AT Section 6 Preview

The 6th section of the Appalachian Trail takes you quickly through 50 miles of Maryland and not-so-quickly through another 220 of Pennsylvania. It is common to take a few days of much-needed rest in Harper’s Ferry, as it symbolizes the mental accomplishment of being half-way done with one’s thru-hike. Also, to mentally prepare for the foot pain of the upcoming “Rocksylvania” portion of the trail.  Following this break though, are some significant milestones of their own, such as crossing the Mason Dixon Line, reaching the true half-way point, the Allenberry Playhouse, and the historic Doyle Hotel.

For me, there’s a bit more nostalgia here as well, as it takes me Waynesboro, Pennsylvania where I spent 3 months working at a summer camp.  The camp is just a couple miles from the Appalachian Trail, and though I thought about it constantly, never had a chance to hike it. I had every intention of hiking the trail the following spring, and if not for such a great time at that camp which led to a full-time job in September, I would have. To this day, working at this summer camp is the closest I’ve ever been to the Appalachian Trail, having yet to take a single step on the trail.  In 63 days, that changes. Hello Neiman!

  • Start of Section: Harpers Ferry, WV (1024.8)
  • End of Section: Delaware Water Gap (1294.7)
  • Total Miles: 269.9
  • Total Days:  17
  • Avg Daily Miles: 15.9
  • Town Stops:  4

General Strategy for Section 6

  • 1024.8 – Harpers Ferry is located in the Northeast corner of West Virginia, almost immediately upon exiting town, you cross the border into Maryland. This marks your cross into “the north”, in civil war terms, and there are some iconic monuments and memorials to the civil war located over the next few hundred miles to commemorate it.
  • 1034.8 – First up is the National War Correspondents Arch, a 50-foot tall memorial built by Civil War correspondent George Alfred Townsend in 1896 dedicated to journalists killed in combat. This arch is located in Gathland State Park, built on the former estate of Townsend (whose pen name was “Gath”).
  • 1043.6 – Next is the first monument dedicated to George Washington, located in Washington Monument State Park. The monument sits atop a steep 1/10 of a mile summit to South Mountain’s Monument Knob.
  • 1065.4 – The Mason Dixon Line. I’m not going to say that I thought this demarcation line was the formal separation of the Union from the Confederacy, but I’m not going to say it I didn’t. This is also where to briefly go off-trail, if one wants to stop visit the aforementioned summer camp in Waynesboro 4.6 miles to the west. Assuming anyone is there this time of year, I hope to do just that.
  • 1065.7 – So obviously, following the Mason Dixon Line, marks the entry to Pennsylvania.
  • 1084.0 – A quick jaunt through Pennsylvania’s Caledonia State Park, which although nothing fancy, does have the Caledonia Furnace, an iron furnace that was owned by Thaddeus Stevens beginning in 1837. The park also hosts a nice recreational area and the Totem Pole Playhouse, a summer stock theatre.
  • 1103.4 – Cue the Bon Jovi music! Harpers Ferry was symbolic, but now we are officially halfway there. Although the trail changes in length every year, Pine Grove Furnace State Park houses another AT Museum and Festival (May 6). To celebrate the midway accomplishment, it is tradition for thru-hikers to complete the Half Gallon Challenge, where one must finish a 1.5-quart tub of Hershey’s ice cream, plus a hand-scooped pint, in one sitting. Bring. It. On.
  • 1115.9 – As this naked hiker describes it, think of hedge or cornfield maze, but make it out of rocks, rocks, and more rocks. Not to be dramatic, but I expect this to be a real-life simulation of the Maze Runner movie.
  • 1122.7 – If you are anything like me, you should look forward to spending the night here in Boiling Springs, PA. Besides the fact the AT cuts directly through this trail tow (e.g. no need for side-trails or hitchhiking), it’s a big town with lots to do. One of the accommodations I’m most looking forward to resides here – the Allenberry Resort, an inn & playhouse that hosts Gypsy on stage this May.
  • 1148.3 – Although not planning to stay in here, the next big town the AT bisects is Duncannon, PA. Here you can meet Trail Angel Mary, well known for her hospitality to hikers and general kindness.  Or drop in to view the legendary Doyle Hotel, where Pat and Vickey Kelly house, feed and share stories with more than 1,200 hikers each year.  I’d like to spend some time admiring the Doyle for sure.
  • 1203.8 – Fort Dietrich Snyder Monument, dedicated to the lookout post used to warn of approaching enemies during the French and Indian War.
  • 1226.2 – The Pinnacle and the Pulpit, considered to be the two premier vistas in the PA portion of the AT, offering endless views of Lehigh Valley and its surrounding ridges Tri-County Corner.
  • 1248.1 – It’s no joke why Pennsylvania is nicknamed Rocksylvania, and the Knife Edge and Bear Rocks sections here will leave no doubt why. That’s a trail??
  • 1259.9 – If the rocks haven’t beaten you down yet, another great 360-degree view awaits you at the Superfund Detour. With a name like that, it’s sure to be something interesting.
  • 1286.6 – More rock scrambling along Wolf Rocks. Honestly, this one makes me severely rethink the plan to hike 15+ miles a day in Pennsylvania.
  • 1294.7 – The final destination of Section 6, Delaware Water Gap!

