When we are on a long backpacking trip, we are homesick for friends and routines left behind. And when we get home, we are homesick (trail-sick?) for the adventures and the simplicity of backpacking.
Our (tiny) hiking pals regularly remind us of favorite places we enjoyed along the Appalachian Trail.
Tiny S most enjoyed the challenges posed by jumbled boulders or fallen trees. It was a fun puzzle to figure out whether to go over, under, around, or through the obstacles. (See another blog post about this HERE.)
Tiny A frequently talks about the fun she had playing near the streams. The rocks and roots overhanging the water were perfect to climb on. The cold water was a great way to cool off at the end of a sweaty day of hiking. And the sound of flowing water lulled us all to sleep at night.
Both Tiny-Mes agree that they don’t want to miss next year’s adventure in the woods. They plan to join us again when we head back to the mountains to hike more miles of the Appalachian Trail. There are rumors of a trip to Maine to complete the 100-mile Wilderness. Or possibly a repeat visit to see the wild ponies in Grayson Highlands. Or maybe the new challenge of a few days of winter camping.
We have been home for a few months now. We love our small town in Middle America. We treasure chatting with friends when we unexpectedly meet them running errands around town. We enjoy reading books, lounging near the cozy warmth of our fireplace.
Memories and Possibilities. We cling to them as the weather gets cold and winter approaches. Time to plan our next adventures!
It’s all well and good to have (tiny) hiking pals who are remarkable similar to each of us. They love being in the woods, they crave adventure, they enjoy meeting new people, and they thrive on trying new things. But…sometimes similarities can cause problems. Tiny A and Tiny S are also outspoken, persistent, and strong-willed, just like us. (Some might even say sassy, stubborn and rebellious!) On this trip, they occasionally got bored with hiking day after day and wanted to go off on their own to explore new possibilities.
The first sign of trouble was when we reached the Eastern Continental Divide along the Appalachian Trail on the top of a mountain in SW Virginia. Tiny A has always wanted to learn Spanish and insisted she was going to take a boat down the streams and rivers, cross the Gulf of Mexico, and head for the Yucatan. Tiny S wanted to spend time at the beach and decided to follow the waterways until she reached the Atlantic Ocean. We told them it would be too difficult to build a boat up on a mountaintop. They gave in but sulked the rest of the day…
A few weeks later, Tiny A and Tiny S decided to prove us wrong. They found a lovely stream and jumped aboard a leaf-boat while Story Seeker was getting water. I caught them just in time, before they were swept away from shore into the swirling current.
At one point, the Tiny-Mes decided they wanted a break from a forest filled with tree after tree, all looking the same. They were tired of the drought and resulting severe lack of drinking water. They were grumpy about the noise and the dangerous footing caused by so many dead leaves on the ground. Tiny A and Tiny S found an area of luxurious leafy plants, sat down and refused to move unless we promised to take them to a jungle. Sorry, Tiny-Mes! Perhaps that’s a trip for another year!
Eventually, the Tiny-Mes tried a new tactic—appealing to our interests outside of backpacking. Knowing how much Story Seeker finds peace when walking through deep caves, Tiny A and Tiny S found some caverns to explore among the tree roots along the Appalachian Trail. We had to remind them that size differences prohibited us from joining them for their hours of spelunking. (They supposedly found wondrous stalactites and stalagmites…but we will all just have to take their word for it! Maybe next time they will take a camera with them!)
Tiny A watched Andowen making fantasy weapons out of wood. One afternoon when we got to camp, we discovered Tiny A taking sword-play lessons from a local elf. She claimed that when she got as good as Andowen, they could get off trail and spend time at a Renaissance Fair. Andowen loved that idea…but I meanly insisted we had to finish our current adventure before going somewhere else.
Next, Tiny A and Tiny S tried to convince Andowen to join them on a fishing expedition. They had forgotten that she had no proper gear to catch a fish, so she was able to avoid getting caught in that particular fantasy. She has wondered if we could bring some hooks and fishing line on our next trip. Tiny A is certain it would be an excellent alternate use for Andowen’s sturdy staff!
