AT Gear Plan: Luxury Items

Up until this point, I’d consider all the gear I’m bringing as mandatory for the trip. Meaning, for me to successfully hike 2190 miles in 5 months, I’ll NEED it with me every day to survive.  In contrast, however, this last category represents the comfort things I may WANT from time to time, to make the trip just a bit more enjoyable.

Sure, I could live without a tripod, pillow or e-reader … but these are items I think will enhance my experience while walking 15 miles a day in the in the woods. In addition, this category has and will change the most leading up to and while on the trail. Some luxuries will no longer be desired as the temps increase (e.g. winter hat), while others may become better (e.g. brimmed hat). But that’s the benefit to having an ultralight base weight … you can afford a little extra weight here and live a life of luxury.  Hello Neiman!

Political Questions
Basically, every item here is controversial. Some may have strong opinions to leave it at home, others to bring it. Since this entire section is personal preference, there really isn’t a political stance to side with. Want to read ebooks on your phone? Do it. Prefer to read them on an e-Reader? Sobeit. There is no right and wrong answer, the only true question is whether you want it bad enough or not. The list of things I chose to exclude far exceeds those that made the cut, but here are the 1.8 pounds of junk that made my final Day 1 luxury list:

Luxury Items

  1. Winter Hat (1.2 oz).  The North Face Polartec Beanie is a lightweight fleece cap I plan to carry until Damascus or Harper’s Ferry, depending on quickly the temps allow. Some people exclude this and just use the hoodie of their fleece or puffy jacket, but I like having it be an extra accessory to throw on.
  2. Winter Gloves (1.0 oz). These REI Polartec Power Stretch Gloves are close to what I have, though mine are a few years older. Nothing fancy, but I like gloves versus mittens and these are touchscreen accessible. If the rain becomes unbearable early on, I may add a waterproof shell or switch out for a combo pair like the OR VersaLiners.  I also plan to ditch this in Virginia.
  3. Hat (1.8 oz).  I. Love. This. Hat. The OR Radar Pocket Cap is small, lightweight, FOLDS WITHOUT RUINING THE BILL, is comfortable, and if I may say so, quite stylish. 🙂  It doesn’t have a full brim for sun protection, but this trail is mostly tree-shaded anyways.
  4. Waterproof Socks (3.1 oz).  I bought a cheap pair of these after hearing recommendations online, and I was not a fan. The material felt cheap, uncomfortable, and abrasive. But then I read a great review on the 2018 Thruhiker Facebook Group and decided to try a high-quality version instead. Very glad I did, as these Dexshell Terrain Ankle Socks are extremely comfortable and very waterproof.  Yes, they are pricey for socks ($38), but they feel like normal wool socks and after running them under a faucet for 5 minutes – my foot stayed dry. On those very rainy days, I’ll be glad I have these as an option.
  5. Sleeping Pad (10.0 oz). As I mentioned in Prep Hike 1, I decided to fully “embrace the hammock” and drop a typical blow-up sleeping pad for an underquilt. But, there are still so many other reasons for a closed cell pad. Sleeping in shelters/hostels, comfort for sitting on the ground, adding extra warmth to the hammock for cold nights, and using it for packing. That last one is a great hack to know: lay a pad/towel/etc like this down every time you unpack your bag, and make sure everything touches it. Then re-pack everything touching the pad and you’ll never leave anything behind. For all those reasons, the Thermarest Z-Lite Sol Small is a great add-on, even at 10 ounces.
  6. Pillow (1.7 oz). I may still leave this Exped AirPillow UL pillow behind, as pillows are really more valuable when sleeping on the ground.  And to be honest, most times I’ll just use my rolled-up puffy jacket or extra fleece as a pillow if I really want one. But, for the same reason I’m bringing the sleeping pad, I thought it good to carry a lightweight pillow.  If I’m not using it after a few weeks, I’ll send it home.
  7. Kindle Paperweight (7.2 oz). Yes, I know I can read on my phone, but I prefer the Kindle for 2 reasons: 1) Reading long-term on this screen is so much better on the eyes. I can’t read a book on my tiny phone screen for more than a few minutes without getting a headache.  And 2), the battery last’s weeks on one charge. I will have my AWOL Trail Guide on the Kindle so I don’t have to worry about draining my phone battery to do daily itinerary planning.
  8. Trowel (0.6 oz). The Deuce of Spades weighs almost nothing and is simply a nice way to have a better experience doing your business in the woods.  Do everyone a favor and bring one so you can dig that hole deep, cover it up well, and keep the contents from surfacing.
  9. Mini Tripod (1.7 oz).  Small, sturdy, and packs down tiny. For those Kodak moments that no one is around to help you with and a selfie just won’t cut it. This JOBY GripTight Micro Stand is an easy addition to make sure I document this trip with some great photos that aren’t just a close-up of my ugly mug. 🙂
  10. Corncob Pipe (1.8 oz). I wrote about this years ago in a now archived HelloNeiman 1.0 blog post, and I’ve been packing it on backpacking trips ever since. Nothing crazy here, there’s just something relaxing about smoking a pipe in the woods among friends.
  11. Wiffle Ball (0.7 oz).  A great massage tool to rub your feet over each night for some comfort to the daily grind. Not for impromptu stickball games in the woods among new friends … though, now that I mention it … not a bad idea.
  12. Frisbee (6.7 oz). I read this article 17 years ago in Backpacker Magazine about how a Frisbee is the best backpacking luxury item. I played Ultimate for years and love the obvious fun of having a disc to toss around, but it can also act as a seat, a fan, a plate, a cutting board, a canoe oar, a stove platform, a soap dish, and a sled (among many other things). Truly the most versatile of gear ever invented!

