Trail Talk

The ONE Phrase I'd Like to See Disappear

Backpacking and hiking are truly very personal sports.  While it can be done as a group activity, when you're out in nature your experience is always going to be individualistic.  When it comes to my job as a guide, I spent a lot of time explaining to people that we aren't just on one hike - if I'm in a group with four clients plus me, I'm hiking five individual hikes PLUS a group hike.  Try leading six individual hikes by yourself!  For many hikers, there's a phrase we all adopt. It starts off well-meaning and innocuous enough - hike your own hike (HYOH).  While this phrase can be used in multiple ways on the trail, unfortunately the way I see it used a lot on social media these days doesn't really lend itself to that friendly, simple advice.  Let's talk about why I'd like to see people stop throwing around the phrase hike your own hike (HYOH).  

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When I first became serious about attempting a thru hike, I learned the phrase HYOH from a friend of mine who had done some long sections.  He used it nicely enough.  He let me know that I should always HYOH instead of letting someone else in a group decide for me where I should be going and how many miles I should be doing.  As I got out onto the AT in late March of 2012, I immediately heard the phrase used multiple times a day - especially in those early days.  As someone who did a lot of long day hikes and backpacking trips before I set out to thru hike, I was often ridiculed in the first month I spent on the trail.  I heard many things about my speed and distance being covered each day, but it always basically boiled down to "You're not seeing anything when you hike 20 miles every day! You need to slow down to experience the AT the way it was meant to be done! But I guess you can HYOH..."  This was the first time I had been told to hike my own hike, but also been told that my way was wrong in their eyes.  

As I reached the fourth state line heading north, Virginia, and I came into the town of Damascus, more hikers were starting to pick up speed and bigger miles thanks to getting conditioned to the terrain.  I was no longer being told I wasn't seeing or experiencing the AT the "right" way.  Now though, it seemed like every hiker (both thru hiker and day hikers alike) were all experts on the gear I should be carrying and what I should be wearing.  The phrase HYOH now took on a different connotation.  "Well, the weight of a canister fuel system isn't something I can justify. I'd much rather carry HEET and a beer can stove. But HYOH..."  Once again, this seemingly sweet phrase is now being used to say "my way is the best but I guess yours is okay."  Around mile 500, HYOH really started to get on my nerves.  

After about 1000 miles of a distance hike, the HYOH phrase and culture died out for the most part.  I didn't really hear the phrase again that year.  In 2013, I moved to Millinocket to work in a hostel and found myself using the phrase nearly every day with the bright-eyed SoBo hopefuls.  Without really trying, I found myself using the very phrase I learned to hate during my thru hike a year previous.  "Well, many people on the east coast find solar panels to be cumbersome weight. I'd recommend sending it home.  But if you REALLY want to keep it, HYOH you know...?"  Basically, any time someone didn't like my expertise on a shakedown, I used the phrase to convey "I know better than you and I think you should do what I say."  Without even realizing it, I was now the person who was belittling my fellow hikertrash.  

These days, as an active part of the hiking community - both through my work as a backpacking guide and my future job working at a hostel - I'd like to banish this phrase from the hiker lexicon.  While the HYOH expression, I believe, started off innocent enough I no longer see a use for it on the trail.  While I don't have a catchy slogan to replace it, I'd like to work toward a culture shift in our community instead.  Instead of trying to use the phrase HYOH to talk to newbies or people who are setting out on their journeys, let's instead find a constructive way to convey our advice.  When in doubt, of course, the Golden Rule of not saying anything if we have nothing nice to say is always appropriate!  

Keep in mind that your hiking experience is always YOUR hike.  My experiences on distance trails will in no way be the same experience you will have.  My mileage might not work for you.  My gear might not work for you.  My resupply plan might not work for you.  Your experiences, gear, and resupply points might not work for me.  That's the beauty of getting out on an outdoor adventure - you get to learn something about yourself each and every time.  So, let's keep the snarkiness and mean comments out of it and help build each other up to enjoy it.  

How do you feel about the phrase hike your own hike?  Have you seen it used in the ways I've mentioned above? What would you recommend instead if you aren't a fan of the expression?

How to Survive Being the Support Crew

While this time of year is when people planning a thru hike for the spring or summer are getting their final gear and food purchases together, there's one group of people who frequently get overlooked: the support crew.  For some people, this is the spouse staying home and working to keep the bills paid; for others, it's mom and dad sending care packages every few weeks.  No matter who you are in relation to your favorite hiker, being a part of a support crew manning the home front is no easy job!  This post is dedicated to all those at home, monitoring their loved one out on the hardest vacation they'll ever take.  

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Know your loved one is always thinking of you

While this seems like a no-brainer, sometimes it's hard to remember that your hiker misses you when you see their social media updates.  Sure, that sunset photo is gorgeous and the hikers around them look happy without another care in the world.  What you're not seeing is the internal struggle of missing home, the dirt under their toenails, and the struggle it took to not only get up the mountain to get the shot, but also the struggle of the night hike to get into camp!  So, even though the photo looks like life at it's finest, know that your hiker is thinking of you and how nice it would be to share that moment in real life rather than just in photos.  

Just because they didn't call doesn't mean the worst has happened

While it might seem scary to know that there will be several days between phone calls or texts sometimes, know that it doesn't always mean that something terrible is happening!  Even though since my AT thru hike waaaaaay back in 2012 phone service has reached more and more places, it's amazing how much remote country you can still find here in the USA.  Sometimes sending a text message out will use upwards of 20% of your battery life, which can be a real bummer when you're 4-5 days from your next charging opportunity.  And, as we covered above, I promise it sometimes frustrates your hiker too when they can't get in touch with you. 

We would LOVE to see you, but we need you to be flexible on dates and times

Sure, it would be great to meet you in town in four days.  Sure, it's 100 miles away, but we can get there!  Or can we? Sometimes weather, tough terrain, and general fatigue make it REALLY HARD for us to get to a certain point at a certain time.  If you're going to take some time off to meet your hiker in a certain place, make sure you don't take it out on them if they're late or tired that first few hours.  Remember, we really did miss you and appreciate you and we probably busted ass to get to see you.  If you want to come visit a hiker, make sure you give yourself a few days in that area to meet up, hike with them (if that's the plan), slack pack them and their buddies, or even do trail magic.  It'll make it easier on both parties!

We really, REALLY appreciate everything you do

Sure, the last two times we were able to get in touch with you we were asking you to mail us things or telling you how to forward that box we accidentally sent to your house instead of the hostel we'll be at TOMORROW and we REALLY NEED IT RIGHT NOW EVEN YESTERDAY OMG. That doesn't mean we forgot that it was kind of a pain for you to take care of it for us while you're juggling working a 40-hour week and taking care of all the pets.  We might not always show it in the right ways (after all, we have been walking 20 miles a day for the last 14 days and didn't sleep the last two nights due to snoring folks in the shelter), but as a hiker I promise it doesn't go unnoticed how much you help us out.  

When you're feeling sad or lonely, online communities can be a big help

There are so many Facebook groups now for hikers you'll be sure to find one that suits the trail your loved one is doing.  Many family members join these groups as well.  It's a great place for hikers to share information and for support crew members like yourself to vent a little bit about what it takes to be the person at home.  You might even get some joy out of following certain hashtags on social media as well, following journeys of other hikers and their crew out on the same trails.  It'll help you really visualize where your hiker is or what they meant when they described their day to you.  

It's been argued many times that being the support crew at home is harder than being the one out doing the actual hiking.  For many distance hikers, it can be hard to remember that life goes on as normal even when we're out hiking for six months at a time.  Nevertheless, being the support crew for a hiker is a unique experience that requires nearly as much planning and flexibility as being out on the trail yourself.  And we love you.  And we appreciate everything you do for us.  And we miss you.  Take care of yourself!

Have you ever been the support crew for someone else? What would you add to my list of "surviving" the experience?

Unplugging - A New Year Resolution

Welcome to 2018, folks! I'm super excited for the new year, as I've got lots of fun things planned to keep me outdoors and active, including a thru hike and a 100-miler on the books.  While 2017 was winding down, I tried to make it a point to think of some ways I could improve on myself in the new year.  Some of you know I was battling some pretty bad depression last year - and it manifested well into the year.  As I finally feel I'm coming out of it, I've definitely decided to make some changes.  While some changes are small, like deciding to dedicate more time to gentle yoga and stretching every day, some changes are going to feel nearly impossible - like making the decision to unplug from my smartphone more.  

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Being that I keep a blog and spend time doing social media work and influencer, spending time online isn't just for fun and wasting time.  Spending time online is what I do to keep this blog going.  It's what I do to curate a feed that might inspire someone to get out and take a walk in the woods.  It's how I communicate with our friends and family while I'm on an extended trip.  One thing I've noticed over 2017 though is the fact that many people are no longer living in the moment while they're out there and instead they're live streaming summit views on Instagram or Snapchatting each and every object.  While I definitely believe social media has a place in the outdoors (more on this in a subsequent post), I also believe that living life through the screen has become more normalized and that is what I find worrisome.  While we all love to share beautiful photos and stories with each other, I think there's a fine line between enjoying the moment for yourself versus making it pretty for your followers. 

