Winter is a Good Time to Prep for a Thru Hike

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This article  was prepared for the Appalachian Trail:  Expert Advice Facebook page to which I am a contributor.

Backpacking experience is a sure bet if you’re attempting a thru hike. Informal surveys suggest that for the vast majority of thru hikers, this 2,200-mile adventure will be their first serious backpacking trip.

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There’s art in the frost.

Especially with hikers starting earlier to avoid crowds, the winter months are an ideal time to develop hiking, camping and cooking skills. The trails and shelters see little traffic. The light angles are brilliant for photography. Best of all, if you make a mistake and have to bail, you’re generally close to home or your car.

If you follow social media, you learn many hikers hibernate during the cold and desolate winter months when they could be out on the trails honing their skills.

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In many places winter isn’t totally glacial. There are warm spells. After all, even black bears don’t truly hibernate. When it warms up a bit, they get out and about. So can you. You can also test nature’s most challenging elements if you want to.

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AT at New Found Gap in Nov.  Temperature 0F.

Winter experience is also valuable knowledge that might save someone’s hike. Nearly all NOBOs and many SOBOs endure harsh winter conditions in the Smokies , the Roan Highlands, and or on the Mt. Rogers massif. On the northern end, the 100-mile Wilderness can become a deepfreeze in late fall.

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Rain-soaked poles were hung on a peg and froze solid overnight on Mt. Rogers.

Here’s why it matters. While ridgerunning in a heavy March snowstorm, I met two couples from Florida on Blood Mountain who said they were overwhelmed by the snow and cold. Three and a half days into their hike, it was over.

These hikers were headed home with smashed dreams, casualties of not knowing how. Since it snowed, sleeted and/or rained on 18 of the first 20 days that March, they were destined to be toast no matter what, but they did not have to be.

Georgia in March.

Ready to try winter backpacking and improve your edge?

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Four layers you can see and two you can’t.  With my friend Denise Benson on a cold weather trip preparing for her thru hike.

The general concepts are simple. Wear loose and layered clothing. Keep your clothing, socks and sleeping bag as dry as possible. Keep your head and hands warm. Learn how to block the wind and manage body heat generated by heavy exercise. Learn how to stay warm at night. Know the techniques needed to avoid misery.

Here are some things to know before you go about clothing, layering, gloves and mittens, staying dry, treating water and keeping your water from freezing, dehydration and hypothermia, frostbite, staying warm at night, camp routine, cooking and electronics, and more. Let’s tackle them one at a time.

Clothing:

In dead winter you’ll need to pack more clothing than normal, at least a complete change or more depending on conditions. The keys are to stay dry and have enough layers to keep warm.

Extra layers may be needed depending on expected temperatures. During my thru hike, I experienced -15 degrees F on Mt. Rogers following a day of hard near-freezing rain. These were ultra high-risk conditions. But, that night and the next day were special in a good way. I was warm and dry. It wasn’t luck. It was know-how.

Everybody says wear layers. Exactly what does that mean?

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Wind layer over base layer.

Layers trap air that acts as insulation. Usually a snug wicking base layer is complimented by a loose, windproof, baggy outer layer. The wicking property keeps your skin dry and warmer. Rain gear, pants and jacket, can serve as a wind-proof outer layer, but so can other forms of technical clothing available from outfitters. In a word, two thin fleeces will be warmer than one heavy one. In camp wearing a rain jacket over a puffy is much warmer than the puffy alone, especially if it is windy.

For example, even at temperatures around -35 F in Alaska, Colorado and northern Minnesota, a tight fitting wicking base layer surrounded by a baggy windproof layer on the bottom has been enough during exertion. On top a base layer and a second loose layer, say a light fleece under the wind layer is usually sufficient while hiking, snow shoeing or skiing in the extreme cold. It doesn’t take that much to stay warm while you are moving.

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Most serious winter backpackers don’t use multipurpose clothing such as fleece-lined outer shells. Their outer layers are separate to ease building the right number of layers. If using a rain jacket, it should be designed like a mountain parka with a high hooded collar, pit zips to reduce heat build up, and an inside pocket to carry water bottles.

The key when moving is just enough clothing to keep warm to reduce sweating. Add or subtract light, lose layers as needed.

In cold weather, everything changes the minute you stop. Your body generates far less heat and the moisture in damp clothing quickens the transfer of heat away from your body. Keep your warm jacket handy so you can put it on right away when you stop.

In camp you can add down pants to help keep your legs warm during chores, and to sleep in as well. Wearing down pants and puffies to bed adds insulation that increases the temperature range on sleeping bags. Down booties keep cold feet warm. High quality down garments offer outstanding warmth at a light weight.

