How to (Really) Pack for the Appalachian Trail — A Look at My Gear After One Month of Hiking

“You know, my first time out I learned two things,” a man by the name of Hatchet told me as our cookstoves simmered in camp, “If you buy wrong you buy twice, and expensive gear is cheaper than knee surgery.”

He was certainly one who’d know. He was given the trail-name Hatchet because he began the Appalachian Trail with, among other things, a hatchet, a five-man tent, two hundred-foot lengths of rope, heavy-duty combat fatigues, a lantern, a flashlight, and a headlamp “just in case it got dark”.

This scenario is way more common than you’d think, even among experienced hikers. I spent many weekends backpacking as a kid, and used to sell equipment for a living, and still brought almost twenty pounds too much. The excess weight is killer on the knees, and replacing gear with lighter, more-effective versions is a pain on the wallet. So to help you avoid both I offer a comprehensive guide to my final gear load out.

This is not the stuff I started with, but the stuff I ended with and as such I think it’s a much more useful representation of what a long-distance hike really requires.

Continue reading “How to (Really) Pack for the Appalachian Trail — A Look at My Gear After One Month of Hiking”

The Truth About Isolation on the Appalcahian Trail

 

I never really had what you might call the “college dorm experience”, but I imagine that nighttime on the Appalachian Trail comes pretty close. You’re far from home, the living quarters are small, and the bathrooms (really just toilet seats over holes in the ground) are kind of horrifying. You grow your beard, dress like a homeless pirate, and exist on a diet of Ramen Noodles & peanut butter which you must hide lest your neighbors — in this case squirrels, mice, bears, wild boar, and the occasional hobo — steal it. And of course, most importantly, you share this experience with some of the greatest people you will ever meet, for life on the AT isn’t nearly as solitary as you might first think.

Daytime is much as you’d expect; lots of walking alone through deep shady woods, past rivers and springs, and up over sun-dappled summits. You can go hours without seeing a soul. But at night people tend to congregate, mostly in and around a series of rustic shelters built along the trail by various volunteer groups and government agencies over the last few decades.

The shelters, really just wood floors with three walls and a roof, are spaced roughly a day’s walk apart, and are almost always provisioned with a picnic table, fire ring, and the aforementioned slightly horrifying bathrooms, which are known as privies. The really luxurious shelters might have a loft, or plywood bunks for sleeping in, a roof over the picnic table giving you a place to cook in the rain, and a series of pulleys and cables slung around trees from which you can easily hang your food bag in order to deter nighttime visitors.

In addition to all this the shelters are usually surrounded by a handful of handsome campsites, complete with their own fire rings, and are almost always near a good source of water. And so people trickle in all evening, looking for a place to fire up their cook stoves, grab some much needed calories, and a get good night’s sleep.

It’s in those hours, after the day’s hiking is finished but before drowsiness forces everyone to their sleeping bags, that many of the best memories from the trail are made.

Imagine, if you will, that you are the sole survivor of some civilization-crushing apocalyptic meltdown. All alone you struggle to fend for yourself, with nothing but the sound of the wind and the circling buzzards to keep you company. Then one day a couple of well-meaning strangers show up on your doorstep, with news from afar, pleasant conversation, and a bag of fun-size snickers bars that they readily share. That is every evening on the AT.

After a long day spent schlepping alone through endless woods every person you meet becomes a kind of miracle encounter. Strangers take on a whole new significance, and you are even excited to see people you may already know quite well. Conversation flows easily as you all have something in common: you’re all hiking the same trail.

If they’re heading in the same direction as you, you discuss the higher points and moments of intrigue from that day. If they’re going in the opposite direction, you trade tips on the terrain to come. The shared struggle of the trail opens the door to deeper discussion, and it’s not uncommon to forge strong bonds with perfect strangers before the sun goes down.

Then, in the morning, you wake up, pack up, and do it all again. Because everyone tends to walk and rest at different paces, you will sometimes pass new friends from the night before filling water bottles from a stream or enjoying the view after a taxing climb. Other times, you only see evidence that they’ve been there — someone will stand a stray bird feather up in the mud, or thoughtfully drape a red bandana over a tree branch in order to warn others of a nearby bee hive.