Upon reaching Delaware Water Gap, there are not too many accommodations to choose from, but one common hiker destination is the Church of the Mountain Hiker Center. This hostel provides an outdoor shelter, indoor bunk room, shower, lave, and sitting room for visitors. Many of the biographies and journals I’ve read from thru-hikers include a stay at this church, for good reason, as it provides one complimentary stay to any hiker for the night.

Up next is Section 7 where we take on the entirety of New Jersey and New York sections of the trail. Hello Neiman!

Prep Hike 2: Bridge to Nowhere

On Friday, I ventured out to the San Gabriels mountains of Southern California to do a shakedown hike of my gear, food, and comfort level with cold weather backpacking.  Yes, I know “cold weather” is a stretch in Los Angeles, but with temps around 40 degrees at night, it was a good test without going too extreme.

The prep hike followed a 6-mile trek to the affectionate Bridge to Nowhere, an eerily and fully constructed bridge in the middle of the mountains with no road leading to it or from. I did this hike a few years ago with friends and decided the comfort of knowing what to expect would be nice.  With a couple new friends in tow, this overnight adventure was a great chance to once again test out my full pack weight and gear options, and it did not disappoint. I highly recommend this trip for anyone looking for a great day hike, overnight, or multi-night trip.  With multiple river crossings, continuous ups and downs, and very rocky terrain … it doesn’t feel too far off from the Appalachian Trail. Hello Neiman!

A couple things I learned about gear during this shakedown hike

  • Stuff Sacks. I don’t like how my gear is organized. The stuff sack arrangement does not have like-items together, and causes a lot of taking out, rearranging, and putting back. Some examples:  1) my bandana/towel/dishcloth needs to be packed with my mess kit, as that is where I need it most.  2) The electronics that are not used daily (e.g. battery pack) should be packed deep as I’ll only need them occasionally).  I’ll be re-thinking this before Prep Hike 3.
  • Pillow. (sigh). I like the idea of having it, but didn’t use it. In my hammock, even wearing all my clothes (including raincoat) at night, I still had sufficient soft stuff to put in a stuff sack for pillow-use.  The Exped pillow I have is only 1.8 ounces but wasn’t used. I’ll keep it in my pack for now, but consider my eyebrow raised…
  • Crocs. I love my crocks, I’ve talked about that before, but the issue is going to be pack space. They don’t pack down well, and my pack is very full. I decided to order a pair of Xero Z-Trails, which are similar weight but MUCH more packable. Xeros are like Tevas, and strap to your foot more tightly than Crocs, so I’ll try these out and see if I like them better or just suck up the annoyance of Crocs being attached to the outside of my pack.
  • Hammock and Quilts. This was my first test of my new Dutch Chameleon and Enlightened Equipment Quilts … wow, simply wow. These products are so well made and passed the field test with flying colors. I was very warm during the cold night, and felt very comfortable. My only issue was that the underquilt is very tight on the hammock, riding high and not having enough slack to lay low. I can’t tell if this is on design or not, as it feels and looks awkward. It kept me warm, but I fear I need longer suspension chord. I’ll call EE to confirm.
  • Water Filter. The friends that joined me brought a Sawyer Mini filter with a gravity bag, and I must admit, it was pretty neat.  I don’t like the idea of using force to get clean water with those filters, but the gravity concept is better than I expected. I’ll do some research, but for now will keep my Aqua Mira until they run out, then decide on the right replacement along the trail.
  • Cook Set. Cold weather, cold wind, and cold water = worst efficiency of an alcohol stove. Using 2 tablespoons of alcohol, I was not able to get 2 cups water to a “raging” boil. It was hot, but not boiled. With the basic recipes in my meal plan, this shouldn’t be a problem, but I think it could get annoying over time. For now, we stick with it, but I’ve got my eye on JetBoils again.
  • Boots. Something happened on this trip that hasn’t on the dozens of treks in my Oboz Sawtooth hiking boots before. Big toe pain. I’ve scaled mountains in Alaska, Montana, and California in these boots before but for some reason this time I could tell they were too small. Five days of hiking like that would easily cost me both toenails. They are a few years old, and maybe my feet have swelled a bit, so I’m going to pick up the sized up Salomon X-Mission trail runners I already planned to buy as a first replacement on the hike.
  • Hammock/Quilt Storage. This is minor, but has anyone thought of creating a giant bishop bag with their hammock and underquilt stored together?  I feel like I spent a lot of time assembling and disassembling my shelter set up, and would easily see that time cut by keeping the underquilt permanently attached and stored with my hammock. Anyone else think of that?