Prep Hike 3

My prep hike started late in the day, due to a busy Friday at work and a typical long commute through Los Angeles traffic. The destination was Malibu’s Point Mugu State Park and it’s scenic 11.75 mile La Jolla Canyon Loop Trail. I finally hit the trail and was met immediately with a steady 1,000 foot climb over the first 2.5 miles. The ascent was quick but no problem because of the beautiful PCH views along the way. Ever half-mile I turned the corner of a switchback for another amazing view of the Pacific Ocean and gust of crisp sea air in my face. The west coast has its treasures, and I’ll definitely miss this part of LA when we move back east.

There were a few hikers along the way at first, but after about an hour I was alone on the trail. Sure, it’s 65 degrees and overcast … but it’s a Friday in January! I just think to myself that more people should really be out here enjoying these mountains.

After another 3 miles hiking the ridge line, the trail dropped into the valley, where I arrived at the campsite. It was empty and it was only 5pm so I decided to go exploring. The campsite had a privy and 8 small individual sites – each with a picnic table, bear box, and clearing for a small tent. And I mean small, anything bigger than a 2 person tent probably won’t fit. Each site is about 50 feet apart, but the brush overgrowth makes it tough to find them all, requiring some bushwhacking skills. The bathroom has TP, so someone must maintain this site, though clearly they don’t do much trail maintenance. Also, it looks like a fire devastated all the trees here, making my hammock setup difficult. Just when I’m ready to give up and settle for the ground, I finally find a site with 2 dead trees big enough to hold up my weight. Huzzah! … but unfortunately another big tree has collapsed on the picnic table, engulfing the entire eating area. Oh well, I’m the only one here, so I set up my hammock and then wander over to another site to eat dinner. I don’t think there is much wildlife here to be concerned with, but I like the idea of eating 50 ft from my bed as a good general practice anyway.

The view here at night is incredible. It’s like being at the bottom of a giant rocky bowl. Mountains surround me on all sides, and although the highway is only 5 miles away … I watch the sunset paint the sky a rainbow of colors amidst near silence.

The only downside is how early the sun and its heat disappeared. By 6:30, I have nothing to do, and it’s getting cold fast! I do my standard nighttime routine (wash up, change clothes, check for ticks, hang up gear), then spend the next 3 hours wrapped up in my quilt in my hammock bed. To kill time I read up on tomorrow’s itinerary, write this post, and read until I think it’s late enough to fall asleep.

