Questions and Answers

Q&A: How Not to Quit a Thru-Hike

After ending my section hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2011 a bit prematurely, I was determined to stay on trail to complete my 2012 thru-hike. While I was still at home, preparing for the trail, I devised a list of rules regarding getting “off trail,” as thru-hikers call it — quitting a thru-hike. In light of my imminent departure on the Pacific Crest Trail, I’ve been thinking about these standards and thought I’d share them, in case they may assist this year’s class of thru-hikers.

  1. Don’t quit when you’re walking uphill. In a musical called “[title of show],” there’s a musical number in which the main characters sing about the “vampires” that haunt them in their weaker moments, ridiculing their aspirations and belittling their abilities. I think vampires are most likely to attack hikers when we’re going uphill.
  2. If you have knee pain, don’t quit when you’re going downhill. For young/non-Lyme-infected/uninjured hikers, going downhill is fun. For some of us, it is more difficult than going uphill. (Given that I actually really enjoy inclines, downhills see some of my tougher moments.) While declivities can be less emotionally trying than inclines, they can be physically challenging. If that’s the case, quitting on downhills is forbidden.
  3. Don’t quit when you’re too hot or too cold. I learned this lesson because I saw it happen to a friend. If hot and humid weather isn’t you’re thing, hiking across the barren ridges of Pennsylvania in the middle of July is not going to be something you find pleasant. If you’re hot, find some shade, go for a swim, or enjoy a night in a hostel after winning the half-gallon challenge. If you’re cold, a hot meal or a day in town might be in order.
  4. Don’t quit when it’s precipitating. If it’s raining, sleeting, hailing, or snowing, getting off trail is out of the question. It’s too easy to dream of shelter and warmth when you’re wet and cold. If you can’t get dry on trail — if, for example, all of your gear is soaked through from the rainstorm you got stuck in last night — I highly recommend taking a nero or zero in town somewhere and drying off. That brings us to the next point…
  5. Don’t quit when you’re in a town. Towns can create vortices, especially when groups of hikers arrive in them together. A town’s vortex can be difficult to escape, but it can be done! Carrying out some fresh fruit and veggies and baguettes and hummus always helps me have an easier time leaving town.
  6. Similarly, don’t quit in the last day before or the first day after a town. The magnetic pull of civilization can be far-reaching.
  7. Don’t quit when you’re feeling sad. Everyone has tough days, and the intense physicality of the trail seems to amplify emotions. If you’re feeling down, don’t commit to getting off trail until you’re feeling happier. Moreover, if you’re likely to be especially emotional when you’re having your period, don’t get off trail during that time of the month.
  8. Don’t quit when you’re feeling lonely. This was an important one for me, again likely because of the amplification of emotions. If you’re feeling lonely, try to find a friend or call someone back home. Or, just have an easier hiking day, with more time at a view or swimming hole or in the sun/shade.
  9. Don’t quit when you’re feeling scared. I’ve done this once and almost did it a second time. If you’re scared, find a way to alleviate your fears before giving up on the trail. Maybe hiking with a friend makes stream crossings, Mahoosuc Notch, or Forester Pass less terrifying. Maybe avoiding shelters will mitigate creepy interactions with other people. Maybe hitchhiking with a partner makes resupplying feel safer.
  10. Don’t quit when your body is nagging. Injuries and sicknesses can be very important in considering getting off trail, but nagging issues shouldn’t be. For example, if you’re dealing with chafing, take a break and heal, but don’t call it quits. If your body is tired, just give it a couple days to get stronger before pushing it.
It would be nearly impossible to get off trail on a day like this!

It would be nearly impossible to get off trail on a day like this!

Basically, in my mind, quitting is only allowed when it’s warm and sunny — but not too hot — and you’re a couple days out of town, walking along on level ground and feeling content and safe. Given that that’s a difficult scenario to come by on the Appalachian Trail (because of the unevenness of the terrain and the frequency of resupply stops), getting off trail is difficult.

When I think about it, these rules can be condensed into a singular sentence: If you feel like you’re ready to get off trail, wait a week and then reevaluate your plans.

From one week to another, so much changes on trail. You’ll see beautiful new places and be challenged in various sorts of weather. You’ll meet friends or reconnect with people you haven’t seen in hundreds of miles. The kindness of strangers will leave you feeling grateful, and an all-you-can-eat buffet will leave you feeling satisfied. You’ll get more rested and more exhausted; you’ll heal some injuries and develop others.

