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.

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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!

Appalachian Trail Section Hike Gear Test: Sleep System

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This past Thursday I did some camping to test out my sleep system.  Sleeping comfort is extremely subjective and can be affected by the insulating ability of your sleeping pad, the wind, the baffle construction of your bag, your metabolism, how long its been since you ate/what you ate, your body fat content, if you are sleeping on the ground, the insulating value of your tent, the humidity, the altitude, etc.  It is a very personal thing for sure.  My bag’s EN lower limit is 31 degrees F and my pad has an R value of 3.  Together these should be adequate for 3 season use along the Appalachian Train.  My sleep system is built on the idea that if I am expecting cold weather I can add layers to stretch my sleeping bag down to a colder comfort rating than it was designed for.  I plan to wear my long-sleeved quarter zip merino base layer top and Under Armor Base 2.0 leggings along with fleece socks and my lightweight merino beanie to bed most nights.  I will carry a lightweight down jacket, light fleece pants in my pack as camp clothes anyways so they are easy items to throw on if it gets extra cold and I need to stretch my bag’s rating and extra 10-15 degrees.  I also have a merino wool buff which can be turned into a balaclava, extra warm hat, eye mask, or neck gator.  Lastly, I will bring hand warmers and an HDPE Nalgene bottle that I can fill with hot water and throw in my bag to add some extra warmth if needed.

You may have noticed that I referenced my sleeping bag’s “EN lower limit.”  This refers to the EN rating system which is the industry standard for rating sleeping bags.  It is based on what would keep an average man or woman wearing a long sleeve base layer top and bottom comfortable enough to sleep through the night.  Testing is done with a mannequin loaded with sensors to provide a baseline for comparison.  There are four different ratings given ranging from upper to extreme but in my opinion the two middle are the most relevant to 3 season backpacking.  The “EN comfort” rating represents the lowest temperature the average woman can sleep comfortably in a relaxed position for 8 hours.  Next on the scale is the “EN lower limit” which is the lowest temperature the average man can sleep comfortably in a curled position for 8 hours.  This is the rating that I chose to focus on when choosing my bag.  While the EN rating is a significant improvement over relying on the manufacturers internal testing it is not perfect because it cannot take into account personal preferences or limitations and it does not include the effect a sleeping pad can have on heat retention.  A sleeping bag’s insulation works by trapping air but how can it do this effectively underneath you where all the insulation is compressed and the air has all been squeezed out?  If you were to sleep with your bag in contact with the ground you would quickly lose any warmth that your sleeping bag was supposed to help you retain.  This is where an insulated sleeping pad makes all the difference and this is why I said I am testing my sleep system. My pad’s R value of 3.0 is perfect for 3 season use.  The combination of pad, sleeping bag, pillow and clothes makeup my sleeping system and I was very excited to test it!

The weather was ideal with an expected low of 31 degrees F before I had to wake up at 7am and with little to no wind and no precipitation.  I have done some camping to this point but I have not done very much camping around water’s freezing point and I have not done any camping since our last section hike in October.  I have done extensive research since then while adapting my tactics and purchasing new gear to deal with what I could potentially encounter on the trail.  Research is great but it is no substitute for field experience and since I can’t just go disappear down a trail for a week to give my gear a shakedown I got permission from our property manager and prepared to camp behind the pool at our apartment complex.  I also decided that I would go out and setup after dark to get some experience pitching my tent after dark which is yet another thing I have never done.

Pitching the tent took longer than I thought it would but once I had it setup I went inside and inflated my insulated sleeping pad.  It has a built-in pump which I like because it means I don’t have to introduce moisture from my breath into the inside of the pad.  It works well enough but requires a lot of pumps to fully inflate.  This may seem like a hassle but in the cold weather (it was down to 40 at this point) it was good to generate some body heat to warm up the inside of the tent a bit and keep me warm.  I then took out my sleeping bag from its stuff sack and laid it out.  I was in a hurry to get in but the bag hadn’t started to loft so I tried shaking it out a bit to get some air in the down.  This helped a bit so I decided to inflate my pillow.  It’s a clever design with a soft side and a nylon side around the inflatable bladder with a bit of synthetic fill for extra cushion.  The pillow is also curved on one side to fit into a mummy bag’s hood so it won’t slip away.  My bag still wasn’t fully lofted so I broke out my thermos of hot tea and sipped down a cup.  Drinking a hot beverage before bed helps warm your core up before you climb into your bag and can be the difference between a good night’s sleep and a cold miserable one.  I took off my merino beanie and doubled over my merino buff to wear as a warmer beanie.  I also changed into my base layer leggings and a short sleeve merino t-shirt.  My thinking was that it would be better to have a baseline that I thought would produce a cold wake up at some point because I would have an exact cold weather wake up temperature number to go by in the future.

