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

Flash Forward One Year

Aug. 6, 2014.  I took summit photos in two different shirts.

Aug. 6, 2014. I took summit photos in two different shirts.

Home Sweet Home, August 6, 2015 — I wasn’t going to write a one-year-retrospective.  Most of them are boring and trite.  As I have often said, being a successful thru-hiker doesn’t make you special.  It only means that you were fortunate enough to have a special experience.

Okay, so what happens when it’s over?  You go home and then what?  Post hike depression is well documented.  Of course, I thought it could not happen to me.

When your hike is over, if you’re lucky, you have to get back to work.  That’s true for most hikers.  If you have something lined up – say going to grad school – you’ve got it made.  But even if you have to job search, you’ve got a defined focus for your time and a purpose to pursue.

If you’re retired, that’s another story.  Recently retired people are the second largest, albeit, small category of thru hikers.  A lot of them shut the door to their offices and open the front door to the AT with little transition time. I met a hiker in Georgia this year whose time lapse was four days!

I prepared for ten months, but it’s almost the same.  I’d done nothing to prepare for retirement itself other than to know that I’d have to “keep busy.”

Boom!  The hike ends.  You take a victory lap. The the crowds stop clapping.  For months on end you’ve had a routine.  Wake up, eat and hike.  Following the white blazes was my job.  Where is the next white blaze?

Aside from the daily trail routine, hiking is heavy exercise that bathes your brain in a heavy flow of endorphins all day long.  Like distance running, the craving doesn’t stop when you end your journey.

Endorphins act like opiates.  These chemicals, manufactured by your body, make you feel really good.  When they go away, the funk can get very deep indeed.

I thought that returning to a strenuous exercise routine and increasing my volunteer activities would help me avoid endorphin withdrawal and the mental depression that goes with it.  NOT SO!

I did all these things, but in between, I sat in my easy chair and stared out the window or zoned out with ESPN on the idiot box.  My reading habit evaporated.  In the past year I have completed exactly one book; that compares to my 3 to 4 per month lifetime average.  My motivation meter was pegged at zero.

There’s more.  My weight began to creep up.  I did switch back to healthy foods from the ultra high calorie trail junk, but I ate a lot and drank more beer.  I’ve regained about 75 percent of my lost weight.

After my voluntary stint as a ridgerunner in Georgia this spring, my mind began to get a grip.  Maybe returning to the scene of the crime helped.

I remembered why I retired in the first place. My retirement routine couldn’t replace my previous career as an adrenalin junkie.  The 60-hour plus work weeks needed to be left to history.  The new normal needed to be new.

Now my volunteer time is structured around specific goals.  I’ve found opportunities with much more responsibility – to the point where I supervise five paid employees in one of the gigs.  Best of all, I’m beginning to have a lot of fun.

For now, one year after my hike, retirement has become a never-ending process.  I’m contemplating more hiking adventures, but I’ll tackle them differently.  For example, I’d love to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. (“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed is set there.)  But if I do, it will be over three years in sections rather than all at once.

If I learned one take-away from hiking the Appalachian Tail it is that thru hiking takes a long time.  While I loved my hike and would do it again, I got tired of being out there “forever.” Moreover, making “forever” so is not a reasonable expectation.

Looking ahead, I’m hoping to better use my time because at this stage of life, you truly have to do more with less.

Post card I sent to those who helped along the way.

Post card I sent to those who helped along the way.

One of the best parts of my final day on the trail was to share it with my friend Karen (Tie) Edwards.

One of the best parts of my final day on the trail was to share it with my friend Karen (Tie) Edwards.

Here’s a link to a one of several videos I’ve made in support of speeches I’ve made this past year.

https://www.sugarsync.com/pf/D3624411_94596663_12582

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.

What I’ve learned so far.

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At the close of every combat operation or training exercise, Army leaders undertake an appraisal known as an After Action Review (AAR) to capture relevant lessons and informative experiences while the knowledge is fresh – both the right and wrong, as well as the bad and ugly.  My first half AAR follows.

