Wonderland Trail Thru-hike pt. 1

Last summer I thru-hiked the Wonderland Trail in eight days during the shoulder season, and almost died. Maybe.

Now, it would have made sense to write my trail report um, last summer, but then I lost my journal for MONTHS before I found it in the most unpredictable place (think envelope within a kitchen drawer). Luckily the journal has been found, so now I must dive into the details of this INCREDIBLE journey that everyone should do.

What the heck is the Wonderland Trail? It is a very scenic, 93 mile trail that circumnavigates the majestic Mount Rainier. In the span of a week, you see every “face” of the mountain and get a peek around every corner of the National Park. See?

And below is a picture of the Wonderland Trail’s elevation profile. What does it remind you of visually? To me it looks like a rollercoaster of thigh-burning hell. In fact, the trail challenges hikers with a strenuous 22,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.

Now, what makes this place so special and treacherous trail worth the pain? Easy answer – everything.

Exhibit A.

P9261177.ORF (2)The Park (and mountain) is freakin’ gorgeous, and if you avoid the crowds at Paradise, you will find solitude in the backcountry. The Wonderland Trail in particular takes you through old-growth forests, right along the tongue of massive, breathtaking glaciers, through wildflower meadows, to the shores of alpine lakes and remote places where wildlife roam undisturbed. I fell in love with all the faces of Mount Rainier during my journey, and finished the Trail humbled by the unpredictable forces of nature. For more general info on the W.T., check out this resource.

This blog post series will be written in a journal-like fashion due to the contents origin – a trail journal. I’ve never shared anything like this before, so bear with me as I try something new. The events that happened on Trail were sometimes dramatic, and I hope will translate well in this form of storytelling. Without rambling on too much, let’s get started.

Day 1:

This morning Tina and I met outside of the Longmire WIC to solidify our trip itinerary. Tina is a leggy-woman with long blonde hair and a vibrant personality.  We don’t really know each other but are thru-hiking together. Last week, while sitting on the floor of the Paradise Visitor Center, I thought, “I wish I knew someone interested in hiking the Wonderland Trail with me.” Within a minute, Tina – one of Amos’ coworkers – approached me and asked if I was interested in hiking the W.T. with her. We’d only met once before. I said yes, of course.

Now I’m laying beside her in a two-person tent; life is funny that way. Today we hiked from Longmire to Nickel Creek with another one of Amos’ coworkers, Lindsey, and her friend Tyler. That’s a solid 14.6 miles with 3,000 ft of elevation gain. We started at 9am and made it to camp at 5 o’clock on the dot. A lot of uphill but tomorrow is supposed to be even more intense! And more beautiful.

 

 

A third coworker of Amos, Claire, showed up around 7pm after we’d all eaten dinner. My dinner was delicious, and a first – mac and cheese with cajun seasoning. Mmhmm. It’s the little things. I just got back from a .2 mile hike to Nickel Creek to fill up my “dirty” bag to filter water in the morning. It’s fun to fall back into old patterns such as water management and the tedious process of filtering everything you drink. After the A.T., I remember being amazed by the convenience of tap water. You just turn a handle and then you have beautiful, purified water ready to go (ideally)!  Now I’m enjoying the slow process of hauling two liters back to my site, and the mindful walk alone in the darkening forest.

Earlier in the day, at the Box Canyon “care station,” I filled up my two gatorade bottles from the water fountain. I know why marmots become habituated – handouts are easy! Even if you enjoy the process, it feels against human nature to say “no” to a shortcut. Or maybe that’s just a problem for me and the marmots?

Highlight of today: the fall colors as we walked on scree and the log footbridges.

Day 2: 

Just finished texting Amos – good service at Summerland camp – who knew?! Much better than his apartment.

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Today we hiked 10.9 miles from Nickel Creek to Summerland with 4,400′ of elevation gain! But the treacherous hills are worth it – Summerland is GORGEOUS! A whole new view of the mountain; the summit looks creamy and rounded like a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Or maybe I’m just hungry? The crew is gonna wake up at 6am to watch the sunrise. Hopefully I’ll sleep better tonight. Last night was horrible – I didn’t fully fall asleep until 4am to 7am. Bad dreams, too. One word – bears.

I am always surprised by how quickly my hiker appetite comes back. I’ve been eating so much. 2 packs of salty ramen tonight and lots of snacks. Gotta’ lessen my pack weight! Body is sore as can be. Legs and feet are plain tired. Glutes and lower back are TENDER. Today’s hike was mostly uphill, steep and HOT. Shorts and a tank top and sun-beating-down on your neck kind of day. But I cannot complain! The weather app predicts our last two days will have scattered showers… Lots of wooden trail steps today, aka a staircase to hell, or heaven? The scenery was incredible. Once we broke treeline, after 2+ hours after leaving Nickel Creek, there were nonstop views of several mountain ranges.

 

 

Highlight of today: my allergic reaction to watermelon algae?! I put some snow on the back of my neck to cool down and within 20 minutes I had a golf ball-sized welt. Having completely forgotten about the snow, I freaked out thinking I’d been bit by a bug and was going into anaphylactic shock or something. Once I remembered the snow, Lindsey let me wash my neck with her face soap. It went away soon after – thank god. I did not want to be medevaced out of the backcountry.

Indian Bar was a nice lunch spot. A cute, old shelter at the bottom of a valley by a river/creek. Oh and I just could not reach the bear pole to hang my food from at camp… it was freakishly tall, and made me feel small. Tina was my savior.

