Planning Your On-trail Budget

Springer

Where the budget starts for most hikers.

From and article I prepared for the Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook page, January 5, 2018.

Running out of money is one of the primary reasons hikers do not finish their thru hikes. A realistic budget, understanding where the money goes, and a little self-discipline can help ensure your hike goes all the way.

What a previous hike may have cost any single individual is relevant to your planning, but not definitive because everybody is unique. But, if you know what drives costs, you can develop a budget that will help you succeed at a price you can afford.

So, this post isn’t going to tell you now much money you need. Instead, it seeks to help you think through how to develop your budget by looking at where costs come from and offering a sense of what average hikers spend.

The irony is that while you’re actually hiking, you aren’t spending money. You may be eating, wearing or carrying what money bought, but unless you’re shopping on line from mountaintops, you’re not actually burning cash while you are on the trail itself.

Being that we’re discussing on-trail expenses, we will not include the cost of gear or equipment purchased prior departure or your transportation home.

Towns are money sumps. Some expenses are undeniably necessary while others are optional, but for the most part, how much you spend is purely up to you.

At this point human nature is worth noting. By the time a thru hiker gets to town, s/he has been on the trail for approximately five days. In addition to the big four: groceries, laundry, fuel, and a shower, most hikers want to sleep in a bed. Those five usually cost less than number six.

Number six. Being people, we’re hungry for restaurant food and maybe a beer or two. You guessed right. That’s where the real money goes. A restaurant/bar stop can cost more than the big five all together. Stay for a zero and a second night and you can easily double that.

So let’s talk about town stops.

First, how do you get to town?

DSC00044

Some hostels shuttle for free and some do not.

With the exception of the few times the trail actually runs down Main Street, you’ll need to hitch or shuttle. Hitching is free, but sometimes difficult or sketchy. It’s also against the law in New York, New Jersey, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, in and around Harpers Ferry, and possibly more places. Weather and time of year also can be factors in this decision.

Shuttles usually cost around $2 per mile. Be sure you understand the cost before asking the driver to meet you at the trailhead. Shuttle drivers also expect cash payment.

With a growing number of hikers attempting to duck payment, some drivers are asking for payment up front, so be prepared.

Some hostels shuttle for free; some don’t. Sometimes you can spit costs with other hikers or get a group discount. If the guidebook doesn’t say, be sure and ask up front.

The average one-way shuttle cost is around $10 – $20 or $20 – $40 per town stop.

Once in town, expect to walk where you need to go. Hostels located outside a nearby town generally will offer free daily shuttles to town at designated times.

The big five:

Grocery costs depend on menu. The menu includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Also, most hikers change tastes over the course of their hike. So, that energy bar you love today may be the one you gag on three months in.

Resupplyt

Shopping at Ingles in Hiawassee, GA.  Taken from the in-store Starbucks.

As for entrées, on the high end is freeze dried food. You can save a little by buying freeze dry food in bulk, and use resupply boxes, but your tastes may change. On trail, freeze dry meals are available at Walmart and at most outfitters. Depending where they’re bought and the specific meal, freeze dry food costs, on average, between $6 and $10 per meal, bending toward the higher number.

Among the more affordable prepared foods are Knorr sides and Ramen which can be supplemented with tuna or chicken packets and much more. Hikers also favor instant oatmeal, granola bars, energy bars, candy bars, jerky, instant coffee, cured sausage, cream and block cheese, hardboiled eggs, crackers of all kinds, olive oil, peanut butter, tortillas, snack cakes, sticky buns, and cookies just to mention a few. Consider taking a multivitamin if you eat too much of your diet in refined sugar and salt.

Of course there are vegan diets and those who love fresh food. Also, some cook and some don’t. Choosing not to cook can save $3 – $8 per week in fuel costs depending on fuel type.

Your menu choices will determine food costs.

Don’t forget you’ll not be very hungry but will transition to eating much more after hiker hunger kicks in.

Your grocery bill will depend on what you eat. Between $30 – $50 per resupply stop seems to be around average.

Your trip to town subtotal is now $50 – $90 and you still have to shower and do laundry. There’s also a place to stay.

BearsDenHostel

No two hostels are the same.  Costs can vary dramatically.

