Nitty Gritty Details

We will be (mostly) living in the woods for two months. We will carry what we need on our backs. In general, most folks understand this concept. For those who have not been on a long-distance backpacking trip before, the details may be fuzzy. Most books and movies don’t show the nitty gritty of daily life on the trail. No Plumbing

There is no plumbing in the woods! No faucet to turn on for water. No shower or sink (or ready hot water) for cleaning. No toilets to do our “business.” Roughing it may sound manageable for a day or two…but how does a lack of modern amenities work for longer times?

There are streams and springs along the Appalachian Trail. In some places, the water might be clean enough to safely drink. To lessen risk and avoid getting sick, we will filter all water before drinking it.

Long-distance hikers quickly become dirty, smelly folks. Hair goes unwashed. Sponge baths are taken with a wet-wipe or with biodegradable soap and cold water (at a long distance from the water source to avoid contaminating it). Socks and underwear get hand-washed most evenings—since we are carrying just one pair to wear and one pair to be drying for the next day. Otherwise, the same clothes are worn day after day. Each week when we are in town for food and fuel resupply, we will savor a hot shower with plenty of soap and shampoo to get body and hair squeaky clean. In addition, we will do a big load of laundry to get smelly, dirty clothes clean again before heading back into the woods for another week of hiking.

Do you REALLY want to know about pottying in the woods?! Some of the lean-to shelters we might stay at overnight have outhouses nearby. Otherwise, we walk off the trail into the woods to do our business. Poop gets buried 6” deep. All toilet paper used gets packed out and disposed of at the next town. The same applies to monthly feminine pads. (See,  I knew you didn’t really want to know…)Potty in the Woods

The nitty gritty details show that…long-distance hiking is not for beauty queens!

Where in the World Is the Appalachian Trail?

AT sign

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a footpath that wanders up and down the mountains of the Eastern United States from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, Maine.

FACTS: (From the Appalachian Trail Conservancy)

  • The AT is approximately 2,180 miles long. (Relocations alter the distance every year, making exact figures difficult.) We will cover 10-15% of the trail in the two months we hike.
  • It is among the longest, continuously marked footpaths in the world! It takes approximately 5 million steps to complete the trail from one end to the other.
  • The AT passes through 14 states. During our two month adventure, we are starting in Maryland, will cross the state with the least amount of trail in just one day (WV with 4 miles), and spend most of our time in the state with the most miles of trail (VA with 550 miles).
  • There are more than 250 three-sided shelters along the trail—used by hikers in addition to or in place of tent-camping. Shelters and the trail itself are maintained by volunteers (who contribute 220,000 hours of work each year). We are carrying a tent with us to use most of the time.
  • About 2000 hikers attempt to “thru-hike” each year, with about 25% of them completing the challenge. Hikers include folks of all ages, ability levels, and fitness levels. Whew! We, too, can do this activity!
  • The total elevation gain for someone hiking the entire AT is equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times! (And “thru-hikers” average just 5+ months to hike the entire trail from end to end…) Okay, I admit it, this fact is both crazy and scary!
  • Almost 3 million visitors walk at least a short distance on the AT each year. But most of the year for most of its length a hiker sees few other people on the trail itself.

“The Appalachian Trail derives much of its strength and appeal from its uninterrupted and practically endless character. This is an attribute which must be preserved. I view the existence of this pathway and the opportunity to travel it, day after day without interruption, as a distinct aspect of our American life.” –Benton MacKaye

HISTORY: The AT is the same age as my dad! It was proposed in 1921. The initial path was completed in 1937 with continual relocations and improvements since then. In 1968, the AT became a National Scenic Trail and was placed under federal protection. In 1970 the first person completed a “thru-hike.” I started reading about and dreaming of hiking the AT in the late 1970s.

“Remote for detachment, narrow for chosen company, winding for leisure, lonely for contemplation, the Trail leads not merely north and south but upward to the body, mind and soul of man.” –Harold Allen

“Remote for detachment, narrow for chosen company, winding for leisure, lonely for contemplation, the Trail leads not merely north and south but upward to the body, mind and soul of man.” –Harold Allen

Why Spend Two Months in the Woods?