 

 

Day 3 – morning of the 4th: 

I am writing from the employees housing at Sunrise – it is called Blockhouse, and it’s pretty janky. Reminds me of Boxtown at Wrangell-St. Elias. Maybe I’ve spent too much time with Amos, because now I have his “tidy-up” voice in the back of my head whispering, “Why don’t you take two seconds to put that where it belongs?”

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Yesterday wasn’t a bad hike. Only 2,300′ elevation gain, 9.5 miles, and most of it was downhill. I hiked with Lindsey mostly and we chatted about careers and other feminist things, which I’m always down to gab about. Our crew finished the day around 2:30pm when we made it to Sunrise. This was our departing point from Lindsey and Tyler – who’d now officially completed their thru-hike – woohoo! – and Claire. Tina and I hung out on the edge of the parking lot for a while, organizing all of our crap and going through our food caches. Like christmas! Bad news, the General Ranger who gave us our caches said bad weather is in the forecast and hinted that we might want to consider bailing… Also, I have a raw spot on my left foot and my left hip.

In the parking lot, three older guys approached us with a go-pro and claimed they were making a documentary. They then filmed Tina and me awkwardly describing our 93 mile trip, which left them very impressed. Imagine a guy dressed as a hipster pirate, now imagine his friend in a cowboy shirt and a felt brim hat, and their other friend with rounded shades and a beanie with alpacas on it. Unbeknownst to the guys, we were undercover “parkies” so naturally the conversation drifted to them describing their weird, yearly ‘shrooms trip to Rainier and off trail scrambles. They seemed like Seattleites through and through.

Highlight of yesterday:

Hanging out with Tina and her childhood friend Allie, and the 2.5 slices of pizza they shared with me. And beer.

Tina and I got fleas. Sand fleas. My ankles are covered in bites and I sent a pair of my socks home with Claire, in a plastic baggie of course. Hopefully they aren’t in our sleeping bags or this trip is about to get interesting!

I also saw a squirrel eating a truffle, which is my dream come true! So much so that I scared the poor thing when I exclaimed, “OHMYGOD A SQUIRREL EATING A TRUFFLE!” It’s little paws dropped the mushroom body and scampered away from my girlish enthusiasm. After a moment of silence, I picked up the truffle and squished it in my fingers before tossing it at the squirrel. The squirrel then abandoned its fear and resumed eating. I was awe-struck. And I loved watching it lick its cute little paws when it was all done.

 

 

Day 4: 

We’re staying the night in the Mystic Ranger patrol cabin with Tina’s Backcountry Ranger-friend Shenan. I am writing from my sleeping bag in an upstairs loft. It’s raining now. Tonight we discussed a potential plan for bailing. Oh boy.

To be continued… 

Outdoor Goals for 2017

Last year my “outdoor” goals were to

  • Thru-hike the Wonderland Trail (trip report coming soon-ish)
  • Camp in all three of Washington’s National Parks
  • Hike to Camp Muir on Mount Rainier
  • EXPLORE and learn about the ecosystems around me
  • Improve my nature photography (aka learn how to use a camera)
  • Become a Trail Apprentice with the National Trails System
  • Volunteer during the National Parks Service centennial
  • And spend as many days outside as humanly possible

This year I’m not sure what will happen, or entirely sure of what I want in that bullet-point type of way. Here’s the deal about 2017: I don’t know if I will have a job next fall. 

Right now the likelihood is 50/50 – we’ll see what the state legislature decides (long story). With that in mind, if I find out that I will be jobless (and homeless) soon, I’m shifting gears to a 2018 PCT thru-hike

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My life priorities will change to this “simple” recipe: prep for PCT thru-hike/write; look for a temporary, place-based educator position (I’d be happy to work in a museum even) or teach yoga; PCT thru-hike 2018; more temp work; grad school 2019.

Unfortunately it’s still too soon to commit to a thru-hike, but the idea is creeping its way into my day-to-day thoughts and plans. If I have to shove that whistling teapot back onto the backburner, my other plan is to learn more about mountaineering, starting with a summit attempt of Mt. Adams, South Sister, and Mount St. Helens.

My timeline for these experiences is flexible, meaning I don’t mind taking my time to learn new skills. Maybe I’ll stick with the “beginner” Cascade Volcanoes for a handful of years. The main reasons why I want to try, though:

  • I love feeling swallowed up by “vastness.” Big mountains and sweeping landscapes make me feel small. Looking out from a high peak, I usually see very little signs of humans. Instead, there is range after range of mountains and sometimes the shimmer of the Pacific Ocean.
  • I like having goals to work towards. Why not (re)learn how to use an ice axe and self-arrest? Why not become proficient in route-finding and map reading? Why not haul a heavy pack up a mountain and call it training? 
  • I fell for Washington State when I climbed Mt. Baker in 2013, and grew so much in short period of time. Why not deepen that love?

Now is the time to seek experiences that will lead to personal growth, and make my twenties count. So I want to continue exploring and working hard and trying new things for the heck of it and pursuing my passions with purpose.

As I become more accustomed to structure of “society,” I have to consciously remind myself to be firm in my beliefs. “Shoulds” are starting to creep into my vocabulary, carrying the weight of outside, oppressive obligations. And ultimately, those shoulds are paralyzing! I should always have a job. I should have more money saved for grad school. I should buy a vehicle soon. I should stop wasting time and be productive. I shouldn’t act so weird around others. I should do more XYZ, and more often! – blah blah blah, and now I’m stressed.

So with that said, my goals are rooted somewhere inside, free of that  static noise. Sure – slowly climbing up a mountain, or spending months slowly climbing up mountains, sounds selfish and kind of silly – and in many ways, those goals are selfish and silly! But I know these experiences will continue to nurture my love for nature and the Earth.

