AT Meal Plan: Week 2

Week 2’s meal plan is brought to you by JJ’s Bakery! The big differences this week are the simplicity of a store-bought freeze-dried dinner, the introduction of Pilot crackers for lunch (which have a hugely high calorie-to-weight ratio – I seriously don’t know why I never knew of these in the past, they are a great addition to any backcountry meal), and the aforementioned JJ’s Bakery in Erie, PA, which has graciously donated a dozen fruit pies for my high calorie Treat each day. Discovered on Prep Hike 1, these “gas station” pies are my new fav.  I am eager to enjoy – thanks JJ’s!

In total, this meal will provide 3946 calories a day, weighing 33.9 ounces and costing $18.77*.  Only 2 Tablespoons of alcohol (1 for breakfast, 1 for dinner) are needed for cooking again.  *Unless you are a Mountain House hoarder like me … Hello Neiman!

560 calories, 4.7 ounces, $2.06

Breakfast 2: Instant Oatmeal.  A couple of maple & brown sugar oatmeal packs from Quaker Oats or Trader Joes, spiced up with 1/4 cup of Harmony House-Freeze Dried Berries and 1/4 cup AF Raw Almonds.  For this week’s morning cup-a-joe, two Taster’s Choice House Blend Instant Coffee in 8 ounces of hot water.

916 calories, 6.7 ounces, $1.97

Elevensies 2: Snickers, Fruit Wrap, Trail Mix. Again, these are meant to be snacks on the go (unless a nice vista view opportunity presents itself for a long break). This time we get a tried-and-true Snickers bar, a leather fruit wrap from Trader Joes, and 1 cup of Trader Joes Trail Mix (any variety). For those who questioned candy bars as healthy trail food – there is nothing better for hike energy than peanuts, caramel, and chocolate … so, yeah, gimme a Snickers!

880 calories, 10.2 ounces, $5.64

Lunch 2: Tuna Crackers. Sailor Pilot Crackers are pure genius. GENIUS!  At 100 calories each, they are tasty, dense, and big enough for a meal.  I liken these to LOTR’s Lembas Bread, which “keep a traveler on his feet for a day of long labor”.  Ha, not quit, but damnit if I won’t be thinking about that on the trail. Pairing them with a couple Starkist Creation packs, some Cheddar Goldfish Crackers, and Trader Joes mangos will make for a tasty lunch.

380 calories, 2.5 ounces, $0.85

Snack 2: Cliff Bar. Sticking with the idea of bars I know I won’t get sick of quickly, this week introduces the Cliff Bar. You all know em, and I’ve been loving them since the 90’s when I packed a case of them for snacks at summer camp. Sticking with the fruit-is-best theme, there are some good ones like Blueberry Crisp, Berry Pomegranate Chia, and more to indulge.

810 calories, 5.8 ounces, $7.25

Dinner 2: Freeze-Dried Mountain House. I have some Mountain House Freeze-Dried meals in storage from past trips, as well as an emergency case we bought for a zombie apocolypse earthquake emergency kit after moving to the West Coast. The shelf-life is somewhere around 927 years, and although expensive on their own, are already sunk costs for me, making them free dinners to use. So I guess … winning?

400 calories, 4.0 ounces, $1.00

Treat 2: JJ’s Fruit Pie. As mentioned above, a HUGE shout out to JJ’s Bakery. This type of pie is very popular on the trail, as they pack 400+ calories for each $0.99 item.  I love the apple, chocolate, and lemon flavors (stay away Cherry, you suck) from Hostess or Little Debbie … but JJs introduces some much more FUN options: Blackberry and Peach! Only available in select stores, so I’m very grateful to the fine people of JJs for sending me a couple dozen for the trip. Hello Neiman!

Answering the Big Questions: How

Uhh … how do you know where you’re going?  Are you bringing a GPS?  Printing out topo maps? Just gonna wander aimlessly?!  Not to worry – navigating the AT is actually pretty easy these days with all the guidebooks, planning sites, and trail markings to aide you. Realistically, one could confidently hike the trail without any advanced planning or wilderness orientation skills.  However, even though you may never truly feel lost, there’s no point in venturing out foolishly without some help, so here’s what I recommend (and plan to use):

Guidebook/Databook: There are a few to choose from, but The A.T. Guide by David Miller is the crowd favorite within the community.  I already recommended AWOL’s AWOL’s other book, but this The AT Guide focuses solely on data – tracking all the AT waypoints like shelters, water sources, towns/roads, lodging, resupply options, and more.  It includes maps for the major town crossings with additional information on what to find there, which can be very helpful.  There are many other print and digital guide options available, but most hikers trust AWOL each year.  I will bring the PDF version on my Kindle for daily route planning.

