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Trans-Catalina Trail: What to Pack

If the Trans-Catalina Trail is your first backpacking trip and you’re starting from scratch on purchasing gear, you’re probably already up to your elbows in YouTube videos about what to pack for a thru-hike. Chances are, the videos you’re watching were created by someone who’s done the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail or another thru-hike that takes months to complete. You can complete the Trans-Catalina Trail in less than a week, so you likely don’t need nearly as much stuff as you think you do. 

NOTE: The recommendations I’m making here are what I brought on the Trans-Catalina Trail for my comfort level. Some of these things might not be necessary for you, or you might want to bring more than what I have listed here. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

I didn’t take photos of all the food, but I am working on a planning worksheet that I used to figure out how many meals we needed to order to keep me and my husband fed. I have this as a template on Canva if you’re feeling fancy!

NOTE: the items that link to Amazon are on my Outdoor Adventures list, which means if you click through them and purchase from the links below, I’ll get a teeny portion of the sale. That helps me keep the lights on here, so thanks in advance!

ANOTHER NOTE: While we’re on that topic, I paid for all of these items, none of this gear is sponsored. All of it (gulp) was purchased by me with my own money. You’re welcome, REI and Amazon and Backcountry.com!  

If you happen to work with/for a brand who’s interested in providing gear for reviews, I’m definitely interested in trying as many things as possible, please reach out via the contact form! 

First things first, check out this article on the 10 Essentials from REI. You’ll want to be sure you have these with you, at a minimum, to keep you safe and prepared on the trail.

Here’s a handy graphic:

Go ahead and click through to REI’s backpacking checklist and have that open before you start researching/shopping – it will help you do product research and understand where to start on what to purchase. I love me some REI, but I realize they are expeeeeeensive and as you can tell, I found most of our stuff on Amazon (and other places) – so start here for research and then do what you do to save the moneys! 🙂

What’s in My Pack?

The items in the image above are not the only things I packed, but they look nice in this photo so let’s go through those first: 

1. Shoes. For me, I wore Brooks PureGrit Trail Running shoes on this trip. The first time we did the Trans-Catalina Trail, I wore hiking boots and they weren’t broken in properly or didn’t fit properly (or both) and my feet got torn up. I had been researching and experimenting with trail running shoes leading up to our second trip on the TCT. I had read that a lot of long-distance hikers and folks thru-hiking the PCT/AT etc had primarily moved over to trail runners. And as a gal who lives in sneakers and yoga pants, it makes sense. I love that I don’t have to break in trail runners, they’re comfy from the get go. The traction on the PureGrits is classified as “rugged” and I had minimal sliding. My only complaint on this shoe is that the tongue on the right shoe didn’t sit comfortably on my foot once I tied the shoe – it felt like it was folded up or bunched up, but it appeared to be laying flat. To be fair, these are the PureGrit 5 (late model). The new PureGrit 6 feels like this has been fixed when I tried them on, but I got the 5’s at a steal.

Also, I got fitted for custom insoles at Road Runner Sports and highly recommend doing the same. I was hardly sore on this hike at all and I believe having great support and great shoes helps tremendously! I learned that my right foot is a bit taller than my left and a half-size larger than my left, which explains why the tongue on the right foot on the Brooks was bothering me!

2. Protective hat. For me, I chose the Kuhl Sun Dagger Hat. Now, it’s classified as a men’s hat and I didn’t see a female equivalent at REI, but this thing has a hole that is PERFECT for a ponytail to pop out of, and you can tighten and loosen like a regular ballcap. I have a North Face hat (I call it my derby hat, the brim is WIDE and floppy) and it was blowing all over the place on our training hikes. This Kuhl hat reminds me a little bit of a safari hat, but it keeps my face/ears/neck protected, keeps the hair off my neck by allowing me to have a regular ponytail instead of a low one that would sit under the brim (and thus on my neck), and it is high-wind tested (and patent pending according to the tag). My only complaint on this hat is that I had to mold and fold the back brim down once I had my pack on. The back brim stuck out a bit far from my head and was jamming into the top of my pack. Easy fix!

3. Wind Protection: Screeline Vest from REI. This has since sold out and is no longer available at REI, but it’s a super lightweight (a few ounces, tops) wind-proof vest. I layered this on top of my Under Armour base layer to keep me warm around the fire. I’m so bummed it’s no longer available because I LOVE IT.

4. Warm layer: For me, Under Armour Base Layer 2.0. This is a mid-weight base layer and I’m obsessed with it, mostly because it has thumb-holes. Its quick-dry construction wicks moisture, thermal grid fabric helps trap heat for long-lasting protection, and anti-odor technology keeps you smelling as fresh as you can on the trail! I wore this comfortably on a warm sunny day at Parsons Landing to protect myself from the sun and wind, and wore this with the vest over it around the campfire and was totally fine. NOTE: this was my base layer during our first trek (December 2016, pouring rain and cold and gross) and this last trip (June 2018, daily highs between mid 60’s-mid 70’s, lows at night in the 50’s).