Also, just a quick note, but the camera portrait mode on the new iPhones is amazing. This photo looks as good or better than I could pull up with our SLR. Technology .. wow.

AT Gear Plan: Cooking Gear

Cooking food on the trail goes hand in hand with the type of meals you plan for. Want to eat all cold meals? Congrats, you can save the weight of a stove and fuel. Want a hot breakfast and hot dinner?  Better have a stove that can take the punishment of twice-daily use and the weight of enough fuel. Most gear in my cook kit is pretty basic, with tiny homemade (DIY) accessories to supplement.  Overall, the whole mess kit comes in at 12.5 ounces, plus 4.5 ounces of fuel for 4 days use.  Not too bad, plus I really enjoy cooking this way … it’s way more fun. Hello Neiman!

Any political questions for this section?  Only one of the most debated ones, of course!

Alcohol or Canister Stove (or Stoveless)?
The absolute lightest option is to go stoveless, which many recommend.  Especially if you don’t mind eating cold ramen, drinking cold coffee, or experimenting with body heat from your crotch to rehydrate meals (yes, that is absolutely a thing).  However, I just can’t stomach it. I want a hot meal at night, if nothing else for the comfort it brings. And I want to look forward to a hot cup of coffee on a bitter cold morning to motivate a good start to the day.  It’s personal preference.  Now, I absolutely LOVE the JetBoil MiniMo system for its simplicity and versatility. The amount of time to boil water, ability to simmer, and efficiency of fuel it creates is genius.  But its expensive and heavy. On the other hand, one can spend years in a rabbit hole studying Zen and the Art of the Alcohol Stove to find a perfect solution. Trading time for weight/simplicity, I use a 0.25 ounce DIY Fancy Feast stove and 1 tablespoon of alcohol to boil 2 cups water in about 6 minutes. But I’ll also carry a 1 oz backup canister stove in case I can only find canister fuel at a resupply point.

Cooking Gear Items

Cook Pot.  The requirements for my cook pot are simple: have a lid, have handles, be big enough to cook ramen, and be titanium. There are many options to choose from, a popular one being the MSR Titan Tea Kettle, but I went with the Keith Ti3209 900ml Titanium Mug. Mainly because it was on sale when I was researching and it has stood up to my testing so far.  At 4.3 ounces, it works fine.  For anyone looking to buy this, I don’t love the feel of this titanium, but that’s personal preference. One big feature missing is measurement notches on the inside. So, I had to create a DIY measuring stick out of tinfoil to show where to fill for 2 cups of water (see below).

Stove (Alcohol and Canister). I started playing with DIY alcohol stoves a few years back, and after some fine-tuning, I still like what the Can Food Can Stove offers.  It weighs 0.25 ounces and boils 2 cups water easily. I have a few other DIY components below that supplement this stove to help with wind resistance, fuel measurements, etc., but they combine for less than an ounce. Lastly, I am bringing the BRS Ultralight stove as an emergency backup. If I get to a town resupply and can’t find denatured alcohol or HEET, hopefully a canister is available in a hiker box. This could be considered luxury, as it’s an item I hope to never use, so we’ll see if I keep the BRS after a few weeks.

DIY Stove Accessories. Ok, so here’s what I’m adding to my basic stove setup. 1) A DIY windscreen of aluminum that wraps around the stove and pot. 2) A thin strip of aluminum with notches for measuring 1 or 2 cups of water in the pot. 3) A tiny 1″ square of kitchen sponge, and 2″ of hard plastic for scraping and cleaning the pot after use. 4) A cough syrup cup for measuring 2 tbsp of alcohol. And lastly, 5) a small bottle to hold denatured alcohol.

Fire Starter. Nothing fancy here, just a good ole’ orange Bic mini lighter.  I usually carry two, just to be safe, but I’m not worried about it on a trip like this.  If for some reason it fails, I’m sure there is someone kind nearby that will let me borrow a light until I find another in town.

Eating Utensil. Like the cook pot, there is not much to talk about here.  I want my utensil to be a spork, be foldable for packing, and be sturdy for months of use.  I may switch this out for the Vargo Titanium Folding Spork, or the Light My Fire Spork for better durability, but my MSR Folding Plastic Spork has done well so far.

Water Bottles. For water bottles, I’ll be using 1L SmartWater bottles.  I like the tall slimness of them, and they work well with Aquamira drops or a Sawyer Squeeze.  You should not reuse plastic bottles like this for too long, so I’ll replace them every couple of weeks in town.  A permanent water bottle from Nalgene is nice, and I use it daily at home, but every ounce matters and these are very light.

Hanging Rope. Lastly, because of the importance of safety, while backpacking in the wilderness, my mess kit always includes at least 50 ft of hanging rope with a titanium carabiner. On the AT, some people hang their food bags in the shelter … please don’t.  It helps attract mice, and does not follow basic bear safety of hanging food at least 100 ft away from your bed.  This rope is used to hang my food in a tree. Rope is always a good thing to have on hand anyways.

