Anatomy of a Thru Hike – The Bones

Preparation post number two is here!  This is a general rundown of the gear involved in my Appalachian Trail thru hike.  I don’t really have a lot to say on the subject, no waxing poetic on silnylon, no ode to merino wool, just a basic description of my choices.

If gear talk is not your thing, there are probably some good cat videos you can go watch.

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Most of the time I spent in 2009-2011 on researching gear while in preparation for the ’11 thru hike; and continued changes in the following 5 years has carried over into 2016, thankfully bringing research time and costs down this time around.  The major changes are a different pack, having switched from the Granite Gear Meridian Vapor to the Granite Gear Crown V.C. 60.  Bottom line is a larger pack (60 liters instead of 52) for less weight (2 lb 2 oz vs. 2 lb 12 oz).  I wasn’t going to get it, but stopped at Granite Gear’s HQ in Two Harbors, MN on my way up to do a short trip on the Superior Hiking Trail and found they had one that had been a return at a steep discount! Also, my sleep system has been upgraded with a new sleeping pad, the ExPed SynMat UL 7 short (rolls right off the tongue, no?) and a new sleeping bag, the Western Mountaineering Alpinlite.  This is the most expensive piece of gear I own, but again got it on sale, with a coupon, and a gift card to make to price less painful.  I I’m a strong fan of the ‘lighter is better’ philosophy, but have balanced the desire to get lighter with the desire not to spend several thousand dollars to carry a few pounds less.  Pictured above is 99% of what I will start the Appalachian Trail with, with the exceptions of sunglasses, which I left in my car and didn’t feel like running out to get while taking the picture, my watch, and the camera with which I took the photo, although the case is in the picture.

The Gear-

I actually have two different sets of gear that I carry; one cold weather set that I will carry from the start until Pearisburg, VA, and again from Hanover, NH to Katahdin, and warm weather gear in the middle segment.

Cold Weather Clothing –

Starting my hike, I’ll be wearing Ex Officio Boxers, Lorpen Merino sock liners, Fits merino socks, Merrell Moab Ventilator Shoes, Columbia zip-off leg pants, a GoLite t-shirt, Dirty Girl gaiters, and a bandana.  I also always carry Black Diamond Alpine carbon/cork trekking poles.

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I will additionally be carrying an EMS synthetic long sleeve t-shirt, a Smartwool 250 weight long-sleeve shirt, a Marmot Zeus down puffy jacket, Darn Tough merino socks, REI synthetic long john bottoms, another pair Ex Officio boxers, a fleece balaclava, Montbell Versalite rain pants, Marmot PreCip rain hat, and The Packa combination  rain jacket/pack cover.

Usually when I’m hiking, I prefer shorts and a t-shirt. Bottom line is that cold doesn’t bother me as much as other people, and if I start to get cold, I hike faster to warm up.  If I still get cold, then I’ll add the EMS shirt, pant legs, rain pants, hat and Packa.  If I’m STILL cold (which is not likely under most circumstances) that means it is time to stop, set up camp, and switch to the “sacred dry” clothes which are dry socks, long john bottoms, Smartwool top, down puffy and fleece balaclava.

Sacred Dry is a concept I learned on a NOLS Wilderness Medicine Expedition in 2010 in preparation for the ’11 thru.  Having the ability to switch to the warmest clothes that don’t get worn except in a protected dry environment (tent or shelter) is a huge psychological boost, as well as a potentially life saving opportunity if the weather gets REALLY nasty. In 2011 I had to stop and set up camp early because of hypothermia just once, and it was my own damn fault.  I was hiking in rain, and as I ascended up Unaka Mountain it changed to sleet blowing straight sideways.  I waited to switch into warm hiking layers way too late to warm up on my own, and had another 1,000 feet to ascend into the wind and sleet, and decided to play it safe.

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Rime ice on the summit of Unaka the next morning…

 

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Myself, second from left, warming up later that morning.

When it is time for the warm switch, much of the extra layers are sent home, including the long sleeve EMS hiking shirt, Smartwool shirt, long john bottoms, down puffy, rain pants and balaclava.  There are some additions as well; a second, lighter hiking Mountain Hardware t-shirt, a pair of light running shorts, and Marmot Driclime windshirt. The result is the continued albeit reduced ability to layer but with unnecessary weight reduced; net 1.7 fewer pounds of carried clothing.