Thru hikers learn something new with almost every step.  I came to realize and appreciate just how much I don’t know.  Ignorance is sometimes bliss, but mostly not.  The local history, weather, cosmos, biology and geology are deep subjects, and my knowledge of them only scratches the surface.  Somehow, my thirst for knowledge seemed to grow by the mile.

As the depth of my own ignorance deepened, it also dawned on me that readers may have questions or topics which they might want me to explore.  If so, fire away with your questions and suggestions. You are along for the ride after all. 

About three weeks ago I began scratching notes in my notebook on subjects I thought might be informative for readers or useful for those attempting a long distance hike in the future.  These observations are a product of my unique experience, capabilities and shortcomings.  They may or may not be relevant to others.  I just hope they’re worthwhile.

This post is going to be wordy and a bit inelegantly written, but I can’t think of a way to make so much info pretty. These are broad areas I intend to cover:

1.  Logistics

2. Town visits and zeros

3.  Equipment

4.  Cold weather

5.  Water

6.  Cost

7.  Hygiene

8.  Electronics

1.  Logistics:

When you factor out time off the trail for the holidays and my mother’s passing, but keep zero days, I’m right at 90 hiking days on the trail.  That’s a very normal pace.  I try to average 15 miles per day which generally means staying at every other shelter.  When daylight was more limited, sometimes that was a hard bargain.  Now it’s generally a fair day’s work with time to spare.

Logistics for for the first half are far more simple and I could imagine, even after closely following a couple dozen hikers day-by-day last year.  The towns are easy to reach making both food and equipment resupply easy.  Moreover, many people will go out of their way to help you if need be.  You won’t always find exactly what you want, but you can find what you need to get by. 

I walked off cycle meaning that much of the hiker support infrastructure wasn’t there – many shuttlers, hostels, restaurants, some outfitters and trail angels only operate during peak season which ranges from mid-February through April starting in the deep south with the dates sliding to the right on the calendar as the hiker “bubbles” migrate northward.  Still, I had little trouble finding shuttles, places to stay, getting my laundry done, fuel and groceries at any point.  David “Awol” Miller’s guide book is excellent and the phone numbers listed within are accurate.

Food is the heaviest item in most hiker’s packs, and I seemed always to have too much of it.  That’s mostly because I didn’t trust the resupply system.  In retrospect, I could have schlepped a lot less food and resupplied more often without slowing down one bit.

The average Dollar General, Kroger or other grocery has most everything with the exception of dehydrated hiker meals manufactured by companies like Mountain House.  With that caveat, the remaining choices are more than serviceable.  Ramen is ubiquitous.  It became a staple that I fortified with spices, hot sauce and meat from other sources.

I didn’t start using mail drops until I reached central Virginia.  I was unsure of resupply there, so I mailed food and other expendables to Woods Hole, my friend near Roanoke, and to Bluedogart.  I’ll continue the practice of mailing directly to places where I’m going to stay.  That way I don’t have to hunt for the post office or go grocery shopping.  I do call in advance to see if they’re open and willing to accept a package; and let them know approximately when to expect me.

2.  Town visits and zeros:

Some of this is individual preference and some is driven by social factors for hikers in season. Since I was solo and alone most of the time, hanging with anyone or any group wasn’t a consideration.  I could hike or go to town on my own schedule without fear of hurting anyone’s feelings.

Hostels are as unique as their owners.  Some cost more than others.  Each is special.  They’re hard to rate, but my favorites for the first half is a tie between Woods Hole near Pearisburg, Va. and Bears Den about a day-and-a-half hike south of Harpers Ferry.  Each is unique and offers hikers a special high value experience.

Hostels are not hotels.  Mostly they’re operated for love, not profit.  Being solo offered me the opportunity to spend quality time with many of the owners.  These are good folks who will take good care of you.  Please take good care of them.

Stopping in town every five to seven days seemed about right.  I needed to shower, do laundry, recharge my electronics, and buy groceries.  To compensate for winter, I carried some emergency rations (chocolate bars and the like) to cover for unforeseen weather, but not enough to extend my range much.