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The down jackets, pants and booties extend the range of the 20-degree bag to 0F.

Bonus. Think about it. If nature calls on a freezing night, popping out of your sleeping bag wearing down pants and a jacket make the experience much more tolerable.

Gloves, Mittens and Socks:

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Mittens are always warmer than gloves. They are handy to have for those prone to colder extremities – older hikers, women, or someone with Renaud’s disease.

Mittens with a waterproof shell helps keep hands dry and block the wind. On my thru, a cold snap (0 degrees F) drove me into Gatlinburg to buy mittens because my gloves were woefully insufficient. The outfitter didn’t carry them, so I waited in town two days for warmer temperatures. That was two town days not in the budget because my winter gear was waiting for me in Hot Springs.

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Gloves, and especially mittens, make performing tasks much more difficult such as manipulating snaps, buckles, zippers and any task requiring fine motor skills. Wearing thin glove liners adds an inner layer and improves motor skills and reduces frostbite risk when gloves or mittens must be removed.

Dry wool socks/warm feet are a necessity, not a luxury. Some carry up to five pair of socks, including their sleeping socks. At night I put my socks between my sleeping bag and air mattress. Usually they dry out.

Water:

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Water sources can freeze solid.

In subfreezing temperatures, having drinkable water is challenging. Water sources can freeze solid requiring hikers to expend precious fuel melting ice or snow. Filters easily freeze. To prevent freezing, they can be packed deep within one’s pack during the day and reside inside your sleeping bag at night. That’s a pain.

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In freezing weather, chemical purification generally is more convenient, either Aqua Mira or iodine tabs. Fortunately iodine now comes with a neutralizer that removes its peculiar color and unpleasant taste.

Treated water must be kept liquid. During a bitterly cold day, carry water containers in an insulated sleeve and inside your outer layer where body heat helps prevent freezing. Extra water can be insulated inside your pack using extra clothing.

Wide mouth bottles are almost impossible to open if the water at the opening freezes due to the extra friction caused by their large surface area.

Narrow mouth bottles, carried upside down, fare better. The reason for carrying bottles upside down is that no bottle is completely full and the water near the air bubble at the top freezes first.

Know the forecast before relying on a water bladder. Even insulated hoses freeze at relatively high temperatures.

At night water goes inside your sleeping bag if you don’t want a block of ice in the morning that might not thaw out. Put the bottle in a sock or at the end of your bag if you’re worried about it making you cold. Heating the water first acts like a hot water bottle and adds comfort, but it comes with the cost of burning extra fuel.

Above all, make certain the container lid is on tight. Do not use flip lids unless you want to chance flooding your sleeping bag. It happens more than you think.

Dehydration:

Fake fact: When it’s cold outside and you don’t sweat as much, so you don’t need to drink as much.

In winter the colder air is generally dryer, sweat evaporates more efficiently, and you exhale a lot of water vapor. Thirst is not as intense, yet your body eliminates nearly the same amount of water as it does in other seasons.

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Monitor how much you are drinking to ensure you get enough. You should urinate about once every hour or two and the color of your urine should match lemonade. If it looks dark yellow or like weak tea, you’re headed for trouble. If the color darkens to the color of cola, you are at risk.

Hypothermia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothermia

This condition occurs when your body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees. That’s only 3.6 degrees below normal. Symptoms include shivering, rapid hear rate, rapid breathing, lose of coordination and confusion. Dehydration can be a factor, as can wet clothing.

Wear clothes made of artificial fiber that retain insulating ability when wet. Cotton loses its insulating properties when wet. Hence the aphorism: Cotton kills.

Staying as dry as possible is the Holy Grail in hypothermia prevention. Moisture reduces the insulating value of your clothes, hats, gloves and socks. You have to get out of damp or wet garments as soon as you get to camp. You might need to change earlier if you get soaked in a cold rain or slip and fall into a creek. Regardless, heat can dissipate rapidly leading to hypothermia or frostbite.

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Tricorner Knob Shelter where a hiker died of hypothermia.

An experienced hiker, who was properly equipped, died at a shelter in the Smokies just a few years ago. He was found dead next to his sleeping bag having been robbed of his judgment by the cold. https://appalachiantrailnoir.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/hiker-succumbs-to-hypothermia-in-the-smokies/

If you start to shiver, it may be time to add layers, especially a windproof outer layer.