There are a handful of common reasons that folks take time away from “real life” to backpack on the Appalachian Trail (AT). It is often a “time between”—during a significant life transition. There is usually an element of adventure and a desire to spend time enjoying nature. Many non-hikers consider this to be a very outside-the-box idea. It’s reassuring to know that our reasons for taking this trip are actually COMMON among fellow adventurers!

We both fit the profile of being at a crossroads in life: I went back to university a few years ago and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in May, 37 years after my first college class. My daughter is transitioning back to being homeschooled (common for our kids) after a few years in public middle school. We are also at a decision-point as a family, trying to figure out “what’s next” including where to live and what work hubby and I want to pursue in this final decade before retirement.

And, yes, both daughter and I thrive on new adventures and on spending time in nature. We have spent time pondering WHY we want to take on this challenge. Here are a few of our thoughts:

Ready to Wander

Ready to Wander

WHY are you running away from something? What are you trying to escape? I worried about this question for a while. If I’m always running, I will never really work through struggles in life. But I’ve realized this is a case of running TOWARD: reaching for the next “big epic” in my life and finally attempting something I have read about and dreamed of since I was in high school many decades ago.

“Some folks think I’m crazy…some folks think I’m brave. Doesn’t really matter to me, it’s the EPIC that I crave!”

WHY two months rather than two days or two weeks? Because that’s how much time hubby offered me! *chuckle* But also because eight weeks is enough time to develop new habits of exercise and eating. And because it is long enough to be a true break in routine, a chance to step out of “real life” for an extended time to consider what I want to keep and what I want to eliminate once we get back home.

WHY go to the woods? What’s compelling about the Appalachian Trail? As I said above, both daughter and I enjoy time in nature. We anticipate the joys (and challenges) of living in a tent and walking in the woods. Daughter also spends time every day sketching and drawing. She wants to improve her skills in nature drawing…and this will give her plenty of scenery to practice on. Beyond fulfilling a dream, the AT is only a day’s drive away from our home. With 2185 miles to cover, it is long enough to keep us busy for many trips to come!

WHY isolate yourselves? Won’t you need social time since you are both extroverts? Although we will have plenty of time with no one near us, there are hundreds (thousands?) of hikers on the Appalachian Trail. We will likely stop each evening in the company of others at a shelter or a campsite. In addition, we will spend an overnight in town every week to resupply food and stove fuel. Daughter looks forward to the alone times in nature as a daily stress reliever while looking forward to time with others as a chance to practice reading social cues. I see this as an opportunity to practice living in the moment while meeting interesting people and hearing their stories.

Help! What Gear Do We Need?

We will be hiking in the woods for two months this fall. Everything we need will be carried on our backs, which means we must find light weight gear at the lowest possible price. That, of course, is always the dilemma: in the outdoor equipment world, the lighter the gear, the higher the price. In addition, there are a zillion gadgets and doodads available, to make life more comfortable while living outdoors. Well…more comfortable in camp, but every extra ounce makes the hiking more painful. HELP! How do we sort through all the options and find the best balance between weight and comfort and price?

We are among the lucky ones. We have not just one but two REI stores right here in town. What? You don’t recognize REI? It carries a wonderland of gear for every imaginable outdoor adventure. Don’t worry, the folks working here are friendly and full of information. Most of them will encourage your adventures (no matter how crazy) and will patiently answer a million questions. Let me introduce you:

Welcome to REI--doorway to adventure!

Welcome to REI–doorway to outdoor  adventures in every season!

We started our quest with the most important piece of gear: boots. For a long distance hike, we need footwear that is sturdy, gives good support, and is both breathable and waterproof. Most important of all, these boots must be comfortable. Unfortunately, the purple boots were too narrow for daughter to stuff her feet into. But she quickly found a comfy pair that at least has lavender laces and purple trim! Shoe shopping for me is usually a Goldilocks story: this pair is too tight, that pair rubs my anklebone, the other pair cramps my toes. Ahhh…but with the advice of an REI expert, the second pair of boots I tried on fit “just right.”

So many choices of boots

So many choices of boots

A few weeks later, we returned to the store to find a backpack for each of us. Our friendly REI worker measured our backs and explained the nuances of a proper fit. Again, daughter quickly found a pack that is comfortable. She loves that it is bright green with a big yellow (silk) flower attached. I love that the frame is adjustable, just in case she grows another inch or two in the future. It took me longer than finding boots, but eventually I found a pack that has a long enough hip belt, comfortable shoulder straps, and ventilation behind my back.

