Cut your losses

Buena Vista, Va., AT NOBO mile 802.6, Thursday March 27, 2014 — Yesterday’s wind storm did a number on the trail.

This morning Butch, who co-owns Bluedogart with his wife Susan, shuttled me to the trailhead parking lot located a mile downhill from AT NOBO mile 818.9 so I could scamper back toward Buena Vista for a 5 pm pickup.

The one mile uphill trek was moderately steep, taking 40 minutes slowed slightly by the six inches of snow clogging the old dirt logging road.

Once up top everything changed. Yesterday’s stiff winds mounded the snow into an endless series of deep drifts, some to midthigh, but most just above the knee. A genuine posthole experience for those who know about these things.

Since the trail started on an exposed ridge line, I thought I would walk out of it. Not so. After almost two trail miles I realized the drifting was for keeps.

The sun sparkled and drifted snow drastically slowed my pace. When I reached a definable land mark on my trail guide, I realized that at my blistering pace, arrival at the pick up point would be after midnight rather than 5 pm. Time to reverse course and try another day, especially since I wasn’t carrying a tent or sleeping bag.

With rain in the forecast starting late tomorrow, lasting into Saturday, I don’t expect the snow to clear until Sunday morning. Being only two hours from home is tempting with three nights to kill. I have a call in to my wife to see if she can swoop in and rescue me tonight. If so, I’ll be home for our anniversary Saturday!

I’ll drive back Monday to hike the section to Waynesboro in three days, then recover my car.

Decision made with no phone signal, I reversed my footprints and retraced my course down the old logging road.

As luck would have it, there’s a Virginia Fish and Game fish hatchery at the bottom of the hill equipped with a phone and a really nice manager named Tim. You’re a gem big guy.

I arranged a shuttle only to arrive at the hostel (built in the 1890s) to find an overheated electrical socket. Butch and I pulled it out of the wall and disconnected it.

Upon reflection, today deep snow was a lucky break. Aside from the obvious reasons, I had $1,500 worth of gear stored on the other side of that wall!





Can you believe it?

Buena Vista, Va., AT NOBO mile 802.6, Wednesday March 26, 2014 — Taking a weather zero (mileage) day off. The prevailing winds on the AT are from the southwest. Today a stiff wind is ripping from the northwest and I’d be walking dead into a subzero windchill. My mamma didn’t raise a fool.

Tomorrow I’m planning to slack pack about 15 miles back to Buena Vista. The advantage is twofold. One, it solves a distance problem that enables me to avoid hiking a 20-plus mileage day my second day out. Two, I get another night indoors and the free breakfast that comes with it.

Slack packing is when hikers are driven a distance down the trail and hike back to their point of origin. I so doing, they empty their packs of tents, sleeping bags, food and other nonessentials for a day hike. First aid, rain gear and water about everything that goes along for the ride.

The moving is faster ’cause the load is much lighter. I’ll still have to contend with six inches of melting snow, e.g. slush, but I’ll take that bet.

Got a huge surprise last night when I prepared to shower. A tick was noshing on my leg – as in locked on tight. It was too large to be a deer tick, the Lyme Disease vector. Nevertheless, I was a bit dumbfounded. During the past month, the overnight temps have been above freezing only twice. Moreover my base layer is skintight so the little sucker really had to work to get there. Could it be that Spring has sprung and nobody told us?

At the moment I’m soaking up lunch at the Bluedogart Cafe complete with a slab of that heavenly bee sting cake. Turns out that it’s homemade by a local Amish lady. Butch, the owner, is holding down the fort at his favorite roost.


I hear music

Bobblets Gap Shelter, AT NOBO mile 742.5, Friday March 21, 2014 — For the first time this year song birds sounded the morning alarm! Until now, the forest has been as mute as a mime.

Just as the song birds voiced their pleasure, I spied dwarf daffodils marking their corner of the camp area. But, … There’s snow and sleet in the forecast for Tuesday. Seems Old Man Winter just won’t exit stage right or wrong. Dude! Take the hint!!!

During the day’s walk I spotted Carolina wrens, black capped chickadees, a tufted titmouse, a dark-eyes junko and a cat bird. These all appear at our feeder throughout the winter, so there’s no surprise other than why their spring concert season premiered today.

I also saw a honey bee, surely a sign of spring tho nothing is blooming. P.S. Oh yes there is.

We’re entering the area where the AT crosses over the Blue Ridge Parkway for the next hundred miles or so. It’s the same drill as Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, only minus the waysides where there’s food within easy reach.

I still haven’t forgotten that I did not get my Blackberry Milkshake at the Elk Wallow wayside because the congress closed Shenandoah… Getting one is on my bucket list for sure. Better than beer!



Audie Murphy Memorial


Major Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in WWII, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor as the highest among his several decorations for valor.  The Audie Murphy memorial on the AT marks the plane crash in which he died as a civilian after the war. 

It’s a hiker tradition to leave something at the memorial, especially those of us who are veterans.  I’ve been carrying a special Army pin since the beginning of my hike, expressly for the that purpose.