We thought we had finally convinced the Tiny-Mes that this trip was all about backpacking. They seemed to regain pleasure in our trek. But one day, the Tiny-Mes disappeared again. After some backtracking, we found them in a rocky area. They were enjoying some climbing and rappelling. When we asked them why they ran off without telling us, they reminded us that unlike them, we are both afraid of heights. True! We had absolutely no interest in joining them for that type of adventure!
Eventually, the Tiny-Mes quit arguing and disappearing on a search for new adventures. They claimed they would stay with us and hike without complaints. After I bribed them with the promise of publicity, they agreed to let us know next time they found an exciting distraction. That’s why I took these photos and am publishing their exploits on my blog!
If the idea of spending months alone in the woods intrigues you, backpacking the Appalachian Trail is not the right choice for you. Contrary to what worried friends and family imagine, you will not experience day after day of dangerous solitude. At times, you will be surrounded by people…
The original vision for this trail was a place of respite for the many big-city dwellers along the East Coast. It certainly meets that goal. In the past few years, 2-3 million people set foot on the AT annually. Popular sections get downright crowded on weekend days when visitors come out for a few hours or a simple overnight.
Like most overnight hikers, we aim for a shelter each night. We like the ease (laziness?) of throwing our sleeping pads and bags on the wooden floor. Others prefer to pitch their tents nearby. Everyone appreciates the often-found “luxuries” of a picnic table, a nearby water source, and an outhouse.
When hikers gather, stories are told and tips are shared. Some nights there is chatter and joking around a campfire. Mornings tend to be hectic, with hikers all focused on grabbing breakfast and packing up their gear. Occasionally the nightly conversation has been deep enough that new friends gather for a photo together before going their separate ways. For most of us, this social aspect is part of the joy of a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail.
Do you need more time away from people? Even when evenings get crowded, it is easy to spend most of the day by yourself. You will only occasionally pass another hiker. You can choose to hike at your own pace. If sharing the adventure with a partner (like daughter Andowen and I do), walk on your own for most of the planned daily miles, then meet occasionally to check on each other and enjoy a snack together. Savor those hours of quiet, immersed by yourself in nature!
Do you long for solitude? Do you dream of traveling alone? Consider a backpacking expedition on a different long trail such as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail. Both of these trails are much more remote. Hundreds of thousands of people use the PCT annually. Even fewer set foot on the CDT.
If you still want to hike the Appalachian Trail but occasionally need more than a few daily hours of hiking alone, consider backpacking on a more remote area of the trail (such as in Maine). Or simply plan to camp away from shelters for a few nights. We greatly enjoyed the nights we slept beside waterfalls or beautiful streams.
Now you know the truth. Tell your family and friends to stop worrying. When you choose to adventure on the Appalachian Trail…you will rarely be alone in the woods!
Every hiker faces challenges during a long-distance backpacking trip. It’s much easier to get by with a little help from some friends. In some cases, we have to help the Tiny-Mes. In other cases, the Tiny-Mes help us!
Non-hikers can’t imagine going potty in the woods. Tiny size means it’s really no challenge at all. After all, Tiny-Mes aren’t much bigger than caterpillars and no one hears caterpillars stressing about where to do their business. Tinies have no worries about someone seeing them. (If anything, Tiny A and Tiny S have to be careful no one steps on them!)
Peeing in the woods is not really a problem for any size hiker. When it’s time for pooping, human hikers hope to be near a shelter. It’s much easier to sit in an outhouse than to dig a hole and squat in the woods. If needed, however, the Tiny-Mes help choose an out-of-the-way spot for our smelly business. Don’t forget to pack out the wipes!
On the other hand, rainy days would be hazardous for our tiny hiking pals. When the trail turns into a river of rain flowing downhill on the easiest path, we merely get our feet wet. Tiny A and Tiny S would be swept away by the run-off. Fortunately, the few rain storms we experienced on this trip were at night. As the rain drummed on the metal roof, we curled up in our cozy sleeping bags to read while the Tiny-Mes watched the storm from the front of the shelter.