After a week has gone by, think about where that week has taken you and consider whether you still want to get off trail. The answer may well be “yes.” Lots of people find what they were searching for in a short time of being in the woods; others learn backpacking simply isn’t for them. But, for many hikers, even those with injuries and illnesses that would sentence most people to the sidelines, reconsidering getting off trail after one week’s time allows them to see that they never really wanted to get off trail in the first place.

“All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go…”

One week from today, I will be in San Diego, preparing to begin my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. My backpack has been loaded and unloaded many times, as I’ve worked to choose the ideal configuration of the ideal pieces of gear for me. The belongings in my room have been reorganized and packed up to facilitate a post-trail move and to make way for a legion of resupply boxes. The dehydrator my grandmother gave me years ago has run around the clock for weeks, preparing enough dinners to feed me for 4.5 months of hiking. Those dinners are filling 24 boxes of food that are packed, addressed, and decorated and that I’ll be picking up as I walk from Mexico to Canada.

Boxes taking over my bedroomBoxes taking over my bedroom

Boxes taking over my bedroom

While my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and subsequent backpacking adventures have made the mental and emotional side of trail preparations easier this time around, there are many ways in which preparing to hike the Pacific Crest Trail is unusually complicated.

First of all, resupplying on the PCT is more difficult than it was on the AT. The towns I’ll be hitchhiking to won’t always be far from the trail, but some will require fairly complicated hikes/hitchhikes. And, while it’s very easy to plan to resupply every three to five days on the AT, the stretches between resupplies are much more variable on the PCT. As it stands now, there’s one spot where I’ll be carrying 14 days of food.

In my mind, one of the biggest logistical differences between the AT and the PCT is that the latter almost requires the use of a map. It’s pretty easy to walk from Georgia to Maine by following white blazes and only looking at guidebooks when there’s nothing interesting to read in a shelter. Not only are maps generally considered important on the PCT, but the go-to maps are heavy! While I carried an entire guidebook from Georgia to Maine, which made what a friend of mine calls “spontaneous planning” (and “planned spontaneity,” for that matter) straightforward, the Halfmile maps of the PCT and the guidebook needed to be divided among the maildrops. Because I won’t be able to plan ahead with ease on trail, I’ve taken more time to plan at home than I did before I left for the AT.

An important focus of the planning that needed to be done is related to water. The PCT is infamously dry, and this winter has been the driest in California since meteorological data collecting began. I’ve needed to learn about the water sources and consider places to drink and camp in order to prevent problems while I’m on the trail. As I’m hiking, I’ll need to continue to check the updated water report.

In a similar vein, to prepare for the PCT, I’ve done a fair amount of reading about the variety of climates I’ll be needing to hike in. I’ve lived east of the Mississippi for as long as I can remember, and I’m very familiar with our humid climate. Whether it’s the hot, south Georgia, near-sub-tropical climates or the chilly alpine zones atop New Hampshire’s 4000’ers, even the unpredictable weather doesn’t catch me off guard. However, I’ve never hiked above 7000’, I’ve never crossed a snowfield with an ice ax, and I’ve never hiked in the desert. For both safety and sanity’s sakes, I needed to research the conditions I might face.

The chaos of a resupply-packing day

The chaos of a resupply-packing day

Once I knew what might await me in the West, I decided it would be ideal to learn more before I made it out there. While I wasn’t able to take a winter mountaineering course, I did get up on several high peaks while they were snow covered. (Not that it looks as though this will be an ice ax/crampons–or even microspikes!–kind of year.) I got a couple of western field guides and learned about the flowers and trees I am likely to see. I participated in an orienteering event (and fell in love with the sport) to improve my compass and map-reading skills. And, because I needed it for post-PCT life, I earned my Wilderness First Responder certification, which made me feel better able to both prevent possible wilderness emergencies and treat those that do arise.

While the primary quasi-deadline for a northbounder on the Appalachian Trail is being out of Baxter State Park before the park closes, a thru-hike of the PCT seems much more weather-dependent. Hike too late/slow, and there’ll be no water in the desert and too much snow in the Cascades. Hike too early/fast, and the Sierras will be a winter wonderland. I think the PCT will demand more flexibility in scheduling than the AT did.

But, maybe that is just because so much of what I’ll be seeing currently feels foreign to me. I think the PCT has felt so difficult to plan for primarily because of the physical distance between it and me. It was reassuring to know that home was never more than a 1.5-day drive from the Appalachian Trail; if I really needed help, I’d be able to get home easily.

