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.

Build a School for the Price of Your Daily Coffee: ChangeHeroes

 

“That’s the most fucked up question I’ve ever been asked,” said the disembodied voice echoing to my headphones through the Skype-o-sphere from the other side of the continent. I was nineteen minutes, and a half dozen technical difficulties into my interview with Taylor Conroy, and things were going great.

Conroy is the founder of Change Heroes, and is among a growing group of innovative disruptors. Business owners known as Social Entrepreneurs who see potential for companies to be economic engines that drive positive social change.

Change Heroes is a friend-funding platform which gives anyone the tools they need to raise $10,000 and build a school, library, or water well somewhere in the developing world. The system leverages technology and small meaningful numbers to create huge tangible impact in very little time. For example, a typical campaign is designed around one person getting 33 of their friends to donate $3.33 a day for three months. By the end of their campaign, and for no more than the price of a daily cup of coffee, those friends will have raised enough money to build a school and change more than a thousand lives for decades to come.

Put another way, if they were to begin in say, September, they’d have funded an entire school before the end of the fall semester, giving dozens of deserving kids the right to an education and each for less than they’re likely to spend on a textbook or two. They’d also be part of one of the world’s largest education pushes in recent years. A project Change Heroes is calling their Back to School Build a School Campaign.

“Even though you and I are in the part of the world where we’re starting to think about going back to school, 130 million children aren’t. We want to change that so we’re starting with a goal of funding 100 schools in Kenya in September.”

This may seem like an extreme goal, but it’s a perfect example of what sets socially concerned businesses apart from their traditional for-profit and non-profit relatives. Change Heroes is a for-profit business keeping 10% of all funds that roll in through their platform. Because their revenue is wholly dependent on the success of their social mission, the only way they can survive as a company is by funding lots and lots of schools for other people.

“Like if they [for-profits and non-profits] spawned a freakishly good looking child that’s what Change Heroes would be.” Conroy said. The impact of this month long campaign would reach well over a hundred thousand students all over Kenya, and put one hundred schools on the ground in a country smaller than the state of Nevada.

Preposterous, you say? Don’t be so sure. Change Heroes has already raised over $600,000, funding more than 60 schools in just their first round of testing. In less than two years they’ve been able to work out the kinks of the program, and are scaling quickly.

“The site’s now ready to go live,” Conroy said, “If we had ten thousand people log onto the site today, and start campaigns, it would be able to handle it.”

As for the aforementioned “fucked up question”: Will it be able to continue handling it? Is there any legitimacy to the claim that social entrepreneurship is just a fad? Can it possibly be as sustainable as the capitalism we’ve seen until now?

“It’s ridiculous that someone would say [social entrepreneurship] isn’t sustainable even though we’re living in a world that has proven to be unsustainable. Our food supply is not sustainable. Our climate is not sustainable. Our health is not sustainable, it’s deteriorating at a ridiculously fast rate – that’s the definition of unsustainable. It needs massive change, and the thing is whenever massive change happens it’s met with massive opposition. The people that think that it’s unsustainable, or think it’s a fad are people that are grasping onto the old way of doing things.
There’s always tons of ‘em. You can call them leggers, you can call them late adopters, or you can call them people that just have it dead wrong.”

For more on Change Heroes, and to start up your campaign check out their website at http://www.changeheroes.com/

This article originally ran on MISSION.tv. You can find it, and a ton of other cool articles on social do-gooders here

Flip Flops That Are Ending Wars

Every startups got its low points. Sometimes it can feel like getting trampled by a raging bull. But when those low points hit me, I like to pause, and think of the experience of Matt Griffin, general badass and founder of Combat Flip Flops.

That’s Matt in the picture, the guy trying to hang his flip flops on the horns of the bull. It was taken just a few days before we connected via skype from halfway around the world. But in order to understand what he’s doing there, you must first understand what he’s doing in general.

After beginning his career as a US Army Ranger and serving three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq Griffin – Griff for short – was “invited back” to Afghanistan in a private sector consulting position. It was there, while on a tour of a factory that he saw a flip flop made from the sole of a combat boot. It was an ugly little thing, likely made as a joke, but in that instant an idea was born. The concept was to create a footwear brand that expressed the unique culture of Afghanistan, and was produced within their borders, helping to stabilize the job industry and provide economic opportunity as the allies drew down their military presence.

