Questions and Answers

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.

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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:

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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?

Q&A: My Favorite Piece of Gear

On the Appalachian Trail, we rarely engage in the status-based one-upping or schmoozing conversations of the non-hiking world.  We rarely discuss the jobs we held back home or pop culture, and there isn’t even much talk of politics, perhaps because we’re so far removed from the news media.  Instead, we have a few favorite conversation topics of our own.

In the southern half of the trail, it’s really difficult to get away from conversations about gear.  Up north, all we talk and think about is food.  And, weather and bodily functions are always good topics.

I generally don’t enjoy talking about gear.  Too often, such conversations feel as close to one-upsmanship as we get on the trail, with one hiker advising another about reducing pack weight with a tone of superiority:

“You know,” he says, straightening his shoulders, “I once had a canister stove, but after I created this homemade alcohol one, I’m never going back.  Hey, man, what’s your baseweight?”

You get the idea.

On trail, we have a saying for times like this: “Hike your own hike.”  With gear, that means bring what you need or want, leave what you don’t; take the advice you find helpful, and ignore what you don’t.  Most hikers carry at least a few things that others consider superfluous, but, when you’re living out of a backpack for months, I think it’s important that you love what’s in that pack.

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My sister spent a week on the trail with me during my thru-hike. Here, she and I are “cowboy camping” in Virginia. You can see my heavenly, yellow-orange mattress under my sleeping bag.

So, while the Jardi-Nazis (followers of Ray Jardine’s ultralight backpacking philosophy) might chastise me for it, my favorite piece of gear is my 2.5″-thick air mattress.

During my month-long hike of 2011, I slept on the standard foam pad and hated it.  So many hikers are tired enough at the end of the day that they don’t care what they sleep on.  I was certainly tired enough to fall asleep easily, but I’d wake up hurting and unrefreshed.  While I’d loved sleeping on the ground as a child — admittedly, I lived in Florida, so it was soft and sandy — I didn’t find it as appealing as a side-sleeping young adult.

Between my 2011 hike and my thru-hike, I decided to invest in an Exped inflatable sleeping pad, and (::puts on best television commercial voice::) it dramatically changed my backpacking experience.  I often call it one of my favorite possessions, not just one of my favorite pieces of gear.  At 15.2 ounces (newer models weigh less), it weighs about as much as a full-length ThermaRest Ridge Rest, but I look forward to sleeping and enjoy waking up on it.

(And, what backpacker doesn’t enjoy greeting the day with the sound of releasing the deflate valve?  #sarcasm #thruhikinghumor)

For the last few Mondays, I’ve been answering questions that I’m often asked about hiking.  But, it would be more fun to answer questions from you.  Are you planning to thru-hike and have some questions about long-distance hiking that I might be able to answer?  Are you a trail enthusiast who’d like to know more about the AT?  Are you another thru-hiker interested in sharing your experiences?  Let me know in the comment section!

Q&A: My Favorite Part of the Trail

In a couple weeks, I’m hoping to answer your questions on Mondays.  Until then, I’ve decided to answer a couple that I am frequently asked.  Today’s is one that I also particularly enjoy answering:  What is your favorite part of the trail?

While I was on the AT, I struggled to answer this question.  I loved the entire state of North Carolina, and Massachusett’s Mount Greylock was an important mountain for me.  New Hampshire’s White Mountains will always have a special place in my heart, and I think I had an unusual affinity for Pennsylvania.  I had favorite shelters and favorite towns, favorite zero days and favorite eateries.  But, I think that my very favorite part of the trail was the Greyson Highlands of southern Virginia.

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I don’t think a photo of the Greyson Highlands could do the region justice, but it’s worth a try!

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Morning in the Highlands

Before I’d reached them, I’d heard that the Greyson Highlands were beautiful and that I should take my time walking through them, but I’d had no idea how beautiful they were until I walked into them. My hiking partner, Quiver, and I hiked to the shelter at their southern end (after taking a side trip to “peak-bag” Mount Rogers) and enjoyed a star-filled night in the loft of the shelter. The next morning, we woke up, began walking, and found ourselves in what felt like another world.