Thinking back about it, what could I have possibly needed help with on the AT? Life was so much easier then! I already had Lyme Disease (thanks to a tick bite I’d received  during a month-long section hike the year before), but I didn’t know it yet; ignorance is bliss, right? I’m still working to recover from a late-winter Lyme relapse that succinctly demonstrated that I’ll be dealing with the nasty little spirochetes for the long haul. I’m still on Doxycycline, but, now that I can stay awake and don’t have perpetual muscle issues, I’m bound and determined to keep to my planned start date. That’ll mean that I’ll be covering every inch of my photosensitive (because of the antibiotics) skin during the desert section, but perhaps I’ll find I like wearing more clothing than the traditional Rainbow Dash attire.

Being so recently ill has made the goal of my hike–to raise money for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society–even more important to me. If you’d like to support ILADS in their research and education efforts, please consider a per-mile sponsorship; even one cent per mile is a wonderful help!

So, what is there left to do in the week before the wheels touch down? Continue healing. Get the latest water report. Collect the contact information of friends and friends of friends near the trail. Reach out to friends and family before I lose touch with civilization again. Enjoy a send-off party in my hometown. Breathe.

A fiery rainbow at the farm tonight

A fiery rainbow at the farm tonight

Q&A: How to Hike the Appalachian Trail on a Budget

When hikers declare to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that they are “2000-milers,” they are asked to complete a questionnaire and check boxes next to any special populations that they belong to. Did they hike as ethnic/racial/religious/sexual orientation/gender identification minorities? Did they hike as a couple? Did they hike on a budget?

As much as thru-hikers like to joke that they are “hikertrash” who are “homeless by choice,” being able to hike for 4-6 months requires a fair amount of privilege (even though it does save on rent and utilities costs). That said, I know some hikers who have walked from Georgia to Maine on as little as $5-6 per day, far less than the $2 per mile that most long distance hiking associations suggest. I’ve never hiked as inexpensively as some of my most frugal friends, but I have been budget conscious, as have many hikers. Unless you’ve got a well-padded savings account, it’s basically a necessity when you’re going to spend a summer walking rather than working.

There are two primary ways to spend money on a thru-hike: buying supplies ahead of time and buying supplies and comforts en route.

For my AT thru-hike, I was able to cheat in the pre-hike expenditure category, since I’d acquired most of my backpacking gear the year before. And, this year, when I needed to buy gear that wasn’t thoroughly worn out before I hit the PCT in April, I was lucky enough to have just come off a few months of full-time work. If you’re endeavoring to save money on your gear, be careful not to get wrapped up in ultralight ideals. (I’m not hating here; I’m a lightweight hiker myself.) Saving two pounds is worth a fair bit of money, but a savings of two ounces probably isn’t worth breaking the bank.

Then again, I’ve found that there’s a lot to be learned from the ultralight community. It seems that many of the ounce-counting hikers among us have made their own gear or otherwise been creative in gathering their supplies when they didn’t find something that met their needs. If you’re looking for a super-light sleeping bag, consider making your own. Homemade stoves, tents, and, surprisingly, backpacks are gaining in popularity these days.

If you’re looking to make your own gear, you might want to check out Backpacking.net or Jason Klass’s Gear Lab.

If you are in the position of having at least six months before your hike, it’s a good idea to scour REI and EMS garage sales, online backpacking garage sales (such as several groups on Facebook), and even eBay. You’ll often find hikers ready to part with great equipment at good prices. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are also perfect times to shop for backpacking gear.

As you’re shopping, it might help to remember some oft-repeated advice: Save weight on your “big three” (e.g., sleeping bag, tent, backpack); save money on the rest of the items in your pack. I haven’t always followed this advice, but it can help to prioritize your sleep system over your water filter.

Once you have all your gear and set off on the trail, you’ll find yourself faced with a whole other set of financial dilemmas. Dozens (or hundreds?) of AT hikers get off trail each year citing financial issues. Obviously, emergencies happen that require alterations in plans and added expenditures; however, it seems that the easiest way not to spend money during a thru-hike is to avoid long town visits.

Many hikers find it all-to-simple to spent $100+ in each town they visit, staying in a hotel, eating at restaurants, and drinking some beers. Hitching into town mid-day and making it back to the trail to camp is a simple way to save money. Because of my love of good (non-gas-station-procured) food, I prefer to send myself resupply boxes along the trail; while this inevitably leads to greater upfront expenses, it enables me to save time and money in trail towns.