Audie Murphy served in the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division (Rock of the Marne) which is currently stationed near Savannah, Ga. at Ft. Stewart.  There its mission is to be our nation’s rapidly deployable armored force. 

What you may not know is that many military units have unique songs that grow out of their various traditions.  The Third Division’s song is a fun ditty entitled “Dogface Soldier” which is reminiscent of the culture and times when it was written in WWII.  Here’s a link:  By the way, and no offense to my Marine comrades, but I too “Wouldn’t give a bean to be a fancy-pants Marine. 🙂

Regular readers of this blog know this, but for those who don’t, I’m a retired “dog face” Army infantryman with 28 years of service.  Today I proudly stood at attention and saluted the memory of a bona fide American hero.

“Dog Face.”  That’d be a great trail name for somebody, don’t ya think?

This is how Murphy might have heard or sung it:

“I wouldn’t give a bean to be a fancy-pants Marine.
I’ll be the dog face soldier that I am.

I wouldn’t trade my old ODs for all the Navy’s dungarees,
’cause I’m the walkin’ pride of Uncle Sam.

The poster on the wall says the Army builds men,
So they’re tearing me down to build me over again.

I’m just a dogface soldier with a rifle on my shoulder.
I eat my beans for breakfast every day.

If you feed me ammunition,
‘N keep me in the Third Division,
Your dogface soldier ‘ll be okay!”




The day ended post-hiking up the Dragon’s Tooth in a biting wind. The icy descent to my waiting friend’s car was treacherous practice for New Hampshire’s White Mountains coming up in June.

Am now taking a weather zero in Roanoke.

Are we there yet?


In October, the weather at White Blaze number 1 was a harbinger of temperatures to come – The ambient air temp registered a unseasonal 17 F frosted with a stiff wind.


When 2014 rolled over on Father Time’s odometer, the annual blossoming of the Appalachian Trail (AT) commenced as hikers slowly began pollinating north Georgia’s Springer Mountain.  Each new arrival swelled the cavalcade expectantly streaming northward.  From a few in January, each successive month bears witness to new hopefuls joining the annual rebirth and migration.

From Springer, they follow the nor’ easters stormy track for 2,185.3 miles – all the way to Baxter State Park in central Maine.  Their ultimate hope is to hug that battered placard atop Mt. Katahdin.  Undeterred, they willfully ignore the overwhelming odds against their success.  Historical evidence suggests that least three of four of us will be unsuccessful. 

As a family strung out over the miles, individually and together we hikers navigate a unique ribbon of reality. It twists and turns in a slow motion parallel universe to I-95 which, just a few miles east of the AT, rages relentlessly northward in the direction of our common destination.  We are confident in our slower but equally determined pace, and fortified by our greater peace of mind as we leave civilization in the rear view mirror.

For the next several months we inhabit a migrating colony of free-range hikers.   Our feral existence is defined by day-by-day adventures all our own.  That’s how our story unfolds.

The class of 2014 has done all the preparation possible.  From now until Katahdin, for any chance of success, each of us needs luck, and above all, the courage to keep on keeping on, no matter what challenge comes our way. 

 Feet to brain, “Say what! “

Not one of us is an island.  The support of family, friends, the trail community, complete strangers, and those who read our journals is a necessary condition of success. 

The long march for the Class of 2014 is finally underway in significant numbers. If we have the physical stamina, enough luck to avoid major illness and injury, and the mental fortitude to repeat the first stride five million times through ups and downs, snow, rain, mud, heat, humidity, ugly rocks, injuries and blood sucking insects, then we too will claim the high ground and tag that weathered scoreboard almost 2,200 miles north of white blaze number 1. 

My hike is highly unconventional, although not originally planned that way.  On September 24th I started a 13-day, 160-mile practice hike from Waynesboro, Va to Harpers Ferry WVa.  It was so much fun that I did not want to waste it.  So, I decided to get down to Springer Mountain and start northward as soon as I could.


With my friend Mary “Hey Man!” Manley, I took the on-ramp to the northbound hiker super highway on Oct. 24.   Mary plans to resume her hike from where she suspended it in about a month from now.  I know this tough cookie is going to make it all the way.


As I crunched my way forward on the snow and ice-crusted trail as the days darkened, I heard of three NOBOs hiking ahead of me with the intent of driving on to Maine unless weather drove them off the trail.  Reports are that one left the trail in Damascus just prior of my arrival there.  I have no word of the others.


Now it’s my turn to rejoin the class.  The administrative tasks related to my mother’s passing are complete, the taxes filed, and all the rest. 

My official return to the trail is Wednesday.  High octane drop boxes packed with calories were mailed last week. During the interim, I’ve been working hard at Fitness Together.  The plan is Katahdin or Bust by July fourth – give or take.  Fingers crossed.


As always, armchair hikers are welcome to enjoy the rest of the journey.

 Sisu – Making tracks

Humor does not diminish the pain – it makes the space around it get bigger. – Allen Klein 

“The most certain way of ensuring victory is to march briskly and in good order against the enemy, always endeavoring to gain ground.”   Fredrick the Great

A version of this entry was previously posted on Trail Journals.