I did learn that rest days were not required.  In my case a hot shower and a soft bed was as good as an entire day off!  Weather stops were another matter.  On seven occasions I stayed in town at least one extra day to wait for severe weather to clear. 

A good example of a wise weather zero is when I chose to spend a second night at Woods Hole Hostel.  The forecast was for snow, 11 F ambient air temp, and wind gusts up to 50 mph.  That howling night Mother Nature delivered on her promise.  Meanwhile, I was inside, warm, dry and safe.  The next day dawned with the weather improving, so I hiked out bright and early in a residual snow squall.  By nightfall, the sun was shining.

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These photos were taken on the same day, about 15 miles and 10 hours apart.

Another thing I learned was not to pig out on town food in spite of my worst instincts and deepest desires.  Subsequent to the first couple of zeros, I waddled out of town stuffed with rich food like a Thanksgiving turkey crammed with oyster dressing.  It generally took about three days to recover from the ensuing lethargy and bloating. 

I learned that one hamburger was sufficient, and to eat only until full.  For the second meal and beyond, I shifted my diet toward more nutritious green food – salads and the like.  Did I mention I have a weak spot for onion rings?

It seems that hiker fare on the trail is low volume and high calorie.  Unfortunately, too much of it is sugar.  While town food is high volume, but lower in calories except for the beer maybe.  The human gut has a hard time making the switch.  It needs help from upstairs in self-control HQ.

3.  Equipment:

The aphorism goes:  You can have your equipment lightweight, sturdy or inexpensive.  Pick two.  It’s also a trail maxim to make three piles of gear – survival, nice to have and luxury.  Pack everything in the survival pile and one thing from the luxury pile.  Everything else stays behind.  It’s all sage advice unless you’re okay with the weight of a blacksmith’s anvil on your back.

From the time my hike began until winter closed in, I developed three different packing schemes to cope with expected temperature ranges.  One each for expected lows of 30F, 20F and 0F.  The 30 degree set up weighs 26 lbs with five days food and 1 liter of water.  The 20 degree weighs 32 lbs with the same food and water; while the zero degree kit slams the scales at 38 lbs complete with optional micro-spike crampons.  Thirty eight pounds is a hard load to tote.  There’s no spontaneous dancing on the trail for sure.

Two schemes involved my 40 liter Deuter ACT lite 40 + 10 pack (color red).  The zero degree mash up required the purchase of a 65 liter Deuter ACT lite 65 + 10 pack (color blue).  I chose Deuter because I’m short and their pack suspension system allows for infinite height adjustment. Deuter packs fit both short and tall people equally well.  Really! The cargo compartment design also is ideal for the way I like to organize my gear.  http://www.deuter.com/US/us/backpacking-trekking-120.html

The two packs have an identical suspension and cargo compartment design, the difference is that the blue one is larger.  Regardless of which I used, the system for organizing my gear in my pack and when I made and broke camp, remained the same. Staying organized on the trail is a critical component of success.

Everything has a place, the same place every day. Call it SOP or Six Sigma.  Process consistency pays.

First thing out is the last thing in.  In my case it was a medium size Sea to Summit waterproof compression sack guarding my clothing.  First thing out of that sack was a fleece hat followed by a fleece shirt, down jackets, pants, dry socks and booties.  Once my body was going to remain warm, I could prepare to sleep and eat.

I also separated my sleeping gear and first aid kit from food, stove, personal hygiene items and clothing.  Deuter packs have two inside compartments.  The sleeping gear – bag, air matress, pee bottle and first aid kit – snuggled in the bottom compartment.  Everything else jammed the upper one.  Those items that might be needed on a moment’s notice – rain gear, waterproof pack cover, gaiters, TP, headlamp, and water canteen resided in the top or outside quick and easy access pockets.  My tent was usually strapped outside whether I had room inside or not. Don’t ask me why.  I just liked it that way.

My ample first aid kit was in a place quick and easy to reach with only a zipper to protect it.  No straps or buckles to be undone. Inside you’ll find first aid for me and also for my equipment. 

Everything in both compartments that could be affected by water was packed in Sea-to-Summit waterproof compression sacks.  The entire contents were inside trash compactor bags. 