Around 10:30, just as I fell asleep, I hear a group or hikers setting up camp. I have no idea how they hiked in so late, and even though they are loud, I appreciate the security of other people nearby.

The next morning I’m up at 8:30 with nothing but sun and blue skies to greet me. It’s going to be a beautiful day to hike out. After a quick breakfast (note to self, I’m not liking these instant grits so that will have to go from the resupply boxes), I pack up and hit the trail around 9:30. The day’s hike goes through the valley, then straight up to Magu Peak and down through the canyon/riverbed.

The hike up the bowl is easy, then the view of the ocean is back. It. Is. Breathtaking. The ocean waves crash up against the PCH and a small naval base. Then it’s up up up. The picture below is from Magu Peak, which took a a grueling 1000 foot elevation gain in just 900 feet. There are lots of people up here taking pictures at the flag pole, so I do too. I’m definitely not in mountain shape, as that climb winded me for more than it should. So after a short break, I climb back down and head out to finish the last part of the loop.

Remember that hike overview I linked to earlier? Well it must be very old, because it got two things very wrong. First, the La Jolla creek and Falls, the supposed highlight of this trip, are bone dry. Not even muddy. Dry dry dry. I’m long out of water and really thirsty, so this last section is tough. Oh, and second? THE TRAIL IS CLOSED! This final 2 mile section of the loop trail was devastated by storms and was closed off … in 2015. I don’t have a choice, as the only other trail is a 10 mile re-route back up the canyon. And, again, no water.

So I apologize to the State Park gods, cross the barricade, and head down the canyon. After a half-mile I hit a section destroyed by erosion and rockslides. This is why they closed the trail, as a storm knocked out the ridge path, and now the only way down is some very steep and slippery drops. I carefully make my way back down to the trailhead, cross another VERY OBVIOUS barrier at the parking lot (oops), and call it a day.

Overall, my hike was great and gear test went flawless. Only a few small tweaks to consider, mostly to food and stuff sack organization. The real learning bough, I need a lot more mountain hiking prep. I have one more overnight planned (the most difficult of these winter trips) up SoCal’s infamous Mt. Baldy next month. So that should really test me. Hello Neiman!

AT Section 7 Preview

Section 7 of the Appalachian Trail takes hikers through the entirety of New Jersey and New York. This section is unique in that it’s very easy to do as a standalone section hike as well (one I’ve considered in the past).  The start is a short bus ride from NYC to the New Jersey border and the end walks you right past a train station that takes you directly to Manhattan. Many hikers like to take side trips to the city during this section for that reason and get a vacation from the trail.  I plan to visit family near Bear Mountain … which is the lowest elevation point of the trail … but other than that, it’s onward and upward to New England.  Hello Neiman!

  • Start of Section: Delaware Water Gap (1294.7)
  • End of Section: Kent / Connecticut Border (1468.4)
  • Total Miles: 173.7
  • Total Days: 10
  • Avg Daily Miles: 17.3
  • Town Stops: 2

