Monday, August 29, 2016

Making a List

The polar explorer Roald Amundsen famously declared that "Adventure is just bad planning." After once taking off for a backpacking trip without stove fuel I've taken this advice to heart. A major part of my planning for any backpacking trip is dusting off my trusty spreadsheet and going through all the items I need, step-by-step.

My backpacking spreadsheet, part of the way through trip prep.
Over the years I've refined this list into a variety of categories, and adopted a color-coding strategy to show me the status of all the various and assorted items I pack for a trip.

Know the categories

One of the secrets to staying organized on the trail is having a variety of stuff sacks (light nylon bags with drawstring closures) to hold similar items. For example, all my extra clothes go into one stuff sack, my stove and cooking gear in another, food in yet another, and so on. 
Stuff sacks in action. Pickle Branch Shelter, VA, 2011.

This system makes it easier to find the items you need when you're on the trail, and makes both setting up camp in the evening and packing up in the morning a lot easier. One of my favorite packing hacks is the "camp bag." This is a clear plastic gallon ziplock that holds all the things I may want in my tent or next to me at night in a shelter. Things like my headlamp, book, journal, earplugs, and so on. Set up my tent, toss in the sleeping bag and pad, and the camp bag and I've got all the essentials with me right away.

Color coding

Over the years my color coding system has evolved to let me know the status of all my gear. Items in yellow  have been pulled out of storage and placed in my staging area (the downstairs pool table). Once I've highlighted something in green, I've put it into the pack. Items in red need to be purchased, and those in purple aren't going on the trip. For example, I'd pack a ground cloth for a winter trip, but I'll save the weight if the weather is warmer. 

Double check

My final step in packing is the "double check." After all my gear has been packed and marked green, I'll pull everything out of the pack, reset the spreadsheet to blank, and repack all the gear. It's not only a good check, but it gives me an extra opportunity to experiment with how I'm stowing the gear and make any last-minute reevaluations of what I'm taking, based on recent weather forecasts and more.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My AT Library Favorites

Appalachian Trail Section Hike 2016 -- My AT Library

If you've ever hiked on the AT, you've heard the question: "Have you ever read 'A Walk in the Woods'?"

Short answer? Yes.

Longer answer? Yes, I've read AWITW, and while it has some pretty funny moments, and does provide some interesting backstory about the trail, it's not the best book I've read about hiking on the AT (we won't get into the debates about how much, if any, of the book is actually true.)

Go to Amazon (or better yet, go the AT Conservency website store -- they'll use any money they make for the trail) and you'll find pages of hiking memoirs and DVDs chronicling the trail and people's experiences during their hikes. At worst these are dry renditions of days hiked, places been, and people met. At their best they go beyond and capture the feel of the hike, and let you experience the author's experiences and evolution.

Over the years I've built a small library of AT books, which I'll often pick up to reread when I'm getting psyched for my next trip. In no particular order, here's a few of my favorites.

Walking with Spring - Earl Shaffer

Shaffer was the first to thru-hike the AT in 1948, as a WW II vet looking to "walk the war off." What's most fascinating about his account is how much the trail has changed. In his day, many sections followed country roads and wound past now forgotten farms, crossroads, and mountain communities - including many that looked on him with suspicion if he hiked too near the local moonshine still. Earl didn't mind roughing it, with no shelter but an army poncho, no stove, and an old army rucksack to carry his gear. It's a great read about a different trail and a different time.

On the Beaten Path - Robert Rubin

Many AT memoirists romanticize their journey as a voyage of discovery and a life-changing experience. Not Rubin. A 40-something writer and editor going through a mid-life crisis, Rubin quit his job in the late 1990s and left his wife holding down the fort at home while he made the trek. Was it worth it? Sort of.

Rubin's keen eye and wit captures the personalities and experiences of the trail and places them into a larger context with the outside world. You really get a feeling for all the ups and downs - mentally, physically, and emotionally - involved in an AT thru-hike.

A Season on the Appalachian Trail - Lynn Setzer

Setzer interviewed dozens of hikers during the 1996 hiking season and  compiled a wide-ranging look at the many different people, landscapes, experiences, and hiking styles on the trail. Arranged as a month-by-month account, it's entertaining and instructive to learn about the experience of attempting a thru-hike from a variety of different perspectives. I've found it a valuable reference to consult when I'm getting ready to tackle a new section.