Twice the inside of my cargo compartment got soaked by rain which only underscored that staying dry has to be fail safe.  Let’s just say that it is now.

Both packs were durable.  They do take about 200 miles to break in though.

Shortly before returning to the trail in March, a friend found my favorite piece of equipment.  While Mary Manley and I hiked together, she heard my complaints about not having pockets or pouches that would provide quick access to frequently used items without having to take off my pack. She discovered Ribz (www.ribz.com)  Ribz resembles what the military dubs “load bearing equipment or LBE.”  You don Ribz before your pack.  The pouches and pockets can carry gloves and hats, snacks, tools, hand warmers, guide book pages and virtually every small item you need.  After 350 miles, I declare Ribz a winner.

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Wearing Ribz

My food bag is a ZPack Cuben Fiber bag designed specifically for that purpose.  It was expensive, but held up fine.  In a pinch I could cram up to eight days rations within.

“Feets don’t fail me now” is a slogan seen occasionally on marathoner’s shirts.  If it’s true for marathons, it applies ten-to-the-tenth for thru hikers.  Foot health is everything, and it all begins with boots. 

I got really lucky in the boot department.  I have a high-arched, narrow foot and 30 years ago I discovered that Salomon’s last conforms perfectly to my foot shape.  I haven’t had a blister since. 

My current hiking boots aren’t really boots per se.  They are actually high-topped lighter weight Gore-Tex trail shoes –  Salomon model X Ultra Mid GTX.  The rocks on the AT are so ubiquitous and unstable that, with the pack weights I had to carry, I needed high tops to protect against rolling my ankles. The insides have a silver threaded lining that seemed to work like my Columbia Omni-Heat base layer to reflect body heat back.  My feet never got cold – never!  Not even at sub-zero temps.  I wore polypropylene sock liners with heavy “Smart Wool” socks.

Here’s the bonus.  My first pair of boots lasted 850 miles!  The norm is 500 or less. The reason the boots lasted so long isn’t brand magic.  There’s a special circumstance.  I spent most of my time walking on fluffy leaf litter and snow.  The soles show plenty of wear, just not what one might expect from 850 miles. 

Toward the end though, my faithful boots started giving up the ghost.  The stitching in the uppers stretched to the point where the toe and forefoot areas leaked in the snow.  I also poked a stick through an upper toe box which I repaired with Tenacious Tape and silicone seam seal.  RIP my intrepid friends.  Ya done good, and I’ll miss you. 

I bought two identical replacement pairs of boots with my REI dividend.  One for now and one for a planned tire change in Hanover, NH. 

4. Cold weather:

When I decided to hike on after my planned trip from Springer to Fontana ended, I thought I was well prepared for seasonal weather, even in the infamous Smokies.  After all, it was barely the first week in November. I planned to heavy-up my gear during the Thanksgiving break which was slightly more than 10 days away at that time.

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The season’s first winter storm on Nov. 5th challenged that premise. The overnight temp unexpectedly plunged to 0F and the trails turned to sheet ice. In spite of having only a 30F kit, I dozed off and on at the Ice Water Spring Shelter that night, but only after wrapping myself in my tent fly for extra insulation. I was not as comfortable as I would like.

The real issue was the absence of mittens.  I did have thick gloves and liners, but they were not sufficient to prevent light frost nip.  I backtracked into Gatlinburg to buy mittens and microspikes from the large and well-equipped Nantahala Outdoor Center outfitter there. 

SOL.  No mittens in stock!  I was stunned, so I bought a pair of extra large fleece gloves into which I could cram the gloves I already had and pushed on. A couple of fingertips got nipped, but a warming trend prevented further damage.

Staying warm is all about light weight layers.  Purely by accident I discovered Omni-Heat clothing by Columbia.  The premise is that Mylar microdots embedded in the fabric reflect body heat back and improve the R value.  I’m a data guy without real data in this case, but in my experience Omni-Heat is nothing short of magic.  It really, really works.  As an added attraction, the base layer wicks moisture well too.  I also have a lightweight Columbia down jacket with the same feature. Everything has withstood heavy laundering.  Score!  http://www.columbia.com/Omni-Heat-Reflective/Technology_Omni-Heat_Reflective,default,pg.html

The layering concept is the basis of my various temperature-based packing schemes. Clothing worn while hiking wasn’t a big deal.  Hiking generates so much heat that it didn’t take much to be warm.  The real issue was not to sweat too much and get soaked. 