Let’s say you’re sleeping in town. Hostels are cheaper than motels. The cost of hostels can vary widely depending on amenities – platform bunks vs. mattresses and pillows, tenting, private rooms, etc. Some hostels include laundry in their total price while others offer a la carte pricing for laundry, showers, snacks, meals or offer use of a kitchen to cook your own meals and save money.

Laundry and showers, without stay, at most hostels average around $5 each.

The cost of a hostel stay can vary a lot. The prices have been recently increasing due to supply and demand, the short season, and growing overhead costs. While one may be as low as $25, another can be more than $50, with some considerably more. An up to date guidebook will have the details.

At this point your plan may be to stay only at the least expensive hostels, and at that tent whenever possible to save money. Unfortunately no plan ever survives contact with reality.

IcyShelter

Severe weather can change your plans.  Photo by Warren Fewtrell

Your spreadsheet may say so many miles per day and specify town stops. However, weather, illness, frame of mind, trail family companions, injury, fatigue and a host of other issues may alter that planning and add considerable unexpected expense.

For planning purposes, it’s generally safer to round up. So let’s average $50 per hostel stay even though that may be slightly on the high side.

Your bare bones town stop is now up to $100 – $140 and you haven’t even had a hamburger yet.

Remember the reference to human nature. It takes a strong will to forego at least one restaurant stop while you’re in town.

Restaurant

Some restaurants are part of the trail tradition and are difficult to avoid.

Run into some trail friends you haven’t seen in awhile, here’s betting you can’t avoid the temptation to find a place to eat, grab at least one beer and catch up. What about if you’re hiking out of town after a zero and just happen to run into these same friends you haven’t seen in awhile? Bet you take a second zero. Kerching! It’s like lighting twenty dollar bills on fire.

IMG_0095

Trail families form and dissolve.  You’ll want to catch up with people you haven’t seen in awhile.

Beer and burgers/pizza cost more or less depending on where you are. Realistially, you probably won’t get out of most restaurant/bars, with the exception of fast food, for under $40 – $50. The cost of alcohol is expensive and most hikers don’t drink just one beer or eat one hamburger.

Restaurant food and alcohol can cost as much or more than the big five.

If you eat breakfast and lunch in restaurants, add more. The good news is that AT towns are so rural that there are only a couple of Starbucks on the trail, so your coffee habit won’t beak the bank!

Coffee

There are excellent and not inexpensive coffee shops/restaurants along the way.  Dalton, MA.

Subtotal: $140 – $190 per town stop. If you use resupply boxes, add around $15 for a medium size flat rate box, two-day delivery. A medium size Express Mail box will hold four days food.

Since town stops are so expensive, how many should you expect?

The average hiker goes to town every fifth or sixth day. The reason is that food is the single heaviest item – and one of the bulkiest – in their pack. Think weight and space. Five days is about what fits (in a bear canister, food bag or pack) at a weight hikers feel comfortable carrying. There are exceptions, but again we’re talking averages.

Divide the average time it takes for a thru hike, 180 days, by five and you get 36 before zeros. Believe it. You’ll want to zero from time to time. Let’s say you plan for 15, but due to circumstances actually take 20 under the round up principle. That’s 40 five-day hikes and 40 town stops.

Estimated rounded-up cost on the trail ranges between $6,000 and $7,200. Add $15 for each resupply box you expect to use. The author used about 15 of them, all in the north.

Resupply by mail is common.  You can leave boxes open so the contents can be adjusted if necessary.

Can you thru hike for less? Absolutely.

Start with fewer zeros. If your body holds up, you may only need one zero per month. That’s six, not 15. Unfortunately, that’s not what most people need or do.

By increasing days between resupply you need fewer town stops at the price of a heavier pack. You can use the NERO (near zero) option to minimize your overnight stays in town. Above all, decrease eating in restaurants and alcohol consumption.

Hitch

Hitch more if you’re comfortable doing that.

Work for stay also can reduce hostel costs. But remember that you won’t be the only one who wants work for stay and the opportunities are limited. There just isn’t enough work for everyone.

Be aware that hostel owners complain that a lot of work-for-stay hikers aren’t willing to work hard and do a good job. They have a list serve and communicate with one another. All the other hostels up the trail will know about shirkers or problem hikers. Do a good job and you’ll stand out from your competition.

