Category Archives: Backpacking

Get Rid of Your Mummy Bag on the Appalachian Trail in 2017

“Every ounce of sleeping bag crushed flat under us as we sleep is an ounce of sleeping bag we’re carrying around every day for no reason.”

Scrolling through my phone yesterday, Google recommended an Appalachian Trail Thru Hiker data article put together by Appalachian Trials (now “The Trek“). Of course this sort of thru-hiker survey data is of the utmost interest to me so I naturally began to peruse the data to see what hikers are doing these days and some of the results really did surprise me.

Okay, to be fair I almost anticipated the data to reflect more silly things than I ultimately found but (both fortunately and unfortunately) I found that thru hikers in 2016 seem to be making some seemingly dumb mistakes in ways I didn’t quite anticipate.

Why You Should Get Rid of Your Mummy Bag:

appalachian-trail-thru-hiker-sleeping-bag-mistakes

Here’s some of the data from this year’s thru hiker survey on the Appalachian Trail according to TheTrek.co.

Surprisingly enough, it shows that 25.2% of hikers are now using backpacking quilts for sleeping in tents and tarps. In hammock sleep systems, about 33% of hikers are using top-quilts for insulation.

It’s crazy to me that a full 66% of hammock campers are making the mistake of carrying extra weight and taking up extra room in the pack by choosing to use a sleeping bag instead of the much more efficient top-quilt system (in this case combined with an under quilt for hammock use).

The problem with mummy bags

So what, exactly, is the mistake here? Well, let’s start by exploring how insulation works and how sleeping bags and quilts keep us warm.

At its most basic level, the majority of insulation operates by creating “dead air space” or a pocket of air which is unable to move. This immobile air is then brought up  to body temperature since it sits close to the body. Since the air can’t move, it’s then quite efficient at helping to regulate body temperature.

For notation’s sake, it’s worth mentioning that this is only one type of insulation. See this Dr Energy Saver article for a good overall primer on how insulation works and some common problems with insulation.

Some challenges of insulation on the trail are wind, water, and compression. If your insulation gets wet it will lose a large amount of its ability to insulate. If wind is allowed to blow through your insulation it will replace all that warm air with cool (or cold) atmospheric temperature air. If your insulation gets compressed, or smashed, for any reason it will then also lose its ability to trap and retain warm body temperature air.

Wind and water are obvious, but can you think of an instance on the trail when you might accidentally compress your insulation?

Maybe you fold up that puffy jacket and sit on it for an improvised sit-pad. You might notice that it doesn’t do much to keep the bum warm. That’s because you compressed it – it’s no longer able to trap air because you crushed it flat with your body weight.

On the inefficiency of sleeping bags:

Since compressed insulation does little or nothing at all to help insulate us from cold temperatures, it follows that we should aim to avoid compressing any insulation we’re using. Right?

Backpacking Quilt vs Sleeping Bag

Quilt (left) vs Mummy Bag (right)

Traditional sleeping bags surround the body like a cocoon on all sides to keep us warm while we sleep. Unfortunately, a large portion of that insulation is crushed flat every night as we sleep. If we’re side sleepers we may crush less of that insulation than back sleepers.

Every ounce of sleeping bag crushed flat under us as we sleep is an ounce of sleeping bag we’re carrying around every day for no reason.

Because that insulation doesn’t actually help keep us warm, why bother carrying it at all? How do we solve this inefficiency?

Backpacking quilts are the answer! Backpacking quilts are simply mummy bags with open backs. There is no material on the underside of a quilt – the quilt simply drapes over you and, in some cases, snaps on to your sleeping pad to surround you without placing any material underneath you. This completely removes the material that would otherwise be crushed when sleeping in a traditional bag.

why The continued use of mummy bags surprises me:

When I first started using backpacking hammocks as a shelter back in 2011 (found Hennessey Hammocks at Trail Days in Damascus, VA) it seemed that only a select few backpackers knew about hammock camping at all. Those who did, seemed to fully understand the niche pros and cons of the shelter.

Though there seems to be little objective data available, my empirical experience is that camping hammocks have gained popularity like wildfire over the last 6 years. With them has come the rise of backpacking quilts.

UGQ Zeppelin Under Quilt

Hammock under quilt by Under Ground Quilts – my favorite manufacturer.