Afterall, I am dedicating my professional life to education and outreach for our ecosystems, and the well-being of the organisms within them. There is only so much you can learn from books and common field guides – stories are what capture our imaginations and inspire change. Connections. Memories. Experiences.

Before I conclude this post with a quote by John Muir, I must say he is easily one of the most over-quoted naturalists. In my humble opinion, his depth and spiritual appreciation for nature is lost to consumerism in today’s age! I cringe at t-shirts and coffee mugs and keychains that say “The mountains are calling and I must go.” With that off my chest, he is the first person credited for using the word interpretation to describe the work of place-based educators, and I think it is a beautiful summary of what we interpreters do.

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Maybe it’s time I prioritize my own “acquaintance” with the land before lassoing in others to care, too. I mean, my overarching goal for 2017 is to inspire change through love and piqued curiosity; maybe that “change” needs to start within, through my own love and piqued curiosity. *cue the thinking emoji*

Trip Report: Snowshoe at Katahdin Woods and Waters

Recently Amos, Graham, Isaac and I snowshoed to a winter hut in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. We were in Maine for the holidays, and the guys like to do a winter trip when they’re all together. This year I was the tag-along-girlfriend, also know as Chris’ replacement (I don’t know who he is…).

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#attentionseeker – P.C. Amos Almy

Amos chose Katahdin Woods and Waters over Baxter State Park because, at the time, it was our country’s newest national monument and he wanted to check it out. We had followed the Park’s story in the news and sided with Roxanne Quimby, a founder of Burt’s Bees, and President Obama in wanting to protect the land for future generations to enjoy. The idea of exploring this newly acquired, federal land was appealing.

So he reserved the Big Spring Brook winter hut via email, and we prepared for our 14mi round trip in the dead of a Maine winter. Did it matter that the projected temps were 10-15f, overcast, and maybe snow/rain? Nah.

What I wore/brought:

  • Snowshoes. Hiking poles (that I never used).
  • My backpack. 20F sleeping bag and polyester liner. Two sleeping pads.
  • A down jacket. A fleece jacket. A synthetic down jacket. A rain jacket. (And yes, I wore all four jackets!)
  • Long underwear top and bottoms. Buffs.
  • Hiking pants. Rain pants.
  • Waterproof leather boots. Wool socks.
  • A camera I never used.
  • Too many water bottles.
  • A titanium pot. Spoon. Food.
  • Gloves. Waterproof mittens. Handwarmers.

So, did I freeze my butt off like I expected? – Kind of.

We woke up at 5:15am and began the two-hour drive north around 6am. Eventually, after a stop at Dunkin’ Donuts, the grocery store, and driving down several dirt roads, we made it to the privately-owned lodge, Bowlin Camps. When I stepped outside of the car, I immediately felt the snot inside my nostrils start to crystalize. My fingers also ached from the cold as I snapped on snowshoes. For me, hand warmers and mittens were essential.

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The map we needed but could not find online: Katahdin Woods & Waters Recreation Area Map Crosscountry Ski Trails

Above is a picture of a very useful map. We could not find this map on the internet, though it was needed to figure out our route and mileage. So now it is on the internet. Starting at Bowlin Camps, we crossed the East Branch of the Penobscot River by way of a suspension bridge.

Next we traveled north on the K-Comp Road /  International Appalachian Trail. Google International Appalachian Trail – the A.T. continues up the mountains into Canada.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur group traveled close to a mile-an-hour since we were “breaking trail.” If you haven’t snowshoed on ungroomed trail before, blazing a new path through crusty, deep snow requires a lot of effort. With each step we punched through 1-2 inches of thick “ice” and then sank a good 6-inches.

When leading the way, I felt as if I were on a stair-stepper, stepping straight into hell. My hip flexors and thighs screamed as I expended extra energy pulling each foot, and an entire snowshoe, out of the snow. If I didn’t lift my foot high enough to clear the snow I fell. Imagine a small woman, all puffy from three-jackets and a full pack, tumbling into a pile of white snow like a toddler. That was me. Once I fell forward and landed with my face smack dab on the ground – buuuuurrrrrr.

With that said, Graham lead most of the way, Amos a close second, me a meek third, and Isaac was a grateful “sweeper” with soaked jeans and a quiet demeanor. We walked in a single line, with our designated “leader” breaking trail. And then the second-in-line breaking in between the leader’s steps. Each step was a loud “crunch.” Conversation was impossible, and the noise was the opposite of a peaceful walk in the woods.

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Walking back to the car on our beautiful broken-in trail from the day before… That next day we shaved off HOURS of time.

Hours passed. My nose would freeze to the point where I couldn’t move my nostrils, so I’d cover it with a fleece buff for my breath to warm it. But then my glasses would fog up. And then the fog would start to freeze.  So I’d quickly uncover my face and feel the sting of the cold air all over again. #rinseandrepeat

We all grew very very tired as we made our way onto the Little Messer Pond trail, and then Messer Pond – Orinn Falls. We barely stopped to eat or rest – the cold would set in and I’d feel chilled to the bone after 5 minutes. Audible grunts and sighs rang out among our noisy footsteps. Graham lost steam and Amos had a look of defeat. I tried leading a couple of times after “hitting the wall” but barely kept it together. I’d look down the trail, pick out a tree, and say to myself “I can lead until that tree.”

And then every step felt like I was wading through thick mud, or walking with cinderblocks for shoes, and I’d fall before reaching my landmark. It was also getting late. 3 o’clock came around and the sun was scheduled to set an hour later. Mild panic set-in but didn’t overcome us. I mentally went through the steps on building a snow cave, just in case. Now imagine how we felt once the cabin was in sight! The winter hut was a welcomed relief!!