Frostbite:

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Frostbite happens when your skin freezes. The vulnerable parts of your body are toes, feet, hands, face and ears. For AT purposes, the likely danger lies mostly in wet feet and hands. Wind chill can endanger noses, cheeks and ears. Properly fitting boots, gaiters, and dry socks are your friends. Also mittens protect the hands much more than gloves. Knit and fleece hats protect ears. In extreme conditions balaclavas cover cheeks and noses.

In Camp:

When you role into camp the sun will probably be dropping like a stone along with the temperature. At a minimum, your back and socks will be damp, requiring a change. You’ll need water and to eat, and a place to sleep. What do you do first?

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Camp routine is personal preference. The key is to be organized and prioritized both in the way your gear is packed (say clothes on top) and the order of your camp chores.

Since I treat my winter water with iodine, which takes 30 minutes to work, that’s the first thing I do. Pitching my tent or preparing my bedroll follows; then changing clothes. When the water is purified, I cook and clean up. Then I dive into bed and listen to pod casts rather than lose more valuable body heat.

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These tents belong to ill-prepared spring break hikers.  I slept in between.  Had one more hiker arrived, the tents would have had to come down.

Sleeping in a tent is warmer than a shelter. It’s bad form to pitch tents in shelters, but hikers do it if they need to keep warm. It becomes a problem if too many hikers show up.

When pitching tents, scrape away the snow from under the area of your tent. During the night body heat melts the snow turning it into ice after you get up. If you don’t act quickly, the ice freezes tents to the ground like super glue. Striking tents immediately after waking helps prevent this. Using a footprint either from the manufacturer or homemade from Tyvek might just save your tent floor.

While sleeping, the majority of heat is lost through the bottom, transferring to the colder ground underneath. Thus, bottom insulation is far more important than on top. If you’re cold and have an extra blanket, put it underneath you, not over you, and you’ll be warmer. My preference is an insulated air mattress over closed cell foam sleeping pads because these air mattresses offer higher insulation values.

As a general rule, plan to sleep in your dry spare set of clothes. Don’t expect your damp sweaty hiking outfit to dry out overnight. You put that back on in the morning and quickly get moving to warm up.

In much colder temperatures, putting on damp clothing in the morning may not be practical or safe, depending. On a good day, I don’t change anything but socks when I get to camp. My back is usually only slightly damp. I add layers and am usually dry before bedtime.

Cooking:

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Cooking in cold weather requires much more fuel.

What’s on the menu is a matter of personal preference. Most people don’t like to eat cold meals in the winter. Preparing a warm meal in winter is a function the laws of physics. Needless to say, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around within the hiking community.

Warm meal(s) and or hot chocolate are comforting to say the least. The choices for creating heat are basically two: fire and stoves. Fire is dirty and difficult for some. Alcohol stoves sometimes don’t generate enough heat to boil water in very cold temperatures. If you use iso butane, you need special winter mix fuel canisters. Pressurized stoves such as the MSR Wisperlite are heavy in comparison to other choices. Experience can help you pick your poison.

Electronics:

Cold is the enemy of all batteries, especially the lithium-ion batteries used in phones and iPods. Whip out your phone in winter to take a photo and it may die before you can even turn the camera on. If a lithium-ion battery freezes, nano wires inside may break, severely degrading its life and capacity.

Keeping your phone in your pocket helps keep the battery warm. Electronics including storage batteries also follow your water bottle into your sleeping bag at night. Electronics including your headlamp, unneeded during the day, can be packed inside sleeping bags to insulate them from the severe cold.

One more thing:

snow goggles

Snow blindness is rare at the lower altitude in the lower 48, but it’s a risk nevertheless. Sun reflecting off white snow plays hell with your eyesight. The Eskimos invented slitted eye covers to protect them from the glare. Always bring sunglasses or wear polychromatic lenses in prescription glasses.

 

Of note:

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My shoulder-season pack, set up for five days, weighs about 32 lbs., all included. That’s a tent, 20-degree sleeping bag, a down puffy, down pants and booties, a complete change of clothing, rain gear, wind jacket, two hats, and gloves plus stove, food and water.

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My thru hike pack at the Harpers Ferry Visitor Center.  The month is March.

In contrast, my summer pack weighs around 18 lbs. – far fewer clothes, lighter sleeping bag, and modified rain gear if it’s there at all.

My full on winter pack weighs around 40 lbs. with all the basics plus gaiters, extra hats, mittens, zero-degree sleeping bag, and extra clothing. My boots change from high-top trail runners to an insulated and waterproof boot. Sometimes I bring micro spikes and/or show shoes.