Quilts seem to have sprouted largely from the hammock camping community where “under quilts” are used for insulation and comfort. I only became aware of the use of backpacking quilts as a result of getting to know cottage industry manufacturers in the hammock camping industry and ultralight backpacking world.

These days it’s much more common to hear people recommend the use of backpacking quilts on forums or by word of mouth. Apparently 25% of people are now using them and their use has grown 147% YoY (year over year).

Despite their weight savings when compared to same-temperature mummy bags and the fact that high quality quilts can be custom ordered to your exact specifications for less money than many name brand mummy bags at the local outfitter, mummy bags still own the majority of the market share. Why?

Better yet – according to the survey – why are 66% of hammock users still sleeping in mummy bags? This tells me that the hammock camping fad has become so popular so quickly that people are now hammock camping while thru hiking without even using properly researched equipment… By and large hammock campers rely on under quilts for insulation, they should really know better than to be sleeping in a mummy bag.

Why are mummy bags still so popular?

Mummy bags have been around for a long time and most big-name brands are making mummy bags and have models which have been popular for decades. Chances are your grandfather had a mummy bag and your dad did, too. It’s just the “thing” you “do” when you go camping.

By and large I believe the majority of hikers, backpackers, and campers in general don’t take the time to think or research their gear in great depth. Many people aren’t even aware that there are alternatives to mummy bags.

If you’ve bought all your gear at REI, then you’re probably not even aware that backpacking quilts exist or that you can order them to literally any temperature rating you would like. You may not be aware that they’re lighter than mummy bags, built by hikers for hikers, and more compressible than any other options on the market today.

I think mummy bags are still popular because the market is so saturated with them already. Most retail stores and manufacturers aren’t really looking out for consumers best interests. After all, backpacking quilts are superior to mummy bags in every way so why does the inferior product continue to exist? Most people expect to see mummy bags when they walk into an outfitter store and that’s what the box stores are happy to sell them.

Where to buy great backpacking quilts:

I’ll recommend one backpacking quilt maker above all others because I feel their balance of price to finished product weight and attention to customer needs is superior to all others. I have exclusively used Underground Quilts owned and operated by Paul McWalters for my quilts and tarps for years.

Paul makes my gear to my exact specifications every time, even when I ask for a snap or button to be left off to save weight. His company really goes the extra mile to make some great gear and I know him personally. Check out this great interview with Paul about his quilts!

I have meticulously researched and compared quilts made by other manufacturers and none of them have the price, weight, service, and product quality that I know I can expect from UGQ and Paul. Some very few may be lighter by fractional ounces, but the difference in price does not justify the weight savings in my opinion.

I have not and do not receive compensation for my opinions nor do I make money from sales of any manufacturer’s gear. They just make great quilts.

Other Quilt Manufacturers:

If you’re looking to compare quilts then check out these other makers:

Conclusion

I really can’t think of a great reason to keep mummy bags around except, perhaps, in the most harsh and extreme of cold environments such as arctic exploration. For any Appalachian Trail hike, a quilt is just fine even in winter.

With that said, it is my opinion that quilts should replace mummy bags and I sincerely hope to see 75% or more of hikers carrying quilts – not the other way around as the data currently reflects. They’re lighter and more compressible saving you energy, space, and potential injury on the trail.

Go chat with my buddy Paul at Underground Quilts and get yourself hooked up with a great new piece of gear – you’ll be glad you made the change.

Do you feel that mummy bags still have a place on the trail for most people? Leave me a comment and let’s keep the discussion going!

Happy Trails, people!

Vegetarian Backpacking Meals

Vegetarian Backpacking Meals 2017As a long time backpacking guide and vegetarian myself, I’ve found ways to eat well on the trail while working with clients who may (or may not) also be veggies. It’s actually a bit of a pain to try to bring meat on the trail, other than ultra-salty jerky and wrapped sausage sticks.

For that reason, most vegetarians will find themselves eating better meals than the majority with these few vegetarian backpacking meals:

(All of my meals are based around Freezer Bag Cooking so if you’re not familiar with this method I suggest you start by reading Sarah Kirkconnel’s brand new 2016 edition FBC book.)

 

Crunchy Beans and Rice

Possibly my all time favorite for deliciousness and simplicity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an entire shelter ask me, “What is that amazing smell?” This is an easy vegetarian meal for the trail that you’ll come back to over and over again.