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Big Spring Brook Hut – P.C. Amos Almy

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Outhouse and woodshed – P.C. Amos Almy

It included an outhouse and a fully stocked woodshed. As well as a kitchen, enough bunks to sleep a massive group, two lofts, and a wood burning stove (very very essential). I wanted to just move right in and live there; my life goals now include an A-frame house/cabin of sorts.

We got the stove cranking (I say “we” lightly. The boys jumped on that task. I made ramen.). When we arrived, the inside of the cabin was 20f so fire and warmth were of top priority. Outside it started to sleet. Isaac and I settled in by the stove and waited for big buckets of snow to melt, and then boil.

Eventually we made “second dinner” of three nonmatching pasta sides atop the stove. Amos made a timelapse of the process.

Bedtime by 9pm. We all slept in one of the lofts. I woke up in the middle of the night SWEATING and took it upon myself to delayer and open windows. It felt like freakin’ Florida! *Note to those who venture out to the Big Spring Brook hut, the stove does an excellent job. Open a window.

Outside it snowed and then rained. I awoke at one point to the loud sound of snow falling off the metal roof. In the morning the temperature outside rose to a balmy 40F (inside, it was 60!). Ready to skedaddle, we made hot chocolate and oatmeal and did house cleaning chores, i.e. packed up gear, swept, cleaned dishes, stocked firewood. Amos made another cool timelapse of use going in and out of the cabin with the clouds moving overhead.

And then we hiked back to the car on broken-in trail! It was significantly easier, and the sun actually made an appearance. Although sore, we were all in a much much better mood. Heck, the hiking was actually enjoyable! What was originally a 5.5 hour trip became a leisurely 2. 5 hour stroll. It’s funny how much of a difference trail makes.

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I mean look at this. Glorious.

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Serene.

Our pace was so pleasant I could stop long enough to observe a couple of new trees. By smell, I identified the sweet, candy-like fragrance on trail to be northern white-cedars and the fresh scent of fir as balsam fir. I couldn’t help but break off young branches with my thumbnail and hold the needles up to my nose as I hiked, followed by deep inhalations. I also enjoyed the bright, burst of green from all the soft mosses and ruffled lichens on the trees.

Now, you’re probably wondering if this is a trip worth taking; the first day sounds miserable, huh? Short answer – yes and yes. If you want to do it, do it. The landscape, although uneventful, gave me a sense of happy satisfaction. I loved noticing the differences between trees and other plant-life, and spotting signs of wildlife. Isaac and I noted the fresh tracks of a bobcat next to the trail, and saw numerous scat/droppings. Our group also saw multiple trees with shredded bark, signs of a moose or buck having rubbed its antlers to remove dead velvet.

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P.C. Amos Almy

These kind of experiences made my heart happy, and the treacherous journey made my body thankful for the Park’s amenities. I highly recommend making the trek out there during the winter with some friends. We were truly alone in the woods, and able to enjoy the solitude. One of my favorite things to do is stand completely still in deep snow and hear nothing – a few times during our trip, we all stopped moving just to soak in that silence. And peace. img_9182-1

So if you’re interested in staying at one of the winter huts at Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, contact Mark and Susan Adams at lunksoos@gmail.com. They are temporarily managing reservations for the National Park Service, and were very pleasant to communicate with, as well as helpful. I don’t know who exactly maintains the cabins but they do an A+ job. Thank you! I left a couple of shot-sized whiskey bottles on the counter, in gratitude.

Lastly, I want to state that THE day after our trip, President Obama designated two new national monuments in Utah and Nevada. My ability to say I had just explored our country’s newest national monument was over within 24 hours, although I cannot complain one bit. Woo-hoo for relevancy! I hope someday soon I can explore Gold Butte National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument, too. To learn more about these places, and Obama’s latest effort to protect public lands, click here.

 

Insight on a Frugal Thru-hike

This post is a compilation of random tips, tricks, and gear advice that we believe is worth sharing to potential Appalachian Trail thru-hikers–or long-distance backpackers–who are on a budget. It’s the kind of stuff that Lucas and I wish we knew ahead of time.

In total, we spent about $3,000 each (gear included).

Hitch-hike, but be smart about it.

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Lookin’ completely hiker-ish with a purpose, aka not threatening to strangers.

We stuck out our grimy thumbs at passing trucks from the get-go; since Lucas had already hitched around Europe, there was no hesitation. In the beginning, many hikers called up taxis or shuttles to pick them up. Up until Harper’s Ferry, the unofficial halfway point, we still witnessed people calling up taxis. That cost adds up!

  • Most locals near the trail are aware of thru-hikers. They know that you need to resupply in town and want to help/like someone to talk to.
  • If the driver doesn’t ask where you’re headed to within 30 seconds of saying hello, looks at you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, or has an open beer can in their hand, don’t get into the car.
  • Try not to hitch alone, especially if you’re female.
  • You are absolutely allowed to turn people down! Make up an excuse. Say you forgot something, or that you’re actually waiting for a friend.
  • Stand by the road in a place where a car can easily pull-off.
  • Take note if hitching is illegal in the area.
  • Make fun signs like a big thumb, smile, or dance.
  • Go to grocery stores. People will ask if you need a ride back to the A.T.
  • If desperate, approach drivers at gas stations. Tell them your story.

Unless it’s a jacket or shoes, don’t worry about hiking-specific clothing.

Rockin' the hand-me-down hat and thrift store tank.

Rockin’ the hand-me-down hat and thrift store tank.

Instead, simply think synthetics and comfort. We both started with polyester shirts from Target, which we threw away after 700 miles and replaced them with thrift store shirts.