Answering the Big Questions: How (to Mail Drop)

This post is brought to by MREDepot.com, distributors of the Future Essentials brand of freeze-dried meats, cheeses, produce, and more. These products are a staple in all my weekly Meal Plans because they taste great and come in small cans, perfectly portioned for 4 days of food. Freeze dried meats only last a couple weeks once opened, but these #2.5 cans provide the exact amount needed and can sit on a shelf for months awaiting pickup. Similarly, the pilot crackers have exactly enough for 4 meals and sit protected from breakage until pickup. I cannot say enough about these great tasting and easy to use products, and MREDepot was kind enough to sponsor my trip with the assortment of #2.5 cans needed to fill all my resupply boxes. Thank you!

Preparing maildrops so far in advance of a thru-hike is not easy. For this reason, most hikers will tell you not to do it, and to just resupply at the numerous trail stops along the way. Yes, this is possible, but as I mention on my Meal Plan page, that may not be ideal for those like me looking to have a more diverse diet. I don’t want to eat pop-tarts and ramen every night, and I don’t want my hiking schedule to be dictated by whatever food is in stock at a hostel before the next trail town.

But, preparing food in advance is kind of a pain, and can be very costly if done wrong. Food could spoil, shipping costs can outweigh financial benefits, and exposed odors could attract mice/bugs while your box waits in storage for you to arrive. With so much of the trip’s cost dedicated to food, the last thing I want is for that food to go bad. Here is what I learned to help make sure my resupply does not go to waste:

1. Check Expiration Date. This is self-explanatory but has to be said. I don’t buy food unless the shelf life is stable. It can be a pain to try to line the expiration date with my pickup date perfectly, so I just used a rule of thumb that every food item in the box must be shelf stable until at least July. For items that don’t list it, there was a great article today from 21st Century Simply Living on shelf-life expectations of typical dried foods, meats, fruits, veggies, etc.

2. Buy Perishable Items in Town. For items in my plan that don’t have an expiration date 6 months out, I won’t force it with vacuum sealing nor DIY freeze-drying. For example, Meal Plan 4 calls for Honeybuns, but they only have a few weeks of shelf life.  So, everything else will be boxed up, but those will be purchased in town after I pick up the box. This may cause some altered menus based on what’s available, but these are typically common items (e.g. bagels, cheeses, etc.).

3. Leave Food in Original Packaging.  It’s tempting to divide out my trail-mix or home-made dinners in advance, but that will expose odors and moisture. Many of these boxes will sit in some random person or hotel’s storage closet for weeks, so I don’t want there to be any reason to tempt pests or mold. When a meal calls for instant rice, granola, dehydrated veggies, etc., I leave it in the original packaging and include empty ziplocks. When I pick up the box, I’ll divide out the portions to baggies and be ready to hit the trail (hopefully) worry free.

4. Use Flat Rate Boxes.  This may cost a bit more at the end ($18.85 each), but the ease of use makes up for it. I am making sure everything for each 4-day resupply box fits into a USPS Large Priority Flat-Rate, and prepare that box ready to ship at home. This way, my wife will be able to easily print the shipping label, schedule the pickup and place it outside for the mailman. No need for a trip to the post-office. It is important to label these correctly, but there is a very helpful online tool that gives you everything you need.

5. Schedule Timely Shipping of Each Box. Versus sending them all in February and hoping for the best when I arrive 5 months later, I’ll coordinate shipping with my wife after each pickup. These flat-rate priority boxes are guaranteed to ship in 3 days or less, so it’s just a matter of sending the next box when I arrive at the previous maildrop location. (e.g. pickup box 3, ship box 4).  To be safe, I’ll maybe even do 2 stops in advance.

6. Plan for Cravings.  There is no way I am going to eat only what I send.  I’m going to get sick of ramen and cereal if I eat it every day. So, like in any good plan, give yourself a contingency buffer.  In this case, I am shipping food for half the days, then planning to buy food in town for the other half.  For example, my first resupply box will be picked up at the Top of Georgia Hostel, but the next box isn’t picked up until 7 days later at Fontana Dam. So instead of packing and carrying 7 days of food, I’ll pick up 4 days’ worth, then resupply after 4 days at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) for 2 more days of food.

AT Meal Plan: Week 5

3690 calories, 29.1 ounces, $14.25

The meal plan for box 5 looks light, but it has some of my high-caloric favorites to hopefully make up it. The entire day’s eats still come in at nearly 3700 calories and at only 1.8 pounds it’s a good example of quality over quantity.  Looking at the picture, this feels like the stereotypical hiker grocery list, so I’ve included a few favorite gems to break the monotony of this typical “jerky and granola bar” meal plan. This maildrop box will be repeated 3 times throughout the hike.  Ok, let’s dig into the menu and break down the Meal Plan for Week 5.