There is one other area where cold vs. warm weather has a significant change in gear; sleeping bag.  Cold weather calls for the 20*F comfort rated Western Mountaineering Alpinlite bag, in which I have slept comfortably down to 8*F.  However to avoid sweating to death in the summer I switch to a homemade down quilt, rated around 40-45*.  In 2011 I made what was supposed to just be a test mockup quilt, using the cheapest and lightest ripstop nylon in the damaged bin at JoAnn Fabrics and down scavenged from a Craigslist comforter, manufacturer rated as 550 fill power.  It was then going to be replaced with a quilt made from lighter (and actually downproof) fabric with higher fill power down.  The mockup ended up being of significantly better quality that I expected, and it has been my go-to quilt ever since!  The fact that it was not a down proof fabric has taken it’s toll however, with every trip using the quilt resulting in what resembles a snow squall in my tent by the end.  The quilt is getting thinner and thinner, so last year I splurged and bought 5 yards of Pertex Ventum fabric from Mountain Laurel Designs, a fabric that weighs in at 0.7 oz/yard.  That quilt isn’t even done yet; I hope to have it sewn up in the coming week.  It has been cut out and pinned, but is awaiting final assembly.  I expect the quilt to weigh in around 17 ounces, which will be a net weight reduction of about 15 ounces, including stuff sacks, between cold and warm.

Shelter is the Tarptent Contrail, made by Henry Shires.  Though there are some limitations to this shelter, I would buy it again without question.  Size to weight it’s hard to beat for a fully enclosed tent; 29.9 oz for tent with stuff sack and 8 stakes and adapter to set up with two front poles instead of one, make entry/exit easier.

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On the Superior Hiking Trail, July 2015

My cook set is the same as it has always been; a nested set of 0.9 liter cookpot, pot cozy made from reflective insulating bubble wrap, 8 fl/oz plastic cup, homemade alcohol stove made from a soda can, windscreen, fuel measuring cup (dose cup from NyQuil), small folding knife, two Bic mini lighters, and a Sea To Summit titanium spork with a small silicone spatula stuck on the end. This entire setup is 8.3 oz.  A 12 fl/oz contact lens solution bottle is my fuel bottle, and full it will last about 10 days of two hot meals per day, and weighs 12.3 oz full.

I have 3 liters carrying capacity for water, one Powerade bottle, and a two liter Platypus soft bottle.  I almost never carry more than a liter at a time, but having 3 liter capacity is perfect for when I get to camp – 1 liter for dinner and cleanup, 1 liter for breakfast and cleanup and 1 liter ready to hike with in the morning.  Water purification is Aqua Mira drops.  I’ve tried several different setups, including the Sawyer Squeeze and Squeeze Mini filters that have become very popular, but I can’t stand the extra steps and maintenance required to keep them operational. Regardless of my purifier, I carry a small number of Aqua Mira tablets as a backup.

Standard toiletries; toothbrush and paste, floss, comb, mini nail clippers and a small emery board.  Also carried are a small pack towel, repair kit for sleeping pad, tent and general sewing, 100% DEET, tweezers, and ear plugs for the inevitable loud snorer in shelter or hostel.  First aid is essentially enough bandaging to stop one major bleed, two pair nitrile gloves, small tube antibiotic ointment, single use Dermabond ampule, some naproxen, ibuprofen, chewable anti-diarrheal tabs and Benadryl.  Duct tape, moleskin and body glide minis round out the kit.  Total for toiletries and First Aid combined – 9.5 oz, and add another 5.6 oz for a roll of toilet paper and a small bottle hand sanitizer.  I don’t carry a trowel (yes, shame on me), because the number of times I couldn’t get to a privy or actual toilet for the inevitable #2 last time around I could count on one hand.

That covers all the main gear!  I also carry a number of items that I’ve decided to carry, even if not totally necessary though I wouldn’t go as far as to call them all luxury items.  This includes my Princeton Tec Fuel headlamp, a closed cell foam ‘sit pad’, whistle, compass, Sony DSC-HX5V point and shoot camera in homemade case, camera battery charger, plastic bag wallet with DL, insurance info, debit card and cash, SanDisc Sansa MP3 player, Brunton monocular, prescription sunglasses in soft case, digital watch, handful of 3×5″ cards as scratch paper and a mechanical pencil.

