It Must Be TIME!

Hmmm…my head is full of trivia about shelters and distances and water-sources. My mouth aches from grinding my teeth in my sleep. The gear closet is mostly emptied. And the chaotic mountain of hiking “stuff” has been organized and contained in two simple backpacks.

It Must Be TIME! Time to head back to the woods. Time to get one more extended-release dose of nature before winter hits. Time to explore another piece of the Appalachian Trail.

We looked over our gear list. We set aside warm-weather clothes. We gathered a variety of layers for staying at the right temperature as we hike. (Goal: put layers on and off as needed to limit sweaty clothes. This helps us stay warm when we stop for a break or for the night.) We put together a cozy outfit for cold nights in camp. (By now, it is approaching freezing temperatures at night in the mountains down south.) AT hike_warm clothes

We went on a shopping expedition to the grocery store to fill our packs with 6 days of food. We like the foods we have tested on previous trips, so the shopping is quick and easy. Grab this, snatch that, pay the bill, out the door. But then the big job begins… repackaging this big pile… AT hiking_food supply

…into two food bags. (Daughter carries breakfast and dinner, I carry lunch and snacks.) Heavy bags right now, but lighter each day as we devour more and more of the supplies. AT hiking_food bags

This will be a short trip—just 6 days of hiking. We are wimps who prefer to avoid cold, rainy days. We even pushed back our departure so we will be driving on this gray, wet day instead of backpacking in the pouring rain. gray fall in Ohio

See you in a week! It IS time! We are headed to the woods!

(please don’t) Kick the Tires

Envision the stereotypical scene in the movies: gullible buyer steps onto a used-car lot, looking for a bargain. He haggles with the sleazy salesman and kicks the tires of the cars he is considering. What? Why kick the tires? Kick the tires

Theoretically, this was a way to figure out if the salesman’s story was true and the little old lady who only drove to church on Sundays really did take good care of the car. Checking the tires could show if they were properly inflated, had even wear (indicating good alignment and regular tire-rotation), and were replaced before the tread was totally bald.

Why talk about this on a blog about adventures? In the same way that taking proper care of tires hints at a well-cared-for vehicle, taking proper care of one’s feet increases the probability of completing a successful long-distance hike.

At home, I rarely ever think about my feet. On the trail, they are often in my thoughts…

At the first hint of a “hot spot” it is important to stop and cover that area. (A “hot spot” is any bit of skin that feels irritated, tingly, or “on fire.”) Many things can be used to lessen friction: moleskin, bandaids, cloth tape, duct tape. This simple step is the most effective way to prevent blisters. Tape the hotspots

Next, get the right socks for YOUR boots and YOUR feet. Most hikers have a favorite combination they swear by. For many, a thin liner sock and thicker outer sock work well to lessen friction on skin. I usually carry a second set of dry socks to switch into if needed on wet days. My little toes normally curl under the next toes, which caused huge blisters last fall. Using injinji toe sock liners this trip have solved that problem. Socks and liners

Of course, it is important to choose boots that fit comfortably. Getting input from others is fine…but you MUST have the right fit for YOU! With wide feet and a need to wiggle my toes, plus a desire for strong ankle support, I love my Salomons. Hiking boots

As a hiker, I won’t get far if my feet are uncomfortable or injured. Good foot care is critically important to success. When buying a used car, go ahead and kick the tires if you want to. But when backpacking, protect those feet and please don’t kick the tires…or anything else!

Goodbye, Comforts!

We head back to the Appalachian Trail this weekend to backpack for a month. We love being in the woods and are excited to set off on another adventure. However, this time we aren’t newbies. We know we are saying goodbye to many comforts of daily life at home. Before leaving, we chose to consciously say goodbye, reminding ourselves that we will enjoy these things even more deeply when we return home again.

aughter will miss the stuffed animals she sleeps with every night. She will spend even more time than usual outdoors, but on foot rather than on her kick-scooter. While backpacking everything must be as lightweight as possible since it all gets carried on our backs. This means daughter has limited access to costumes and her “weapon” collection. Her “gandalf” hiking staff, sticks and imagination will have to do…  stuffed animals_comfort_friends

kickscooter_outside fun

costumes_imagination

I said goodbye to my art supplies, carrying only a few nice pens and some sketch paper. I will miss my cozy chair near the window with a big pile of books at hand. Somehow the hard ground and limited time on a kindle just aren’t the same! And extra clothes stuffed in a sack doesn’t really replace my comfy pillow on a soft bed.  creativity_art supplies

comfy chair_stack of books

soft pillow

Both of us will miss taking a shower and choosing from a large selection of colorful, clean clothes every day. We will miss seeing my folks each week, including organ lessons from Grandma. And our form of sweet treats and location of rambling conversations will certainly be different!  daily shower

colorful clean clothes

sweet treats_rambling conversations

In the morning, we will say goodbye to our dog. She is already sad because we filled our packs. She knows we are leaving again. After our drive to the trail, we will say goodbye to hubby/dad.  sad dog

Partings bring sorrow…but adventures are sweet. Goodbye daily life…see you in a month!