We all know the restorative benefits of getting outside and experiencing nature.  In fact, back in the 1990s the art of Shinrin Yoku became popular in Japan.  Forest bathing, as it's known in English, is the act of getting out into nature and experiencing it through all of your senses.  It's smelling a wildflower, tasting a wild edible plant, feeling the breeze on your skin, hearing the water flowing down the stream, and seeing views along the way.  The benefits of forest bathing are measurable - it can improve your high blood pressure, help you focus more, and even reduce your stress or anxiety.  I think it's fair to say everyone has experienced this from being outdoors at least once and you may not have even realized it! Every time you take a walk to clear your head or take a hike to your favorite waterfall, you are experiencing the benefits of Shinrin Yoku.  

Notice that above I didn't list the benefits of live streaming your hike on Instagram Stories.  I didn't list finishing off your audiobook on the way to the summit.  I didn't even list texting your mom from the top of the mountain.  While all of these things can and do happen in the woods, it isn't a part of forest bathing.  This is where my resolution for 2018 begins.  While I truly enjoy listening to a great podcast during a solo hike, I have found in the past year that my brain really, REALLY wants to turn off.  It NEEDS to turn off.  I have even stopped running with my headphones in and recently completed a 40.5-mile ultra race without once listening to any media.  While I did stop to take a few photos here and there, the quiet headspace really did me some good.  In fact, despite being more sore than I've ever experienced, my mind and heart were clear.  And it felt really amazing.  

During 2018 I will be thru hiking, and when I thru hike I do set aside time each night to write about my day and match up some photos.  That will not change.  I'll still be sharing stories with my Instagram and Snapchat followers as well.  But one thing you won't see from me (or at least I'm going to try!) is filming while I hike or keeping my phone "in service" during my time in the woods.  In such a busy society, the quiet and the calm away from the screen is something I'm craving more and more. 

I want to hear from you! How do you feel about the art of Forest Bathing? Have you ever immersed yourself in nature? Would you be willing to try going out without your devices for a day or even a week?  Leave me a comment below!

 

Giving Back

With the holidays rapidly approaching, many casual hikers are slowing down and prepping their gear for a long winters' nap.  For some of us other hikers however, the holidays mean long weekends and time to spend out on the trail.  Many others fall into a place somewhere between - not quite retiring all their gear for the season, but not ready to spend all their free time out on the trail during the cooler winter months.  Since this time of year is about giving, I'd like to talk about ways you can give back to the trail for the holidays - maybe in a way you never thought about!

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Take Someone Hiking

It's my opinion that the best thing we can do for any trail system is to help make other people aware of it's mere existence!  Helping friends and family members discover a trail can lead to a love of hiking or trekking, which in turn helps the trail.  How, you may ask?  When other people learn about a trail they're more inclined to take care of it.  Learning a trail is nearby means you take pride in that trail, you share your positive experiences with others, and that helps spread the love even more by word of mouth.  Sharing a trail with someone is a super easy thing to do!

A Group Cleanup

Head out to a trail with a few friends and make a friendly competition out of the day.  Have everyone take extra gallon-sized Ziplock bags and have rewards for those who pick up the most trash, weirdest item, or even the biggest item.  Picking up microtrash (small items like the tabs off a candy bar wrapper or a plastic water bottle lid) really add up quick!  

Donate to a Trail Conservancy

If you have a long distance trail in your neck of the woods, add them to your charitable giving this winter.  If you don't have a trail near you, donate to a local park or outdoors organization.  Preserving the outdoors for the public to enjoy is a gift that keeps on giving!

Sign Up for Trail Maintenance

While some maintaining jobs require licenses (like operating a chainsaw), many trail and outing clubs encourage any and everyone to come out and help.  Find out when your local club goes out for trail maintaining and sign up!  Not only will you meet new people, you'll help out and give back to a trail system local to you.  

These are just a few ideas you can try to give back to a trail system or park near you.  Have you ever participated in a trail cleanup? Do you like to share nature with others? 

A Walk For Sunshine - a hiking memoir and book review

Disclaimer: In order to be honest with my blog readers, I am disclosing that I received a copy of A Walk for Sunshine, 20th Anniversary Edition, for free in exchange for a book review on this blog.  As always, all opinions are my own. 

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Being that I'm a distance hiker, I'm asked all the time (and I mean ALL THE TIME) if I've read certain books.  You guys know the ones.  If you hike, you're probably asked all the time too, right?  Well, as a distance hiker reading books by and about ACTUAL thru hikes are always much more interesting to me.  That's why when I was contacted by Beaufort Books regarding the 20th Anniversary Printing of A Walk for Sunshine I was super excited to read it.  While books written about hiking by writers are great for entertainment value, as someone who has taken a long walk on a distance hiking trail it's always a lot more fun for me to read about the experiences of others.  Here are my thoughts on the book A Walk for Sunshine by Jeff Alt - a memoir of his 1998 Appalachian Trail thru hike.  

The thing I really enjoyed about this book was the trail journal style it took on from the very beginning.  The book follows Jeff starting in Georgia - making the mistakes all newbie thru hikers make, and documenting his way northward into Maine.  Being that his book takes place 20 years ago you would think that hikers of recent years might not find common ground with Alt (who adopts the name Wrongfoot mere hours into his hike).  This is where you would be wrong.  Although the trail has changed quite a bit since his hike in 1998, so much of it remains the same.  Hikers who have even stepped once on the Appalachian Trail will immediately find common ground with Wrongfoot - knowing the places or parts of the trail he mentions.  

Being that the book adopts the trail journal style, it's easy to get sucked into reading this book and not wanting to put it down (Seriously, I read it in an afternoon).  Wrongfoot captures the spirit of a thru hike - the difficult and long days, the insanity of the weather brought forth by Mother Nature, even the simple pleasures of making it to a restaraunt as iconic as The Homeplace in Catawba, Virginia are documented here.  I found myself laughing and reminiscing while reading this book, remembering the emotions and experiences I had at the shelters named and the hostels visited along the way.  

One thing that cannot be overlooked in this story is the fact that Wrongfoot is hiking for charity.  When he set out on the trail in 1998, he was raising money for Sunshine Communities - where his brother, Aaron, lived with cerebral palsy and mental disabilities.  During the course of his hike Jeff not only raised money for Sunshine, he even started a Walk, Run, and Roll event that still takes place 20 years later.  His annual inspired event has raised more than $500,000 to date for the Sunshine Communities.  

The great thing about this 20th Anniversary edition book is the fact that there is an Epilogue about life lessons learned, as well as a post script for wannabe thru hikers.  Also something I loved was the recommended reading list in the back - it has many of my favorite hiking memoirs listed, as well as it lets hikers of today know that the gear Wrongfoot carried in 1998 is by no means the gear you'd carry today.  It has practical advice on the fact that the trail is now longer, gear is lighter, and information on the trail is endless.  This practical advice is definitely welcome!

I highly recommend reading this book if you love books about thru hiking, especially on the Appalachian Trail.  You'll find yourself laughing and cringing just like you would if you were talking to a friend about the trail.  You can get a copy of the book your favorite local store or online as not only a paper book, but also an ebook.  You can visit http://www.beaufortbooks.com for more information.  

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Distance Hiking and Body Image

Body image always seems to be in my social media feed - it seems like we're obsessed with it.  A new ad campaign promoting something regarding celebrating your body seems to pop up every month.  As someone who grew up in the age of Title IX but before crazy photoshopping, body image never really played into how I viewed myself.  Granted, like every teen girl on the planet, I learned to point out my flaws for a good 15 years or so.  Recently though, especially after hitting my 30s, I've learned to let a lot of that go.  While I think part of that comes with age, I think another part of it comes with my experience as a distance hiker.  In fact, distance hiking has helped me come to terms with my body more than any body-positive ad campaign ever could. 

When I first set out to thru hike the Appalachian Trail in 2012 I knew I had a few pounds to lose.  Not many, but a few.  When those few pounds came off in the first nine days I knew I still wasn't happy with my body.  In fact, there are still some photos from the trail that make me cringe when I see them.  Sure, I was (and still do) wearing Spandex.  Sure, I had a waist belt cinched tightly to carry the weight of my pack.  Sure, I had just finished camelling up (drinking a ton of water) at a water source so I wouldn't get more dehydrated.  To me though, these photos don't show me at my best.  In a highly curated world, these photos are sort of embarrassing to me even now.  I recently came across a photo like that, seen here:

 My least favorite photo from the entire AT. 

My least favorite photo from the entire AT. 

I could nit-pick at this photo all day.  The way my waistband sits, the way my stomach sticks out, the way my hair is in that weird in-between growth stage.  When we took that photo it was just after we ate a ton of food (read - sugary snacks), drank even a ton more of water, and had hiked about 15 miles that day.  When I saw that tree, all I wanted to do was hop on and take a photo.  We camped that night and had an amazing time with our other fellow thru hikers.  It wasn't until months later, when I saw this photo on my Facebook feed (as I often uploaded without editing) that I was horrified at my appearance.  Weren't female thru hikers supposed to look strong?  All the other girls I hiked with looked so thin and confident.  They were all stronger than me, weren't they?  It really put a dark cloud over what I was actually out there accomplishing.  

