Monday, March 2, 2015

Cogitations and Ruminations on Hiking the AT

Rather than asking questions on or, I figured I would create a post that virtually nobody would see where I kick around my thoughts on hiking the AT.  If you happen to actually read this, please bear with me.  Like my blog, this is intended to help me remember planning and executing the hike.  This post in particular is probably not going to be of much use to other people.

I don't know how other people think, or what they use to motivate themselves.  I'm not a humanities or soft-science kind of person, so I haven't done much reading in this area.  My approach is to first envision an action that will either enhance my skills, provide me with knowledge on a subject that is of interest to me, or that will provide a sense of enjoyment (recreation). 

With enhancing skills, I usually approach the action by convincing myself that this is the right thing to do.  It may not be fun, or it might involve something that causes me fear or trepidation.  But it is the right thing for me to do, and I need to do it.  Once I commit, I will only bail if the cause is out of my control.

Taking an action that results in new knowledge on a subject of interest is usually accomplished only when time permits.  I will read a book, do some informal research on the Internet, or take an online course.  Sometimes this is part of accomplishing another activity such as skill enhancement or recreation.  I seldom make an internal commitment to acquiring new knowledge, it's usually just something that comes along or that I do as part of my daily relaxation.

And then of course there is recreation--those activities I accomplish because they are fun.  These usually require a commitment of time, and so often will be postponed or the time will be spent in some other fashion.  Only when early scheduling or paying ahead of time is required will a recreational activity be considered a firm commitment.

Hiking the AT involves all three types of activities.  It provides me the opportunity to enhance my skills at backpacking and endurance hiking.  The planning process involves all kinds of ways to acquire new and interesting knowledge.  And finally, I consider backpacking a lot of fun.  And an AT thru hike definitely requires a commitment for scheduling and an investment for both on-trail costs and avoidance of income I could have made if not hiking.

So, when I became dissatisfied with my job at work, and my finances were in good shape for retirement, a decision to do a thru-hike of the AT was practically a no-brainer.

That doesn't mean I made the decision without a lot of thought or without reservations.  For my profession, I've got a pretty good paying job, and several years yet till a traditional retirement.  But I just wasn't getting assigned the tasks that I wanted.  I needed to make a change, even if my wife would have preferred no change.  It was actually tough just telling her what I planned and trying to get her support.

That fear, of making a major change, was probably the biggest concern I faced.  Kind of related to that was having to tell my bosses that I was leaving.  My background and experience is pretty unusual, and it will take a while for a replacement to get up to speed.  The possibility that I would disappoint my bosses is my biggest regret.

Then of course, there was the fear that I was not up to the task.  I'm in pretty good health, but I'm not as young as I used to be.  Could I hike for several months without breaking down?  Even if I could, could I avoid accidents for that distance and time?  Except for once when my trekking pole got caught during some rock hopping, I've not gone down through tripping in a long time.  On the other hand, I have slipped and fell a handful of times on wet rocks or in mud near streams, but haven't had any broken bones or other major damage.  But accidents are bound to happen, especially on the reportedly difficult areas of the AT.  Then there's Lyme disease, noro-virus and other maladies you can encounter on the trail.  This just makes a thru-hike of the AT a challenge!  And I like challenges.

Finally, you get down to the point of considering how you are going to execute the hike.  Here, there are a number of nagging items that generate a feeling of fear or trepidation. I'll try to give each a small paragraph, then wrap up this post.

First, I'm not a very sociable person.  I enjoy talking to people one-on-one, but in a group, I usually just shut down, unless its a work setting where my participation is required.  Hence, I'm not looking forward to shelters, hostels, or potential group hiking.  I can pretty much avoid the first and the last by using my tarp for shelter and hiking my own hike.  I could have minimized this concern by hiking the PCT or CDT, but wanted to do the thru-hike on the 'shortest' of the trails. 

Hostels deserve their own discussion.  I like quiet and dark to get to sleep.  Voices and talking are particular problems when trying to doze off.  And I've never been able to get earplugs to fit comfortably or to actually cut out much sound.  I can stay in motels in some places.  I'll just have to do my best to avoid hostels.

On food, I've tried to use a Paleo diet the last couple of years (sometimes even successfully).  But there's no way to do a Paleo diet on the trail. You just can't get enough calories from the protein and fat available.  Large amounts of carbs are required.  This suggests that using on-trail resupply is a satisfactory approach for most nutrition, but supplementing through mail-drops will be a good idea.  But will my digestive system be happy?

But mail-drops raise another concern.  I don't want to stay at hostels when I can avoid it, but the post offices have limited hours.  It would be way too easy to have to wait to pick up a mail-drop at the post office either overnight or over-the-weekend.  Which would typically require either extra hostel/motel stays or potentially slowing down or speeding up on the trail to arrive when a post office is open.  So the solution seems to be to minimize mail-drops.

