AT Meal Plan: Week 3

There is nothing wrong with being a Type A thru-hiker, as the Sierra Club pointed out this week. But, it is important to keep yourself in check and recognize when your OCD trip planning may have gone too far … hopefully before you waste too much time and money in the process. Fortunately, I had that realization this week. Since I am just over 3 months from departure, I started buying many of the groceries with longer shelf-lives: dehydrated fruits and veggies, freeze-dried meats, non-perishables, etc. What I realized quickly though, is that there is no point in trying to be perfect.

According to my baseline Hike Plan, some resupply boxes need 3 breakfasts, some need 5.  Some need 4 dinners, some need 2.  And we all know that plans on the trail will change. This planning was meant to make things easier, not to make it perfect, so trying to count pennies and portions will really just end up wasted effort and added stress.

Light bulb moment!

Since the Hike Plan breaks down sections in 4-5 day increments, the best resupply box plan is to have ALL boxes portioned out to 4 days of food.  Some weeks I’ll have too much, some weeks too few.  If I have extra, I’ll save it for the next week (or drop in a hiker box).  If I need extra, I’ll pick up some supplemental items in town.  This prep change is going to make it significantly easier and allow for more flexibility on the trail. So with that, let’s look at the Week 3 meals. Hello Neiman!

Week 3 Meals.

Breakfast 3.  Mr. Tipton kept me from enjoying these Quaker Oats Instant Grits for far too long. Delicious, flavorful, and hearty when you add a couple condiments; in this case, 2 packets of bacon bits and honey. Supplemented with a Costco brand breakfast bar and 2 packs of Taster’s Choice Hazelnut Instant Coffee.

Elevensies 3.  This week’s elevensy snacks are a Twix Bar (I show no favoritism to left nor right Twix), 1 cup of Trader Joes Trail Mix (any variety), and a Pressed by Kind Fruit Bar.  Oddly, the PB Twix shelf-life (3 months) is significantly less than the standard Twix (9 months) … why are the PB ones so darn difficult for resupply packing in advance?? Oh well, I’ll buy in bulk the week before I depart.

Lunch 3.  I’ll be honest, not sure how I feel about this. I planned these as tortilla wraps, but those are too perishable for pack-ahead. If I can find tortillas in town, I’ll swap out the 3 Sailor Pilot CrackersDrain drink 1 can of Swanson Chunk Chicken, pour over 2 packets of BBQ or Buffalo Sauce, sprinkle some Parmesan cheese, and you have what could be a good mid-day chicken snack. Paired with TJ dried pineapple rings for fun.

Snack 3. I wish they still made the old-fashioned PowerBars that hurt to chew. They had this great wild berry flavor I loved. Nostalgia will get you nowhere, but and Protein Plus bars have way more calories anyway, so it’s a good way to still enjoy the power bar brand that started the energy bar movement.

Dinner 3. You ready for this homemade wonder? I call it Walking Tacos Supreme, a lovingly twist on the original from your youth. Boil up 1.5 cups water, add to FBC of 1/2 cup Refried Bean Flakes, 1 cup Freeze Dried Beef (or sub chicken), 1/2 cup Freeze Dried Cheese, and 2 tbsp Dehydrated Onion.  After 10 minutes, mix in 2 tbsp taco seasoning and 1/2 ounce Olive Oil.  Lastly, mix in 2 snack size bags of crushed Nacho Cheese Doritos chips. Mmm, Mmm, good.

Treat 3.  Last but not least, a bit more fruit. Well, sort of fruit. Not sure ingredients include any actual fruit. Really, more sugar than fruit. It is fruit flavored at least. Regardless, these are fun to eat for a tasty treat. Target’s Simply Balanced Twisted Fruit Ropes round out the day’s meal.

AT Gear Plan: Secondary Gear

With all the big stuff out of the way, it’s time to focus on the important little guys. Sitting somewhere between Big 3 and Luxury, these Secondary Gear items fill in the gaps for other must-have things.  Items for water purification, lighting, electronics, etc. You could argue some of these are luxury items too, but for my planning purposes, not really.  These are things I know I will need on a daily basis, and although one could technically live in the woods for 5 months without them, it wouldn’t be pleasant.  This isn’t Naked and Afraid people, its more like Limited but Happy. Hello Neiman!