If you enjoy Tex-Mex or anything resembling tasty burritos and spicy rice this is the meal for you:

What you’ll need

Pre-Trail Preparation

  1. Grab that gallon Ziploc bag and toss in your cup of minute rice, taco seasoning, and dehydrated refried beans.
  2. Crush up your Fritos and toss them in a small snack sized Ziploc bag.
  3. Put the snack bag of Fritos inside the gallon bag with your other ingredients.

On-Trail preparation

  1. Pull the snack bag of Fritos out of the gallon Ziploc.
  2. Boil enough water for the beans and rice (2 cups of water if you followed my portions).
  3. Once the water is boiling, shut off the stove and pour the water into the gallon Ziploc bag.
  4. Seal bag and let it sit until the water has been fully absorbed by rice and beans. Set up camp while this happens.
  5. Stir up meal, sprinkle crushed Fritos over it, and enjoy! Eat straight from the bag for no-mess cleanup.

Creamy CousCous

Another amazing recipe that will leave you hiking through your day just to get to camp for your dinner! Completely vegetarian backpacking meal and amazingly tasty.

This one is hearty and filling so leave plenty of time to veg out (ha, no pun intended) around camp after you eat up.

What you’ll need

Pre-Trail Preparation

  1. Add couscous, milk powder, and walnuts together in the gallon Ziploc bag.
  2. Put your olive oil in a leak proof container (I bought a pack of 8oz water bottles and drank them all – replace with olive oil).
  3. Consider adding a little extra seasoning (dry buttermilk ranch seasoning) if you want before leaving home.

On-trail Preparation

  1. Boil enough water for the couscous according to the box you used of pre-mixed couscous.
  2. Add boiling water to freezer bag.
  3. Seal freezer bag, let sit while you set up camp.
  4. Stir in olive oil before eating and mix thoroughly.
  5. ENJOY!

Conclusion

Best Vegetarian Backpacking MealsIf you enjoyed these simple vegetarian backpacking meals, please consider picking up your ingredients using the links above. The small Amazon kickback helps me keep this site running so I can keep bringing the best backpacking information available to you!

If you want more great freezer bag cooking meals for backpacking just let me know in the comment section. I love freezer bag cooking backpacking meals and it’s so much fun to share the simplicity with new hikers.

Check out my list of the most calorie dense foods if you’re looking for foods that really pack a punch on the trail.

Is Anyone Not Ready? Wilderness Trip Leading Tip

Outdoor Guide Tip of the Day

As Chris Ducker would say “no one has a monopoly on good ideas,” and that holds true among outdoor trip leaders.

Very early on in my backpacking guide career, or trip leading, as it is most often called in the industry, I stumbled across a little soft skills tip that has proven useful and I have passed on many times to new leaders.

“Is anyone not ready?”

It’s such a small little phrase but it makes a huge difference and here’s why and when to use it:

When preparing the group, as a leader, to move again be it on trail or water many new trip leaders will ask “Is everybody ready?”.

The usual response to this question is a bunch of mumbling, a few “yeses”, and maybe a really quiet and faint “no”. It can be really hard to tell who is ready and who isn’t, then you’ve got to ask again, or go through each person individually to find out who is and isn’t ready to move.

Instead simply rephrase the question: “Is anyone not ready?”

If your students respond “nope, I’m ready,” then begin to kindly remind them they need not answer unless they’re saying the affirmative. It may take a few tries before some of your students learn not to respond to the question unless they’re unprepared to move.

This alleviates confusion and allows outdoor trip leaders to know for sure, with only one question and one response, whether or not the group is ready.

The ideal response, as your group learns this question and how to answer it, is that the entire group will say nothing at all and then you know you’re ready to go.

No news is good news for a trip leader and while I encourage my trip leaders only to call back to base camp if it’s an emergency, I also encourage my participants to answer this question only if they’re unprepared to move.

What simple trip leading tips do you have for other adventure educators? Leave us a comment to start the discussion!

 

Lead and Sweep Hikers: What are Their Roles?

As I prepare the BMW for a long ride north this weekend I figured I’d get one last piece out to you all.