On my coldest hiking day it was +5 F with 18.5 miles on the menu.  I wore my Omni-Heat base layer with a light fleece over that. The top layer was a hooded, high collared rain jacket with pit zips.  The windchill was about 10 below.  My hands were protected by fleece glove liners and thick mittens inside water/windproof shells.  That’s why I only took two photos that day – about 50 yards apart.  It was just too hard to unwrap everything.

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The real challenge to staying warm isn’t walking, it’s sleeping.  My sleep system is based on a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite air mattress.  Most heat loss while sleeping is from the bottom.  This air mattress is also magic.  I was warm every single night.  http://www.cascadedesigns.com/therm-a-rest/mattresses/fast-and-light/neoair-xlite/product?  Its technology also captures radiant heat. 

My sleeping bag is a Sierra Designs Dry Down 25F-rated woman’s bag.  I’m 5’6″ and it fits my stature well and saved me about $100 over a comparable men’s bag designed for longer people. 

The sleeping bag is supplemented by combinations of the following:  A silk liner, a light weight fleece hat and shirt, light weight down booties, pants, and two light weight down jackets sized to fit one inside the other.  Add fleece gloves and dry socks and I’ve slept in an open shelter, warm and toasty, at five below with degrees to spare. 

These items are mixed and matched in various combinations and are supplemented buy extra hats and gloves as the various temperature ranges dictate.

One important cold weather factor is keeping your hands warm and DRY.  Waterproof hand coverings are essential.  In fact, rain and 34F can be more threatening than snow at 30F.  I used REI mittens with a waterproof shell – and sometimes the shell alone supplemented by fleece gloves – or dishwashing gloves with glove liners inside as circumstances dictated.  No problems.

Cooking in colder weather also has a different dynamic.  I purchased a highly efficient Jet Boil stove to replace my Pocket Rocket.  Boiling ice cold water took less fuel and time with the former.  I also made an insulating cozy into which I could put my food while it rehydrated. 

If it’s cold enough, your food can cool dramatically during the 10 – 15 minutes it takes to fully rehydrate.  The cozy is simply a double layer heavy duty plastic frozen pizza bag cut down and taped together with HVAC tape.  It works well and weighs little.

5.  Water:

In the beginning I was trucking two liters of water.  That’s four fat pounds worth.  Ultimately realizing that water would be plentiful, I cut back to a single liter and purchased a Nalgene two liter collapsible canteen for in-camp use. I’ve never run short.

Water treatment is personal preference.  I use iodine tabs because that’s what I’ve always used, and I know they work.  They’re light and take up almost no space. 

I buy several bottles of the tabs, and the white clarifying pills that remove the bad taste, and repack them into two-inch plastic tubular containers.  The one drawback is that iodine tabs take 30 minutes to be effective.  In contrast Filters are immediate, but they freeze, clog, require maintenance and take up valuable space. 

I did pick up a Life Straw filter to take on the second half for emergency use.  Sometimes in the summer heat, you can’t wait 30 minutes to rehydrate.

6.  Cost:

Ker-ching!!! Being out of cycle and buying extra gear for winter has been costly.  The rule of thumb for an in-cycle hike is amortized at $1,000 per month which includes the cost of gear.  Gear for a largely summer hike reportedly ranges from $1,000 to $1,500. 

My costs have averaged about twice normal – including a lot of extra winter gear.  Off cycle, there’s usually no one with whom to share the cost of shuttles and lodging.  Some of these services cost extra then too.  The weather zeros add up as has some down time waiting until my wife could come and collect me for the holidays.  Towns are expensive, especially the restaurant food.

After crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, I’ve noticed that I can anticipate fewer inexpensive hostels and more expensive motels.  The price difference is up to a factor of four in many cases.  Ouch!