5. Good socks. For the first trip I wore DarnTough socks. For this trip I tried the R-Gear Drymax. I bought these at Road Runner Sports when I got my first pair of trail running shoes (not enough traction for TCT but fab for easy/moderate day-hikes, thus why I went with the Brooks). I didn’t get any blisters or hot spots so I’ll definitely stick with these socks to see how long they last, but they were great for the trip and dried quickly.

6. Power. I paired the Goal Zero Nomad 7 with this RAV power bank. It took a full day of full sun exposure to charge the brick, and the brick can recharge cell phones and GoPro/DSLR batteries a few times over. Since the forecast showed we’d have full sun on the first two days and partial sun or overcast skies the rest of the trip, I made sure to pack extra batteries for the Nikon and GoPro (more on that under #13). 

7. Camp/town bag. Shameless Plug for Finest City Improv. I started taking improv classes at Finest City in January. This week we graduate level three and move on to level four (of six). I got this bag for free at one of the cool community events and it was so lightweight I knew this would make a good bag to have for walking around camp and exploring without my pack. Thanks FCI! For example, when we got to Two Harbors, we went to our campsite, dropped off our gear, I grabbed the valuables and stuffed them in this drawstring bag and then we went into town for one of the delicious Harbor Reef burgers!

8. Cool towel. We got these as a promo item from a vendor back in our skydiving days, I think. This is the closest thing I could find on Amazon. This one says it weighs 8oz but I’m assuming most of that is the container it comes in, because our towels are super lightweight (we didn’t have the plastic tube, just folded them up and put them in our hip pockets for easy access).

We should have used these on the first day from Avalon to Blackjack but for whatever reason were convinced they’d be super heavy when wet? Well, they weren’t and I wish I had used this on the first day, because those climbs out of the canyons after Haypress are BRUTAL in the afternoon sun! It doesn’t take much water to wet it down and this felt like an absolute game changer on day 2. Highly highly recommend.

9. Moisture-wicking short-sleeved shirt. For me, I chose the Screeline t-shirt from REI (and it’s on sale right now, so I’d snag em before they’re gone). I found a similar shirt at Target but the cut isn’t as form-fitting, and I haven’t hiked in it yet.

10. Camp pants (alternate hiking pants). I chose the Columbia Saturday Trail pants. I picked these up in case I didn’t like the Fjallraven trekking tights (#17) for multiple days in a row. They are still fitted but not skin tight like trekking tights/yoga pants. I ended up wearing these as my camp pants and only hiked one day in them.

11. Camp/sleeping shorts (alternate hiking option). Due to the lack of coverage on the TCT, it can get brutally hot on the trail even with moderate temperatures. I wanted to give myself an option that I know I’d use regardless of whether or not I hiked in it. These shorts from Target have a boyshort liner built in so as soon as we rolled into camp, I’d change out of my trekking tights/underwear and into these to let things air out. They’re super lightweight too!

12. Non-bladder water bottle. Now that we’re back and researching longer thru-hikes, we’ll likely change how we carry water on our next long backpacking trip and follow the SmartWater bottle trend to cut weight and make water more accessible. But, on this trip, I had a 32-oz Nalgene in addition to my 2L bladder that goes in my pack. I used this to make my hydration drinks (didn’t want sugary stuff in my pack bladder) and camp tea at night (yes, Nalgene can handle boiling water!).

13. CAMERA STUFF. Lots to talk about on this one, so the letters correspond to all things camera equipment.

a. Nikon D3400 with 18-55mm lens (left my other lens at home)
b. USB charger + 2 extra Nikon Batteries
c. Variable filter
d. GoPro Hero 5 (waterproof without extra case)
e. Joby mini gorilla magnetic tripod for GoPro
f. GoPro USB Battery Charger + 2 extra batteries
NOT PICTURED: Karma Grip (GoPro video stabilization), Lexar 128GB micro-SD card (GoPro), SD Ultra 128GB (Nikon), Neoprene cover for Nikon.

14. Protective Stuff: Bare Republic Sunscreen for face, Alba Botanicals Full-Spectrum for body, eyedrops, Pacifica Chapstick. Not pictured: Papa + Barkley Releaf CBD Balm – this stuff is a LIFE SAVER for your muscles! If you’re not familiar with CBD products and you’re worried about getting “high” from them – rest easy! THC isn’t absorbed by the skin so this balm will not get you high. If you have questions about this, feel free to contact me with your questions. I have been testing CBD topical products for awhile now to help with muscle recovery and my severe menstrual cramps and have TONS of recommendations on that front.

