Gear Changes After Spring 2016 Section Hike

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.

Weight

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.”

Sleep

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.

Spring AT Section Hike(2016)

It’s been a while since I’ve touched this blog and I plan to outline a number of changes that have taken place since then in the coming weeks.  My last published post covered some equipment testing I did to prepare for a three-day 36 mile Appalachian Trail Section hike from the bottom of the southern side of Mt. Race to Kent CT.  The trip did not go as planned for a number of reasons which I outline below.  This draft has been sitting in WordPress since last summer and I have certainly learned a lot since then.  It should be fairly clear from the following post that I was struggling to process what happened on that trip but I am planning to rehike the first two days of this trip in June to prove that I have come a long way since then.  Enjoy!

6/13/16

So it’s been 3 weeks since Mike and I did our much-anticipated 3 day section hike of the Appalachian Trail.  To say that I have spent a lot of time researching and thinking about this would be an understatement of epic proportions.  I’m pretty sure my wife and just about everyone I know had gotten sick of me talking about equipment, techniques, and food.  I felt very prepared and was super excited to hit the trail and in many ways I was.  My gear was carefully selected to minimize weight and maximize function to the point that everything worked together to create an interdependent system capable of dealing with just about anything the trail could throw at me.  I had poured over a wide variety of theories and accounts regarding hiking techniques and ways of solving trail problems both common and uncommon.  I asked people who had hiked the AT for advice and information regarding the section we were going to hike.  I even drove up to scout out the terminus of our hike and spent extra time examining maps to make sure I understood where our campsites would be and what each day would be like.  I got a few things wrong on this hike but preparing in these areas was pretty good.  Here are a few things I wish I knew before we hiked.

Get a guidebook early on and study it well:

I had a long list of things to get before our hike started and the guidebook was certainly on it.  I choose to make it a low priority purchase shortly before the hike and my hiking partner ended up getting the copy we used shortly before our trip.  I thought I had us pretty well covered because of all the time I had spent studying various maps and estimating the mileage.  I was wrong.  A few hours into our hike Mike looked a bit closer at the book and realized that our first day was not going to be 10.5 miles but instead would be 13.5 miles.  This may not sound like much but the steepest climbs of our trip were all on that first day and we were carrying more weight during that first day because of our food and the fact that we were both carrying more water than we needed.  I give Mike a lot of credit for keeping cool for the next few hours as we hiked through a difficult descent and my knee began to ache with each step.  By half way through my downhill speed slowed considerably and we still had many miles to cover.  We did not want to get to our campsite after dark because we would have to navigate a steep 300 foot half mile descent lit only by headlamps.  We did our best to speed over the flats but those are few and far between and as one through hiker told us, “Nobody hikes the AT for the flats.”  My uphill pace was not particularly fast either which brings me to the next thing I wish I knew before we hiked.

Prepare your body for the rigors of the trail:

I trained for this hike.  I hiked often with Edgar on my back which ended up being very close to my estimated final pack weight.  We did a bunch of 1-2 mile hikes of varying difficulty with several 3- 4 mile hikes.  There were plenty of hills but all of the hiking I did with significant weight on my back and trekking poles in my hands.  This is probably what got me through the 36 miles we did those three days but I have learned that getting through a hike like this isn’t enough.  My knee took 2 weeks to feel mostly normal again and that was after my first chiropractic adjustment.  Most of my 5 blisters were passable after a week and a half but this Friday(6/10) was the first day I could walk with the back strap on my Chacos on my heel without a blister bandage and it still isn’t entirely healed.  My one foot didn’t stop swelling daily until after 2 weeks.  I thought I had prepared my body by hiking and swimming laps but I clearly did not.  I was carrying weight on my body that I could have lost if I put my mind to it.  I could have anticipated that hiking 5 miles couldn’t prepare us for the sort of issues that hiking 10 miles might present.  I could have sought chiropractic care before our hike to address some of the issues my body has accumulated over a lifetime of living with severe bunions.  I knew in the back of my mind that these were things I could have done but I chose to focus on my gear and my research.  I made it through and I enjoyed the shared experience of taking on such a difficult challenge but I would have enjoyed it even more if I was in less pain both during and after.  I felt strong in muscle and spirit but the blisters and knee pain were mostly preventable and turned a 3 day hike into 2.5 days of pain and a 3 week recovery.  Speaking of recovery.