The idea seemed solid enough, but the team was battling a clock. Their first production round of 2,000 pairs was a flop (no pun intended), and with troop drawdowns increasing and the demand for military equipment plummiting, factories were closing their doors left and right. Just as he was closing the door on a shipping container full of materials for 3,000 pairs of flip flops, he got a call saying that his factory needed him to commit to 80,000 pairs in the next year, or they too would have to close. With 2,000 pairs down the drain, and more than 3,000 pairs worth of materials without a home, Griff did the only thing he could do: He shipped the container to his house.

“We had no idea how to make flip flops,” he said “So we did what anybody would do, we googled it.” After selling one of his cars, and some of his toys, they raided an old manufacturing plant and secured the low tech machinery needed to turn his 600 sq ft garage into a flip flop factory. “It took a few weeks of 5 am to midnight” he said, but they got the shipment done, and Combat Flip Flops was on the chart.

The experience of crafting  thousands of pairs of flip flops in a garage gave rise to the company’s next big idea. Something they call their Expeditionary Production Facility, a full on flip flop factory which fits in a single shipping container, and can be dropped anywhere in the world. CFF plans to ship these EPFs to some of the most conflict ridden places on earth – Columbia, Afghanistan, Parts of East Africa – and provide what is essentially a turnkey solution for jobs, and income. Working with a group of marketers, supply line specialists, and craftsmen CFF is poised to change the way we pick up the pieces of violent conflict.

Their motto really says it all – “Bad for running, worse for fighting”. A tongue in cheek reference to the power of responsible industry to stabilize conflict zones. It’s a slogan that Griff has taken upon himself time and time again to prove, running first from attack dogs, and most recently with the bulls in Pamplona.

If you dig what they’re doing, agree with the idea of driving economic development in conflict zones, or simply want to learn more check out their indiegogo campaign here.

This article first appeared on MISSION.tv. You can find it and lots of other cool stuff here

Dale Partridge and His Ridiculously Productive T-Shirt Co

It’s natural for people – upon hearing that a company donates a portion of its revenues to charity – to question exactly what the impact of such a strategy is. To wonder how much is being raised, and whether or not their purchase is really going to make a difference. Well, there’s one company that answers this question straight out with donation totals displayed right at the top of the page, and it’s awesome.

“We typically won’t do less than $15,000,” said Dale Partridge, CEO of online cause marketplace Sevenly, “…Ever, really.” That number – 15,000 – isn’t raised yearly or even monthly, but weekly and it’s often much higher than that.

The idea is simple, but has proven overwhelmingly effective: Each week Sevenly partners with a new non-profit and $7 from every sale goes toward supporting it.

“We weren’t called to the field,” Partridge said, explaining how the idea came to be, “But we felt really called to the people called to the field.” After starting five other companies and searching for a more fulfilling experience than profit alone, Partridge began thinking of ways to blend value and meaning. He did some research and was surprised to find that there were thousands of charities out there, all doing great work but struggling nonetheless. “Dozens of these guys are closing their doors every day,” he said, “and it’s not for lack of passion.” It was funding. Funding, and attention. Sevenly became a means of funneling those two life giving resources to the people who could make the most out of them.

They do this by selling custom shirt designs for every cause, hand drawn in house and produced right here in the U.S. under the strictest sustainability guidelines. Shoppers also have a chance to multiply their social impact by buying any of more than 250 other products from various socially beneficial brands. Just three years ago Sevenly existed as nothing more than an idea. But already they’ve backed dozens of causes. From the humane treatment of animals to the end of human trafficking Sevely’s supported it all. A weeklong campaign for 4 Paws for Ability raised $31,434 to support the placement of service dogs with disabled children. A campaign for Autism Speaks raised seven times that. All told more than a hundred campaigns have been run so far and nearly three million dollars donated.

It hasn’t been easy.

“Logistically it’s crazy,” Partridge said, “non-stop work.” New designs must be drawn up every week, along with pictures taken, ads created, and campaigns tracked. Products are ordered 24/7, and the whole thing starts anew every single Monday. At one point Partridge worked more than two hundred days straight. “Now,” he said, “we get weekends off, sometimes.” All the work isn’t without it’s benefit though. Theres the obvious reward of supporting so many good causes, but it also provides a formidable competitive advantage.

“We never worried much about competition because we doubt anyone else has the stamina we do.”

As the company grows they’ve begun putting systems in place to ease the workload. In the coming years Sevenly aims to be the world’s largest online cause-marketplace. A mix between Fab and Kickstarter. A place where you can get the things you want from the brands you love, and support a great cause while doing it. Check ‘em out here to find out more.

This article originally appeared on MISSION.tv. You can find it and lots of other cool stuff here

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”