Trail Map:  Not that you really need it, as the trail is pretty easy to follow and the AT Guide provides the same info, but it can be cumbersome to pull out a big book each time you reach a cross-section or milestone. You could rip out pages from the guide as you go (also a good trip for reducing pack weight), or bring small pocket versions like offered by AntiGravityGear – but another popular option is Guthook’s Mobile App. Using all the same data as the Guidebook, the app uses GPS to say exactly where you are on the trail and how far it is to the next waypoint.  Very nifty, and works in airplane mode to preserve phone battery.  Since my phone will always be with me as a camera and journal, I’ll use Guthook’s for real-time orientation on the trail.

Trail BlazesBoth of those tools are nice, but also useless if you accidentally wander off the trail!  With so many side roads, game trails, and pedestrian paths coming to and from the AT, there is one more tool of note.  The White Blaze!  The AT is marked in both directions with white painted rectangles of 2×6 inches. Blazes are placed at eye level on trees, posts, and rocks to mark the primary trail route.  Follow the White Blaze and you follow the AT!  And since blazes are such a big part of the trail culture, there are other colored varieties one could follow as well to navigate a path (both real and symbolic). Here are some noteworthy ones to keep an eye out for along the trail:

  • Blue Blaze – side trails to shelters, water sources, or shortcuts of the main trail.
  • Yellow Blaze – stepping out of the woods and walking along the road instead.
  • Aqua Blaze – bypassing the standard footpath for one by paddle, most commonly done along the Shenandoah River parallel to Shenandoah National Park.
  • Pink Blaze – following a female hiker’s path; this is creepy so just don’t.
  • Orange Blaze – following me, Hello Neiman!

AT Section 2 Preview

Where the goal of Section 1 was to ease-in-and-find-my-bearings, the focus of Section 2 is to fine-tune-and-find-my-trail-legs. This portion of the trail knocks out most of North Carolina and gives thru-hikers a chance to get comfortable and confident with their hiking style before things get really tough. After all, Section 3 brings on the hugely majestic yet highly elevated Great Smoky Mountains. So before we hit the highest peaks of the trail, first let’s enjoy what NC has to offer:

  • Start of Section:  GA/NC Border (mile 78.5)
  • End of Section:  Fontana Dam (mile 164.7)
  • Total Miles: 86.2
  • Total Days: 6
  • Avg daily miles: 14.5
  • Town Stops:  2

General Strategy for Section 2

  • Prior to Section 2, and coming fully refreshed from my first resupply at Dick’s Creek Gap, a scheduled Nero Day takes me only 4.5 miles to Plumochard Shelter. This half-day is scheduled to take care of any gear issues (repair, replace, etc.) and re-align on expectations. The Nero day will be welcome, but starting tomorrow the mileage really ramps up.
  • Crossing the GA-NC border, the trail continues uphill consistently for 12.2 miles to the day’s break at Standing Indian Shelter. Then over Standing Indian Mountain’s 5,500 elevation before finishing the next day’s 16.2 miles at Long Branch Shelter. Finally 18.3 miles of up-and-down (may as well get used to it now) through Rock Gap, Winding Stair Gap, and Wayah Gap before climbing up again to Wayah Bald and Wayah Bald Shelter. Note to future self, “gap” is code for steep-down-and-up.
  • Whew! I really hope my trail legs have kicked in by now because those 3 days are going to surely test my endurance and stamina for long grueling days!
  • The next 16.5 miles are supposed to be a beautiful trek along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains between 4,000 and 5,000 feet high, before heading down to the next gap. And along this downward trek is The Jumpoff, a notable 1,000-foot cliff face on the side of Mount Kephart with spectacular views of Charlie’s Bunion and Mount Guyot from atop a very steep precipice. I’m eager to see this.
  • That majestic day ends down below 2,000 feet at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, or the NOC. The NOC is a popular trail stop with food, gear, lodging, showers and more. There is a trail festival here in late April that I’ll miss, but a warm bed is still planned at the Base Camp hostel. The next morning I’ll resupply and move along.
  • As is the case with most town stops, we exit the NOC with a 5-mile uphill climb to the top of Swim and Cheoah Balds. The rest of the day looks relatively calm before ending at Brown Fork Gap Shelter … except for the infamous Jacob’s Ladder.  A 0.6-mile hike ascending 600 feet straight up without switchbacks.
  • Section 2 ends with a descent to Fontana Dam. Fontana Dam is the highest dam East of the Rocky Mountains, and a definite stop for another nice warm bed, a maildrop resupply box, and a chance for some very expensive hot food. I plan to stay at the nicer Fontana Village Resort, but there are many lodging options here as it is a major destination for all kinds of Appalachian adventurers.