Getting good sleep on the trail doesn’t just happen:

My “backyard” camping test run was useful in many ways but it had a few key flaws.  In my test I slept in the tent alone and on the trail Mike and I shared that little tent.  It is a lot warmer in my tent with two people and the vestibule doesn’t seem very big with two packs zipped inside.  I had my pack in the tent during my test and unsurprisingly had no problem getting up in the middle of the night to pee but this was a lot harder with both our packs blocking the door in the vestibule and a sleeping Mike where I had previously put my shoes on to get out.  I also went to sleep late on a cold night after a relatively short hike having slept the previous night in my bed.  On the trail I needed to go to sleep early on a warm night sore after a long day hiking having slept the previous night on my son’s cheap twin mattress.  I loved my bag and it kept me warm and I slept well during the test but on the trail it was a straight jacket and I could not get comfortable.  I have never had to try to get sleep with my hips, shoulders and knee being so sore so the only comfortable positions were next to impossible to get into in a mummy bag zipped up.  The last night I woke up shivering on my back with the bag upside down with the hood under my chin and the bag half unzipped.  I apparently toss and turn more when I’m sore.  Needless to say I returned my sleeping bag and purchased one with more room but this does not address the other reason I did not sleep well on the trail.  I am a night owl  (it’s 12:30 AM as I write this) and I am generally up until midnight or later.  Most hikers looking to cover miles get up early and go to bed early to maximize how many hours of usable daylight they have.  Getting up at 6 and hitting the trail by 7 could be considered sleeping in by some and going to bed before 9 is a must if you are going to get up at that hour and still get enough sleep to allow your body to recover.  Both nights I had a hell of a time getting to sleep because my body just couldn’t comprehend sleeping that early.  Combine that with general discomfort and you have a recipe for some serious insomnia.  I’m sure there are times in my life when I’ve needed sleep more than on this trip but I can’t think of any.  My body was screaming for rest and recovery and all my accumulated habits and pain could say was, “F YOU BODY!”

I write this to help put my thoughts regarding this trip in order but also in the hopes that you may read it and not make some of the same boneheaded choices I made when trying to plan a backpacking trip.  I hope it has been helpful because after all what’s the point of making stupid mistakes if you don’t publish them for all your friends, family, and half the internet to see!

West Hartford Reservoir Figure 8

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This past Friday I took the boys on an afternoon walk around the MDC’s reservoir off of rt 4 in West Hartford.  The weather was fantastic as I pushed Edgar in the stroller around the right side of the first reservoir.  Oscar did a good job keeping up and we maintained a good pace.  We crossed the first large bridge and worked our way around the left side.  We passed that same bridge on our way back and stopped for a quick applesauce snack at the picnic table just around the bend in the picture above.  It was pretty late in the day and the shadows were long but we still managed to cover roughly 2.5 miles with lots of smiles and few complaints though Oscar was concerned that a wind gust might blow off his favorite hat.

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Quick Rock Chucking Hike

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This past Wednesday (4/13) we hiked at Giuffrida with friends.  We went out to the end of the reservoir and back and checked out the two bridges for a roughly 1 mile hike.  There are a few great spots for throwing rocks into the stream between the bridges.  There is a low makeshift rock wall that runs along the edges of the stream which helps minimize the risk when we take a break for some well-earned rock chucking.

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The walk back went a bit slower than the walk out but going slower meant we could enjoy the view of the lake and do a little pine cone hunting!  The boys played around on the hill next to the parking lot for a little while after our friends left.  Sometimes Edgar needs to run around a bit after sitting in the carrier and this day he had lots of extra energy.  The weather was great overall and it turned out to be a perfect day to get out and hike.

 

AT Training Hike 1

This past Saturday Mike and I did our first joint training hike for our upcoming mid May Appalachian Trail section hike.  We hiked at Giufridda Park in Meriden for about 4 hours in the rain covering 5 miles and approximately 3000 feet worth of elevation gain and loss.  Our purpose was to test ourselves and our gear and get a better idea of what our average pace will be.  This is important because we need to cover 10-12 miles each of the three days of our trip so knowing our pace will allow us to make sound decisions about when we get up and how long we take for meals and breaks along the way.  Of course the whole reason for hiking at all is to have fun but that goes without saying now doesn’t it.

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My REI Flash 45 pack was loaded with 29 pounds of gear and old camp t-shirts to simulate my estimated pack weight at the start of our 3 day trip.  I also lined it with a trash bag and everything in the brain(top portion of the bag) was in a ziplock bag.  I wore my Icebreakers merino wool t-shirt, LL Bean Cresta zip-off hiking pants, Outdoor Research Swift Hat, LL Bean long sleeve running shirt, Chaco Z/1 Unaweep sandals, Marmot Precip rain jacket, and REI Powerflyte gloves.  I took the running shirt off at the top of Chauncy peak because I was too hot but my rain coat, zip off pants, and merino t-shirt kept me comfortable in the rainy 50 degree temperatures.