“Hike Your Own Hike”

“We’re right on schedule, holding a line composed of principles I’ve carefully considered: I’ll run my own race and ignore everyone else. This time I’ll look ahead, never behind, concentrate on one mile at a time.” –Debbie Molderow, Iditarod Competitor (from “Fast into the Night”)

“Hike your own hike.” HYOH is a commonly used phrase among the long-distance backpacking community. At first glance, this appears to be a “duh” comment. Of COURSE, I will hike my own hike. I can’t hike for someone else, can I?

Over time, I realize this phrase is more complicated that it seems. Every hiker we meet along the trail has different ideas of what makes the ideal backpacking adventure. Comparing gear, food, and hiking styles is a common topic of conversation in the evenings. And most hikers hold strong opinions about these ideas! Hikers at an AT Shelter

Friends and family talk about how “brave” we are to set off on an outdoor adventure, thinking of the physical challenges. To be successful, we must also be brave enough to figure out what we personally want and need out of our hike. We need to “hike our own hike” in all areas of our trip: target weight to carry, type of food to eat, daily distance goals, hiking style (slow, fast, breaks, few breaks), where to stop at night. (*see our personal ideals below)

(thanks to Yaakob Gridley for this photo of us!)(thanks to Yaakob Gridley for this photo of us!)

Backpacking is an individual adventure. (Yes, I hike with my teen daughter. I love the time together, but considering the wants and needs of TWO people is always harder than “going it alone.” In our case, I’m the one that does most of the decision-making and planning.) I love to gather information and collect stories from others on what has worked (or not worked) for them. I enjoy sifting through what I find to figure out what would work best for ME. Asking for advice can be good, but eventually each individual must HYOH.  Solo Hiker

I’m a member of a number of online groups for long-distance hikers. I love the encouragement, the camaraderie, the commiseration, and the information that is shared. I do, however, have a pet peeve in these groups: it irritates me when someone asks others to tell them which XYZ they should buy or which section of the trail they should hike. What? How can ANYONE else decide what is best for someone else? It’s great to ask for information, but asking what piece of gear others use and why they love it (or hate it) or asking which section of trail others most enjoyed hiking in a specific season would be more useful questions. No one can decide what will work best for others, they can only share what works well for their own wants and needs. Then each individual must step out and make their own personal decisions.Hiking Fall Leaves

The reality is that if a hiker follows the directions of others and buys the “perfect” gear and sets off to hike the “best” section of trail, they might find that the backpack rubs their shoulders raw, they dread every attempt to put up a tent that takes an engineering degree to successfully set up, their ankles and knees ache from the wrong boots for their foot shape and hiking style, and the trail is a miserable experience of walking along cliff edges and clambering up huge rock faces for a person afraid of heights.

C’mon folks, HYOH means you need to gather information and personalize it for YOUR perfect hike at YOUR favorite time of year on YOUR preferred terrain!

* Here are things that worked well for us on our 6 week backpacking adventure on the AT last fall. Remember, gather information from many sources and decide what you think will work best for YOU as you “Hike Your Own Hike!” (And if you have posted your own lists online, please post a link below in the comment section. I would love to see the choices you made for your backpacking adventure…)

Target Weight to carry: 30 pounds each, including food and water

Our Gear: I will be writing an update on our gear list before we return to the AT later this spring. You can read my blog post HERE about choosing gear for our first backpacking adventure last fall. The gear list for that initial trip can be found on Trail Journals HERE 

Type of Food: Breakfast, lunch, and snacks were all easy to grab cold foods. We enjoyed hot chocolate/tea for breakfast and after supper. Our main meal in camp was made by adding hot water to dehydrated food then stirring in a pouch of tuna or chicken. You can read about our resupply routines HERE.

Daily Distance Goals: because we aren’t in good shape, we started our hike in the fall with 5-6 mile days. We were quite proud of the couple of times that we managed to push ourselves and cover 9 miles in one day! When we head out this spring, we will start slowly with 5-6 mile days but are aiming for regularly completing 9-10 miles.