And now for this Week’s Political Questions (as if we could not have at least one)…

Water Filter vs. Water Treatment
Can you drink the water straight up? Yes. Will I take that chance? No. Water purification options are plenty, and choosing one is tough. Some prefer a filter, others prefer a chemical treatment. Because of how heavy, cumbersome, and tiring filters are, I moved to water treatment many years ago.  I do not like the taste of iodine (sorry Polar Pure fans), but a dash of chlorine isn’t bad. So, although the Sawyer Squeeze or Sawyer Mini are thru-hiker favorites, I will stick with Aqua Mira drops to begin. Unfortunately, though, these will run out after a few weeks – and when they do, I’ll decide whether to continue treating or switch.

Gun vs. Mace vs. Knife vs. Nothing
I am so sick of being asked whether or not I need to bring a form of protection. Although I understand others will feel different, I have no desire to carry a weapon. This is a beautiful trail and community, and I do not fear what a day’s hike will bring. The bear activity here is much different than the Rocky Mountain grizzly’s I am used to, and bear spray is not needed.  I have never and will never feel the need to defend myself with a firearm, so there’s no way this is the reason I start.  And this isn’t the jungles of the Vietnam War, no machete or hunting knife is adding to my safety.  I will have a very small Swiss Army knife for utility use, but that’s it.

Secondary Gear Items

Bag Cover / Liner. Most people skip a cover and instead just use a trash compactor bag as a liner. Good cheap option, but they don’t consider the weight added by a watered-down pack. It isn’t perfect, but I like my Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Pack Cover and would rather use it to protect the bag too. If 5 days of straight rain eventually penetrate through, I’ll deal with it then. To be safe, I also have stuff sacks to protect important items on theinside (e.g. quilts, hammock).

Water Purification. As mentioned above, the chlorine flavored Aqua Mira drops are my water purification of choice.  This 1 oz product will filter 30 gallons (120 water bottles), which should last a few weeks.

SPF Chapstick. I don’t have many oddities to me. One of them is the need to always have a stick of chapstick in my pocket.  Don’t know where it came from, but I’m just happier in life that way.  A tiny SPF12 Chapstick will cure the OCD factor while also keeping my lips moist and happy all day long.

Knife. As mentioned above, the only blade I need is a small utility knife. The Victorinox Classic SD has been a staple in my bag all my life, it has everything I need day-to-day and comes with a bonus file, scissors, tweezer and toothpick (another OCD need).  It may not thwart would-be attackers, but it covers everything else for which a sharp edge is required.

Night Items Stuff Sack. Nothing fancy, just a very small Sea to Summit Purple Stuff Sack to keep all my necessary night items together. I find it easier to just have one thing to grab when head to bed.

Ear Plugs. I’m a pretty light sleeper these days, so these Walgreens Super Light Foam Ear Plugs are a no-brainer when sleeping with 50 other people in a campsite.

Phone Wall Charger. I’ll need something with multiple USB inputs to handle the iPhone, Kindle, and/or Power Bank at the same time.  I’ll also need one that allows the device to plug in and rest on top of it. And lastly, I need one that will fast charge for efficient use of time.  The Ailkin Wall Charger checks all the boxes.

Phone Portable Charger. I’m not sure if a newer phone will still get the 3 charges out of this my old iPhone 6 does, but this Anker Astro E1 5200 mAh Battery should be enough to get me through 4 or 5 days if I keep the phone on airplane mode during the day.

Headphones. I’d love to upgrade to wireless air pods for this trip because, honestly, they are awesome. Seriously, I was a doubter too, but they are amazing and its time to forgive Apple for the weird looking design. Unfortunately though, that would be a silly waste of precious battery charge use, so standard Apple Ear Pods will have to do.

Mosquito Head Net. Ok, so the Dutch Chameleon has a built-in bug net, but for days when I sleep in a shelter and/or hike among black flies (very common in the NE states), a head net will be very nice to have.  The Sea to Summit Mosquito Head Net is only 1 oz and could be considered a luxury item for how rarely I’ll use it, but sometimes peace of mind is more important.