While I don’t always practice good restraint when buying gear, I honestly haven’t had a difficult time keeping my money in my pocket once I hit the trail. For the most part, I’ve found that saving money on a thru-hike comes down to a mental reframing of the experience. I see going to town as a chore — a fun chore during which I can eat veggies and write letters and wash my clothes, but a chore nonetheless. I consider town visits interruptions of the trail I’m working to experience, and I do my best not to stay in towns long enough so as to let them detract from that experience. Speaking of veggies, one of my favorite ways to save money on a long hike is by hitting the grocery store when I get to town, rather than a restaurant. I can pick up a whole bundle of veggies for the price of a non-hiker-portioned meal and tip.

As I mentioned before, not counting pre-hike expenses, hikers are often encouraged to budget roughly $2 for each mile of their hikes. While there seems to be a consensus that $5 per day is not very comfortable on a long hike, particularly when a hiker is resupplying at grocery stores along the trail, it seems that $9 per day isn’t too difficult. By that calculation, a five-month hike of the Appalachian Trail could be done for about $1400 in on-trail costs.

Have you gone on an extended backpacking trip on a budget? How have you saved money? What would you do differently if you were to hike again?

Q&A: How to Avoid Getting Giardia

Earlier today, I was talking about the PCT with some friends of my family, and they started asking me about the terrifying wildlife I might see along the trail. Their worries were of encounters with rattlesnakes, scorpions, and bears. Honestly, it’s not those creatures that make me anxious; if my battle with Lyme Disease has taught me anything, it’s that it’s the little guys that you’ve got to be afraid of: ticks, the air-borne fungus that causes Valley Fever, and Giardia. DSCF7268

I’m of the opinion that, anytime you’re dealing with living creatures, it’s impossible to speak in terms of absolutes. I doubt that a certain series of behaviors could completely prevent the contraction of Giardia; however, there are some behaviors that can mitigate your risk.

First of all, there’s personal hygiene. In thinking about how to be clean in the woods, I’m reminded of Disney’s Mulan: “Just because I look like a man doesn’t mean I have to smell like one.”

I know a couple people who, when they’re backpacking, are capable of looking like they just stepped into the woods for a day-hike. Most of us aren’t that lucky. Fortunately, you don’t have to look like part of an REI ad to lessen your risk of contracting Giardia.

At the risk of sounding like a preschool teacher, the best thing you can do is keep your hands clean. Clean them after cat-holing and before eating. Wet Ones and alcohol swabs are perennial favorites for many hikers; just be certain to pack out any wipes you use.

That said, the fact is that your own body’s cooties are far less likely to make you sick than those from another person. And, that’s why there’s a saying on the trail that Booksmarts taught me back in 2011: “The communal gorp bag is poured from, not reached into.” If you’re fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of some trail magic from another hiker, don’t stick your hand into the bag to extract some Reese’s Pieces, blueberries, or Swedish Fish. Instead, pour out a handful.

Since Giardia can be water-borne, choosing water sources carefully goes a long way toward reducing a backpacker’s risk of getting sick. I remember meeting two young guys early on my hike of the Appalachian Trail who were excited to get to a river that we were due to cross later that morning, since that’s where they were planning to fill up their water bottles. I questioned their plan, suggesting drinking from any of the little streams and springs we’d be passing before then, but they explained that they love quick-flowing, large sources of water.

In my mind, the Potomac, which flows very quickly and is very large, is not the paragon of water sources.

Small sources draining small watersheds can be very good water sources. It’s important to consider the watershed that is supporting a given water source. Does the land around the water seem healthy? Is there a good plant cover (i.e., grasses, herbaceous plants, etc.) that filters rainwater? Are there any dead animals or obvious animal fecal matter in the vicinity? Are there cow pastures or herbicide/pesticide-laden farm fields upstream? Be water-aware, and you’re likely to find good drinking water.

Most thru-hikers will agree that one of their favorite things about long-distance hiking is tasting water from mountain springs. Fresh, cold water is such a simple gift, but it’s something we certainly appreciate. Some springs have dramatic flow rates, where water gushes out of rock (sometimes through a channeling pipe, soda bottle, or curled leaf. Other springs just look like puddles of water.DSCF3592

While stagnant water is not a preferable water source, the puddle-variety of spring, with a steady stream of “new” water bubbling up from the earth, is great.

Now, I say all this, and in a couple months I’ll be departing on the Pacific Crest Trail, where water sources include a cattle trough, several horse- and cattle-frequented streams, and cisterns where chipmunks have drowned. A number of ultralight hikers insist on hiking sans water treatment, but I know that my compromised immune system would never tolerate that.

I definitely have enjoyed live water when I have seen a spring’s source or in some unfrequented high elevation streams; however, Giardia and its partner-in-crime, Crytosporidium, have been cultured and contracted from even these sorts of water sources, as several of my hiking friends and this blogger can attest to.

