Appalachian Trail, January 5, 2016 — By now the 2016 thru hikers are deep into preparation. A very small number have actually launched. You go guys and gals!
Two years ago on this date I was thru hiking north of Damascus, VA. The following day I was leaving the trail because one of my parents was going into hospice care.
That was cold hard news, but the weather was colder.
If you recall, the winter of 2013-14 was the year of the infamous polar vortex. When I woke up at dawn the morning of my departure, my thermometer read -15 F. I had 21 miles to make for pickup. That’s cause for pause for everyone planning to hike this or any year.
It had rained the entire previous day. Fortunately my rain kit kept my body and the contents of my pack bone dry. That was a life saver under those circumstances, but my pack harness and pole straps were frozen hard as rock. Pounding them into a pliable state generated much wanted body heat!
That icy morning I also took my all time thru hike favorite photo of a gorgeous white blaze framed in plump Virginia snow.
This year, as the seasons have switched from Indian summer to true winter, I’ve been following social media discussions on what gear thru hikers should carry.
On the one extreme are the ultra light gram Nazis. Some of them won’t even carry a Bandaid for fear it will add too much weight. On the other are extreme the Wally World folks who contemplate hauling camp chairs and elaborate cooking utensils. Each of these approaches carries existential risks that aren’t for me. I can tell you stories …
Most everyone else is somewhere in the middle on pack weight. As I’ve followed the discussions and debate, I’ve contemplated what constructive information I might be able to add. Afterall, I hiked 1,000 miles on the AT in winter conditions and was a ridgerunner in Georgia this past spring. I saw and learned a lot of value from those experiences.
In that context I follow a blogger named Paul Magnanti (www.PMags.com). Paul writes a very useful and entertaining hiker/backpacker blog from his home base in Colorado. His most recent is entitled “Snivel Gear.” http://www.pmags.com/snivel-gear
Snivel gear is a military term that came into use after my retirement in 1997. It means comfort items that are not mission essential. These may include extras such as food or a warm scarf or hat — anything to prevent sniveling.
Paul’s blog post prompted me to think harder and write this.
A lot of hikers ask what they need, but they never talk about the value of snivel gear – those items that in a pinch might save their sanity and their hike.
In retrospect, I planned my entire load around snivel gear without actually realizing that’s what I was doing. My motto is: Don’t practice being miserable!
In the Army we had to practice being miserable in training. That way, on real missions when we encountered adverse conditions – hot or cold, snow or rain, soaked in winter or summer, bugs, critters or snakes and the like, – we would know from training that these vectors of discomfort were simply incidental conditions of success and press on.
In the hiking context, No pain. No rain. No Maine. Right?
Well, Sisu decided that he wasn’t going to be miserable on his thru hike, and he carried enough snivel gear to ensure that he wasn’t.
After a lot of thought, my priorities were set. I decided that I wasn’t going to be wet, cold or filthy and planned my gear list accordingly.
Guess what, the snivel gear didn’t break the weight bank in winter or summer.
The strategy was simple. Offset the weight of snivel gear this way: Carry the smallest pack possible. Buy the lightest weight gear and clothing I could afford. Trade non-essentials like cooking pots, cups etc. for a Jet Boil. Eat dehydrated food. Use my iPhone for both camera and comms. Get rid of everything else that was not directly essential to survival.
The winter luxury list included extra socks (4 pair smart wool), a full change of clothes including underwear and base layer, spare wind layers, mittens, hats and gloves, spare batteries for the phone and two iPod nanos needed for entertainment on the long cold nights.
That’s sufficient clothing to ensure I stayed dry and clean between towns no matter what – fall in the creek or noro virus. I also took a sponge bath and washed my hair most winter days and every day once spring sprung.
In summer, I chopped two pair of socks, most of the clothing and only carried enough extra light weight shirts (4) and underwear to stay clean. I still carried and used rain gear.
It was cold enough in the Whites and in Maine that rain gear remained essential.
How much weight did all this snivel gear add? In winter probably about 10 lbs. In summer only two or three. What’s important is not the gear list. These were my priorities. The priorities of others will be different.
The take-away is this: Regardless of whether it’s me or you, a thru hike is tough enough without practicing being miserable. Carry some snivel gear.
Sisu’s lessons learned here: https://jfetig.com/2014/04/10/what-ive-learned-so-far/