  • Synthetics hold smell, bad. Even if you buy a name brand shirt, it’ll eventually smell like cat urine, so why not recycle shirts and support local businesses for $2?
  • I sent my pants home early on and wore my long underwear under my shorts. It’s less weight, plus you have all the pockets you need.
  • Check hiker boxes for gloves, hats, and even boots.

Why pay to sleep somewhere when you can sleep in the woods for free?

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The morning after we slept in an alpaca barn at Four Pines.

…or on the outskirts of town…or (with their permission) behind a local’s house?

  • We stayed at hostels when all of our items were soaked or the owners were known for being awesome.
  • If you’re in the mood to meet locals, download the app Couchsurfing and give that a go, or simply talk to people you see.
  • If a hostel lists the price of every individual service in your guide book, beware. The nicest hostel owners (I encountered) have some sort of connection to the trail. They treat you like a human being not a profit, and then encourage you to leave donation.
  • Keep an eye out for work-for-stay options. There’s potential to learn skills/apply ones you already have in exchange for a bed.

It’s nice to be treated respectfully, so make sure to respect people in turn.

If the hostel is donation-based, leave a fair donation. If someone gives you a ride to the trail and tells you their story about how they’re struggling, politely offer a few bucks for gas.

Skip restaurants and hitch to the grocery store instead.

  • Load up on both nutritious and calorie-dense food to eat right then and there. For us, it was impossible to come into town not starving, so we’d do things like split a rotisserie chicken, eat a spring mix of lettuce from the bag, bananas, fresh loaves of bread and hummus, etc.
  • In cooler weather, load up on blocks of cheddar cheese; it keeps well for a few days. At times, Lucas and I ate a 1/4 lb. of cheese a day, and it was great. In New England, cheese that’s usually pricey ($4+) can be as low as $1.80.

Mail-drops are worth it, if you have enough time to plan ahead!

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Christmas Day

About half of our resupplies came from mail-drops, which were sent to not-the-best resupply points. When I made sure to vary the food, mail-drops were like Christmas. So yeah, keep them random and exciting!

  • If you buy items in bulk, the mail-drop becomes worth it. Let’s say a box is $15 to ship, and you have 10 clif bars in it that you bought at $.80 each and a huge jar of almond butter for $7. Already, you’ve saved at least $15 versus buying it at the store off the trail, and you still have a box to fill with more items bought at discounted prices.
  • Check-out Baltimore Jack’s resupply guide. It’s on point.
  • If the mail-drops are overly planned and mostly the same, you’ll end up ditching their contents in a nearby hiker box.
  • Stick mini candies in all the box’s empty spaces, except butterfingers because the texture changes.
  • It’s nice eating the (healthy) food you like, especially when the only resupply option is a convenience store.

Have lot’s of Ziplocks at all times. 

Just trust me on this one.

In the near future, I’ll make an in-depth post specifically about gear, but for now, I hope this helps you with your planning!

Gear Review: Salewa Wildfire Approach Shoes

 

Photo courtesy of Salewa

Photo courtesy of Salewa

One of the most important pieces of gear for long distance backpackers are their shoes. For my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I chose the Salewa Wildfire Approach Shoes. I knew that if I planned on hiking anything more than fifteen miles a day with a 25+ lb backpack, foot love was top priority. I’ll be honest, what originally attracted me to these shoes was its style; the futuristic look and bright color scheme of the Wildfires caught my eye. In fact, my boyfriend/hiking partner, Lucas, saw me checking out the different colors online and said, “Wow. I want those.”

After a bit of research, we both ordered our first pairs. I figured the shoe’s design would function well on the trail’s terrain and, long story short, it does. Untitled2

DESIGN

Although the Wildfires are an approach shoe, their sticky rubber, stiff sole, and unique ankle design serve well for long distance backpacking through tough terrain. There are many sections of the A.T. where scrambling up and down rocks is necessary, and the Vibram Tech Approach EVO sole gripped those rocks with no problem. As a rock climber (and shorter person), I appreciated the rubber toe box a lot. Instead of being forced to lunge up a section of rocky steps, I could find little toe chips and pockets to use as intermediates.

The sticky rubber also allowed Lucas and I the chance to slip off our packs and climb up boulders we saw along the trail, which is something you can’t do in a pair of traditional trail runners! 10336792_470475323085364_6745281100402170421_n

PERFORMANCE

They perform well on steep or uneven terrain, rocky descents, snow, dirt, and just about anything else. However, we did experience some slippage on mud and slick rocks, but I believe that becomes unavoidable to some extent. We purchased the shoes without Gore-Tex, and they dried overnight when laid sideways, which is important for a rainy Appalachian Trail afternoon. Lucas went the entire time without getting any blisters, giving credibility to Salewa’s “100% blister-free” claims. I, however, did acquire a tiny blister on one of my toes (it went away overnight though).

Many people use high-top boots on their hikes for the ankle support. During research, we came across theories that claimed the high-top ankle support actually weakens your body’s natural ability to stabilize itself. Since we have gone as far as we have without twisting an ankle (knock on wood), I’d say the ankle support in the Wildfires was enough.

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FIT

For six months, Lucas wore his Wildfires as his everyday street shoe. He was obsessed with the fit from the moment he took them out of the box. During our thru-hike, the shoes felt right, as if everything was how it should be in a shoe and the toe box was wide enough. That is, until our feet swelled. I made the mistake of ordering only a half size up–big mistake! I encourage you to buy a full size up from your street shoe if you intend to hike over 100 miles within a short period. Feet swelling and collapsed arches are inevitable when long distance backpacking!

