A few times during the trip, I met people who thought I was walking across the United States with nothing more than the clothes I was wearing. Not quite. By the end of the trip, I was packing so much stuff, acquired so haphazardly, that to call it “gear” almost feels misleading. Some of the basic issues I was trying to address, however, would confront anyone contemplating a similar project; so in case that’s you, here’s a basic overview of my own gear issues, with a few additional notes on specific items of equipment.
My initial gear planning for this trip centered on concerns about water. I anticipated desert stretches in Utah and New Mexico that might require me to carry several days’ worth of water, and at about 8.3 pounds per gallon – 1 kg per L – several days’ worth of water was more than I wanted to be carrying on my back. Many people who walk across the United States use a cart at least part of the way, and I spent a huge amount of time before the trip trying to find or devise the ideal cart for my own purposes. That didn’t quite work out. Neither of the two carts that I actually used on the walk were ideal, so I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the practical pros and cons of a life with wheels.
Another question that loomed over most of the journey was how to keep warm. I started the trip intending to finish before the onset of serious winter weather, but I caught my first snow in the Idaho Rockies in the middle of September, and I kept hitting freezing temperatures clear into Louisiana at the end of February. I accumulated blankets, jackets, insulated storage bags, an inflatable sleeping pad, a thermos, and even an extra sleeping bag for a while in my efforts to keep myself and my drinking water from freezing. I couldn’t have carried all of this low-density swaddling without a capacious cart, either.
While the cart allowed and encouraged me to carry increasingly bulky luggage, it also allowed me to lighten my shoes. Using a cart meant that I wasn’t carrying a heavy backpack, and also that I had to keep to well-maintained roads as much as possible. As a result, I usually wore minimalist shoes – almost moccasins – rather than backpacking boots. Cold and thorns, however, occasionally compelled me to switch to boots, and sometimes left me wishing I’d made the switch earlier.
In addition to the traveling equipment, I was also packing electronics to document the trip and the interviews I was conducting along the way – cameras, a microphone, hard drives, cables, chargers, a laptop – all needing cases for protection against shock and the elements, and all vulnerable to theft whenever I left my cart unattended, which I had to do every time I walked into a store. For the majority of the trip, the desert climate meant that I didn’t have to worry much about this equipment getting wet, but there were enough other hazards that I could never be entirely easy in my mind when it came to the electronics.
I began the trip with a customized Dixon Rollerpack made by Bob Dixon of San Diego. I had hoped to find a cart that would convert into an external frame pack for off-road use, and the Dixon Rollerpack was the only product on the market that ostensibly converted in this way without costing an arm and a leg – otherwise, I might have gone with a walking cart called the Radical Design Wheelie, made by Hubert van Ham in the Netherlands. The standard Dixon Rollerpack is a single-wheeled contraption, but I wanted a cart with two wheels, and after extensive discussions by phone, Mr. Dixon sent me a two-wheeled version just before I started my trip.
From the beginning, the two-wheeled Rollerpack was a fiasco. It was poorly constructed and required continual trips to hardware stores to keep it in rolling condition. The tires on the original wheels fell off, the advertised load rating was wildly optimistic, and the screws that held everything together had a tendency to loosen and back out. Not only were these fundamental, inexcusable problems, but they were also difficult to fix once I was on the road – try as I might to retrofit reliable wheels, for example, the design of the frame limited me to wheels with bearings that inevitably buckled. As an external frame pack, meanwhile, the Rollerpack put excessive pressure on my lower back, and I never even attempted to carry it that way after my pre-trip trials. Furthermore, I found that the Rollerpack performed badly when pulled like a travois using its associated hipbelt and harness, but caused chronic pain in my right elbow when I pushed it in front of me instead. It was a bad piece of work. By the time I reached Victor, Idaho, and spotted an off-brand steel-frame bicycle trailer on the porch of a secondhand gear store, I was ready for a change.
Because the Rollerpack was at least a known quantity, I rolled out of Victor with the Rollerpack nested inside the bike trailer, and pushed this bizarre assembly along for nine days and almost two hundred miles before I was satisfied that the bike trailer was going to work. As soon as I left the Rollerpack behind, however, I hit Tribulus terrestris (goat head) territory in the vicinity of Logan, Utah, and had to install solid polyurethane foam tubes inside the trailer tires in order to avoid continual flats. Solid polyurethane foam tubes are a hassle to mount – on one occasion, it took me and two bicycle techs about an hour to install the things using screwdrivers and wrenches – but the goat head plant is capable of putting hundreds of punctures per day into any other style of inner tube, and it grows all over the Intermountain West.
Once puncture-proof, the bicycle trailer was a vast improvement over the Dixon Rollerpack. It rolled more easily on its larger wheels; its bearings were reliable; its greater storage capacity allowed me to carry more water and insulation; and thanks to a repurposed Wyoming lawnmower handle, it was much more comfortable to push, and didn’t leave my elbow aching at the end of every day. On the other hand, because the bike trailer was considerably wider than the Rollerpack, I had to take more care to avoid traffic on the shoulders of roads, and I couldn’t take the trailer through a standard-sized doorway without unloading it and turning it on its side. People driving by were also quick to assume that I was pushing children in the trailer, which resulted in numerous conversations with police called in to investigate. One time, three vehicles from the local sheriff’s office pulled me over in the dark on a snowy mountain road in New Mexico, responding to an emergency call about a stranded woman with a baby stroller.