Hiking Style: We tend to be slow hikers, wanting to notice and enjoy our surroundings along the trail. Both of us prefer to take short breaks every hour or so: just long enough to sit on a boulder, take off our packs, find another snack, and get back to walking. Before we started our trek, I envisioned a leisurely lunch break with time to sketch the scenery and write in our journals. The reality for us was that longer breaks led to muscles stiffening up which made it hard to force ourselves to get moving again!

Nightly Stopping Places: We aimed for shelters, preferring the social setting and the dry roof. Often shelters are farther apart than our daily distance goals, so we planned in advance where we wanted to camp that night. We were flexible about when and where to take “zero days” (sleeping two nights in one location, resting on the day between) but location of where to sleep and where to resupply were planned ahead. I wrote a blog post about this topic HERE.

Leaping into the New Year!

I’m an all-in, jump-right-in, leap-before-you-look kinda gal. The changing-of-a-calendar and moving-to-a-new-year transition always feels like the perfect opportunity to reinvent myself. So I make audacious, big-dream lists of a zillion new things I plan to explore and I fill my days with commitments. A few weeks into the new year I step back, take a look at my calendar and my to-do list, and freeze. There aren’t possibly enough hours in the day to achieve everything I want to accomplish!

A radical new look for the new year!

A radical new look for the new year!

Although my calendar for January is already too full for comfort, I have managed to avoid most of this drama. This year, I stepped back, took time to ponder (and pray), and chose just two new guidelines to follow in the coming weeks and months. Rather than leading to a place of being overwhelmed, I hope these simple things will help me continue to explore new things in a slower, saner way.

My overarching goal for this year is to SEEK BEAUTY. Although enjoying beauty in nature is certainly a necessity for me, this also includes looking for beauty in relationships, in being creative, in learning new things. Beauty is never merely sugary-sweet, but includes the pleasurable with the challenging. I made myself a reminder of this goal based on a photo I took of a little vignette my daughter made at the top of a difficult hill along the Appalachian Trail. Goal: Seek Beauty

To help remind myself of my goal to seek beauty this year, I also chose one word to focus my intentions for the year: PAUSE. I will always be an enthusiastic, look-at-the-positive person. But I hope to preface that leap-before-you-look tendency with at least a momentary pause to consider. I’m certain there will be no fewer adventures, and I will always be working on the next “Big Epic” in my life, but perhaps there will be fewer false starts and failed expectations. I’ll let you know how it goes! Intention: pause

I’m curious. How do YOU approach a new year? Are you cautious and careful, slow to change course? Or are you a “leaper” like me? I would love to hear your views in the comments below…

Research and Reality

Have you checked out the FAQ tab here on the blog? At the end of the list I explain the steps involved in considering a new Big Epic: “Brainstorming a big idea, researching what others have done, making extensive plans as to how this dream might be implemented, talking with friends, family (and yes, even strangers) about this big idea, abandoning the project if it is way too big for even me, and making the feasible plan(s) become reality.”

Obviously I brainstormed the idea of a long-distance hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail. At two weeks into our two month hike, this Big Epic has certainly become a reality. But what about the middle stages? What was involved in the research and planning steps before we left? And how does that compare to the realities we are now experiencing?

“I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Since high school, I have read books about folks who have completed epic hikes. (I’ve also read extensively about those who climb Mt. Everest—but that’s another story for another time.) In considering this trip, I conquered a mountain of books about the Appalachian Trail. Some I discarded as having little relevance to daughter and I. (Nope, we are not attempting to run the entire 2185 miles in less than two months. Nor was I looking for compulsively detailed reviews of each calorie consumed and every single shelter available along the length of the trail.) As I read, I took notes on any tips or hints that might come in handy for us. That became almost 30 typed pages (saved to my kindle for reference). Research

In addition to haunting our local library system for books, I did extensive research on the internet. I was especially interested in the experiences of families who hiked with their children. I needed to assess how feasible a long-distance hike would be with daughter as companion. If you wonder about families on the trail, check out these 2014 blogs from the Kallin Family and from the Tougas Family If you have some money to spare, definitely check out the video series put together by the Tougas Family.  The videos were both entertaining and informative! (This was the only way I could get daughter to investigate what to expect for our trip…) internet research

Finally, any of you who know me personally, know that I am the Queen of Lists. I made lists of possible routes, lists of gear, lists of food, lists of how to divide the weight between each of our packs, lists of school projects for daughter, lists of temperature averages, lists and lists. And, of course, I had to make a master list to keep track of all the lists! A few of the most important lists are on the trail with us (such as learning ideas and what is included in our daily rations). A few other lists are in our “bounce box” to use when we are in town (including a master shopping list for food resupply). (If you want to see a few of these detailed lists, I have posted them at Trail Journals.) Lists

A significant question is how closely my plans and research match the realities of the trail… (that sounds like a good topic for another post…coming soon!)

