Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Quasi Luxury Gear...

In the Essential Gear post I mentioned two of the other books that I carried along with the Data Book.  First is the "2009 Thru-Hikers' Companion."  This also is published annually by the ATC with the help of volunteers from the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA).  

This Book provides more than just facts.  You will also find helpful tips on hiking, nature, basic safety precautions and Trail etiquette.  And it not only tells you that there is "lodging," but also tells you what your options are.  In some cases there are rough maps of hiker friendly towns to show the location of motels, restaurants, laundry facilities, post offices, convenience stores, outfitters, libraries and ATM's.

The second book I carried was actually part of a series of books published by the Appalachian Trail Conference.  This series of guide books breaks the AT down into 11 parts.  On the last hike I carried "The Appalachian Trail Guide to MA-CT."  

The Thru-Hikers' Companion covers GA to ME.  Because the AT guide books cover only a state or two at a time, there is room for more detailed information.   Things like local wildlife, vegetation and habitat, geology and even local history.

This information ranges from Trivial (how a shelter got it's name); to Practical (elevation and terrain); to Useful (areas famous for bears, snakes, mosquitoes, etc.)  

The local guide books also break the Trail down into even smaller sections with information on how to access the sections.  This is very helpful for me now that I am section hiking.

These guide books come with separate easy to read maps that show topographical contours and elevation profiles.  The maps are water resistant and tear resistant.  Very cool!

Since the guide books are compiled from information provided by real hikers, they are peppered with some colorful insights about what is worth seeing and what is OK to skip.  

Is it worth following a Blue Blazed Trail a mile out of the way to see a waterfall or a scenic overlook?  It depends.  Does your camera have batteries to preserve that view for all time?  Maybe that overlook is a perfect spot to watch the fireworks on the 4th of July.  

It all depends on your state of mind at the time.  But it is good information to have in order to plan your daily hikes.  

One of the best pieces of advice I acquired about hiking the AT came from an employee at Kittery Trading Post.  She made the hike a few years ago.  She said, "Hike your own hike."  How profound.  Of course, it just makes sense.  And as is true with so many other hiking analogies, it is a great life lesson.

Anyway my point about those books is that they contain very important, very useful information-- but they are heavy.

So on the next trip, I will bring the maps and the Data Book (the lightest of the three) for the "facts."  But I will research the particular section I will be on and photocopy pertinent pages that I think will be helpful.

And I just shed about two pounds off my pack weight.

Some people would consider the weight of a camera a luxury item.  Not me.  I have at least one of my cameras with me at all times.  It seems I have become obsessed with photography in recent years.  

Of course, I don't carry my big heavy camera with me on the  Trail.  I bring the Nikon Coolpix L20.  It's not bad for a "point and shoot" camera.  It shoots 10.0 megapixels, has a 3.6x optical zoom (Nikkor lens), up to 4x digital zoom and weighs in at a mere 4.8 ounces (not including extra batteries and SD memory cards.)  You have to love modern technology!

Taking landscape/nature photos often requires the use of a tripod.  If you are only carrying camera equipment and are hiking to a specific spot to set up all day, you definitely bring the tripod.  But on a long distance hike-- no way.

I did however find a sneaky way to overcome this obstacle.  It's the Sherlock Staff made by a company called Tracks.  The Sherlock Staff has become my favorite walking stick.  You can see a picture of it in a previous post.

This walking stick is very lightweight but strong and is easier to adjust (for height) than any walking stick I've ever seen.  At the bottom is a rubber end tip that easily unscrews to expose the steel tip underneath-- so it is functional on any surface.  It also has a foam rubber hand grip and comfortable wrist strap.  

But there is yet another feature that really makes the Sherlock Staff unique.  If you look closely at the picture, you will see that there is a wooden ball that sits on top of the Staff.  This wooden ball unscrews to expose the camera mount that morphs this walking stick into a monopod!  

Without getting into the pro's and con's of tripod vs. monopod, I will just say that one of the most important functions of both is to prevent "camera shake."  This is one of the things that will cause a picture to be blurry.  And when you have just climbed up a 3000 foot mountain and you are huffing and puffing, you can use all the help you can get to keep your camera steady.  

Some of the other technology I brought with me are my iPod and iPhone.  "But Nick" you ask, "Don't you know that your iPhone is an iPod, too?"  Yes, I know that.  But I downloaded some audiobooks onto the iPod so that I wouldn't have to carry (even more) books.  And I thought by listening to them on the iPod I would preserve the battery on the phone.  

And I won't bore you with all the interesting functions and apps on the iPhone.  Just know that I upgraded to this phone specifically for this hike.  Not just to be in touch by phone and e-mail, but also because I can upload posts to this Blog while out on the Trail.  And there is a great GPS function (in case I get lost!)  I can also check the weather, the Appalachian Trail website and a million other functions.  