You begin to get the feeling that you’re part of a very large, loosely formed community of transients. Each of you facing the same hills and rocks and wind and hunger, and each of you keeping a kind of distant eye on the others. It is very nice.

With this bond there comes a palpable feeling of loss any time it is broken.

The day after we left Hiawassee, while camping at a place called Plumborchard Gap, we met a man whose trail name was Gunny.

Greeting people by their trail name is a jarring, almost nonsensical experience at first, mostly because trail names tend to be jarring and nonsensical. We had, for example, met hikers by the name of Can’t Tweet, ColdieLocks, Smokes, Puffs, and Just Lookin’, and had even heard of a librarian who was walking north under the moniker Thunder Fuck. But gradually you come to see that “real” names are just words, and words with very little back-story at that.

“She was named Gertrude after her great aunt Gertrude”… Boring.
“She was named Thunder Fuck because one day in camp she absolutely blew up on someone and nearly killed him to death with her bare hands”… Now we’re getting somewhere.

In any case you grow to accept trail names as legitimate methods of identification, and cease to notice their strangeness.

Gunny was, like many hikers, immediately likable and easygoing. He was optimistic, congenial, and a great talker which can be nice after hours of woodland silence. We all chatted late into the night, and made plans the next morning to meet up and camp together again at another shelter about eight miles north. I walked out of camp that day, following a zig-zag of side trails and footpaths that lead from the shelter back to the main Appalachian Trail, and wondered briefly if I shouldn’t wait, if only to help ensure that no one got lost. But we were all trail-tested by that point, having already navigated nearly a hundred miles of south-Appalachian wilderness and I shrugged off the thought and pushed on.

That evening I sat in camp, trading stories with two hikers – Squirrel and Zero — whom I’d just met. They had actually started behind us that morning, about five miles further south at a place called Dick’s Creek Gap, and had made good time getting to camp.

“Did you see an older guy out there,” I asked, “big knife hanging on his backpack?”

“Yea, Gunny?” Squirrel said, “I passed him near Plumborchard this morning. Nice guy.”

“Oh, good.” I said, “He’s actually supposed to be camping with us tonight.”

Squirrel paused for a moment, a piece of string cheese half way to his mouth.

“Then why was he headed the other way?” he said slowly, but even as he said it we all thought we knew the answer.

By their very nature, any trail that heads north also leads south and while it’s not easy, it is possible to get turned around on the Appalachian Trail. Without any discernible landmarks you can walk for miles before realizing your mistake. Gunny had likely gotten disoriented in the twists and turns of the trail that lead away from camp, and had hopped back on the AT headed in the wrong direction. If he were lucky he’d see some bit of trail that looked familiar, or have a chat with another hiker and figure out his mistake. If not, he’d walk several miles only to be very confused to emerge out of the woods, after a long sweaty day, back where he’d started the day before.

“Poor Gunny,” Zero said as she glanced back toward the trail. And though none of us had known him more than a couple of hours – some of us only a couple of minutes – we all felt the same way.

This twinge of loss is common on the trail, and I felt it again several days later when Zero caught her flight home, and again a few days after that after parting ways with Squirrel.

Things like Facebook and email can help you to stay in touch. But these, you find, aren’t enough to recreate the sense of community and comradery that’s forged on the trail. No matter how popular or far-reaching it is, the digital world is a poor replacement for the real one.

It is, at the very least, a heartbreakingly funny little lesson in impermanence. Back home, in a world of twenty-four hour drive-thru, on-demand TV, and constant connectivity to friends around the world, it’s easy to forget that things on this planet naturally come to an end.

Easy accessibility can give us the illusion that people and posessions are in our lives to stay. But the reality, the real reality, is that they are only ever passing through.

How I Lost 15 Pounds in Seven Days on the Appalachian Trail

It is 607 stairs from the base of Amicalola Falls to the top, and as I stood there at the bottom looking up at the climb to come I was keenly aware of the tug of my pack against my shoulders. It’d been years since I’d walked under any significant weight.

The date was Tuesday September 2nd and I knew the movie theatre back home would be holding a five-dollar special. People there and all over the country would be flocking in for the release of A Walk in the Woods, the Robert Redford, Nick Nolty adaptation of Bill Bryson’s famous book. Some people, I knew, had gone out and bought the book in order to read it before they saw the movie. We, I thought with nervous excitement, would be living it. For the next few weeks a friend and I would be retracing the first segment of Bryson’s walk, sleeping in the same campsites, and dining in the same outposts, and it all started here at Amicalola.

