appalachian trail

Thinking about a Solar Charger?

I was recently interviewed for an article about solar chargers.  Many who read this blog know that I'm not a fan of carrying them on east coast trails for one reason...  Check out the article below!


Solar panels have become a popular way to charge devices on the go, whether hiking, mountain biking, or just spending time outdoors. But depending on the region you’re in, relying solely on the sun for power may not be the best option. What works in the real world? To find out, we spoke with two diehard hikers who have carried solar chargers in all conditions. Here, they share their stories about what works, what doesn’t — and how to choose the right setup for your own adventures.

Location and Climate

First, it’s important to evaluate where you’ll be using the charger. Not surprisingly, solar panels need direct sunlight. Without direct sunlight, the panel will turn on and off as it collects and doesn’t collect power.

Hiking on the East Coast typically means you’ll be in and out of direct sunlight throughout the day. Jennifer “Sprinkles” Kelley is a backpacking guide who has hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT), Long Trail, Benton MacKaye Trail, and half of the Finger Lakes Trail. She’s also completed the Great Smoky Mountains 900 miles, and documents her adventures online.

Throughout her adventures, she has attempted to use a solar charger a number of times. On the AT, Kelley sent her charging system home after the first 30 miles when she realized the tree cover wouldn’t allow for enough direct sunlight.

In 2013, Kelley worked at the AT Lodge in Millinocket, Maine—the closest town to Mount Katahdin and where most AT thru-hikers start or finish their journeys.

“Solar chargers were the number one item I took out of packs during pack shakedowns. Hikers refused to believe that the AT is called the green tunnel for a reason,” Kelley tells Digital Trends. “Often, when we picked hikers back up at Jo-Mary Road (approximately 50 miles south on the trail), hikers would then mail home the chargers.”

Now she guides backpacking trips in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and she still has trouble convincing people to leave their solar chargers at home.

“I’ll tell people to leave behind the charger and they’ll sneak it back into their packs,” Kelley says. “On the last morning of a trip, I ask: ‘tell me two things you brought with you that you’ll never bring backpacking again.’ People always admit to bringing the chargers.”

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When Quitting the Trail is Okay - How to Decide to End Your Thru Hike

Here's a true story - I've bailed on a thru hike before.  For those of you who have followed this blog for a while now, you'll know that NoKey and I bailed off the Finger Lakes Trail back in the summer of 2015.  We quit for a few reasons - I got a MRSA infection and a respiratory virus; it rained every single day; parts of the trail were completely underwater, meaning we did a LOT of road walking; the trail conservancy was very rude to us on the phone and didn't offer us any help when were were looking for a place to camp (and the president of the conservancy did call to apologize, but the damage was done); and the biggest reason of all - we weren't having any fun at all. Our thru hike was a failure.  I even wrote a post about how yes, we didn't finish our hike and it failed and why it wasn't a bad thing.  For us, the decision to quit the FLT was the best one and I don't regret it.  In my post last week I talked about reasons why thru hikers will leave the trail.  This week, I want to talk about when leaving the trail is the right decision and how to make the call.

When It's No Longer Worth It

You may have set out to conquer the trail, but now it no longer seems important to you.  Sure, no one said thru hiking would be easy and you get that, but no one said you had to finish the trail as a thru hiker either.  There are many, many different ways to hike a long distance trail and you can complete it (or not!) any way you choose.  When we decided to quit the FLT and take a vacation we had taken quite a few days to talk about our decision.  We had taken a weekend off to avoid more rain.  We hiked out and then I woke up incredibly sick.  We went back home to recover and during the first week after little improvement we decided that the rain would never let up and I probably wouldn't get any better (it took me almost a month to shake the MRSA and respiratory virus).  What is the point of killing ourselves every day if we don't want to be there?  Like I said last week, there are many reasons why you can decide to get off trail. 

When You Don't Care About the Trail Anymore

Hiking the trail can sometimes be like a bad relationship.  It mentally and physically exhausts you, sometimes for weeks on end.  You give yourself to it 100% and you get nothing in return. You've even given up most of your "normal life" to spend time with the trail and it's like the trail doesn't even care!  Now, if this was a relationship with another person chances are you'd be ready to call it quits and break up.  Sure, you might Facebook/Instagram stalk the trail for a while.  Every once in a while you'll feel nostalgic and pull out that picture of the two of you together.  You might even like a photo posted of the trail with it's new hikers.  Time will heal your wounds.  