Let’s keep it quick and explore the roles of lead and sweep hikers for group backpacking.

lead hiker

Lead hiker’s have many tasks and you’ll want to rotate your group participants through this role. Among others their duties include:

  • Pace setting and checking for group pace
  • Checking for group hydration and ensuring water breaks
  • Initiating hiking games and group chat
  • Greeting oncoming trail traffic and alerting the group to move aside
  • Navigation
  • Getting the group ready after breaks and ensuring all are present

Any hiker in your group should be doing most of these tasks, don’t leave it solely up to your lead hiker. However, the lead hiker bears the primary responsibility for oversight.

You’ll find that as more of your group gets a chance to lead hike for a day or half a day, they’ll start to check in on the group even when they’re not in the lead. By the end of your trip you’ll have a whole group of lead hikers.

When you’re first starting out you’ll want to hike as the lead hiker and demonstrate to your group what the behaviors are of good lead hiking.

Sweep Hiker

Hiking sweep means you’re traveling very last in the group no matter what.

Normally you’ll want to make sure that you can still see your lead hiker and, if you can’t, call out for a slowing of pace. Sweep hikers are often the first to notice a pace that’s not correct.

As the sweep hiker it’s your job to mop up all the little details.

You should be:

  • Keeping an eye on pace
  • Watching the group carefully for signs of developing injury
  • Making sure no one drops gear on the trail (fuel bottles come to mind)
  • Leaving all break sites last and double checking for stragglers and trash
  • Triple checking the navigation and make sure your group hasn’t missed something
  • Keeping an eye on the weather; it’s often overlooked

When I hike sweep I try to focus on things I know my lead hiker might be too busy to notice.

As a good trip leading team, however, your job is always to predict what your co-leader needs support with and get that done before they even know it.

A great trip leading team works together always in harmony and creates a safe, meaningful environment for their group. This ensures maximum impact on students and best outcome of course goals.

Make no mistake, your students will notice when you are working as a well oiled machine with your co-leaeder and the group will strive to meet your level of excellence.

student participation and L.O.D.

Make sure you’re giving all your students a chance to rotate in to the lead and sweep hiking positions.

Usually this is done by creating a Leader of the Day structure in your adventure trips. We’ll talk about that in more detail later in another article.

Nurture your students as the learn to perform these roles and make sure you’ve already set a good example for them.

Debriefing at the end of each day with your entire group in a safe, positive learning environment, is critical to improving your LOD (leader of the day) effectiveness and smoothing out the operations of the lead and sweep hikers.

Don’t forget; it’s critical to also privately debrief the day with you LODs each day so that you and your co-leader can give them private and direct timely feedback about their performance.

Conclusion

You’ll find that your students’ ability to lead and sweep hike well is a direct result of your mentor ship and your own ability to lead and sweep hike well with your co-leader as you demonstrate and provide feedback.

If your adventure program doesn’t already have a Leader of the Day system and lead and sweep hikers in place as common practice, just contact me and we will work together to develop that content for your course.

Got great lead and sweep hiker ideas? Leave me a comment with the best games to play, common mistakes, or things you’ve learned as a lead and sweep hiker in a group!

Pre-Trip Strategies for Wilderness Trip Risk Management

There’s always a lot of excitement and energy as your group hops out of the van at the trailhead. Chatting with your driver, usually your supervisor, you button up last minute details, and then you’re off.

Wait a minute! Before you hit that dusty trail here’s a few tips to make sure your group is prepared.

Starting a new journey is always exciting.

Starting a new journey is always exciting.

Remember, these tips should be paired with pre-trip planning and training of participants which should be much more in-depth.

Weather contingencies

Make sure your group is aware of things like the lightning position.

On the same note, hopefully you’ve already taught the “ABC’s” of backpacking, but make sure your group has appropriate clothing accessible. At least rain gear in an outside pocket (if it’s summer time).

Lost hiker protocol

How will the group respond in case of a lost hiker among your group? Make sure before you hit the trail that everyone in your group understands what to do if they become separated from the group.

I usually suggest the “hug a tree” policy whereby any lost hikers from my group immediately sit next to the nearest tree the moment they realize they are lost.

People often try to find their way back only to become more lost and make the situation worse.

Trail ETIQUETTE

It’s incredibly important to maintain good relations with other back country travelers when leading groups. Often you, or your employers, special use permits depend on keeping good standing with the land managing agency and if they get negative reports of your groups use, you’ll lose those permits.