Dumbo’s Feather


I am thru-hiking the AT this year with fond memories of my late friend Bob Schwartz. 

In the mid-1970s, when we were young, hard-bodied and living in Colorado Springs, Bob was my favorite hiking, climbing, and biking partner.  We would hit the Rocky Mountain high country as often as our lives and wives would allow. 

Together we summited “fourteeners” in winter and summer, bouldered and swam through the 1,800-foot-deep Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, rode centuries through the rolling plains around C-Springs, and contemplated the cosmos as we camped at starry-eyed altitudes. 


Bob in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, Colorado

Bob loved New Hampshire’s White Mountains.  Walking there in his footsteps there will be the most cherished part of this experience. 

Bob was a native New Yorker (Brooklyn).  Through his eyes (and accent) I learned my way around the city long before I ever set foot there.  His quintessentially Jewish sense of humor and piercing intellect were extraordinary.

Bob graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale in only three years on his way to becoming a distinguished physicist, NASA scientist and university professor.  During our journeys we often camped above tree line where the deep velvet sky is sequined in stars.  His education was my good fortune because, ever the professor, he never missed an opportunity to expand my mind and share his appreciation for the cosmos.

Bob tragically died of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD) in 1980.  At the time, his doctors believed he might have contracted this brain-destroying disease while doing post-doc work at Cambridge University.  Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow) was present in the UK then, and researchers believed that CJD could be contracted by eating contaminated beef. 

The irony of a mind-robbing disease destroying a brilliant intellect remains heart-breaking to this day.

After he died, Bob’s wife Mary wanted me to have his climbing and camping gear.  In Bob’s memory, I will carry one of his carabineers.

How would I know the carabineer was Bob’s?  Climbers mark their equipment because during climbs it often gets co-mingled with hardware belonging to others.  Since Schwartz sounds like schwarz – German for the color black – Bob marked his gear with black electrical tape.  Duh!

If Bob were part of this hike, and believe me he would have jumped right on it, we would literally fly like Disney pachyderms.  ‘Quit’ and ‘impossible’ were not in his vocabulary, although he spelled PRUDENCE in all caps. 

Once while ascending the south route of Colorado’s Crestone Needle (14,197ft.) in February, my toes were suffering from frost nip on their way to something worse.  We descended to our tent pitched on a saddle below, warmed my foot and changed into dry socks.  I was thinking zero and a very early dinner, but Bob pointed his mittened hand upward, and back up we went to keep our appointment with the blustery summit.

My friend, we will be united once more, especially on those magical midnights when stardust rains from the sky.  Your carabineer will serve as a talisman inspiring me to press onward relentlessly and always.  It will remind me to be courageous, to challenge my imagination and to encourage my mind to travel far beyond what little I can actually see. 

I am so thankful to have Mary’s bequest.  It reminds me that life and good health should never be wasted.  You have my solemn promise to give this journey every ounce of energy, fortitude and kindness to others that I can muster.

Just as Dumbo clutched his feather and soared, I hope having Bob’s ‘beaner’ along for the ride will do the same for me.  BTW, It’s not useless weight.  In addition to its function as totem, it moonlights by clipping my micro spikes to my pack by day and as my bear bag hanger by night.

Sisu – Making tracks

 “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be.  Be one.”  Marcus Aurelius

(A version of this essay was previously posted on Trail Journals.)

Worst Case Scenario

Winter Wonderland

Winter Wonderland

The range of winter weather in the southern Appalachian Trail and mountains ranges from pleasantly mild to bitter cold with heavy snow.

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is both noted as the home of the highest peak east of the Mississippi (Clingman’s Dome – 6,643 ft.) but probably more so for its terrible winter weather.  Just this week a group of ill-prepared hikers required rescue from the cold and snow.

With facts like these in mind, I re-evaluated my winter kit over the holidays.

When I left the trail to celebrate Christmas with my family, my basic sleeping system, due to my distance runner’s stature, was based on a woman’s Sierra Designs woman’s dry down 25 degree bag supplemented by “puffy” down booties, pants and two down jackets sized to fit inside one another.

I am a warm sleeper and reasoned that the sleeping bag was good to at least 20 degrees F in my case.  With the booties, pants and jackets I figured that I could get to -10 F comfortably.  A zero degree night of borderline comfort proved me wrong.

So, I resurrected my zero degree 70’s vintage, but weighty, Holubar sleeping bag .  Holubar was bought by North Face decades ago, for the record.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I adore winter hiking and camping.  To be redundant, it’s unique and there’s nothing like it.  To be selfish, this week I spent four days on the AT and guess how many other hikers I saw?  Zero!  The AT was mine alone for that time.  Not a human track anywhere.

I enjoy company on the trail, but those who have thru hiked during the crowded traditional hiker season may appreciate what it means to have the trail and the woods, not to mention every shelter and privy all to one’s self.  It’s an amazing experience and privileged access to a treasured public accommodation not to be lightly dismissed.

When I hit the trail on Tuesday, I knew that the weather forecast for Thursday and Friday was ominous. As I ‘misunderstood’ it, the chance of rain on Thursday was 40 percent with an 80 percent chance of snow on Friday.  The bottom was supposed to drop out of the thermometer Friday night.  I was only slightly off.