15. Mini-Moleskine notebook for trail notes/inspiration.

16. Long-sleeve hiking shirt. I chose the REI Sahara Shirt. I like the long-sleeve shirts where you can button the sleeves after rolling them to keep them secure. This shirt is nicely vented, is made of quick-dry fabric, and was perfect for layering in the morning while it was still a bit chilly, especially on the breezy ridges coming out of Little Harbor. 

17. Hiking Pants. This time I wore the Fjallraven Abisko 3/4 length trekking tights and I am OBSESSED. My friend Kolla (one of the brains behind Blue Skies Magazine) recommended them and I’m so freaking glad she did, these are some of the best pants I’ve ever invested in. She also recommended the hiking trousers but I haven’t had a chance to try those yet – they’re next on my list! BONUS: Fjallraven’s website has an incredible Find Your Size feature. Look for this icon on the product page to help you find your fit (click to go to the page for the 3/4 tights on Fjallraven’s site):

Since the last time we hiked the TCT, I’ve lost nearly 60 pounds. I really appreciate the extra support that these trekking tights (think technical hiking pants + yoga pants combined) provide around my mid-section, as I have some loose skin that can get in the way if I don’t have form-fitting clothes on. I felt so supported in these pants! Plus, they have POCKETS! There is a quick-access pocket on the right leg. I used this pocket for my cell phone so I could snap quick pics without having to take off my pack or ask Barry to get out my DSLR or the GoPro. There is a zip pocket on the left leg, and another zip on the left side of the waistband. I kept chapstick on my waist pocket. There is also a patch of durable fabric on the butt so you can sit on picnic tables, rocks, the trail, etc with ease and not worry about pilling the fabric or snagging it on something. 

18. Padded sports bra. I have never worn a padded sports bra in my life and OH MY GOD I SWEAR I WILL NEVER WILLINGLY WEAR A NORMAL BRA EVER AGAIN. All the support of a sports bra, with less of the squished look and feel I usually get when I wear a sports bra. I don’t have a lot to work with in this region anyway, but I feel like the padding actually offered more support without constricting.

NOT PICTURED

Backpack: Osprey Aura 50 AG backpack. NOTE: I highly recommend going to a store like REI or another outdoor store where you can get fitted for the backpacks. Aside from the volume measurements available, there are actual sizes on the backpacks themselves. Make sure you’re purchasing the correct sized harness for your body type! 

This is the version I have. The one linked above is the most recent model/color combo. I love how many different ways there are to customize how this fits. As mentioned above, make sure you’re buying the correct size frame for your body type. Once you’ve selected the correct size harness/backpack, you can adjust the rest via chest strap, waist strap, shoulder straps, etc. There are so many different ways to make sure it sits just right on your body. I love the way the design allows for some airflow between my back and the back of the pack.

Sidebar: My day-hiking pack is falling apart so I’m open to suggestions for a day pack! What do you use? What would you change about what you have now?

Trekking Poles: The brand I purchased for our first trip doesn’t exist anymore, so when Barry had to replace his poles, we picked up some Trail Buddy poles from Amazon. I am looking to upgrade my poles for the next trip and am doing some research to see what exactly is so special about the poles that cost more than $35-50 like the ones we originally purchased. Poles may feel goofy or dorky but they will help tremendously as you move across the island!

Headlamp: Petzl Aktik this link takes you to the most current model available on Amazon, which offers the option to have a rechargeable battery or 3 AAA batteries. Mine doesn’t have that feature, and only uses AAAs, which is slightly annoying. So if I were to upgrade my headlamp, I’d likely get one that offers hybrid technology.

Towel: I scored this lightweight towel from REI in an XL, which is pretty close to normal towel size. It comes in a pouch and could easily double as an extra pillow if you need extra support when you’re sleeping.

Map: Make sure you have an accurate version of the map handy. I downloaded the recent version from the Catalina Conservancy website, saved it to my phone and had it available that way. I highly recommend getting a hard copy of the map at the Conservancy building before you start your hike, as the ones sold at REI and similar stores seem to have the old trail. NOTE: as of this posting (6/20/18) AllTrails and the REI Hiking Project App also have outdated trail maps on the app!

COOKING SYSTEM + FOOD

Stove: We use an Esbit stove and tablets to boil water. Barry had this setup before we met and it’s what we’ve always used. On this trip we met a couple traveling with a jetboil setup and I think we’re going to explore that for our next big trip. This stove is super lightweight, and the fire starter tablets are great to start campfires too if you need a hand getting things lit. One tablet will boil 2 cups of water, so you only need one tablet per bag of food, for example, if you’re going the dehydrated route.

Utensil: Sea-To-Summit Spork can handle anything you need to make and it’s the lightest metal cutlery on the market (according to the manufacturer).  