  • For large groups always yield to smaller groups by standing to the side of the trail.
  • Always yield to horses by stepping to the downhill side. This is for the safety of the horse and rider in case the horse spooks.
  • When stopping for a water break or rest break, always move your group off the trail to allow passage of other users. Nothing is more unprofessional looking than a group of a dozen people clogging up the trail.

From a risk management persepective the most important tip to remember here is about horses. Always remember to step to the downhill side when yielding and keep a low voice as you greet the rider from a distance. If the horse spooks near you or your group it’s best for it to shy away toward the uphill slope where it’s less likely to hurt its self or the rider.

Communication

Make it clear that no one leaves the group without informing you. No matter the reason every hiker in your group must let you, the leader, know when they’re leaving.

Even for quick facili-tree breaks (bathroom); you are responsible for the group and must know where they are at all times. You don’t have to follow them to the bathroom but you must be aware that they have left.

pace setting

Consider using yourself and your co-leader (you MUST have a co-leader, never walk into the woods without a co-leader) as the lead and sweep hikers for the first half day.

This is important because you can set a good example for the group by playing trail games, setting appropriate pace, checking in with the group, monitoring rest breaks, etc.

You’ll want to let your group rotate into the roles of lead and sweep hiker as the trip progresses but it’s important to model good lead hiking so they have a tangible example to replicate.

Setting an appropriate pace is very important for group dynamics, mental health, and physical health on trail.

Often times hikers will struggle to keep up with a strong lead hiker but won’t say anything. Eventually you’ll realize it’s becoming a problem when you have an asthmatic episode from a hiker in your group who pushed themselves too hard to keep up.

Be proactive with pace setting, ask your group often “Would anyone like me to slow down?”

Eventually the group will learn to ask eachother and often they’ll ask you to slow down for someone else in the group they can tell is struggling but unwilling to speak up.

Encourage a safe environment for this, you’ll be glad you did.

 

What tips do you have for pre-hike risk management at the trailhead?
Leave me a comment!

12 Steps to a Lighter Pack (eBook) Review

Having a bit of down time in the early ski season has given me plenty of time to do things. Like run, read, write and procrastinate. This little review is focused on the reading part.

“12 Steps to a Lighter Pack” is written by Steven Lowe who is an “avid outdoorsman” and has “been camping singe he was a child”. It’s a very quick read, I spent less than 45 minutes on it without feeling rushed.

Photo

The book herein reviewed.

First off, let me say that my overall impression of the eBook was generally positive. He’s got some good tips in “12 Steps to a Lighter Pack” and clearly spends time analyzing his gear. This is good.

Steven’s occasional attempts at humor seem to fall short of my expectations but perhaps we just don’t mesh comically.

some of My largest complaints stem from his unequal comparisons of gear.

The whole premise of the book is centered around reducing weight and he offers many perfectly fine suggestions to this end. However, he uses some self-confirming comparisons.

In section 5 on shelter he makes a comparison between his sub-four-pound hammock setup and his 8+ pound Kelty tent setup. This is laughably skewed to confirm his opinion (which I don’t necessarily entirely disagree with) with silly methods.

You can’t compare a 9 pound solo Kelty tent to a sub 4 pound hammock setup without first leveling the playing field of gear specifications (which may be inherently impossible as I’ll explain).

It’s important to compare the lightest available options in each category.

I could go to Wal-Mart and buy a 10 pound solo tent with 2 pound air mattress and then compare it to a Dream Hammock Darien UL with a cuben fiber A-Sym tarp and an 850-fill down UQ.

Of course the hammock set up is going to be lighter, I bought the top of the line lightest available equipment in the category!

Now, if we were comparing the lightest available cuben fiber solo tent and ground pad to the lightest available hammock setup (including tarp and under quilt) then we might be getting close to apples-to-apples.

Now we have the problem of deciding how to quantify and compare qualitative preferences and personal choice.

Do we compare the hammock set up to the lightest ground setup? In that case we’re comparing to the lightest functional ground pad (a 3/4 length 1/2″ CCF pad for most seasons) which is nowhere near the same level of comfort as the equivalent hammock set up.

Starting to see the problems with these types of gear comparisons?