Next, I need to address how to handle cold temperatures in GSMNP and in the Whites.  My usual practice is to use my 30 degree quilt plus layering to handle cold weather.  I've been very comfortable down to about freezing with a 9 or 10 pound base weight (I sleep warm).  But I haven't had the opportunity to test my backpacking kit at colder temperatures--I live in a flat region of a southern state.  I believe that wearing all of my layers under the quilt ought to be good down to about 20 degrees, but I cannot be sure.  I really don't want to spend the money to get a 20 degree quilt or bag, or carry additional insulation layers.  I can eat extra, use a heated water bottle, and/or do exercise if needed--maybe night hike.  And if I'm wrong, I won't be far from a road where I can get off and get additional insulation.  The approach here may still change...

Journaling and photography is my last concern.  I've got an AT&T phone.  Will I have enough connectivity to regularly post journal entries and contact my wife?  Will I have enough energy at the end of the day to write the journal?  Do I have the patience to use the touch keyboard on an iPhone 5s?  I also take a lot of photos; I don't seem able to resist.  I need to get some of them onto my iPhone for journal entries, from my Ricoh camera.  Eyefi will do that.  But what about the rest of the photos?  Eyefi has an online cloud for a fee, but that's a lot of data, even for an unlimited account.  Should I plan to ship SD cards back home?  But I cannot see buying a lot of expensive Eyefi cards, and non-WiFi cards won't provide a means of getting photos onto the iPhone.  Maybe I can get a few EyeFi cards and ship them home, then back to the trail via mail-drops?  This is something I still need to test before hitting the trail.  Obviously I haven't made a decision here yet.

Well, that pretty much wraps up this post about my thinking on the AT.  I'm sure there are things I've forgotten.  But enough for today--more than enough!  Is anybody still reading? :-)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Electronics for the AT

I've always been big on documenting, mostly through photography, my vacations.  And I plan to do the same with my thru hike of the AT.  Only this time, I plan to keep both a journal (via this blog) and an extensive photo library.  Unfortunately, the electronics package to do this adds a lot of weight to my hoped-for ultralight base weight.  I could put some of the equipment in clothing pockets, but that's not my preference, and I don't like trying to get around an honest base weight.

For this post, I'm going to add talk about all the electronics I plan to carry.

First, lets talk about cameras.  Traditionally, I've liked and carried full-size DSLR cameras.  My current one is the Canon EOS 7D.  But it weighs 3 lbs 5.2 oz, including a 28-135 mm zoom lens, battery and memory card.  It's just too much for a multi-day, let alone an AT, carry.  Maybe if I was planning to do a professional video or photo product, but I'm not.  I've taken Canon DSLR cameras on vacations to places such as Disney World for years.  But recently, I wanted something a bit easier to stash and protect.  After trying a couple of Canon hand-held cameras, I bought a Nikon Coolpix s8200.  It has a 14x zoom, takes pictures with 16 million pixels, and weighs only 7.5 ounces.  The photos are fantastic, the only problem with the s8200 is that it is not waterproof.  I still have to protect it even in a light drizzle.  AT hiking journals point to a lot of rain.  This just wasn't the ideal camera for the trail.
Nikon Coolpix s8200
I put off getting a waterproof camera for quite a while.  Most of the reviews I've read indicated questionable picture quality.  But I finally found a camera where the picture quality was great, and the camera included GPS at a reasonable price.  I now have a Ricoh (Pentax) WG-4 GPS camera.  It's only a 4x optical zoom.  But it has 16 mega-pixels, a digital compass, and GPS with an altitude indicator.  It also has LEDs to do micro-photography down to 1 cm in distance.  It weighs a bit more than the S8200 at 8.2 oz, including the battery and a memory card.  Reviewers say the GPS drains the battery quickly, so I will leave it off.  But the GPS will be there for an emergency.
Ricoh (Pentax) WG-4 GPS
But no electronics come without accessory requirements.  The Ricoh comes with an 850 mAh battery at 19 grams.  I bought two Halcyon replacement 1500 mAh batteries at 16 grams each.  The camera USB charging cable seems to have a proprietary connector on the camera end.  It weighs 2.1 oz and is long (56") and heavy.  The alternate Halcyon battery charger weighs only 2.5 oz.  On a traditional backpacking trip of less than two weeks, extra batteries would be enough.  On the AT, I'll need to bring the charging cable.  Unfortunately, it doesn't look like there is a lighter weight cable available.

I decided not to bring my Kindle.  But I still wanted something to relax with if/when there is time.  So I found the SanDisk Sansa Clip Sport with 8 GB of memory and a 32 GB micro SDHC card.  This lets me put my music library on the micro SD card, and I can load Audible audio books into the 8 GB of internal device memory.  The device is only 1.02 oz (without ear buds and charging cable).  From the literature, I'm guessing the battery capacity is about 580 mAh.  The Sansa uses a standard micro-USB charging cable, and I was able to find a short one.  The Sansa has a clip that allows it to be connected to a pocket or belt.  It also has a 25 hour battery!