Knowing it “might” rain on Thursday, January 2, I prepared appropriately.  When I bounded away from Thomas Knob Shelter, I was ‘armored up’ in rain gear including waterproof mitten shells and my new (and third) pack cover was battened down with a cat 5 hurricane in mind.

What foresight, if I do say so myself.  Ever seen a cow urinate on a flat rock?  That’s how the rain let loose about five steps after I jumped out of the shelter door!

Bam!!! I was swimming in the soup.  The volume varied, but the precipitation didn’t let up all day as my boots squished steadily southward across White Top Mountain in the direction of Damascus. The going was slow.

Here’s the good news and bad news.  First the bad.  The temperature all day hovered around 32 degrees.  The ground remained frozen. As proof, I nearly crashed and burned crossing a gravel parking lot glazed with a hidden layer of slick black ice.  On the positive side, my rain gear and base layer did their jobs.  I arrived in camp in very good shape considering.

I had hoped for a 24 mile day.  If I could do that, I’d be in Damascus by noon Friday and home Friday evening.  That was not to be.  Oh well, flexibility is a key to happy hiking.

At 4:30 p.m. I made Lost Mountain Shelter.  The temp was dropping and the rain was just beginning to mix with snow.  With my quota still six miles away, I realized that I’d be night hiking yet again.  This time with early darkness caused by the cloud cover, it would mean almost three murky hours in sleet and snow.

The decision to stop for the night was a no-brainer.  I was fatigued from the previous two tough days.  Given the day’s rain volume, who knows how heavy the snow might become.  Headlamps penetrate snow no better than car headlights see through fog.  The trail bed was icy in spots.  Check dams can form frozen skating rinks in winter.  Not safe.  Time to check my ambition at the door and brake for sanity.

Good decision.  The shelter was clean and in good repair with convenient amenities thanks to the local trail club volunteers. The spring and privy were handy.  The setting was aesthetically pleasing.  It doesn’t get better than that on the AT.

It also was nice to have extra time to settle in.  I wouldn’t have to cook or set up my bedroll by headlamp.  As the curtain of darkness smothered the landscape, my appetite was satiated and I rolled into my sleeping bag. It was around 6 p.m.  Hiker midnight is a relative condition… set at any time you want if you’re solo.

Since the previous two nights bottomed out in the low 20s, I expected the trend to continue because my understanding was that the super cold would arrive overnight on Friday.  By then I could now anticipate being comfortably ensconced once again at Crazy Larry’s.  Accordingly I chose to wear fewer layers and not don my down pants or booties.  I did, as I habitually do, tuck into bed with me a liter of water, a butane canister and a pair of mittens.  Since it was time to change socks, I put on fresh liners and socks.

I fell asleep almost immediately.  When I winked out, rain drops were still tapping the shelter’s tin roof.  In time nature called.  Without glasses I glanced at my watch.  I thought it read 5:30 a.m.  I felt like I’d slept through the night.  That would be a record.  As I parked my glasses on my nose to confirm the time, I realized it was only 9:30 p.m.  Oops!

The weather was calm.  The rain had stopped.  Not much snow was falling.  The temperature was moderate.  I plugged in my iPod to a vintage radio playlist and drifted off to an episode of “Richard Diamond, Private Detective.”

Ever imagined what sleeping next to a thousand-car freight train at full speed sounds like?  That thought jerked me awake around 11:15 p.m. as the wind howled and trees cracked and groaned.  Thank you Benton MacKaye for imagining shelters built like military bunkers.

The snow was swirling like icy diamond dust as it sprinkled my face with surrealistic pin pricks.  I cinched down the opening to my sleeping bag to the size of  grapefruit.  My nose was colder than I could remember it being for a long time, yet my body was toasty.  Back to sleep.

The wind kept blasting away.  Falling branches and trees served as multiple alarm clocks trough the night.  My exposed nose-o-meter sensed remarkably lower temperatures.  What layers should I wear tomorrow if this continues, I worried?  That the next day’s destination, 18.5 miles away, was Damascus was the saving grace.  With that in mind, I reasoned I could gut through most anything.

A sudden silence awakened me around 5:30 a.m.  The driving wind stopped like Mother Nature flipped a switch.  Check.  The front moved on.  One problem solved.  Extreme wind chill was out of the wardrobe and safety equation.  Amen!

Knowing I had big miles to go, I was up and moving well before six.  As I stumbled to the privy in rock hard boots, the light powdery snow squeaked and crunched.  Oh oh.  It’s colder than I thought.  Snow doesn’t make that sound unless it’s 10 F or colder.

The thermometer on my pack read -15 F.  The bottom had fallen out a day earlier than I expected.  In spite of all that, I was comfortable through the night without the benefit of my full kit.  The added tonnage on my back paid its dividend.

Think about it.  At 4:30 p.m. the previous evening, the rain had soaked all my exposed equipment.  My pack straps, nylon webbing, including my trekking poles, had been thoroughly dunked.  How about my rain jacket and rain cover?  Oh boy!