General Strategy for Section 7

  • 1296.0 – Delaware Water Gap is a nice sized trail town along the Delaware River. Continuing along the river for a couple miles, you have very limited elevation change and a few landmarks to look out for. The Kittatinny Visitor Center is first at 1296.0, followed by a 0.3m trail to the Mohican Outdoor Center at 1305.5.  Good place to stock up on a hot meal on the way out of town.
  • 1326.0 – After some VERY small “mountains” that see  500 ft of elevation change at best, you come to the Stony Brook Trail with a 1-mile side trail to Stony Lake and some free showers.  By this point in the hike, any excuse for a shower should be considered.
  • 1346.2 – Unionville, NY has a small village office that allows hikers to set up a tent for the night while they enjoy this small trail town.  Not too much, but does have a store for resupply, a deli or pizza place for lunch, and a tavern for dessert. I’ll need to stop here for the night and resupply for a few days.  I wonder how many people ask to fill water bottles and camelbacks from the beer taps. I’m not saying I will, but I’m not saying I won’t.
  • 1359.0 – Queue the music, because climbing up this south side of Wawayanda Mountain is called “Stairway to Heaven”.  Boardwalks through marshlands, then stone steps and switchbacks to one of the best viewpoints in NJ called Pinwheel Vista. From here you can view the Kittatinny Mountains in the distance, farms in the valley below, and on a clear day, High Point Monument.
  • 1367.1 – Cross the NJ/NY border to The Empire State, your 9th state of the trek.
  • 1404.0 – Bear Mountain, Fort Montgomery, and the Hudson River. This part of NY is an important milestone, as it is technically the lowest point on the trail. Many people stay in Bear Mountain to enjoy the many hotels, restaurants, and sights, and did I mention there is a Museum and Zoo?  I plan to meet family there for some time off-trail before crossing the Hudson River and continuing north.
  • 1411.3 – Graymoor Spiritual Life Center. Hikers are invited to sleep for free at this monastery’s ball field picnic shelter, and leverage the privy and shower.  I don’t know why, but this feels more like a homeless shelter than a hiker hostel, but if hosting hikers after 3 months of walking … is there really a difference?
  • 14325.1 – If the spiritual life center isn’t for you, walk another dozen miles to Clarence Fahnestock State Park for a free night of camping along Canopus Lake.
  • 1447.6 – Just a couple miles past Pawling, look to the north side of County Rd 20/West Dover Road to see Dover Oak, the largest oak tree on the Appalachian Trail.  With a girth of 20′ 4″, this tree is estimated to be over 300 years old and is a good Kodak moment for the day.
  • 1450.0 – The Appalachian Trail North Metro Railroad Station here will take you directly to the Big Apple.
  • 1462,2 – Welcome to Connecticut!

And that’s it!  At mile 1468.4, you can take a short 0.8m side trip to the east along Macedonia Rd (CT 341) to Kent, CT.  Kent is the official end of this section and has a nice trail town for hikers to enjoy.  The Kent Welcome Center provides restrooms and hot showers, phone charging, water fill-up, and recently erected a new sculpture to honor thru-hikers.  Unfortunately, I don’t plan to stay in this town, as I have a deadline to finish Section 8 before June 21. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire are next!  Hello Neiman!

AT Gear Plan: Health/Wellness

16 oz of Health, Wellness, and Other

Full disclosure, this list is sort of a moving target. Balancing my adventurous side to bring less vs. my sensible side to mitigate my risk is not easy.  By definition, most of this category is a list of things you never WANT to use, but may NEED in moments of discomfort – or worse, crisis.  To be honest, battling out these wants and needs feels like your typical angel vs. devil cartoon narrative. For example, here’s a conversation I had with myself just yesterday…

Devil:  First aid is for babies and weenies
Angel:  You need to pack a CVS Pharmacy!
Devil:  No you don’t, 95% of the time you can cure it with water and a band-aid
Angel:  But what if you have an asthma attack?  Lose a toenail? Get the flu?  We must medicate for every contingency!!
Devil:  If anything happens, you can use extreme willpower to overcome it
Angel:  You can’t will away Lyme Disease!
Devil:  You are superhuman. NOTHING CAN SLOW YOU DOWN!
Angel: You are 36 years old and a head cold last week turned you into a bedridden baby for 3 days straight
Devil: … *poof* (disappears from embarrassment)

Ok, so you get the point. This narrative of what COULD go wrong can easily lead you down many a path of medication and medical supplies to include. But no, you do not need to carry an EMT Trauma Kit.  With this kind of backpacking trip, you only need to include items that will a) be used daily, or b) prevent and treat the things most likely to happen daily.  This packing strategy goes towards all the “what if” categories – toiletries, health, meds, and gear repair/maintenance.

