Let me let you in on a secret. Hiking and camping are just OK. Being out of doors, meeting new people and having interesting experiences is the reason I backpack. With the long Labor Day weekend, I had a great opportunity for extra time on the trail. Part of my goal for this hike (and all my hikes this year) is to refine my gear for a future thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. I’ll fill you in on my very wet night near the end of this post, but the short version is that I won’t be using the new tent. Back to the drawing board on selecting a shelter!
I went to Neel Gap along US19 (mile marker 31.7 on the AT) and parked at the Byron Reece Parking area. You have to walk straight up Blood Mountain from the parking lot for almost a mile just to join the Appalachian Trail. It’s a true test of your legs and the weight of your pack. By the time I reached the top I was progressing about 10 steps at a time, with a stop for breath. It’s the highest point of the A.T. in Georgia. I looked over the shelter at the top, one of the few rock buildings. It was constructed by the C.C.C. during the depression. The view is amazing, but with no water source and Thunderstorms forecast, it wasn’t where I wanted to spend the night. Besides, the rain would help me check out my tent. So I turned back down and walked the two miles to the road.
Just across US19 is Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi (Wa La See Yee). It’s an historical stone building also constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The facility was completed in 1937 (the same year as the Appalachian Trail). The A.T. passes through the building, the only covered portion of the trail. The stop is a haven for hikers with bunks, cold drinks, showers, laundry services and gear. When a thru hiker reaches Neel Gap (or is it Neel’s Gap?) they’ve probably spent 3-5 days on the trail. It’s a taste of what they face if they choose to complete the almost 2,200 miles to Maine. What is abundantly clear at this point is that most are carrying too much on their backs. They may also realize they don’t have the right equipment. This is the place to spread out every item and get a second opinion of what will improve the experience. Most take advantage of the service.
I met Will, who works and lives at Mountain Crossing. The “new management” at the outfitters and hostel turn out to be a couple of his friends and it’s obvious Will is more than just an employee. We talked gear for a few minutes and then he offered to show me the bunks, which are about to be completely remodeled. They had just gotten the air conditioning to work that day and the stone walls and floor did seem to be drying out a bit.
I met Reba (who goes by the trail name Seeker) doing 40 days on the trail. She is a larger women (not that I’m in a position to talk). She mentioned she had grown kids and a grandchild, but she didn’t look older than late 30s to me. Seeker admitted to no previous camping or backpacking experience when she started at Springer (30+ miles away). That’s more common that you’d think. When she started, her brand new JanSport pack weighed more than 50 pounds and dug into her shoulders. The scars were still visible. At the first opportunity she hitched a ride into town, got a hotel and sent about 10 pounds of mostly clothing back home, including cotton t-shorts and cargo pants. Back on the trail, she had no stove, mistakenly thinking she could build fires each night to cook. But the constant rain of July and August has made that impossible. Besides, fires are both dangerous and non-sustainable. Coming up Blood Mountain, she considered quitting, but the view was worth the climb and she redoubled her resolve. At Neel Gap, Will helped her pare down even more. Now at 38 pounds, including water and food, she was still holding onto her large free standing tent and her cotton “pajamas” to sleep in and use in town. Will was still trying to talk her out of them. She plans to continue with no stove, but says she is already bored of the food. She left several items in the hiker box that she didn’t think she could face again.
