Hiking the Appalachian Trail – Lessons Learned

The view is worth it

The view is worth it

I have had a couple of days to process my first attempt at hiking the Appalachian Trail and figured it would be a good idea to make some notes on the lessons I learned from the experience… by the way, most of these lessons learned are not earth shattering revelations. Truth be told almost everyone of the lessons could have been avoided if I had simply followed the advice I had already gleaned from books and articles on the subject of hiking. Experience is the best teacher though…

Water

I ran short of water with a few miles left in my hike because I decided not to take the 0.2 mile side trip to the spring near Compton Gap when I was a little over 5 miles from the end of my hike. There is plenty of advice related to water out there. The best advice is to not pass up the chance to top off your supply. Getting dehydrated is not good.

Another lesson learned is that I should carry something that I can use as a filter for my water bottles when attempting to fill them. Although I use Aquamira drops to make the water safe for drinking the chemicals don’t remove “floaties” from the water.

Sleeping

I am still new to the world of hammock camping so each time I hang my hammock from a tree and climb in is a learning experience. Setting out for the AT I knew that my first night on the trail the temperature was supposed to dip down into the low 50’s and that I would be cold. I figured that wearing (and carrying in my pack) a pair of heavy fleece pants and a fleece jacket would be good enough inside my 55 degree sleeping back to keep me warm. I was wrong. Although I was never in any real danger I did end up spending much of the evening curled up in the fetal position trying to stay warm.

Why was I cold in my hammock? First off, I set up my hammock on the windward side of the mountain instead of the lee side (generally not wise) and the wind was blowing pretty good all night long. Second, I ignored the advice to use a pad and/or under quilt with my hammock for insulation. When the air temperature is 20 degrees warmer you can do without the extra insulation. When its 50 degrees going without is asking for a long, cold night.

Food and Consumables

I over packed food and consumables for the trip I ended up taking. Part of this was unavoidable due to cutting a full night off of the trip but most of it was just due to being unsure of what to expect. Here is a list of items that I carried that went unused:

  • Cook set – alcohol stove, pot, coffee mug
  • Fuel – 8 oz of heet
  • Coffee packets (decided to break camp and hit the trail without having any and don’t regret the decision at all surprisingly)
  • 2 packets of Ramen noodles
  • 2 packets of dried fruit
  • 1 Cliff bar
  • 1 Milky Way bar

If I had stayed with the original plan to sleep out two nights I would have used the stove to cook some Ramen noodles and I might have also brewed coffee in the morning. It is also possible that I would have consumed more of the other food items during the course of the trip. The real issue wasn’t so much that I was carrying too much (although I still have some experience to gain in planning) it was that my trip plan changed mid-trip.

Mileage

On the first day of my hike I got cocky and pretty much threw my trip plan out the window. I planned to make my North Bound 27.4 hike in three days but when my average MPH was much higher on day one then I had expected it would I started thinking that the hike was going to be easier than I had thought… so instead of walking 9 or 10 miles on day one I did 13. On day two I did around 15 miles and was in a lot of pain during the course of the day.

The lesson I took away from this was don’t get cocky, don’t over do it, and most importantly I think (since I am unlikely to remember the first two lessons for long) is that I should be doing more training hikes to prepare for the rigors of hiking and I should make a plan and stick to it…

Technology

Technology is great but not something you should rely on when you are hiking in the wilderness (shocking I know). I brought my iPhone and a battery pack to charge it with and found that reception was basically non-existent for 90%+ of the 27.4 miles of my route. For the most part this was ok. I didn’t really wish to receive phone calls or emails when I was hiking. I had hoped however to post a few updates a day along the route to keep family in the loop with my progress and that turned out not to be possible. On day one I managed to get one update via Facebook at mile 5.8 into the hike. After that I couldn’t get strong enough reception until I was more than 22 miles into my hike and approaching Front Royal again.

On the plus side I was able to put my iPhone into plane mode and keep using it as a camera and take advantage of a pre-loaded map of the AT through Shenandoah National Park during the hike.

Pack

I have a GoLite Jam 70L Pack (as well as the 35L version) and this was my first real long distance hike with it. Overall the pack performed well but there were a few minor things that caused me problems.

First, I think that I should have gotten my pack in medium instead of large. I struggled along the way to keep the pack sitting properly on my hips and bearing the load. All this and I had the straps cinched down most of the way. Second, the cinch straps on the side of the pack can interfere with getting your water bottles in and out of the side pockets.

Overall these were minor issues that I think I can resolve with a bit more experience.

Conclusions

I survived the hike, yay! One of the most valuable lessons I learned from this hike was just that I could do it. I was a little nervous about attempting my first big hike on the AT and completing it goes a long way towards giving me the confidence to do it again.

Other than that everything all of the issues I ran into were very minor and surmountable with more practice and miles on the trail.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail – Day 2

Holy crap it was cold over night. I knew it was going to be cold but I figured I was prepared for it… sort of. I woke up several times in the night curled up in the fetal position inside my sleeping bag. Otherwise I slept great!

