Four Pines Hostel is located near Catawba, VA.
Since owner Joe Mitchell and his girlfriend Donna took me to Trail Days in Damascus and back, I’m forever in their debt. I also stayed two nights, May 18-19, in their hostel, a converted 3 car garage with a bath, shower, 2 refrigerators, and a stove. If the 8 beds and 3 couches fill up, there’s two barns to sleep in as well. And it filled up both nights I stayed.
Sunday we drove back from Damascus, unloaded the truck and collapsed for the night.
Monday Miss Donna offered to slack pack me a fairly easy 6 miles from 311 southbound to the hostel. It was a good way to slowly get back into hiking.
While I enjoyed Joe, I really related to Donna. She’s witty (“if that’s true Joe, I’ll kiss your A** and give you a week to gather a crowd,”) and hard working. And I suspect she’s already dug the hole for the body of the first woman who flirts a little too long with Joe.
many thanks to them both. The hostel takes donations, which help keep it open. When I commented that you have to be a little crazy to hike this trail or take in people who do, Miss Donna said, “Ah, don’t fool yourself. Those are the only sane ones out there.”
This is the third and final part of the three part tale of my shakedown hike on the AT. I start this section at Woody Gap (AT mile marker 21) on day four.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of rain. By morning everything is wet. The fog is so thick I can’t see across the road. At 6:30a I pull my backpack into the tent with me. The vestibule has kept the backpack and my shoes dry, despite high wind. There’s enough room in the two person tent that I can pack up inside, keeping key items completely out of the elements. The additional weight of the two person tent seems well worth it at this moment! While the clothing I hike in will certainly get wet if this rain continues, I can keep my camp clothes dry to sleep in overnight. And it’s essential that my down sleeping bag (Big Agnes, Juniper SL 25F, Petite Rated to 26F for Women) and the air mattress it lays on (Big Agnes, Insulated Air Core, rectangular, 20×66) stay dry if I want to sleep warm tonight. Down is worse than useless if it’s wet. I keep these critical things that must stay dry in a trash compacter bag at the bottom of my backpack. I’m not carrying a backpack rain cover since I’ve had little luck with them. The backpack (GoLite, Jam 70L) sheds some water and all items are in Sil-Nylon stuff sacks, but it’s the trash compactor bag I count on.
In a perfect world, I’d like to make it to the hostel at Neels Gap tonight, Mountain Crossings. My AWOL Trail Guide says it’s 10 miles. The signs say 11. (But I trust AWOL!) The distance is bad enough, but the first 8 miles is almost entirely uphill, to the peak of Blood Mountain, the highest spot on the AT in Georgia. And I’m a flatlander. There is an historic stone shelter, built by the CCC, on top, but it has no water. To make matters worse, the Blood Mountain shelter is, IMHO, the coldest spot in Georgia, being very exposed. (Aside: I stayed there one clear Fourth of July night and nearly froze. Atop the huge boulder beside the shelter you can watch three fireworks displays from nearby towns, but by the time it’s over, it’s too dark to hike down the mountain. I had a summer weight sleeping bag and the temperatures had been near 90F at the base of the mountain that afternoon. Who knew?) I don’t want to stay there, so I either need to camp short of the summit, or I go all the way into the hostel. Since I’m trying to pace myself, I decided my goal will be the Woods Hole shelter (AT mile marker 28.1). That puts me at a leisurely (<cough>) 7.1 trail miles for the day, even if it is all up hill.
This was a safe and completely do-able plan. And I really, really should have followed it.
But first, I need to say goodbye to Fresh Ground and my new friends at the Leapfrog Café. There’s fresh coffee and new stories. There’s bacon and eggs and fried potatoes. I hate to pull myself away from these lovely people. This was my latest morning start yet, but the slowest hiker on the trail needs to get moving. The rain was slackening by the time I left, but it was afternoon before the first rays of sunlight came out.