One last piece of technology that I will mention here is the cookstove.  There are more cookstoves on the market than you can imagine.  Ranging from very high tech to campfire.  Again, without getting into the pro's and con's of cookstove vs. campfire, I will just say that in many places along the AT, campfires are prohibited (including some national forests and the whole state of CT, for example.)  So if you occasionally want to treat yourself to a warm meal, boil water for hot tea or just want to purify your drinking water-- you need some sort of cookstove.  

I chose the Jet Boil personal cooking system (PCS).  It is lightweight and compact.  In fact, I would call it "self contained" due to the fact that when disassembled, all the parts fit inside itself for safe easy travel.  

This PCS weighs 15 ounces (not including the 6.8 ounce fuel container) and holds up to 32 ounces.  It boils water in two minutes.  That's about 10 boils per fuel canister.

One of the things that sold me on this particular stove is that it all snaps together to make it more stable.  Using most stoves is a balancing act.  Unless you are cooking on totally flat ground (which is never) the cook pot can easily slide off the flame (base) spilling boiling hot water on you.  Even worse, you might spill your last hot meal on the ground!  This is sad on one hand -- to waste the meal, and unsafe on the other hand-- spilled food can attract animals (including bears) no matter how well you think you cleaned up the mess.

One last feature that I really like about the Jet Boil is the neoprene cover.  You don't have to wait for your meal (or hot tea water) to cool down.  You can just pick it up with your bare hands and even eat or drink right out of it.  It is shaped like a big coffee mug.

Another quasi luxury tool to have is an extra water bladder.  On the upside, I can bring most of my filtered water from home.  Depending on the section I am hiking, I may only have to make one refill from a water source.  

The downside of course, is that water is very heavy...  But the other upside is that the more you drink, the lighter your load!

All of these things so far, are carried in the main body of the backpack.  There are other somewhat important tools that I call "side pocket gear."  These are items that you want easy access to, just in case.  

Things like extra shoe laces and cord.  Safety whistle and compass.  Lighter.  Utility knife.  And the all time best "fixing" tool... duct tape.

Everything I carry is either functional or pure luxury, except one.  I have one totally gratuitous item in my pack.  That is my Trail Mascot:  the Lucky Lady Bug.  

She weighs about an ounce, is filled with "Beanie Baby" stuffing and can squeeze into the tiniest gap in my pack.  You would never know she was there.  

She only ever comes out for photo opportunities.  In fact she is quite photogenic.  I will try to post a photo or two  so you can meet her.

I am not superstitious, but I would like to note here that she was not with me that first day in GA (when I got injured.)  But ever since she has been hiking with me it has been a smooth trip.  

So far, the only pack items we haven't mentioned are clothes and food.  I'll save those for another post.

Hope all is well.
Peace and Love,

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Mountain Man...

For those of you who have not seen me since March, I thought you would get a kick out of me with the beard...  Believe it or not, it does help to keep me warm at night while sleeping out in the woods.  Also, I have been wearing a hat or bandana when I go out in public.  My hair is getting pretty long, but not long enough yet to do anything with it.  So I just keep it covered for now.  

I haven't decided if I'm going to let the hair continue to grow or not.  I'll decide for sure by September.  We'll see how patient I am.  And even though I am getting rave reviews on the beard, I'm afraid that when I finish hiking for the summer, the beard will likely disappear.  

This is what I look like most of the time these days.  Very casual.  

This is a "Beef Cake" shot...  Mr. April in the Handsomest Hikers of 2009 Calendar. 

In this close up you get a better view of my rain hat (as opposed to the Life Is Good - Peace Sign hat in the top and bottom pictures.)    

In this shot, you can see my Chameleon walking shoes from the previous post and my favorite walking stick that I will write about in the next post.  

Peace and Love,

The Essential Gear...

You may be wondering how my pack got to weigh 40 pounds.  

There are different kinds of hikers.  From those who can't do without their creature comforts (and are willing to carry that comfort on their backs) to the "ultra-lite" hiker who thinks tents and mattress pads are for wimps.  They try to get to the shelters first and if they don't... well they have a tarp to hang from a tree to keep off the rain and the morning dew.  

There are also those who are considered "slack packers."  These people often travel in groups.  They hire a modern day sherpa to drive their gear from one shelter or campsite to the next, so they can just walk unencumbered by any gear other than a day pack or waist pack to carry water and lunch or snack food.  

I fall somewhere in the middle.  First of all, I am way too cheap (or poor) to pay someone to carry, set up and break down my gear.  It also seems a little like cheating to me.  Plus, I value my privacy, so I like the idea of a tent.  And as much as I want to be one with nature, I draw the line at nature crawling all over me while I'm trying to sleep.  Again, the tent is helpful with that.

