Most of the problems I had during our spring Appalachian Trail section hike in 2016 stemmed from poor foot care, excess weight, and crappy sleep. Here are a few gear and routine changes that I made with the intention of addressing these issues.
Foot Care/Body Care
My feet got shredded pretty bad on that spring trip. I had been using Chacos as my exclusive footwear for several years so I though I would be immune to blisters. Boy was I wrong! I got some pretty serious blisters on my heels, some moderate ones on top of my feet just below my pinky toes, and one under my big toe. With my severe bunions, I am pretty limited when it comes to footwear. I have no pain when I wear my Chacos so I did not see swapping those out as an option. I spoke to a thru-hiker friend of mine and he suggested using athletic tape on my problem areas, wearing Darn Tough Merino Wool socks, airing them out often to help keep them dry, and cleaning my feet daily to remove the abrasive dirt from my skin. I bought some Leukotape, Darn Tough Socks, and incorporated a daily foot cleaning regiment using water and hand sanitizer. I have been blister free ever since! I now extend this cleaning regiment to the rest of my body. I feel so much better after a long day on the trail when I can wipe the dirt and salts that accumulate when I am exerting myself. I have also added body glide to my morning routine to address chafing and some of the abrasion issues I get from my hip belt.
The picture below shows a number of mistakes I made with my pack weight. Note the sunglasses case and Nalgene bottle on my pack. I think I wore the sunglasses once during the three-day trip. I could have saved three ounces by not carrying them. The 1 Liter Nalgene was handy for mixing up Gatorade and cold alpine apple cider but these things could have also been done in a Smartwater bottle which weighs about 1/4 as much. You can see a piece of Tyvek that I used a groundsheet in the outside pocket and a chair in the other side pocket that weigh a pound and a half combined. I used the chair twice during that trip and the Tyvek once. If I had carried a foam sit pad (Z-Seat) and a piece or polycro I could have saved 1.25 pounds. Note the drink tube. My pressurized Geigerrig hydration system weighs 9 ounces, is a pain to refill, and it is impossible to tell how much water you have left without taking off your pack. Because of this I started off carrying 2 liters of water which is a lot more than I needed given that the water sources were no more than 3 miles apart. I now Carry a much lighter 2 liter Evernew water bag and two .7 liter Smartwater bottles which together weigh 3.75 ounces and both easily be used in conjunction with my Sawyer Squeeze filter. The Smartwater bottle sport tops can also be used to back flush the Sawyer squeeze making them multipurpose items. You can see how full the top of my pack is which made it very difficult to get anything out in a hurry. I reevaluated my clothes as well and removed/swapped out several items that ended up saving me over 2 pounds. I also had a bunch of unnecessary crap in there that I won’t detail. My pack gets pretty uncomfortable when it is loaded past 30 pounds and I was somewhere around 33 pounds to start. This resulted in bruising and abrasions on my hips (muffin top) and shoulders that plagued me the rest of the trip. My feet also swelled quite a bit caused partially by the extra weight I carried during that long and brutal first day. Since then I have cut 9 pounds off of my pack weight by either removing unnecessary gear (chair, Nalgene, hydration pack, stuff sacks) or replacing things with lighter items (trowel, groundsheet, sleeping pad). I don’t miss these things because they did not add anything significant to my experience and as the saying goes, “Ounces lead to pounds and pounds lead to pain.”
My sleep system was well thought out but it reflected my inexperience with trying to get a good night’s sleep after a long day on the trail. I used a Marmot Always Summer sleeping bag which was warm and light but its traditional mummy shape was too constricting to get a good night’s sleep in. We also made the mistake of trying to share my Fly Creek UL2 and this combined with a warm and tight sleeping bag made for a hot and uncomfortable night. The LLBean Hikelight insulated sleeping pad was over-inflated, too heavy, and ultimately too thin to be a comfortable sleeping option for me. I had also been staying up late planning and anticipating the trip thinking that I would be so tired after a long day hiking that I would just pass out early despite what my body had become accustomed to. While I was physically exhausted and craving sleep each night my mind was not ready to sleep and so I would lay there in my uncomfortable bag on my uncomfortable pad feeling sore and tired while desperately trying to wish myself to sleep. Not good. After we got back and my body healed a bit I went over to REI and returned my Marmot bag (which is a great bag just not for me) in favor of a Nemo Salsa 30 which is similar in weight, roomier, warmer, and is much easier to unzip and use like a backpacking quilt on a warmer night. I also purchased a lightweight fleece bag for a sailing trip that weighs half what my Nemo bag does and is great when overnight temperatures are above 60 degrees and can double as a bag warmer for the Salsa 30 on very cold nights. I carried my Chinook uninsulated pad on our next trip but ultimately bought a Big Agnes Q-Core SLX pad. It weighs the same as the Chinook but is insulated and thick enough that I won’t bottom out when it is partially deflated to support my broad shoulders and wide hips. I will take the month leading up to our next trip to slowly adjust my sleep cycle to going to sleep around 9:00 pm. I also plan to sleep on my pad using my backpacking pillow and my sleeping bag starting at least 3 days before our trip. I adjusted my sleep schedule leading up to our fall trip but the combination of bottoming out on my pad and not adjusting my schedule enough led to better but still inadequate sleep.
I believe that our spring Appalachian trail section hike will be a much more positive experience than last year’s because of these changes. Taking better care of my feet, cutting weight off of my pack, and getting better sleep on the trail should make a huge difference as we tackle the last of the AT in Connecticut and move into New York.