Questions and Answers

Q&A: How to Be the Best Trail Angel Ever

Merry Christmas, friends! Whether or not this is a holiday you and your family celebrate, I wish you all the joy and peace and love associated with the idealized Christmas.

As December is generally a month during which I hike very little (and run quite a lot), the closest I can get to a themed post is to write about trail angels. DSCF1120

If you’re not familiar with the term, trail angels are the people out on the trail who make long-distance backpacking possible. Most commonly, all that they overtly provide is some food, but, in doing so, they give us so much more than that. They take away the pain of a difficult day and provide companionship to the lonely. They support and encourage us when we most need support and encouragement. They impress upon us the virtues of generosity and community, virtues that remain with many former thru-hikers for years to come. Interactions with trail angels are some of the most memorable parts of many thru-hikes, and I’ve heard several hikers describe trail angels as part of the reason they have a spiritual connection with the trail.

DSCF0924During my time on the Appalachian Trail (not just during my thru-hike), I have been touched by the kindness and “sacred hospitality” (as Unitarian Universalists would say) of the trail angels I’ve met. After my thru-hike, I’ve gotten a few opportunities to act as a trail angel myself, providing “trail magic” to thru-hikers in New England, and I definitely look forward to more opportunities to serve in such a role in the future.

If you’re looking to create some trail magic for hikers, know that anything you do will be appreciated. After I’ve told a story of an interaction with a trail angel, I’ve heard some non-hikers say that they’d like to meet and assist thru-hikers but don’t know where to begin. What follows are some ideas for aspiring trail angels.

1) Bring foods that are uncommon on the trail.

While bags of trail mix and granola bars are appreciated by financially-challenged thru-hikers, foods whose praise doesn’t cease include fruits, veggies, and almost anything that is cooked. I remember stumbling upon a hiker feed on my way to Damascus before trail days and being absolutely thrilled to eat a veggie dog in the middle of the woods. On another occasion, I found a bag of fresh tomatoes hanging on a trail signpost near a road crossing with a note inviting thru-hikers to partake; I learned of my undying love for tomatoes that day.DSCF0949

2) Consider bringing along extra supplies.

If you’d like to go the extra mile, bring some personal necessities with you to the trail. I’ve seen Band-Aids, alcohol swabs, toilet paper, razors, shampoo, toothpaste, ibuprofen, batteries, pens, and plastic bags serve as happy surprises from trail angels to hikers.

DSCF11213) Showers are priceless.

While we’re on the subject of necessities, I met someone whose trail magic included a solar shower. Though I passed up the offer, given that I’d just showered two days earlier and needed to put in a long day, I thought the shower was an awesome idea; there were a great many hikers who agreed with me and got in line.

4) Transportation is always a winner.

If you have a bit of extra time and don’t mind driving, consider offering hikers rides to a nearby town/outfitter/grocery store/hostel. One of the strangest things about being on the trail is how we feel completely independent in the woods but need to ask for help to do most anything when we come in contact with civilization. Case in point: To get anywhere, we need to depend on the kindness of strangers and hitchhike. Arguably, the most magical trail magic I received included a ride to the grocery store and a place to get dry on a rainy day.

5) Remember that conversation can be a gift in itself.

Finally, know that at least half of the fun of trail magic for thru-hikersDSCF1021 is our getting to meet the trail angels. Many of us spend a lot of time alone, and the simple pleasure of talking with someone else is so appreciated. Even better, at least in my mind, is conversation that is deep and thoughtful and about big ideas. There’s an old man in New Hampshire who lives just off the trail and offers hikers ice cream, popsicles, and wonderful conversation. Under the Tibetan prayer flags on his porch, I found him wearing an Obama T-shirt, and we spent the next couple of hours talking about everything from his children to hiking to LGBTQ issues. It was beautiful.

There are so many touching and inspiring stories with trail angels that I could recount (such as this one or even this one), but I’ll save them for another day. In the meantime, have a wonderful holiday season!  And, if you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about the trail magic you all have received and/or provided.

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.

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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 Physically Prepare for a Thru-Hike

When talking with aspiring thru-hikers, it rarely takes long for the conversation to turn to the physicality of an end-to-end hike.  Hiking a long trail is seen as a physical feat, one worthy of as much respect as an international competition of any other sport.  But, here’s a secret:  A thru-hike is really just a really long walk.

The best way to prepare for a long hike is to hike for a long time.  Now I’m not trying to sound pretentious or unhelpful here; that’s just the truth.  After being in the woods for a month or two, carrying a full backpack over mountains, a body is hardened and able to withstand the rigors of the trail.  Thru-hikers talk about getting their “trail legs,” at which point they’re able to hike at full speed.  While getting their trail legs takes first-time backpackers up to six weeks (with dramatic improvements in the first several weeks), it often takes seasoned hikers half that time, at least in my experience.*  If you’re planning a thru-hike, it’s a good idea to, at least, take a few backpacking trips to prepare (and to get familiar with your gear).

That said, the first time I headed out on the AT, when I intended to hike from Harpers Ferry to Katahdin in 2011, I had hiked my fair share of 4000-footers but had never backpacked.  Not once.

So, if you can’t squeeze in some backpacking experience before your thru-hike, there are other ways to prepare for your time in the woods.

1) Take up long-distance running or cross-country skiing.  When you’re on the trail, you’ll often find that you’re too hot or too cold or too hungry or too thirsty or too tired or too sore.  You’ll be rained on, hailed on, snowed on, and sleeted on.  You’ll experience blistering heat and gale-force winds.  In my mind, the best way to stay strong and keep smiling through all of that is to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  In modern America, many people are fortunate enough to very rarely find themselves physically uncomfortable; endurance sports are a good way to mentally condition yourself to keep plugging along through thirst, cold, some pain, etc.

2) Tackle the stair master — or, as one of the older men who watches me sweat for hours on it at the wellness center likes to call it, the “machine from Hell.”  As far as preparing your body for the actual activity it will be spending months doing, no machine beats the stair master.

3) One of the commonalities of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” is the enormous packs the authors’ carried.  With any luck, today’s aspiring thru-hikers will not be carrying loads that are nearly so heavy.  Nonetheless, it’s worth practicing lifting, putting on, and carrying around your pack.  Your shoulders and hips will thank you for any conditioning you do with your pack before you hit the trail.

Finally, if, come April, you realize that you’ve neglected the physical aspects of your trail preparations, don’t worry.  Many other thru-hikers have set out with the intent of using the trail as a fitness program; this is an especially realistic perspective if you’re hiking northbound on the Appalachian Trail, since the early portions of the trail are very forgiving.  Happy trails!

*I think some of this is due to seasoned hikers’ having mastered the “technique” of backpacking, but I won’t bore you with that hypothesis.

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.