And before you freak out, just remember:  I’ll have cell service on nearly 100% of this trail, I am 1 day or 2 from emergency care at any point in time, and proper preventative care will minimize reactive needs (e.g. check for ticks!). Of course, that being said, I still have a mother and a wife to answer to, so some promises had to be made.  Hello Neiman!

This one week supply health and wellness kit weighs 1 pound. Way heavier than I’d like it to be, but oh well.

  1. Stuff Sack – Everything fits nice and snug in a small 2.5L (orange) Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil bag.
  2. Toothbrush – Travel size plastic toothbrush
  3. Toothpaste – Travel size Crest toothpaste
  4. Soap/Shampoo – 2 oz. Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Pure Castile Soap. Face, body, hair, food, dishes, laundry, it does everything. Safety Fact: get the unscented, even aromatic soap can attract unwanted animals.
  5. Sunscreen – 1 oz. Banana Boat Sport SPF 30. This trail is mostly canopy covered, but sunscreen is still a preventative care item you are better to use often than to suffer the consequences.
  6. Dental Floss – Travel size non-waxed floss. Fun Fact – it doubles as thread for sewing!
  7. Anti Chafe Balm – 0.5 oz Body Glide balm. May sound like a luxury item, but better to lube up those inner thighs before 10 hours of walking than anguish in the pain after.
  8. Leukotape – Mole Skin has been knocked off its pedestal as the formidable blister care product. This non-stretch sports tape is lightweight and super long lasting after application, making it the best preemptive treatment for long distance walking. Simply put a strip over a hot spot and you are done. I once left a piece on for a week straight, with daily showers. 3 ft of this super durable stuff!
  9. Duct Tape – 3 ft of the all-in-one answer to body/fabric/gear repair needs.
  10. Bug Spray – Ben’s 100 Max Formula 95% DEET. Spray a small dab on clothes, NOT skin.
  11. Repair Kit – 1 garbage bag, 3 ziploc bags, 3 rubber bands, 4 safety pins, 4 paper clips, needle and thread, 2 buttons, 2 LineLoc 3 Guy Line Adjusters, 2 tiny cord locks, 2 tiny carabiners, 50ft of spare dyneema chord.
  12. First Aid Kit – 3 bandaids, 2 small gauze pads, 2 antibiotic ointments, 2 hydrocortisone creams, 2 alcohol wipes, tiny bottle of burn treatment gel, 1 nail clipper.
  13. Med Kit – For most, this is a handful of Vitamin I (Ibuprofen), but allergies are cause for more. And here’s where I also appease the gods family: Pillbox with 1 week supply of Ibuprofen, Zyrtec, Prednisone, and Lyme Disease antibiotic. Also 1 Ventolin inhaler (being allergic to down is not ideal for a good night’s sleep).
  14. Wet Wipes (dry)  These Wysi Wipes are great for anything. Just add water and they expand to a large hand wipe ready for use. Biodegradable, unscented, and reusable, they make for great sponge baths, dishcloths, and more. 6 at a time.
  15. Toilet Paper – A full role with the cardboard insert removed, stored in a ziploc bag

Come Walk With Me!

Calling all daydreamers, all adventurers, all would-be explorers and all stuck-in-a-rutters! I am so fortunate to have friends curious in joining me on my Appalachian Trail hike for a few days, but is anyone out there interested in taking on the full challenge alongside me?  Old friends, one-time friends, barely friends, friends of friends, virtual friends … I’d like to chat because I’d love to help convince you!

Long story short, I made a promise that I would do this trip with someone by my side, and a friend I was hoping to hike with may no longer be able to commit. For anyone with families, you can undoubtedly relate to the ease of mind a trusted hiking partner can give to your worried loved ones.  And although a “Trail Family” is created quickly on a thru-hike, where strangers at your pace quickly become friends and partners along the trail … to these loved ones, it does not always provide the same level of comfort.

So, this post is my Call To Action, my Request For Consideration, my offer to help talk you into an experience of a lifetime.  Sure, the timing may not be perfect, the personal situation not ideal … but the opportunity is there, so why not take it?