One successful hiker was very smart about work for stay. He was a decent handyman who was able to do very useful work for hostel owners. When he completed his assignment, he’d ask the hostel owner to refer him up the trail. His lodging budget was $0 and he was successful. He even earned real money from time to time. The keys were his willingness to work very hard, do an excellent job, his useful skills, and being savvy enough to ask for help landing a gig at his next stop.

Of note.

You’ll need a budget contingency for equipment you may have to replace. Whether a bear tears up your tent, you fall and bend your trekking poles, a boot fails, or you lose weight and need new pants, you may have to replace something along the way.

BrokenGear

Gear breaks and hasty repairs don’t always hold.

Bear Damage.

Be aware that the southern end of the trail is very good at separating hikers from their money. The trail towns are friendly, the festivals frequent, and the hikers really want to be social.

You really have to watch your spend rate on the first half of your hike. Too many hikers spend way too much money in the south and have to go home early because they are dead broke.

Hiker feeds are found primarily in the southern half of the trail.  Do not depend upon them to reduce costs.

Many hikers don’t realize how much more expensive the northern half of the trail is compared to the southern half. There also are far fewer hiker feeds that sometimes off set food costs in the south. Consider adding 15 percent to what you think the southern half will cost.

New England accounts for part of the northern cost increase. The area is unique with its fragile ecosystems that require management of very popular overnight sites. Trail/infrastructure costs are higher because human waste has to helicoptered out at the end of the season. The warm weather season is too short for it to compost. Caretakers must be paid. Campsite fees cover these extra expenses. They are listed in the trail guidebooks.

The huts in the White Mountains take only the first two thru hikers for work for stay requiring most hikers to either find a scarce place to stealth or go to a pay-for-stay campsite.

CampsiteWhites

The crowding in New England at popular sites requires expensive management.

Hut

White Mountain Hut (Madison)

Hikers can avoid some of these sites by doing long (and hard) miles in tough terrain and unpredictable weather.

The Appalachian Mountain Club has tried to help hikers save money with this recently announced campsite deal: https://www.outdoors.org/articles/issues/2017/may-june-2017/amc-rolls-out-overnight-camping-deal-for-appalachian-trail-thru-hikers

Baxter

Once you reach Baxter, there’s a $10 fee to camp at the Birches. After you’ve summited, the hitch to Millinocket is easy. There’s only one road in and out of Baxter State Park and it goes straight to Millinocket. Millinocket is usually another town stay to celebrate and recover before you head for home.

ATLodge

Last hostel in Millinocket, ME.

Your last budget item is off trail – the cost of transportation home.

Good luck. Sisu

 

 

A flat soufflé and limp noodles…

IMG_0076

Good ole white blaze serial number 00000001

North Georgia, Appalachian Trail miles zero through 69.6, March 3-10, 2017 — There I was, hiking the Appalachian Trail in Georgia for the third year in a row.  This time it was different, very different, but we will get to that in due course.

This adventure started with an invitation to present my talk on trail hygiene at the annual ATKO – Appalachian Trail Kick Off event at Amicalola Falls State Park. The kick off targets future hikers and serves as a reunion of sorts for many others.

The premise for the talk is that hikers neither have to get sick – Noro virus or gastroenteritis – nor smell like Oscar the Grouch’s trash can on a hot summer’s day.  All they have to do is make staying clean a priority. My talk tells them how.

My talk is entitled “What the Funk!” I blogged about the subject here: What the Funk!  My Power Point slides are here:  https://www.dropbox.com/s/zwxxfhmz96vhn42/What%20The%20Funk.2.pptx?dl=0

The ATKO is a well attended two-and-a-half day event featuring speakers, vendors and old friends like Mike Wingeart and Robin Hobbs who were representing ALDHA, the Appalachian Long Distance Hiking Association.

The ATKO featured a tent city, gear vendors and even a slew of visiting owls.  This is a great horned owl.  His pals included a tiny screech owl named Goliath and a barred owl which remained amazingly quiet.  Trail Dames is a women’s hiking organization I try and promote as often as possible.  Love those gals, most of whom I’ve met on my various trail journeys.  Check out Trail Dames here:  Trail Dames

Now, let’s get down to business.  We’ll open with a brief confession.  I did not come to the trail with “trail legs.”  In other words, I was not in shape.  My excuse:  I injured my hip lifting weights in early October and have not run since then.  Throughout the hike, my hip and cardio were fine, but my legs had all the strength and authority of limp spaghetti noodles.  That’s definitely not a recipe for a fluffy soufflé in the nasty hills of Georgia. (Lovin’ mixed metaphors!)