Could I have shaved some of these costs?  Not really, unless I switched to a normal hike.  It is what it is.

6.  Hygiene:

After packing my “survival pile,” the luxury I chose was personal hygiene.  My mother is the principal reason.  She used to admonish us as adolescents for smelling like “Boy Scouts” when we’d come home from a camping trip.  Later, as an Army leader, I learned that throughout history more soldiers have died from preventable diseases than at the hands of their enemies.  Keeping clean is the key, and I am obsessed with it.

My hygiene kit includes a comb, plastic mirror, tooth brush, floss, waterless shampoo, Dr. Bronner’s (very eco-friendly) soap, hand sanitizer, fingernail clippers and file, a ration of two “Wet Ones” per day, and a small microfiber towel.  The hand sanitizer doubles as deodorant.  Just remember to rub it in to activate the alcohol. 

I also use table napkins as TP – much stronger and less likely to tear.  When digging a cat hole, I carefully burn the paper before filling it back up.  It’s an old practice I was taught in dry climates where paper can last a hundred years.  Just don’t burn down the woods.

Keeping clean differs some between winter and summer conditions.  Below 40F, I don’t wash my hair daily or shave everyday.  Too cold.  But hands can be washed, body wiped down with Wet Ones, and teeth brushed. 

In summer, I sponge off he sweat residue as soon as I reach camp.  Clothes can be washed and rinsed in a trash compactor bag, two liters of water and Dr. Bronners.  Just fill up the bag and shake.  Repeat for the rinse cycle.  Oooom. Irish Spring.

I carry two base layers in winter, plus several light outer layers.  In summer, I always have two sets of shorts and t-shirts, plus a cotton sleeping shirt and a decent shirt to wear in town that only comes out in town.  Accessorize sans hiker funk, and note the clean hair and fingernails.  No hiker trash here.

7.  Electronics:

Cold temperatures raise hell with lithium batteries.  Once the battery itself reaches temps under 50F, it can shutdown in a matter of minutes.  By March I was carrying 4 1/2 extra iPhone battery equivalents, plus the phone.  Most of them were manufactured by Mophie.  During the day I couldn’t do much except keep my phone as close to my body as possible.  Twice I used dry handwarmers to keep my phone battery viable enough to phone for shuttles. 

At night the batteries snuggled inside my jacket pocket.  Once warm and bedded down, I’d recharge my phone or iPod as needed.  Not an ideal situation, but the best I could do.

In town, most hostels don’t have enough plugs to charge several devices at once.  During hiking season it must be a zoo.  I purchased a single plug, multi-port charger into which I could connect everything I carried.  It was slow, taking all night to recharge everything, but much better than charging the phone and storage batteries one at a time.  Can’t wait for summer.

Summary:

The age old truths apply.  In particular, when there is will, there is a way.  Best of all, if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. 

 

Sisu – Makin’ tracks …  

Major Milestone Complete

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George Harrison with the Beatles had it right.  “Little darlin’, it’s been a long, cold, lonely, winter!”  You bet!  One thousand and eight, point eight northbound miles on the odometer. 

“Here comes the sun,” I hope.  Of course, along with warmer weather I realize that in trade I’ll be sharing the trail amenities with other thru hikers, section hikers and recreational users of the trail.  That’s been the (very welcome) case pretty much since spring break.  Actually, it’s been nice to have some company after weeks playing a combination of Daniel Boone/Grizzly Adams/Kit Carson going solo in the wilderness. 

Being alone does help foster peace of mind.  I’ve come to understand and embrace the appeal that solitude brings monks, nuns, hermits and those who spend hours in meditation.  On the other hand, sometimes your mouth fills up with stuff you just have to share with someone.  In those cases, when two hikers paths cross, the stacato wordy eruptions from the two parties can be positively Vesuviun as they lock on like Blue Tooth, spouting information at rates that would melt fiber optic cable. 

Since I trekked from Rockfish Gap to Harpers Ferry in the fall, when I closed on the Gap, my hike flash forwarded the 160 miles through Shenandoah National Park and on to the Maryland border where the Potomac washes the West Virginia line. 

