Monday, February 8, 2016

O is for Overnight Hike on the AT

As my love for outdoor adventure grew after several camping and canoeing trips, I became interested to try backpacking.  I had zero experience and zero gear, but that didn't deter me.  Back in 2008, we lived within an hour's drive of several Appalachian Trail (AT) trailheads.  I had been on the AT before, at Max Patch, along the Tennessee-Carolina border.  Max Patch is a tall bald (no trees) and standing on top of it among the grass, we felt like we were reliving the opening scene to The Sound of Music.  In that section, the AT was beautifully forested with occasional meadows and wide open vistas of the surounding countryside.

I fell in love with the trail, so I thought this would be the perfect place to try out backpacking.  When I mentioned the idea of a trip to my father-in-law, he asked if he could go with me.  So the adventure began.

I began researching the trail in the area and found several websites with valuable information -- things like trailheads and parking, shelter locations, mileages between features, and locations of water sources.  I decided on a single-overnight trip, covering a total of about 32 miles.  We dubbed it the Three-State Plan because we would start in Virginia, travel through Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, and finish up in Maryland.

Neither of us had any backpacking gear, so we cobbled together what we could.  We rented external frame backpacks.  We each took one of my fleece sleeping bags.  It was mid-September, so we didn't expect cold weather.  We didn't have backpackable air mattresses, so we used pool rafts.  We intended to stay at one of the larger shelters along the trail, but knew we couldn't guarantee space and/or might decide to stop somewhere else, so we also took the kids' 3-man tent.  It wasn't heavy, but by backpacking standards, it was a ginormous anvil.  We didn't have bladders, so we used a couple of Gatorade bottles, and we had no trekking poles.  For clothing, I was in pretty good shape.  I was an avid runner, so I wore a moisture-wicking polyester running shirt -- the same kind I still wear frequently on my backpacking adventures.  I also had come across some convertible quick-drying hiking pants for a good price, and I had a very comfortable pair of Keen hiking boots.  For a hat, I wore my military boonie hat with a clip-on headlamp that must had a power of about 10 lumens.  It's a good thing we didn't need to do any real night hiking!  Chuck wasn't quite as well outfitted.  He wore a cotton t-shirt, blue jeans, a baseball cap, and tennis shoes.  We looked quite the pair!

We didn't have a stove either, but that was okay.  We packed MREs (military Meals Ready to Eat) for dinner because we thought, "They're vacuum-sealed and generally dehydrated, so they'll be small and light."  Boy, was that wrong!  For lunch, we packed crackers, string cheese, and Slim Jims, and breakfast was Pop Tarts.  Boy, were we living high on the hog!

We started early at Mount Weather in the middle of what has been dubbed the Roller Coaster -- a 15-mile stretch of long and continuous ups and downs over successive mountains.  We got about 7 miles of it, and that was plenty!  The long, arduous climbs yielded many great views that were worth it each time, but as we got to the end of that part, neither of us were sure we could go on.  Along the way, at a road crossing, we saw a sign indicating a convenience store a mile or so down the road.  We opted to head down there for more snacks and Gatorade.  Later that day, we passed water but opted not to tank up.  That was a mistake.  Before we got to the next water source, we were both out of water.  When we finally did reach the place, the problem was exacerbated by the water being off the trail a little ways, and we couldn't find it.  Moreover, we had to wait 30 minutes after we did find it for our purification tablets to take effect.  That is a lesson I have never forgotten!

We pulled into the Blackburn Trail Center, one of the largest shelters along the AT, in late afternoon, and we were dead tired.  In the picture below, the look on Chuck's face says it all.

We were in for a treat, though.  The Trail Center was manned, and the couple staying there was fixing dinner for any hiker that stopped in.  There were several of us there that night, including a couple of thru-hikers that started in Maine and were happy to share their tales.  We all enjoyed massive plates of spaghetti.  It seemed we just couldn't get enough, and that was much better than the MREs we had planned!

If that weren't enough, we were given the option of either sleeping on the screened-in porch or in one of the out-buildings that had bunks like a rustic cabin.  Chuck and I chose the cabin, and we had an amazing night's sleep.

We were stiff in the morning, but we ate our Pop Tarts, shouldered our packs and headed back to the trail.  This day would be exciting!  We would be crossing the bridge into Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and then on into Maryland.  We had a much easier hike through the mountains in the cool of the forest canopy.  We reached Harpers Ferry after lunch and enjoyed strolling down the historic street of old buildings toward the headquarters for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, where we signed the hiker register.  We also seized the opportunity for a cold drink and took in the amazing view at the river confluence before heading back out on the trail.

The last part of the hike was the hardest.  We were both tired.  Chuck had given up on his blue jeans and decided to convert them into shorts.  Still, he couldn't stay cool enough, and they were soaked through by this time.  I was having my own problems due to sweat as well.  As a result, we didn't enjoy the last part as much as we would have otherwise.  This part followed the C&O Canal towpath for about three miles before jumping off.  We jumped off at that same point, ecstatic to see our car waiting for us in the trailhead parking lot.

Despite being worn out, I was hooked.  I had found a new love that I haven't abandoned to this day, some seven years later.  I learned a few lessons, though, the same ones nearly every backpacker has learned early in their journeys:

1)  Gear isn't everything.  We were able to complete a successful and extremely enjoyable overnight hike with just what we were able to cobble together with near-zero investment.  I've seen Boy Scouts do the same thing successfully.
2)  That said, having the right gear helps.  It wasn't long after that I bought my first backpack and sleeping bag, both of which I'm still using today.  Looking back, I laugh at how unprepared we were in terms of our gear.  Having better gear means a smaller, lighter pack, a better night's sleep, better food, and better comfort.
3)  Planning is everything.  If we hadn't done so much route planning in terms of where we intended to stay, where water sources were, etc., the trip would not have been nearly as enjoyable.
4)  Never pass up the opportunity to fill up on water.  The consequences could be disastrous.  If we hadn't finally found that water source, we would have been in a world of hurt.

Blogging Through the Alphabet” style=


  1. I love the AT. It was always on my bucket list, and my first taste was on Mount Washington. (Did you know it can snow there in August? We found that out the hard way.) I was hooked - I never pass up an opportunity for a few steps along the trail. The kids and I have done a few sections of it on our trips, including Harpers' Ferry. Celia would say at least you had pants -- two summers ago, she hiked it in a tea-length dress!

  2. A few years ago, Don and I revisited the White Oak Canyon trail that we loved hiking with our boys. We hadn't planned to hike far, and we had just eaten breakfast and had water, so we didn't carry anything. We ended up hiking to the first waterfall and had to hike back up the steep trail. We found a ranger's truck and got water, but about 3/4 of the way back, I had a very low blood sugar, with dizziness. I had no choice but to finish and suffered for three days after with dizziness. Now we always bring water and a snack.

  3. I have a friend Curtis Winstead that hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and a month later was diagnosed with cancer and a year later died :-( But he had some wonderful stories of that adventure!