I hiked on North from Neels Gap with fond thoughts of Seeker. She plans to hike to whole trail next year and will be starting in early April. I hope to meet her again. She was spending the night in a bunk at Mountain Crossing where a friend would meet her that afternoon for a day hike. With the oncoming rain, I was tempted to do the same. I think she is proof that it isn’t about expert knowledge or physical prowess on the A.T. She had made the first 30+ miles of the trail and now knew much more than she’d started with. No doubt this “University of Backpacking” will continue to teach her—and me—lessons. And she wasn’t getting off the trail yet. This was just her first week. Seeker said she was a bit disappointed in her average of 8 miles a day, but I told her I thought that was excellent. The Georgia section is hard, particularly when you are just learning, refining your gear and still getting into shape. And she’d faced a lot of rain. Success is about moving forward and not quitting. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Something else Seeker faced was bear. I was warned about them by every person I talked to. Everyone (except me) spotted them. Black bear have been very active this year in the Georgia section, even after hunters took out several. Seeker told me a story about a bear circling her campsite two nights before. He snorted repeatedly then finally hit the back of her tent, striking the bottom of her feet, before ambling off into the woods. She said she was balled up the fetal position waiting to die. Wouldn’t you be? She had her food in the bottom of her sleeping bag with her, which is what attracted the bear. The story may sound fantastic, but I have heard it dozens of times. Obviously, the bear could have easily gotten the food, tearing the thin walls of the tent and killing her if it chose. It walked away instead. Hikers the next day showed her how to properly hang her food. Talk about learning lessons! This is a mistake she won’t repeat.
Everyone says that hanging your food is important. Every hiker, every blog, every book recommends it. But in practice, I find only slightly more than half actually do it. It’s one of the reasons that I’m leery of shelters. I’ve had some good experiences there, but it just takes one idiot to endanger the entire shelter. But I suspect the mice—far more prevalent and destructive than bear—will keep most of them from bringing food under roof.
I don’t have a great throwing arm but I do my best to hang my food from a tree limb, at least 8 feet up (10 is better). Every. Single. Night. The first priority is to get it several yards away from where I’m sleeping. I am convinced that a bear that seriously wants my food can still get it. My goal is to make it difficult, but it isn’t impossible to lose all your provisions to a bear. I might have to miss a couple meals, but it’s a small price to pay. I go further and try very hard not to cook in the spot that I’ll be camping. I stop for my big meal early in the day then hike on, leaving the smells of my dinner behind me. Bear may have poor eyesight, but they have exceptional noses. This night I forgot and left my toothpaste out of the bear bag. It was after dark when I realized it, so I simply took it several yards away and left it on a stump. In the morning, both the bag and the toothpaste were right where I had left them.
About 4:30p I could hear the thunder coming closer. I came to an empty tent site and decided to quickly erect my Contrail from Henry Shires at TarpTent.com. This was my fourth trip with the tent, but the first with rain. I already had serious concerns even though Backpacker Magazine has rated it highly. This sounded like a storm to test it in. Daylight conditions are always better for testing and in case of a complete failure, I was only 2 miles from the hostel.
It was raining hard before I had the shelter all the way up, but I find it’s better to take your time and get it right. It’s a small tent and it took advanced gymnastics to change out of my wet shirt. There’s nowhere to hang wet things inside tent and nothing to attach a line to create space. The pockets for keeping odd items hang directly over the side “ventilation” mesh netting. The actually attract the water, letting it run into the tent. Useless. For a single wall tent, the ventilation has to be good to avoid condensation, hence the mesh around the bottom of the tent. But the ventilation is too good since there is no way to reduce it for blowing rain. I had to use the air mattress to stay out of puddles. I kept my sleeping bag in plastic.
In the close quarters, it’s impossible to sit up, so I simply lay there for an hour, mopping up puddles and hoping the shower wouldn’t last long. I could smell my body, but with less than a day and just 5 miles under my belt, it was actually a pleasant aroma. It reminded me of trail riding on the farm when I was a kid–wet leather and sweaty horse hide. I’m sure the scent wouldn’t be so welcomed after a week without a shower!
The tent is a disaster. The rain only lasted an hour, but it was clear that it simply won’t work on the trail. I can deal with the close quarters, but when I tried to rearrange the set up to get a more taunt profile and (perhaps) reduce the exposed mesh, one of the stakes broke. I am checking now to see if the manufacturer will let me return it.
Still, a wet day on the trail beats a cubicle any day!