Did Steven Lowe even try to prepare to write this eBook?

Now, I know I only paid ¢99 for this eBook but the number of times he admits to not having a certain item on hand lends a sense that he wrote the book in a single sitting one evening and simply wasn’t prepared but published it anyways.

At one point he admits that he lost his two-piece travel toothbrush since his last trip so he cuts a full length toothbrush in half instead to gather data for the book. I don’t know about you all, but if I was publishing and charging people to read a book with my name on it, I would prefer to be slightly more prepared.

There are multiple mentions of “my scale couldn’t read the numbers accurately enough so I rounded” in a book which is highly focused on number crunching by a self-purported “gram weenie”.

Now, let me stand accused. I have a food scale from Wal-Mart (I’d go get one from Whole Foods if I could afford it) which is not always as accurate as I’d like it to be. Furthermore, I have personally encountered the same problem when weighing items in my pack: my scale wasn’t sensitive enough to accurately read them.

Here’s the difference… I’m not selling my advice and number crunching to other people!

Were I weighing my pack items and putting it in a book that I planned to charge people for, you can bet I’d get a scale accurate enough to remove guesswork from said book.

Here’s a couple sections of the book I found alien but won’t dock the author too many points for because some of it just comes down to personal preference.

The author rambles for a page and half about his adventures with coffee cups. You can read it for yourself but let me just say this: can’t you coffee drinkers just drink coffee out of your cooking pot (before or after you make whatever you need for breakfast)?

Near the end of the book we find out that Steven does indeed carry a cook pot so I am left assuming that he either hasn’t thought about making coffee in his cook pot, or has decided against it for some god-forsaken reason.

For all you coffee drinking gram weenies out there, I’d propose my own ultralight solution. Don’t drink coffee. I don’t mean to be a jack-ass but it’s just a suggestion.

Right after the coffee pot conundrum the author launches into a section about a “fire kit”. I don’t know about all of you, but I use a stove on the trail of some sort (recently alcohol, soon to be Esbit).

These stoves (with the exception of Piezo equipped devices) require a lighter. Making a fire requires a lighter. Do we really need a “kit” for making fire? I think not. Even the Piezo IsoButane stoves themselves can be used to light a fire.

Later, the author misspells what I assume to be Katadyn (as in water filter) as Katelyn (damn auto-correct) when comparing filters in the purification section.

Photo

Katelyn is that you?

Again I run into an author who counts the grams but still carries a wallet. When will people just start using rubber bands as I have mentioned a million times??? They weigh practically nothing and cost nothing.

Steven suggests using tent stakes as trowels which, I’m all but certain, will eventually leave him in the field with a badly bent stake. Not the end of the world, but it seems a poor choice of multi-use item. Personal preference, I suppose.

Steven also carries paracord with him. Someone should tell him about DynaGlide (pre-stretched dyneema fibers in a rope weighing less than a gram per foot) the stuff is super lightweight, highly versatile, and can support a smart-car hanging from a tree.

Eventually the reader runs into what I believe to be the most painful line in the book:

Steven Lowe graces us with the line “…the lightest way to make your water drinkable is to boil it. Period.”

Well Steven, let me make you aware that boiling (assuming you’re using fuel from your stove and not a campfire) is not as light weight of a purification method as it might seem.

The only scenario in which the above statement by the author is true would be if you’re boiling your water using a campfire and natural materials found on your hike. This is impractical since no one has time to build a campfire every time they need to refill a bottle. Not to mention it would be highly impactful to the landscape to build a fire every time one needs to purify water.

I drink multiple liters of water per day and can purify weeks worth of water with an ounce of bleach in my dropper bottle which takes up a space of roughly 2″ x 1″.

Let’s say you drink 4L of water a day and boil all of it. Each liter of water will take a certain amount of fuel from your stove to boil. Multiply that by 5 days of drinking water and you’re lugging around several extra canisters of IsoButane fuel to boil your drinking water, each of which is several times larger and heavier than the equivalent purification power of bleach.

Let me take a moment to be fair to the author.

Much of “12 Steps to a Lighter Pack” is filled with generally good advice. In this article I have taken time to outline what I believe could be improved in this eBook.

Steven’s three-step method of analyzing gear (whether self generated or borrowed from others) I have seen used in many forms over the years for analyzing pack belongings. It’s an effective and useful tool which the author is smart to include.