Despite the hills, I make fair time. This is the section of the AT that I know best, having hiked it a dozen or more times. This summer, most of my overnight camps started from Woody Gap. But the woods are always changing with the seasons and the weather conditions. The rain brought out so many snails. I stepped over a dozen of them today, though I’d not seen a one earlier in the week. Other detritus feeders included huge, red millipedes and a couple slugs. I also saw a very tiny salamander. His waistline must have been an eight of an inch around. It was cold enough that he was easy to catch. He seemed to like my warm hands.
And there’s a surprising number of people to meet. I stood on the trail for 15 minutes talking to a southbound hiker, Pivot Dude, who would finish his thru hike the next day. There were three different groups of retirees out to enjoy the day and each talked for a few minutes with me.
I kept my rain jacket out the entire day, but not really to protect me from rain. I used it to stop the brutal wind. You are constantly moving from windward to leeward side of the mountain, from exposed to sheltered area. I quickly began wearing the jacket backward when needed, so I didn’t have to stop and take my pack on and off. Not a fashion statement, but effective.
By 3:00p I’d easily hiked my 7 miles and made it to Woods Hole shelter. Or should I say the path to the shelter, because it’s a half a mile off the trail. I’m not alone. There are three men already setting up space in the shelter. But they are a friendly group and offer to fill my collapsible water bucket for me while I set up my tent. Chivalry is not dead! Just as I get the tent set up, they come back saying that the water source is dry. I’ve had my main meal of the day so I don’t need a lot of water, but I’ve only got about 16 ounces. I consult my trail guide and see that the next water source is a half mile farther on. I decided if I have to walk a half mile out of the shelter and another half mile farther north, I don’t want to turn around and hike back here. I’m going to take down the tent and keep moving.
So that’s what I do. Except the second water source is also dry. At this point I’ve hiked a total of 8.5 miles with my pack. I’m roughly at mile marker 28.5 and my trail guide doesn’t indicate any more water between me and my final destination. This is one of those good news/bad news situations. The good news is that the hostel is just 2.5 miles away. It would be a long mileage day, but I could stay at the hostel in a bed tonight and even get a shower. The bad news is that it’s now about 4pm, I have only an hour and a half of daylight left and Blood Mountain stands between me and the hostel. I can hike 2.5 miles, but I just don’t know if I can hike uphill anymore today.
So here are my options: A. Camp near where I am now or B. start hiking and probably make it to the hostel after dark, using my headlamp.
I should have chosen A. I stupidly choose option C. There’s a side path called the Lemrock Trail, what we call a blue blaze trail. I consult my trail guide which says simply it “by-passes Blood Mountain” rejoining the AT past the shelter on the other side. Whoo Hoo! A shortcut! I don’t have to hike over the mountain!
Except it isn’t a shortcut at all. it turns out to be a FOUR mile, rock strewn, poorly marked, narrow path on the side of a mountain! But I don’t know that. YET. I start boulder hopping and it never stops. I’m trying to move carefully among the loose rocks and wet, slick leaves. I also need to move quickly because nightfall is approaching and I don’t know how far I have to go. (I only find out it’s four miles after I get home and look it up.) There is no flat ground on either side of the trail. It’s straight up to my left and straight down to my right. The path is hard to follow when it goes through boulders or where the leaves are thick. Those blue blazes are few and far between, too. I breathe a sigh of relief each time I see one. I’m grateful that a recent hiker had been eating pistachios. Whoever heard of following a trail of pistachio shells? I keep moving. This trail has to join up with the AT soon, right? Right!?!
I’m tired and my feet were tender before all these rocks. Now, every step hurts. I slip and scrap my leg. My hiking poles save me several times, but there’s one fall–entirely in slow motion–where I go completely down to the ground. Finally, I almost face-plant into a boulder. I’m relieved my arms are strong enough to brace me in a fall, even when wearing a backpack. But my thumb is numb for the rest of the evening.