The anointed know that launching from the Amicalola Lodge nets the upper five miles of the infamously steep “approach trail” that leads to the AT’s southern terminus on Springer Mountain.  I did it three years ago when I  had to spell the caretaker on Springer Mountain.  That year my gazelle-like bounds magically crushed the steepest hills.  This year I huffed and puffed like the little engine that barely could. I was delighted to summit, albeit about 90 minutes slower than before.

While on Springer, I took a look around.  I was saddened to see that two trees I’ve been tracking for the past three years had finally been done in.  The number of people on the trail continues to increase along with their relentless degradation of the environment.

IMG_0079

A bit hard to see, but campers have moved south of the lower bear cables on Springer Mountain shelter and much closer to the water source; and have established a new fire pit.

The good news is that previous recommendations have been implemented.  The increased presence on the trail has remarkably reduced trash.  Vegetation recovery projects have begun.  Extra campsites and privies have been added.  My observations from that time are here:  Georgia 2015

Old fire pit at Hawk Mountain shelter cleaned up.

IMG_0094.jpg

Improvements since last year to the new Hawk Mountain campsite.

As always the newly minted hikers were delightful.  I saw Lynne, the Trail Ambassador on the right, twice on my journey as she expanded her patrol coverage.  I saw several other ambassadors too.

Ambition has never been lacking for me.  Since this was my very first time to hike Georgia alone, I decided to pace myself in accordance with the legend in my own mind, versus the reality of my current physical condition.  Mind over matter was a good strategy, or so I thought.  That worked about as well as one might expect.

After pitching my tent the first night and on my way to fetch water, I met a young man who asked me if it was okay for his dog to be off leash.  Never ask a Leave No Trace zealot that question.  I convinced him that every snake, skunk, raccoon and porcupine in the woods would eat his dog for lunch, not to mention any stray bears.  How ’bout them Lyme disease bearing ticks ole fido is going to bring back to your tent?  Oh boy!!!

This fellow also decided to cowboy camp that night (no tent).  Guess what, it rained unexpectedly.  I awoke to his thrashing as he hurried to pitch is tent while dodging rain spatter.  “Grasshopper, you’re going to learn a lot,” I smiled as a hiked past his tent in the morning. He was sawing zzzzzzs.

IMG_0113

I have finally perfected pitching and striking this tent in high wind.  I failed at that miserably in Maine last summer. Hint:  Up-wind pegs first…

The plan for Monday was to make it about 15 miles either to the Justus Mt. campsite or on to Gooch Gap.  The forecast included rain and high winds for Tuesday, so I wanted to get as far as possible.

Moving with the speed to cold flowing molasses helped me realize that I wasn’t going to make either of my targeted locations, so I parked at Cooper Gap where, this year, the Army has been leaving its 500 gallon “water buffalo” unlocked for hikers. Now I was a half day behind with a cold, heavy rain in the forecast.

Very good news:  ALL water sources in Georgia were flowing with the exception of the spring at Blue Mountain shelter which is just short of Unicoi Gap.

Fortunately the heavenly watering of the Georgia hills didn’t begin until after I’d packed up.  I sopped off with a dry tent at least, headed for the Woods Hole shelter half way up the infamous Blood Mountain; about another 15 miles away.  Woods Hole has a covered picnic table and is located where bear proof food containers are required.  The odds were good that I’d get a spot, and I’d be back on schedule given that very few people want to carry the 3 1/2 extra pounds the canisters weigh.

Along the way, sometimes you see weird stuff.  Who would set the stump on fire at Gooch Mountain?  Just past there, somebody used a machete to hack up a dead tree.  For what?  The dead tree bark is good insect habitat for birds and bears.  Why ruin it?  Ignorance lives.

Please pack out your trash!  The fire pits and the trail in general was far cleaner than I’ve ever seen it at this time of year.  Thank you ridgerunners and trail ambassadors!