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I had my watch with its thermometer and light up face ready along with a journal and pencil to record the temperature when I woke up.  I read a bit and wrote in my journal before going to sleep.  I woke up at 3am to 36 degree F temperatures and a full bladder so I tossed on my long-sleeved merino base shirt and relieved myself before getting back in my bag and going back to sleep.  My alarm woke me up at 7am to 32 degrees F and frost everywhere.  All the condensation on both sides of the fly had frozen and wiping it off was nearly impossible.  I packed everything up as quickly as I could and walked back over to our apartment.  I dried everything off on our porch and attempted to pack everything away before the boys got their hands on any of it.  Here are a few things I learned from this experience.

  • Pounding back a liter of water before bed is a lot easier to do when you don’t have to piss in the woods in the middle of the woods while you shiver
  • Make sure to use a dedicated stake on the upper side guy line to get more head room inside the tent.
  • Get your sleeping bag laid out asap so it can fully loft before you get inside.
  • Always bring hand warmers to tuck in your sleeping bag’s toebox
  • Have something ready to set your pack down on if the ground is wet.
  • Buy earplugs before hitting the trail because if you thought that garbage truck was annoying just wait until you have to listen to a drunken townie trying to catch the sunrise before he passes out.
  • Bring a regular sized Shamwow instead of a mini for wiping condensation off the rain fly in the morning
  • If you know it’s going to get down to freezing wear your long-sleeved base layer top and bottom
  • Put your fleece socks on before your feet get cold
  • Line your pack every time you put anything with down in it to keep the down dry.
  • A merino buff doubled over can keep your head warm down to at least freezing.
  • Always bring your neoprene gloves.
  • Always have a backup flashlight, preferably one your awesome wife brought back from Chicago
  • Double check the inside of the tent before you collapse it to avoid frantic hat searching later.
  • Walking down the path to the pool at 10pm with a fully loaded pack feels really sketchy and probably looks even more so.

That’s a lot of knowledge gained from one night of camping.  Getting all of this stuff figured out should mean that I can put my focus on hiking the Appalachian Trail with Mike instead of troubleshooting gear issues or trying to cope after a miserable night’s sleep.

 

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.

 

Essential Gear: Trekking Poles

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Trekking poles are one of my must have pieces of gear for any hike.  They make the uphills and downhills much easier and they are essential when tackling tricky terrain with or without kids in tow.  In a pinch I can also collapse one or both of them if I need my hand(s) free and they can be used on almost any type of surface.

When I use my trekking poles by myself the focus is on speed, stability, and weight transfer.  My poles are adjusted so that my elbows are at a ninety degree angle when I hold with them with the tips in contact with the ground.  I plant each pole at the same time as my opposite foot strikes the ground, driving the pole back to propel myself forward.  On the uphills I plant one or both of my poles slightly ahead of me to help push me up and on the downhills I plant the slightly ahead to help steady myself and transfer some of the shock and weight from my knees and ankles to my shoulders and core.  This has the added advantage of providing stability on steep ascents or descents allowing me to hike longer and with more weight on my back than would be otherwise possible. Here e is a brief tutorial on the basics.

Trekking poles make difficult trail obstacles much easier.  Everything from stepping over a large log to fording a stream can be significantly safer and less difficult when you have a pair of trekking poles at the ready.  The preferred method is to use the wrist strap but I often switch my grip to “palm” the top of the grip when I need a little more reach because I am walking on something slightly raised, because I am traversing a particularly steep descent, or if I have to step down off of something raised.  These activities sound simple but when you have a heavy pack on the chances of becoming unbalanced or rolling and ankle go up.  The stakes are even higher when you have a kid on your back and one in tow.  This is the main reason why I always use trekking poles.  I want to be able to show my boys and experience the wonders that New England’s great outdoor spaces contain and my poles help me keep them safe while pushing all of our limits.

When I hike with my kids my poles give me several advantages.  They allow me to hike longer with a load on my back then I could otherwise which is especially helpful when you have 25-30 pounds of child, carrier, and gear on your back.  My trekking poles also extend my reach to provide my son with short-term assistance or to guide him away from a hazard or pile of dog poop.  The last and most important advantage of using poles is that they provide me with additional stability on tricky trails which allows me to more effectively help my son traverse difficult terrain.  He usually hikes without holding my hand but when the trail gets tough I collapse one of my poles, strap it to the pack frame, and hold his hand to get him through it.  I pivot my body and keep him above me and a pole firmly planted on my downhill side.  This position provides the most stability while allowing me to keep him steady and safe as we work our way up or down.  We have safely traversed remarkably difficult trail sections using this technique while going slow and assessing the trail immediately in front of us.  Ascents and descents require focus, confidence, and deliberate action.  Save enjoying the views for when you reach the top and take your breaks at the bottom.

I hope you are itching to get yourself a pair of poles and hit the trail.  You can buy an inexpensive pair from Wal-Mart like I did or invest in a set that will last you years and provide greater comfort.  Either way you will be better off than you were before!