Hiking

Q&A: How to Find the Perfect Campsite

When I hike with non-backpackers, I’m struck by the difference in the way we view the woods.  It’s not that backpackers don’t notice the trees or the wildflowers or the views, but we are also aware of the nearest water sources and campsites.  It seems that one has a different relationship with the woods after living in them for several months.  (This is one of the many topics I could geek out about, but I’ll refrain from word-vomitting here.)

As a result of this difference in perspective — and because of all of the aspiring backpackers I’ve been talking with recently — I thought I should post some tips for finding the perfect campsite.

On the Appalachian Trail, hikers call camping away from a shelter “stealth camping.”  Some hikers walk all the way from Georgia to Maine without stealth camping more than a handful of times; other hikers do so nightly.  In addition to shelters, there are dozens of designated, well-used campsites (many of which are quite lovely and comfortable) in the AT corridor, but the secret to finding a good site that’s not among those begins with knowing where to look.

1) Be on the lookout for campsites near water sources, trail junctions, low points, and high points.

Once you’ve walked along the Appalachian Trail for a little while, you’re bound to notice that campsites, with some exceptions, are found in predictable locations.  Because many hikers don’t enjoy dry camping, campsites can often be found near water sources.  (If you choose one of these, just be sure to Leave No Trace by camping 200 feet from the water and disposing of waste properly.)  You’ll also find them at trail junctions (i.e., when the AT meets a popular blue-blazed trail).  Campsites are common just before and after big climbs, and they can almost always be found on high points or near views, although it is exceptionally important to practice LNT principles if you’re using one of those sites because of their popularity.

2) Remember that campsites might not be adjacent to the trail.

Sometimes, it seems that AT hikers develop (Long Green) Tunnel vision, as they have a tendency to walk right past beautiful outlooks and campsites without noticing them.  On the Appalachian Trail, many established campsites are very near to the trail; however, some of them are several hundred feet off the footpath.  As evening approaches, it’s a good idea to scan the relative distance for established campsites.

Relatedly, watch for side trails, cairns, and even water bars that lead to campsites.  For example, just north of Garfield Hut in the White Mountains, a water bar leads to a much-appreciated complex of campsites.  In North Carolina last weekend, I found (but didn’t sleep at) a sweet campsite in a rhododendron grove that was marked by a couple of cairns.

DSCF7408

A favorite Appalachian Trail campsite of mine, near the end of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness in Maine

3) Look up.

Camping in a clearing means that you’ll have a great view of the stars but will also likely wake up under a dew-covered rainfly.  (Similarly, camping near a lake, while picturesque, might make for a damp, foggy morning.)  Camping under a pine tree might make for soft mattress, but you’re unlikely to escape without pine sap on your belongings.  That’s not to say that I haven’t opted for dewy and pine-sappy nights dozens of times, but it is worth keeping in mind.  While you’re looking up, check for any widow makers that could fall on your tent.

4) Consider the weather.

When choosing where to make camp, it’s a good idea to think about the weather.  Dry camping might not be a good idea if the day’s hot weather left you dehydrated; camping on an exposed ridge might not be the best way to spend a cold night.  If there are any clouds in the sky, you probably don’t want to have your tent situated in a depression that might find you in a puddle come morning.

5) Check for signs of wildlife.

One of the benefits of camping away from shelters is the reduced wildlife presence; you’re much less likely to have your tent or food sack “moused” if you’re not camping somewhere mice and chipmunks know to frequent for food.  It’s advisable to look around a potential campsite for signs of bear activity (e.g., scratching on trees, scat, etc.), and it’s generally not a good idea to camp near berry patches or other food sources.  In areas where bears are common, you might want to avoid camping near water sources for similar reasons.

6) Choose unestablished campsites with care.

Because I have a habit of spending long days hiking and making camp only when the diminishing light forces me to do so, I often camp in unestablished campsites.  However, I choose these carefully to minimize my impact, which is especially important on a trail as well-traveled as the AT.  I search for flat spots that are at least 100 feet off the trail and free of plants or fungi.  While most established campsites are lower than the trail, climbing up inclines near the trail has led me to some of my favorite and most secluded campsites.