Section 2 looks to continue the excitement from Section 1, which is hopefully enough motivation for this 2nd week in the woods.  But if the scenery alone doesn’t do it, a good plan and a determined spirit will keep those legs moving regardless. Hello Neiman!

AT Gear Plan: The Big 3

The Big 3! The most intriguing, most expensive and by far heaviest of items a hiker carries on their back … and the ones that can cause the most anguish if done wrong! What we’re talking about here are the items that make up your Backpack, Shelter, and Sleep System. There is no shortage of options to mix and match a great setup for each, but you have to be content with what you decide – replacing these will be costly, frustrating, and limited on the trail.  Oh, and they damn well better hold up in the rain!

In this post, I’ll break down each item, why I chose it, and other variations I considered. The Big 3 are the foundation of your entire setup, and can “make or break” a good night’s sleep – meaning, it’s a good idea to test everything and be very confident with it in all weather conditions.  Keeping these items as light as possible is a constant negotiation between comfort, weight, cost, and technology innovation, so getting it right can sometimes feel like an expensive moving target.  I feel good about my setup and am confident it will last me all 2,190 miles comfortably.

But first, 2 political questions for the unfamiliar or morbidly curious:

Hammock or Tent?!
This question comes up a LOT in the forums and facebook groups.  There is no right answer, it is simply personal preference. There are some great light-weight tents out there, especially the ones that use hiking sticks as poles. But I tried hammocks a few years ago, and can’t go back to the ground unless I have to. It is a much more comfortable sleep, and allows for some creative modification of components … a great thing on the AT, because if one thing breaks, it’s easier to replace the component without needing to replace the whole tent.

Ok so hammock, why not mummy bag and pad?!
I thought I could get by with this, but I was wrong. Technically you can sleep on a pad in a hammock and avoid the need for an underquilt, but it’s really hard to stay warm. The pad does not stay put without a double-layer hammock or other modifications, and if you move around in your sleep a lot like I do, no parlor tricks will keep it under you. I tried everything to make this work, as I really wanted to have the option of a normal bag and pad for shelters/hostels, but going with a standard Top Quilt and Underquilt is a much better plan.  It adds a new luxury item dilemma to consider, but more on that later…

Ok, with that, here are my Big 3 items! Combined, they add up to 7.5 total pounds, which is a great place to start for a 15 lb goal base-weight.  Anything under 9 pounds for the Big 3 is a reliable strategy, so this should hopefully work out very well.

Osprey Talon 44

I love my Osprey Talon 44, it’s been my go-to pack for years. Although it is heavier than most UL packs at 37 ounces, it packs great features:  Solid back air ventilation, a soft hip belt, bottom-entry pack access, mesh back pocket, easy-access side pockets, quick access hip-belt pockets, and many other bells and whistles. The biggest perk to this pack is its size at 44 liters capacity, which will fit a ton but force me to minimize what else I bring. Other considerations I really like are the ULA Circuit and GG SIlverback.

Dutch Chameleon, UGQ WinterDream

The Dutch Chameleon is a premier modular bed. And with the added dyneema straps and whoopie slings, it can stretch 30+ ft between trees. The Hexon 1.6 material is lightweight but durable at 21.6 oz (with bug net). For rain cover, the UGQ Winterdream is heavier than a rectangle tarp, but those doors will be clutch to stay dry, comfy, and cozy in heavy rainfall. I heavily considered going to the ground with the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 tent, but the AT is easily hangable all the way to Mount Katahdin, so why not!