When You've Tried a Second Time and Feel the Same

So sticking with the bad relationship concept above, maybe you and the trail broke up.  But sometimes exes get back together, right?  Maybe you broke it off with the idea of thru hiking but for whatever reason you two found your way back to each other.  Then, you and the trail fall back into old habits and it turns out the relationship hasn't changed at all; everything is exactly the same.  

The bottom line is this: 


And you know what? That's okay.  Nobody said you have to thru hike a trail for it to magically "count".  What's more is that most trail conservancies recognize trail FINISHERS, not trail thru hikers.  Sure, you might be able to order that extra "thru hiker" or "end to ender" rocker patch for your certificate, but at the end of the day being a thru hiker is just a title.  In a world where we place a lot of emphasis on extraordinary achievements, at the end of the day whether you set the fastest know time, slowest time ever, hike a section over 20 years, or hike it all in six months - anyone who has finished a long trail all gets to say they're a completer.  

Maybe you're on the fence about breaking off your thru hike.  For those of you who haven't decided if getting off trail is right for you, here are a few pieces of advice: 

-Take a zero day.  If you're still on the fence, take another.  Maybe take a week off.  Talk it out with other hikers at a hostel.  Make a plan to hike to only the next town and see if your feelings change.  
- Think about how you'd feel if you quit.  Maybe you're thru hiking to prove something to someone (yourself or a loved one).  If the idea of quitting doesn't make you all that upset, it's probably time to call it.  

Have you ever been on the fence about quitting a hike?  Maybe you've spent tons of time planning and dreaming only to have it turn out differently than you'd imagined?  I'd love to hear how you dealt with getting off the trail.  Leave me a comment or find me on Facebook and get the conversation started!

Our Last REI Adventure - NoBo on the Appalachian Trail

Our final REI Adventure of the season was finally happening!  November 1-4 I spent out on the Appalachian Trail with six clients and another guide, Blue.  Throwing a wrench into our hike was not only the fact that is is now November and the weather is much more unpredictable, but also the time change occurred the night before this trip.  This means that now instead of getting dark at 6:30 or so, the darkness would set in the woods around 5 p.m.  Thankfully, we had a great group of clients who trusted in our instincts and let us run a little wild with our trip planning. 

After doing our general pack shakedowns and picking out our meals for the trip, we shuttled up and into another part of the Smokies.  Our hike for the day originally had us hiking 5.5 miles from the insanely busy Newfound Gap Parking lot, hiking mostly downhill to Kephart Prong Shelter.  Since it was already 1:30, Blue and I took the decision to park down the hill at the Kephart Prong trailhead and hike in the two relatively easy miles to the shelter, only gaining approximately 850 feet along the way.  This decision turned out to be better for a variety of reasons - Blue had never seen this part of the trail before and there were tons of wild eatables, including Toothwort (tastes like horseradish), black birch, partridge berry, and stinging nettle to name a few.  We got to take our time to get to know each other and taste a variety of wild plants on our hike.  This also got us to the shelter earlier, meaning we still had some daylight hours to let people look around and take time to learn the bear line system in the park before dark.  Blue built us all a fire and we got a chance to get to know each other a little better as darkness, and eventually the rain predicted, fell throughout the night. 

The next morning, day 2, we awoke to rain, but we knew there was a 90% chance of it all day long.  This turned out to be absolutely true.  We left the shelter for our hike up the Grassy Branch Trail and the steady drizzle turned into a heavier sprinkle before turning into a full on downpour.  We steadily climbed throughout the morning before coming to the Dry Slucie Gap trail.  Dry Slucie is not how I'd describe our morning at all!  The trail had turned into a stream and we were all thoroughly soaked before we made the 1.3-mile trek to the AT at Porters Gap.  When we got onto the AT the temperature had seemed to drop by about 15 degrees.  Thanks to being on the ridgeline the winds were whipping up the North Carolina side of the hill and blowing right through us.  Now wet and cold, we kept moving as much as we possibly could before stopping for lunch on the warm side of the hill.  We climbed through the Sawteeth, down into False Gap, and up to Bradley view with few moments for stopping and interpretation due to all of us being soaked and cold.  From Bradley View, which we saw none of in the thick cloud cover and fog, we had a quick push up and over Laurel Top before heading down to Peck's Corner.  Blue and I were so grateful for having a strong crew of hikers who kept smiling despite the terrible weather. 

