Monday, August 31, 2015

Trail Food -- What's for Dinner?

Tonight's entree...

Stories are told of potential Appalachian Trail backpackers carrying packs burdened with massive amounts of food, convinced that they'd have no chance to resupply for hundreds of miles as they traversed the wilderness. But as I pointed out in my last post, it's unusual to go more than 4-5 days on the AT without some opportunity for resupply. A 4-5 day supply is still a pretty fair amount of food, so the hiker must make some smart decisions on what to carry.
Cooking dinner - near Pearisburg, VA, 2011.
The first rule is to forget about carrying fresh fruits and vegetables -- they're just too heavy, and they don't travel well. Sure, you can toss an apple or an orange into your pack for the first day or so, but after that you're out of luck, unless you happen to come across an abandoned orchard in the mountains (I have, and the apples were delicious!)
Snacking on apples - Greasy Creek Gap, TN, 2014.
Canned foods are definitely out -- way too heavy and bulky. Exceptions could once be made for items like canned tuna, but you can get that in foil-lined pouches now. One exception that's still valid? Canned beer -- tasty when cooled in a mountain spring or stream, and the aluminum cans are easy to pack out. Unfortunately that's a pretty rare treat, since nobody wants to carry a six-pack for days on end. But if you're hiking through Shanandoah National Park, the campstores and waysides offer plenty of resupply options.

Some hikers will pack freeze-dried backpacking meals, but they tend to be expensive and are usually only carried by weekenders and other short-timers. That leaves dry goods and foods that travel well as the staples of backpacking. Everyone's different, but here's a typical menu for a day on the trail:

Breakfast: Instant coffee (Starbucks Via is the best); protein bar or pop-tarts. In cooler weather I'll sometimes take instant oatmeal so I can start the day off with a hot meal.

Lunch: Tortillas with pepperoni and cheddar cheese. The cheese and pepperoni stay good for a surprisingly long time, even in warm weather.
Lunch. VA, 2011.

Dinner: Couscous with tuna or sausage. Couscous is one of my favorites -- you can buy it in bulk; it cooks with very little fuel, and it's light. I'll mix in some olive oil, dried vegetables, and spices to liven it up. Other go-to dinners are instant mashed potatoes, or Lipton noodles or rice side dishes -- one pouch equals one serving for a hungry hiker.

During the day I'll snack on energy bars or Snickers, and I'll often mix my water with drink mixes, like lemonade or sports drink powders. It adds some variety and keeps the calorie count up.

Restocking your provisions

If you're carrying food for 4 days, but planning to hike for 7-10, you've got to resupply. If my route goes through a town with a well-equipped grocery store, it's easy enough to stop in there for the goods I need. But more often I've relied on mail drops to get the supplies I need.

Mail drops are an old AT tradition. In the purest form, a hiker mails a box of supplies ahead to the local Post Office, addressed to themselves at General Delivery. Stop by during business hours, show some I.D., and you've got your package. Thru-hikers often utilize mail drops for more than just food. They'll send along extra clothing, spare parts, batteries, phone chargers, and even laptops from town to town, using what's called a 'bounce box." It eliminates the need to carry extra gear they may not need on the trail.

Lodgings along the AT usually accept mail drops, so I can kill two birds with one stone by having a supply of food and other essentials waiting for me at my planned town stops. For this trip I'll start light, and resupply on the third night, when I stay at the Ironmaster's Mansion Hostel.

Most AT hostels and other lodgings will hold mail drops for guests, or for a fee, if you're not a guest. Tennessee, 2014.

 Next time - What to wear.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Town Stop -- Trail Towns and Lodging

Town stops

When Earl Shaffer completed the first thru-hike of the AT in 1948 he spent only one night off the trail. Making that feat even more impressive is the fact that he didn't have a tent, and shelters were few and far between. Then again, Earl, didn't mind sleeping on the ground, wrapped up in an army surplus poncho and sheltering under a fallen tree.

I'm not so tough.
A real bed, a shower, TV, and a Subway next door! Near Atkins, VA, 2013.

On my longer trips I've found that getting off the trail every 4th night or so is a welcome break. It gives me a chance to take a shower, wash your clothes, and sit down and eat a meal that isn't in a 1.5-liter titanium pot.

But where to stay? Fortunately you're never really that far from a town on the AT. Even with a modest pace, you're likely to encounter an opportunity to make a town stop every 4-5 days -- or even more often in heavily populated areas like the mid-Atlantic.