The only thing that I’ll be carrying that I’m not totally sold on bringing is my cell phone.  In 2011 I decided to leave my phone at home; for one thing it wasn’t a smart phone, and therefore wasn’t nearly as useful.  Secondly cell service for AT&T is notoriously poor on the majority of the trail.  Third, any time I did need a cell phone, and was somewhere where there was service, there was always someone willing to let be borrow theirs.  Fourth, NOT having the cell phone made hiking easier.  I didn’t have to worry about contacting anyone; I simply couldn’t until I got to town. I didn’t have Facebook to take any of my time in the woods, I either didn’t have to worry about the forecast – Is it raining? Does it look like rain? Put the Packa on.  Is it sunny? Don’t! – or I asked one of the others with a phone. Current events? Not really relevant in the woods.  Fifth, being disconnected from friends, family and loved ones made hiking easier on me psychologically as well.  I couldn’t get homesick and call my girlfriend Jennifer, or my mother, or anyone.  I was forced to be focused on the trail.  Still, I’ll have it with me this time.  I will however be keeping it off and stowed for as much of the time as possible, making it 8.1 oz of pack weights with the charger.

Most hikers carry a guidebook; I do as well.  I have grown to love the AWOL guide by Mr. David “AWOL” Miller.  I use it to log my previous stops, plan my future stops and schedule, and browse it when bored at night. I also write my journal in the margins of pages that I’m already past.  I love having maps with me as well, and have the entire set of trail maps from the ATC.  These are divided into 11 groups; the first three maps that I start with and 10 groups of maps that I will have mailed to me as I go.  For the weight I think they’re worth it – the average weight of maps that I’ll be carrying is 5.2 oz at a time.

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Everything ready to be packed….

 

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…and all packed up!

I know that I could cut my pack weight by a few pounds by trimming a lot of these ‘extras’, but I don’t mind it.  Bottom line is I’m a handful of pounds lighter than last time already.

 

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Yep, that’s my official start weight, with enough food to get from Springer Mountain to Neel Gap and a liter of water. I even added 8 oz. of stuff to make up for having the camera out.

Non-gear preparation has involved the minor, like spraying my pack, socks, shoes and pants with Permethrin to help prevent repeat Lyme infection, and the major; the biggest hassle of preparation for the trail so far has been figuring out health insurance!  ACA has made it a little more interesting…

I have health coverage through my employer currently, but due to having to take a leave of absence I will lose coverage the last day of April.  In 2011 I purchased short-term insurance through a local provider; and it ended up coming in handy when I got Lyme – though I never reached the deductible, they adjusted the bills I did have which ended up covering the premiums, and then saving me more over that.  I would have loved to do the same thing this time, but short-term insurance is not an ACA compliant option.  The penalty for not having qualified coverage is steep; I calculate it would cost me $1,000-1,100 in tax penalties.  I found out that there is a loophole, albeit a small one.  I can go two consecutive months without qualified coverage before incurring the penalty.  So the plan is as follows-

I purchased travel insurance through World Nomad, which covers adventure travel worldwide for the period of April 1-September 1.  It actually has decent coverage, $100,000 medical plus many extras, including technical rescue,  and was less than $300 for that period. It of course is also not ACA compliant, so I couldn’t stop there.  Figuring out the rules took some time, but I figured out that I will need to buy qualified coverage through MNsure, the MN state exchange for coverage starting no later than July 31 (and probably will have to be July 1), and every month until I return to work.  Of course, this is crappier coverage than the travel insurance for more money (MINIMUM $170/month with $6,500 deductible and 60% coverage over that), so I will be covered by both until the end of my hike. Still cheaper than the penalty so I win, I guess?

There is one more option, COBRA the coverage I have now, for the paltry sum of $663/month.  Uhh, no.

This took a lot longer to write that I thought it would, and as promised is pretty dry unless this is your sort of thing.  Right now, as I write, I’m T-minus 5 days to Springer!

