We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs. Learn More ›
The first thing to know about Jac “Top Shelf” Mitchell is that—despite having hiked over 11,000 miles over 14 different thru-hikes—she doesn’t have a formal gear list.
“I stopped doing packing lists or kit spreadsheets a while ago,” Mitchell says. “Now I take what I need and only what I need and I trust that that’s ultralight to lightweight. I’m not a gram junkie.”
I originally met Top Shelf back when she did have a gear list—we all did—on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014. For many of us, it was our first thru-hike, and putting together a gear list was a rite of passage—a way to both find weight to cut out of our kits and to visualize the hike itself, to see how each piece of gear would fit into our life on the trail. (A lot of that turned out to be fantastical thinking, but that’s a different story.)
Since that first hike, Top Shelf went professional—thru-hiker parlance for committing to a lifestyle of hiking, supported by occasional seasonal work, and living in a van when she isn’t on the trail to keep costs down. Her travels have included everything from the well-known 3,028-mile Continental Divide Trail to the more obscure 770-mile Grand Enchantment Trail.
We caught up as she was about to start on a 700-mile section of the southern PCT and spoke about how her now vast experience changed how she balances price, comfort, and weight in her gear choices, and what she looks for when putting together an ultralight backpacking kit.
The Big Three
You won’t find many of Top Shelf’s Big Three items—backpack, shelter, sleep system—in REI. Six Moons Designs and Katabatic Gear are both so-called cottage gear companies, who design lightweight and ultralightweight gear for long trails. For more traditional backpackers, this kind of gear is almost blasphemous—tents that use hiking poles to stay up, backpacks with no internal frame, and quilts that are open on the bottom. Top Shelf had removed the internal frame in her Six Moons Design pack for the section of the PCT she was heading out on, even though there were sections where she’d need to carry enough water for 20 miles or more.
“It’s so much softer and more flexible without it,” she said. That’s in part because of its running vest-style shoulders straps—an unusual feature even for an ultralightweight pack. “The straps are thinner, unpadded, and wider, covering more of your chest with plenty of pockets and storage options,” she said. “It fits you like a shirt or a vest—it really hugs you, which is some people’s nightmare. There’s definitely a learning curve in figuring out how to adjust the pack to get it to ride well. I wasn’t sure it was for me when I first started using it, because I had to get used to adjusting it, and my body had to get used to carrying the weight differently.”
Like lots of long-distance backpackers, Top Shelf uses a quilt, which has no bottom, rather than a traditional sleeping bag, even on a shoulder season hike. To ensure she stays warm when nights dip below freezing, she pairs her quilt with the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm, which, with an R-value of 6.9, provides some of the best insulation from the cold of the ground of any of the inflatable sleeping pads currently on the market. “I don’t use a pillow,” she noted. “Well, I use a backpacking pillow in my van, but I don’t use one on the trail.”
Her shelter—the Lunar Solo—is also a Six Moons Design. “I’m not sponsored by Six Moons, it’s just what worked out right now,” Top Shelf said. “It’s actually the first non-DCF shelter that I’ve used.” DCF stands for Dyneema Composite Fabric, once known as cuben fiber, a material that is popular in long-distance hiking circles thanks to its low weight and strength. But it’s not as durable as other materials (for years a popular DCF backpack advertised itself as only being good for a single thru-hike) and typically comes in at a substantially higher price point than the silnylon that Top Shelf’s Lunar Solo is made out of. “The Lunar Solo shelter that I have is $250 and the Zpacks Duplex that a lot of people use—which is a similar footprint, even though it’s two person versus one person, and is made out of DCF—is over $700.”
“I’m Not Jeff Bezos”
At one point in our chat, I noticed that Top Shelf hadn’t included a puffer jacket on her gear list, even though it was a shoulder season hike.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I do have a synthetic Enlightened Equipment one.”
Like Katabatic Gear, Enlightened Equipment is a cottage gear company specializing in lightweight quilts, but they’ve also expanded in recent years to include some apparel, including rain gear, wind shirts, and puffer jackets.
“It’s OK,” said Top Shelf. “It’s warm enough. It’s compressible enough, but it just doesn’t fit particularly well, the fabric of the shell doesn’t have the greatest feel. For me, all that really adds up when you don’t have a closet full of jackets where you can just pick another one.”