Sometimes the trail leads directly into town, and lodging options, meals, and other services are in easy walking distance. In other areas you may need to hitch a few miles or call for a ride to get into town. The trail cuts right through towns like Hot Springs, NC and Damascus, VA, and they're very popular stops with AT hikers.
Hiking into Damascus, VA, 2014.
As a section hiker, I'm on a tight schedule, so town stops are worked into my schedule and only involve an overnight stay -- I've never taken a "zero day" (when you don't hike at all, but stay in town to rest and catch up on laundry, shopping, etc.). For some potential thru-hikers, the siren song of town days is their undoing -- they spend too much time off the trail and run out of time and money to finish their hike.


When you're tired of sleeping in the woods, you've got options. In larger towns and near many road intersections there are motels, both local and chains. Many offer reduced hiker rates, and they're often near other services, like restaurants and stores. Motels have the advantage of privacy and a higher level of amenities, like endless hot showers, TV, and a free continental breakfast. I fondly remember hunkering down on a comfy bed with a pile of junk food in Atkins, VA, watching the "Indiana Jones" trilogy on TV, recovering from 5 days of hiking while washing/drying my gear and recharging for the next section. And in the morning I demolished the breakfast, plus packed enough for my lunch...

Likewise, some hikers choose a local Bed and Breakfast for their stay off the trail. Generally that's a somewhat more pricey option, though some B and B's in trail towns offer special rates for hikers.

A more genuine "trail experience" is to stay at a hiker hostel. Hostels can be hard to classify, since there's no real standard as to what a hostel is, or what it offers. Expect bunk rooms, shared bath rooms, and common areas which may include kitchen and laundry privileges, and varying levels of housekeeping. But you can always count on them to be cheaper than a motel -- I've spent as little as $5 (suggested donation), or as much as $30 for a "Hiker's Special" -- bunk, shower, towel, a frozen pizza, a pint of Ben and Jerry's, and a Coke. Money well spent in the latter case.

On the high end, there are hostels like Bears Den in northern Virginia. Run by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), Bear's Den is a beautiful old stone vacation home, converted into accommodations for hikers.
Bears Den Hostel, 2010 -- every bit as nice as it looks!
Bear's Den offers attentive caretakers, clean and comfortable lodging, and elegant common areas with an excellent library. I spent a very pleasant evening there in 2010, chilling out and reading a copy of Aldo Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac." You don't get a much better experience than that.

One the other end of the spectrum you'll find a variety of establishments of varying quality and very different vibes. These can range from a legendary trail stop in Tennessee that's an absolute dump (no names mentioned), to Woods Hole Hostel, a working organic farm (amazing food and company!) There are plenty of AT forums where you can get the skinny on hostels and other lodging options. A good place to start is this list at -- investigate the forums for other hiker's experiences to see if your lodging choice is a good fit for you.
Hikers relaxing on the porch at Woods Hole Hostel, 2013.

Next time - Food and resupply

Monday, August 24, 2015

Gimme Shelter

Be it ever so humble...

One of the most interesting aspects of hiking the AT is the shelter system. There are approximately 300 shelters along the length of the Trail, all intended for use by hikers, both long- and short-term. While the size and design of shelters varies, most are simple wooden structures, enclosed on three sides, with a sleeping platform that'll accommodate about six people. Hike in, roll out your pad and bag, and make yourself at home.
Taking a break at a typical AT shelter (the Tom Floyd Wayside, 2010).
Shelters are popular destinations. There's usually a reliable water source, a roof over your head and the company of your fellow hikers to socialize with. But one major downside of shelters is also the company of your fellow hikers. Simply put, it's sometimes hard to get a good night's sleep when you're listening to your bunkmates snore (and it cuts both ways, since I'm a snorer...). Not to mention, many AT shelters are infested with mice (and worse). The pitter-patter of tiny feet running around your bag and the gnawing of tiny teeth burrowing into your gear doesn't always make for prime sleeping. Still, a dry shelter with good company can be a cozy place during a rainy night on the trail.
Staking my claim at Hurricane Mountain Shelter, 2013.

 Tenting tonight...