IMG_0140

I arrived at Woods Hole just prior to dusk.  I ate and then crashed between these two tents.

The morning dawned cold and windy.  The rain had passed. Of the three campers at Woods Hole, nobody had a bear canister. Surprise, surprise, surprise!  Where’s the ranger when you need ’em.

A father and son had pitched their tent in the shelter.  They were were woefully underprepared with summer sleeping bags and sported wet cotton clothes from the previous day’s rain.  The other tent belonged to a new thru hiker who didn’t know better.  I made it clear.  If more hikers came during the night, the tents would have to come down.  Fortunately, none did.

IMG_0142

It dawned cold and clear as I waited form my coffee water to boil. Note the two hats. After breakfast I was off for Low Gap, another 15 miles or so away.

Walking over Blood Mountain has its aesthetic pleasures.

Wind at Neel’s Gap

The trail to Low Gap is a relatively easy hike with the exception of a nasty climb at Tesnatee Gap.  My right hip flexor was swelling.  Time for a reality check.

Dawn at Low Gap.  Fortunately, from there it’s an easy 10 miles to Uniqoi Gap where I decided to bail.  The noodles were still limp and the soufflé was pretty flat.  Reached Unicoi about 12:30 p.m. and shuttled to the Top of Georgia Hostel.

IMG_0177.jpg

Bought a thru hiker lunch.  How do you spell bankruptcy?

Breakfast at Top of Georgia where Bob Gabrielsen offers the morning pep talk before the hopeful sea of humanity rides the tide northward in search of adventure and the state of Maine.  Time for me to saddle up the Subaru and ride north.

IMG_0178

Toxic waste bag.

It ain’t over until everything’s cleaned up.

Sisu

Sneak Peek

My gear set up in Woods Hole shelter in Georgia.

My gear set up in Woods Hole shelter in Georgia.

North Georgia, Friday March 30, 2015 — None of us who love being outdoors could ever be accused of living he lifestyles of the rich and famous.  We’re not even trying.  But, we are living life in the simple way we love.  A sneak peak into the way it is out here follows.

It’s always fun to write about the drama whether it’s snow, mud, rain, wind, heat, bears, snakes, and the like.  But reality is much more mundane.  So what it is that we really do? Here are a few questions and answers.

Where to we sleep?  Some people sleep in shelters.  These three-sided structures were part of the AT’s original vision.  A precious few of the original log structures still stand, though most are infested by field mice and the critters that eat them. (Read Jake No Shoulders: aka snakes.)

An original shelter from the 1930s.

An original shelter from the 1930s at Cable Gap.

Wood Hole, a more contemporary shelter.

Wood Hole, a more contemporary shelter.

Shelters offer safe haven in stormy weather and enable quick get-aways in the morning. The accommodate from six to 16 of your best friends, at least that’s what you become after sleeping cheek to cheek with people who were formerly perfect strangers. Corner locations offer privacy on at least one side.

Former strangers.  Friends now!

Former strangers. Friends now!

Tenting or sleeping in hammocks are alternatives to shelters.  Hikers tend to favor tents, at least until their need for speed trumps aversion to strangers.

A peak inside my mosquito netting.

A peek behind my mosquito netting.

Tents offer privacy and control of your gear.  Most makes are comfortable and weather tight.  They do add up to an hour each day to pitch and strike them.

Cooking?  There are as many ways to cook as there are hikers.  Some cook over an open fire.  This method has multiple disadvantages including sooty pots, the time spent gathering wood and building the fire, not to mention the extra weight of fresh food that’s much cheaper than branded dehydrated meals.

IMG_2310_2IMG_2273_2

Hikers tend to cook near their tents or in common areas associated with the shelters.

Hikers love high calorie, low volume foods.  Breakfast often consists of oatmeal, coffee, hot chocolate, pop tarts and granola bars.  Lunch can be tortillas and peanut butter, salami on bagels, or Snickers bars.  Many folks don’t stop long for lunch, if at all.  After all, time equals miles.

Almost everyone eats a hot dinner.  One all time favorite is Ramman noodles with peanut butter. That passes for haute Pad Thai in these parts.  Otherwise meals dehydrated at home or manufactured by companies such as Mountain House are luxurious at the end of a day harder than woodpecker lips.