This was so stupid. Nothing in my guidebook said this was a shortcut. I assumed it would be both short and easy. Idiot. Now I’m off trail and if I hurt myself and can’t walk out, no one will know where to look for me and this trail isn’t heavily traveled. I can’t fall again. And frankly I don’t have time to keep falling…..er….walking. I look at the sky and estimate I have 15 minutes of daylight. It’s time to make a new plan. Quickly.
I can’t set up a tent on the side of the mountain because the angle is too steep. I can’t set up among these huge rocks either. I can’t hike in the dark through boulders and loose rock on a trail I can’t see, even with a headlamp, and besides I’m too tired anyway. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I have a semi-freestanding tent and I find a 6 foot section of the path that doesn’t have any boulders on it. I move aside the loose rocks and set up right on the trail. The path is about the width of my shoulders, or roughly the width of my sleeping pad. I can’t stake the tent, but the rain fly attaches directly to the tent in three places. It’s not ideal, but it will work. I’ve never loved my portable shelter more! By the time I have the tent up it’s too dark to hang my food bag properly, but I take it well down the trail, away from my tent, in the direction I’ll hike out in the morning. I hang the bag on the highest limb I can reach without stepping off the trail into thin air. Or at least that’s how it seems. I’m using my headlamp but it’s the weakest link in my equipment. The light isn’t strong enough to reach the ground. It’s too weak to be useful except to read a book with.
I crawl into the my shelter, such as it is. The only level floor is my sleeping pad, but it’s enough room to sleep if I just don’t roll off.
And here’s the kicker: I’m not lost. I can’t see headlights through the trees, but I can hear the cars on the pavement below. I can hear people talking in the shelter above me. I’m safe. I’m warm and dry. I’ve got food and a little water. It’s actually a bit warmer this evening and I’m sheltered from the wind. And when I turn on my iPhone I have two bars and 3G! I’m able to send an email to my mother saying cryptically, “I didn’t quite make it to the shelter this evening, but I’m safe in my tent on the trail.”
Well, it’s true. I would never lie to my mother.
I drink half my water and save the other half for morning. My feet ache for 2 hours before I can fall asleep, but they are not blistered. The scrap on my leg is superficial. Even when it starts to rain, I stay dry, though the sides of the tent are quite damp by morning since the rain fly isn’t staked properly.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
I wake before dawn and pack up. I hoist my backpack and start walking. My food bag is still where I left it. And that’s when I realize just a few more steps beyond is the end of the blue blaze trail. It was too dark with my poor headlamp to see it last night. I rejoin the AT and stride the gentle 1.5 miles downhill to Mountain Crossing. I’ve made it! It starts to rain again, but I don’t care. I’m at the only section of the AT that’s under roof, the breezeway between the hostel and the outfitters.
The outfitters isn’t open, but the ladies room is. I clean up as best I can and change into my camp clothes which are marginally clean, or at least less sweaty and smelly. I eat the last granola bar. By 9am I figure it is not too early to call for a shuttle driver. Ron promises to be there in 35 minutes. Just enough time to replace that headlamp at the outfitters. As a reward, I buy an individual chocolate pie for breakfast.
What I Learned/Remembered
Don’t push yourself too hard on any individual day. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The key to finishing is moving forward consistently.
Don’t be an idiot. Stay on the trail.
I was carrying an emergency bivy sack and an extra set of clothes. I didn’t need them. Dropping these items, along with a handful of other small things, will save me about 3 pounds. This brings my winter pack weight (not counting the clothes I’m wearing to hike during the day) to 27 pounds (includes all gear, clothing, 4 pounds of water and 4+ days of food). I’m getting closer to my 25 pound pack weight goal.
I’m investigating some new rain gear call the Packa. I think this might be an improvement to the Frogg Toggs,
This thru hike will be difficult, but within my abilities. I can do this.