The same day the photo above was taken, the photo below was taken... yes, the SAME DAY:

There's nothing wrong with this photo (in my eyes) and I remember feeling so great that day.  So, why do I feel so bad about the first one?  

In a world where our images are perfect, photoshopped, and manipulated and curated to fit a certain image, it's important to see our photos for what they are: a memory of a time we wanted to document.  I think people are truly never happy with their bodies, but the truth of the matter is our bodies can do amazing things.  For me, my body has carried me more than 7500 miles - through physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging terrain - and given me a career.  My body has carried me through an ultramarathon and a distance hike.  My body has been grimy, slimy, and scabby from months outdoors.  I've been covered in bruises and DEET.  I've been energized and exhausted all in the same day.  I've walked 30 miles and I've barely moved.  The fact of the matter is that none of this matters because my body is strong.  My body is beautiful.  My body can get out and climb that goddamn mountain.  

With this post, I'm issuing a challenge to all those outdoorsy folks - go ahead and post that photo.  Share the moments you're proud of.  Don't be distracted and disheartened by all those pretty white 20-somethings with colorful tattoos and John Muir quotes on Instagram.  Your experience outdoors is just as important.  Be proud of who you are and what your body has done for you.  I know I'm proud of mine. 

Hiking in the Rain

I don't know about the weather where you're living, but here in the southeast the late winter and springtime have been full of rain and thunderstorms - a huge difference from the hot and dry weather we were experiencing last year.  With wet weather in the forecast it can be very tempting to cancel your much-anticipated hiking trip, but it doesn't have to halt your plans!  In fact, hiking in the rain can be enjoyable if you've got the right gear.  Check out my advice for hitting the trail in the rain and how to enjoy your trip.  

Invest in Some Contractor Bags

A box of contractor clean-up bags will be a wonderful investment for any backpacker.  An unscented bag can be your pack liner.  You simply slide it into your empty pack and load your gear as  you normally would, twisting and tucking the top/extra plastic before closing up your pack.  Pairing this with your pack cover will give you an extra layer of waterproof protection that can stand up to nearly any storm.  It's important to double check that the box is UNSCENTED and heavy duty before leaving home. 

Ditch the Waterproof Shoes

While this seems counter productive, I promise there's good advice here.  Imagine you're wearing shorts and a Gortex hiking boot during a summer hike when a rainstorm breaks out.  You've got your pack covered and your poncho or rain gear on.  The rain will then run down your poncho or down your legs and directly inside of your boot.  Even if the rain stops and you get a chance at camp to dry out your shoes, shoes that are waterproof will not only keep water from streams from getting inside, but it will also stop the condensation or water that got inside your boots from drying out.  Consider going with a lightweight, breathable boot or, better yet, go ahead and make the switch to a pair of trail runners.  Even if your feet get wet during the day, you can easily dry a pair of trail runners in dry conditions or even just from your own body heat.  

Test Your Gear 

If you haven't taken your gear out in the rain in a while, I highly recommend you check your gear at home first.  That tent that hasn't been out in a year may not be as waterproofed as you remember.  Set up your gear outdoors and spray it down with a garden hose.  Inspect your gear for any seams that aren't sealed or any holes/leaks.  Avoiding a surprise during that late-night thunderstorm could make all the difference in your trip. 

Have The Right Equipment

While this one seems like a no-brainer, there are still things you can do to protect your gear inside your pack.  Invest in some waterproof stuff sacks for your sleeping bag and your clothes.  If you know your trip is expecting rain, make sure to bring an extra dry set of clothes to help avoid hypothermic conditions (because, yes, people can get hypothermia any time of year!).  By lining your pack you're definitely helping keep clothes and sleeping equipment dry, but by adding protection and using a waterproof bag in addition to your pack cover you can be sure your camp clothes will be dry and keep you warm. Remember - hikers always say there is no such thing as bad weather, just gear that can't handle the weather!

Learn Lightning Safety

Thunderstorms are definitely a natural part of the weather system in many parts of the country and being prepared for lightning can not only be informative, it can help you stay safe.  Know the warning signs of an impeding afternoon storm and limit your time above tree line in the summer months. Consider taking a Wilderness First Aid or First Responder course and learn the Lightening Ready protocols.  Learning Lightening Ready Stance can greatly reduce your risk of being struck by lightening in the backcountry. 

 Lightning Ready Stance can be taught by many different courses - learn the proper techniques!

Lightning Ready Stance can be taught by many different courses - learn the proper techniques!

HAVE FUN With It!

While walking for miles in a downpour doesn't always sound like fun, it can definitely be fun.  Play in the puddles, sing a song, or just power through the miles with a smile on your face.  A positive attitude can make all the difference, especially if you're hiking with a group. 

Have you ever had to hike or backpack in the rain? How did you keep your trip enjoyable despite the weather? 

Black Toenails - A Rite of Passage... or is it?!

When I first got into hiking seriously back in 2008 I joined a Meetup Group.  Before becoming a backpacker, I spent a lot of time on front country camping trips doing day hikes.  On one such trip, I remember sitting around a campfire with some veteran hikers and I found myself in a conversation that was borderline horrifying to me.  In fact, many of you who are hiking have probably heard a conversation very similar to this one: "You don't want to see my feet! I've lost so many toenails I can't even count them all!" "Oh yeah, I have two black ones right now - both big ones!" "My first backpacking trip I lost seven nails!" "I get so many blisters I'm pretty sure my trail name should be bubble wrap!" "Yeah, I don't think I've had a solid set of nails in 10 years!"  As I listened to this in slight horror I realized that yes, indeed, I was not a real hiker yet.  And thanks to this conversation, I wasn't looking forward to being a hiker either! 

A few years down the line I did join the real hiker club.  Thanks to a long day of hiking in boots that were too heavy, I got to camp and immediately shed the footwear to walk barefoot in a cold mountain stream.  The stream was in fact so cold that when I banged my toe on a rock I didn't feel a thing.  Later that night, however, a small purple lump showed up directly in the middle of my toenail.  Six months later, that nail had to be surgically removed thanks to the fact that the bruise never healed, nor caused me to lose that nail.  Finally, I had become a real hiker.  Honestly though, does losing or bruising nails REALLY make us a real hiker?  I'm here to tell you guys that NO, LOSING TOENAILS ISN'T NORMAL OR A RITE OF PASSAGE!  This post will deal with some footwear myths and facts to help you avoid the most ridiculous Rite of Passage hikers hear about.  

MYTH: You should Always Buy Your Boots a Full Size Bigger Than Your Shoes

If you need to buy your boots a full size bigger than your normal shoes, this tells me you're not wearing the proper size shoe in the first place!  In fact, most Americans are not wearing the correct shoe size for their foot.  A proper hiking, trail running, or backpacking shoe should not only be long enough, it should also be wide enough to accomodate your feet in both their swollen and normal conditions.  To get properly fitted for a hiking, trail running, or backpacking shoe I HIGHLY recommend going to a running store and not an outdoor retailer first.  Running store employees are properly trained to watch your gait, measure your feet (both width and length) and look for wear patterns on your shoes to recommend a corrective insole if you need it.  They'll ask you your daily/weekly mileage, terrain you plan on traveling, and even what your long-term goals are.  THEN, they'll go in the back and find the brands and styles that will work best for you.  

MYTH: A Heavy Boot Will Solve All Your Foot Problems

Which of these sounds better for a foot in normal conditions: A heavy, inflexible, non-breathable shoe; or a lightweight, breathable, flexible shoe?  Now, add in the rocky, muddy, wet conditions of a mountain trail.  While hiking boots definitely have a place in the hiking world, a lightweight and breathable boot or shoe will do you much better in most conditions.  In the past several years, many running shoe companies have expanded into a line of trail shoes and some even offer a high topped shoe to rival many hiking boots.  Other outdoor companies make heavy duty, breathable shoes with moderate ankle support.  Whether you decide on a boot or a shoe, light and breathable with some flexibility, not heavy and solid, will keep your feet happy.  

MYTH: Always Wear A Sock Liner And You'll Never Get Blisters

Just like one shoe doesn't fit all, one sock solution doesn't work for everyone either!  Sock liners do help prevent friction in high pressure areas of the feet.  Injinji toe socks also make liners to help separate your toes and prevent between-the-toe blisters; however, sock liners aren't your "quick" fix for blisters or black toenails.  Getting a properly fitted, properly breathing, properly weighted shoe is the first line of defense.  Secondly, making sure you're wearing a wicking sock, like a wool or bamboo variety, will also help pull moisture away from your feet.  Third, determining if your blisters are caused by pressure on your foot or debris in your shoe also helps! Some people can solve their blister problems by wearing a gaiter to cover the tops of their shoes or boots and prevent debris from rubbing their feet.  

MYTH: Buy A Pair of Insoles And Never Have Foot Problems Again

Are you guys noticing a pattern yet?  Hikers often have a "one size fits all" solution for foot problems, but just like the other myths we've covered, an insole will not help all hikers solve their problems.  Many insole brands you can buy off the shelf in a store will tell you that being uncomfortable is all a part of the break-in process because your body doesn't know how to walk on it's own (I'm paraphrasing here).  Not every hiker needs an insole to help solve their blister or toenail problems.  In fact, many hikers can avoid the insole by getting a properly fitted, properly cushioned shoe or boot in the first place.  