I've used Blackberry, Android and iPhone smart phones.  But after studying OS/phone security plus user capabilities, I settled on the iPhone.  My current phone is the iPhone 5S with 64 GB of internal memory.  The iPhone has a 1560 mAh battery and weighs 3.95 oz. A Lifeproof Nuud waterproof case weighs 1.4 oz. The drawback for the AT is that the phone is AT&T, not Verizon.  I do have a Verizon MiFi (3.14 oz), but I'm not excited about another device and additional weight.  The ATT account is unlimited data, while the Verizon is just several gigabytes. I'm unwilling to give up the unlimited data account, so I plan to stay with AT&T.

For iOS software, I have Guthook's AT Hiker for an AT map and digital AT Guidebook, Gaia GPS for general mapping, Eyefi Mobi for transferring photos from my camera memory card to the phone and then to an Eyefi Internet repository, Web Albums to allow use of Picasa Web Albums on the Internet, Blogger to create and manage posts, USPS Mobile for mail drops, Kindle for reading eBooks, Compass, and Mag Light Pro.  I have a variety of other apps for travel and content creation and viewing.

The iPhone doesn't have a user replaceable battery, but you can turn off functionality, put it into airplane mode, and basically minimize battery usage.  However, I'm only going to be able to conserve battery in a limited fashion.  I want to journal and use the AT Hiker daily.  The iPhone uses a Lightning USB cable, and I have one that's a few inches long.

Although I have a small solar charger, everyone says that the 'long green tunnel' of the AT makes a solar charger inefficient.  So I plan to take a New Trent 12,000 mAh external battery with two USB ports.  The New Trent uses a standard micro-USB charging cable, and I have a short one.  It is not waterproof, but I didn't want to add waterproofing weight to what already seems like a brick--9.63 oz.  I'm not really a sociable person, so I don't expect to go into town too frequently.  If I was expecting frequent town stops, a smaller external battery might have been better.

So I'm covered between towns.  But I still need a way to recharge the external battery and potentially the other devices when I get to an outlet.  For that I have an Anker 20 Watt, 2-port USB wall charger.  It has IQ technology to allow charging of all devices.  And each port can support up to 2.4 amps.  The Anker wall charger weighs 2.29 oz.

Here's what the various devices and cables weigh in summary:

Device Ounces
iPhone 5S with Lifeproof Nuud 5.35
Sandisk Sansa Clip Sport 8 GB (yellow) w 32 GB Micro SDHC 1.02
Ricoh WG-4 GPS (Pentax) Camera, 64 GB, Halcyon 1500 mAh 8.22
New Trent IMP120D External Battery, 12000 mAh 9.63
Anker 20W 4A Dual-Port Wall Charger, 7109 Power IQ 2 2.29
Halcyon Battery Pack, Li-50B/D-Li92, 3.7 V, 1500 mAh 0.56
Micro USB Cable, 8" (came with Sansa) 0.56
Lightning USB Cable (8.5", white), GadgetsPro 0.18
Ricoh USB charging cable (56", black) 2.1
Bose Ear Buds (white) 0.71
Total 30.62 oz

This is almost two pounds!  As I said, this will make achieving Ultralight almost impossible.

What is the Appalachian Trail (AT)?

I wanted to do an initial blog to let family, friends and readers know some of the characteristics of the AT.  This is not meant to be comprehensive.  There are plenty of resources on the net if you want to find out more about the trail...

The AT is about 2185 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.  Most hikers take from four to six months to complete the trek.  Only about 25% of hikers that start AT thru hikes finish in a year.  There are opportunities to resupply either near the trail or at nearby trail towns usually every two to seven days, most often within four days.  The trail passes through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), Shenandoah National Park (SNP), and the White Mountains.  Here's a shot of the overall trail:

See the Appalachian Trail Conservancy site for an interactive map.  You can also see the ATC site for a history of the trail.

The AT goes through the more populous east coast (as opposed to the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail).  Each year more people hike the AT, and the ATC has begun offering voluntary start date information to help spread out the load.  Even so, most hikers go northbound and start in March or April.  The mass of hikers is known as the 'herd.'  Hikers have the option of staying in shelters, if they can find the room, or at tent sites.  Most shelters have privy's, and water is readily available along most of the trail.

Most hikers appear to treat the AT as a social trail, hiking in groups, and frequently making town stops at hiker hostels or motels.  Hikers can pretty much resupply on the trail, but mail drops are still used by some.

You can read hiker's journals at sites like Trail Journals, White Blaze, or on Blogspot or Blogger.  One well known Triple Crown hiker, Wired, has some very interesting and thorough journals at her site Walking With Wired.