If you’d like to see my full list of the gear I’m carrying, check out my Appalachian Trail Hike tab. For the most detailed and up to date info, check out the backpacking spreadsheet on that page.
I’m preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike next year. In addition to physical and mental preparation, I’m working through what gear to carry. My goal is to have less than 25 total pounds for a week’s hike, including food, water and fuel. One of the key items is the sleep system, since getting a good night’s rest is paramount. Hiking for 6 months across the eastern United States is hard, physical labor and you can’t do it on a couple hours of fitful sleep. As I’ve said before, the weight of your pack is all about what you are afraid of. My biggest fear is being wet and cold and freezing to death, so it’s not surprising that this category is a heavy one, over 4 pounds.
I chose a down bag to keep the weight-to-warm ratio high. I upgraded from my Mountainsmith Vision 15F bag (under 2 pounds) because of moisture. The down feathers and the outer cover of the Big Agnes bag are treated to repel water. That adds weight, but a wet bag is worse than useless—it’s heavy and it won’t keep you warm. I also plan to carry the bag loosely in a trash compactor bag inside my pack, rather than forced into a stuff sack. It’s been my experience that I’m colder each successive night of a long hiking trip. I theorize that the loss of loft in the bag is a big part of this issue. It’s the trapped air inside the loft that keeps you warm. If you keep crushing it into a tiny stuff sack the bag simply traps less air.
A silk liner will add 8-10 degrees Fahrenheit on a cold night. And it can keep your bag cleaner, reducing the number of washings (since that will eventually wear off the anti-water treatment). Wear it on the inside to protect your bag from your dirty clothes and body. Wear it outside your bag to protect it from the surroundings (like at a hostel). And in the summer I can use it as a light sleeping cover. This is an item I’ve had for years. Personally, I slip the silk liner over the outside of my bag because it don’t lose it in the dark recesses of the bag. I’ll also slip the foot of my sleeping bag into my backpack (and the trash bag liner) if my feet are still cold. I also keep an extra fluffy pair of socks just for sleeping in and will add my coat, gloves and hat if I need it.)
This is an area that I could cut some weight on, but at least for the colder parts of the hike, I want the comfort and warmth of a full length air mattress. I sleep cold. The Big Agnes pad gives me some reflective heat AND it will insulate me from the ground. Plus it’s long and wide enough that I won’t have any part of my body on the cold, hard and possibly wet ground. I can switch to a closed cell foam to reduce weight. This pad replaces an older model Therm-a-Rest, which has served me well, but weights too much.
As an aside, I gave the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Sleeping Pad a very serious look. Though horribly expensive (about $200) they weigh less than a pound and have a shiny, space blanket material inside to reflect back your body heat. But honestly I rejected it because of noise. I don’t want to hear it every time I move. It would be like sleeping on a bag of potato chips. And it looks fragile.
(THIS ITEM HAS CHANGED. I’VE REPLACED THIS WITH THE Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad, R, 20×72 AT 16 OUNCES. Part of the change was weight, but also the amount of time/energy it took to blow up the mattress. The Therm-a-rest is partially self inflating.)
Bivy (NOTE: After a November shake down hike, I ditched this item. With a better tent, I didn’t need it. If I were starting my hike in early March or–heaven forbid–February, I’d carry it.)
I’ve had the SOL Emergency Bivy in the trunk of my car for months and I’ve carried it once or twice on a trip, but I hadn’t even unrolled it from the tiny stuff sack until my last trip. At 4 ounces and $17, it’s surprising how nice this is. Totally reflective inside to trap heat so it might add up to 10 degrees F on a cold night. But the material is both tough and stretchy so it doesn’t tear like an emergency space blanket. It’s large enough to fit my sleeping bag, sleeping pad and me inside. And it doubles as a ground cloth. That’s a lot for 4 ounces. I’ll destroy it within a couple months of hiking, but by then it will be warm weather and I won’t need it. And they’re cheap to replace. Most bivys are $150+. Even the SOL Escape Bivy is $50 and double the weight. It’s possible that I don’t need both the bivy and the liner. I certainly won’t need this item in summer.
