Three Keys


One last post before I return to the trail after Thanksgiving.

So far three keys to successfully hiking the Appalachian Trail have jumped to mind after 400 miles.  They are fitness, field craft and luck. These are in addition to the discourse in Zack Davis’s excellent book  Yes, Zack, I made my lists.  Thank you for that.

When I left the trail at Davenport Gap (Standing Bear Farm) and shuttled to Hot Springs to meet my wife, my body was pretty well beaten up.  In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, all hikers are required to sleep in shelters. Stealth camping in between is forbidden largely due to the high volume of hikers.  In addition, the wild hogs and bears which have learned that backpacks are analogous to picnic baskets would significantly complicate stealth camping.  The hogs are aggressive and unafraid of humans.  As a consequence, night hiking i strongly discouraged.

The distance between shelters dictates the distances you have to hike each day.  Most often, I would reach a shelter around two or three in the afternoon, too early to stop hiking – especially after it turned cold.  Having to make the next shelter before dark meant bearing down, digging in order to produce the physical effort needed to “git ‘er done.”

Ironically, it seemed like the second shelter was always five to eight miles away – up hill (both ways)…

Before the Smokies, I was physically in good shape thanks to the ample number of camping sites between shelters.  I’d hike until it was about to get dark, then stop and pitch my tent.  Georgia features gentle, well-maintained trails.  The trail becomes significantly more eroded on the north side of Standing Indian Mountain and onward in North Carolina.  The Nantahala Wilderness is steep.  Some would say “brutal”- just sayin’. 

Word about the obvious, any time a section of trail has been tagged with a name, be aware that you may feel some discomfort.  The Rollercoaster and Jacobs Ladder are memorable at the moment.  The former because it was 90 degrees and I had 21 miles to make.  The latter because it’s steep and came at the end of a long day.  I am already dreading the words associated with “notch,” even if they are a 1,000 miles away.

After Nantahala and the Smokies, defined by multiple 15 – 18 mile days, my left knee was getting sore and my right (severed in 2008) Achilles tendon and calf muscle were very sore.  I was developing pain (neuroma) in my left foot as well.  I was overdue for a couple of zeros, or an aptly timed break for Thanksgiving. 

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, as the saying goes.  I definitely got lucky with the timing of the Thanksgiving holiday. 

What I learned from the first 400 miles is that fitness is a double edged sword for me.  While being especially fit (strength and cardio) enabled comfortable hiking and significantly diminished the psychological impact of steep terrain and long miles, it also enabled me to overdo it a bit. 

Observing others on the trail who were less fit engendered an appreciation for its intrinsic value.  There are hikers who “suffer” through steep stretches, the weight of their packs, and long days because they are not as fit as they could be.  My distinct impression is that hiking yourself into shape is an option with higher risk than preparing in advance.  The sweat in the gym paid off.

Knowing the little tricks of the trade can be invaluable.  Whether we learned them from our family, Scouting, military service or by other means, knowing what to do and how to do it also mitigates psychological stress.  Whether dipping water out of a shallow source with a plastic bag, keeping your water inside your jacket and using narrow mouth water bottles on freezing days, or placing your tent footprint under your sleeping pad to block floor drafts on shelter sleeping platforms, every little trick of the trade counts. 

There are a million tricks of the trade, and I don’t purport to know them all.  But knowing how to use light weight layers to stay warm and dry, to make field expedient gear repairs, to maintain personal hygiene, first aid, to stretching, to bring the right equipment, to properly adjust and carry your pack, to pitch and strike a tent in the rain, to sleep comfortably, to build a fire when it’s wet, to read the weather, and to anticipate challenges contribute a lot to eventual success and psychological balance.

BTW, my pack weighs 30 lbs. with five days worth of food.  I’m dumping the Kindle, and some small items that might equal a pound.  I’m adding a Jet Boil with a smaller fuel cartridge, warmer clothing and snowshoes, and a third auxiliary battery which will up the weight a bit.  A light weight four-season tent will be purchased and added when I return to the trail after the December holidays, though the plan will be to try and camp at shelter sites through the winter.

The rest of it is luck.  I tripped on a rock at one campsite and did a face plant in the dirt.  If it had been a rock upon which I landed, the outcome could have been more than a humorous non-event.  My weather has been exceptionally clement.  Of the 36 days of my hike so far, only five have been defined by rain, or snow.  I happened to be zeroing in Hiawassee during a sixth. Yes!  My bear encounters have been benign as nearly all of them are, and so it goes.

My hike will resume on or about Dec. 1 for the 226 mile trek from Standing Bear Farm to Damascus, VA.  I’m expecting to take 15 – 17 days with no zeros and three town (nero – near zero miles) days for resupply, shower, laundry and a beer.  After that, it’s home for the Christmas and New Year holidays with a prompt return to the woods thereafter.

3 thoughts on “Three Keys

  1. Today, I made a point of reading through your archive of posts. In one recent post, you mused about what kind of blogger you were. Travelogue or essay? More to the essay in my opinion. I found nearly all of them interesting in some aspect of serious hiking.

    That nice woman from IA above pointed me at your blog. We’ve been getting out more and having fun with different places and challenges. None of them are on the order of your hikes. But, all things come in degrees. For us, it is good. We are headed to W. VA soon to meet some family. We will get some good hikes in along the way.

    Thanks for your writing.

    • Thank you. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my random musings. Writing and trail activity help keep me occupied in retirement. I try to be creative and useful. Let’s hope the winter doesn’t get too interesting. I’d rather be boring. Here’s wishing you good hiking and happy trails.

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