Phone/Camera & Case. I’m still deciding on this one. I recently upgraded to the iPhone X but it is crazy big, expensive, and heavy. For a trip like this, it really doesn’t make sense (even with that beautiful new camera). I’ll most likely sell and downgrade to the 125gb iPhone SE with enough memory to download all the music, books, and podcasts I need. TBD.

Sunglasses & Case. The Maui Jim Sugar Beach Aviators are slick, offer great protection, lightweight … and most importantly, durable. They are more likely to blow off your face, but fortunately will not break when they float to the ground. Great specs, highly recommended.

Camp Shoes. These Croc Classic sandals are a staple in most people’s packs … if they opt for camp shoes.  Many people leave these at home to go barefoot at the end of the day, but I like having them.  And more importantly, they are great for river crossings and town walking when off-trail.

Headlamp. It doesn’t have a red light, which is helpful when sleeping in shelters, but I don’t plan to sleep in shelters much.  This eGear LED Lighting EQ2 headlamp is super bright for its price ($10) and weight (1oz). The band allows you to wear it on your head or wrist, and the addition of a clip allows you to snap it on a hat bill or hammock ridgeline.

Answering the Big Questions: Where (to Begin)

I started looking for flights today. Only $75 one-way from LAX to ATL.  Very reasonable price.  Probably should buy before prices go up.  Nothing to worry about besides getting to the trail.  But yet… it’s not that easy… there is a lot of anxiety tied to this purchase! Buying this ticket locks me into a firm start date, with nonrefundable costs associated with the Pre-Hike logistics. So like a good Hello Neiman!, let’s plan it out, and figure out where to begin for this “Day Zero” plan:

Flying to Atlanta is easy, but damnit if airlines don’t scare you with their nonrefundable policies.  So when should I book a flight to arrive?  Lets’ review the logistic details we know:

  • My hiking start date is March 1 at Amicalola Falls State Park
  • I’d like to arrive by 8pm to get settled, packed, and mentally prepared
  • Amicalola Falls is 2-3 hours by shuttle from Atlanta
  • Atlanta is 4 hours by plane from Los Angeles
  • Atlanta is 3 time zones away from Los Angeles

Ok, that’s not so scary. If I want to start off right, I need to leave LA no later than 10am on February 28. Plenty of flights to choose from that will get me into Atlanta in time.  But wait, then what?  How am I getting to the trailhead?  I don’t have a car, uh oh.  Fortunately, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club provides me with that helpful information. A train ride to Gainesville and/or an expensive shuttle ride is the answer.  From Atlanta, $50-75 should get me there. Last but not least, I have a reservation waiting for me at The Lodge for a warm bed at night and warm breakfast in the morning.

Unless of course, I have any friends in Atlanta that want to put me up for the night and drive me to the trail in the early morning.  Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? … Eh, who needs that, this is an adventure so why not start off with a logistical one. Hello Neiman!

AT Hike Plan: Section 3

Well friends, the cake walk is officially over. Section 3 of the AT is the place where mountain boys and girls become mountain men and women. This section is not for the weak, traversing a hefty 300+ miles throughout NC and TN, encompassing the entirety of the Great Smoky Mountains … including all 6,625 feet of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point of the whole trail … and ending at the Virginia border town of Damascus. Home to the infamous Trail Days, the Appalachian Trail’s largest community festival, Damascus is a major milestone for any hiker  Unfortunately, I’ll be there too early to enjoy the event, but such is the trade-off for a tranquil early start. Hello Neiman!

  • Start of Section:  Fontana Dam (mile 164.7)
  • End of Section:  Damascus, VA (mile 468.8)
  • Total Miles 304.1
  • Total Days:  19
  • Avg Daily Miles: 16.0
  • Town Stops:  5