Anatomy of a Thru Hike – The Heart

I’m breaking preparation for hiking into two blog posts – This is the first and I’m calling it “The Heart”, following the emotional and intangible planning process.  The follow-up will be “The Bones”, covering the practical planning including gear and should be written up in the next week or so.

Seven years ago next week, I sat down on my newly acquired Facebook page and wrote out several longish paragraphs on the reasoning into why I was deciding to place my professional life on hold and wander the woods on the Appalachian Trail.  That was only the beginning of planning in earnest; it would not be until a hair over two years after I wrote those lines that I took my first steps on Springer Mountain.  I hadn’t re-read what I wrote for a few years until today, it preparing to write this blog.  Not much has changed between then and now as far as reasoning goes.  I still love being outside, I still want the challenge, I still miss the East Coast, and I’m ready to lose the weight (again).

There is however a new, powerful motivator in my mind – unfinished business.  2011 was a fantastic spring and summer of hiking with a very clear goal in mind; and no thought that I wouldn’t make it.  Life had other plans as usual and my hike ended prematurely.  I considered starting where I left off and just finishing the northern tip that I missed, but there were three reasons I decided against it.  First is that while thru hikers that do it in sections are still thru hikers, it was a point of pride to have done it all in one go. Second was that the act of thru hiking was hard, yes, but it was also a ton of fun.  I want to have all that again!  The camaraderie, the views, the days, the nights and the utter freedom of hiking a long trail are unique experiences. Third is the practicality – I got off in some of the hardest hiking on the AT, and didn’t look forward to picking up there without the benefit of ‘trail-legs’, with addition of the near 35-40 pounds I had lost in the process of hiking there, and the hassle of now having to pay for huts to the tune of a couple hundred bucks that I could do work for stay, paying nothing except effort as a hiker that started 100+ miles from the White Mountains. This time I mean business!

I am noticing a difference in my attitude this time around. Last time was two solid years of research and planning, and the AT obsession was a large part of myself during that time.  This time around, I didn’t make the decision to actually do it until late fall of last year.  In 2011 there was a large amount of anticipation of the unknown; The longest I had been out on a trail was 10 days, and not until September/October of 2010. Setting out from Springer was a huge step into the unknown.  Now, I’ve seen almost every miles of trail for the first 84%, and am familiar with sections, towns, thru-hiker procedures, weather, wildlife and all the minutiae of a long AT hike.  Also not only did I have prep time to get my gear together in 2011, but I have been adjusting it since then on smaller trips a few times a year and therefore am in a better position than before.  My gear is better, my pack is lighter. This means I have a lot less to worry about, right?  Actually, the lack of worry about these things had an unexpected result.

That result?  I don’t feel excitement the same way this time.  I know what to expect, I know what I like, and most importantly, I know I can do it!   As it happens, this actually has had a negative effect on me, as it’s now leaving me more time for worry.  What happens if I get sick again? I’m five years older, will my physical ability be reduced?  My knees have occasional twinges of discomfort, will they last a thru hike?  I simply don’t remember worrying this much.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still excited!  I can’t wait to see the mountains, streams, forests and people!  It’s all just… different.

As I finish this, in 20 days I should be pulling into whatever location it is I will spend my first night on the AT, and the journey will truly have began.  I think that I will probably be feeling a lot more relief at that time, and that much of my worry will have evaporated. We’ll soon see!

The Beginning…Again.

In early 2011, on the 11th of March to be specific, my life changed.  Two years of planning culminated that day in a cold day spent walking in the mountains of Georgia.  The next day, I walked some more.  This plan seemed so simple that this became the ‘rinse and repeat’ schedule of my life over the following 141 days, in which I walked 1,836.3 miles of the Appalachian Trail until the untimely end of my little walk at Crawford Notch, New Hampshire due to complications from Lyme disease.

5 years later, on the 11th of March, 2016, to be specific, I hope it will change again.  This is the chosen date for round 2, wherein I will hopefully be hiking the same 1,836.3 miles as last time, plus the unfinished remainder making it to Katahdin in Maine, for a total of 2,189.1 miles.  The efforts of this attempt will be documented here, whatever it brings.

Last time I made daily journal entries for almost the entire trip, which can be found here…

http://trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=337666

This time I’ve decided to try this platform instead, for ease of use and more attractive format.

 

Stay Tuned…