As I ensconced myself at a convenient popcorn stand, Tim, my high school classmate once again saved my bacon.  He scooped me up for an Italian lunch in downtown Waynesboro, a shower at his house and a visit to a very cool museum within walking distance of his house as we killed time until my wife could arrive and drag me home. Of course we treated our spouses to fine dining first.

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Day 1:  10:04 a.m. Sept. 24, 2013

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11 a.m. March 3, 2014 – 25 lbs. lighter.  Notice the big difference in body language.

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A popcorn/jhot dog stand right on the trail.  What a concept!

The Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Va. (http://www.frontiermuseum.org/)is a living history affair modeled on Colonial Williamsburg, featuring the ethnic groups that settled the Shenandoah Valley – including the original Americans and the ethnic Nigerian Igbo enslaved population.  The perspective it offers about how the valley was settled and evolved was absolutely awesome. 

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Along the way, I learned that those stone walls I previously wrote about were actually built by rented slaves.  That tale is not as romantic as the image of hard-scrabble farmers clearing land by the sweat of their brow.

When to reenter the northbound hiker flow is to be determined.  The Conservancy staff suggests waiting until late April or early May or risk riding winter’s tail all the way to the end.  That option would add the social factor associated with more people too.  On the other hand, I’m not inclined to wait that long.  Therefore I’ve arranged to consult with several successful of thru hikers who reside in the northern states and seek their advice.  My departure date will be based on how their insights fit with the experience I hope to have. 

Meanwhile, there’ll be more in this space on lessons learned, Tarzan, and a couple of other subjects that banged against my skull as I bumped along the trail.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Sisu – Makin’ tracks …

600 Mile Gear Review

PackNo two hikers are alike – in their experience, size, strength, comfort levels, ambition, motivation, fears, concerns and confidence level, and expectations. That’s part of what makes interesting the beast that an Appalachian Trail thru hike is.

After more than 600 miles, I thought a gear review might be in order. Remember that this experience has been mine alone. Your or anybody else’s reality could be very different.

First to recap. I hiked the 160 miles from Waynesboro, Va. (Rockfish Gap) to Harpers Ferry, WVa. starting Sept. 24th and finishing on Oct. 6th. During that period the daily high temperature ranged from 54 to 92 with about a week of each. The experience was instructive to say the least. I still can’t get the funk out of my sleeping bag.

On Oct. 24th I started hiking north from Springer Mountain, Ga. with 13 days off for Thanksgiving. My marker is now in Damascus where I left the trail for Christmas, New Years, income tax and to file for Medicare.

With so many people focused on starting early this spring, my hard learned lessons may be helpful to some.

Philosophically, I am not an ultralight hiker. I’m not a tank either. Ever mindful of weight, I carry what I need to be comfortable, warm and safe. Just understand that I am willing to pay a weight tax in the areas that are important to me – but may not be important to anyone else. My spring/fall pack with 1 liter of water and five days rations weighs around 26 lbs. My full winter weight clocks in between 32 and 34 lbs.

My pack itself is a Deuter Act lite 40 +10. That means that it’s basically a 40 liter pack with about 10 liters of expansion room. When I bought the pack, I thought that its size limitations would help impose some weight discipline. My catch phrase was: “If it don’t fit. It don’t go.” That’s been true, but if I were to do it over, I’d buy a 50 liter pack. Forty liters is very tight, but I have been able to make it work.

Deuter packs have a brilliantly adjustable suspension. I have the build of a marathoner – which makes it hard to find a pack that fits. Deuter’s infinitely adjustable suspension helps my pack fit like a pair of comfortable old slippers. That’s the reason I’m staying with it. I also like its ability to create compartments which help me stay organized. That’s where my love affair ends.

Deuter could improve all its packs tremendously with a few simple fixes. Watersealed seams and water resistant zippers would be more than helpful. This pack leaks like a sieve, even with a rain cover on. You listening Deuter? I really don’t like that.