IMG_2316_2

Some folks love a few creature comforts, especially at the onset of their hikes.  However these extras add weight and tend to disappear rather quickly as the reality of a 2,200 mile trek sets in.  It’s sometimes amazing what come out of the huge backpacks you see out here.

IMG_2200IMG_2304_2

After meals, we hang our bear canisters or food bags to keep them out of reach of critters.

Bear canisters are heavy and only required in one small area in Georgia.

Bears must think of this as a food bag tree.

Bears must think of this as a food bag tree.

"Mouse hangers" keep field mice away.

“Mouse hangers” keep field mice away.

After dinner, some folks like a camp fire where they wile away the stress of the day.

After dinner, some folks like a camp fire where they wile away the stress of the day.

IMG_2314_2IMG_2258

At the crack of dawn we reclaim our food from the bear cables or when in town (about every five days) go to the supper market to buy more.

Now you know a little bit more.

Fifty Shades



Neels Gap to Springer Mountain, GA, Saturday March 14 to Monday March 16, 2015 — This is a dirty story. In fact it’s going to be filthy!  But, it’s not about what you think it is. It’s about Georgia mud. 

When this patrol started, it had been raining nonstop for eight days. The trail is a sodden River of viscous mud. The hikers are coated with it. Their soggy tents have been pitched in it. They’re filthy and everybody needs a break. 





The aphorism on the AT is “No rain. No pain. No Maine.” Well, we’re breaking in the AT Thru Hiker Class of 2015 the right way. Between the epic snow, cold and endless rain, for sure they’ll have earned some bragging rights. 

I started my new patrol from Neels Gap (mile 30). So far I’ve run into many hikers I met earlier in the week on Springer Mountain. They were a cheerful lot having come this far. But, to a person, they want to dry out. 

Ditto for the hikers who dragged themselves into the Top of Georgia hostel where I’ve set up my base camp. At least hostels are a safe haven from the elements. 

Some people are damp because the don’t know how to stay dry. Rain gear alone isn’t enough. 

For example, tent pitching is a good place to start. There are ways to pitch tents in the rain that minimizes the opportunity for water to wet the sleeping compartment. The secret is getting the fly up first, then ducking under it to hang the sleeping compartment. Reverse the process when striking the tent. 

I’ve demonstrated this technique several times. I love it when you can see that little flash bulb go off when the hikers get it. It doesn’t eliminate all dampness, but it’s a huge improvement over the alternative where rain pools on your tent floor after beating its way through your mosquito netting while you struggle with the rain fly. 

Unfortunately after a week of nonstop sop the damp infiltrates everything no matter what you do. 

The rain finally quit on day two. The viscosity of the treadway morphed from soup to solid in just hours.  It was almost as if a miracle occurred right under my muddy clodhoppers. 

Without rain to lubricate the trail, the hikers joy returned. The thousand yard stare yielded to the warmth of days 30 degrees warmer than what they’d been experiencing. 



From rain soaked to salt stained. 

Of course the heat cooked up its own challenges. Dehydration eats you from the inside out. Thirst is a hard master, so be careful what you’re wishing for. 

Late middle age can be unforgiving in these conditions. I encountered a proud former Philidelphia cop struggling up hill. His burdens were typical for early hikers – too much gear, out of shape (but not overweight), serious dehydration and mental doubts. He was thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?” 

This is when the unfit begin to realize how far their apple can fall from the tree of success. They begin thinking of the comforts of home, and some succumb. 

I stayed with this hiker until he consumed enough water and refined sugar products to get a mental grip. Then I moved on. 

The day ended atop Springer, that perpetual well spring of hope and optimism. The sun was shining and the Warrior Hikers were present to start their long healing march the next morning. It doesn’t get better than that out here. 

Hope



Springer Mountain, GA, Tuesday March 10, 2015 — It’s raining with liquid sunshine dominating  the forecast for eight out of the next ten days. Yet on Springer, hope is not dampened. Hope is eternal.  

This is the beginning of the great spring migration to Maine, that’s 14 states to the north of here. It’s five million steps, but what the hey!  

On the first day everyone has a more or less equal shot, or so they think. It’s all about optimism and the anticipation of dreams long in the making. 

For the next couple of days I’m spelling one of my colleagues who is the caretaker here. My job is to educate hikers on Leave No Trace, gather data and help the hikers. 