Have you ever lost toenails or gotten severe blisters on a hike?  What did you do to help remedy the situation? 

Thru Hiking Announcement!

Well, 2017 is going to be the year of yet another thru hike for NoKey and me!  It was great being able to get out and go hiking in 2015 and, due to the fact that money is pretty much required to have a decent living where we are, we had to jump right back in and get to work after our hike.  I was fortunate enough to fall right into life as a backpacking guide almost immediately and now NoKey is joining the fun for 2017!  However, even though backpacking for a living is a pretty great way to stay connected to the trail, it can be difficult to feel like you're getting the experience YOU want while out there.  On guided backpacking trips I'm often teaching beginners the basics of backpacking, meaning we start out doing beginner miles.  While I love teaching others the ways to safely begin backpacking and avoiding injuries, I often crave hiking long and hard days.  This is why getting away to take a thru hike is so important for me every few years.

With both NoKey and myself working as guides now, we needed to set up a trip we could take during the not so busy weeks between July 4th and Labor Day weekend.  This year, we have decided to tackle the Tahoe Rim Trail!  This 167-mile loop can be done in approximately 10 days, which means we could take two weeks off to travel, thru hike, take a zero or two, and fly back home.  For us, it was a no-brainer!

The Tahoe Rim Trail is fairly new as far as trail systems are concerned - only officially designated in 2001.  This multiuse trail can be used year-round for biking, snowshoeing, and hiking.  Part of the trail also shares the Pacific Crest Trail, so we'll get a taste of the PCT while we're out hiking in California and Nevada.  We are super excited to hit this trail, especially since neither of us have done any hiking at elevations like this before.  In the next few months, I'll be posting updates about recipe planning and thru hike planning/gear trade-offs we'll be doing in order to get ready for our adventure.  I can't wait to share these things with you guys!

Have you ever been to the Tahoe Region for hiking or recreation?  Are there any "must stop" places you'd recommend?

How Ultramarathons are Like Thru Hikes

On December 31st, 2016 I toed the starting line of my first ever ultramarathon.  While competing in (and later finishing) this event I noticed a ton of similarities that running an ultra and completing a thru hike have in common.  

Aid Stations Are Basically Trail Magic on Steroids

The ultra I ran was the Pistol Ultra in Alcoa, TN.  They have a famous aid station, Woody's, that provides everything a runner needs to get through the race.  From homemade trail mix bars and banana bread to salt and vinegar chips and even candy this little slice of heaven on earth will get you refueled and back to the task at hand.  Much like trail magic, seeing this pop-up tent brought forth a flood of emotions and got me energized to continue onward.  Seriously, when someone fills your water bottles for you so you can stuff your face and keep moving... that person is an angel. 

(Photos of Woody's courtesy of the Pistol Ultra Facebook group)

Hike Your Own Hike Applies Here Too

So when I tell people I've completed an ultra they say "wow I can't believe you ran that far!"  Honestly I did run a lot, but I also walked a lot too.  I stopped and stretched a lot.  In fact, according to my Garmin, I probably stopped for stretches, food, and sock changes more than 15 minutes during the duration of the time I was on the course.  When you're hiking a distance trail you might take 1 zero day or 50 zero days (like I did on the AT) and you're still going to finish.  When you're stopping to walk in an ultra no one is judging you, just like when you take that extra zero day in town.  In fact, towards the end of the ultra if you can manage to run up a hill, no  matter how small, someone who sees you doing it starts cheering you on.  That's support!

Your Fellow Runners Have Your Back

On my final lap on the way back to the finish I saw some ladies headed towards me - meaning they had about 9 miles to go.  One of the women stopped and burst into tears.  Immediately other runners stopped to see what she needed and how they could help her.  Spectators cheered you by name and asked if you needed anything.  Aid station workers, due to the cold weather, asked every person if they needed a hot drink.  We offered up our foam rollers and muscle sticks to those who were in pain.  Just like when you're out on trail and something throws a wrench into your day, others who know what you're going through offer to help you out.  

The Hunger is REAL

About 15 miles into my race my stomach was ANGRY.  I was so hungry all of a sudden I almost couldn't move.  Much like when you're on a thru hike, when your stomach tells you to eat it is time to eat!  I discovered for myself that much like a distance hike, my body responded extremely well to "real" foods versus snack bars, gels, and chews.  When I finished the race we went out for an enormous pasta dinner and I polished off a gargantuan piece of cheesecake.  I regret nothing!

Your Journey is The Destination

When I finished the AT my thru hike I was just in awe that I had finished.  From that moment on in my life I realized I can actually do difficult things.  I can COMPLETE difficult things.  Until that point in my life I often quit when things got hard and uncomfortable.  Since then, I've challenged myself outside of my comfort zone so many times.  This ultra race, for me, was proving to myself that something I once thought impossible truly wasn't.  I no longer find myself second-guessing my abilities once I'm in the middle of something.  It turns out that my first attempt at an ultra wasn't as scary or unmanageable as I feared it would be.  Much like every thru hike I complete, I come out on the other side realizing that I am capable of finishing something daunting.  

 The smile you get after eating a ton of food and being stretched out by a physical therapist after running 50 Kilometers!

The smile you get after eating a ton of food and being stretched out by a physical therapist after running 50 Kilometers!

While there are plenty of other ways running an ultramarathon reminds me of thru hiking, these are the ones that stood out to me.  Have you ever run an ultra?  Do you want to push the envelope and challenge yourself to a difficult or "impossible" feat in the coming year? 

Cold Weather Hiking Tips

With the cooler temperatures finally upon us and even a slight dusting of snow in the high elevations of the mountains of East Tennessee, we can finally look forward to getting out and enjoying cold weather hiking days.  While I love all the other seasons, winter is definitely my favorite season to get outside and enjoy everything the outdoors has to offer!  While the trails are less traveled and the parks are less crowded, there are still challenges to getting out and enjoying everything the trails have to offer in the wintertime.  This is post is all about my tips to get you out and enjoying the great outdoors during those cold winter months!

Dressing in Layers

It's no surprise that I recommend dressing in layers as my number one tip for getting outside all winter.  In fact, many people would say this is the key to getting outside in the cooler months. What does this mean though, especially for people spending hours on trail?  The key to dressing in layers in winter months is choosing the right fabric.  I highly recommend merino wool for layering due to the wicking and temperature-regulating properties.  Synthetic base layers are a close second.  One thing that should have no place in your winter layering system, however, is cotton.  Cotton definitely breathes well, but doesn't help regulate temperatures and isn't quick drying.  You get a t-shirt or a pair of jeans out in the snow and you'll see very quickly just how cold you can  be! 

Snacking

Keeping warm in the winter can be helped along by taking plenty of snacks.  Simple carbs, protein, and fat are the key to keeping your body burning calories effectively and keeping you nice and toasty.  Trail mix, nuts, beef jerky - all of your favorite snacks have a place on a winter hiking trip!

Drinking Water

Yes, even cold water can help keep you warmer on the trail.  Staying hydrated is important to not only keep you safe, it will also help you digest your meals out on the trail.  While it's hard to remember to drink while you're out in cooler temperatures and not sweating like you would during other seasons, sipping frequently will help keep your body temperature regulated.  Take a flask of warm soup , hot tea or warm apple cider and you'll definitely be toasty!  It should be noted that alcohol thins the blood and that consuming alcohol to "stay warm" is definitely an old wives' tale!

Hand Warmers

Those cheap hand warmers they sell at convenience stores and sporting goods departments have a place even during shorter day hikes during the winter!  Put them in your shoes to help keep toes warm during the entire length of your hike.  By carrying a few inside your day pack, you'll ensure that even if something unexpected happens during your day hike you'll have a fail-safe way to add extra warmth to your makeshift shelter/emergency blanket in case you end up spending a winter night in the backcountry.  

Spending the Night?

One of my favorite easy ways to stay warm at night is to fill a water bottle with near-boiling water at night just before climbing into my sleeping bag.  Make sure to close it tightly and then take it into your sleeping bag with you for a makeshift backcountry hot water bottle.  If you're concerned about leakage, make sure to put it inside a gallon-sized Ziplock bag first!

Looking for a way to get active this winter? Check out this post from my old Appalachian Trials archives about beating the winter blues!

These are just a few of my tips for staying warm on a winter day of hiking.  What are your fool-proof ways to stay warm during the cooler months of the year? 

An Open Letter to the Hiker at the Back

Dear Hiker at the Back, 

I know you're back there, probably sweating a little more than most of us, probably struggling a little bit more.  When we started hiking you probably made some little joke about being the Caboose.  You also probably made the comment that we shouldn't wait for you, or that maybe you should start a few minutes before the rest of the group arrived so you wouldn't hold everyone up.  The group leader more than likely told you not to worry about it.  The group leader told you we would all hike together.  Yet, there you are, a few minutes behind.  