The hip belt could use properly sized (meaning large) side pockets on both sides. The one pocket it does have is on the right and far too small. Worse, it is located in such a way that I can’t see its contents. The left side has space to attach something – heaven knows what. There are no after market products specifically designed for this pack that could stimulate my imagination that I can find. I made do with a zippered item I found at REI.

My sleep system works – barely. As a winter hiker I need to be prepared for ten below zero. I’m finding that zero is about the limit of real comfort. The system is based on a woman’s 25 degree dry down bag by Sierra Designs. My stature allows me to use a woman’s bag which saves about a pound of weight and $100 in cost. I really like the extra insulation they put in the area for your feet in a woman’s bag.

The bag is supplemented with a silk liner – mostly for the purpose of absorbing grime and managing drafts. The question is, What happens when the temp threatens to plummet below 25 degrees?

Since I can expect a huge range of temperatures on the trail during the winter, I have to have an adjustable clothing/sleeping system. To supplement both, I truck two puffy down jackets – one medium and one large so they fit inside one another. Then there’s the puffy down pants and booties. Combined, with clothing layers, I figured this system would easily get me to `10F.

Not so. The sleeping bag itself is made of light weight fabric. When stretched by water bottles and a butane fuel container, the bag develops cold spots when the temp nears zero. It hasn’t bothered me much, but I don’t like it. Moreover, the zipper snags both up and down because the fabric is so light. That’s not good.

When I return to the trail after the holidays, I’m switching to my 1970’s zero degree bag. It’s bigger and heavier, but it is absolutely bullet proof to zero. With the puffies added, it’ll take anything mother nature can throw at it, and I’ll be more confident.

My Thermarest NeoAir mattress is awesome!!! Can’t praise it enough. If I could marry it, it would. I’ll just sleep with it instead. 🙂

I switched from a Pocket Rocket stove to a Jet Boil Sol. Since I cook exclusively in Zip Lock freezer bags, that was the right move. The size increase was miniscule. The efficiency increase is remarkable and well worth it. With the Pocket Rocket, I used up a full size butane cartridge about every 10 days. With the Jet Boil, the mini cartridge lasted 18 days with fuel to spare.

I use a Zpacks food bag. It’s NOT waterproof. Moreover, it needed to be modified with an extra tiny snap link and some chord to make it easily hangable and operable with mittens. I’d buy it again. The size is about right for up to a week’s worth of food.

Speaking of modifications, I’ve had to modify about everything – tent, rain jacket, food bag, and pack – for winter and mittens. Try and operate everything you own with mittens on before you actually hike. You’ll be surprised.

My iPod and iPhone serve as communications and entertainment – the entertainment is mostly at night. Since lithium batteries suffer from cold, I carry three Mophies that will fully charge my iPhone a total of one time each, plus the charge in the phone itself. The priority is to the phone because I frequently text my wife and family where I am. I reserve one battery for my iPod which serves as evening entertainment. This arrangement usually works.

I keep the phone in airplane mode most of the time and a battery usually lasts a couple of days, if not more.

My rain gear – pants and jacket are traditional. They work. My jacket is a North Face with pit zips. It’s functional, but the chords that tighten the hood and waist are not designed to use with gloves or mittens. So much for the compromises necessary to honor North Face’s identity as a fashion brand.

My clothing is in a Sea to Summit compressible dry sack. I carry an extra base layer, plus a sleeping shirt, four layers, a sleeping hat and three pair of socks in addition to the aforementioned down gear.

That’s about it for equipment. I carry gloves and waterproof arctic mittens. My first aid kit services me and my equipment. My headlamp is a light weight single LED by Princeton Tec.

I also carry one charging cable and iPad charger for each battery and electronic device I carry. There are not enough outlets at the hostels. They’ve not caught up to the 21st century in that regard.

My return to the trail is indefinite. My mother is struggling with cancer. I may fly home to Colorado to be with her before continuing my hike.

I also plan to sneak in the Grayson highlands between Christmas and the New Year with the help of the kind folks at Mt. Rogers Outfitters who will shuttle me 60 miles north so I can hike back to my car in Damascus. Once past Grayson, altitude will be less of a weather factor.