Rhododendron tunnel hiking on a rainy morning. 

Rhododendron tunnel hiking on a rainy morning. 

After getting to Pecks, the rain continued and I made three trips down the hill in the slippery mud for water.  The third trip was unplanned, but necessary due to me spilling our entire 9 liter water bucket on my shoes.  Good thing it was already raining!  Thankfully, while I was getting water and heating water for everyone to have some warm drinks, our awesome guide Blue was out fetching firewood.  Thanks to some Wetfire (an awesome firestarter!), Blue was able to get a crazy warm and huge fire started in the indoor fireplace.  After all the clients went to bed, I stayed up and dried my clothes, rain gear, and socks in front of the fireplace before calling it a night. 

Fog rolling up the mountain. 

Fog rolling up the mountain. 

Day 3 saw the end of the rain and Blue and I kept hoping we could wish the clouds away.  We tried hanging around in the shelter until 10 a.m. to get everyone a view and some blue skies, but it just never happened.  We started our hike up and out of Peck's Corner and back to the AT in the same damp and dreary weather we had seen the day before.  The wind, however, was thankfully absent from our trip today!  We climbed up to Eagle Rocks, where again we had not too much in the way of views, and began the highlight of any trip - our solo hike.  I hiked all the way to Copper Gap before stopping because I had seen a glimpse of blue skies and sunshine.  It unfortunately didn't last, but we all had gotten a moment of sunshine and a little bit of blue sky.  After we all ate our lunch and hiked on, I mentally prepared everyone for our last push of the day up Mt. Chapman.  Imagine my surprise when, after all the psyching up, we actually ended up being at the shelter, having already climbed the mountain and not noticing!

A rare minute of sunshine on day 3! 

A rare minute of sunshine on day 3! 

We spent the night at Tricorner Knob and slowly, the shelter began to fill.  Nick and his wife, who actually read this blog, had come in from Icewater Springs and slowly five SoBo thru hikers came in for the night.  The SoBo's got some trail magic from our group in the form of food none of us ever cared to finish eating and in return taught some of our clients a card game.  We again had a fire and during the course of the evening, the sky had cleared and we had amazing views of the stars with a little bit of Milky Way action!

A foggy start. 

A foggy start. 

Our last morning, day 4, brought clearing skies and the views we had hoped for the entire trip.  We stopped to take a ton of photos and by the time we reached the Deer Creek Gap helipad we had some beautiful scenery.  Blue and I decided to take our crew down the Snakeden Ridge Trail to give our clients more miles on this warm and sunny day.  We had a brutal 4080-foot descent, but we reached the campground at 3:30 p.m.  We were so lucky to have a strong and amazing group of clients to lead on our last trip of the season.  

Reflections - What I Would Have Done Differently on My Thru Hike - Appalachian Trials

Food Review - Picky Bars - Appalachian Trials

Five Pieces of Gear You WON'T Need on an Appalachian Trail Thru Hike

With the holidays upon us, most of the 2015ers are getting their gear research finished and updating their wish lists with the gear they’d love to have on their AT thru hike.  As someone who was in your shoes a few short years ago (and who worked in a hostel doing pack shakedowns for a season in 2013), I’d like to give you some advice as to what gear you can skip adding to your list, as chances are you won’t need it anyway. 

A solar charger for your electronics

Doesn’t a solar charger sound cool? You can charge your phone up every day and keep the battery full for those Kodak moments you’ll be sure to have every single day!  In reality, the Appalachian Trail is called “The Green Tunnel” for a reason.  You’re actually  not going to be spending much time in direct sunlight, which is how these things get their charging power in the first place.  I would say more than half of the people on the trail in 2012 that had these chargers sent them home at Neel Gap (only 30 miles in).  I would say by Damascus, VA (mile 470ish) 99% of people had sent theirs back home.  In Maine if we hadn't convinced hikers to send them home in their initial pack shakedown in Millinocket, I would say most, if not 99% or so, had sent them home in Monson. If you’re turning off your phone at night and keeping it in airplane mode during the day, you can easily get 5-7 days on a full charge from going into town (I've done this on an iPhone 4S and an iPhone 6; NoKey has done this on a Galaxy S3 and S5).  Trust me, you don’t want to be the guy who is always on his phone in camp at night anyway. If you really think you need the extra power for your devices, consider getting an external battery pack that can hold a full 2 charges for your specific device. 