On the first night I helped a woman who was setting up her ultralight tent for the first time outside of her living room floor. I asked how well she thought it would withstand high winds. The tremendous amount of slack in her rain fly and the obvious swayback in the middle was my prompt. 



Later we learned how to hang food bags on the bear cables. Within that context, the opportunity was right, so we learned to throw a bear line and hang food without tying it off to a tree. That way a smart Yogi or Booboo wanna be can’t break the rope and score a meal. She survived the night intact. 



Springer is a place of optimism and farewells. Fathers and mothers, grand parents, husbands, wives, even sisters and brothers trundle to the summit from US Forest Service road 42, just 9 tenths of a mile down the hill. 



The nonhikers gaze deeply into their loved one’s eyes in search of doubt. You can catch them furtively glancing about for danger as they hug their dears and even blink back tears. Then they mug for photos, sometimes even asking the caretaker to be their shutterbug. 



At the trailhead parking lot come the final hugs and tears. Then, with an adrenaline rush, the hikers are off on one of life’s great adventures while the loved ones return home to quietly worry and hope for success.



The hikers come by ones, twos and small clusters. It’s sometimes the first time they meet their fellow thru hikers. No matter where they’re from, their age or reason for hiking, they bond instantaneously in common cause. 

Me. After introductions, bears are my first topic, followed by a bit on Leave No Trace. 

I specifically mention “pack it in. Pack it out.” But I’ve learned to mention cigarette butts, cat holes and for the women, packing out their TP after taking a pee. I’ll mention pee rags, Diva Cups and Go Girls if appropriate. Believe me, most of them need to hear it.  Charmin flowers are not appreciated. 



My last mention is the large number of hikers on the trail. Crowding in shelters and at camp sites is to be expected.



Last I ask who participated in the voluntary registration program, the purpose of which is to help hikers self disperse. Almost everyone who’s heard about it registered. Only a small minority thinks it’s a bad idea. 

At the end of the day I am humbled and reminded that a journey of 2,189 miles begins first with hope; and it’s launched with that first step on Springer Mountain. 



The First Patrol

IMG_2174_2

This tree was snapped off like a match stick

Hiawassee, GA, Top of Georgia Hostel, Sunday March 8, 2015 — My first patrol was over late Friday night.  The hiking was energy intensive at times, especially in the snow early on.  The ice and wind inflicted some serious damage on the trees, especially along the expose saddles between mountains.

IMG_2120_2IMG_2153

Overall, the trail treadway is in good shape.  The water is draining properly and the mud is minimal under the conditions although my clothes were covered with it by the time I’d reached the summit of Springer Mountain.

IMG_2158_2 IMG_2159

IMG_2169_2 IMG_2170

IMG_2164_2 IMG_2165

Along the way I was able to clear several blowdowns that impeded navigation.

The hikers seemed strong and determined for the most part.  I did notice a propensity for them to hold at shelters or dive into town when it rained.  I can’t say I didn’t do some of that during my hike.  Hiking in the rain is miserable.

IMG_2168 IMG_2149_2

My patrol pattern will be changing for the rest of the time I’m here.  From now on, I’ll be hiking south from Neels Gap to Springer where I’ll spend two days while the caretaker there is off.  This makes sense since most of the need to help hikers occurs in the first 30 miles.

Naturally, Murphy was lurking over my shoulder.  I didn’t get back to Hiawassee until 11:30 p.m. Friday evening.  I was so tired that I locked my car keys in the trunk.  I had to go to Atlanta to get a new one.  Lesson learned!

IMG_2189_2

This weekend was spent at the Appalachian Trail Kickoff.  It’s a hiking seminar at Amicalola State Park.  The presentations ranged wide and far from bears, to hostels, to lightweight gear.  It’s designed to help hikers learn what would be helpful for them to know prior to starting their hikes.

IMG_2190_2

It was a special privilege to meet and talk with Gene Espy, the second person ever (1953) to thru hike the Appalachian Trail.

Next week we do it again.

Garbage Man

Neel Gap, GA, Saturday March 1, 2015 — Beep – beep – beep – beep. That’s the sound of your friendly hiker garbage man backing out of a shelter with his pack full of detritus others have left behind.