I've been you before.  I've been the person at the back wondering what the hell I've gotten myself into.  Second guessing my abilities.  Wishing I would have just sold my backpack on Craigslist last week like I threatened to.  Knowing that the WHOLE GROUP is just waiting on me.  Knowing I'm holding EVERYONE up from our destination.  Feeling like a failure.  KNOWING I'm a failure.  

Oh, dear hiker at the back, you're so very wrong.  No one in the group thinks you're hindering the experience.  Even though you feel like you're miles behind the group has only been waiting a few minutes.  Truth be told, we all wanted to wait and catch our breath too.  We all hiked up that hill just like you did.  It was hard - we all thought so.  All the complaining you did in your head?  Well, we all did it too, probably even out loud!  When you catch up we cheer because you look like you needed a boost and we're proud of you.  

The truth of the matter is someone is always bringing up the rear - they have to.  Someone always has to be first and someone always has to be last.  Your group leader who seems to be in such amazing shape was probably last once too.  More than likely every single person you're hiking with has been in your shoes.  Our excitement and enthusiasm to see you isn't faked or exaggerated - it's genuine joy that we get to share our experience with you.  The you're out here hiking with us and working every bit as hard as all of the group.  You're accomplishing something right now.  Your experiences aren't worth any less just because of your speed.  

If you stick with it chances are a few years down the road you'll be the one leading others up those hills and into the woods, climbing them with steady feet and a careful gait.  You'll be the one encouraging others with your stories of being the slow one.  You'll give the high fives and the hugs and celebrate the victories - large and small - with everyone you hike with.  I promise, you're doing an amazing job. 

Sincerely, 

The Hiker in the Front

The Hiker Trash Dictionary

A few days ago I was leading a private day hike up to Mt. Cammerer in the Smokies.  After the first three miles of climbing you reach Low Gap on the Appalachian Trail.  This gap is a popular resting spot for hikers coming from all directions and there are often a few people sitting around chatting.  I greeted a fellow hiker here and discovered he and I follow each other Twitter. We swapped a few stories and discovered we had both thru hiked the Appalachian Trail before.  My client was super impressed by our "hiker speak" and how the language we were speaking quickly turned from English to some undecipherable hiker language for her.  For the next mile or so, while teaching her some facts about the Appalachian Trail, I also taught her a few hiker terms.  We decided it would definitely be helpful to see some of these terms written down somewhere, so I've dedicated this post to all wannabe hikers and the terms they'll be using soon. 

+NoBo - A Northbound thru hiker (on the AT this is someone hiking from Georgia to Maine)

+SoBo - A Southbound thru hiker (on the AT this is someone hiking from Maine to Georgia)

+Flip Flopper - someone who starts somewhere other than either terminus and is hiking either direction.  This hike is getting more and more popular on the AT due to the overcrowding on trail. 

+Section hiker - someone who isn't hiking the entire trail at one time

+Thru Hiker - a person hiking the entire trail at one time

+YoYo - hiking the entire trail in one direction, turning around, and going back the way you came in one season

+Triple Crowner - someone who hikes the "big 3" hiking trails in the US, consisting of the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail

+Yellow Blazer - someone who claims to be a hiker but skips ahead by hitchhiking (and always seems to somehow get the last spot at the hostel before you get there!)

+Pink Blazer - a hiker who chases a woman up the trail looking for love

+Purist - a hiker who insists on not missing a single white blaze, no matter the circumstances. Example - two trails lead out of a campsite or shelter, a purist will take the same trail out he took in to ensure not missing one single step of trail

+Zero - a rest day, often taken in town or at a hostel

+Nero - meaning you hiked nearly zero miles to get someplace to take a break

+Yogi - when you use your thru hiking powers to get free stuff. Example: when you approach a campground and find a large family, ask them if they know where a store is so you can go buy some snacks. They usually give you some!

+Trail Angel - someone who helps hikers in need. This could be in the form of a free ride to town, does a load of laundry, or gives you a place to stay when you're injured. Trail Angels come in many forms!

+Trail Magic - getting something for nothing, usually when you need it most. Common forms of trail magic include getting free sodas, snacks, or candy at trail heads. 

+Trail Name - the alias a hiker goes by during a hike

+Slack Packing - when you leave most of your gear in your hostel/hotel room and get a ride out of town. Then, you hike back to your hotel/hostel for another night. 

+Hiker Midnight - the time hikers go to bed, which is usually after sunset, but can be any time a hiker determines based on how many long miles were hiked

+Hiker TV - the rare instance a long-distance hiker decides to build a campfire. We all sit at stare at the fire, AKA hiker TV

+Hiker Hunger - the ability to eat massive quantities of food due to the sheer number of calories you're burning on trail

+Hiker Box - a box set up at a hiker-friendly business that is kind of like "take a penny, leave a penny"; you can discard unwanted food or packed items and find someone elses' cast offs

+Hiker Trash - the way hikers describe themselves, a term of endearment. Hiker Trash refers to not only the bedraggled appearance, but also the terrible smell hiker carry on them at all times. 

+Bounce Box - a box you mail to yourself at different locations on trail; example - it's too hot to keep your puffy coat, so you bounce it ahead to where you'll be a month from now to avoid carrying it

+Mail drop - a box full of supplies mailed to yourself at a post office or hiker-friendly business

+Resupply - going into a town or store to stock up on food or fuel for your stove
 

There you have it - a list of commonly used hiker terms on distance hiking trails.  Are there any terms I forgot to mention here?  What would you add to the list?  Do you have a hobby with it's own "language?"

Beating the Summer Heat on a Hike

Even though we're looking at Back-to-School times here in the south, it seems the relentless summer heat just won't give us a break!  The Dog Days of summer started here back in early June and are continuing well into mid-August.  You know the heat has been terrible when the weather reports we are getting a "break" from the heat when the heat index is below 100 (but still above 90!)  Other than for work, I've been trying to stay indoors as much as I can this summer, but when I'm out for a run or hiking at low elevation I still need a way to keep cool.  Here are my favorite ways to beat the heat during summer time. 

beattheheat

Stay at High Elevations

Where I live, the high elevation hiking runs consistently 10-12 degrees cooler than it does in the nearest town with a weather forecast.  Is it going to be 95 in the valley today? Chances are it will barely hit 75 up high with the gentle breeze!  A bonus for me is the fact that high elevation in the Smokies also means hiking on the Appalachian Trail and that means views for miles and miles on clear, sunny days.  It also means hiking in the overcast fog on not-so-clear days.  Either way, both options are beautiful and MUCH cooler. 

 Where I live, high elevations mean boreal forest, fog, and sunshine breaking through!

Where I live, high elevations mean boreal forest, fog, and sunshine breaking through!

Reduce Your Mileage

Can't get away from the heat no matter how high up you go?  Reduce your miles!  Just because you CAN hike 22 miles at a time doesn't mean you HAVE TO!  Starting a hike in the morning and doing shorter miles to get done before the peak of the summer heat helps you stay a little cooler - not to mention beat the crowds at whatever your destination may be.  

Get Up Earlier

If you've ever looked at sunrise hiking photos on Instagram with envy this is your chance to emulate what you've been coveting - start super early in the morning (in the dark by headlamp or flashlight!) and hike up to a vista or waterfall for a sunrise viewing!  Not only will you really beat the heat, you'll be finished before most people are even arriving at the trailhead.  You'll have done more before noon than most people do all day long on hot summer days!

Get Wet

Waterfall hikes are always popular in summer months, but you don't have to hike to a waterfall to get wet on trail.  Taking a hike with several stream crossings or river fords will give you an opportunity to jump in and cool off.  Bonus points if you get your hair/hat wet or drape a wet bandana around your neck for the next mile or so.  Keeping cool has never been easier

 Looks like a great spot for a swim break to me!

Looks like a great spot for a swim break to me!

HYDRATE HYDRATE HYDRATE!

Dehydration in the summertime - the most common trail injury I see as a guide.  Not only can the direct sunlight dehydrate you, so can the humidity.  In the Smokies, a temperate rain forest, dehydration can set in VERY quickly.  As a guide, I usually have 3-4 electrolyte options on me at all times, including salt tablets, Nuun hydration, Honey Stinger Chews, Fuel 100 Electrobites (code SPRINKLES will save you 25% at checkout!), and Enduropacks electrolyte spray in my backpack most, if not every, of the time I hit the trails.  If you're out on a hot day it is super important to check in with your hydration status.  Feeling thirsty?  You're already well on your way to dehydration!  With 75% of Americans in a constant state of dehydration it's hard to convince people to drink water.  Make sure you're carrying at least 32 ounces of water on a half-day of hiking and 64 ounces for a full day.  It also never hurts to pick up a cheap and reliable water filter (I recommend and use the Sawyer Mini).  

There you have it - my favorite ways to beat the summer heat on a hike.  What would you add? How do you stay cool in the Dog Days of summer?

The 14 AT States - Common Perceptions and Misconceptions

Whenever people talk about states along the Appalachian Trail just the mentioning of the name will give you an image in your head.  For those of us who have travelled the trail in those states, however, our perception of those states can be quite different.  My topic today is kind of a fun one - the expectation versus reality of the states along the Appalachian Trail.  

 The map image came from  The Cat's Meow Village  and is available for purchase!

The map image came from The Cat's Meow Village and is available for purchase!