Because remember:  all that is gold does not glitter, and not all those who wander are lost.  

AT Meal Plan: Week 7

3680 calories, 30.9 ounces, $16.85

The last organized dropbox of food is more of a half-and-half:  Half pre-boxed food, half purchased on the trail.  As much as I’d like to go 5 months eating dry foods, trail mix and ramen … sometimes you need some real protein!  So, although it won’t be shipped together, this Week 7 box adds some delicious bagels and a combination of hard and soft cheese.  Did you know some cheeses can last up to a week backpacking? Not everyone does, but stop and look for Laughing Cow products next time you go to Trader Joe’s.  You may be surprised to find it NOT in the cooler section.

Any hard cheese like parmesan or pecorino will also last in the open, as will some wax-encased cheeses like gouda or Mini Babybels.  Food can actually stay relatively cool when packed deep in a backpack or stored at night in a cool place. I’ve even been known to refrigerate cheese by burying them in a cold river at night.  Isn’t backpacking fun? Hello Neiman!

Week 7 Maildrop Menu:

520 calories, 6.3 ounces, $2.86

Breakfast 7: Bagel with Cheese. I read a story of a person that hiked the trail last year on only bagels. They are always a great choice, and probably one of the few things I could eat every day for 150 days myself as well. I’m sure I’ll be stocking up on these during the “non-maildrop” days, but I’ll also have a breakfast planned for them here. Paired with 2 spreadable laughing cow cheeses, you have a breakfast fit for a king.  Some Nescafe Clasico coffee (the only other flavor we haven’t packed yet) and an Emerald nut/berry package round it all out.

1130 calories, 7.6 ounces, $2.79

Elevensies 7: Almond Snickers, Fruit Bar, Trail Mix.  By the end of this trip, I imagine I’ll be extensively knowledgeable on every flavor M&Ms and Snickers available. This week we get the Almond Snickers, another bag of trail mix (this time Target’s Monster Mix), and a That’s It fruit bar.  Different day, same elevensies variety.

830 calories, 8.2 ounces, $5.48

Lunch 7: Babybel Snack.  I’m not sure if every place I stop at will have these, but I did coordinate this maildrop to be in what looks to be the largest cities I stop at (e.g. Damascus). So hopefully I find them, but if not, I’ll improvise with what’s available. Another tin (thank you MREdepot!) of Pilot Crackers pair up with the cheeses. In addition, let me introduce to you a new product at Trader Joes that I LOVE. These “Fruit & Nuts” treats are tiny discs of just that … fruit and nut. In this box, we’ll have 3 of the Apricot Almond flavor (easily the best) per lunch, but keep an eye out for the others. Lastly, a savory snack of Goldfish crackers.

140 calories, 1.2 ounces, $0.60

Snack 7: KIND Bar. I don’t really have much to say about these, I’m pretty sure everyone has had them.  But they taste good and pack well.  I noticed that KIND has come out with quite a few new flavors, shapes and sizes of these in the past year … so at least you have some variety to keep it interesting.

660 calories, 4.7 ounces, $4.77

Dinner 7: Meaty Mashed Potatoes.  Ahh, Idahoan. You aren’t truly a backpacker until you become intimately familiar with these potatoes flakes.  Are they tasty? Yes. Do they come in many flavors? Yes. Will you be sick of them after 3 days of eating them in a row? YES!  I don’t know what it is, but these instant mashed potatoes just never really excite me for more than 1 day. So, I’ve spiced them up here to try and help. For each dinner, we’ll add 1/4 cup of dehydrated Harmony House broccoli florets, 1/4 freeze dried cheese, and 1/4 cup freeze dried ground beef. Throw in an olive oil packet for some more calories, and here’s hoping for a stomachable resolution to boring spuds.

200, 2.9 $0.99

Treat 7: Complete Cookie.  I tried to avoid these as they are usually expensive and heavy, but it turns out they have a smaller version sold at Trader Joes.  The Complete Cookies I found there are half the calories, but also half the weight and cost. So I picked up a few for dessert here.

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.