Final Preparations Video

Eight days to go, and lots of last minute things to check off the Big To-Do list. Of course I have a list for that, I have a system for everything at this point.  So much so, that a fellow hiker suggested my trail name should be “Spreadsheet”, in order to adequately and mockingly describe my obnoxious overplanning behavior. It’s a cute idea (and probably well deserved), but nah.  I think I’ll stick with what I have for now, and see what the trail provides.  Continue reading

Big Questions: How (to Fly With Gear)

I’m happy to say that two soon-to-be-former friends agreed to join me for the first few days of my Appalachian Trail journey. It will be great to kick-off the walk with some friends in tow, and although I’m eager to meet others on the trail for the long haul, some known faces will be a welcome treat at the start. They’ll earn their own trail names once boots hit the ground, but for now, I’ll call them Keg and The Captain. Welcome!

Continue reading

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.

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.

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!

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!

Answering the Big Questions: Who (am I?)

I imagine most people following along are friends, but I’ve been slowly marketing this blog out to others in the hiking community as we get closer to a start date – and I imagine most of them are wondering who “HelloNeiman” is and what the heck it means. Although I have already shared a lot about who I am as a person throughout this blog, that phrase has to confuse many of you … is that a real name? A trail name? An arbitrary phrase that nobody really understands?  Well, maybe all three…

For some background, HelloNeiman has been my online monicker since the mid-2000s. It started out as an inside joke among friends that I knew everyone in Minneapolis … which then became a good excuse to host an annual social event for young professionals out on the town. I loved hosting parties, so back in our twenties we would rent out a bar, invite everyone we knew, and give them “hello my name is” stickers with Neiman written on it. The joke was that since everyone knew me, all you’d hear is people saying “Hello Neiman” at the bar anyways. The parties were a success, the joke evolved to be an exclamation of excitement, and the name stuck. I started using it as the title for my online blog (see Archives), and when relaunching this site decided to keep it – even if the name does not have any roots in the thru-hiking community.

BUT. Nicknames, or “trail names”, are big on the Appalachian Trail. Everyone goes by a trail name, which is used to help remember people and represent them in this life changing experience. For example, AWOL took his trail name as a representation that he quit his job and escaped to a hike, but Grandma Gatewood because that’s just what she was known as. Some people like to create their own name in advance (for example, to match the title of their online journals), others like to let the trail decide it for them … often letting a funny experience or unique situation define it. Some hikers in the community think it taboo to name yourself before the hike, but to each their own.

For me, I am torn. HelloNeiman has always been my nickname and one I’d like to use for this blog on the trail … but it does not represent the trail at all.  And may even confuse people to the point of making it harder to recognize/remember me. After thinking about it, a name that would suit me on the trail much better is Orange Blaze.  Most of my gear is orange, it’s my favorite color, and if I can buy a product in that hue, you better believe I do. Therefore, the name fits perfectly – when you follow the Appalachian Trail you follow a white blaze, but when you follow me (by foot or by blog), you follow an orange one.

So, for now, the blog remains HelloNeiman.com.  And the trail name feels right as Orange Blaze.  But who knows, maybe something fun will happen on Day 1 and throw it all out the window. And isn’t that what this is about anyways, a planned journey with unplanned adventures?  I think so!  So, say it with me now … Hello Neiman!

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!

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!

Answering the Big Questions: FAQ

I get a lot of questions about this trip. I’m sure everyone planning a thru-hike does.  Instead of answering them all here, I’ll just share this fun video that pretty much does that for us. Not much I’d change in my responses, though maybe I’d put a little emotion in my tone. 🙂  Hello Neiman!