Thankfully, the Wildfires are laced similar to climbing shoes, and extend far towards the toe. Again, buy your shoe that extra size up and just tighten the laces for a secure fit. Both Lucas and I found the customizable insoles interesting, but I admit that I did not take advantage of this feature because I used my own super stiff, replacement insole (which I regret). The MFF+ Footbed system is definitely something to play around with and use to create the best fit for your foot. The wider insoles and extra cushion in the heel options will help with foot swelling. We ended up re-lacing our shoes 500 miles into the A.T. because our feet widened too much.

Note: this strange method does allow the shoe to widen, but it doesn’t take advantage of the Wildfire’s unique lacing. photo 3(1)

DURABILITY

It’s not uncommon to see torn up shoes on the A.T.–seriously. Many thru-hikers sport duct tape on their shoes, or have a couple of toes hanging out the front. So, although parts of our shoes began to fall apart, there wasn’t much functional damage. Nothing that would hinder our hiking ability changed; there was no real tread wear and the toe box maintained its edge. I’m absolutely impressed with their durability!

The shoes only became less aesthetically pleasing with time. The first thing to show wear was the EXA shell that covers the bottom sides of the shoe–pieces of the beehive-like plastic began to fall off about 200 miles into our thru-hike. Next, we noticed the back and the sides of our ankle support wearing down to expose the inner foam. Luckily these changes did not effect the feel of our shoes–in truth, my heels couldn’t tell the difference. The rubber never separated from the outer fabric, and there are no holes either. photo 4

CONCLUSION

These shoes are absolutely superb/I highly recommend them. Wear them during a section hike, take them on a climbing trip, or sport them around town–it doesn’t matter, you’ll fall for their magical powers. If you plan on using them for a thru-hike, UP-size and enjoy! The quality of the Wildfire’s design and durability is suited for more difficult, technical hiking. This shoe makes a huge difference when scrambling over rocks. No joke, fellow hikers were envious of our gripping capabilities and asked to try on Lucas’ pair.

In the end, I wore my shoes for a little over 600 miles, and since Lucas wore his for 6 months before the trail, we guess his accumulated mileage is near 1,000. If we would have sized properly, I’d say the shoes could have easily handled 1,500 miles. Soon, we will be sporting new pairs of Firetails, which are the next model up in stiffness. We plan on walking in them all the way to Katahdin!

Gear List

Note: Lucas and I have no idea how much we spent on gear. However, we purchased most of it at a discounted price. Here’s a few suggestions on how to find deals.

  • The Clymb, Steep & Cheap, and the REI-OUTLET are good places to check regularly. Also, look in the clearance section of your local outdoor stores, and even generic retail outlets.
  • Amazon! Just make sure to watch the prices (they change often). Amazon also refers you to deals offered by other sites like Sierra Trading Post, and if you click through the colors on various items, odd colors are almost always cheaper (hence why my clothes are so bright).
  • Don’t forget thrift-stores, especially if there are outdoor related ones in your area. Lucas bought a nice Columbia fleece from Goodwill for less than two dollars.

With that said, here’s our gear list!

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SLEEP SYSTEM                                                                      Lucas                  Montana

General Item Specifics
Tent Tarp Tent Squall 2 (6 stakes)
Sleeping Pad Therm-a-Rest Prolite & Therm-a-Rest Prolite Plus Short
Sleeping Bag The North Face Cat’s Meow & The North Face Cat’s Meow Women
Sleeping Bag Liner Coleman Stratus Fleece & Sea to Summit Reactor Thermolite Liner

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PACK
Backpack Osprey Atmos 50 & ULA Circuit
Space Blanket Mylar Emergency Blanket
Pack Liner Trash Compactor Bags
Stuff Sacks Sea to Summit eVac Bag x2 and Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sack x2

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KITCHEN
Cook Pot Evernew Ultralight Titanium 1.3 L
Stove Homemade Alcohol Stove with 8 oz denatured alcohol as fuel, & aluminium windscreen
Spork Snowpeak Titanium x2
Plate Sea to Summit Collapsible Plate

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Water/First Aid
Water System/Purification 2L Platypus Bladder x2 & Platypus GravityWorks
Bear Bag and Rope Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sack & orange 550 paracord
Pack Liner Trash Compactor Bags
Knee Braces Cho-Pat Dual Action x4
First Aid Kit Ibuprofen, Medical Tape, 6 Bandages, Gauze, Benzoin Tincture, 2 gloves, tweezers, nail clippers, antihistamine, safety pins, tiny floss, thread, needle, and Iodine Tablets.
 Bug Net  Sea to Summit Mosquito Head Net x2
Pot Scrapper GSI Outdoors Compact Scraper
Toiletries In Ziplock bag – Sunscreen, insect repellent, chapstick x2, toothbrushes, small toothpaste, Bronner’s soap in 2oz bottle,  Wet Ones, gold bond, petroleum jelly, and hair ties.
Mirror Coghlan’s Feather Light Camping Mirror Survival

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CLOTHES
Shoes Salawa Men’s & Women’s Wildfire, Superfeet Blue Premium Insoles, $10 croc-offs from Walmart, and Women’s Vibram Five Finger   
Pants Target Champion pants & Outdoor Research Women’s Voodoo Pant
T-shirts Target Champion shirts x2
Socks Injinji toe sock liners x4, SmartWool Lightweight Hiking Socks x4, and SmartWool Mountaineering Extra Heavy Socks x2 as camp socks
Longsleeve Minus33 Merino Wool Turtleneck & SmartWool Zip-up
Rain Gear The North Face Venture Rain Jacket Hyvent & Women’s Marmot Precip Rain Jacket
Jackets ExOfficio Storm Logic Jacket, Scott Synthetic Down Jacket, and Columbia Fleece jacket x 2
Misc. Fleece Gloves x2, Minus33 Merino Wool Cuff Beanie, Polyester Hat, Minus33 Merino Wool Midweight Balaclava, 3 Bandanas/buffs x2, and Brimmed Hats x2
BaseLayer Tights Minus33 Merino Wool Leggings & Columbia Women’s Baselayer Tights
Underwear Men’s ExOfficio Boxers x2, Women’s ExOfficio Boy Cut x2, and Polyester Bras from Target x2
Shorts Billabong Boardshorts & Columbia Cross On Over Cargo Shorts