Call me a wimp….
..but I need a pillow. Lately, I’ve been carrying my clothing in a stuff sack that has a silky feel on one side and a brushed surface on the other (fairly heavy for a stuff sack). I’ve used it as a pillow by stuffing extra clothing into it. That works as long as you have extra clothing to put into it. But the essence of Ultralight backpacking is to avoid “extra” weight. I’ve just added the Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Travel Pillow to improve my sleep. I’ve ditched the stuff sack and will just keep it inside my sleeping bag. According to the advert, it weights 2.4 ounces. My scale says it’s 3 without the stuff sack. Grrrrrr
TOTAL WEIGHT FOR SLEEP SYSTEM: 68 ounces
(With changes, this category now includes a Therm-a-Rest Stuff Sack Pillow, rust at 2 ounces. The total weight is now 60 ounces)
I’m preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. In addition to physical and mental preparation, I’m working through what gear to carry. My goal is to have less than 25 total pounds for a week’s hike, including food, water and fuel. To do this, I’ll need to have my base weight (non-consumable items) well below this total. This is key to Ultralight backpacking.
Most of the weight comes down to these four things, and I need their total to be under 10 pounds:
Today I focus on my choice of backpack, which is very key. It determines how much volume and weight you can carry. After a lot of consideration I bought a GoLite, Jam 70L, $120. It only holds 30 pounds, expands to 70 liters, but it’s made of “stronger-than-steel Dyneema® and Ripstop Nylon.” It also sheds water (which is not the same as waterproof, BTW). It weighs more than I wanted, though. The Jam 70L is listed at 31 ounces, but I weighed it at 33. I could have bought the 50L, but that would have only saved an ounce (and $10). With the unique “load lifters controls” at the bottom of the pack, I’ll have more room for bulky, winter gear during the colder months and can easily cinch up the bottom and sides during warmer months when the room isn’t needed. It’s important that I’m able to take up the slack in the pack from the bottom since I want the weight carried high on my body. A consideration that came up later is my desire to pack my down sleeping bag loosely. It’s not the bag that keeps you warm, it’s the trapped air. Keeping the bag loose means you don’t squash down the loft of the insulation every day by forcing it into a tiny stuff sack. But the most important consideration with any sleeping bag is keeping it DRY. It’s doubly important with a down bag.
No doubt, one of the reasons I bought this pack is that I had great experience with an earlier GoLite product, an early Sil-Nylon version. It was a bit fragile, but I’ve managed to patch it successfully (if not attractively)with duct tape. I always hated the orange color, though, so it’s a good thing that backpacking is not a fashion statement. The Jam was named Backpacker Magazine’s 2012 Best All-Around Ultralight Pack. That helped too.
Thirty three ounces is 21% of my total goal weight for the key four items (10 pounds = 160 ounces). Is that too much?
Here are two thoughts I’ve mulled around:
1). I may have bought the wrong pack. My friend Skittles carries something the size of a day pack. Maybe I need to go back to my ugly orange pack? Or maybe he’s just a more rugged individual than I am? The weight of your pack is a measure of your fear. What am I afraid of? Well, being wet and cold and freezing to death. Yeah, that’s it.
2). Here’s a radical idea: Mike Clelland says in his book Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips to cut away anything you don’t need. “Get the scissors and go to town on your pack. This is one place you can really clear away some significant ounces.” Yikes!
Well, I have to admit that the straps on this thing are exceptionally long, so maybe I can trim them off. And I never use the inner hydration bladder pocket. (Maybe it works for you, but one leak is all you need to soak your sleeping bag and clothes.) Mike recommends deeper cuts—like modifying the opening or removing the side compression straps—but I’m not sure I can make myself do that. Yet.