I think that sums up my process of campsite selection.  How do you select your nightly home away from home?

Q&A: How to Stay Dry on the Appalachian Trail

“No rain, no pain, no Maine,” goes a popular trail adage.  As many parts of the eastern woods receive upwards of 40 or 50 centimeters of rain each year, the Appalachian Trail is the wettest trail of the United States’ Triple Crown.  With all of that precipitation, one of the most important questions aspiring thru-hikers ask is how to stay dry while they’re living in the woods.

Except in years with extreme droughts, it’s probably impossible to stay completely dry and make it to Maine while thru-hiking.  However, most 2000-milers have a slew of tricks for dealing with wet weather, and I thought I should share some of mine:

1) Ditch the pack cover.

I thought I’d start off this post with some unconventional advice:  Don’t invest in a pack cover.  They’re overrated.

Newbies often assume that pack covers will keep everything in their packs dry, as this seems like the only reason to bring along a several-ounce elasticized piece of nylon.  I once held this misconception and spent an uncomfortable night in a rather damp sleeping bag.

Pack covers are intended to keep only packs dry, which their proponents claim is an important way to reduce pack weight.  In my mind, the weight savings on wet days doesn’t justify carrying the pack cover on sunny days.

2) Prepare to be amazed by the power of the trash compactor bag!

So, you may ask, without a pack cover, how will I begin to keep my gear dry?  Trash compactor bags are a favorite trail secret of mine.

If you’re not familiar with them, trash compactor bags are heavy-duty plastic garbage bags.  Using a trash compactor bag as a pack liner that is stuffed with and rolled down on anything that you’d like to ensure stays dry makes rainy days and stream crossings worry-free.  I recommend buying a small package of bags for a thru-hike, as you’ll probably wear out two or three over the course of the trek.  (You can put one in a mail drop every few weeks; if you don’t use it, giving it away to another hiker is a great way to make a friend.)

3) Pack for rainy weather.

This is one of those tips that might not be readily apparent but becomes second nature with increased backpacking experience.  It’s a good idea to have several different Tetris-like configurations for all the gear in your pack, and some of the most important configurations involve dealing with wet weather.

Suppose that it is raining while you’re packing up in the morning.  Can you pack up all your gear while staying inside your wet tent?

Suppose that you’re expecting it to rain today.  How can you ensure all of your most important gear stays dry and that your tent is easy to set up in the drizzle sure to accompany the day’s end?

Finally, suppose that it rained last night but will be a gorgeous day today.  Can you arrange your pack in such a way that you’ll be able to dry your tent and anything else that got wet at the first sunny spot you come to?

4) Forgo GORE-TEX boots in favor of quick-drying hiking shoes.

Gone are the days of hikers marching from Georgia to Maine in heavy leather boots; these days, “hiking shoes” or even “trail runners” are exceedingly trendy.  In my opinion, this is for good reason.  On rainy days, the Appalachian Trail gets wet — very, very wet.  While it’s raining, it’s not unusual to walk down the trail in a mid-calf-deep stream.  Because of this, everyone, regardless of their footwear, gets wet; the important thing becomes how quickly your shoes dry.

5) If you tend to get chilled easily, bring rain gear.

I really like having rain gear on the trail, even if my rain jacket is only marginally waterproof these days.  I’ve been told that, unless you shell out a small fortune to purchase them, you’re unlikely to find a rain jacket or pants that are both waterproof and actually breathable.  Some people use this fact to dismiss the value of rain gear:  Is it any better to get wet from sweat than from rain when wearing a rain jacket?  I would say that it is.  Rain gear cuts down on wind and allows your body to form something of a miniature sauna, which has kept me safe on cold, rainy days.

6) Embrace a set of rainy-day hiking habits.

Regardless of how you hike on sunny days, you’ll probably end up adopting a certain set of behaviors for rainy days.  You’ll probably take shorter breaks, and you’ll probably seek refuge in any shelters you pass.  You might cook less.  Perhaps surprisingly, you’ll likely put in more miles than you normally would.