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MISCELLANEOUS/ELECTRONICS
Headlamps x2
Knifes Morakniv Companion Knife & Razor Blade
Notebooks Moleskin Soft Notebook Large & Volant Large x4 pens
Electronics

PowerGen 6000mAh charger, Sansa Mp3 player, x2 headphones, water resistant watch, and cords

Phones/camera Iphone 5 & LifeProof Case/Motofone f3

Final Notes:

  • Montana’s backpack baseweight is about 16lbs and Lucas’ is 19lbs.
  • Our tent uses trekking poles to prop it up, and only weighs 2lbs. Best. Investment. Ever. Check-out TarpTent.
  • There are great quick-dry clothes at Target. We even bought a water-resistant watch on sale for $10, aka our alarm clock.
  • For the ladies with back pain or Scoliosis, Target also has quick-dry bras (not sports bras) that feel fantastic.
  • Columbia fleece jackets last forever. I’ve had a boy’s fleece for seven years. It has survived everyday use, numerous rock climbing & camping trips, summited a mountain, and more. No snags, no holes–it’s perfect.
  • Cho-Pat Dual Action Knee Braces are great for crummy knees. Seriously. Get these babies if you experience discomfort or pain. I’ll write a review soon.
  • We’ll mail our cold weather gear back home around Damascus, VA, so our pack weight will drop a few pounds.

And that’s just about it!

We start our thru-hike in less than a week. I hope we don’t have to send things back at Neels Gap! (;

Thru-hiker Trail Mix

3 weeks from now, Lucas and I will be camped somewhere along the trail! I look forward to the end of the planning process–I can’t wait until we stand atop Springer Mountain, prepared and ready for 5 months in the woods. It’s kind of stressful balancing calories per gram…and my checking account.

As of now, we plan on resupplying from 18-20 mail-drops (and buying the rest from grocery stores). There are plenty of outfitters, hostels, and post offices along the Appalachian Trail that will hold our packages until we make it to town. We have chosen to mail food to ourselves when resupply stores are inconvenient. Also, we want to eat clean food during our thru-hike, and buying ahead of time has allowed us to stock-up for cheap from Sam’s Club and Trader Joe’s (amazing deals for organic/natural options).

Below are pics of our current food endeavor: preparing homemade trail mix! 

  

There are three easy steps to making simple, semi-raw mixes.

Step 1: 

Buy nuts, dried fruits, and whatever looks delicious/high in calories. Chow Mein noodles are a surprisingly good touch to trail mix. And dark chocolate is always a good idea.

Step 2: 

Get a brown paper bag, pour the above into the bag, and then shake it. If you want, you can measure out each ingredient to the right amount, or just eyeball it like I did (I added nuts and what not until the mix looked like the stuff you’d see at a store).

Step 3: 

Measure out servings and then package it in ziplocks or vaccum seal bags.

Lucas will have approximately 3/4 to 1 cup of trail mix a day and I’ll have 1/2 to 3/4 cup. We’re not sure how many calories are in each serving, however, most of the ingredients are 5+ calories per gram…so that’s about 750-950 calories a cup. 

EASY PEASY and cheaper than buying premade mixes!

Appalachian Trail Food

Many thru-hikers use the AT as an excuse to gorge on anything light, tasty, and oh-so bad for your arteries. Lucas and I both know that we function optimally on clean, low-glycemic foods. Below is our list of healthy hiker grub.

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Breakfast: Even a life of get-up-and-go needs a little routine. We plan on boiling water for coffee and oatmeal in the morning, with granola or trail mix thrown in. Warm liquid to slurp and hot food seems like a good way to get our minds ready for another day of carrying 20+ pounds through the woods.

In case we wake up in a rainstorm and want to munch on the move, we will also eat

  • Bars (see list below)
  • Toaster pastries

Snacks: About half our daily calories will come from snacks.

  • Bear Valley Pemmican Bars
  • Skout Organic Trailbars
  • Nugo Organic Bars
  • Variety of other whole grain/high protein bars
  • Homemade trail mixes (a lot of our calorie intake relies on this!)
  • Homemade dried fruit: banana chips, apples, pineapple, mango
  • Almond and Peanut Butter
  • Cookies
  • Dark chocolate
  • Beef Jerky
  • Tortilla and Pita chips

Lunch: Around midday we will take a longer, hour-long rest. We’ll eat our lunch along with the snacks mentioned above.

  • Almond/peanut butter with tortillas
  • Bagels w/ Nutella
  • Dehydrated hummus with crackers
  • Dried cheese with crackers or tortillas
  • Tuna in foil packets

Dinner: We plan on eating a warm, stick-to-your-ribs dinner each night. If it is raining, we might settle on “lunch” foods. For extra calories, we’ll add sporkfuls of coconut oil or olive oil.

  • Instant soups (miso, black bean, chicken, or lentil)
  • whole wheat angel hair pasta, Parmesan cheese, and jerky
  • Mac and Cheese with tuna or jerky
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Stove Top Stuffing
  • Quinoa and dehydrated beans

Drinks:

  • Hot chocolate
  • Tea
  • Ground coffee (cowboy style)
  • Apple Cider
  • Gatorade
  • Emergen-C

For more information on how we picked specific foods, check out Backpacking Nutrition.