Rain pants

Rain pants are good for pretty much one thing on the AT - an extra layer to keep you warm, especially when it’s windy or chilly.  I know, I know, you’re probably thinking that warm and dry sound like a good thing… but the fact of the matter is if you hike in rain pants you’re going to sweat.  You’re going to sweat and that moisture you’re repelling from the rain is pretty much canceling itself out.  A good rain jacket will really be all you need most of the time.  Rain ponchos that also cover your pack are starting to become wildly popular due to their breathability and double usage (always a big plus with thru hikers) and can be found online with a simple google search. 

Bear “anything” - bell, canister, spray, etc.

The bears we have here on the east coast are black bears, which are normally very afraid of humans. While there are always exceptions to this, black bears are often smelling you and hiding from you before you even ever see them.  If a product has the word “bear” in front of it, chances are you aren’t going to need it on the Appalachian Trail.  Granted, a bear canister is required for camping in Georgia between Jerard Gap and Neel Gap, but this short stretch can easily be done in one day by even the most fresh-footed new thru hiker.  The ATC is also starting to recommend hikers carrying a bear canister from Springer to Damascus, but I honestly don't see this catching on for thru hiking.  Canisters are heavy, cumbersome, and often don't hold the amount of food you need it to on a long-distance hike.  Bear spray is just added weight and a bear bell is just annoying to all the other people around you.  The bear line, while useful, is seldom used correctly by hikers anyway.  If you’re planning to keep using your bear line to hang your food and toiletries, I highly recommend learning to use it and do a proper hang by watching videos on YouTube.  Otherwise, maybe look into getting an Ursack for your food bag if you’re really concerned about protection from animals.  I've found that on trail the most common animal "attack" on a food bag is a mouse or a squirrel in the middle of the night.  

Deodorant and most first aid items

If you’re going 5-7 days between a shower, you’re going to stink anyway -and everyone else stinks too. This is just a fact of doing a long-distance hike.  Trying to put on deodorant isn’t going to help that set-in hiker funk that comes from wearing the same clothing day in and day out.  Save yourself the melting stick and leave it at home.  While you’re at it, I’m pretty sure 90% of your first aid kit can go home too.  While when you’re first starting out some Second Skin for blisters could be great, but Band-Aids can all be left at home.  Duct tape/Gorilla Tape and Leuko tape will be the only thing that comes even remotely close to sticking to your skin during a long day of hiking.  Other than ibuprofen and the occasional emergency Benadryl, pretty much all other over-the-counter meds can stay home too.  Obviously, if you’re taking prescription meds you should always bring those.  If you've bought a pre-assembled first aid kit and there are items in there you don't know how to use, chuck them.  (And if you want to know how to treat a few common hiking injuries, check out a post I wrote back in November 2015 here.)

Extra clothes

This sort of goes along with the deodorant.  You think it’d be nice to have an extra set of clothes to hike in, but in reality extra weight on your back isn’t worth it.  For my thru hike, I wore the same outfit to hike in every single day with three pairs of socks rotated - right side out, the next day inside out. I’d leave the dirty ones inside out in my clothes bag and put on a clean pair for day three.  This way, I could get away with only doing laundry every 6 days at the minimum.  I had a dress I’d wear in town while I was washing my one set of clothes and three pairs of socks. Obviously, you’ll have a layer for cooler days at the beginning and possibly at the end of your hike, but an extra set of clothes, sleeping clothes, etc. can all be left at home. (If you want to see an example of the clothes I carry for a thru hike, please check out my gear list here). 

When it comes to long-distance hiking, the mantra “hike your own hike” is oft-repeated and the same goes for this blog post.  If you’re willing and able to carry the extra weight from some of the items listed above then by all means go ahead and carry them.  These are just some of the things I saw nearly all thru hikers ditching in the first 100 miles, both northbounders and southbounders.  Of course, every hiker will have their luxury item they just won’t part with, be it a pillow or a titanium trowel to dig cat holes.  I hope this list has helped you to narrow down your gear for your upcoming long distance hike. 

Special thanks goes out to 2012 Hiker Trash Anonymous for helping me to confirm the items listed in this post.