Sunday, June 7, 2015

AT Final Thoughts, Part I, General

So, instead of a thru hike, I ended up with a section hike.  I still want to provide my final thoughts and capture my lessons learned.

As an intro, I thought I would mention my overall impression of the hike.  The trail was great, harder than I expected, but very nice to hike.  The tough footing and nearly continuous ups and downs made it difficult in wet weather.  What I found least 'fun' was trying to get to and from town and the shelter use mandate in the Smokies.  Some say the AT is a very sociable trail, but I think that pertains to the thru hiker community.  My 'late' hiking put me in the situation where most fellow hikers were section hikers.  Some were friendly, but most seemed a little guarded in what they would say.  And I found that younger hikers were less talkative than older; this may have been due to my 'older' age than most.  Bottom line, it was a bit lonely at times.  I don't know how this would affect me on a full thru hike.  Now back to my lessons learned...

I expect like many hikers I wasn't really prepared for the AT. I had equipment tested on six and eight day backpacking trips. But the AT conditions were more challenging, and I didn't expect the concerns about family needs at home. Ordinarily my wife is pretty independent and handles any challenge with ease.

I guess my first lesson would be to make sure that all known family issues, especially medical, are resolved way before the start of the hike. My wife wanted to use the military dental facility for some surgery. But they waited months to get her in. Then it wasn't as simple as I expected. I put off my own hernia repair thinking it might be minor enough to ignore. I started the AT carrying my full pack for the first time in months three days after the end of my ‘take it easy’ recovery. That wasn't a big problem, but I didn't anticipate how much the lack of conditioning for the trail would impact me.  

If you don't resolve those family issues you won't have the peace of mind to keep walking!

Next the southern part of the AT is difficult. In central Texas a 200 foot climb is rare. Having a 1700 to 3000 foot climb is not comparable. But you get the same downs as ups!  Taking it slow or with stops lets the lungs and heart catch up. But the constant stress on the ankles/feet and their supporting muscles, tendons and ligaments is tough. Even being careful, the heel muscles especially, would get tight. Every morning I could only hobble for 10 minutes!

The calves, thighs and back did fine. The many two foot high steps up and down and the long downhills put a lot of pressure on the knees. I used my trekking poles as shock absorbers, but it slowed me down. The youngsters just loped down without a care. I saw one middle-aged hiker that used a knee brace. I suspect that was more common than I noticed.

Bottom line here is do as much conditioning as you can before hitting the trail.

To keep the pack light I did a few things I will change next time. First I didn’t bring extra clothes or long underwear. I had boxers, convertible pants, and rain pants for the lower half. Above I had a long sleeved merino half zip base, a wind shirt, a rain jacket, and a down puffy. I never needed or used the latter.

The problem was what to do in a heavy rain. I didn't want to get my 30 degree down bag wet at night. But I couldn't count on the bag and bivy being enough to keep me warm without some layer(s) of clothing. I kept the wind shirt dry in the pack during rains. But I also wore the rain jacket and pants to keep the base layers ‘dry’.  But the heat and the rain shell caused overheating going up hill. Those conditions happened only for a few short ups but it would have been a problem if I had stayed on the trail longer.

I’ve thought about a couple of partial solutions. First I need a light bottom base layer for use in the bag. Second, carry a 2 oz cuben rain skirt. Cool in the rain on ups. For the top seems like you can go without rain gear, use a jacket, a poncho or an umbrella. Carrying a jacket seems like the best option. But have a light base layer for use in the bag when you just have to be in the rain without the jacket because of exertion/heat/ups.

My shelter system was another issue. I use a flat square cuben tarp (8.5’ square) combined with a bivy that has a cuben floor, pertex top, and bug mesh over the head. I put my NeoAir pad, quilt and me in the bivy at night. It's all very functional and the tarp and bivy combined weigh only16.3 oz. I could use the bivy under the tarp or in a shelter.

The first issue is comfort. It's hard to turn over in the bivy, just not enough room. I roll over all night. The mesh hood solved the condensation issue I had with other bivies. But rain spray means I have to keep the cuben bathtub raised a bit over the hood. This lessons the leg room by a few inches. So I cannot stretch out my legs!  That's a real problem after hiking all day.

But the bivy becomes a problem on sloped camp sites. In the Smokies you have to use the shelters (usually full with early stoppers and section hikers with permits) or tent next to the shelter. There were no flat sites where I tarped in the Smokies. So every time I turned over in the bivy it would slide a bit downhill. This tended to expose the foot area of the bivy to rain splatter. From inside the bivy you cannot move the bivy back uphill and while sleeping you don’t notice the extent of the problem. In the morning the foot-box of the quilt is a little damp. That wasn't a problem but it could be with longer periods of rain. You don’t want to know what I was thinking of the Park Service and their shelter/tent policy for thrus. I also wasn’t thinking charitably of the hikers in the shelters with their short days.

My solution is to get a cuben tent like the ZPacks Altaplex. If I give up the bivy its about the same weight. But I won’t have a significant rain splatter problem. I get plenty of room to stretch out. And best of all I can sit up in a bug protected space! To blog of course. Also I can bring the pack in and give up my 2 oz Tyvek ground cloth I use for the pack under the tarp. The Tyvek gets disgustingly dirty and is hard to clean!  The tent will have a slightly smaller footprint, use one less trekking pole, and a couple less stakes. I could carry a 1.5 oz ground cloth for protecting my NeoAir in shelters.

Another potential problem I really didn’t encounter was having enough warm and dry layers to handle persistent cold, wet conditions. There were a fee moments I got chilly on the peaks wearing my base layer and rain shell. What if I had started in March or had bad cold wet weather in the Whites?

I’ve got a Cap 4 mid-layer hoody that I left at home. I need to try it out and see whether it could replace or supplement my down puffy. For wet weather it would seem a good option.

Bugs are another problem. My arms and legs are bitten up and I may have some poison ivy from the high weeds across and near the trail. Surprisingly in Texas I always wear loose, long pants and long sleeved synthetic shirts. The first and last time I hiked in 100 degree sun with shorts, my skin became so hot it almost burned (with heat). But I only have to survive short ups in Texas.

Maybe more extensive use of insect repellant would help. Also some hikers used tall gaiters to protect from the weeds (bugs, scratches and wet). Maybe they make a light version?

I guess most of the rest of my issues were pack organization (always something I stuffed somewhere that I couldn’t easily get to during the day), daily routine (don’t skip meals and snacks to save time), and hygiene. Hygiene is just tough with limited water sources.

The final topic is resupply. I’ve got a lot of meals and snacks left that aren’t going to get mail dropped. Plus, I had trouble: getting my wife to send boxes before I explicitly told her to; no signals for email to my wife; and watching the USPS let Priority Mail sit in one place all day (not its destination) while I was expensively sitting on my heels waiting to get back on the trail. I need to use mail drops only when absolutely necessary and resupply in towns at other times. 

In Part II of my Final Thoughts, I'll cover electronics.

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