Over 3,000 people attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail (AT) each year. Generally, only about a quarter of those actually finish the 2,000 mile hike from Georgia to Maine (or vice versa). About the same percentage give up by the time they reach Neel Gap, just over 30 miles from the southern starting point and home of the famous Mountain Crossings Outfitter. The reasons they quit are many, but often center on being poorly prepared, poorly equipped, or the hike “just isn’t fun anymore.”
The experienced staff at Mountain Crossings has saved many a thru-hiker by way of their pack “shakedown service.” Hikers that stagger the first 2-4 days from Springer Mountain with packs full of unneeded (like jars of mayonnaise) or overly heavy items (iron skillets) can get a new lease on their hike’s life when a successful thru-hiker goes through their load; getting rid of all non-essentials and selling replacements for poorly chosen gear. Each year, Mountain Crossings helps ship literally thousands of pounds of extra gear back to hiker’s homes while the hikers themselves continue north with a significantly lighter pack and wallet.
As I was considering a thru-hike in 2014, I thought a test run on the AT last fall would be a prudent idea. Rather than carry extra weight for any length of time, I thought I’d start my hike at Mountain Crossings. Packed for 4 days, I gave my 30 pound pack to Squirrel (not his given name) for inspection.
With the gear being fairly lightweight, Squirrel didn’t find a tremendous amount of weight savings. Rather than carry a 1.2 ounce fleece pillow cover, he pointed out that the hood on my rain jacket could be stuffed with extra clothes to make a nice rubbery pillow. Nothing lulls you to sleep like laying your face down on coated nylon. Squirrel thought he hit the mother lode of savings in the toiletries when he spotted a mirror. When I stated that I needed it to put in my contacts, Squirrel suggested Lasik as a weight saving procedure. Unfortunately, none of the staff there could perform the procedure on me that day, so I was stuck with the weight. He also pointed out that my 12 ounce Kindle was a “luxury” item, but with camping alone and over 14 hours of darkness each night, it stayed in the “essential” pile.
Squirrel did provide some excellent advice on packing. By splitting up my tent poles and body, the body could be compressed into a smaller size. In addition, with a new waterproof compression sack purchased for my sleeping bag, he shrunk it from the size of a volleyball down close to the size of a ping pong ball. Pretty impressive, especially if I’m able to ever get the bag back into the compression sack. Squirrel also recommended the purchase of a new pack rain cover.
Although I was carrying the lightest option for water purification, pills, Squirrel enticed me with a new, lightweight water filter. Water could be rendered safe much quicker than the pills, and with the add-on straw feature, I could drink straight out of a mud puddle if so desired. Sold! I finished the “shakedown” with my pack a few ounces heavier than when I arrived, but my wallet $100 lighter.
When the time came to stash my car at the parking lot ½ mile away, I received my first “trail magic.” Squirrel’s co-worker (Chipmunk?) offered to meet there and drive me back to Mountain Crossings to begin the hike without needing to walk along the road; a great start.
The day was cool, but sunny. Heading out the back of the outfitters, I followed a trail winding up the mountain, eager to start following the white blazes that would lead me as far as I wanted to go; all the way to Maine if I decided to. Fifteen minutes later, eagerness was being replaced with apprehension as I had yet to see my first blaze. This certainly wasn’t what I was used to. At Zaleski State Forest in Ohio, there are spots where the markings are thick enough to see the next six blazes at one time. After seeing one faded blaze in the first half hour, I broke down and checked the location on my phone’s AT app. (Yes, there’s an app for that.) It only took half the battery supply in my phone to pinpoint it, but my location was indeed on the AT, and going in the proper direction.
The trail itself is rocky and regularly contains root tripping hazards. Since it was late November though, the perils were nicely covered by a blanket of fallen leaves; safely out of sight and out of mind. Once up on the first mountain, the views were absolutely amazing.
The topography was slightly different than Ohio as well. Guidebooks for Buckeye backpack trails describe 300 foot elevation changes as grim, epic or lung busters. In this area of the AT, it is not unusual, in a bit over two miles, to climb 1,000 feet, drop back down 1,000 feet, and be looking at another 1,000+ foot climb. A great workout for the calves.
A few miles into the hike I ran into a southbound thru-hiker. Weed n Feed was stopped for a snack with his dog, Blunt. His favorite part of the trail was the Grayson Highlands of Virginia, where there are wild horses living along the trail. He had a visible reaction when I asked about mosquitoes during the summer. His action plan during one stretch was to never stop walking during the day and immediately set up his tent when reaching a camp area. He’d then spend the rest of his waking hours in the tent, even cooking by just sticking a hand outside to operate his stove. It sounded less than fun.
By late afternoon the wind had picked up and the temperature was dropping. I made Low Gap Shelter with about an hour of daylight left. I left my pack on the picnic table and quickly set up my tent. No mud puddles were to be found, so the filtered water had to come from a nearby clear creek. Once back to the pack to start dinner, I noticed a mouse had beaten me there, chewing through my food bag and a ziplock bag to help himself to some of my trail mix. Great. The remaining undamaged food was hung up in the trees for the evening.
By the time dinner, a lovely entrée of freeze dried imitation Alpo, was finished, the sun was down. Being as it was cold, dark and too windy for a fire, I retired to the tent with my Kindle and a flask. It was 6 PM. The flask was to last three nights, so there was some tough rationing ahead.
At 9 PM the flask was empty. The Kindle became my sole entertainment. To stay in the hiking mood, the tablet was loaded with several books written by thru-hikers. Reading one book, I absorbed page after page of despair caused by hiking through continuous rain and flooding. It must have been extraordinarily tiring. I know I got tired of reading about it. Eventually, the warmth of the sleeping bag and the song of the wind (and possibly the contents of the flask) lulled me to sleep.
After a full night’s sleep, I lay in the tent, waiting for daylight when I heard the first drops of rain. As I crawled out of the tent, it was raining hard and a heavy, cold fog had moved in, reducing visibility
to about 50 feet.
Stuffing my wet gear into the pack I thought, “This isn’t fun anymore.” I wonder, could you spot those wild horses from a car?