I’d hung my gear up in hopes that dripping and some evaporation would occur before everything froze.  As every professional manager knows, hope is not a method.  By morning everything was crunchy to say the least.  What an understatement.

This is the worst case scenario that I have seriously worried about since contemplating a thru hike.   What happens when hikers get soaked right before the temperature crashes to a dangerous level?  At -15 F, skin freezes on contact with any material that rapidly conducts heat.  Frostbite and hypothermia are clear and present dangers.  You can be serious trouble before you even know it.

Fortunately I have profited from previous soakings.  In those cases, luckily timed town stops saved my bacon as I slopped thoroughly waterlogged beyond imagination into Erwin, Tenn. and Damascus, Va.  This time, the cargo compartment of my pack was dry inside and out.  The base layer I was wearing dried out because it was only damp with sweat.  The waterproof mitten shells worked.  For redundancy’s sake, back up gloves, mittens, socks and a base layer were in the ready rack if need be.

When it is seriously cold, everything takes at least twice as long.  After unzipping my sleeping bag, I slipped on my glove liners; then my mittens.  You never want bare skin to touch anything.  When I needed dexterity to stuff cargo sacks or manipulate zippers and the like, I took off the mittens.  When the task was complete I jammed my hands back into the mittens until they warmed up again.  Only then did I attempt the next task.

The valve on my NeoAir was frozen shut.  Why not?  Breath is full of water vapor.  Only bare hands could wrench it open.  That smarted.

Once the pack was set, the real adventure unfolded.  Everything that had been exposed to rain was stiff and solid.  Think of a pack harness forged of wrought iron.  Board-like straps didn’t slide in buckles.  The frozen-solid rain jacket stood up by itself.  The straps on my trekking poles which had been hung on a peg resembled rabbit ears…

Fortunately, I always loosen the laces on my boots before bed.  If I had known just how cold it would get, I would have put them inside my sleeping bag.  Thanks to the thick dry socks, my feet never got cold in spite of wearing icy boots.  Walking saved the day.  Gaiters kept the snow off my socks and out of my boots.

The snap, crackle and pop sounds of Rice Crispies echoed off the walls as I struggled into my gear. Had you been there, you would have had to pardon my occasional “french” expletives.

The shelter faded behind me around 8:30 a.m.  Not bad considering.  As the day unfolded, body heat thawed the equipment, the straps loosened, and everything ultimately began to fit properly.

The day’s high hovered around 5 above.  My water bottle even got slushy inside my jacket.  That NEVER happened at -20 in northern Minnesota!  I had different and a heavier outer layer then which may account for the difference.

The day and trail itself were awesome.  Brilliant sun reflected off a snow frosted landscape.  The tracks on the pristine path read like a story book with Br’er Rabbit and his pals eluding foxes and bobcats.  Wild boar and deer made their separate grocery shopping trips.  Guess what?  No bear tracks.  That was a surprise.

I’m home now in preparation to fly with my daughter to Colorado on family matters.  I can’t wait to get back on the trail.  As for future weather? We’ll see.


A Christmas Reward

BreadThis holiday break was a gift for sore legs in more ways than one.

It is the third long break to occur during my hike.  I didn’t plan it that way.  The calendar just intervened on its own like a deus ex machine to save my bacon, or at least that part of my anatomy that is analogous to the part of the pig where we find bacon.

Maybe my trail name ought to be something like “Well Rested, Days Off or Hardly Hikes.”

Nevertheless, being home is a treat.  Let’s see, there’s hot water on demand and porcelain, the fridge doubles as an endless food bag, and best of all, the shelter is warm when I wake up no matter the outside temperature!  Central heating.  What a concept!

In contrast, there is the honey do list, regular chores, family matters, holiday shopping and far too many impatient drivers. I do live in the Washington, D.C. region where “everyone is entitled and special” after all.

Do I really have to go back out in the cold?  You bet, so start getting your head and backside ready.

Of course, I knew the facts of thru hiking life the day I returned home.  In fact, I was motivated.  I started running on the first day just to maintain my cardio fitness, but I put off the dreaded gym as long as possible.

My wife’s mother taught me to make nisu, a traditional Finnish braided holiday bread that is smothered in cherries, nuts and frosting.  We enjoy it on Christmas Eve.  This special treat takes forever to make because it has to rise three different times during the course of its preparation.

I used to get up at 2 a.m. so that the nisu could be ready in time to unwrap presents on Christmas morning.  But, once Santa’s alias became obvious to every household member, we shifted the presents and the bread to Christmas Eve so dad could get a few extra winks.

This year, while the nisu was rising and Sisu was contemplating its stratospheric caloric richness, I  slipped in a trip to Fitness Together in Bethesda, Maryland where I train.  By doing so, I rationalized that I could discount the calories in advance.

By the time my training session was over, I knew the next day was going to hurt.  Hiking doesn’t work your body much above the waist.  Of course, that’s the part that got tortured the most.

As Christmas day opened, this hiker hobbled out of bed like a geriatric pretzel permanently bent and twisted into a shape not found in nature.  I felt like a human sacrifice.  However, a generous dose of vitamin I, some gentle stretching, and an extra hot Hollywood  (very long) shower combined to enable basic locomotion and upright posture.