The bottom line: using a cart instead of a backpack gave me an extra hour of walking each day, and it spared my body a lot of wear and tear, but it also forced me to stick to roads for practically the entire trip. I sacrificed a certain level of engagement with my surroundings in return for convenience: modern transit in a nutshell.
For the vast majority of the walk, I wore Keen Bleecker Lace shoes (now discontinued). These were low-cut minimalist shoes with full-grain leather uppers, very little stitching, metal lace eyelets, a shallow lug pattern, toe bumpers, and tabs on the backs of the heels. Each pair lasted 1,500 miles. By this point, the soles had worn through, but the uppers were still in fine shape. The only improvement I made to them over the course of the trip was to switch out the stock fabric laces for leather ones – since Keen modestly marketed the Bleecker as a casual shoe, the stock laces weren’t very tough. I also found that I could use the heel tabs as attachment points for makeshift gaiters to keep debris from getting into the low-cut ankle openings. The first few times these shoes got wet, the dye in the leather bled and stained whatever it touched, but I wasn’t too particular about the color of my socks.
I subsequently found that the leather on these shoes deteriorated horribly in tropical conditions, and that cobblers couldn’t do much once the uppers start splitting away from the soles, but neither of these issues came up on this particular trip. If you use lightweight leather shoes in mud for extended periods, or while carrying a full pack on rough ground, they probably won’t hold up as long as they would in dry conditions or on graded roads.
Two stretches of the trip posed problems that the Bleeckers couldn’t handle, and in those cases I turned to heavy-duty Lowa Baffin Pro backpacking boots. The first stretch was up around the Continental Divide, where I needed thicker soles and higher ankles to keep my feet from freezing. The second stretch was the Chihuahuan Desert, where the vegetation was the problem. By that point, I’d already gotten clear of goat head territory without switching to boots, despite the irritation caused by dozens of tiny spines lodged the soles of my shoes. I’d even walked through prickly pear and acacia country for about a month without mishap before I stepped on a thorn in West Texas that could have ended the trip. The thorn went straight through the sole of my shoe and almost all the way through my foot. When I was sufficiently recovered to keep walking, I put my boots on and kept them on all the way to Austin. They aren’t the most comfortable things to wear even at the best of times; they do gruesome things to my feet pretty often; but in the worst of times, they’re absolutely reliable, and that counts for a lot.
I used the same Tarptent Scarp 1 that I’d previously used to finish my walk across Europe, with the addition of two extra poles to make it freestanding. In many ways, this is an excellent tent: light, sturdy, reasonably ventilated, roomy enough to fit a fairly tall person and a large amount of gear, and compact enough to pitch in cramped spaces. It’s not perfect, though. With numerous pole-ends needing to touch the ground in roughly the same plane, the Scarp 1 tends to go up slightly askew on uneven ground, unevenly stressing the fabric and stitching and allowing the outer shell to stick to the inner cocoon. In cold weather, it can be a pain to take down because of the myriad ripstop surfaces, mesh panels, buckles, clips, sleeves, and cords capable of frosting and collecting ice and snow. I often had to choose between cold fingers or a wet tent when I packed in the morning. I’ve also known water to seep through the floor after a night of persistent rain.
I’ve been using a Marmot Spire for a while now. Long sleeves, decently long torso, cavernous wire-brimmed hood, pit zips, tough material, pockets placed above the pack hipbelt. I like that the sleeves are wide enough that I can pull the cuffs above my elbows when I’m going uphill. The collar on this jacket flares quite high up, which is great if you’re completely bundled up against a gale, and which also makes it easier to tuck the hood away when you don’t need to use it. At first, I worried that the enormous collar might funnel water into the jacket if I left it half-open, but, over time, I’ve actually come to wish the collar were just a bit larger still, so that I could zip it closed over my nose in particularly ghoulish conditions without ducking my head or hunching my shoulders.
I carried an 11-inch MacBook Air in a Pelican 1085 hard case, an iPhone in an Otterbox, a GoPro Hero, a Canon Vixia HFS200 camcorder, a Zoom H4n audio recorder, two 1-TB LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 external hard drives, and a Goal Zero Switch 8 / Nomad 3.5 recharging kit. As far as I can tell, I only had three problems with this equipment: the GoPro, which had already traveled 4,000 miles on foot across Europe, occasionally recorded absolutely atrocious audio, and produced one or two corrupted video files; and my first iPhone stopped functioning correctly in Utah. Apple replaced the phone by mail, but the delay meant that I got hit head-on by severe cold in the San Juan Mountains a bit farther down the road. The second iPhone made it through the rest of the trip without any trouble, which was handy, because I was using it to navigate. I got into a pattern of using one map app to keep track of the road ahead and another to keep track of the road behind. I occasionally resorted to the Goal Zero battery to keep the phone charged – the phone’s own battery was usually good for about three days at a time, and I typically hit a gas station sooner than that – but I never had to use the solar panel. It turned out the desert just wasn’t that empty.