The Appalachian Trail is not a level, smooth walking path in the woods. It has steep ascents and descents as it makes its way over every possible mountain. The footing can be treacherous for humans and for Tiny-Mes. Fallen leaves hide rocks and holes and get slippery when wet. Roots seem to jump up and grab boots or unexpectedly slide feet out from under hikers. Jumbled rocks are either exhausting to climb over or twist and tilt to dump hikers. “Watch out!” cry the hikers in the lead.
Luckily for Tiny-Mes, they are so lightweight they don’t have to worry about foot and leg injuries. (Those stiff Lego extremities come in handy sometimes!) Tiny A and Tiny S know, however, that if we get hurt, their adventure on the AT is also over. So they remind me (Story Seeker) to take my preventative medicine—joint meds, nightly tea for joint comfort, and “Vitamin I” (Ibuprofen against inflammation). They also help both Andowen and me wrap our feet—with cloth tape or duct tape to prevent blisters and with K-Tape to support joints and prevent rolled ankles, sore knees, and inflamed Achilles tendonitis.
It’s always good to have friendly helpers when faced with challenges—big or small!
Many of you enjoyed the recent post where I shared the hikers’ “dirty little secret” (about laundry). Today, I thought you might like to hear another secret. Shhh! Don’t tell our family and friends…but we do NOT spend every day plodding along, up and down mountains, following the AT in the woods! Sometimes we find other ways to entertain ourselves.
Here is photographic proof of the non-hiking fun we find on-trail and off:
While still out in the woods, I’m sure none of you will be surprised to hear that we sometimes have enough energy to gather wood and enjoy a campfire in the evening. When we walk past (or through) streams or waterfalls, it is to be expected that we might stop to splash in the water or soak our feet.
Anyone who knows us is already familiar with our long-term “vices.” Andowen loves to pursue imagination play, whether she is in the woods or on a playground in town. She is constantly drawing—so a lightweight journal is included in her backpacking gear. Some trips she has carried a deck of playing cards to play solitaire or to practice card tricks. She didn’t choose to carry the extra weight this trip—but the trail provided some card fun at one of the shelters.
Story Seeker (that’s me!) can’t survive for long without something to read. An actual book with pages to turn is weight-prohibitive on the trail, so I carry a kindle. (Yes, it got destroyed in my pack last year. I quickly ordered another one to be shipped to me in the next town. Don’t separate this gal from her books!) Naturally, lounging goes along with reading…
I’ve posted in the past about the joys of resupply days in town. (You can read about that HERE and HERE.) In addition to rest at a hostel/hotel and buying more food, we usually enjoy a meal or two at a nearby restaurant. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be within walking distance of a library to spend a few hours reading. Damascus VA even had a “Little Free Library” so we could take a book back to the hostel for bedtime reading. Occasionally, the hostels have pets that we can spoil—missing our dog back home. (Okay, I really didn’t want anything to do with this cat…but couldn’t seem to kick him off my lap…)
We found some unexpected fun on our backpacking trip this fall. (Don’t tell anyone, okay? They might start thinking we didn’t actually spend any time hiking in the woods but were on a luxury vacation instead!)
We were surprised with some colorful fun. Friends sent Andowen finger-lights that gave hours of after-dark fun in various shelters. (They also included some color packs to throw in the campfire. If you look closely, you can see blue and pink flames in the first photo above!) In one town, we were invited to a fun-fair at a local church. Andowen loved climbing the inflatable wall as a nice change from clambering up a mountain!
One of the hostels had table-top games and outdoor activities available. At another hostel, Andowen and her daddy (who visited us for a few days) borrowed bikes and helmets for a ride along the river.
We found some great music. One of the hostels had a genuine juke box, refurbished to play original 45 records. Andowen was entertained listening to music from the 50s and 60s. This trip, we took some extra days off trail. In two different little towns, we visited a local church. The old fashioned country-gospel hymns were delightful!