When I staggered into the hostel at Neel Gap with ten pounds of junk. The most galling was the four liters of frozen water.

Seems some folks didn’t realize that you take your water bottle to bed with you when it’s freezing outside at night. So they left the frozen water behind for yours truly to haul thirty miles to the nearest trash receptacle. That’s not to mention the other junk in the photo.

This really isn’t a complaint. That’s why we are here, to help the hikers understand how to do the right thing. When they don’t, we remove the trash before it can serve as a bad example to others.

We also remove blowdown. Sawing keeps you warm, believe me.

In the morning the snow reminds me of a stiff starched white shirt. Sort of crunchy when you put it on. The weather is turning so by noon the snow is as limp as that same starched white shirt on a Georgia summer day. Today the slush was three inches deep with about an inch of water as a top coat.

Tomorrow the forecast is for rain. That’ll remove the snow and slush, but only by turning the trail into a river in the process.

Throughout all of this, the hikers seem intrepid. After all, they’ve come 50 miles. Maine can’t be far ahead.

IMG_2099-1

IMG_2110-0

IMG_2111

IMG_2100

IMG_2101

IMG_2115

IMG_2118

IMG_2112

IMG_2113-1

Winter Wonderland, North Georgia Style

IMG_2086

Top of Georgia Hostel, Hiawassee, GA, Friday February 27, 2015 — A couple of days ago I marched into the woods to begin my duties helping hikers get through their first of the Appalachian Trail’s (AT) 14 states.

My duties are to educate hikers on Leave No Trace principles, which at its essence means that they are supposed to live in and leave the wilderness undisturbed by their presence.  “Leave only footprints” is the mantra.

We also hike out trash we find, help where we can and be a friendly presence on the trail as well as eyes and ears.

The first day began at 9 a.m. at about 70 miles north of the AT’s start point on Springer Mountain.  This section begins with a 1,500 foot climb right out of the door.  It took about a nano second for me to fully appreciate that the 2,200 mile-strong “trail legs” earned on my thru hike last year were past their expiration date.  Ooooph!

But I slushed on through the snow, stopping every 50 yards or so to cool down and catch my breath.  I’m packing about 35 lbs. of cold weather gear, gaiters, food, stove, first aid kit, water purification pills, tooth paste and the like.  Then there’s my trail saw, trash bags and bungee chords.  Oof Da, as the Norwegians say.

First stop was to check the Deep Gap shelter and pick up some detritus left behind by hikers.  Not much thank heaven.  Then to push on to the Tray Gap shelter, about seven more miles up hill and ahead.

A storm was expected to roll in about 5 p.m., so no day dreaming was allowed.

IMG_2051

The snow was typically heavy and wet southern snow ranging from four to eight inches deep with some drifting to a foot.  My calves were screaming from pushing up hill and slipping back.  What would have been a five hour hike on dry trail unfolded in just nine hours.

Of course the storm hit around four o’clock, an hour early.  I arrived at the shelter covered in thick white stuff.  Three hikers were there.  They were strong and competent though the strongest among them told me that he’d been plowing Georgia snow for 12 days!  That’s normally five to six days for most people just starting out.

I ate and took a deep dive into my down bag and reached slumber depth before anyone could say it’s snowing.

Throughout the night the wind whipped snow across my face, waking me occasionally.  Who knew what we’d find in the morning.

IMG_2060

The dawn sparkled with a fresh landscape of new snow, six to 12 inches adrift over everything.  At least it looks good, I reasoned.

IMG_2064 IMG_2065

Now this has always been a family blog.  But hikers have to do their business in the morning.  Let’s just say that some mornings are easier than others.

IMG_2068IMG_2088

The snowscape was inspiring.

IMG_2052

Along the way I removed trail obstructions and noted some heavier work for later.

IMG_2054IMG_2055

Wild pigs love to root and pillage.

Needless to say, the slogging was tiring.  The smart decision was to push on another 8 miles and over another 1,500 foot climb to Unicoi Gap where I could get a ride back to the Top of Georgia Hostel where I’ve set up my base camp.  I’d totaled only 20 miles.

IMG_2098

Today is a zero day and the snow is melting.  Tomorrow it’s back to Unicoi and another steep climb up Blue Mountain.  We’ll see how far I get.