The Greyson Highlands are a region of elevated meadows. The green grass extends toward the horizon in all directions, interrupted only by rocky outcroppings and the blooming rhododendrons of springtime in the South. In my mind, the Highlands looked like something out of a New Zealand travel poster. Their beauty was spellbinding, awe-inspiring. I could have stayed there forever and would still be unable to describe what it was like to walk through them.

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The stallion of one of the herds investigates Quiver

And if the landscape weren’t special enough, the Greyson Highlands are made even more memorable by the herds of feral ponies that both maintain them and entertain hikers. The ponies know that hikers’ clothing and backpacks are salty—and that we carry Gatorade pouches—and they are far bolder around us than one might think.

During my time in the Greyson Highlands, the weather was perfect: warm and sunny, with a gentle breeze. It was perfect napping weather, but I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes. Sometimes, I felt like I would forget to blink, as I was too busy trying to take it all in.

I’d have thought I’d embellished the memory of the Highlands in the years since my thru-hike, were it not for having much the same sensation on Glen Boulder in New Hampshire a few weeks ago.

Which natural places make your heart soar?

Q&A: A.T. Thru-Hiker Answers

When you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail, there are a few questions every non-hiker you meet wants to know.  The question set is so predictable that Low Rider, a former thru-hiker who often attends Trail Days, created a handy sticker that provides the answers to these FAQs.

AT AnswersFirst come the questions about logistics:  How long is the trail?  Where does the trail go?  The first question is a little complicated, as the Appalachian Trail is constantly undergoing changes that affect its mileage.  The year of my thru-hike, the Appalachian Trail was 2184 miles long.  It stretches from Georgia to Maine, and those who hike it pass through 14 states.

Walking those miles in 4 to 6 months and at a rate of 15 to 20 miles a day is pretty typical.  During my hike, I loved putting in “marathon days” of 26+ miles, but I also did my share of low-mileage days, often known as “neros.”  (There will be plenty of time to discuss the AT lexicon in the months to come!)

People are always interested in the wildlife that we see along the trail.  While I laugh every time I read Low Rider’s “saw a bear once, it was eating garbage,” I actually saw 19 bears over the course of my thru-hike.  And, I saw snakes galore but didn’t “get bit.”

A 30- to 60-pound backpack is too heavy for my taste; I keep my baseweight at 18-20 pounds, and rarely let food and water take my pack over 35 pounds.  I’m a vegan (of the non-hostile variety), so I tend to steer clear of mac and cheese, Ramen, and Snickers in favor of food that I dehydrate before my long-distance hikes.  Mom (my support crew) sends resupply boxes to me every 3 to 5 days.

I’m sure I’ll elaborate on my choice not to carry a gun in the future.  When non-hikers strike up conversations with me (a young, “blonde and blue” female), I am nearly always asked about what I carry for protection.  There’s no gun in my pack.

As for the “a hole in the ground or a privy,” Low Rider nailed it.  I’ll never forget being asked the question of where I “use the restroom” in Damascus, Virginia, at the end of a thirty-mile marathon day to Trail Days.  I was using a public restroom, in which I found a mother and her child.  They took in my sweat and dirt and then saw my backpack and began the barrage of questions about the trail.  The conversation soon turned to the bathroom.

“You must be so happy to see one of these!” the mother said.

I laughed.  “Always!  We call them ‘flushies’ on the trail, and people usually start talking about them a few days before we get to them.”

“What do you do when you’re out in the woods?”

“Oh, I just dig a hole or use the privy at a shelter,” I answered matter-of-factly.

She looked horrified.  “But, you’re a girl!”

What a keen observation, I thought to myself.

If you’d like to check out Low Rider’s fabulous collection of stickers, click on the image I posted above, which will take you to his website.

And, if you have questions about the trail that aren’t answered by Low Rider’s sticker, let me know.  In a few weeks, I’m planning to begin featuring readers’ questions on Mondays.