The best part came later. I limbered up enough to zip off a five-mile run and topped my usual time for the course by better than a minute and a half per mile!   The exercise and weight loss gods at long last had rewarded my offerings.

In a short while, I’m going back to the gym.  Dread the thought, but will love the run to follow.

BTW, the way the weather forecast is racking up, it appears I’ll be back on the trail when the calendar flips to a new year.  Since I usually go to bed early, I won’t miss much.  I’ll just celebrate at hiker midnight rather than when the clock strikes.

The ponies of Grayson Highlands will be the scheduled highlight.  Can’t wait.

Winter Tips


Two members of the class of ’14 contacted me privately to ask about hiking in winter temperatures and conditions.  One recommend that I publish what I’d shared with him.  Needless to say, I was reluctant.  The information is generally well known, and is readily available elsewhere. 

I thought about it during the last leg of my hike and eventually, decided to share it for what it may be worth to others.  When I was in the Army, I taught winter operations and  survival for a time.  Since this knowledge has paid dividends on my hike thus far, I thought there might be a benefit to sharing it.

Obviously, my musings are not comprehensive.  Others may feel free to add their two cents as appropriate.  If you do, please keep it civil.  Dear trolls out there, neither you nor I are idiots. 

The good news is that winters tend to be mild in the southern Appalachians with notable exceptions.  Even when the weather turns bad, it doesn’t often last long.  That said, the recent five-day nor’ easter in early December brought a load of moisture to the mountains.  Fortunately only the last day of the storm was cold.  Otherwise, we might have experienced several feet of snow, so it pays to be prepared. 

Where to start?  In my view, the most important winter concepts are layering and moisture management.

The key to staying comfortable when it’ cold is layers and staying as dry as possible.  Modern poly prop and other wicking fibers are game changers in helping your skin stay dry.  Note I said comfortable, not necessarily toasty warm – a relative concept that changes with each individual’s tolerance. 

You absolutely don’t want to be hot and sweaty all the time.  If you are, not only is dehydration likely, you’ll rapidly chill when you stop moving.  Moreover, all the wet stuff will eventually need drying.

On top I’m using a Columbia Onmi Heat base layer (it’s got Mylar dots that reflect heat back — and it works) with three additional light layers that can be added or subtracted accordingly. For the outer layer I have a light weight nylon wind jacket backed up by my rain parka which has pit zips, a wind collar and hood.  Most times I don’t need more than one or maybe two light layers so long as I’m moving. 

My rule of thumb is that less clothing is more so long as it helps keep your core at the right temperature and your skin as dry as possible.  In my experience, most people put on way more clothing than they need.

Once I stop, I usually don’t have to take off the base layer.  It is normally only wet in the back and seems to dry quickly on its own under the other loose layers I put on when I stop.  There have been exceptions to this practice, of course.  When the day is over, I change into a large fleece shirt, a loose fitting hiking shirt, plus one or both of my down puffy parkas, down pants and the fleece cap in which I sleep. 

On the bottom I hike in bike shorts and compression running tights alone or under a water repellant pair of Columbia camping pants.  My rain pants go over this or substitute for the camping pants as needed.  That’s potentially three layers – more than enough to take you well below zero in a stiff wind in my experience.

Head, hands and feet are the key to real comfort and mental comportment. 

For my head, I carry a fleece ear band which keeps my ears warm while allowing the heat to vent from exertion without wet hair.  I also have a polly prop knit hat I used for cross country skiing.  It can go on over the ear band or replace it. Since I wear glasses, I have a Gore Tex bill cap to keep the rain/snow off the lenses.

I clomp around in Salomon Gore Tex boots with medium weight smart wool socks (I carry three pairs) with sock liners.  I start each day with a dry pair of socks.  I also take off my damp socks and put on dry ones as soon as I stop for the evening to help keep my feet warm.  The damp socks and liners go in between my sleeping bag and air mattress at night.  They’ve always been dry in the morning.

For my hands, I carry two pair of light polly prop glove liners so that one pair is always dry.  I also have a pair of polar tec gloves and a pair of heavy mittens with a waterproof Gore Tex shell.  I didn’t have the mittens in the Smokies when the ambient air temp hit zero F and paid a price for their absence.  Mittens are absolutely the key to warmer hands.  I’ve added chemical hand warmers and used them once.  They work well enough.

At night I almost always sleep in a tent (Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2) unless I think it’s going to storm.  The tent blocks the wind and is about 10 degrees warmer than an open shelter. 

My bag is a woman’s Sierra Designs Dry Down rated to 25 degrees F.  My guess is that a male would be comfortable about five degrees cooler.  As I wrote in my previous blog, I’m exchanging the sleeping bag for my 1970’s Holubar zero degree model in which I have more confidence at lower temperatures.  

At night any wet clothing – usually socks or the base layer – goes between my sleeping bag and air mattress (Themarest NeoAir).  Everything’s dry by morning.  If I think that the temp will drop below freezing, I always put my water and fuel canister in the bag with me or they’ll freeze.  If they do, I’m screwed.  Note to self:  Screw the water bottle cap on tightly so it doesn’t leak!

