You will see much discussion on the forums about boots. I went over to our local outdoor outfitting store (the REI headquarters, how lucky can I get?) and put myself in the hands of their fitters. The first two years, my boots were the Vasque Wasatch — which look heavy but are not; they give my ankles enough support that my knee pain went away. Then my feet stretched out a bit and I needed a longer shoe; the Vasque Bitteroot worked well. REI’s best selling lightweight hiker is the Asolo Stryker (heel didn’t fit me); the forums were also recommending the Lowa Renegade (not enough ankle support for me). Some people really prefer the cross-training or hiking shoes. Take your time and get a great fit, it will make all the difference. Once you get the right boot or shoe, you will want a better insole for the improved cushioning and arch support; Superfeet is an excellent brand of these (steer clear of those cheap things from the drugstore).
In addition to the boots you wear all day, you will want something a bit lighter weight, and possibly also waterproof (to use in showers) to wear in the evening around town. Walking sandals and Crocs are very popular for this. My pair of amphibious walking sandals from LL Bean was too heavy, so I took a pair of Aquasox from Wal-Mart (wasn’t quite enough shoe but certainly lightweight) the first year. The second year I took Crocs, and they are definitely they way to go. Don’t wait until the last minute to get your footwear set up.
Socks are as unique as your feet. Remember they serve two basic functions: to wick away moisture and to mechanically buffer the friction between foot and boot. Blister prevention is the name of the game! I like the Bridgedale socks, and I use their Coolmax liner sock in combination with the Trekker heavier sock. With that combination, I had zero blisters on my first 200-mile walk. Some folks like just a single sock; some like the dual-wall socks. You have to try them and find a system that works for your feet and your boots. Training walks are the perfect time to sort this all out – don’t wait til the last minute to buy socks, any more than you would wait til the last minute to buy boots. And try seeing how long they take to dry.
You will also see much discussion on the forums about packs. Stores do not stock the same items on both sides of the Atlantic (or the Pacific), for starters. The first year, I ended up with an Osprey Kestrel 48, which I was very happy with. The second year I downsized to the perfectly adequate Osprey Kestrel 38 instead. The next year I took the even lighter Osprey Exos 46, which was so wonderful I quit looking further. The Osprey Talon 44 was highly rated on the forums, but I found the waist belt skimpy and uncomfortable. The Gregory Jade 50 was a close second to the Kestrel. Deuter is another good line, but their models tend to be a bit heavier. Again, you will want to try on in a store, with the 15-pound load you are planning to carry. Unfortunately, the American store personnel will have no familiarity with this hike at all, so they will tend to steer you to Appalachian-Trail type gear, suitable for much heavier loads. Gear for heavy loads is itself heavy, so watch out. Pay attention to the weight of the pack itself, and get the lightest one that feels comfortable to you. Many of the forum bloggers seem to think a 32 liter bag is big enough; I thought that looked skimpy (but then, the amount of stuff expands to fill the space available, and stuff is heavy, which is bad …). I have a 48 liter bag; others in our group have a 38 liter and a 50-liter. Regardless, getting a good fit is enormously important.
In France, the lodgings provide blankets, but not sheets always (sometimes there is a charge for sheets). You will most likely not be carrying an actual sleeping bag, just a silk sleep sack or maybe a lightweight liner for warmth. In Germany and the Czech Republic, blankets are not always provided so you will need to carry a very lightweight sleeping bag – the type designed for indoor use (or a lightweight down quilt). Pillows are provided in France but in Spain they are a chancy item; some people carry their own, while others stuff extra clothing in a pillowcase.
Sleeping accessories include earplugs and blindfolds (just like you use on trans-oceanic flights).
I started off planning to use the mess kit from Light My Fire, and the picnic set of utensils from Rick Steves. However, there were so many positive reviews for the Guyot Designs bowl/mug set and their Microbites Utensils, that I changed the plan. Most lunches are picnics, and some dinners are too (especially if town is the mid-day stop), so having a way to slice bread and sausage, and drink coffee, is important. The Guyot Designs cup and bowl are flexible and squishy. A titanium mug is just as lightweight but rigid.
Although the shoulder months of spring and fall are a great time to walk, you can expect a couple days of real rain along the way (more in the spring). Also, with the elevation on the Aubrac plateau (4000 feet) in France and later in the season, nights can be chilly. The first year I had planned on taking the REI eVent fabric jacket, and some rain pants – but I discovered they are too warm for me to hike in at the temperatures likely to be encountered. So I took a poncho from Sea to Summit, which is lightweight and very comfortable – with excellent ventilation. The poncho is not enough protection for spring rainy days in Germany and the Czech Republic, however. The Ferrino Trekker raincoat mimics the Altus, as a hiking poncho with sleeves and a front zipper, providing better rain protection. To combat the chill, I have a microfiber undershirt, which was adequate every night but one while in France. I took a merino wool undershirt for Germany and the Czech Republic, which was a good choice. I took the very lightweight silk longjohns as well.
Every evening, the first order of business after claiming a bunk is to do laundry. And it’s got to dry before the next morning. So, lightweight, quick-drying clothing is mandatory. I have a fly-fishing shirt from LLBean, and a lightweight short-sleeved cotton-poly shirt from TravelSmith; these have collars, and I’ll take one short sleeved and one long-sleeved shirt. In France I used a loose-fitting athletic V-neck T-shirt from Underarmour, which can be an undershirt if it’s chilly. In Germany I took an merino wool undershirt instead. I have pants from Tilley that are great; also Royal Robbins trousers. And a Tilley hat for the sun/rain (recognizable by Canadians at great distances).
There is always much discussion on the forums on the subject of poles also. For all three walks so far, I have used the same pair of Pacer Poles, which are an enormous help to the knees.
You will need to carry water, regardless of where you are walking. In France and Spain it is hot, but there are frequent fountains to replenish your supply. In Germany and the Czech Republic, there are not. All the water is from municipal supplies, so it does not require treatment. If your shoulders are limber, your can carry water bottles in the outside pockets of your pack. If not, a water bladder (Camelback or Platypus) is essential. You’ll want 2 liters of capacity (maybe 3 liters, if walking in Spain or France in August-September).
Local cell phone: Although very helpful while walking in France, as the standard practice is to call ahead a day or two for reservations, it is not needed in the German -speaking areas.
E-reader: (I use a Kindle keyboard 3G, for the light weight – 8 ozs – long battery and worldwide download capability) Just indispensable for these long trips, especially when I am walking solo.
Smartphone: Can’t leave home without it. Nevermind the phone part – it’s the applications that are so useful! Before I even leave home, all the language training and refreshing. The airline apps for flight status, boarding, and airport info. The language dictionaries and phrase books. The GPS route and maps. The camera and photo editing. And of course the email and the phone.
We are not accustomed to hewing to a weight budget. So we have to work at it. The first tool I used was a spreadsheet with every item going in the pack. An online tool for this is http://lighterpack.com/ The second tool is a battery powered countertop digital kitchen scale, used to measure the weight of every item. Knowing weights of competing articles helps make the decision on which to take. The third tool is a battery powered luggage scale, to weight the entire, loaded pack. None of these goes along on the journey, of course.