The most unusual entertainment we had on this trip? At a hostel located on a small farm, we spent more than an hour chasing hogs that had escaped their pen during the night! Yee-haw!
There’s never a lack of fun on our adventures…and that’s no secret!
There is one topic that every hiker thinks about, dreams about, and talks about—FOOD! After the first few days, when hikers are too tired to eat, “hiker hunger” reaches epic proportions. It takes 3,000 to 5,000 calories daily to replace what is burned by carrying a heavy pack on mountainous trails.
Story Seeker and Andowen carry 5-7 days of food in their packs. Showers and soft beds are nice benefits of stopping in towns along the trail…but the most important reason for a town day is to resupply meals and snacks. The Tiny-Mes stay out of the way as food is repackaged and stuffed in packs. They don’t want to accidentally find themselves in the trash pile with all the wrappers and heavy packaging! Neither Story Seeker nor Andowen are “morning people.” No time is wasted for cooking with our Jetboil Stove that specializes in bringing water to a boil in a little over one minute. “Hot drinks coming right up!” chirps Tiny A cheerfully. Both Story Seeker and Tiny S need a big cup of hot caffeine to start their day. (Why do you think Tiny S carries a mug with her at all times?!) Andowen and Tiny A prefer to slurp down a breakfast drink and munch on dry cereal while they walk. Snacks and lunch are portable—eaten cold as we hike. When Andowen gets grumpy or Story Seeker walks slower and slower, Tiny A reminds everyone, “EAT! EAT!” It is important to eat calories every hour to keep up energy and avoid blood sugar crashes. Daily snacks include nuts, dried fruit, cheese crackers, candy, and a protein bar. Once we get to camp for the night, it’s time to cook dinner. Tiny A and Andowen argue over which of the remaining meals is most tasty, but they finally agree on which dinner-in-the-bag to fix. Tiny A lights the stove with her magic staff. (Yep, that’s one use for it!) Hot water is poured into the thick freezer-weight bag. A few minutes later the rice or potatoes with tuna is ready for everyone to eat. “Save some for us!” complains Tiny S. After dinner and evening hot drinks are finished, all “smelly things” have to be bundled in secure bags. (This includes food, trash, and toiletries—anything a bear might find interesting.) The Tiny-Mes help find an appropriate tree—not too close but not too far from camp. Andowen carries the heavy bags and ties them tightly to a branch. Sorry, Bears! No human food for you tonight… Occasionally, when hikers are fixing dinner in camp, they might discuss trail food. But rich, greasy, calorie-laden TOWN FOOD is the stuff of dreams. When hikers meet on the trail, they exchange information about the best places to eat in upcoming towns. Folks might disagree on whether burgers are better, Chinese is top-choice, or pizza is perfect. But everyone agrees a cold drink with large portions of food at cheap prices is the most important consideration.
Now the Tiny-Mes are hungry (again). When do we get to the next town?!
Long-distance hikers have a dirty little secret. Unlike day hikers, we wear the same clothes day after day after day. Laundromats are in short supply out in the woods, which means those hiking clothes get sweaty, smelly, and stiff. “Acceptable” and “normal” are different on the trail!