On seriously cold days – 20 degrees F or less – I hike with my water and fuel inside the inner pockets of my wind layer.  Butane lighters stay in pants pockets or they too will freeze.  Fortunately, the electric starter on my Jet Boil works.  This has magically turned the lighters into dead weight.

I’ve described every item of clothing I carry except my bandanas.  Almost all the clothing gets used every day.

BTW, in the rain, the objective is not necessarily to stay dry.  It’s to manage heat.  That’s one time when the wet base layer comes off quickly at the end of the day.  It’s usually soaked.

Here are some additional tips that may be helpful in preparing for a winter hike.

1.  Practice setting up your tent, operating all your zippers, hooks, snaps, buckles, stuff sacks and cooking with gloves on.  Modify your gear accordingly.  For example I’ve added extra long zipper pulls and replaced the miniature spring-loaded chord keepers with larger ones on some of my clothing.  I modified my tent with extended guy lines and oversize tension keepers so I can manipulate them with mittens on, and or tie the to rocks if the ground is frozen too hard for tent stakes. 

2. Quality backcountry clothing tends to have two distinguishing features.  The first is large inner pockets.  They are to keep, next to your body, water, fuel canisters and any other liquid (medicine) you need to keep from freezing.  You can store gloves, hats and mittens there too.  The other is pit zips.  Clothing designed for fashion tends not to feature these extras.

As I noted, when you’re out there hiking hard, dumping heat is a high priority.  During the recent storm in the Smokies, the pit zips on my wind shell remained open all day – the temps ranged from 18 – 22, the wind was moderate, and it was snowing.  I closed them only when the temps began to plummet and the wind picked up.  Meanwhile, I was comfortable and dry.  The zipper pulls have been modified with extra long pull chords so I can find, open and close them using gloves or mittens without taking off my pack. 

3.  When pitching your tent in snow, stomp down or scrape off an area big enough include your extended guy lines.  Make sure that your tent ventilates well or you’ll have to deal with frozen condensation in the morning.  Pack up quickly inside your tent.  Your body heat will create a thin moisture layer underneath that freezes quickly. To negate this, immediately when you get out, lift the tent off the ground so that the floor/footprint doesn’t freeze to the earth.   A couple of bloggers reported that problem last winter and their light weight nylon tent floors shredded when the tried to pick them up.  Of note, a Tyvek foot print won’t tear.

4.  I carry two 1-liter plastic bottles as canteens.  When water is plentiful, I only keep one filled.  Their key feature is a narrow mouth.  If they should freeze per chance, and mine started to in the Smokies because I didn’t pay attention soon enough, you can get a narrow mouth bottle open with your hands and punch down the ice plug that forms.  You have no prayer of opening a frozen wide-mouth bottle like a Nalgene if it freezes.  The threaded area is large and poses too much friction when frozen.

5.  You need to drink as much water in winter as you do in summer even if you don’t feel thirsty.  You lose a lot of water just by breathing alone, not to mention sweating.  By the time you’re thirsty, it’s too late.  Watch the color of your urine.  Pale yellow is optimum.  Urinating every two hours or so is about the right amount.  Be aware that urine the color of apple juice is trending the wrong way.

Dehydration helps bring on hypothermia much more quickly – as does exhaustion, alcohol use and smoking.  The combo can be like cotton – deadly.  A properly equipped hiker died of hypothermia in the Tri Corner Knob shelter in the Smokies this past winter.  Rangers I met on the trail told me that in addition to being cold, they theorized that he might have been tired and dehydrated.  Regardless, he suffered a tragic end. 

You can Google the incident for details. 

Here’s a report from the same area in  2012 that had a better ending:

6. I keep a Gatoraide bottle in my tent for use as a pee bottle.  Does anyone really want to get up and go out into the hyper cold or driving rain at night?  If it’s below freezing, BE SURE AND SECURE THE CAP and put it in your sleeping bag so it doesn’t freeze. Ladies, this may be one male advantage that is hard to overcome.

Along this vein, I know of two NOBOs last year who had water bottle accidents that soaked their sleeping bags when their flip top bottles accidentally opened at night!  Word to the wise.

7.  I shave with a disposable razor every time I stop in town.  Beards may look cool, but in the winter they form icicles — and worse — snot-cicles because when its cold your nose runs constantly.  This does not include food.  The beard problem comes when the liquid in your beard melts and is absorbed by your clothing and sleeping bag at night.  Sooner or later you develop a moisture issue that can be problematic.   For me, it’s easier to scrape it off when I go to town.  Others obviously disagree.

8.  I have worn my MSR microspikes on three occasions to great advantage.  I could have managed to hike, albeit a lot more slowly, without them.  They’re are not a necessity.  But, their utility is such that I am willing to pay the weight tax to carry them.  I did carry snowshoes for awhile, but no longer.  A lot of the trail is unsuitable for their use – too rocky or too narrow.  As an alternative, I decided to hike around the weather.