My conclusion is this:

The eBook “12 Steps to a Lighter Pack” is generally pointed in the right direction. If the bulls-eye of lightweight backpacking books were down range, the author would at least glance off the target if not stick the arrow in the white.

Sadly, however, I paid ¢99 for “12 Steps to a Lighter Pack” and, in my opinion, the author didn’t get close enough to that bullseye to make it really stand out as anything I’d recommend.

I would not buy this book again.

What I Learned From the Appalachian Trail

This spring I started my very much anticipated would-be thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. I did not finish. This is what I learned:

  • I enjoy socializing on the trail much more than I ever have before. I sometimes found myself going out of my way to make it to a shelter where I might have an evening conversation with other hikers before turning in. It was the relationships I found out there that meant as much to me as my communion with nature. I actually returned most of the way home from the trail by getting a ride with Roy, a middle aged man with whom I had been leapfrogging for days. We met every night at the next shelter and swapped stories and advice about our struggles on the trail. He missed home. I was dragging one leg along as if on crutches. He drove me all the way to Kentucky in his beater Caprice and told me stories the whole way. He refused to let me pay him for the ride.
Photo

The first photo of my hike.

  • Hiking with an 8.5 pound base weight will attract attention. My pack was very noticeably smaller than those of any other hikers out there. Especially when unpacking for the night at or around a populated area (shelter) I was grilled with questions about my pack and gear. It’s important as a lightweight backpacker to not look down on those with heavier or different gear choices, it’s simply an opportunity to share information. I try to listen more than talk.
  • My legs are much stronger than the tendons and ligaments in them. My thru-hike was ultimately cut short by my decision to leave the trail due to increasing and consistent tendonitis on my right knee. While my muscles and mind were ready to (and did) pump out 26 mile days, the joints were not. It was, in hindsight, something I should have seen coming a long ways off. I didn’t. It took me off the trail.
  • Bleach is a totally cool water purifier. Why didn’t I start using it earlier???
  • Life teaches us new things when we embrace change and opportunities. I left the trail for a week at Hiawassee, GA to let my severely painful knee have a rest. It was there I happened across the welcoming arms of Dr. Swan and Enota Mountain Resort where I worked for stay during the Memorial Holiday. I made a dozen new friends who I will remember forever. I learned to love the early morning smell of the organic farm in Georgia. I read a book on vegan lifestyle and ate healthier there than I ever have. I had milk straight from the cow for the first time in my life. I went to bed having worked a 16 hour day and smiled about it. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.
  • I enjoyed the trail more when I let go of my schedule, ditched my itinerary, stayed and talked with whomever and whenever the whim took me. I enjoyed finding a crashed plane with Chris who continually graciously complimented my overall hiking knowledge while never ceasing to speak about the spiritual connection he felt to the forest. He started to awaken a sense of wonder in me that I so often overlook. Thanks, Chris.
Photo

Still smiling through it all.

  • Letting go of such an ingrained and heart felt goal as thru-hiking is difficult. It took me many many days to come to terms with my decision to leave the trail. Every day I lowered my mileage and pace hoping to relieve and restore the injury in my knee. When it became clear that an extended hiatus was the only foreseeable solution to my increasing knee problem I had to make peace with the decision to leave. The trail will be there next year and ten years from now. Permanent knee damage would render me useless to my two largest passions, hiking and skiing.
  • It’s important to remember that hiking the trail (and in general) should be about pleasure. If you’re not enjoying it, then you’re doing it wrong. I love the sense of having completed a difficult and high mileage day but, as I mentioned, I also found I loved the people and the experiences as much or more. It took me a while to realize it was okay to make changes to my hike in order to embrace these new experiences.

It was surprising to find out so much about myself in so short a time. From the technical challenges (and failures) I encountered to the new interpersonal relationships I experienced. Every day on my journey led to a new and welcomed discovery.

My happiness came in knowing that no matter what I was doing or how things turned out, the trail was teaching me.

Even though I didn’t even come close to achieving my initial goal I am hugely grateful for the experiences I had and the lessons I learned. I will be back to the trail soon and I will be ready to embrace every odd and whimsical opportunity that presents its self. I’ll also be hiking a little less and talking a little more.