The magic ratio rules the day


Numbers tend to govern our lives, even deep in the woods while hiking the Appalachian Trail.  Obviously there was too much time on my hands, or I wouldn’t have started thinking about them.

The most apparent use of the numbers 2 x 6 is the White Blaze.  Two inches by six inches, there’s no navigation without them.  The white blazes are the central focus of every day.  Gotta have ’em and have to find them.

Unfortunately, it seems to be universal that there aren’t enough of them.  The blazing is very inconsistent throughout the trail.  I can’t tell you how many times I and others have spent trying to figure out directional changes or if we were on the correct route when another trail overlaps with the AT.  Let’s not talk about twilight, night or certain sun angles.  Is there a white pain shortage?

Blazing is the responsibility of volunteer trail supervisors – folks who accept responsibility for routine maintenance of specific sections of the trail.  Unlike thru hikers, they are familiar with their territory.  They don’t arrive clueless, tired, hungry, thirsty, with the sun in their eyes, or in the dark of night. 

Once my thru hike is over, I’m scheduled to become a trail supervisor in Shenandoah National Park.  Trust me, I’ll walk my trail section both directions, at all hours of the day and night and try to put myself in the shoes of unfamiliar hikers trying to find their way.

The two by six magic ratio also applies to shelter space.  That’s about what you get in a crowded shelter.  Measure your inflated air mattress.  It’s close.

Someone asked me about my daily routine. It is dominated by 2 x 6.  Beyond white blaze navigation and sleeping space, a space two feet by six feet is the area upon which I concentrate while walking. 

On the AT, people rave about the views.  They are the exception.  Most of the time is spend head down, surveilling a moving chunk of trail two feet wide and about six feet long.  The primary objective is to avoid falling or injury.

There’s a lot to look for depending on the time of year.  Consider rocks – loose and otherwise, slippery exposed roots, leaf litter, holes, snakes, giant piles of bear scat, terrapins, steps, blow downs, ice, mud, and other hazards.  Hikers see the AT in rolling 2 x 6 chunks whether they want to or not.

In describing my day, I don’t know whether to start in the morning or evening.  Each time of day is a bookend and a logical beginning or an end.  Weather and the amount of daylight are big schedule drivers, making this time of year roughly equivalent to hiking in early March.

Normally my first wake up is at 0430.  Naturally, it’s too cold and too early to get up.  I usually doze until 0530 or 0600.  Definitely by six I’m up and moving.  First thing I pack my gear – tent, sleeping bag, air mattress etc.  The last item in the pack is my down jacket.

I have both a system and a fixed routine that never varies.  If you’re familiar with Six Sigma, you’ll automatically understand why.  Consistently repeating a strict routine and having a highly organized system for packing prevents mistakes like leaving stuff behind.  The added benefit is that gear is organized in order of priority of use and grouped by type.  For example Rain pants, jacket, hat, and pack cover are in the middle outside pocket where I can get at them RIGHT NOW if need be..  Gaiters are in one side pocket.  The opposite one has water and three light weight clothing items to be added as layers when I stop or get cold.  I also made a water holster out of a net bag.

I’ve given up cooking hot breakfast coffee, cocoa, grits or oatmeal.  When it’s very cold, I need to get moving to generate heat.  Consequently I chuck three or four granola bars, Cliff bars, snickers, Builder Bars or their equivalent into a side pouch and get moving by 0700 which recently has been first nautical twilight. 

This I borrowed from my Army days.  I normally walk 20 – 40 minutes before stopping to adjust what I’m wearing, eat, drink and settle in for the day.  By then I am warmed up, know what to wear for the day (generally much less than most would think), and have a feel for the trail.  This also is when I double check my trail guide to confirm my hiking plan for the day.

As the day unfolds, I tend to snack around 10, 2 and 4 (remember the old Dr. Pepper commercials?).  I stop to take photos whenever the opportunity presents itself, and sometimes will spend 20 minutes on a sunny lunch.  Otherwise I’m motoring along. 

Almost from the outset, I could average 12 miles per day.  More recently that’s been upped to between 15 and 18.  I’ve done a few 20s, but really have not needed them and don’t plan to make them a habit due to the cumulative wear and tear they seem to generate on my body.

I try to reach my camp – stealth site or shelter – by 5 p.m.  That gives me an hour to settle in and eat.  Can’t wait for the days to lengthen so I can actually hike much later or earlier if desired.

First thing I get water and figure out how to hang my food and throw the rope if necessary.  Then, I dawn my light weight layers and down clothing to conserve heat. Following that step, I set up my tent and bedding so the down has a chance to loft.  I cook – the usual:  Generally Mountain House dehydrated meals, Knorr pasta sides, or Ramen noodles.  I normally add spices and make decaffeinated tea or coffee.  After I’m done eating, I put everything away and hang my food bag with my cooking pot and trash bag inside.  

While eating, I study my Awol Guide and plan the next day paying particular attention to the location of water sources, the trail profile and alternate places to camp depending where I am between 2 and 3 p.m.

Then it’s time for bed.  The night I slept at Tri Corner Knob shelter in GSMMP, I reached the shelter around 4:45 p.m., got water and followed my routine.  By the time dinner was done, it was pitch dark.  I slid into my sleeping bag and checked my watch:  it was 6:15! 

“Whoa!”  I thought.  I quietly enjoyed listening to the wind and woods for a couple of hours before breaking out my iPod nano which I use mostly to listen to pod casts or vintage radio dramas at night.  I generally sleep hard for about four hours, then cat nap until around 0430 when the daily routine begins all over again.

Exciting.  Not really.  It’s all about ratios, time and daylight over and over again. 

The fun comes from what you serendipitously see, hear and find, and from the people with whom you can share your experience.


4 thoughts on “The magic ratio rules the day

  1. Outside of autumn, when freshly fallen leaves clutter the ground, can’t people navigate the AT by following the tread of the trail? I ask because we don’t have blazes out here, hikers just follow the bare line (or sometimes shallow trench) on the ground. In areas where the ground is made up of exposed granite slabs, people will sometimes build cairns to help other hikers navigate, but it’s never long before some LNTer comes along and kicks them over.

    • The biggest problem comes when there are multiple trail intersections, and/or the trail takes a sharp turn with several trail ruts as potential options and the blazes aren’t obvious. On the AT they don’t use topo maps like we do in the west. With topo maps, navigation would be a non-issue. Instead we carry relevant pages from a popular and well-organized pocket guide published by a former thru hiker named David “AWOL” Miller. All-in-all it is a small thing that everybody complains about.

      • The markings are hit or miss. Most are marked. Also there are no forest service blazes that I have found. Their absence adds to the confusion, at least for me.

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