Summary:

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The hiker is from Vermont and knew how to take good care of his dog in harsh conditions.  Many hikers do not and their dogs suffer.

Winter is time you can use to your advantage. Mostly it’s an enchanting environment where the animal tracks tell remarkable stories and nature’s awesome beauty is visible in a way few seldom see. Occasionally it’s an adventure. Check it out!

Two excellent sources:

MOUNTAINEERING, The Freedom of the Hills. Edited by Ronald C. Eng. Part 1, Outdoor Fundamentals, eighth edition, 2015. The Mountaineers Books.

98.6 Degrees, The art of keeping YOUR ASS ALIVE, Cody Lundin. 2003. Gibbs Smith Publisher.

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Gaiters help keep feet dry.

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Pearisburg, VA is where the AT’s altitude drops below 5,000 ft. and it’s normally safe to send winter gear home.

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Central Virginia in March.

 

Adventure Season 2016

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Kensington, MD, March 2, 2016 — It’s that time of year again when the call of the wild echos through the ether.  This is when we plan, pack, lace ’em up and get it on.

The year starts in Georgia on the AT.  For one, I’m anxious to see if all the planning we have done to manage the early crowds actually is beneficial. All I know is that a lot of time and energy have gone into the improvements.

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Next it’s the National Park Service’s centennial.  Shenandoah has challenged folks to celebrate by hiking a hundred miles in the park in return for a free patch. My friend and first hiking partner Mary and her son Ben will be hiking there on a 600 mile-long AT section hike in mid-April.  I plan to tag along for all 105 of Shenandoah’s miles.

From there it gets fuzzier.  I have my ridgerunner hikes and trail crew week – only one this year. I’m signed up for a Leave No Trace master educator course and a talk on backpacking at Sky Meadows State Park, Va. for National Trails Day.

We’ve hired two returning ridgerunners and four new folks for this season.  More on them at another time.

There’s an opportunity to hike the northern half (Oregon and Washington) of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and/or the Colorado Trail.  Lastly, once school is back in session, finishing the Long Trail in Vermont is carved in stone after having to miss it last year.

I’m learning not to predict too much.  Plans do not survive contact with reality, and this year reality is holding a lot of face cards.   I’ve taken on some executive responsibility with my trail club that’s going to eat time, and have been nominated for a professional lifetime career honor that, if selected, I will accept in person come hell or high water.

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Top of the first inning is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain, Georgia.  I’ve noted and written about my friend Denise’s plan to thru hike this year.  Well, she gets dropped off at the trailhead around noon on March 9.  I’ve made the arrangements to be there like a beacon to cheer her on and hike the first 80 miles of the AT with her. She will nail her hike to the wall.

The weather in Georgia has been all over the map.  Hey, it’s in the south you say; it’s bound to be warm.  Well considering that the entire AT in Georgia is above 4,000 ft., cold weather, sleet and snow are factors throughout March.

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I’m packing now.  My pack is going to weigh much more than normal.  For one, I’m carrying my food in a bear-proof container, not so much for the bears, but to set an example to others who don’t take bears seriously.

As for which sleeping bag, jackets and other clothing, I figured I’d split the difference between zero degrees F and 70F.

Stay tuned for dispatches.

Don’t practice being miserable!

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Forty liter pack. 

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.

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This March the temp on the AT in north Georgia fell to 4 F.

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.” Continue reading

A pain in the …

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The ring finger does not straighten.

Kensington, Maryland, December 23, 2015 —  This is going to be short because I’m typing with one hand.  Apologies to my Facebook friends.  You already know this, but you’ll see it again because my blog automatically posts to Facebook and Twitter.

I won’t be involved in much outdoor activity for awhile and there’s a good reason.

I inherited a recessive gene that causes Dupeytren’s Contracture. This is sometimes called “trigger finger.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dupuytren’s_contracture. Dupeytren’s is common to people of northern European heritage.

I like to say that the Vikings married their sisters back in the fiords, then spread the love while raiding and pillaging the British isles and the north coast of the continent.

Unfortunately I have a aggressive case and it exists in both hands. The disadvantage as a hiker, backpacker and trail maintainer is this:  I can’t get a glove or mitten on my right hand.  That could mean a quick trip to frostbite city in cold weather.  This condition specifically kept me from hiking the Long Trail this month with my friend Max and his dad.

Dupeytren’s (named by a pioneering French anatomist) can be treated in two ways.

The traditional approach is surgical where they slice away the collagen that grows around the affected tendons. The much newer alternative is to inject a solution that dissolves the culprit collagen.