On rainy days, some important behaviors to consider involve dealing with your wet clothes once you get to camp.  If it’s a warm day (and you’re tolerably chafe-free), you might choose to sleep in your wet clothing to allow your body heat to dry it.  Conversely, if the day is colder, the best thing you can do, in my mind, is to take off any wet clothing you’ve been wearing and don some of the layers your expert packing job and trash compactor bag have kept dry.  Instantly, you’ll feel warmer — and probably in better spirits.

How do you deal with rainy days on the trail?  I’d love to hear about your tried-and-true practices — or your favorite wet-weather hiking stories.

Q&A: How to Find Solitude on the Appalachian Trail

On Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, there is a plaque that describes the AT as a “footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness.”

Mentioning this quote to a thru-hiker is likely to elicit a laugh.  Fellowship with fellow hikers?  Absolutely.  Fellowship with chipmunks and squirrels?  If you don’t kill them first.  But, fellowship with the wilderness can be hard to come by on the most populated of the country’s long-distance trails.

Or so I’ve heard.

My AT thru-hiking experience was unlike most other backpackers’ in that it was relatively solitary, even though I was hiking northbound.  Rather than wishing for more time alone, I actually found myself seeking the company of others.  There were times when I did not see another human for a day or another northbounder for a couple days.  When I tell other hikers this, they often find it completely baffling, so I thought I should post a list of tips for finding solitude and, perhaps, more fellowship with nature on the Appalachian Trail:

1) Don’t sleep at shelters.

In my mind, there are so many reasons not to sleep at shelters on the trail.  First, as I’ve mentioned before, they can be sketchy.  Second, staying at a shelter makes you 100x (according to the Institute for Reliable Statistics) more likely to have your gear moused or chipmunked.  Shelters are rarely situated by the best views or in the prettiest woods.  And, shelter sleeping makes sleeping more difficult; not only do shelters attract people, but they attract lots of bugs (many of which bite) as well.

Avoiding shelters is probably the easiest way to cultivate some sense of solitude on the Appalachian Trail.  Even when I spent the day leap-frogging other hikers, being alone at night, with my tent tucked unobtrusively some 200 feet off the trail, left me with a feeling of peace and solitude.

2)  Avoid towns.

Trail towns act like mega-shelters in that they often congregate several days’ worth of hikers at hostels and restaurants.  Quick afternoon resupply trips allow hikers to get back to the woods faster and without the crowd that often leaves towns in the mornings.

3) Start or finish the trail outside the “bubble.”

For several reasons (often involving outside pressures or hiking companions), my daily mileage varied considerably over the course of the trail, even when taking elevation gain and difficulty of the treadway into account.  As a result, I got to experience being in both the center of the the main pack of hikers marching toward Maine and on either end of it.  Walking near the group that begins in early April and will summit Katahdin in early September can make for quite a social Appalachian Trail experience; hiking in front of or behind that group can make solitude easier to come by.

4) Enjoy the blue blazes.

As I’ve written before, most Appalachian Trail thru-hikers walk right past even short blue-blazed trails.  Exploring some of these side trails is a great way to see more of the eastern woods, get off the beaten path, and enjoy some time alone.

5) Take short breaks randomly.

This is a quirky tip, and it’s one that I’ve intentionally not followed on many occasions, either because I’ve decided to enjoy a beautiful place or because I’ve sought companionship.

Most hikers take second breakfast/snack/lunch breaks at shelters and at scenic locations.  Conversely, I have a tendency to simply pause briefly at these places and then keep walking until I’m tired or two hours have passed, whichever comes first.  Then, I’ll just sit down on the trail, take a five-minute break, get up, and keep walking.  This habit of mine makes other hikers unlikely to catch me in the time I’m taking a break.

6) Hike long days steadily.

As with the other tips, this was something I’d been doing for a fair bit of time before I realized that it was contributing to my unusual Appalachian Trail experience.  Many (but by no means all) hikers enjoy slow mornings in camp, hike quickly, take long breaks, and make camp well before dusk.  When left to my own devices, I put in very long days on the trail, hiking from not long after dawn until not long before dusk.  I would often pass other hikers while they were taking breaks and, as they’ve teased me about on Facebook afterward, never see them again.