Gravel Spring

Gravel Spring

I was up and out of the hammock and had camp broken by a few minutes after 7. One of my first tasks for the day was to top off my water at Gravel Springs an easy 1.4 mile hike to start the day off… plus 0.2 miles down a mountain goat path (and 0.2 miles back up that same mountain goat path of course). On the way down to the spring I started feeling a hot spot on my heel. After 14 miles of blister free hiking (with proper prep) I had developed a blister. Bummer…

After filling topping off my water bottles I applied a little moleskin and tape to keep it in place. With the morning chores out of the way it was time to climb back up to the AT and continue on my way.

Up, Up, and Up Some More

I started the day feeling very, very positive about making it back to my Jeep by the end of the day. If I had paid more attention to the topography along my route I would have been much less positive.

From Gravel Spring my hike took me up to the summits of South and North Marshall for a total of 2.3 miles of mostly uphill slog. After about 4 miles of hiking I was really feeling my legs and all of the abuse they had been taking going up and down mountains. Of course every time I started to question the whole premise of hiking the trail I would come across a view like this…

The view from South Marshall

The view from South Marshall

Going Down?

Where am I?

Where am I?

My legs were screaming when I reached the intersection of the AT and Dickie Ridge trails just past Compton Gap after 9.7 miles or so of hiking. Not having carefully studied the topography of my hike I mistakenly assumed that the final miles where going to downhill… oh, how wrong I was.

To be fair, the first few miles of the Dickie Ridge trail were relatively benign, almost pleasant. Almost. The sights were certainly pleasant enough but the pain in my legs was working hard to distract me from the scenery. I was in the final phase of my hike and words “death march” where starting to leak into my line of thought.

Its called Low Gap for a reason...

Its called Low Gap for a reason…

Three miles from my car (crossing the drive at Low Gap) is where I really began to doubt the sanity of pushing through a 15+ mile day of hiking. With a name like Low Gap… crossing the drive and looking up the trail I realized that I was in for yet more uphill hiking, nearly two miles worth of uphill as it turns out…

On the bright side I was moving so slowly that I had plenty of opportunity to enjoy the scenery as I walked up and over Dickie Range.

Please Don’t Eat me Mr. Bear

I don’t know how fast I was walking at this point but it felt like a fraction of a mile per hour. My legs were stiffening up to a point where my walk was really more of a slow painful shuffle. At one point while I was crawling up Dickie Ridge there was a commotion in the bushes to my right. When I turned expecting to see a deer I was a black bear shimmying up a tree between 20 to 30 feet away from me. To say that I was alarmed would be an understatement. Fortunately it seemed like the bear was just alarmed as I was and i was able to keep shuffling up the trail without needing to use my bear spray.

Its Finally Over…

Dickie Ridge Visitor Center

Dickie Ridge Visitor Center

I wish I could say that I strode into the Dickie Ridge Visitor Center but truth be told it was move of a limp. It felt amazing to collapse onto a bench though and stare out at the amazing view knowing that I survived my first big hike on the AT and learned some pretty valuable lessons along the way. Hopefully my next trip will end with slightly less pain!

Hiking the Appalachian Trail – Day 1

After months of planning I finally got up the nerve to take my first steps along the Appalachian Trail. The plan was to tackle the trail northbound starting at Thornton Gap and ending at the Dickie Ridge Visitor Center hiking the roughly 27.4 miles in three days/two days. Monday morning I caravanned to Shenandoah National Park with my brother and sister-in-law. I left my Jeep at the visitor center and then hitched a ride with my brother down to the Panaroma comfort station at Thornton Gap.

The First Steps are the Hardest…

Concrete Spring Post

Concrete Spring Post 3.5 miles in to my hike

I admit being a bit nervous as I took my first steps onto the AT. Prior to to starting out I had never hiked more than 8 miles in one day much less attempted a long of night hike. As I started out I had a little silly thoughts like whether or not I was going the right way and whether or not I was going to make it back to my Jeep 27.4 miles away.

Starting at any place with Gap in its name should clue you into the fact that a climb was in my near future. Start at 2,307 feet the two mile climb to the summit of pass mountain takes you to 3,052 feet. It was pretty cold Monday morning but 10 minutes into the hike I had to strip off my jacket.

The intersection of the Appalachian Trail and Thornton River trails 5.8 miles into my hike

The intersection of the Appalachian Trail and Thornton River trails 5.8 miles into my hike

Making Good Time

The first two hours of my hike were blissfully quiet and I didn’t run into another human until Beahms Gap Overlook (3.4 miles into the hike) where the trail crosses over Skyline Drive before heading back into the woods. Not far beyond that I ran into my first spring on the trail (see picture above).  At 12:30 I reached the intersection of the Thornton River trail 5.8 miles into my hike (that’s 5.8 miles in 2 hours and 40 minutes of hiking, much faster than I had figured on doing). At this stage of my hike I was feeling very positive about my progress and was really enjoying the hike.