A Rainbow of Backpacks--in every size, style and color!

A Rainbow of Backpacks–in every size, style and color!

Finally, we had to choose a sleeping bag and tent. Who knew that there were so many options?! REI has a handy-dandy bench on which to lay out a pad and sleeping bag, then climb in to try it out. I was relieved to find a modified mummy bag: I hate being wrapped tightly at night! We also piled into a tent to check the space. Yep, it is worth the extra weight to gain a few extra inches of floor space since daughter is a restless sleeper.

Try out the gear--right on the sales floor at REI!

Try out the gear–right on the sales floor at REI!

In choosing gear, it is certainly possible to do online research and make online purchases to save pennies here and there. But I have become a loyal REI member: all products returnable for up to one year, generally competitive prices, and the ability to test out and try on everything in the store. Best of all, the staff is WONDERFUL! Check them out next time YOU are considering an Epic Outdoor Adventure!

THANKS for your patience in answering a zillion questions over a million visits, Mark!

THANKS for your patience in answering a zillion questions over a million visits, Mark!

(Details of our gear list can be found on Trail Journals HERE. Product reviews and specifications can be found at the REI website HERE. Note: I have no affiliation with REI…I just love the store, its products and its staff!)

How I Got to a Wilderness Epic

I crave change. Being outdoors offers so many possibilities for enjoying ever-changing variations: moving water, clouds floating past in a bright blue sky, leaves rustling in a breeze. It makes little difference to me if I’m active or sitting quietly, being surrounded by nature soothes my soul. For many years, that pleasure has mostly been found in my backyard or in a city park. So how did I get to the point of embarking on a wilderness adventure?

When I was young, our family stayed in campgrounds rather than “wasting” money at hotels. My sisters and I were responsible for pitching our own “pop-up” tent—a behemoth of heavy canvas with plenty of space for all three of us. We enjoyed campfires, and washing dishes by hand, and wandering paths in surrounding woods.

I might have lacked fashion...but I had FUN!

I might have lacked fashion while hiking…but I had FUN!

Before my first year of university, I spent two wonderful weeks on a “Wilderness Challenge” in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. We backpacked for 5 days and canoed for another 5 days, portaging between lakes. We were each dropped off on our own private tiny island for two days of solitude. On another day, I was fascinated by—and terrified by—rock climbing and rappelling on cliffs dropping down to a lake shore.

After getting married, we occasionally camped, especially when my mom and I were traveling with the kids. Our family still laughs about the time a little one woke me up in the middle of the night, afraid of the growling bear outside the tent…yep, grandma snored that loud in the neighboring tent! Many years later, my mom was the one worried about bears when we escaped home responsibilities for a 3 day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Tennessee. I was hooked…dreaming of the day when I could finally spend an extended time living in the wilderness while hiking the AT.

Mom and I enjoy our first backpacking adventure on the AT

Mom and I enjoy our first backpacking adventure on the AT a decade ago

Many things have changed in the intervening years. Our large family is mostly grown and is scattered across the country. We have survived tragedy and have had the joy of a few “Big Epics.” After a time to regroup and reorganize our lives, we are reaching another transition point. As always, I crave change…but, it is not yet time to move on.

This summer my hubby asked me where I would go and what I would do if I could get away for two months. In that moment, I realized it was time to pursue the next “Big Epic.” We may not (yet) be able to make big changes in our living situation, but it IS time to chase that dream of a long hike on the AT. My daughter and I are making plans and gathering equipment, getting ready to spend two months living in the wilderness, carrying everything we need in our backpacks! Wish us luck!

Welcome to the Latest “Big Epic”

In May, I finished a Big Epic started 37 years ago: I finally graduated from University with a Bachelor’s Degree. I assumed this would be followed by finding a part-time job. But real life got in the way, and it has become clear that I will continue to be a stay-at-home, home-schooling Mom for awhile longer.

After feeling quite lost for a few months, I am now planning the next “Big Epic.” In the coming weeks, I will explain more about the outdoor adventure my youngest daughter and I will be pursuing this fall. I hope you will join us for an armchair adventure!