As Far as the Eye Can See - David Brill

Definitely my favorite - Brill reminisces about his 1979 thru-hike with the voice of a poet. A young man just out of college, he describes a life-changing journey with verve as he transforms from a uncertain newcomer to a toughened outdoorsman. Brill eschews the traditional chronological approach to trail memoirs and takes time to examine his time hiking through with a variety of themes and vignettes - some amusing, some alarming, but all entertaining and engrossing. I always finish this book wishing that I'd followed in his path when I was a young man. Definitely one of the best of the many books about hiking the AT.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

AT Section Hike 2016 - Resupply

Food is heavy. So there's no way I'm going to try and carry 11 days worth of food with me when I start the trip. With only a few exceptions the AT hiker can count on having a reliable resupply point at least every three to four days when they're on the trail. So planning becomes a calculation about how how much weight you want to carry versus how much you want to stop.
Several days worth of hiker chow.

As a rule of thumb I've found that carrying a three to four day supply of food works well. My first step in planning is to sketch out a menu plan for each portion of the hike between my resupply stops -- how many breakfasts, how many lunches, how many dinners, plus snacks, drink mix, and that ever-important jar of peanut butter I hold in reserve.

The second step is to decide where to resupply, and how to do it. Option one is buying food at a trail town along the way. On this trip I'll be stopping in Hot Springs on Day 4. Hot Springs is a well-equipped trail town, with a grocery store, lodging, laundromat, and bars. A perfect spot to stay the night to resupply, clean up, and regroup.
The AT runs through the heart of Hot Springs

Moving south from Hot Springs is the challenge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. GSMNP starts about two hiking days south of Hot Springs, and will probably take me five days to traverse. One option would be to load up with seven days of food at Hot Springs - not an attractive option. The other option is to use a mail drop.

Mail drops have historically been an important part of AT hiking. Hikers will mail packages of food and other supplies to post offices or lodgings along the way, and then pick up the package when they arrive. It's a useful strategy when resupply options are limited or expensive. 

Two days south of Hot Springs, just before the Smokies, is Standing Bear Hostel, which accepts mail drops. So I'll ship the bulk of resupply items that I'll need for the Smokies trek there, and pick up odds and ends from their camp store.

Next time: Some thoughts on gear.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Appalachian Trail 2016 section hike -- back on the trail!

As of now, I've completed the portions of the trail highlighted in yellow.

Chipping away

I completed my first AT section hike in 2002 - an epic(?) 58-mile, 4-day/3-night trip from the James River to Reed's Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. That kicked me off towards a goal of finishing the entire trail. The tally so far? 800 miles down, about 1400 to go.

Through the Smokies!

After a one-week jaunt through Pennsylvania and Maryland last fall, I've shifted my gaze for 2016 to the south. I plan is to hike southbound in September, starting in Erwin, TN and finishing in Fontana, NC - a total distance of 177 miles. The hike will pass through some of the highest peaks and most scenic highlands of the AT south of New Hampshire, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with the highest point on the entire AT, the 6,643 feet peak at Clingman's Dome.
My plan for 2016.

How far, how fast?

The first thing to consider when planning a section hike is how long it will take. Through hard-won experience, I've found that I'll usually maintain an average speed of 2 to 2.5 miles per hour during the day, including time spent for breaks, eating, etc. So if I plan on hiking about 8 hours a day, I can cover about 16-20 miles. Of course you can't always budget 8 hours of hiking a day, given stops in town for resupply and a night or two off the trail. Planning to cover an average of 15 miles a day seems to work well as a compromise figure. Some days I'll do more, but some less, depending on terrain and other factors. A little quick math gives me a reasonable time frame of 11 days to complete the hike.

Getting there

Section hiking does involve certain logistical challenges. The first is how to get to and from the trail. Neither the start or finish of my hike are served by plane, train, or bus, so I'm dependent on my car. But if I'm walking from point to point, how will I get back to my car when I'm done?

Fortunately, there are some options available. There's a informal cottage industry of shuttle drivers who will pick you up in one location and then drive you to your starting point. So, simply park your car at the trailhead (or other convenient location), ride with your shuttle to where you're starting the hike, and then walk back to your car. Just don't forget your car key - I did that once!

(Next time - Resupplying along the way)