FOOD: for both trips we chose dehydrated meals, bars, and made homemade jerky. On this trip, I added some GU packets and PROBAR Bolt chews in case my blood sugar went too low. There are definitely cheaper options than doing pre-packaged dehydrated meals, but for my first and second backpacking trips, I was more concerned about getting the proper amount of calories and feeling satisfied than I was about packweight. So for us, dehydrated meals were the way to go.

Camp Seasoning: Most of the pre-packaged dehydrated food is a bit bland for my taste, so Barry and I made a camp seasoning mix that will jazz up anything and everything, from a breakfast skillet in a bag to chili and lasagna. It’s a simple mix of all of our favorite seasonings: kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, ground white pepper, red pepper flakes, granulated garlic, dried thyme + rosemary, and some cayenne.

DEHYDRATED MEALS
Here are some of my favorites from various manufacturers:

Alpine Aire

Black Bart Chili (my favorite camp food – texture is great, flavor is great, nutritionally the best I’ve found for what my body needs after a long hike)

Mountain Chili (if you want a veggie version, this one is also outstanding!)

In general: I want to try more of Alpine Aire’s line, because I was SUPER impressed with both chilis!

Mountain House:

Breakfast Skillet
Spicy Southwest Breakfast Hash
Chili Mac with Beef
Lasagna with Meat Sauce
Raspberry Crumble
Apple Crisp

Backpacker’s Pantry

Chicken Vindaloo
Kathmandu Curry

BARS & GOO & CHEWS
PROBAR:
I love PROBAR’s meal replacement bars for no-fuss eating on the trail. We didn’t opt to cook full meals for lunch on this trip, and utilized the convenience of bars & snacks + lunch at the airport on Day 2 and lunch at Two Harbors to save pack weight. There are whole nuts and seeds in these bars so there’s some diversity in texture (instead of just mush).

Favorite flavors: Superfood Slam, Superberry & Greens

Since the first time we tackled this trail, I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. I was worried about consuming all of these carbs and sugars since my whole mission is to keep my blood sugar levels down. I spoke with my doctor and she confirmed that I didn’t need to worry about my blood sugar spiking, but that I should be prepared in case it went low. I was actually at a risk of having my sugars drop too low given I’d be doing 6-12 hours of exercise per day on the trail.

To help keep my sugars stabilized, I opted for the PROBAR Bolt Energy Chews (Berry Blast is my fav flavor so far).

GU

I chose Gu packets and hydration tablets to help with this as well.

Favorite flavors: Birthday Cake (I celebrated my 33rd birthday on the trail and opted for this instead of packing cake), Toasted Marshmallow, Espresso Love (has caffeine).

The Strawberry Lemonade GU hydration tablets are a bit effervescent, which I enjoy and found refreshing on the trail. If you do not like bubbles, be sure to read the label!

SLEEP SYSTEM

Sleeping Bag: As previously mentioned, we’ve hiked the TCT twice, once in December with rainy and chilly conditions, and once in in June with both full sun and overcast days. For both trips, my Teton Sports sleeping bag was the perfect weight. As for pack weight, this one is listed as 2.9 pounds. There are lighter sleeping bags on the market to help you cut pack weight – here are some articles that compare weights/features: Outdoor Gear Lab, GreenBelly, and CleverHiker.

Sleeping Pad: For our first trip, we chose one of the fold up sleeping pads and it was awful. It did nothing for cushioning. For this trip, we chose the inflatable Klymit sleeping pad. It’s 2.5 inches thick and was super comfy for me, and I’m a “sleep on all sides” sleeper – stomach, back, and sides, rotating through the night. It’s annoying, but this pad held up to my side sleeping.

Pillow: I currently use this Teton Sports camp pillow and has served me well. I’m researching inflatable options to see if they pack smaller/lighter. This pillow is 10oz.

Tent/Shelter: The first trip we used Barry’s ultralight 2-person tent since there was rain forecasted. Glad we did, because our second night in Little Harbor was a torrential downpour and we would have been soaked if we didn’t have a tent. For this trip, we chose the Chill Gorilla tarp tent. At Blackjack and Parson’s Landing, we used this as a footprint and put our sleeping bags on top of it and cowboy camped under the stars. In Little Harbor and Two Harbors, we used Barry’s trekking poles to create a shelter out of the tent to help block some of the wind.  This makes a shelter big enough for two people if using as a tent, and if laid flat as a tarp/footprint, is 10×10 and covers A LOT of ground!

Other Items We Brought

All of the items listed above should have you pretty much sorted out. Barry carries a knife with him in case we need it, as well as a fairly basic first aid kit. Of course, I carry a glucometer, test strips, and my diabetes medication. We also carry some prescription pain medication in case of an injury.

Anything you have questions about? If you haven’t already, check out why I think the TCT is the perfect intro trail for thru-hiking and how to plan your TCT adventure!

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