Another reason I don’t think snowshoes are needed.  Look on the bright side, during NOBO season, some other eager beaver can always be first out of camp and punch the post holes through deep snow for everyone else.  When you’re solo, you’re on your own. 

The trail in winter is peaceful and almost surrealistic in its appearance.  With the right skills and gear, you can have a wonderful experience that is uniquely yours alone.



Three Keys


One last post before I return to the trail after Thanksgiving.

So far three keys to successfully hiking the Appalachian Trail have jumped to mind after 400 miles.  They are fitness, field craft and luck. These are in addition to the discourse in Zack Davis’s excellent book  Yes, Zack, I made my lists.  Thank you for that.

When I left the trail at Davenport Gap (Standing Bear Farm) and shuttled to Hot Springs to meet my wife, my body was pretty well beaten up.  In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, all hikers are required to sleep in shelters. Stealth camping in between is forbidden largely due to the high volume of hikers.  In addition, the wild hogs and bears which have learned that backpacks are analogous to picnic baskets would significantly complicate stealth camping.  The hogs are aggressive and unafraid of humans.  As a consequence, night hiking i strongly discouraged.

The distance between shelters dictates the distances you have to hike each day.  Most often, I would reach a shelter around two or three in the afternoon, too early to stop hiking – especially after it turned cold.  Having to make the next shelter before dark meant bearing down, digging in order to produce the physical effort needed to “git ‘er done.”

Ironically, it seemed like the second shelter was always five to eight miles away – up hill (both ways)…

Before the Smokies, I was physically in good shape thanks to the ample number of camping sites between shelters.  I’d hike until it was about to get dark, then stop and pitch my tent.  Georgia features gentle, well-maintained trails.  The trail becomes significantly more eroded on the north side of Standing Indian Mountain and onward in North Carolina.  The Nantahala Wilderness is steep.  Some would say “brutal”- just sayin’. 

Word about the obvious, any time a section of trail has been tagged with a name, be aware that you may feel some discomfort.  The Rollercoaster and Jacobs Ladder are memorable at the moment.  The former because it was 90 degrees and I had 21 miles to make.  The latter because it’s steep and came at the end of a long day.  I am already dreading the words associated with “notch,” even if they are a 1,000 miles away.

After Nantahala and the Smokies, defined by multiple 15 – 18 mile days, my left knee was getting sore and my right (severed in 2008) Achilles tendon and calf muscle were very sore.  I was developing pain (neuroma) in my left foot as well.  I was overdue for a couple of zeros, or an aptly timed break for Thanksgiving. 

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, as the saying goes.  I definitely got lucky with the timing of the Thanksgiving holiday. 

What I learned from the first 400 miles is that fitness is a double edged sword for me.  While being especially fit (strength and cardio) enabled comfortable hiking and significantly diminished the psychological impact of steep terrain and long miles, it also enabled me to overdo it a bit. 

Observing others on the trail who were less fit engendered an appreciation for its intrinsic value.  There are hikers who “suffer” through steep stretches, the weight of their packs, and long days because they are not as fit as they could be.  My distinct impression is that hiking yourself into shape is an option with higher risk than preparing in advance.  The sweat in the gym paid off.

Knowing the little tricks of the trade can be invaluable.  Whether we learned them from our family, Scouting, military service or by other means, knowing what to do and how to do it also mitigates psychological stress.  Whether dipping water out of a shallow source with a plastic bag, keeping your water inside your jacket and using narrow mouth water bottles on freezing days, or placing your tent footprint under your sleeping pad to block floor drafts on shelter sleeping platforms, every little trick of the trade counts. 

There are a million tricks of the trade, and I don’t purport to know them all.  But knowing how to use light weight layers to stay warm and dry, to make field expedient gear repairs, to maintain personal hygiene, first aid, to stretching, to bring the right equipment, to properly adjust and carry your pack, to pitch and strike a tent in the rain, to sleep comfortably, to build a fire when it’s wet, to read the weather, and to anticipate challenges contribute a lot to eventual success and psychological balance.

BTW, my pack weighs 30 lbs. with five days worth of food.  I’m dumping the Kindle, and some small items that might equal a pound.  I’m adding a Jet Boil with a smaller fuel cartridge, warmer clothing and snowshoes, and a third auxiliary battery which will up the weight a bit.  A light weight four-season tent will be purchased and added when I return to the trail after the December holidays, though the plan will be to try and camp at shelter sites through the winter.

The rest of it is luck.  I tripped on a rock at one campsite and did a face plant in the dirt.  If it had been a rock upon which I landed, the outcome could have been more than a humorous non-event.  My weather has been exceptionally clement.  Of the 36 days of my hike so far, only five have been defined by rain, or snow.  I happened to be zeroing in Hiawassee during a sixth. Yes!  My bear encounters have been benign as nearly all of them are, and so it goes.

My hike will resume on or about Dec. 1 for the 226 mile trek from Standing Bear Farm to Damascus, VA.  I’m expecting to take 15 – 17 days with no zeros and three town (nero – near zero miles) days for resupply, shower, laundry and a beer.  After that, it’s home for the Christmas and New Year holidays with a prompt return to the woods thereafter.