390 calories, 3.6 ounces, $1.53

Breakfast 5: Breakfast Bars. Another cold breakfast, made to be flexible where it is eaten. Perhaps this is for an early morning start, or a cold morning where you just don’t want to get out of bed.  Either way, the only effort is to cook up the day’s cup of joe, namely Taster’s Choice Vanilla. I love vanilla flavored coffee, so saved it specifically for this dull breakfast of 2 Cereal Bars (Trader Joe’s, Nutri-Grain). The PB&J Cereal Bar is a nice treat to go with the typical berry flavor, both from Trader Joe’s in this pic.  Added is a packet of Emerald Nut and Berry mix. This used to be called Breakfast on the Go, but that may have been discontinued because this is all I can find now. Basically just fancy raw trail mix, but good.

1130 calories, 8.4 ounces, $2.48

Elevensies 5: Nut Roll, Fruit Bar, Trail Mix.  On my Meal Plan tracker, this technically has a Pearson’s Nut Roll, but I can’t find those at my Target, CVS or 7-11.  Maybe it’s a regional thing from Minnesota, but I always thought these were more mainstream.  So we’ve subbed in a Snickers Peanut Butter Bar to go with the fantastically delicious Archer Farms Cashew Caramel trail mix. I could eat this every day, it’s damn good.  Finished up with a couple Simply Balanced Fruit Strips for a refreshing treat.

970 calories, 7.8 ounces, $5.28

Lunch 5: Beef Jerky Snack. For the Week 1 menu, we had beef jerky sticks. Not to be outdone by its more shapely brother, this week we feature the more traditional bag of Beef Jerky scraps. Sure, it looks like dog food, but we break up the monotony of this meal with some fancy flavors.  Pink Peppercorn, for example.  Peanut Butter crackers are the savory treat, and this lunch’s fruit is … not pictured.  I planned for Trader Joe’s dried persimmons, but they are not in season right now. And if they still aren’t in season by March, the replacement shown here will become permanent.  Instead, we have 3 of “Fruit & Nuts” pucks that just came back in stock at TJs. Three of these little pucks make for a great treat, this flavor being Date-Hazelnut-Cacao.

220 calories, 1.0 ounces, $0.80

Snack 5: Fig Bar.  Hopefully the world has come to realize how great these Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars are by now, but if not, let me be the first to introduce you to the Fig Newton’s fancier and tastier big brother. These bars are deliciously dense, coming in many flavors like Raspberry, Apple Cinnamon, Mango, Blueberry, Apricot, and more. They also come in a nice bulk box purchase from Costco.

980 calories, 8.3 ounces, $4.16

Dinner 5 / Treat 5: Veggie Beef Rice.  I’m not going to sugar coat it, this is a boring dinner. But it packs all the necessary components for a bland yet calorie-rich dinner.  Boil 1.5 cups water, add mix in 1 cup instant brown rice, 1/4 cup freeze dried ground beef, and 1/4 cup dehydrated veggies.  For seasoning, add 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 bouillon cube and 1 packet of olive oil.

Mixed in with dinner in the photo is a pair of Grandma’s Cookies for dessert. They aren’t as popular as the “Lenny and Larry’s Complete Cookie”, but they are significantly cheaper and lighter for the same weight and calories.

Mobile App Test 2

  • Start Mile: 0.0
  • Start Time: 00:00
  • End Mile: 0.0
  • End Time: 00:00
  • Miles Hiked: 0.0
  • Miles to Go: 2189.2
  • Lodging: Amicalola Falls Lodge

This is a test blog post from my mobile device.

During my hike of the AT, I plan to blog every evening from camp. The general format and style will mirror what you see here: photo(s) of the day, a stat update, and a summary of anything on my mind that made me laugh, cry, smile, or other. There are not quite as many features with the stock WordPress mobile app, so if anyone has recommendations for one that works better, please let me know. I can’t even change font colors. 😦

Not every day will be exciting and not every post will be interesting. But as they say, the worst day hiking outside is better than the best day working inside, so I’ll capture the good and the bad ones. I know cell service or exhaustion might impede publishing ability at times, but I’ll be trying my best to document every day of this adventure. Both for you to follow along and for me to look back at.

Also, once a week I’ll try doing a video post as well, not sure if it will be a weekly recap, reflection, or what, but I’ll figure something out on the trail. To test out the functionality works, here’s a sample video below of sunny LA in December. Hello Neiman!