It's not wise to count on shelters for your nightly accommodations. While plentiful, shelters aren't always evenly spaced, so you may find yourself having to go further or fewer miles than you'd planned if you're committed to staying in one. And there's no guarantee there's going to be space when you get there. That's why most hikers carry a tent, tarp, or hammock with them.
My tent (a Henry Shire TarpTent Moment) drying out after a couple of wet days in 2013.
A tent offers privacy and a little more peace and quiet than you'll find in a shelter, but there are downsides. Packing up a wet tent after a rainy night isn't a lot of fun. And finding a good, level tent site isn't always easy. Plus, sleeping by yourself in the woods can take a little getting used to. Even a squirrel rummaging around in leaves brings visions of a T Rex invading your camp until you get used to it. Still, all things considered, a good tent site on a pleasant night is hard to beat.
Morning coffee in the tent, near Mt. Rogers, VA, 2013.

 Next time -- Hostels, motels, and resupply.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Getting to the trail (and getting down the trail)

AT Trail Angel "Homer" has shuttled me on several hikes in Virginia. 

Shuttles and Trail Angels

One of the biggest challenges in hiking sections of the AT is figuring out the best way to start at one location and end at another. Sure, you can drive to the start, but how are you going to get back to your car when you finish?

That's where shuttle drivers come in. For a fee they'll pick you up at one spot on the trail and take you to another. So you can park your car at the end of the hike, and get driven to the start. Then all you have to do is walk back to your car. Just be sure you don't forget your car key -- I did, once...

Many shuttle drivers are previous thru-hikers who like lending a hand to other hikers. They can be broadly classified under the amorphous heading of "Trail Angels" -- people who make it their avocation to help out hikers. Others may run lodging establishments or outfitters in trail towns. At any rate, it's not free to use a shuttle, but I don't think anybody gets rich doing -- $1 a mile for a shuttle is a pretty typical rate. There are a variety of resources for finding shuttles -- websites like, guidebooks, or the well-maintained Appalachian Trail Conservancy's Shuttle Guide.

For my hike I'll drive to Harpers Ferry,WV on the morning of Sept. 17, then take a shuttle up to Duncannon, PA. Then it's up to me to lace up my shoes and cover the 125 miles back to the car.

Navigating the trail

In over 700 miles of hiking on the AT I've only gotten lost once, on a poorly marked section in Tennessee, but a few minutes of backtracking got me back on course. Of course there was the time I started hiking the wrong direction one morning, but that's a different story...

One of the many, many white blazes marking the AT.
Generally speaking, if you start hiking in the correct direction, follow the path, and watch for the white blazes on trees, posts, rocks, etc., you're not going to get lost on the AT. So most hikers don't carry maps (or at least they don't bother after their first hike). But trail info is still nice to have -- how far to the next town, water source, campsite, road crossing, shelter? Will this climb up the mountain ever stop? Where's the closest place to get pizza?

The gold standard for most section and thru hikers these days is the A.T. Guide, a clever publication that combines mileage tables with an elevation profile, and contains detailed town maps and lists of services. Vital info for anybody doing a long-distance AT hike, and very easy to use. To save weight, I simply photocopy the few pages I need for my trip, and eschew packing the whole book.
A sample page from the AT Guide

Next Time: Shelters, shelter, and lodgings

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Appalachian Trail Section Hike 2015 - An Introduction

My AT journeys to date -- 1/3 of the way done!
My route for this year's hike. I'll be going north to south, finishing in Harper's Ferry.

It's Hiking Time!

I've been backpacking on the Appalachian Trail (the "AT") since the late 1990s. I fondly remember my first multi-day trip -- 4 days and 3 nights hiking north from the James River to Reed's Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. 60 miles later I arrived at Reed's Gap -- exhausted, blistered, and sun-burned -- and I couldn't wait to get back out on the trail.

In the years since, I've knocked off 721 miles of the AT, traveling in sections from Erwin, TN, to the MD/PA border. Each year I try to add on a new section, and this year I've decided to write about my preparation and the hike itself.

The Plan

I'm currently training for the Richmond Marathon in November, so I didn't want to take too much time out of marathon prep for a hike. So this year I'm blocking out 7-8 days to hike south from Duncannon, PA, to Harper's Ferry, WV, a total of about 125 miles.

Pennsylvania doesn't usually show up on hiker's "must do" sections of the AT, but the hike is close, and I can drive to it, so there's less of an issue for travel time and expense. And it should be fun to finish in Harper's Ferry, the traditional "psychological" half-way point of the trail, and home of the headquarters for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the organization that coordinates the clubs that maintain the trail.

I'm planning on starting my hike on September 17 -- only a month away! In the meanwhile, I'll be posting about a variety of topics -- how I plan for a hike, the gear, clothing, and food I take with me, and some of what's involved when you actually hit the trail. And during the hike I'm hoping to post regular updates -- I hope you'll join me along the way!