Be Careful Out There!

The most common question we have been asked about making a long-distance backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail has been “Is it SAFE?” The short answer is YES! The most significant way to be safe is to plan ahead. I’ve done extensive research to assure myself that this is a reasonable endeavor. I’m not generally a risk-taker about physical things. I’m careful without being fearful. (*Except heights…I’m terrified of heights*) Obviously, I would never want to cause nor allow harm to my daughter.

“A prudent camper is always asking ‘What if?’ in anticipation of potential human and natural hazards.”–from Hiking and Backpacking by the Wilderness Education Association

A number of friends have asked if we are carrying mace or pepper spray. Some have even wondered if I have a conceal/carry permit. Sprays have limited usefulness—needing to be kept close at hand and only being accurate at a short distance from the threat. In addition to being extra, unnecessary weight, guns are banned from most park service lands, including much of the Appalachian Trail corridor. No Guns

Many folks worry about human violence. Statistically, far fewer violent crimes occur along the AT than in any city. Backpackers are poor targets. They rarely carry anything of value. In addition, few criminals have any interest in hiking miles of challenging trail for the possibility of robbing or attacking someone. It is far easier to commit a crime and quickly escape while in an urban setting. We will take basic precautions such as camping further than a mile from any road crossing and not sharing details of our hiking plans with anyone—in person or online.

Others worry about being attacked by bears. This is actually a very rare occurrence. Black bears live near much of the AT, but these bears are shy and prefer to avoid humans if possible. It is recommended to sing or whistle while hiking so any bears in the area have time to move away. To avoid attracting bears (and other critters such as porcupines or raccoons) to our sleeping area, each night we will hang all food in a “bear bag” from a high tree limb at a distance from camp. While looking for illustrations for this point, it was interesting to see that the only photos of vicious looking bears were grizzly bears which are not found in the Eastern United States. Black Bears Are Shy

So what hazards are we likely to face? Driving to and from the trail is likely the most risky part of the entire trip! We need to carefully avoid poison ivy. Leaves of Three, Leave it BeHealth precautions such as filtering all water, burying human waste, and using hand sanitizer helps prevent illness. Being aware of weather conditions and taking appropriate measures avoid hypothermia are important. If one of us is injured, we are carrying basic first aid supplies. (Plus, I have certifications in Outdoor Emergency Care and as an EMT.) First Aid Supplies

For more safety tips, check out this page from the National Park Service. (But only if it will not make you MORE afraid for our safety!!)

While we are safe in the woods, be careful out there in the crazy world of modern life!

Last Minute Jobs and Jitters

In less than 12 hours our grand adventure begins. We will put on our backpacks, cinch the hip belt tight, and step into the woods. YIKES! Both of us have the jitters. I’m pushing away panic, wondering “what in the world was I thinking?!”

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” –Nelson Mandela

This morning I finished sorting through piles of papers and half-finished art projects. Hubby plans to do some house renovations and repairs while we are away and I certainly don’t want HIM to choose what to throw away and what to keep. (Please tell me that at least some of you are packrats…and that you understand what I’m talking about!)

Daughter and I finished cramming the last few items into our packs and hauled our things to the car. One last day of wearing my comfy jeans and favorite t-shirt, then it’s trail clothes (synthetic rather than cotton) and sturdy hiking boots for the next two months. One last night sleeping in a bed followed by a morning shower. One last session on my laptop before typing on a tiny screen on my phone when we get to internet in town. Backpacks Ready

Daughter finished the last performance of “The Suessification of Romeo and Juliet” at a local children’s theater. While she was busy with the play, hubby and I had one last “date.” For the next two months we will keep in touch by texts and phone calls on weekly town days. Seussification Actress

It’s quiet now in the hotel room near the trail (six hours from home). Hubby and daughter are both asleep. When I finish this post, I’m headed to bed, hoping to shut down my mind and get good rest. The jitters will hopefully disappear tomorrow when we say our goodbyes and head into the woods. It’s time for the next Big Epic to begin!

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

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!)