So I do carry a certain amount of comfort in my pack, but I did upgrade some of my hiking/camping gear to keep the weight down.

Also, just from these last two trips out, I'm learning what I REALLY need and what is worth bringing because I enjoy the luxury.  There are things that I packed and never used.  With one exception, that should never happen.  It is just extra weight in your pack.  The one thing that you should pack and (hopefully) never use is the First Aid Kit.  

I have acquired most of my gear over time at EMS, Dick's Sporting Goods, Kittery Trading Post (in ME) and a few items at the new Cabellas (in CT).  Some gear I upgraded at the outfitter in GA at Neals Gap.  

Let's take a tour through my gear.  I'll try to give you name brands when I can remember them (in case you decide to come with me on one of these section hikes!)  Also, if you know of better or lighter equipment, feel free to share the info.  I still have lots of discount coupons for EMS. 

By far,  the two most important pieces of gear on a long distance hike are the Backpack and the Boots.  

I've had my Mountainsmith backpack for a couple years now.  It's where I store my survival/escape gear.  It came complete with two Ryolite Trekking Poles that velcro right onto the pack when not in use.  

Unfortunately, my original six months of thru-hiking gear did not fit into this pack.  So I went off to Cabellas to get a larger pack.  I really liked Cabellas own brand of pack as it had a built in water bladder with a drinking hose.  It felt like a good fit in the store, but with 50 pounds of gear in it (this was before "shake down") the waist belt would not pull tight enough to carry the pack over my hips.  It kept sliding down so all the weight was on my shoulders.  This is bad.  So ultimately, I switched back to my original pack.  The good thing is, this forced me to weed out the goofy stuff.  This pack is a much better fit.  Even at 40 pounds, it's pretty comfortable, but I'll bet that next trip out it will be much lighter.

Tied with first place in the "most important gear" category is Boots.  You absolutely MUST be good to your feet.  Since I love my walking/day hiking shoes so much (Merrell's Chameleon) I decided to make Merrell's hiking boot my first choice.  At EVERY outfitter they tried to talk me into going with a heavier boot with a wider base and higher ankle support.  But being me, I went with my gut instinct and chose the Merrell Reflex-Mid Gore-Tex.  They are sturdy and lightweight.  And like my Chameleons they are waterproof and breathable.  Not sure how they manage that, but my feet did stay dry- even in the rain and many water crossings.  

The base is plenty wide enough for me.  And traction has been good going both up and down hill, wet and dry, whether on dirt, rock or tree.  Yes, tree.  In order to pass over some water crossings you need to negotiate  a tree or log like a balance beam-- or wade through the water. 

And I opted for the Mid-Ankle support as opposed to the High Ankle support which seemed too restricting to me.

On top of the comfort and durability, they were reasonably priced and I am very pleased with my choice.  

Before getting into the luxury items, let's talk about what I consider the other Essentials.  

The Tent:  this is one of the items that I upgraded to accommodate the long distance hiking.   I love my old tent and will keep it for recreational camping trips that stay in one place.  It is a spacious  dome tent that  will comfortably sleep two (including gear or three without.)  But because it is a dinosaur it weighs about 8-9 pounds.  This is not practical for long distance hiking.  

My new Big Agnes Speed House 1 is very sturdy and comfortably sleeps me... alone.  The tent itself is less than 4 pounds, but weighs in at 4 pounds 4 ounces if you include the stakes and stuff sack.  

It is free standing and easy to set up.  There is only one aluminum pole that forks at one end,  and it is corded and spring loaded so it folds into itself.  The tent, pole and stakes easily fit inside the backpack.  My old tent is so big I had to lash it horizontally to the underside of my pack.

One feature I really like is that the top part of the tent is mesh/netting.  This is great on warm, clear, nights when you want to star gaze.  The nylon "fly" easily hooks into place in seconds if you decide it is too cold, windy or raining.  My old dome tent has a similar feature.  

Another item to be upgraded was my big thick, warm comfortable sleeping bag.  At first I was a little concerned about giving this up.  It has been very good to me over the years.  And these fancy new sleeping bags seem so flimsy and light.  How can they possibly be warm enough?  

Well I can officially say that my new North Face Wasatch sleeping bag is plenty warm enough.  And I not only cut my sleeping bag weight in half, but I am also using less than half the space.  

When I saw the stuff sack that came with the sleeping bag it made me laugh.  It looks big enough to hold about 3 pairs of socks.  But when you roll up the sleeping bag and squeeze out all the air-- it fits in this tiny bag!  It's amazing.  

And a related item to be retired is my old air mattress.  The old one is a full body, self-inflating air mattress with a built in pillow.  When fully inflated it's about 3 inches thick.  On the down side it weighs about 5-6 pounds and because it is so wide (about 26 inches) it also needed to be strapped under the backpack with the old tent.  

