve incrementally over time, as you discover new hacks and as your experience grows and you learn what you really need and what you can’t hike without.
It can be a great idea to ask other hikers about their kit, how they hike and what they consider as ‘essential’ so you can gain insight; that way you can borrow the bits that seem like a good idea to you, throw out the rest and then hike your own hike.
General Packing checklist:
- Clothes (day, night, waterproofs, underwear)
- Sleeping bag or quilt
- Boots/trail runners/hiking shoes
- Hiking poles
- Sleeping mat or inflatable pad
- Cooking: Stove or cold soak pot, cup, spork/spoon
- Food: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks
- Water bottles and filtration device or purification tablets
- Tech – phone with Hiiker App, battery pack, charger
- Toiletries – hand sanitiser, loo roll, trowel, wet wipes
- Medical – blister plasters, safety pin, antiseptic, emergency blanket, beacon locator