Georgia

Expectation: Springer Mountain - the beginning or end of a long journey. 
Reality: Well, you do get Springer Mountain.  You also get the crowds of newbies and all the excited and nervous energy that comes along with that journey.  It's truly a magical (albeit crowded at times) place!

North Carolina

Expectation: Max Patch-like views, your first/last state line to cross
Reality: Big climbs (anyone remember crossing from Georgia into North Carolina?!), your first 5000 foot peak, gorgeous southern Appalachian balds, and two trail town stops you can walk right into - the NOC and Hot Springs!

Tennessee

Expectation: The Smoky Mountains - this can mean snow or dreary weather to most hikers
Reality: You do get the Smokies, but we get good weather here too!  You also get the Roan Highlands, more gorgeous vistas, and views of the Nolichucky River from a cliff face further north near Erwin. 

Virginia

Expectation: "After Tennessee, Virginia is flat! You'll make easy 30-mile days there!"; the ponies and McAfee's Knob
Reality: Virginia isn't flat, and easy 30 mile days on the AT are hard to come by. Sure, you do get the ponies, and McAfee's Knob.  You also get Dragon's Tooth, Tinker Cliffs, and Shenandoah National Park.  You also get the Green Tunnel and the Virginia Blues.  The Blues are common for thru hikers (I even got them!) because of the Green Tunnel effect.  By the time most thru hikers reach VA spring has sprung and you're constantly in tunnels of rhododendron.  It can seem like endless miles in a persistent green state.  

West Virginia

Expectation: The halfway point at Harper's Ferry
Reality: While West Virginia is a short state with the fewest miles (many hikers do a 4-state challenge and skip through it in a matter of less than an hour), the actual halfway point of the Appalachian Trail is still quite a bit further north in Pennsylvania.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy's Headquarters, however, is in Harper's Ferry and is a really cool place to stop by and kill a few hours!

Maryland

Expectation: A short and easy, relatively flat state without anything to see
Reality: It turns out Maryland is one of the prettiest states on the AT.  With lots of park/green space, relatively well-maintained trails, and really cool things to see, lots of hikers doing the Four State Challenge miss a really neat place.  Also in Maryland are Gathland State Park with a memorial dedicated to War Correspondence and the original Washington Monument.  You've also either just crossed or are about to cross the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania. 

Pennsylvania

Expectation: Rocks. So.MANY.ROCKS.
Reality: Not so many rocks.  With approximately 230 miles of trail in Pennsylvania (lovingly nicknamed Rocksylvania), it seemed that every time we thought it was about to get rocky we would hear that it was actually not rocky yet.  We rolled into Caldonia State Park to hear that it actually doesn't get rocky until Duncannon.  Then when we got to Duncannon we were told it gets rocky at Port Clinton.  Then in Port Clinton we were told it doesn't get really rocky until Wind Gap.  By the time we hit Delaware Water Gap everyone had mixed emotions.  Many felt we never hit the rocks and others like we only hit rocks.  Little did the northbounders know what rocks would await us further north!

New Jersey

Expectation: Dirty water, smoggy and polluted air.
Reality:  It turns out New Jersey is actually a very pretty place to go on foot!  They don't call it the Garden State for nothing!  Walking through New York/New Jersey didn't take us over the highest peaks, but we did visit an ice cream stand, a beach at a state park, and walked through the Wallkill Game Preserve - a birding park that was absolutely gorgeous.  Lots of boardwalks and tall grasses awaited us here. 

New York

Expectation: Whenever you say New York, most people only think New York City. 
Reality: Well, you can actually see NYC from the trail!  From West Mountain Shelter and Bear Mountain you have gorgeous views are you're only about 30 miles away from it.  We also could hear cannon fire from nearby Westpoint.  You also can hike from deli to deli on this section of trail, as they're close to every trail crossing. A lot of thru hikers are surprised to find those promised rocks of PA in New York instead!  NoBo's and SoBo's alike complain of sore feet here!

Connecticut

Expectation: Snooty people who are rude to hikers. 
Reality: While the town of Kent, Connecticut has a reputation for being inhospitable we found that many people who went in didn't have a bad experience.  We stayed in a town called Falls Village and ate a very nice dinner at an incredibly upscale B&B and were treated very kindly.  We were also allowed to camp in the backyard of a quaint cafe here.  While the mosquitos were killer, the people were friendly!

Massachusetts 

Expectation: Massholes. 
Reality: Gorgeous hiking and history, phenomenal views into Vermont from Mount Greylock, and the Cookie Lady all make Massachusetts amazing.  Hiking through the Berkshires region in summertime is going to give you bogs and boardwalks and rocky summits.  You get a little bit of everything. 

Vermont

Expectation: Mud
Reality: Okay, so there's a lot of mud.  But there's also some incredible trail maintenance!  When I hiked through in 2012 so much of southern Vermont was still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Irene.  When we hiked the Long Trail in 2015 it was very clear how much amazing work the Green Mountain Club had done to clean up the damage as well as drain a lot of the standing water on trail.  You also get gorgeous fire tower views in more remote places than you've seen further south, breathtaking boreal forest, and glacial ponds for swimming.  

New Hampshire

Expectation: Getting your butt kicked in the Whites and freezing cold temperatures even in summer.
Reality: The Whites do in fact have some of the worst weather in the world, especially on Mount Washington - the highest point in New England.  While we were here we didn't get many views, but The Whites were also known for making all the butt kicking worthwhile by rewarding you with alpine summits (meaning you're above tree line).  One thing I didn't expect in New Hampshire was the fact that despite being a strong hiker I would slow my pace to approximately a mile an hour - something that does happen to a lot of thru hikers!

Maine

Expectation: Katahdin and the epicness that is the 100-Mile Wilderness
Reality: You have 281 miles to hike in Maine before you finish the trail and first you are going to travel through some mountains even harder to hike than the Whites!  Southern Maine doesn't get nearly the attention the neighboring Whites do, but they're just as hard and exhausting.  The infamous Mahoosuc Notch is the hardest mile of trail (or most fun depending on what you're into!) on the entire AT!  Of course, you also get amazing views from those alpine summits, ponds so big they look like oceans, and then you get to cross the Kennebec River in a canoe.  You'll also find out that the big, bad, and scary 100-Mile Wilderness doesn't live up to it's hype and you'll make it through unscathed for your big finish at the summit of Katahdin.  

So, there you have it, the common ideas of what it's like to hike the fourteen states of the Appalachian Trail versus the reality of hiking them from someone who has.  Have you hiked through any of the states listed above?  What were your impressions of the Appalachian Trail there? I'd love to get your input in the comments below!

Trail Trash - Why You Should Pack it Out

I recently linked to a really inspiring group hiking the PCT in 2016 called Packing it Out.  These guys hiked the AT in 2015 and packed out over 1000 pounds of trash during the duration of their hike.  Recently, the Packing it Out crew got 126 pounds of garbage in one haul making it their record breaker!  While it's really inspiring to hear of someone doing work like this, it makes me wonder as a guide and a hiker myself why in the world it's necessary to need hikers to have to do this in the first place.  My post today is more of a rant about why I feel like it's getting more and more important for all hikers and walkers to pack out their garbage. 

Chances are you've been on a hike for a few hours or maybe even an overnight backpacking trip and you've seen what I have dubbed to be Charmin Flowers - blooms of used toilet paper women leave behind on the side of the trail after they pee.  Recently, I was at a campsite in the Smokies where an active bear warning was posted.  Imagine my shock when I wandered into the woods and found panty liners stuck to the base of trees!  No wonder animals are a problem at this particular campsite!  The next night on our trip we had a problem bear wandering through camp several times.  He was not afraid of us and even kept digging holes at the further edge of the campsite and eating something.  After we finally pelted him with rocks to let him know he wasn't welcome, I went to investigate.  Yep.  It was a hole someone threw their toilet paper into and hardly buried at all.   Living in the US we are all used to living in a disposable society now.  You throw your garbage in the can and someone comes once a week and picks it up and you never have to think about it again!  You can flush things down a toilet and they're magically gone!  However, when it comes to heading out into the woods people often have this same disposable mentality.  Your toilet paper and small trash isn't magically gone at all - someone else has to pick up after you... and isn't going to be happy if they're the ones peeling your panty liners off a hemlock tree!

Another way we are seeing garbage in the woods is by people who truly mean well.  A former thru hiker will hike a cooler full of goodies, maybe with a few bags of snacks as well, out to a trail junction and leave it for other grateful hikers.  Unfortunately, our former thru hiker isn't coming back to pack that cooler and garbage out - he has just left a note on the cooler and trail magic for hikers to pack out their trash to the trailhead.  How many hikers do you think are going to do this?  Chances are, the hikers will leave their trash inside that cooler, which will sit in the sunshine and cook for a period of a few days or even weeks.  Animals may come by and tear apart the cooler trying to get to the sweet smelling food trash inside.  The cooler may get knocked over and the trash will blow into the nearby woods.  Either way, our well-meaning hiker has created a problem for someone else to deal with.  