AT Section 5 Preview

It may not be another big 300-mile monster like the last 2, but I’m pretty excited about this section.  Not only for the beautiful scenery to expect in the Shenandoah Valley, but also for reaching a major mental milestone: Halfway to Katahdin!  Halfway done with the Appalachian Trail!  Well, sort of…

At milepost 1023.4, Harpers Ferry is recognized within the community as the unofficial mid-point of the AT, even though technically it is 36 miles further at Pine Grove Furnace State Park.  One can hike through the majesty of Shenandoah National Park (SNP), or take to canoe and oar to “aqua blaze” up the Shenandoah River. Both the trail and the river end pass through this small town of 300 people nestled in the NW corner of West Virginia, our 5th state of the tour.  Country Roads, take me home, to the place I belong…

  • Start of Section:  Waynesboro, VA (861.7)
  • End of Section:  Harpers Ferry, WV (1023.4)
  • Total Miles:  161.7
  • Total Days:  9
  • Avg Daily Miles: 17.9
  • Town Stops:  3

General Strategy for Section 5

  • Coming out from Waynesboro (VA not PA), the trail is relatively moderate terrain the first 50 miles.  Almost immediately, you enter SNP which requires a camping permit.  This was needed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well, but could be purchased online before starting the trail.  This time, you’ll need to pick one up (for free) at the south entrance to the park.  It allows you 14 days in the park, so get moving.
  • In SNP, the AT shelters are called “huts” and can be packed on the weekends. Backcountry “stealth” camping is allowed, but make sure to follow the LNT rules.
  • Perched at the top of Big Flat Mountain at mile 888, the trail skirts the Loft Mountain Campground, where there is resupply options, laundry, showers, campsites, etc.
  • After 30 more miles of mini-mountain scaling on the trail, you come to another national park, Big Meadows. SNP is known for its blackberries, my favorite fruit. And Big Meadows Lodge is known for their blackberry shake, my favorite shake flavor. It is a thru-hiker tradition to partake in this shake, and I can taste it now.  I’ll probably have to get 2 … or 3 … Hello Neiman!
  • As you continue through these blue ridge mountains, you eventually pass close to Front Royal, VA and then Manassas Gap.  Both give you road access for a short hitchhike into town for any needs,
  • At mile 986.6, you pass into Sky Meadows State Park Visitors Center, with a chance to use real restrooms, the soda machine, and a real campsite … but arrive before dusk or you are out of luck.
  • The trail is now hovering at only 1000 ft elevation, with many stream crossings and footbridges to anticipate … but don’t be deceived into thinking this is easier because of its proximity to sea level. The next 13.5 miles between Ashby Gap and Bears Den is infamously known as The Roller Coaster. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what this means, just a non-stop up and down as you make your way to the coveted 1000-mile mark of the trail. It doesn’t look to be as bad as people say, but then again, it’s the only one with a warning sign
  • When you reach Bears Den Rocks at mile 1002, you can (and I plan to) stay at the Bears Den Hostel, a castle-like stone lodge owned and operated by the ATC.
  • A couple miles later you officially exit The Roller Coaster and cross the VA-WV border, where you can get a view of the Devil’s Race Course Boulder Field, which has a cool name and history.  Not sure if you’ll be able to hear the “devil run through the depths of hell” from here … but I’ll keep my eyes and ears open.
  • Just 20 more miles and you finally reach your destination … Harper’s Ferry!

Harper’s Ferry is an iconic and historic town, with tons of culture.  For thru-hikers, it is the center point of the trail, where the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is headquartered.  Here you can log yourself in the official registry, take your official hiker photo, and much more.  Harper’s Ferry is a short drive or rail to Washington DC, so this is also where I’ll take a short break to visit with friends and family.  Hello Neiman!

AT Gear Plan: Clothing

When I was 21, I went on my first backpacking trip in Montana. Sure, I had done plenty of day hiking and camping with my family since … well, pretty much birth … but never on my own for multiple days.  So, in 2002, I decided it was time to finally join the infamous Glacier National Park Trip that my father hosted every other year since 1978. It is hard to explain these trips to anyone who didn’t go on one with my dad, but just know that pretty much my whole life lovingly revolved around discussing, preparing, training, reminiscing, and planning for these adventures in the beautiful Montana mountains.

For 21 years I had been getting advice on how to backpack, what to bring, and how to bring it.  But somewhere in the excitement, I failed to realize that you don’t compound that knowledge into a 75 pound backpack of stuff you “might need someday”.  I took the recommended packing list and BROUGHT. IT. ALL.  And then some.  Extra food, 2 kinds of flashlights, 2 extra canisters of fuel, flannel pants for lounge-wear, jeans for when in town, a towel, a hand towel, a face towel … you get it.  I was young and naive, but I learned a lot from that trip and have been fine-tuning my clothing needs since.

The Clothing category here is a representation of what I think is the absolute bare minimum clothes to stay warm, clean, and content.  It would be possible to bring less and live off what is worn on my body for 5 months, but I consider most of these to be “must-haves” for staying healthy and happy on the trail.  Combined, it comes to just 3 lbs and many are actually dual-purpose to meet other needs that I still “might need someday”. Hello Neiman!