We carry a set of hiking clothes which we put on every morning–wet or dry, clean or smelly. (Synthetic t-shirt, capris or hiking skirt, bra, shorts-style undies, and hiking socks.) We also carry a set of camp clothes–dry items that keep us from getting chilled when we stop the heavy, sweaty exertion of hiking. Obviously, these camp clothes get less grubby than the hiking clothes! (Synthetic tank top, leggings, thin undies and camp shoes. Plus a long-sleeved synthetic shirt in case it gets cold.) As soon as we get out of our hiking clothes at the end of the day, we hang them up to (hopefully) dry. Sometimes we adorn nails around the shelter. Other times we decorate a nearby tree. At nightfall, we often shove the clothes in our sleeping bags. Even if they are still damp in the morning, at least they won’t be cold and clammy! When we get to town every 4-7 days, we wash all of our clothes. Some hostels have “loaner clothes” to wear while doing laundry. Otherwise, two rain jackets work like a mini-dress while I stuff all the grubby clothes into the washing machine. (Andowen wraps up in her sleeping bag while I do laundry if there are no loaner clothes…) While we are hiking, we rarely notice how smelly we are. After all, everyone stinks! Occasionally, if we get to camp early on a sunny day, we might wash out a few of the most offensive clothes. We use the most basic of laundry facilities…
We dig out the “washing machine” from my pack: a gallon size ziploc bag and tiny bottle of biodegradable soap. Fill the bag partway with water from a stream or spring. Move a few hundred feet away from the water source. Squirt some soap on the clothes and put ’em in the bag. Shake and squeeze the bag, mimicking the agitation of a washer. Dump out filthy water. Add clean water and repeat until water stays clear of dirt or suds. (Yes, it is time consuming. This is why most hikers don’t bother…) We only go to this much effort if our clothes are particularly nasty…and if there is enough sun and a breeze to hopefully get the clothes dry by morning. A short line strung between trees helps. Obviously, we prefer to hike in dry, clean clothes. Sometimes after washing out clothes on the trail, we have to put on still-damp (but clean) hiking clothes in the morning. Ugh! Smaller items can be hung on the outside of our packs to dry by the time we get to camp that night. This dirty little secret of long-distance hikers might sound terrible to you. It’s really not so bad once you get out there. In-town standards of fashion and cleanliness give way to realities of weight and space available in the pack. We might not look or smell like day-hikers…but we hike with a smile on our faces. We love living in the woods…and that’s no secret!
Tiny S and Tiny A decided to share the details of a typical day of backpacking with their hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
7:00 am — Story Seeker wakes up Andowen for the first time. Andowen goes back to sleep while Story Seeker gets the food bags out of the tree and heats water for breakfast.
7:15 am — Story Seeker wakes up Andowen again. The bribe of ready breakfast gets Andowen out of her cozy sleeping bag! (Hot Carnation Instant Breakfast with powdered milk plus cereal for Andowen; peanut butter crackers and hot tea for Story Seeker)
After breakfast, Andowen and Story Seeker change to their hiking clothes and pack all gear into their backpacks. Water bottles are filled and snacks are chosen for the day. Maps are studied and the first meeting point is chosen. (Andowen is faster so usually hikes ahead, waiting at pre-determined places for Story Seeker to catch up.)
9:00 am — The Tiny Mes climb into the pocket at the top of Story Seeker’s pack. Another day’s hike begins. The Tiny Mes help look for white blazes on tree trunks and rocks–proof everyone is still on the right trail!
Throughout the day, the hikers eat a snack each hour to keep up their energy: nuts, dried fruit, candy, cheese crackers. Occasionally they stop to enjoy a view, but water and snacks are consumed while walking.
12:00 noon — the Tiny Mes are restless and demand a break. While they explore, Story Seeker and Andowen eat lunch (a protein bar) and rest for a few minutes. Soon it is time to walk again (before muscles stiffen up!) When the seating is comfortable enough or the scenery is especially beautiful, they take off their boots, get out journals or the camera, and fully relax for awhile longer.
After lunch, the day’s hiking continues. Story Seeker and Andowen prefer to hike 8-10 miles a day, less than many hikers but just right for them.
4:00 pm — typical time to get to camp for the evening. Frequently, everyone sleeps in a 3 walled shelter. Sometimes, to hit their desired daily miles, Story Seeker and Andowen pitch their tent between shelters. Air mattresses and sleeping bags are spread out, headlamps and journals are set beside beds, and dinner is pulled out of food bags. Dry camp clothes are put on and sweaty hiking clothes are hung to air out.
