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:
2. Town visits and zeros
4. Cold weather
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …