Winter is a Good Time to Prep for a Thru Hike

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

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

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There’s art in the frost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgia in March.

Ready to try winter backpacking and improve your edge?

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

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

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

Clothing:

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

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

Everybody says wear layers. Exactly what does that mean?

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Wind layer over base layer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gloves, Mittens and Socks:

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

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

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

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

Water:

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Water sources can freeze solid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dehydration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tricorner Knob Shelter where a hiker died of hypothermia.

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

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

Frostbite:

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

In Camp:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking:

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Cooking in cold weather requires much more fuel.

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

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

Electronics:

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

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

One more thing:

snow goggles

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

 

Of note:

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

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

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

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

Summary:

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

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

Two excellent sources:

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

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

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Gaiters help keep feet dry.

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

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Central Virginia in March.

 

Garbage Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winter Wonderland, North Georgia Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The snowscape was inspiring.

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

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Wild pigs love to root and pillage.

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

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

Indiana Jones and the Lost Shelter

Port Clinton, Penn., AT NOBO mile 1213.7, (14.8 mile slack pack) Tuesday April 29, 2014 — This morning we were greeted by leaden sky blacker than the local sequestered carbon known as Reading anthracite. That’s a shade of dark a well digger might recognize.

As our expedition breached the Port Clinton railroad tracks at the edge of dawn’s early light, the ominous sky grinned its anticipation of major mischief. Two hikers, Sisu and Pepsi Hiker, dared enter enchanted territory.

The trail keepers challenges were diabolically designed to keep the unworthy at bay. We were about to endure an ordeal.

The first escarpment is the definition of up. One thousand vertical feet in less than two miles, most of it in the first half mile. Coated with friction-free leaf litter, only the strongest could withstand this trail.

As our poles punched us skyward step by labored step, Mariah howled her ominous warning through the still barren tree tops, twisting and turning them with groans of icy agony. “Enter ye not here. Go no further!” they seemed to scream.

We pushed onward and upward through Mariah’s chilly breath, our backs glistening with the salty liquor of our agony. As we paused to catch our flying breath, the rhythm of our hearts seemed to beat like jungle drums warning of intruders.

We had been cautioned, but our quest was forward. There would be no turning back, no matter what. We hiked on, our senses straining for early warning.

Frigid tears of terror began tearing at our courage. There, on display in warning to all intruders, were two pair of jeans once lovingly worn by others who had passed this dark place.

What was their owners fate? How did they come to be here? Was there meaning for us? What could happen to us?

We pressed on, Pepsi Hiker and me, nerves raw and senses strained. By now, we were four miles in with only one way to go according to the white blazes.

Not even a drenched mile further we spied an orange work glove twisting by its wrist in a sapling. Another unambiguous sign. What had become of its twin? We could only hope.

Our quest was Eagles Nest Shelter now lost in the tangled and rock strewn wilderness before us. There we would find respite and a dry haven to eat lunch. At this point it might have been Oz or Mordor for all we knew.

Then our hearts sunk. There it was, just above eye level. There was no missing it. Someone’s bright green baseball hat, spiked on a limb as if on a Roman pike, symbolizing the fate of those who dared, hard rain crying from its brim.

“Where was the head it once crowned?” I worried.

“Turn back!” it seemed to say.

If I were still in the Army, I would have ordered, “Fix bayonets!” I’m not, so instead I searched for the next white blaze with rain stained glasses, the hood of my rain jacket cinched tightly to my face.

Along the way the trail keepers set rock traps. Lots of them. By now stumbling through them has become standard locomotion. I think little to nothing of them. They hardly count anymore.

Did he really say that about Pennsylvania rocks?

The wind howled, the rain whipped, and the rocks tripped, but Sisu and Pepsi Hiker pressed on against all odds.

At long last the trail to the lost shelter turned up, its signpost downed in the mud. We planned a hasty assault and liberated the hovel with dispatch.

The loss of body heat during lunch was profound. We smacked down a couple of chocolate bars each and pressed on.

Just as we returned to the AT we smacked into Herr Yodel, a German section hiker I first met at the Iron Master’s Hostel in Pine Grove Furnace. He as planning a weather zero for tomorrow too, so expect him to turn up in this saga again at some point.

At this point we had found the lost shelter and the icy rain had chilled my imagination, but the Indiana Jones meme may continue. Stay tuned for further episodes.

BTW, all stray clothing mentioned in this story really existed as described. No names were changed to protect the innocent.

Hunkering down with warmest regards, Sisu

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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.

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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. http://www.weather.com/video/hikers-rescued-in-snowstorm-42994?

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.

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