Now technically speaking Bryson and Katz began their hike from the top of Amicalola Falls, the last bit of paved road you see before wandering up into the Georgia mountains on your way to the summit of Springer, which itself marks the actual southern end of the Appalachian Trail. It’s a very good thing they did, because if they hadn’t A Walk in the Woods may never have been written, or at the very least may have ended up being a much-loved short story about a waterfall, and Katz’ heart attack. The climb is hell. I’m writing this from a motel room in Hiawassee, with more than a week and much of Georgia behind me, and for my money those stairs are the hardest bit we’ve done yet.

That’s not to say that the rest of Georgia’s easy; It includes several formidable climbs including Blood Mountain — at 4,458 feet, the tallest mountain on the trail in Georgia — and a thigh-torching ascent up an unassuming looking hill called Kelly Knob. But those stairs at Amicalola beat them all.

This is partly because, well, there are 607 stairs — who in this day and age has ever walked 607 stairs to see anything? — and partly because, since they are at the very beginning of the trail, you are inevitably carrying too much weight.

“I call these first few miles the REI trail,” a man named Survival Dave told us on the ride from Atlanta to Amicalola, “people ditch all kinds of gear in the woods, trying to cut weight.”

We’d weighed our packs at the Amicalola visitor center, and felt quite gratified to see that they were just forty pounds or so. Weight is a big deal among backpackers, and it’s understood that the lighter your pack is, the more seasoned and trail tested you are. To pack everything you need to stay alive on your back — clothes, food, water, everything — and have it all weigh less than a large bag of dog food seemed quite macho.

But in truth, you don’t understand the meaning of the word need until you begin to climb those stairs. From the moment, the moment, we started walking I began an ever expanding list of shit I was carrying but didn’t need; knife-sharpener, spare knife, a pair of jeans, a guitar, several books, and much more than I’d like to admit in writing, all of it dead weight in the face of the mountains.

This proved to be a popular conversation topic with hikers we met over the next few days, many of whom were amused by the things I’d felt compelled to lug through these hills. Luckily I wasn’t the only one who’d made bad decisions on gear; Wasn’t the worst one either.

“I met one kid out here last year,” a man named Smokes had told us one night in camp, “couldn’t have been more than a hundred pounds soaking wet. He was carrying — I shit you not — ninety pounds worth of stuff. He had thirty days worth of food on him!”

Thirty days worth of food is quite excessive, since you can easily re-supply every 3-5 days in towns and outposts along the AT.

“He was carrying a bow and arrows!” Smokes said, “He was lucky to make five miles a day.”

This of course is the principle lesson that the trail teaches, and the reason, I think, that people flock to it year after year. It forces you — through steep, rocky ascents, jarring descents, wind, rain, snow, heat, and an ungodly number of stairs — to strip away everything that’s not really important to your survival. Day by day, mile by mile, you cast off the superfluous stuff of modern life until soon even your name is gone.

Smokes, for example, was not the man’s real name but a nickname given to him by fellow hikers at some point in his travels. These “trail names” as they’re known are a time-honored tradition among long distance hikers, and getting one is a right of passage. As is optimistically carrying too much stuff out into the hills, and later dumping it — with equal optimism — into the first post office box (or trash can) you can find.

It’s through this stripped-down lifestyle, and the constant meditative work of strenuous walking, that the people out here hope to gain something that the modern world, for all its gadgets and gizmos, can’t offer them: clarity.

I can’t tell you if it works at all; Not yet. But I can tell you that these days, with only a week on the trail so far, my pack weight is down to about twenty-five pounds. My guitar is gone. I carry just one book. I do have a trail name, in case you’re wondering. But that is a story for a different time. For now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a couple more things I need to mail home.

Editing Your Life with Graham Hill

GRAHAM_HILL_Reid_Rolls_Headshot

Graham Hill speaks in the slow, confident tone of someone who works too hard to be enamored by their own success. He doesn’t say much. But when he does talk, he mentions amazing feats, like his time on the Plastiki – a catamaran made from recycled water bottles which sailed across the Pacific – with such passing simplicity that you might think he was merely recounting an interesting article he’d glanced over, rather than a once in a lifetime adventure he’d undertaken. He is, in short, a very nice guy who does very cool stuff. His newest project, LifeEdited, is no different.