General Strategy for Section 3

  • After a refreshing stay in a warm bed at Fontana Dam, it’s back up the trail … literally.  Straight up.  Within 1 mile of the Dam is the start of the Great Smoky Mountains, the highest range along the Appalachian Mountains.
  • Some key Smoky Mountain along the way are (in order): Devil’s Tater Patch, Thunderhead Mountain, the aforementioned Clingman’s Dome, Sugarland Mountain, Mt. Kephart, Mt. Chapman, and Mt. Guyot.  All of which are far above 5,000′ elevation.  Being primarily a mountain backpacker prior to this trip, I’m eager to see how these peaks hold up to the majesty of Glacier, Yosemite, Denali, and other mountain ranges of my past.
  • Most people go through the Smokies in 7 days, I plan to skip through in 5. If I choose to linger an extra day for the (hopefully) gorgeous vistas and views, so be it.  Otherwise, the plan is 15.1 miles to Russel Field Shelter, 15.0 to Silers Bald Shelter, 15.5 to Icewater Shelter, 20.3 to Cosby Knob Shelter, and finally 17.6 to Groundhog Creek Shelter.
  • Around mile 225, the trail finally starts it’s downward descent again, exiting the Great Smokey Mountain National Park 13 miles later at Davenport Gap. I’ll stop near here for an expensive resupply at Standing Bear Farm, en route to Groundhog Creek Shelter.
  • After the Smokies, I’ll stay on the trail one more night at Walnut Mountain Shelter, then wander into Hot Springs, NC for a warm bed at Laughing Heart Lodge, an old Jesuit Retreat Center.  Nearby Hot Springs also has a big event I’ll miss by a month called Trailfest, but I’ll still take a Nero day to enjoy the town and nurse my wounds of the Smokies.
  • The next 5 days cover 100 miles through Tennessee, going continuously up and down over Allen Gap, Hemlock Hollow, Devil Fork Gap, and Sam’s Gap.  Staying in mostly shelters until finally meandering to Greasy Creek Friendly Shelter.  Most books I’ve read talk lovingly of this Hostel and it’s infamous feud with their hiker hating neighbors, so I’m looking forward to checking it out for myself.
  • This section is long, as is this post, so hopefully I haven’t lost you yet.
  • After crossing the border between NC and TN for the umpteenth time, staying in a few more shelters, resupplying in the city of Hampton, and soaking my soar toes in the supposedly nice sandy peach of Shook Branch Recreation Area, Virginia will finally be within grasp.
  • Mile 468.8 marks the end of Section 3 and the entrance to Damascus, Virginia.  A hiker town this big and popular is bound to be overflowing with smelly hikers like myself, but hey … Virginia is for lovers, right?  With a name like Crazy Larry’s Hiker Hostel, I can’t help but try to grab a bed at this hostel, whose proprietor has been a fan favorite since 2012.

Damascus marks approximately 1/4 of the trail done, and a major milestone in the thru-hiker’s journey.  It’s where I’ll take my first official (planned) Zero Day to resupply, reorganize, rejuvenate, and restrategize the next challenge.  A welcome challenge of course, as Section 4 brings on the entire state of Virginia, Shenandoah National Park, Harper’s Ferry and some of the nicest groomed trails on the AT.  Hello Neiman!

AT Gear Plan: Clothing Worn on Body

An ultralight purist will not include the items worn on one’s body in their “base weight”, but that doesn’t mean these ounces don’t matter!  It’s easy to get carried away and say things like your knife, gaiters, fleece, etc. count as “worn on body”, but let’s keep it simple for consistency – For this category, we are only talking about the items you wear on your feet, legs, torso, and head every single day regardless of weather.  Ok, with that settled, let’s discuss one heated political question …

Hiking Boots or Trail Running Shoes?
Like Tent vs. Hammock, this is another popular argument among hiking enthusiasts.  So much so, that multiple research studies have been done to validate the claim that “one pound on your feet equals 5 on your back”.  I can confirm, it’s true, the lighter your footwear, the lighter your pack feels overall. I know I will be replacing my footwear every 500 miles or so, but for the initial weeks, I will start with a light-weight hiking boot I know my body already likes. This way I can evaluate any early hiking issues knowing my shoes are not a variable. Later on, when replacements are needed, I’ll move to a breathable running shoe like the Saloman X-mission 3.  Hello Neiman!

Oboz Sawtooth Low

Hiking Boots. Oboz is a great company out of Montana, and the Oboz Sawtooth Low is a light-weight boot that already traversed the mountain ranges of Denali and Glacier National Parks. Oboz even calls out my needs on the website description, saying it is “proven on rocks and roots of the AT.”  As I strengthen my hiking legs early on, I’ll be happy to have this boot’s sole support and ruggedness to lean on. Only 15.6 ounces, and not high on the ankle, they are still pretty lightweight for thru-hiking.