A few final thoughts

It’s easier to be alone on the Appalachian Trail than it might seem, and someone seeking solitude should not feel as though hiking northbound would make for a prohibitively social experience.  That said, I would encourage thru-hikers to embrace both time in the wilderness and time in the company of others.  One of the most fascinating parts of the Appalachian Trail is the community found on and along it, and I’ve appreciated changing my usual habits to enjoy that community.

Q&A: How to Pack a Resupply Box

Every once in a while, I’ll be talking to someone about the trail and I’ll be asked if thru-hikers need to carry all the food they’ll need from Georgia.  Assuming each day’s food weighs 1.5 pounds, which is a conservative estimate, that would mean that hikers would each carry some 250+ pounds of food when they climbed up Amicalola Falls.

Because 250 pounds isn’t exactly ultralight enough to keep the Jardi-Nazis happy, thru-hikers rely on resupplying at towns along the trail.  While we cross roads often on the Appalachian Trail, we’ll generally only go to a town every three to six days.  When we do, we’ll pick up supplies at either the local grocery store/Dollar General/Walmart/gas station or at the post office, where our food and other essentials might be found in a box sent from home.

I’ve certainly used both methods of resupplying, but I’m quite partial to using mail drops.  While at the outset these might be more complicated than spontaneously resupplying at stores, I’ve found that the quality and lightness of the food I can send to myself makes mail drops worth the extra effort.

Today, I thought I would address what, in my mind, is an essential step in preparing for a thru-hike: packing resupply boxes.

Any time I head out into the woods for at least a month, I scour the guidebook or maps ahead of time and plan my resupply locations.  I look at the services the nearby towns offer and study the mileages and elevation gains between easily-accessible towns.  Ideally, resupply locations are three to five days apart.  In some sections of the Appalachian Trail, that might put town stops fewer than 50 miles from one another; other times, they might be upwards of 100 miles apart.  I’m currently in the process of laying out the resupply locations for my 2015 hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, and it’s already apparent that the distance between resupplies will vary widely while I’m out there.

DSCF0456

Organizing the contents of a resupply box I received at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. I was on a cookie kick, apparently.

Once you have a list of planned resupply destinations, you’re ready to organize your resupply boxes.

I think packing these boxes is best done slowly or in stages, but my mother is an expert at quick-packing them.  Whatever your speed, you’ll need an area in your home that’s pest-free and able to serve as a resupply hub.

In this area, I like to line up the boxes that I’ll be needing to pack.  If you’re packing more than three days of food in each box, the most cost-effective shipping method is USPS’s Flat-Rate boxing system; if that’s how you’ll be sending your mail drops, you can generally take an empty set of boxes home from the post office to fill.  (I recommend explaining your situation to a USPS employee, who is likely to be happy to help.)  To a flap of each open box, I generally affix a sticky note with the box’s destination and some basic information about the itinerary of the days for which I’ll depend on the box.  (For example, I usually list the number of days, the number of miles, and the elevation gain for each box.)

Once your boxes are organized, it’s time for the fun part: packing them.

Add breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks to each box.  I recommend aiming for variety; no one (except, perhaps, a certain hiker named Clif Bar Kid–or CBK) wants to eat one snack exclusively.  If you choose to load the boxes over the course of several days, it’s a good idea to stick a checklist to each box to save yourself from having to recount snacks or dinners.

After you’ve packed the food but before you seal the boxes, it’s important to throw in some other essentials.  Sometimes, resupply boxes contain incredibly important gear, such as a cold weather sleeping bag.  Most of the time, however, the only non-food items they contain might be things like toilet paper, bandages, toothpaste, or an empty journal.

With the food and non-food items packed, you’re almost ready to go.  This is a good time to call the destinations of the boxes to confirm that your packages will be able to be held for you and that the addresses you’ll be sending them to are correct.  Once all that’s taken care of, it’s time to get out the tape, seal up the boxes, and send them on their way.

Q&A: A Wardrobe for the Woods

A couple days ago, my friend Kayla asked what I wear to keep warm outdoors.  Our conversation reminded me of the many times people have asked me what I wore during my thru-hike; because of the question’s frequency and the fact that I just enjoyed a layer-clad weekend spent hiking on the snowy high peaks of the northeast, I decided my outdoor wardrobe should be the topic of tonight’s post.