Currently, her only down jacket is from Uniqlo, a Japanese lifestyle brand that thru-hikers have long looked to for budget puffers and base layers. But their clothing is primarily geared toward urban fashion—it’s barely functional for alpine conditions let alone shoulder season ones. “For years and years, I had a Feathered Friends ultralight down jacket and I just wore it till it fell apart,” she told me. “I want it so bad, but I need to be working again to get it.”
There’s a saying in thru-hiking that “pounds are cheap, but ounces are expensive.” When you start cutting weight from your kit—swapping out your old four-pound tent for a two-pound one, upgrading from a synthetic sleeping bag to down—you can get a lot of bang for your buck. But once you’ve upgraded the biggest items in your pack, it becomes more expensive to cut weight, as you start to tinker with the smaller odds and ends or switch to pricey materials like DCF or 900fp down. This all goes double for any gear that you wear on your physical body, which will inevitably have to be replaced, sometimes multiple times on the same hike. For example, even best-in-class trail runners typically only last between 500 and 700 miles—it’s common for PCT thru-hikers to go through four or more pairs in a single hike—so Top Shelf wears New Balance, which can usually be found on sale. “I’ll give a little disclaimer that if there’s a piece of gear you ask about and I’m like, ‘well I’m not selling this as the best for me or the best for this particular route or conditions’,” she said. “But it’s what I have right now because I’m not Jeff Bezos.”
One example of that is her choice of REI-branded rain gear over other lighter—and more expensive—models. In her experience, ultralight rain gear—like the Outdoor Research Helium, is inappropriate for serious rain conditions, as the material wets out in anything more than sprinkles. “In the shoulder season, carrying heavier gear that actually is wind and waterproof is more than worth the extra weight because it keeps me from becoming hypothermic,” she said. “But the reason it’s REI brand is it’s the most affordable GORE-TEX that I found that also is somewhat light. It’d be great if I could afford Arc’teryx GORE-TEX but that’s $600 compared to $300 for the REI two piece.”
She told me that her biggest expense, by far, wasn’t any single piece of gear: It was food. “I avoid restaurants as much as possible and really lean into grocery stores but, with inflation, food right now is more expensive than it’s ever been in my lifetime.” Thru-hikes often lead to extreme weight loss—before and after photos can be reminiscent of a fad diet advertisement—simply because it’s almost impossible to carry and eat as much as you need while on the trail. “I’ve looked a bit into how many calories I need a day, and it’s around 5,000,” said Top Shelf, “but I eat about two to three thousand. I’m usually running at a couple thousand calorie deficit every day.”
Of course, the best way to keep costs down is to choose gear that is both lightweight and can stand up to the rigors of 10,000 miles—but even cottage company gear designed for long-distance backpackers typically can’t do that. “I’ve used my Six Moons Design backpack on several hikes and I just this week sewed a bunch of holes in the pockets, which are always the first spots to go,” she told me. “I could at least keep using it for the rest of the PCT this year.”
But there are two items that have been in Top Shelf’s pack since the beginning: the MSR Pocketrocket and an Ibex 250-weight merino baselayer. She couldn’t tell me what the model of the Ibex was, but it turned out to not really matter: Since she purchased that piece, Ibex shuttered, was opened under new management, and moved its manufacturing overseas. “Their stuff just isn’t as quality as it used to be,” she said. “But this piece doesn’t have any holes in it, it’s as thick as ever. It’s the best piece of clothing that I’ve ever purchased or owned.”
The MSR Pocketrocket is an isobutane stove that’s known for its simplicity, durability, and reliability (I also still have my original Pocketrocket). While MSR has since upgraded the design of the Pocketrocket to a slightly lighter version, Top Shelf told me that she is “obsessed with the original. The only reason I haven’t used it on every thru-hike is that sometimes I’m cold soaking.”
Why Ultralight Is Too Reductive
But Top Shelf doesn’t think that other backpackers should go out of their way to track down an original MSR Pocketrocket for their gear kit. “The MSR Pocketrocket is a great stove, but if you don’t enjoy it—like if you love using a Jetboil and you’re settling for a Pocketrocket, your experience is going to be poorer over time. Your morale is going to be lower over time,” she says. “So just looking at grams and ounces and ultralight is much too reductive.”