Smartwool PdH Outdoor Light Mini Socks

Hiking Socks.  Not going to get into the conversation about liner socks vs. wool socks vs. injinji toe socks. I’ve tried them all and they all work … but no-one should obsess over socks too much. As long as you how to protect your feet from hot-spots and blisters, you can make any sock work. I prefer the Smartwool PdH Outdoor which I already know pairs well with my boots. They fit nicely, dry fast, and only weigh 1.8 ounces. They don’t come in orange, but nothing is perfect…

North Face Paramount Trail Convertible Pants

Hiking Pants. Lightweight? Check. Convertible to shorts? Check. Light and chafe-free? Check. I have only tested these out a couple times, but the Paramount Trail Pants are very comfortable and have yet to cause discomfort from chafing that I can tell. The one downside is lack of zipper to the back pocket, but I can live without that for a couple thousand miles of hiiking. I also love the color, as their ability to camouflage dirt and grime stains may keep me from looking like a hobo among people.

North Face Ambition Short Sleeve

Hiking Shirt.  One can use any shirt, don’t be fooled by anything fancy here. The only reason I’m picking this one is that I need to identify something, and saying “an old Ultimate Frisbee jersey” doesn’t look as fancy. I want a shirt to be lightweight, moisture-wicking, and odor-fighting – and The North Face Ambition Short Sleeve is a good combo of all 3.  Its polyester, which is not the typical merino wool others suggest, but this is a very comfortable and breathable tee.

ExOfficio Sport Mesh Boxer Briefs

Underwear.  It’s not often a grown man gets excited about underwear.  But how can I not gush over these amazing briefs?? (swoon).  Having gone through many variations over the years, including an attempt to eliminate all together with 2-in-1 shorts (skivvies), nothing beats ExOfficio Give-N-Go Sport Mesh Boxers.  The ultralight mesh/ spandex material is breathable, quick-drying, antimicrobial, and a lot of other scientific stuff that equates to a very very very very very very very very comfortable fit.

Orange Tough Headband Buff

Bandana. Every trip I go on features at least one picture in an orange bandana, because I wear them exclusively every time I go backpacking. But the masses have spoken and I have listened, making the switch to an Orange Buff. Not so much for the versatility of wearing it 11 different ways, but for the ease of use and ability to double as a sleep mask (with a bandana, I have to deal with the uncomfortable knot). The orange bandana will still be backup, but this is the go-to head covering from now on.

Timex Ironman Classic Mid-Size

Watch. Breaking the initial rule above about non-worn things making this list is the Timex Ironman. I’m counting it in the Clothing Worn category because its never coming off. Simple, classic, digital, waterproof, lightweight and easy to use. It tells the time, has an indiglo night light, and an alarm.  No need to fixate on this, it’s just a watch. But this one has been with me a long time and is special to me, so I like that it’s coming along on my journey.

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!

Breakfast 2: Instant Oatmeal

560 calories, 4.7 ounces, $2.06

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.

 

 

Elevensies 2: Snickers, Fruit Wrap, Trail Mix

916 calories, 6.7 ounces, $1.97

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!

Lunch 2: Tuna Crackers

880 calories, 10.2 ounces, $5.64

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.

Snack 2: Cliff Bar

380 calories, 2.5 ounces, $0.85

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.

 

Dinner 2: Freeze-Dried Mountain House

810 calories, 5.8 ounces, $7.25

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?

 

Treat 2: JJ’s Fruit Pie

400 calories, 4.0 ounces, $1.00

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 Hike Plan: Section 2

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 whiteblaze.net 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!

 

Breakfast 1:  Granola with Coffee

755 calories, 5.7 ounces, $2.61

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.
 

Elevensies 1:  M&Ms, Fruit Bar, Trail Mix

960 calories, 6.8 ounces, $3.05

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.

 

Lunch 1:  Beef Stick Snack

930 calories, 7.1 ounces, $4.62

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.

 

Snack 1:  Bobo’s Bar

360 calories, 3.5 ounces, $2.50

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.

 

 
 

 

Dinner 1:  Fancy Chicken Ramen

750 calories, 6.1 ounces, $3.81

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!

 

Treat 1:  Fruit Snacks

80 calories, 0.9 ounces, $0.25

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…