Enlightened Equipment Revelation, Revolt

As prefaced earlier, hanging requires a Top Quilt above & Underquilt below the hammock. For the cold start and end of the trail, the Enlightened Equipment Revelation and Revolt 20-degree 850 fill down quilts will keep me warm (#minnesotamade). Between Damascus and the White Mountains though, I’ll swap these out for 40-degree quilts I made from cheap Costco down blankets. Other alternatives were the Hammock Gear Econ line or the REI Igneo 25 mummy bag.

AT Meal Plan: Week 1

As mentioned in the Meal Plan intro and page, the goal is to carry 3-5 days of food at max, with each day giving approximately 3800 calories in under 2 lbs and $20.  All meal plans follow the same rubric, but the Week 1 grocery list is the cheapest and lightest of all the plans.  And looks mighty tasty all the same. Here’s a closer look at what will be pre-packaged and sent to me as a mail-drop for pickup 3 times while on this trek.

In total, this meal will provide 3835 calories, with a combined weight of 30.1 ounces and total cost of $16.84.  I’ll need an additional 2 Tablespoons of alcohol (1 for breakfast, 1 for dinner) for cooking, and that’s it.  Bon Appetit and Hello Neiman!

755 calories, 5.7 ounces, $2.61

Breakfast 1:  Granola with Coffee. Well, a bit more than granola – as it’s more of a complete meal then just oats. Take 1 cup of AF French Vanilla Almond Granola, add 1/4 cup of Harmony House-Freeze Dried Berries and 1/4 cup AF Raw Almonds. This could be enough on its own, but for bonus calories, add 1/4 cup of Nestle Powdered Milk and 8 oz cold water.  And since every morning starts with a warm cup of coffee, 2 Taster’s Choice French Roast Instant Coffee in 8 oz hot water.

960 calories, 6.8 ounces, $3.05

Elevensies 1:  M&Ms, Fruit Bar, Trail Mix. Every Elevensie meal consists of a protein-packed candy bar, fruit bar, trail mix.  For the week 1 plan, we get to enjoy 1 package Peanut (or Peanut Butter) M&Ms, 1 Pressed by Kind Fruit Bar, and 1 cup of Trader Joes Trail Mix (any variety).  These are meant to be snack foods, as one is likely to be constantly snacking throughout the morning.  That is until hiker hunger takes full control and a full lunch break is required.

930 calories, 7.1 ounces, $4.62

Lunch 1:  Beef Stick Snack. Packaged meat, cheese, and carbs – everyone’s favorite lunchtime treat. For this meal plan, we go with three 1 oz packaged beef sticks (after sampling a few, I like Wyoming Gourmet). Add to this 1 package of Market Pantry Cheese Sandwich Crackers and 1/2 package of Trader Joes Soft and Juicy Mandarins.  When it comes to dried fruit, it doesn’t get better than TJ’s, though I prefer the fruits without added sugar.

360 calories, 3.5 ounces, $2.50

Snack 1:  Bobo’s Bar. There is no shortage of options nor opinions on “bars”.  I’ll likely try every style under the sun when resupplying in towns, but for the ones I package in advance, I’ll go with the kind I know are tried and true.  For me, nothing beats a peach flavored Bobo’s Bar.

750 calories, 6.1 ounces, $3.81

Dinner 1:  Fancy Chicken Ramen. Ramen can be a pretty decent meal if you mix it up a bit. Instead of just the basic powder and noodle, I like to spice up life with much needed calories. Boil 2 cups water for 1 Maruchan Ramen, add 1/4 cup freeze-dried chicken (Honeyville or Future Essentials), 1/4 cup Harmony House dehydrated veggies and 1/2 ounce Olive Oil.  Garnish with 4 saltine cracker packs and you have a soup for woodland kings!

80 calories, 0.9 ounces, $0.25

Treat 1:  Fruit Snacks. Nothing fancy here, just a small Welch’s Fruit Snack pack to finish off the day. But let’s be honest, I’ll probably eat this sometime around 9:30am when I’ve already eaten everything else for the day in a fit of starved Hiker Hunger rage. Grr…