Backpacking Nutrition

On average, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers burn about 4,000-6,000 calories a day. Our goal is to eat the amount of calories required, as well as pick the most nutritious, calorie-dense, delicious, and affordable options. We’ve also decided to schedule mail-drops rather than purchase our food from local grocery stores, mainly because it is cheaper to buy in bulk/ahead of time (in small towns off the trail, a pack of Ramen can be $1 a pack!). I admit, it has been slightly overwhelming to plan our food for the next five months–who knows how long it will take for us to tire of trail mix–but I believe that variety is key to a happy hiker stomach.

After reading the NOLS Cookery book and various websites, I have determined that I will require approximately 4,000 calories a day, while Lucas needs about 6,000. I have also concluded that a diet consisting of 50% carbohydrates, 35% fat, and 15% protein is ideal for our daily hiking mileage and trip duration. Fat is the most calorie-dense food, so a diet high in fat allows us to reduce our pack weight while maintaining our high calorie count. It is important for us to be aware of our consumption of non-nutritious foods while thru-hiking. Although Poptarts provide a high amount of carbohydrates and fats, they do not contain sufficient nutrients and minerals needed to function optimally (not to mention, they’re highly processed). Therefore, we will take a multivitamin, carry Emergen-C packets, and try to eat as healthy as possible.

Here’s the equation I used to determine how much food I will carry per day:

(4000 calories/person/day) ÷ (120 calories/oz) ÷ (16 oz/lb) = 2.08 lbs/person/day

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organic bars, 4 cal per g, and just 41 cents a bar!

Using the NOLS Cookery book, here’s our daily food allowance in percentages:

  • Breakfast = 15%
  •  Lunch and Snacks = 50%
  •  Drink mixes = 5%
  •  Dinner = 25%
  •  Desserts = 5%

I used these meal percentages to determine how many grams we can carry of each (Yes, GRAMS. Lucas bought a scale… the scientist in him wants us to be as accurate as possible). For example,

(2lbs of food/person/day) x (0.15 breakfast food) =0.3 lbs (136.2g) of breakfast food/person/day

Using this formula, I have determined that I will eat 1lbs (454g) of food for lunch and snacks, 0.1lbs (45.4g) of drink mixes, 0.5lbs (227g) for dinner, and 0.1lbs (45.4g) of desert every day.

Phew! Now that the math part is out of the way, next time I’ll discuss the actual food we will carry.

How to Make a Camp Stove for Under $5

Instead of dropping 50+ dollars on a camp stove, Lucas and I decided to make our own from two aluminum cans. We will use denatured alcohol for fuel during our Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Alcohol burning stoves are cheap, ultralight weight, and just as reliable as a store-bought stove. Our stove will be used primarily for boiling water to rehydrate dehydrated food. From our tests, we have concluded that it takes less than five minutes to boil 500 mL of lukewarm water.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to create your own!

Materials you will need:

  • two aluminum cans 
  • books for a steady line
  • permanent marker
  • small nail, thumb tack, or push pin
  • sandpaper
  • razor blades
  • scissors
  • stapler
  • pliers

materials

Step 1:

Use a book (or something sturdy) for a constant height to score the can with a razor blade. Once you have scored the bottom, you puncture the can along the score line and then press along the edge of the line until the bottom separates. If the can does not tear apart easily, use the sharp edge of the razor to CAREFULLY cut along the score line. This will dull the blade greatly, so make sure you have backup razors if you choose this method (I used one blade for each can).

Do this with both cans, use whatever height you feel necessary, but keep in mind that the final stove will be a little taller than your cut lines.

step 1

step 2

Step 2:

When the cuts are done, sand the sharp edges for safety (newly cut aluminum is VERY sharp). If you want your stove to have none of the can’s labels, sand the sides of the two cans.

step 3

Step 3:

Choose one can to be the top of the stove, and set the bottom portion aside. Score the top portion of the stove along the concave part of the can. This sounds difficult, but if you score at an almost horizontal angle, it makes the cut a lot easier than you would expect. Now use the point of the scissors to press the score line until the top pops out.

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Step 4:

Take the remnants of one of the cut cans, and cut a wide strip of the aluminum off. This will be the inner lining of the stove.

step 4

Step 5:

Measure and trim the strip of aluminum so it will fit into the grooves of both the top and bottom portion of the stove, and staple the strip into a ring. After the ring is measured and stapled, cut small “windows” on the bottom of the ring so the fuel will be able to move throughout the stove once it is completed.

step 5

Step 6:

Take your pliers and make slight twists on the edge of one portion of the stove so that it will fit into the other portion.

step 6

Step 7:

Here comes the hard part–try to fit the ring made earlier into the grooves on both portions of the stove while slowly pushing one section into the other.  You may need to use your pliers to bend little bits out of the way so the ring will fit right. If done correctly, the lip of the top portion of the stove will cover the edge of the ring.

step 7

Step 8:

Use a small nail (or push pin, thumb tack, etc.) to puncture holes into the top portion of the stove. You can use a piece of tape to measure the circumference of the stove and make tick marks at constant intervals along the tape to have holes that are equal distances apart from one another. I didn’t do this, just eyeballed the holes and punched away.

step 8

And that’s our final product!

Now pour about a half-inch of denatured alcohol, light the fuel with a lighter or match, and there ya go… a fully functional stove.

step 9

Tips:

Use a pot-stand to make sure you don’t snuff the flame with your pot. We made our original one out of an aluminum grill screen, but it started to melt (whoops). Our next pot stand will be made out of good ole chicken wire.