I’ve previously had two surgeries on my right hand, and I had one injection procedure immediately before starting the winter portion of my AT thru hike..

This week I had another injection, this time into my right ring finger. The next day the doc straightened it out using a technique that I am certain came right out of the CIA’s torture handbook. Trust me.  You’d cough up your secrets!

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Novocaine is used both prior to the Xiaflex injection and subsequently when the orthopod unbends the affected finger.

The injection of bacteria-derived proteins (marketed as Xiaflex) is quick and done in the physician’s office. The procedure itself is more unpleasant than surgery – I mean they stick needles into the palm of your hand – albeit numbed with Novocaine, but even with the magic of numbness, it’s not nearly as fun as going to the dentist. 

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Post manipulation. The bruising gets more pronounced the second day.

The Xiaflex advantage is a blessedly quick recovery. I expect to return to the gym after two weeks. I should be able to run on Christmas Day.

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A brace is fashioned to help keep the fingers straight. Physical therapists work about every other day to return the finger as close to normal as possible. After a week, the brace is worn only at night – for four weeks.

Later in January I’ll have surgery to clean up the Dupeytren’s affecting my left thumb because I can barely open a large peanut butter jar.

The FDA has not approved Xiaflex for use on thumbs.  Fingers only.  Surgical recovery is a full six weeks. The PT is similar for either procedure.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Winter Wonderland, North Georgia Style

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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The snowscape was inspiring.

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

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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.

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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.

Trail Ambassador

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Role playing exercise

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, February 20, 2015 — I’ve spent the past week gettin’ ready for love.  Oh, not THAT kind. I’ve been with a group of people training to assist hikers on the Appalachian Trail this year.  We love the trail and the people who hike on it.

Our base camp is a modern style house from the late 50s or early 60s owned by the National Park Service.  During the summer it is basecamp for the trail crews that work in the park.

Our mission is to educate hikers primarily on “Leave No Trace”™ principles, encourage them and help them in practical ways.

An estimated three million people walk at least some distance on the Appalachian Trail each year, so Leave No Trace is a big deal.  The national scenic trails, of which the AT is only one albeit the most famous, are being “loved to death.  The number of users continues to increase at a high rate.  Therefore, the impact on the environment from human footsteps alone is enormous.  Add their feces and urine, toothpaste, dishwater, dropped litter, abandoned gear, fires, animal disturbance and all the rest together and the sum is enormous.

Unfortunately, individual hikers fail to appreciate that their impact is additive to all the others.  That’s why Leave No Trace is more than Pack it in.  Pack it out.  Hikers are expected to plan and prepare for everything they might encounter on their hike.  Understanding how and where to camp prevents erosion and unsightly scars.  Knowing how to dispose of human waste properly is critical to preventing water contamination and disease. Respecting wildlife, fellow hikers and campers, leaving what you find undisturbed and generally being considerate round it out.

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Here I’m demonstrating how to hang a food bag in a way that is not tied to any tree.  Bears have learned to break ropes tied off to trees and feast on what falls to the ground!

Human food kills bears.  Once they become unafraid of humans, bears have to be trapped and moved, or worse, destroyed. They are magnificent animals.  Being thoughtless has sad consequences.  The AT-wide bear statistics weren’t encouraging.  Bear territory is shrinking and the animals are only trying to find food.

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Had a small bear encounter at the outfitter in Gatlinburg, TN.

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During the week, the Forest Service taught us a lot about hiker/camper psychology and methods to be persuasive without confrontation.  Nobody wants to hear that they are a screw-up.  Above all, we learned to count small victories.

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Then there’s the weather.  Minus 23 at altitude in the Smokies!  Holy frostbite Batman!!!  My gear will get me to -15F at best with a miserable night.  I’ve experienced and slept outside in -50F in Alaska and northern Minnesota.  I can’t carry that kind of gear over these mountains.  Best to stay in town when the weather forecast looks like this.

Today I drove to Hiawassee in north Georgia to visit a couple of hostels and assess trail and weather conditions.  There weren’t that many hikers around.  Several had been driven back to or into town by the subzero temperatures.  They said the snow wasn’t a big deal, but that there were a lot of downed trees to impede progress.

Ridgerunners/trail ambassadors carry large pruning saws to attack blowdown up to about a foot in diameter.  At a minimum, we can trim away the branches from a large trunk.  The going will be slow next week.  Can’t wait.

Tuesday the Georgia crew meets with the Forest Service and the local trail club for coordination.  Let the games begin!

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Dick’s Creek Gap today.

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Same rock.  Better weather!