Some hikers feel that being cautious about hygiene and water sources takes some of the fun out of backpacking and leaves them feeling out-of-touch with the natural world. I appreciate that perspective, but, especially because of my tendency to get sick easily, I’d rather take risks in climbing Mount Whitney, attempting consecutive “marathon days,” crossing snowmelt-swollen streams, and meeting new people while hiking and hitchhiking. And, I’ve really had it with microbes.

Fellow hikers, have you had any run-ins with microbes while in the backcountry?  How do you avoid them?

Q&A: How to Calculate Pace

I think I should preface this post with a disclaimer:  Even though I’d been an Environmental Studies major in college, I spent the two years before my thru-hike working as a TA for the local community college’s math department.  Alone, that might not have been hugely problematic.  However, I hiked with Quiver.

Boots McFarland

This Boots McFarland cartoon has been posted by several thru-hiker friends on my Facebook Timeline to tease me. (Incidentally, Boots McFarland is fabulous and totally worth following.)

On the trail, Quiver (my 35yo Austinite hiking partner) and I were two unofficially-appointed resident geeks.  We were some of the go-to hikers for vocabulary questions, plant identification, fact checking, and trivia games.  I’m not entirely sure how we earned these roles, but I suspect it might be due to the overhearing of our pace calculations.

I must admit that it was Quiver who got me addicted to calculating pace.  When he first demonstrated his methods, I was fiercely determined to prove them unnecessary and unwieldy.  You see, like most every other hiker on the Appalachian Trail, I thought of my pace as a flat mile-per-hour rate; however, since I’d noticed that it would often vary with elevation, I expected my time estimates to even out over the course of each day, rather than be accurate each hour.  My preference for my way of doing things wasn’t so much because I preferred a simple way to plan where I would be making camp each night; Quiver and I just had playful competitions going from the beginning, and I didn’t want to be the one to acquiesce and give him another point.

My resistance was futile.  After hiking together less than one week — during which time I found Quiver’s ETAs to be consistently more accurate than those of any airline I’ve every traveled (let alone Greyhound’s!) — I’d gone over to the dark side and become a pace-calculating fiend.

I thought it would be fun to share the magic of our ways.  A word of caution:  Once you’ve tried it, there’s no going back.  When you find that you arrive at a water source, summit, or campsite within three minutes of your projected time, you’ll be won over, too.

The way Quiver and I calculate pace might be familiar to some former Boy Scouts or western hikers.  After asking dozens of East Coast hikers and thru-hikers about pace, I found that this method is virtually unheard of out here; however, Quiver adapted it from an old Boy Scout handbook, and it’s employed by Craig Giffen in his outstanding PCT Planner.

So, here’s how it works.

1) Calculate your flat pace — Hike around on a flat stretch of trail, carrying a pack, and determine how many miles you go each hour.  Remember, we’re talking “Appalachian Trail-flat,” not road-flat or Florida-flat.  Generally, I go 3mph when I’m just hiking along comfortably; I’ll do 3.25mph without much encouragement.

2) Calculate your elevation pace — This is where it gets fun.  Once you have a solid grasp of your flat trail pace, you’ll be able to determine your elevation pace with some simple calculations.  So, go hike a mountain with a measured trail and a good topo map and determine how much elevation slows you down.  I know that I gain 2500 feet in one hour comfortably; when I’m really sweating and feeling good, that figure can easily exceed 3000 feet.

Once you’ve calculated those figures, you can put them to use.  For example, using 3mph/2500ft as my pace, in four hours I could hike 12 miles on flat trail, 9 miles with 2500 feet of elevation gain, or 6 miles with 5000 feet of elevation gain.  And, that is why Quiver and I were often overheard talking about hours rather than miles.  In the summer, we’d plan 8-hour days of, say, 21 miles and 2500 feet, and know that we could take a two-hour siesta in the middle of the day and still make it to the shelter by dinnertime.

That’s all there is to it.  Almost.

I’ve got a couple important caveats:

  • While descents and flat-ish trails generally get the same consideration in the equations, that doesn’t work on trails with exceptionally steep descents, such as the rocky, cliff-side trails of the White Mountains.  Similarly, if you have an injury that slows you down disproportionally on the descents, you’ll have to take elevation loss into account in your calculations.
  • Thru-hikers talk about getting their “trail legs,” and that process can easily be figured into the equation.  While it would be possible to calculate an initial pace and speed it up over 3-6 weeks, it is generally simpler to just start off a backpacking trip doing 5- or 6-hour days and increase the hours over the trip.

And just like that you’ve got a new shelter party trick.