Tuesday, September 06, 2016

AT Section Hike 2016 -- Top Five Questions

You get a lot of questions from people when they find out you'll be doing a backpacking trip on the AT. Even though you hear a lot of the same questions, it's fun exposing people to the experience of taking a (multi-day) walk in the woods. So here's my list of the five most frequently asked questions I get about hiking on the AT.

#5 -- Do you carry a gun?
Not really that much of a concern...

Short answer - no. Despite stereotypes of toothless backwoodsmen lurking in the trackless wilderness, I've rarely had any encounters that have given me pause. In fact, a good rule of thumb is that the further you are away from a road, the less you have to worry about. The worst experience I've ever had was trying to sleep in a shelter at the Mount Rogers National Forest headquarters on a Friday night, when a group of local kids decided it would be fun to raise hell and build a massive fire just over the hill. Lesson learned -- avoid shelters near roads on weekend nights. Anyway, guns are heavy, dangerous, and illegal to carry in National Parks, like Great Smoky Mountains NP and Shenandoah NP.

#4 -- Don't you worry about bears?

The black bear of the east is not the fearsome beast that the grizzly bear is. Generally they're shy, and will run away if you make any kind of loud noise when they appear. But... problem bears can be an issue in some areas where the population is high and they've gotten accustomed to thinking of backpackers as a source of food (the food we carry, not us personally). This problem can be acute around shelters or campsites where hikers have left food out or haven't cleaned up after themselves. In fact, a hiker was bitten by a black bear while in his tent in GSMNP this year. For that reason, I'm carrying pepper spray with me for the first time ever. I very much doubt I'll need it, but if someone decides to stick his snout in my tent I'll have something more than a hiking pole to defend myself with.

#3 -- How much does your pack weigh?
Totin' my REI Flash 65 pack in 2014. My current pack is a slightly smaller Osprey Exos 58.

There's a balancing act between comfort and weight when deciding what goes in your pack. A true ultralight backpacker won't take a stove, will sleep under a tarp, and may also spend big bucks on very lightweight gear made from exotic materials. As for me, I fall somewhere in the middle. I like my coffee and a hot meal, so I take a stove. And I don't like bugs, so I have a tent with a floor and mesh screening. And I'm not ready to shell out hundreds of dollars to shave a pound or so off of my sleeping bag weight.

Over the years, though, I've managed to put together some good gear and have learned what I can do without. So I can pack for a summer/early fall trip and have a pack "base weight" (no food or water) of about 20 pounds. Add 4 days of food and a liter of water and I'm up to 30 pounds. With a good pack that rides pretty well, and the weight goes down as you work through your food supply. Based on what I see, I carry a lot less than most weekend backpackers, but maybe just a bit more than a thru-hiker who's been out on the trail for several months.

#2 -- Where do you stay?

There are three choices: my tent, a shelter, or off the trail (motel, hostel, etc.). If the weather's good and you can find a nice level spot, tenting is a great option. There's a degree of privacy, even if you're tenting near others, and you don't have to worry about disturbing anybody else if you want to get up early.

Vandeventer Shelter, TN, 2014 - pretty average digs on the AT.
Shelters can be nice when the weather is rainy, and you don't have to pack up as much stuff in the morning before you hit the trail. And the company can be nice if you're around a congenial group of hikers. The downsides can be the lack of privacy and noise, plus rodents - yuck.
The bunkhouse at Woods Hole Hostel, VA, 2013. Well worth the stop.
I usually try to stay off the trail every 4-5 nights, whether at a hiker hostel or a motel. That gives me a chance to clean up, unwind, charge my devices, and do laundry. Quality can vary pretty widely, particularly if you're staying at a hiker hostel, though I've had some great experiences at some of them.

#1 -- Do you go alone?
(L to R) Torch, Spike, and Late Start, VA 2011

The number one question, without a doubt. I may start my hikes alone, but it's not uncommon to quickly enter into an extended trail community. You'll tend to meet many of the same people around shelters, campsites, and towns, and sometimes I'll even end up hiking with a person or two for a few days. It's really one of the funnest parts of the trail, meeting different people, and it's very gratifying to hike to a shelter at the end of the day and see familiar faces around you.

Next time - The Journey Begins!

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