My most common place to find garbage, however, isn't either of these two, although the toilet paper is becoming a bigger and bigger problem where I'm at now that it's summer time.  The most common place I get to pick up someone else's inconsiderate litter is from a fire ring or a fireplace.  If you're the kind of person who is burning garbage on your backpacking trip I have some advice for you - STOP IT.  If you're a person who believes it's the best way to deal with trash let me offer you some statistics on black bears.  Black bears can pick up and track a scent for two miles.  There is no better way to invite an animal to your campsite than to burn your trash.  Also, I guarantee your fire isn't anywhere near hot enough to burn the things you're tossing in there.  The most common culprit would be Mountain House freeze dried food bags.  Next would be aluminum foil, followed by tin cans, beer cans, and the pop tops from glass bottles.  Why you'd pack glass bottles in a backpack and carry them is beyond me, but I can promise you the items you're attempting to burn aren't going to be gone completely.  It turns out someone like me has to dig through that fire pit and pack it out for you.  Meanwhile, you were out for just one night and were capable of doing it on your own.  

The final thing I want to talk about is something I don't see a lot in the Smokies but I do see a lot in the neighborhood I live in - dumping.  I live in an area only a few miles from a small local trash collecting facility.  This facility was recently closed for a few months to repave it and bring in better collection and recycling systems.  Instead of driving on a few more miles to a larger trash facility, people around here decided the remote, curvy road I lived on was a much better place to dump their tires, recliners, fast food trash, and even leave their entire trash cans filled with garbage in front of an empty house at the end of the cul-de-sac.  Dumping is a problem on distance trails as well, especially at remote trailheads where road access sees sparse traffic.  Either way, again, this trash isn't disappearing.  Someone else has to pick it up for you.  

I went on this rant for a reason.  I want people to start thinking about what truly happens to your trash in the woods when you leave it behind.  Someone else has to walk behind you to pick it up.  If you're big, bad, and strong enough to go out for a hike into the woods you are definitely big, bad, and strong enough to pack out everything you brought in with you - even apple cores, orange peels, peach pits, etc.  I am a strong advocate for packing out your own toilet paper as well.  By packing out your garbage, you're not only keeping the woods a prettier place, you're also helping keep animals wild by not allowing them to get access to human garbage.  

How do you feel when you see litter out on the trails?  Are you the kind of person who picks up microtrash?  What's the most bizarre thing you've seen discarded? 

Five Things I Learned from Backpacking

Recently I realized that my life has changed so, SO much from becoming a distance hiker.  For those of you who knew me back before my 2012 Thru Hike you know that I was the kind of person who needed to be in control of a situation and liked to organize and plan out things.  Once I really gave that idea up, which took a LOOOOOONG time, and began to learn how to take things as they came to me I've noticed something strange - I'm usually at ease when plan A doesn't work.  I no longer freak out (at least, not on the outside) and I stop to think about what plan B could be.  Then, I go from there.  It turns out the more and more I thought about it I've learned quite a bit from becoming a distance backpacker, but many people learn these simple concepts from the first time they strap on a pack and hit the trail.  Here are five simple things I learned from backpacking. 

1) Simple is better.  The easier a piece of gear is to use the less stress I'll feel when assembling it in less than ideal conditions.  If it somehow gets dark when I get into camp, I'm 100% positive I could set up my tent, hang my bear bag, and climb into bed in less than 10 minutes.  My gear is always packed in the exact same way and I bet I could do all of my camp chores blindfolded!

2) Clutter = Chaos.  Remember the old adage "a place for everything and everything in it's place"?  Well, that couldn't be more true than it is for my backpack.  The stuff sacks are brightly colored and packed exactly the same every single time I put them back.  When I put gear in my tent it all goes in the same order.  With order comes calm.  It's very rare you'll ever find me digging for a piece of gear I've misplaced.  

3) Go with the flow. Sometime Plan A doesn't work out.  In fact, Plan A is usually ditched for me pretty early on.  As someone who used to preplan A-Z, it turns out that if you just wing it things will still turn out alright.  Learning to be flexible with things that come up as been such a valuable lesson for me and has even helped me with my anxiety issues.  It took me a long time to get here, but it's working out pretty well!

4) Everything happens for a reason.  This one is still tough for me sometimes.  It's hard to realize that even things that seem like they're terrible can turn out alright in the end.  This couldn't have been more true for us than it was on our Finger Lakes Trail thru hike attempt in the summer of 2015.  We walked through a section of New York with a long no camping zone.  The trail conservancy was rude to us and offered no help, but with a little help from some trail angels and some tips from people in the area we were able to find a restaurant off trail with people who lived right on the property we were aiming to stealth camp on that night.  Instead of us having to stealth camp on private property in the rain, they offered up a guest house with a shower and a freezer full of candy.  We slept out the thunderstorm that night in the glow of a satellite television.  

5) It always works out in the end.  It turns out the old saying is true - it truly isn't about the destination, but about the journey.  When I set out to do  my thru hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2012 I had a much different idea of how my journey would pan out.  It turns out that the journey I thought I wanted wasn't the one I needed.  It turns out the journey I took changed my life forever and in the best possible way.  Funny how the universe works, isn't it?

These are just a few of the life-changing, simple things I learned from backpacking.  Is there anything you agree with here?  What would you add to the list?  

I'm linking up with CourtneyCynthia and Mar and some of the other folks who link up with us – and please don’t forget to link to your hosts if you are participating!

Taking Your Dog on a Long Hike - Things to Consider Before Packing Up

Lots of us have four-legged companions who love to spend time with us.  For hikers, it's only natural to want to bring your pup out onto the trails with you.  In fact, more and more people are taking their dogs on long hikes every year.  Dogs, however, are just like humans when it comes to taking long hikes in the woods - it's not for everyone!  Not all dogs are equipped to handle the rigors of distance hiking or long, extended weekends in the woods.  If you've considered taking your dog out for their first long hike, here is a list of things to consider before buying the gear and taking the leap. 

Hiking_With_Dog

Regulations

First of all, make sure where you are going is DOG FRIENDLY!  Not all places will allow dogs on trails - most US National Parks are not dog friendly!  And also, don't be that guy who gets fake permits to say your dog is a service dog just to bring them hiking with you.  We all know someone who does it and it's not only illegal, it also gives hikers a bad name.  Plan a trip someplace where dogs are welcome. 

Gear

People need backpacks that fit properly and this is no different for your pup!  While there are several commercial brands out there - Ruffwear, Mountain Smith, there are also some customizable dog packs available as well.  Groundbird Gear makes many types of customizable packs for dogs as well.  Knowing the proper sizing is key to making sure your dog stays happy and doesn't carry to much weight for his or her body on trail.  Not only should you consider a backpack for your dog, you should also consider sleeping conditions.  Will your dog be more comfortable on a sleeping pad or wrapped up in a sleeping bag for cooler nights?  Does your dog have sensitive feet and will he need to wear boots?  Where you're going may also have leash requirements.  Even if your dog is well-trained off leash you may be required to keep him or her on a leash of a certain length the whole time you're hiking.  Again, requirements are in place for a REASON!  Don't be that guy and claim your dog is well-trained and the rules don't apply to you.  

Mileage and Training

Just like people, dogs need to build up their mileage gradually as well!  While dogs are commonly thought of to be strong runners and able to carry on for long distances, that doesn't always tend to be the case.  If you're taking your first backpacking trip with your furry friend, it's a great idea to treat it like you're taking out a complete beginner.  Try to limit hikes to the 5-8 mile range per day for your first trip out.  If you're a super awesome pet parent, you should train your dog for hiking much like the way you began training to do longer hikes - and if you need some ideas for training, see my post about training for a long-distance hike here!  Since my dog, Gracie, is getting older and can't quite do the mileage she used to anymore, we spend a week or so leading up to the hike by practicing with her backpack and gradually add a little weight to it to reintroduce her to backpacking.  

The Happiness Factor

Does your dog actually like hiking? Sure, most dogs love taking walks and might even enjoy an hour or two out on the trails during the day, but how does your dog sleep at night in the woods?  If you're planning to keep your dog in your tent with you at night do you know how he or she sleeps in one?  Is your dog hypersensitive to sounds at night?  Is he a natural guardian and feel the need to protect you all night?  If your dog is suffering from lack of sleep at night it can hinder their performance during the day, just like a person!  This is why I recommend short mileage days and limited nights in the woods when training with your dog.  Chances are you're an amazing pet parent and your dog loves you and would do anything to make you happy - including packing up and taking a hike of any distance for you.  If your dog isn't cut out for longer mileage days they may not eat well or sleep well in the woods but will hike as many miles as you ask of him.  Watching for change in mood or normal behavior is incredibly important for backpacking with a dog!  Dogs cannot speak to us.  They can't tell us when they're hurting or when they don't feel well and it is up to us to determine if they're suffering.  

The decision to take a long hiking trip with a dog is an incredibly personal one.  While I love my dog and know she loves to go hiking, I know that backpacking long distances day after day is definitely not for her and that is okay.  I was broken hearted missing her during all my thru hikes, but in the end I know leaving her at home was for the best - best for her health and well-being!  While I have seen many people backpacking or even thru hiking with dogs, at some point your dog's body will begin to break down just like yours will.  It is so critically important to be in tune with how your pup is feeling to ensure they're still happy and having fun. 