And now, this week’s political questions:

Fleece or Puffy Jacket.  A down jacket can be a lifesaver in the cold but is absolutely worthless in the rain. Even if covered by a rain jacket, the down will eventually soak from your perspiration, and once down is wet it is useless until dry again. So many opt for a Fleece Jacket instead, trading warmth factor for durability in wet conditions. I am torn. So for now, I am breaking a cardinal rule and bringing .. both.  I prefer the fleece, knowing I can wrap the quilt around me at night if cold … but I know I am also going in early March and need guaranteed warmth.  I’ll test this out during my prep hike later this month, but even though both are crazy light, I may need to drop one.  Ugh, tough call.

Rain Jacket, Poncho, Pants, Skirt.  This was never a question.  If you have ever hiked for hours on end in the rain, you know there is nothing that will keep you dry. But I’m much happier in a lightweight jacket than a poncho.  And as for pants, I’m in no mood to drench my bottom half in sweat too.  I’ve never used one but picked up a rain skirt that is a great way to stay dry and comfortable on the trail.  Super lightweight item and better multi-function use.

Clothing Stuff Sack.  I mentioned before that I’m not a fan of the dry sacks people use these days.  It’s hard to get all the air out for smaller packing, and they tend to break or annoy me over time.  All my clothing will instead be in this tightly closed Sea to Summit Ultra-Syl stuff sack. The 9L bag weighs less than an ounce and holds everything (except wet rain gear stored in the outside mesh pocket of my pack). And yep, it’s orange.

Rain Jacket. I just upgraded my raincoat to the popular Outdoor Research Helium II.  This jacket has no pockets or pit zips, but the trade-off is that it shaves half a pound off from my previous North Face coat.  No pit zips could be a serious problem for perspiration, but at only 6.4 ounces, it’s worth taking the risk. Many thru-hikers used this in previous years, and stand by their recommendation afterwards. Also, this will be 1/2 of my outfit when in town while mwashing clothes.

Rain Skirt/Ground Sheet. As mentioned above, the EE Rain Skirt is a great alternative to pants.  It will keep you mostly dry while also letting your legs breath. This is one of those gear items I’ll likely not get to test until on the trail, but along with the Helium II is a recommended option for those that want something, but not everything. This completes the other 1/2 of my town outfit.  I’m going to look studly walking around trail towns with this “hiker tuxedo” but my modus operandi is always function over fashion.  In addition, this will act as a ground sheet below my hammock or at camp if needed for anything.

Thermals Top and Bottom. Nothing fancy here, just good quality REI Co-Op Base Layer Top and Bottoms. This polyester long underwear is super warm and has a nice half-zip on the top for when it’s too toasty. After dinner, I’ll be changing into these as my “night clothes” to hopefully keep all food odors out of my hammock at night.

Extra Skivvies. Instead of bringing an extra pair of underwear, I’ll be sporting these lovely Nike Running Shorts with built-in liner.  On hot days, they are great to hike in, and on any other day they have multi-function as underwear, swimsuit, and shorts.  Great piece of gear for anyone hiking in warmer weather.

Extra Wool Socks. One pair of socks will not cut it.  With 2 pairs, I can always usually guarantee I have a dry pair of Smartwool Socks to put on. Cold nights get them at night, cold days get them as gloves, and when needed … they can actually be used for hiking as well. 🙂

Extra Bandana. I already shared my political and spiritual choice to switch to a Buff, but I secretly knew I was bringing this extra bandana too.  This bandana will act as towel, washcloth, napkin, and more. There are 3 certainties in my life: death, taxes, and orange bandanas.

Fleece Jacket. It’s a bit heavy at 12 ounces, but the Patagonia M1 Fleece Hoody is great. As discussed above, I’m still torn on this, but I know I like to wrap it around my waist when I’m hiking, so it could technically be counted as “on body”.  But this sweatshirt is reaaaaaaally comfortable for just about any purpose when camping, and it’s going to be really hard to go without it.

Puff Jacket.  I picked up the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer about 50% off earlier this year in anticipation of this trip … but also because why would anyone turn down 50% on this jacket??  It is a great coat.  Insanely light at 7.7 ounces and really really warm in the cold. I used this walking around Vancouver a couple weeks ago and was extremely comfortable. I don’t know how to choose between this and the fleece, so damnit, I’m just not going to.  If weather permits, I’ll send this home after Damascus and then pick it up again in the Whites.

Reading Not Your Bag? Try This Podcast

Hello Neiman faithful, I wanted to share with you an interesting podcast I’ve been listening to.  Although I know this blog is pure literary genius that will someday be archived in the Library of Congress and mandatory on every high school reading list, I recognize not everyone likes to … (gasp) … read. During my preparation for this adventure, I’ve met some other interesting characters also hiking the trail in 2018 … most of which have far more interesting stories than me.