The new self-inflating air mattress inflates to about an inch, is only about 15 inches wide and is not a "full body" pad.  It just keeps my upper body off the ground.  It gets the job done, fits inside my pack and weighs ounces.  

The bottom line is:  my new tent, mattress pad AND sleeping bag together weigh less and take up less space than my old sleeping bag ALONE.  

Another fairly important item to have is a Water Filtration System.  What a lot of people don't understand is that when the Data Book (I'll explain what that is shortly) directs you to a water source-- that does not mean you will find a faucet with hot and cold filtered water.  

Usually that means a moving body of water like a brook, stream or river.  Sometimes you have to climb over the swampy, mosquito infested still water to get to where it flows.  

Your best bet for clean water is moving water.  Not a puddle, swamp or lake.  But just the fact that it's moving is not enough.  It still needs to be filtered, just in case.  

There are three common ways to filter the water.  First, I have a Katadyn Vario Micro Filter Water Purification System (15 ounces.)  This is similar to your home "Brita" system, but requires a little more work.

One end of a hose is dropped into the unfiltered water (either a water bag or directly into the source.)  The other end of the hose connects to a pump and filter.  You then proceed to pump the water into your water bottles and drinking water bladder.  

This is a little time consuming but the alternative is drinking potentially unsafe water.  So it's worth the effort.  

I've been told that the filters sometimes clog.  Most people don't carry spare filters because they are bulky and take up space in your pack.  So when you need a replacement, you just stop at the next outfitter and get one.  

In the mean time, you have two alternative ways to filter your water.  

The first is to use germicidal tablets.  This is less work than the pump but also time consuming due to the fact that you have to wait half an hour for the tablets to dissolve.  I do have the tablets in my pack as a precaution.  They are tiny and lightweight, but I don't like the idea of chemically treating my drinking water.  The pro's and con's are similar to using chlorine in your swimming pool.  

A less lethal method is to boil your water in the cookstove.  Unfortunately, there are also disadvantages with this option.  

Again, it is time consuming.  Actually, the amount of time to boil is very quick (I'll write more about the cookstove in the "Luxuries" post.)  It's the cool down time after boiling that's time consuming.  If you pour boiling water into the water bladder, it will melt.  Also, the cookstove is generally small in order to be lightweight and take up little space.  So it takes more than 10 "boils" to fill two water bottles and the water bladder.  

Which brings me to the other major disadvantage.  All that boiling uses up a lot of fuel.  So it is potentially costly but even more important, those fuel canisters take up valuable real estate in the backpack.

So this is my plan:  use the filter until it clogs itself to death.  Then depending on how close I am to the next resupply outfitter when the filter clogs, I would (1) use the germicidal tablets if the outfitter is far away to save fuel for cooking, or (2) use the cookstove to boil the water if the outfitter is only a day or two away, so I don't have to use the chemical tablets.  

The next item on the list is one that most people don't really think about.  Many of the campsites and shelters have privies that, believe it or not, are very well maintained (in my experience, so far.)   But as you know, Mother Nature does not always care if you are near the privy.  So all hikers carry a shovel.  Mine looks like a garden too.  It's six inches long (about two inches of that is handle) and weighs about 6-8 ounces.  

The shovel only ever digs in the dirt, but I keep it in a separate plastic bag just in case.  

And the last thing that I'll include in this Essential Gear post is the "Data Book."  This is a bare essential "Just the facts, ma'am" book that is published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy annually.  It tells you how many trail miles from one place to the next and if you will find a reliable water source, campground or shelter.  It also tells you if there is a nearby outfitter, grocery store, hotel/motel/hostel, or even a post office for mail drops (and how far each is off the Trail.)  

Another helpful piece of information included in the Data Book is the elevation of significant points.  These are all important things to consider when planning your day.

As in real life, the more accurate information we have, the easier it is to make good decisions.  

For example:  Would you rather spend the night at a campground or a shelter?  What if the campground has a reliable water source but the shelter does not?  Would you stay at the campground to filter your water while you are already stopped for the night?  What if it's raining?  Would you continue to the shelter and then stop at another water source the next day?  

What if there is a campground in 12 miles and a shelter in 15 miles?  Would you hike the extra 3 miles?  Would you still hike it knowing that the elevation of the campground is at 1000 feet and the shelter is at 4,500 feet, which means your last 3 miles of the day will be almost straight up?  

There are many  factors involved in your daily planning.  In the next post on "Luxury Gear" I'll write about two other books that I brought with me to help with the decision making process.  And about the other luxury items in my pack.  And which of those will not make the next leg of the journey with me.  

Get outside.  Go for a walk....
Peace and Love,