Top Shelf has a number of criteria for what she puts in her pack beyond its weight. First and foremost, it needs to function. “I feel like there’s a lot of manufactured strife on the trail because it’s dramatic and interesting,” she said, “where someone could have avoided being out of water for the last twelve miles by carrying an extra Platypus bladder.” She sees this as a problem that even experienced hikers have, either because they underestimate the extent to which their needs are changing, or because they are “creating drama for drama’s sake.”
But she also thinks that great gear should fulfill our emotional needs: “What if the down jacket that fits and feels good on my body and makes me happier is two ounces heavier? To me, that’s a no-brainer. Mental and emotional health and morale really adds up over the course of weeks and months. And we’re talking about an endurance activity that depletes and demands so much. You need to refill your cup in any way possible.”
“I’ve heard people in eating disorder recovery talk about how food isn’t just to fuel your physical body, it’s also to fuel your emotional body and your heart and soul and spirit. So this idea that diet culture has fed us, that emotional cheating is bad, period, is untrue. Nobody needs to eat a Christmas sugar cookie, but can a Christmas sugar cookie feel good? Can it add to a social experience or interaction? Can it make your heart feel full or help you bond with someone while you’re making them? Yes, and that has value. It’s not just calories in, calories out. So that’s an analogy for how I think about ultralight.”
For Top Shelf, long-distance hiking as a sustainable way of life is about more than just smart financial choices in what gear she chooses. When conditions are less than ideal, having the right gear for her—gear that she both trusts and loves—makes all the difference, and it’s what gives her the mental and emotional space to cycle through thru-hike after thru-hike. While Top Shelf hasn’t kept a pack list on hand in years, she threw together an updated one for me in advance of our conversation.
Shelter and Sleep System
Six Moons Designs Minimalist Backpack
Trash compactor bag (pack liner)
Six Moons Designs Lunar Solo Tent
MSR Mini Groundhog tent stakes (6)
Katabatic Flex 15 quilt
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm
Apparel and Outerwear
New Balance trail runners
Darn Tough socks
Brooks running shorts
Patagonia sports bra
Ibex merino base layer top
REI merino base layer pants
REI GORE-TEX rain shell
REI GORE-TEX rain pants
Smartwool merino gloves
Kitchen and Bathroom
Evernew Ti U.L. Pot 900
Humangear Titanium Uno
SmartWater water bottles
Victorinox mini pocket knife
Sawyer Squeeze water filter
First aid kit
Petzl Zipka 200-lumen headlamp
Toiletries (toothbrush and toothpaste, Q-tips, chapstick)
Poop kit (baby wipes, Ziploc bag, Deuce of Spades trowel)
Real World Items
Wallet (ID, cards, cash)
Phone, USB-C cord, Anker wall plug
Anker 20,000mAh external battery
The hard part, she says, about long-distance hiking isn’t the walking (“it starts to take care of itself”): It’s the mental game. She knows that if she doesn’t tend to that, she won’t finish the hike. “Little things really add up, like a luxury item that means something to you. Or a down jacket that feels good on your body and creates a sense of happiness when you put it on,” she says. “That creates a sense of holistic continuity where there’s not another life; a life in the real world and then a trail life. It’s like Jac and Top Shelf and trail life and frontcountry life are all one … This adds up to not only finishing a thru-hike, but finishing a lot of hikes.”
Thoughts on Going Ultralight
Top Shelf told me that knowing your personal style and needs is essential to choosing the right gear. Not that that’s a static thing. “Of course we’re all lifelong learners—we’re always adjusting and our needs are always changing and evolving.” She doesn’t have a perfect gear kit that she’s working toward (except maybe that Feathered Friends puffer jacket). When I asked her what she would switch out if money was no object, she told me that she would experiment more. “I would switch gear out more often and try more combinations,” she says, “instead of wearing every single thing into the ground because I’m trying to get every penny out of it.” Top Shelf thinks that people should put less pressure on themselves to reach a certain goal weight in their pack, and focus instead on how their individual style translates into the kinds of routes and trails they want to hike. “It’s a continuum,” she says. “You don’t start with the kit that you’ll end with. It’s always in flux. Do as much research and talk to as many experienced hikers as you can stomach and then just make your best educated purchases. And then work your weight down from there.