“So the basic concept behind LifeEdited,” he said, Continue reading “Editing Your Life with Graham Hill”

Finding The Key To Life

 

Here are two facts that you’ll probably never need again: The first is that if you Google “what is the answer to life the universe and everything”, the search engine will respond appropriately that the answer is forty-two. The second fact is that when driving to Key West from the marshy grasslands of Florida’s southern tip, you’ll wander more than a hundred miles out into the ocean – much farther out than a car has any business being – and will cross precisely forty-two bridges.

This second fact was revealed to us by our tour guide, Phil, as we jetted beneath the fleeting shade of bridge number 41, flying over the water at a speed somewhat approaching that of sound on sleek, red, Yamaha jet skis. The smell of sunscreen mixed with the plasticky scent of rented life-jackets and wave runner exhaust, and the sun bounced blindingly off the crystal clear, mangrove filtered surf. Following the bubble trail left by Phil’s machine, we nosed between sets of red and green buoys, away from the placid waters of the of the island’s gulf-side, and out toward the deeper blues and blacks of the Atlantic.

If you’ve ever spent time in a lake community, you know that absolutely everyone hates jet skiers. They make too much noise, travel way too fast, and perform absurdly dangerous stunts – barreling straight towards a canoeist say, just to watch them squirm before turning on a dime and zooming off towards some swimmers. Nobody quite understands why they do what they do. Nobody, that is, who’s never tried it. But the moment you straddle a wave runner of your own, everything makes sense. The wind in your hair and spray in your eyes as water speeds past inches from your feet. Nothing between you and certain death but your own white-knuckle, throttle-pinning grip on the controls. From front to back a jet ski is a machine built for speed, responding solely to the throttle, and is ordained by god to scare the bejesus out of pissant canoeists.

“You see that there?” Phil asked, slowing to an idle and nodding toward a patchy white sandbar which lay just beneath the water on our left. “That there’s the closest you’ll get to a real beach on Key West. The islands have no natural sand deposits, so anything touristy has to be trucked in.”

The three of us drifted for a second in silence, then Phil goosed his throttle and we were off. Waves patchworked our path like ski moguls, launching the machines out of the water, and raising the throaty hum of the engines to a whine as they sucked nothing but air before shuddering back into the sea. Explosions of salty spray stung my eyes until I couldn’t keep them open anymore and resorted to riding blind, checking every once in a while to ensure I wasn’t on land. We rode and rode, over countless waves and along seemingly endless miles of coast. Nothing else in the world existed. There was just the sun, and the surf, speed, and a couple of ridiculous smiles painted on faces.

A jet ski is only maneuverable while the throttle’s torked. Once you let off, you venture aimlessly wherever surf, and wake, and providence care to take you. This is what we did near the southern tip of the island, drifting lazily and looking to shore at the scattering of tourists climbing proudly, if wearily, out of their cars to stretch their legs and pose by the famous marker for U.S. Route 1’s Mile Zero, the end of the road. The sun hung low in the sky, still shy of sunset, but not by much. Soon the restaurants downtown would fill up. Country music would echo – comically out of place – from the darkened smoke-filled recesses of Irish pubs. Hispanic men in fedoras and aloha shirts would pedal hand rolled cigars from street carts while actors roamed the cobblestone roads in full pirate dress, working to draw couples into wedding costume, or themed lingerie shops. Sword swallowers, torch jugglers, and fire dancers would take to the pier at Mallory Square for the nightly sunset celebration, wowing crowds with their deft precision, and unleashing a sharp tongue on anyone who watched the show, but chose not to tip.

I watched as more road warriors climbed from their cars to take pictures with the Mile Zero sign, amused at the fact that I would forever be immortalized as some guy on a jet ski, way off in the background of somebody else’s profile picture. Amused that they’d crossed 42 bridges, and roughly a hundred and twenty-six miles – which is 42 three times over – of ocean to get here. We drifted for a minute and it seemed that perhaps Key West was itself the answer to life the universe and everything. Then we throttled up, and motored off, rocketing to our top speed, and scanning the horizon for the tell tale silhouette of a canoe.