Eating at the Wallow

Elkwallow Wayside in the rain

Elkwallow Wayside in the rain

The next major milestone on my itinerary was the Elkwallow Wayside 8.5 miles down the trail where I planned on getting a cheeseburger and french fries at the grill. The 2.7 mile hike to Elkwallow was mostly pleasant up until the last half mile or so climbing up to the Wayside. After 8 miles on the trail my legs were starting to get a little tired, my stomach was starting to rumble, and a cool drizzle began to fall.

Walking into the wayside was a bit of a shock after being almost completely alone on the trail. The wayside was pretty chock full of people buying lunch, souvenirs, and generally getting out of the rain. After getting my cheeseburger, french fries, and soda, I found a spot out of the rain where I could sit and eat in relative comfort (as comfortable as sitting on concrete on the ground can be). There were a couple of through hikers sitting near me who shared some trail stories while we waited out the rain.

Finishing off the Day

After hanging out for about 50 minutes it was pretty clear that the rain might keep going indefinitely and I had to hike at least one or two more miles on to reach a suitable place to camp for the night so it was time to head out again. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the first two miles or so were a steady climb up to Sugarloaf and Hogback (a gain of about a 1000 feet in elevation although it seemed worse at the time).

View from Little Hogback Overlook

View from Little Hogback Overlook

After a good 11 miles or more on the trail I was getting pretty tired but some little piece of my brain nagged me to keep going on since it was relatively early in the day and I was bound to find the perfect place to hang my hammock just around the bend…

I finally pulled up for the night after roughly 13.1 miles on the trail between the intersection of the Keyser Run Fire Road (13 miles) and Skyline Drive (13.2 miles) and ventured off trail to make camp.

My home for the night

My home for the night

Read about day two here: Hiking the Appalachian Trail – Day 2

Camping in the Chopawamsic Backcounty Area

Monday afternoon I ventured out to the Chopawamsic Backcounty Area of Prince William Forest National Park to break in my lightweight camping gear and Northwoods hammock. The Chopawamsic Backcounty Area is 1500 acres of backcountry with 8 camping sites. To access the backcountry you need a camping permit and key that you can obtain at the park visitor center for free (you still need to pay for your park entrance). The backcountry is separate from the park proper (find it on Google Maps). To get there you leave the park and drive a few miles west on Joplin Road then turn on to a dirt road and drive another mile or so until you reach the gate that takes you to the backcountry parking (which unlocks with the key you get at the visitor center). Access to the 8 camping sites is from a two mile loop that starts and ends in a small parking lot with an ancient port-a-potty.

Site 3

When you check in at the visitor center they will ask you which one of the 8 sites you plan on camping at and put that down on your permit so you should read the descriptions of the sites before you or ask the staff which they recommend. I originally picked site number 2 because the description suggested a great view. When I hiked up to site 2 (and I mean up, the side trail to site 2 is pretty steep) I discovered that there wasn’t really much of a view and the trees weren’t really ideal for hanging a hammock so I headed back on down the hill and on to site number 3 which was pretty much perfect. Since I was the only person in the backcountry that evening I was able to call the visitor center and let them know I was changing sites (important information in case of emergency so they know where to find your body).

My home away from home

My home away from home

This was my first time spending the night in a hammock so I took my time setting things up and playing around with the rigging. I paid extra attention to the tarp because the the weather forecast was telling that there was a 65% chance of a thunderstorm in the evening so I wanted to be sure I had some place to hunker down. Fortunately, although it was very humid, the thunderstorms missed me.

Sleeping in the hammock went pretty much about as well as I would have expected for a first time. There were definitely some lessons learned. For example, it turns out the my sleeping back zips on the left side while the hammock zips on the right side. This slightly complicates the process of getting in and out. Next time I buy a sleeping bag…

Otherwise I slept fairly well. I woke up at one point in the middle of the night with a hyperextended knee. I’m not sure how to avoid that happening since I tend to move around a bit in my sleep. I also discovered that a pillow would make a great addition to my kit. Physically I felt great when I got out of the hammock in the morning. Better actually than most mornings when I roll out of bed. I could definitely get used to sleeping in a hammock.

Overall I am really happy with the outcome of this trip. My goal was to try out a whole bunch of new hiking/camping gear that I had never used before and build the confidence I need to take it out on to the Appalachian Trail. On top of a successful test run I got to enjoy a night in the woods without having to travel far from home. The Chopawamsic Backcounty Area is beautiful and well worth a visit.

Chopawamsic Backcounty Area

Chopawamsic Backcounty Area

Here is a link to all 14 images I shot on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/craigvitter/sets/72157633568100134/

The Joshua Tree

Untitled by Craig.Vitter
Untitled, a photo by Craig.Vitter on Flickr.

An example of a Joshua Tree (Yucca Brevifolia -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yucca_brevifolia) a yucca plant that gives Joshua Tree National Park in California its name.

Pinto Basin, Joshua Tree

Untitled by Craig.Vitter
Untitled, a photo by Craig.Vitter on Flickr.

Cottonwood Spring, Joshua Tree

Untitled by Craig.Vitter
Untitled, a photo by Craig.Vitter on Flickr.