Once everything is organized, it’s time to get water. “Dirty” water bags are filled at a nearby spring or creek then carried back to camp. (4.5 – 5 ltrs are needed each day for breakfast, hiking, and dinner.) Story Seeker filters water while Andowen cooks supper.
5:00 pm — hot food is ready. Other hikers start coming into the camp area as they finish their own daily mileage.
The evening is relaxed. Hikers chat, write in journals, read on kindle or phone. Some nights they play cards (if a deck is found in the shelter) or make a campfire. The Tiny Mes look at the map with their hikers to decide how early they need to get up for the next day’s hiking.
8:00 pm — “Hiker Midnight!” After a long day of hiking, everyone is ready for bed. Goodnight, John-boy! Goodnight, Moon! Goodnight, Tiny Mes!
I recently read the Summer 2017 issue of AT Journeys magazine from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). One article included the official ATC policy on the AT experience. I found these policies interesting to ponder…especially as they relate to the therapeutic value of hiking the Appalachian Trail with my daughter “Andowen.” (Read more about how hiking helps her HERE and HERE.)
“Integral to the trail experience are:
–Opportunities for observation, contemplation, enjoyment, and exploration of the natural world.
Time for contemplation when camped beside a waterfall along the AT in Virginia
–A sense of remoteness and detachment from civilization.
The world disappears when sitting atop a mountain above the clouds!
–Opportunities to experience solitude, freedom, personal accomplishment, self-reliance and self-discovery.
Writing in a journal and making drawings is a great way to record and process our experiences
–A sense of being on the height of the land.
Sometimes it feels like “on a clear day, you can see forever”
–Opportunities to experience the historic and pastoral elements of the surrounding countryside.
If only the ruins we pass could talk…what stories we would hear!
–A feeling of being part of the natural environment.
Hugging Keffer Oak–the second largest tree along the AT. It has an 18′ diameter and is over 300 years old!
–Opportunities for travel on foot, including opportunities for long distance hiking.”
“The mountains are calling and I must go…” –John Muir
I’m sure many of these experiences can be found in other places in nature…but they certainly are part of why we continue to return to the Appalachian Trail for more backpacking adventures!
The number one rule of successful adventure is–Never Quit On a Bad Day! As John Denver sings “Some days are diamonds, Some days are stone…” It is important to remember that there WILL be sparkly, bright days again, even when this particular one feels dark and heavy.
Most days we can celebrate the “diamonds” found by spending extended time in the mountains/woods. We enjoy seeing the beautiful views, hearing stories from fellow hikers, and feeling tired pride at the end of the day–the pride of a job well done.
On other days, however, this all feels like a heavy, cumbersome “stone.” We wonder why we are out here. We get teary and angry and just want to quit. (Take a moment of silence in sympathy for my poor hubby when we finally have cell coverage after a few hard days in a row….)
A few days into our trip, daughter Andowen pulled off her backpack and plopped down beside a cross-trail. She was adamant that we were going to hike down to a hostel, call daddy and go HOME right then. I insisted that we would talk about it two days later–after a night in a soft bed and a belly full of town food. We argued about it…but eventually she grabbed her pack and angrily stomped off down the trail.
Another day I was exhausted. I was physically tired of hiking day after day…and mentally weary of worrying about whether or not there would be water at the next shelter. (The drought in this area causes us to have to carry pounds of extra water each day…ugh!) Being careful to save water so we can make dinner even if the water source near the shelter is dry causes us to skimp on drinking while hiking. Dehydration is a terrible thing! The unrelenting steep climb at the end of that day made things worse. By the time I got to the shelter, all I wanted to do was crawl in my sleeping bag and give up.
On hard days, adventure comes down to attitude. It is important to acknowledge and feel the full range of emotion. But then, we need to choose. We remind Andowen to reframe the negatives–and look for the positives. This is the first time she has felt homesick—but that also means she finally has friends and roots in our new location. For me, I remind myself to let go of worrying about things I can not control (my daughter’s emotions, the lack of water, how much my muscles ache).
And we remind each other on those hard days—Never Quit on a Bad Day!