One such example is Returning to Katahdin: An Appalachian Trail Dream.  I met Bruce “RTK” Matson over email a few weeks back and he shared this interesting take on a trail journal which is a weekly interview over the radio. Throughout these weeks leading up, RTK’s friend Steve Adams will be interviewing him on different elements of his journey, then following up with him a few times a week live from the trail. From listening, it is clear both Steve and RTK know their stuff and can provide a unique take on the experience for those who wish to listen.  Each episode is about 30 minutes, and part of RTK’s goal to raise $200,000 for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

With so many different ways to share this experience with others, I like what Steve and Bruce are doing, and the cause is certainly worth supporting. RTK will start the trail a couple weeks after me, so I’m not sure we will cross paths, but you can follow him along at the link above from your phone’s Podcast app.  Hello Neiman!

AT Meal Plan: Week 4

Since last month’s epiphany, getting prepared with food is MUCH easier. I have even started packing up the mail-drops now with 4 days of food ready to be drop-shipped by my family once on the trail.  It’s both reassuring and frightening that most of this food has a shelf life of 6-12 months.  Yes, I can be confident the pre-packaged food won’t go bad … but one has to wonder what preservatives are in some of these things.  Better not to think about it I suppose…

That is the good news.  The bad news is that my spare bedroom/office has been overrun with boxes, baggies, and food stuffs.  I’m running out of space, but I feel good about having a head start on this to make the last few weeks as stress-free as possible.  I’d rather focus my last few weeks on body conditioning and field testing, and less time on food prep.  Fortunately, living in Southern California, our winters are perfect backpacking weather, so I have a few prep-hikes planned to get outside.  Hello Neiman!

But that’s weeks away, so today I share the meal plan for Week 4:

740 calories, 6.7 ounces, $2.68

Breakfast 4: Buns and Rings.  I only have one friend that ever did this hike, and in chatting with him early on he mentioned that breakfast was pretty much Honey Buns every day.  I don’t think I could eat them that often, but a week here or there paired with pears (pun intended) is doable.  This week’s coffee is 100% Columbian flavored, whatever that means.

840 calories, 6.7 ounces, $2.61

Elevensies 4: Pure Bar, Fruit Bar, Trail Mix. I found these at Target years ago and liked them as an alternative to Snickers bars after a workout.  If you’ve never tried one, I highly recommend the Chocolate Peanut Caramel Bar.  Another serving of Trader Joe’s trail mix and a Dried Fruit Bar.  Did you know these are gluten-free?  Me either.  Who cares?  Apparently, enough people for TJ to put it on the wrapper…

980 calories, 6.7 ounces, $3.42

Lunch 4: PB Banana Snack.  This is another lunch that would be better with tortillas if I can find them in town.  These sailor pilot crackers are fantastic for calorie/weight ratios, but they are very dry in certain combinations.  This is one of those times. Spread on a couple Justin’s Honey Peanut Butter and sprinkle with dried banana chips for a down-right delicious sandwich.  Genius even, if I dare say so myself.  Elvis Presley ain’t got nothing on me.

190 calories, 1.5 ounces, $0.67

Snack 4: Granola Bar.  Remember when you were a little kid and your dad would take you on camping trips?  Those are some of your best memories, right?  Right.  And why?  Besides those adventures at a young age set you up for a lifetime of passion for the outdoors.  (Thanks Dad).  And for me, I can attribute most of those memories back to the food we ate along the way – roasting Hot Dogs at a state park campsite, eating cheese and crackers overlooking a mountain glacier, picking thimbleberries along Lake Superior … and snacking on Nature Valley Granola Bars on every hike to get there.  These felt like a staple to my outdoor childhood, and for good reason.  Tasty, sweet, and packed with good energy. Dry as hell though, this will be a day of much water consumption. 

980 calories, 7.5 ounces, $6.77

Dinner 4: Pesto Chicken Pasta.  This was a meal I found at trailcooking.com that caught my eye in prepping this trip.  I wanted to find a “pasta” meal that wasn’t smothered in dehydrated tomato or cheese powder, and this looked intriguing.  I altered it slightly after a taste test – to be honest, it’s not the most flavorful, but the ease of cooking is nice. Cook one packet of ramen and 1/2 cup freeze-dried chicken, setting aside the water for tea or broth drink after done.  Mix with 2 tbsp dried basil, 1 tbsp garlic powder, 1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, 1/4 cup pine nuts, olive oil and a couple parmesan cheese packets.  Voila, pesto chicken pasta!  Be careful not to overcook the ramen or you’ll get a mushy mess.

400 calories, 6.2 ounces, $1.45

Treat 4: Fig Newtons and Pretzels. This is a pretty heavy dessert, but the pesto chicken ramen isn’t a very filling dinner. Time to eat more dry things. Yum. Snyder’s flavored pretzels and Fig Newton bars it is.  *RANT MOMENT*  Remember those great Fig Newton ads from the 80s?  A Fig Newton is not a cookie, it’s fruit and cake!  Yeah, well why don’t you sell FRUIT flavored versions in individual packs??  You have Triple Berry and Strawberry, not to mention the old Raspberry and Apricot that never made it to the 21st century, in large packages … but want them individually? Fig. That’s it, just fig.  Who even LIKES fig, Nabisco?  WHO?!