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Neither of us had ever done an extended hike in the rain but we both had fun.  Our only moments of discomfort came when we stopped moving and sat down for lunch.  We both tossed on a warmer layer but the damp cold did catch up to us a bit.  Fortunately, by the time I felt cold I had my chili/oriental mix of ramen flavored noodles cooked up and half in my belly.  I also brought along some powdered hot apple cider that helped warm us both up.  I cooked the ramen in a quart sized freezer bag instead of a bowl.  I tossed it in a neoprene pouch while it cooked and then ate right out of the bag with my long spork.  It worked great but I will have to figure out something to put the bag in to shape it and make it a little easier to hold.  I also uses my Alight Monarch chair during lunch to relax and get off my feet for a while.  There is nothing quite like sitting on top of a mountain in a comfortable chair eating a hot meal.  I think this picture of me setting up my chair is going to become a staple of these trips.  The picture on the left is from October and the one on the right is from this weekend.

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On thing I learned(again) is that I have a tendency to pack way too much food.  The pretzels, peanut butter single, granola bar, half of my trail mix, and a third of my water went unconsumed.  This may not sound like much but if you multiply the weight of all that by three days and add it to an already heavy pack you’ll have issues.  I’ll have to remember that when packing for our trip.  Mike brought along a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and he was finished eating almost as soon as I had my water boiling so he decided to do a little exploring around the summit area of Lamentation Mountain.  I have no idea how this thing got up there but I imagine it involved a lot of booze, a lot of determination, or both.  The Goat Lives!

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Thanks to my insistence on cooking my lunch we stayed up there about 15 minutes longer than we had planned so I packed up as quick as possible and we started back down the mountain.  I kept my wet swift hat off in favor of my dry merino beanie.  I also kept my merino buff and a lightweight LL Bean fleece pullover on to keep the chill away on the way down.  The wind picked up a bit as we started hiking again but I still assumed I would shed the fleece layer before getting back on the lake trail.  I was wrong but happy to be so since I was comfortable and warm as we worked our way down the ridge.  We had to stop several times along the way so I could check the map and verify which way to go.  The trails intersect in confusing ways as you traverse the near side of the ridge so I thought taking extra care here was a good idea.  We made good time down the ridge and zoomed our way back to the car.  One handy tip for day hiking is to bring a water bottle to drink on the way to the trail head and another to drink after you finish.  Sometimes I use a large water cooler for this but I didn’t want to bother with it this time.

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All in all it was a good day despite all the rain.  We learned that we can hike for 4 hours in the rain and still have a blast and that the gear we brought worked well for each of us.  We also learned that with minimal breaks and a 45 minute lunch we can cover 5 miles in 4 hours under challenging conditions.  I swam laps and stretched yesterday with no soreness and I feel great today.  I would call our first training hike a success!

Penwood Hike

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Today we hiked Penwood State Forest in Simsbury Connecticut.  This state park has a fairly extensive trail system that runs along the ridge and includes a road with several connector trails for easier hiking in case the kiddos get tired.  There are other trails indicated on the trail map that we did not explore including the Metacomet Trail.  There is also a small outhouse style bathroom at the trail head.  We started out below the lot on the Yellow trail, hiked out for about a mile and a half before backtracking a short ways and switching over to the road until were back to the lot.  Our hike was approximately 3 miles and took 3 hours with one break half way for water and snacks.

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The yellow trail was easy overall with some short moderate climbs.  I would not recommend this trail to anyone who is not a fan of steep drop-offs since the one side of the trail gets close to several along the way.  There were more nice views along the way but mainly because the leaves are not out yet.  I imagine that in the summer you would not be able to see as much as we saw today.  The overlook was beautiful and is featured in a few of these pictures.  It’s locationis indicated on the trail map.

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We saw some pretty cool stuff along the way including this very weathered log and some amazing views.

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The wind was pretty intense today in Connecticut but it was especially strong at Penwood because the park was on exposed ridge and there were no leaves on the trees to help break the wind.  The boys and I don’t mind a little wind but this time it was a different.  There were blown down trees everywhere at Penwood and some were clearly recent.  We even passed a very large creaking tree within easy striking distance of the trail that had massive 8 foot crack in it’s trunk.  I would not recommend going to this park on a windy day and if you do make sure to look up and be aware of any widowmakers.

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We started back on the trail but Oscar decided he wanted to finish walking back on the road.  It was nice to have a relatively flat and easy walk back.

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Edgar normally does well in the backpack and today was no exception.  He was pointing at everything and telling me what he saw as he bounced his way down the trail on my back.  “Daddy I see trees! Daddy I see rocks!  Daddy I see trees AND rocks!”  He got a little tired towards the end so he slept for the last half mile or so.  Oscar was happy to have my undivided attention for a while so I collapsed one of my poles and strapped it to the side of the pack so he could hold my hand.

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We were all tired at the end but another snack and some water cured what ailed us.  I would do this hike again but I think next time I’ll go on a calmer day and bring more water and snacks.  We were all a bit hungrier and thirstier than I would prefer at the end.  I would rate Penwood 3 out of four stars on a calm day and two out of four on a windy day.  The views are amazing and the trail is well maintained but there was a lot of blow down and that cracked tree is a safety concern on a windy day.  The lot is also a bit small so I would have a backup hike in your back pocket if you try to hike here on a busy day.