So, what did I wear on my thru-hike?  The same outfit from Georgia to Maine.

Seriously, though.  Thru-hikers describe each other by the color of the shirt or rain jacket we wear:  “Yeah, you know her.  She’s the one with that neon yellow shirt.  She sometimes hikes with the guy who wears those little blue running shorts.”

Because everything we’re not wearing has to be carried in our packs, thru-hikers rarely carry changes of clothes.  Perhaps because of this, every article of clothing we bring with us is often painstakingly chosen.  Lightweight items are important, as are those that repel odors (though that magic only lasts so long).  Fabrics need to perform well; if they’re supposed to wick away moisture or guard against rain or insulate us, they must or they’ll get ditched in a hiker box somewhere.  Another important criterion for me was that anything I wore needed to be colorful.  (They call me Rainbow Dash for a whole slew of reasons.)

When you start talking to people about clothing, a lot of non-thru-hikers find the idea of choosing a few articles of clothing to wear day in and day out for six months rather daunting.  But, it’s actually pretty simple, once you break the basic hiker wardrobe down into a few categories:

IMG_20140915_114424_880

Me atop Katahdin this year, demonstrating some stylish layering

The Standard Outfit

This is that T-shirt and shorts everyone wears most days on the Appalachian Trail, unless you’re unfortunate enough to hike in a really wet year.  Obviously, we avoid cotton like the plague, and, as for shorts, I think I’ve helped advance the trend of hiking in running shorts, which are wildly popular on trail these days.

During my thru-hike, I wore a cerulean blue (my favorite color) Patagonia Capilene 1 shirt and black Reebok shorts with coordinating lime and blue accents (because that’s important!).  My sister decided that the best way to celebrate my birthday on trail was with a change of clothes, and I am quite partial to Outdoor Research’s incredibly lightweight T-shirts as a result.

Beneath that shirt and shorts, I wore synthetic underwear I’d purchased at Walmart.  Unlike many of my fellow hikers, I insisted upon carrying a couple extra pairs.

The Baselayer(s)/The Wicking Layer(s)

Here’s where the fact that I am a Southerner who gets cold easily comes into play.  On my thru-hike, I often carried two sets of top and bottom baselayers.  I’d waited months for Patagonia’s Capilene 2 and 3 products to go on sale and purchased a set of each.  I often rocked the shorts-atop-tights look, and I spent most every non-hiking moment wearing my “sweatshirt,” my lime green Capilene 3 shirt.

These days, I’ve come to love the performance of the Polartec fabric of EMS’s Techwick 2 line.  I highly recommend these baselayers for cold-weather hiking!

The Insulating Layer

The articles of clothing in this layer are some of my very favorite items that I own, in the woods or not.  On my thru-hike, I brought my beloved and fairly lightweight Columbia fleece with me.  It doubled as a pillow for much of the trail.

Recently, I’ve also fallen in love with Patagonia’s Nanopuff pullover, which I’ll be taking with me on the PCT rather than the fleece.  (I suppose that means that I’ll need to find a new pillow.)

The Waterproof Layer

So, basically everything that’s supposed to be waterproof fails midway through the trail, but I still found my rain gear essential while on some of the higher peaks, during some of the wettest and chilliest days, and on the coldest nights.  I’m one of those hikers who swears by rain pants.  (This is a no-judgment zone.)  I carried a Marmot Precip jacket and pants with me in 2012.

The Footwear

Most hikers will tell you that this is the most important category of clothing, and even ultralighters are likely to carry several pairs of socks.  I’ve found that liner socks work well for me:  The perfect combination is Injinji toe-sock liners and Wigwam outer socks.  Injinji now makes a line of trail socks that seem to serve the functions of both liners and outer socks, and I’m kind of in love with them.

Socks go inside boots, hiking shoes, trail runners, or Chacos, but more on that later…

The Cold-Weather Gear

Topping off the ensemble is the gear for the higher extremities.  Quiver gifted his fleece balaclava to me, which I don religiously as soon as I feel remotely cold.  I’ve also slept in it many nights on the trail.  I considered lightweight fleece gloves “luxury items,” but they sure made my life better when I carried them.

And, that’s all there is to it.  Hikers, what’s your favorite part of your wardrobe?