So I got out my scissors and began trimming extra-long straps and tags. I removed one set of the side compression straps that I thought were redundant and pretty useless. I found a few labels to remove. But it only added up to an ounce. Still, it’s an ounce. If you do this, remember to take an open flame to the end of the nylon straps after you trim. Just lightly melt the edge to seal them. Fast and easy with no sewing.
I’ve kept the hydration pocket for now, but it may go later. I’d like to keep it for storage.
And, though I bought the pack cover that goes with the Jam, my good hiker friend Skittles assures me that no pack cover will keep a pack dry in a serious downpour. He recommends Glad compactor trash bags as a liner for the pack. They are durable, weigh about an ounce and are cheap (a box of 4 cost $3). The white color makes it easy to find things inside of them. Not taking the cover will save 4 ounces (But I spent $15 I didn’t need to).
And there are other advantages of the Glad trash compactor bags. They are large enough to carry my sleeping bag loosely while still leaving room for clothing and other items that must stay dry. It can also double as a small ground cover beneath me in the event of damp ground/flooring. And, though I’ve never tried it, I’ve read that they can go over the bottom of a sleeping bag to help keep it dry and keep you a bit warmer in very cold conditions. That’s a lot to get for one ounce of weight!
TOTAL WEIGHT OF PACK AFTER MODIFICATION: 33 ounces
I’m preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. In addition to physical and mental preparation, I’m working through what gear to carry. My goal is to have less than 25 total pounds for a week’s hike, including food, water and fuel. Today I focus on the water system.
Water Purifying System
The Appalachian Trail has lots of running water. Of course, it’s mostly running in rivers, springs, and ponds. So you need water carrying containers and a way to purify the water you find along the trail.
I’ve long since ditched those nice fancy water bottles (at about 7 ounces each and $10-12) and just carry a couple empty soda bottles, plus a spare lid. It’s not fancy, but the bottles weight almost nothing—an ounce each when you remove the label and the little plastic ring near the lid. If I lose or damage one, I don’t feel badly. Plus, I’m recycling! For years I’ve been using the MSR Sweetwater Water Filter Pump and I’ve been very happy with it. When it clogs, it’s easy to take apart and clean out with the brush (included). A new system cost about $90 at REI. Replacement filters are about $45. BUT it weights 26 ounces (including filter, tubing, pre-filter, brush) and a backup filter is another 16 ounces. And I still have to carry an additional treatment to kill viruses, so add another 2 ounces! Based on my own hikes and on the advice of a longtime backpacker, Skittles, I believe that most of the water along the AT is fairly clean. My goal will be to use clear, sediment free water and treat it with something to kill virus and bacteria.
I will bring liquid water treatment—either a bleach based solution (like MSR SweetWater Purifier Solution – 2oz, $15 and I already own a bottle) or AquaMira (a tried and true hiker standard). I’m not big a fan of the taste of water treated with iodine tables –though that is the lightest option and cheapest option, at $7–but will consider them. I’ve eliminated the ideas of using one of the new Steripens. To facilitate easy water carriage and give me something to let particulates settle out, I’ve purchased a collapsible water bucket. It will do double duty to wash clothing or dishes (or me!) and is large enough to soak a foot in. I’ve purchased the Sea to Summit Folding Bucket – 10 Liters, $30 and won’t use the little carrying case, 2.8 ounces. This allows you to carry water back to camp for washing up. Convenient and you don’t contaminate the water source with soap or your icky body funk. Oh, and just in case I need to filter large particulates out, I’ll use this collapsible funnel and strain the water through my bandanna. What I hadn’t anticipated was how much easier this funnel would make it to fill the mylar bags in the Sawyer system (below),
I’ve switched to the new Sawyer squeezable filter. This is new to me and I used it for the first time on my November shake down hike. Worked great and I’m excited about it. I paid $49.95 at REI.
Current total for Water System Category
2 empty soda bottles (plastic ring and label removed): 2oz