Do you take your dog backpacking or trail running?  Are you someone who once backpacked with a dog but maybe can no longer take your four-legged friend with you?  I'd love to hear how you feel about it!  Leave me a comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started!

Does a Hiker S*%! in the Woods?

Poop.  Everyone does it.  Nobody likes to talk about it.  As a hiking and backpacking guide, going to the bathroom in the woods is one of the most common talks I have to give.  People don't know how to do it and are too embarrassed to ask.  When I first started giving the bathroom talks I kept it pretty simple because I thought that people would pretty much figure it out on their own.  It turns out that simply isn't the case.  With more trail traffic than ever, especially living in the area of the most visited National Park in the country, teaching people proper bathroom habits in the outdoors is more important than ever.  Here's my take on everyone's least favorite trail topic. 

The Tools

Before we even delve into using the bathroom in the woods, first we need to talk tools you'll need before you head out there. I cannot stress enough how useless those plastic orange shovels you see hanging on the back of every backpack and all over the camping department at Walmart, Dick's, and every other big box store in America truly are! Those plastic orange shovels can be used, sure. They're also bulky, heavy, and not so great at moving rocks or roots (spoiler alert - there are lots of rocks and roots in the woods).  Skip that shovel and use the Mac Daddy of all trail shovels - The Deuce of Spades. Yeah it's expensive.  It also is less than an ounce and is strong as... well, strong as you know...  Don't want to drop the cash?  You have something in your backpack you can use as well.  A tent stake!  I normally carry an extra tent stake right down inside my roll of toilet paper.  It's always there when I need it.  I normally carry my toilet kit in an outside pocket of my pack, right on top, so I can grab it and go.  I pack it in a gallon freezer bag with the toilet paper, tent stake, baby wipes (for long-distance hiking), and an extra quart sized bag to pack out my toilet paper (more on this in a minute). If I'm day hiking, I have hand sanitizer in my toilet kit as I use antibacterial baby wipes on longer hikers and just use those instead. 

 My backpacking toilet kit. 

My backpacking toilet kit. 

The Technique 

Bathroom technique in the woods is a little bit different than it is in the civilized world.  The first step in using the bathroom in the woods is deciding you need to use it!  The second step is finding a place to go.  When it comes to using the bathroom in the woods, especially for pooping in the woods, you need to get off trail.  Proper Leave No Trace ethics state you should go 200 feet from the trail, campsite, or water.  In regular terms, this means count out 80 steps and get away from things.  Since you need to get away from others, it's important to not wait until the very last minute to go!  Proper planning helps out here.  If you're new to using the bathroom outdoors, I recommend finding a rock or a tree to brace yourself in the squatting position.  It will not only help keep you balanced, but it will help you get back up out of the "position" as well.  

Now that you're off trail and ready to go, it's time to go!  Many people will dig their hole first, but I don't usually advocate this.  Usually because you want to make sure the hole will be deep and wide enough for proper waste disposal.  I recommend doing your business first and digging the hole afterward.  A proper cathole should be 6-8 inches deep for a few reasons - it will be deep enough to cover everything and deep enough to let the waste naturally decompose. If you've waited to dig the hole afterward, you can use your toilet paper or a leaf or a stick to help you get it into the hole.  If you're using a leaf or a stick, make sure these things go into the hole as well.  Toilet paper and feminine hygiene products do NOT go into the hole and need to be packed out.  Bury the human waste and disguise the cathole by covering it with leaf litter if possible.  Many trail maintenance crews do not advocate using rocks to disguise your cathole site because it encourages people to get lazy and just cover their poo with the rock.  Trail crews often move rocks to do maintenance projects and see more human waste than any one person ever should.  Please do not use rocks to cover your holes!

Why Do I Need to Pack Out Toilet Paper?

I hear this one a lot and different people will give you a different answer on whether or not you should pack toilet paper out.  Quite simply, toilet paper (if it even gets properly buried) takes a long time to decompose.  Even biodegradable toilet paper and wet wipes should be packed out.  Using a freezer bag with some baking soda in it will keep odors from packed out toilet paper to a minimum and the smell will not escape into other areas of your pack.  Another plus side of packing out toilet paper is the fact that you'll probably run across a privy while you're out on your hike and you can dump it in the privy (but not wet wipes - never dump wipes into a privy!)

Feminine Hygiene Items

Pads, liners, and tampons should never be left in the backcountry.  Period.  These items need to ALWAYS be packed out and never dumped in the privies.  If you're thinking of doing a long-distance hike I highly recommend looking into getting a menstrual cup, like a Diva Cup or a Lady Cup.  I started using them over 10 years ago and I highly recommend them for distance hiking.  If you're using a cup, you'll bury the waste just as you do with a cathole, rinse the cup with water, and reuse.  You can learn more about making the switch to a cup here.  You can properly clean the cup when you get into town.  They come in a cotton storage bag and I've never had problems taking them on distance hikes. 

Hand Hygiene Afterward

I wrote a post back in February 2016 about trail hygiene with a section about hand sanitizer and hand washing.  While it's important to use sanitizer after using the bathroom, a good hand washing as often as you can is also incredibly important to fight against norovirus and other illness.  

With a little bit of knowledge beforehand and a little bit of practice in the woods, you too will become an expert when it comes to pooping in the woods!  While it seems intimidating to many people, it's honestly not that hard and gets easier the longer you're out there.  Did this post help you out?  Do you feel more comfortable knowing that it's really not that hard to go to the bathroom on a hike?  Did I forget anything you think I should mention?  Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter or Facebook to get the conversation started!

Reflections of the Appalachian Trail - Four Years Later

I recently had the opportunity to hit the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia right in the middle of thru hiker season.  It was such a wonderful chance for me to relive some memories from my first few days on the AT with a woman who was setting out on her own to try tackling the trail.  From meeting newbies in the Springer Mountain parking area to seeing the Benton MacKaye Trail terminus to summiting Springer for the third time this trip was full of memories.  Here are some reflections I have from those few days down on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail. 

Since it was a long ride down to the southern terminus I had lots of time to think about all the feelings I had flowing through me.  No matter how many times I head to Springer over the course of my lifetime, I suspect that I'll always feel that nervous energy.  While I know I've successfully completed two trails with a terminus here, the feeling in your stomach is always the same - the excitement of getting out on trail and the uncertainty of knowing what each day will bring.  When we went to Amicalola Falls Lodge to pick up the friend I'd be hiking with I was just so excited to be seeing the Approach Trail.  While I've been to Springer twice before, I have never hiked the Approach Trail to the top.  There were quite a few newbie thru hikers (thrubies I've seen them called) and you could almost feel their excitement.  From the lodge we had about an hours' drive to the top of Springer going the back way the GPS device took us (which I would never recommend by the way - ALWAYS take Doublehead Gap Road!)

After climbing out of the car in the Springer Mountain parking lot the nervous butterflies mostly disappeared and I was mostly feeling excitement - excitement for both myself and my friend who would be experiencing the trail for the first time.  I made the 0.9 mile walk up to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail with her, talking to all the other thrubies hitting the trail for the first time.  To my surprise, I met several blog followers and Instagram followers up there!  For being a Tuesday in April there was a lot of activity happening up there at the summit.  Signing the registry book in the rock up there for the third time just made me feel like I was at home.  After walking the 0.9 miles back to the parking area I was reintroduced to Warren Doyle, whom I had met briefly when working at the AT Lodge in Millinocket back in 2013.  

 Hey there, Springer Mountain! 

Hey there, Springer Mountain! 

The first day and evening on trail were a flurry of happy activity.  We did approximately 4 miles down to a campsite near a stream where I taught my friend how to throw a bear bag and we camped in relative cold temperatures.  The next day brought more hiking and quick thinking, using my finely tuned Yogi skills to get us a ride to cell phone service and a shuttle to Wolfpen Gap Country Store/Hostel in Suches, Georgia.  Riding through the Georgia countryside gave me a whole new view of the BMT and AT - it was very cool to see the mountains I have climbed so many times from a different perspective.  We stayed in the hostel and I got to see two old friends - Carry-On from my 2012 hike and Odie (of Hiker Yearbook fame) from my time working in the hostel in 2013 and going to The Gathering in 2014. I helped Carry-On do pack shakedowns at the amazing Top of Georgia Outfitters satellite store at Wolfpen Gap.  By the time our ride came to pick us up the next day I had felt like I already assimilated back into the Hikertrash Culture and wasn't ready to hit the real world again. 

 Doing a pack shakedown with a client at the outfitter. 

Doing a pack shakedown with a client at the outfitter. 

Being back on the Georgia section of the AT brought back so many fond and happy memories for me.  I made it through Georgia in about 5 days during my thru hike, so going a little slower and meeting those hikers in the beginning really reminded me more of meeting hikers up in Maine.  Too many people with no experience wearing packs that don't fit and carrying so much gear they're blowing out their knees.  We saw so many injuries and so many ill-fitting packs!  I often wonder about some of those people I met down in Georgia that first week of April and I hope to see some evidence of them making it through the Smokies soon.  It was such a great experience to get to go back to those first few miles of trails with a thrubie and share those wonderful memories with her.  I can't wait for my next trip back one day. 

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