Why, yes, we DO have running water while hiking in the woods. It pours out of natural springs (sometimes with a pipe installed) and ripples down streams. Oh, that’s not what you meant? You’re right, we only find faucets in “civilization.”
So how do we get clean water that’s safe to drink? We carry a filter with us that turns any water we find into yummy, drinkable water. The biggest challenge is walking to the spring at the end of a tiring day of hiking. Here is the process:
Carry empty water containers to water source (ideally a level walk near shelter…but sometimes a steep, long walk away)
Fill collection bags with “dirty” water
Screw on filter and squeeze clean water into containers for use
Carry water back to camp (reservoirs for drinking while hiking, bottles to pour into pot for cooking, extra in collection bags to filter for later use) Remember, water is HEAVY so only carry what is really needed!
Because we use a small, lightweight “squeeze” filter, it takes awhile to fill all of our water containers. At first this frustrated me. But eventually I decided to consider this time as “zen time” to relax and simply enjoy the moments. Usually the water locations are scenic, with colorful leaves, rustling trees, and gurgling water.
Next time you turn on your faucet at home, take a moment to be grateful for instant, clean, safe water…uncommon in much of the world!
There are “shelters” along the Appalachian Trail, set aside for any hiker to stay for free. These are usually three-sided structures, open on the fourth side.
Older shelters (from the 1930s onward) are quite simple with no light other than what comes in under the overhang on the front opening. (Notice that even in daylight one needs a headlamp to read.)
Newer shelters are often more elaborate, with decks, picnic pavilions, lofts, skylights, and more. Like the trail itself, all are maintained by volunteers.
Shelters range in size, offering space for 4-10 hikers to sleep. Air mattresses and sleeping bags are spread on the platform (always at least one step above the ground, sometimes at seat height, sometimes with bunk platforms). Backpacks, coats and wet gear hang from pegs. Walking sticks and boots are usually jumbled in the corners.
Shelters have nearby tent sites, some type of privy, a picnic table and a fire ring. Newer shelters have a picnic pavilion which can double as extra sleeping space on stormy nights when the shelter itself is full!
Shelters are spaced 5-13 miles apart. Whenever possible, we enjoy staying at a shelter because of the extra conveniences and because of the social interactions with other hikers. Since we hike short daily distances, however, we sometimes have to find a flat area to pitch our tent for a night between shelters. That has its own charms, including a sense of accomplishment that we can, indeed, be self-reliant.
No matter where we end up for the night, we always sleep well. A day of hard exercise certainly helps!
When backpacking in bear country, it is important to hang all smelly things in a “bear bag” each night. This includes all food, trash, and personal care items. (Don’t worry, apparently even bears want nothing to do with sweaty, smelly, hiking socks and boots!)
In the past, hikers had to try to find the perfect tree…at least 200 feet from the tent with a branch 12 feet above the ground that is strong enough to hold all the items hanging at least 8 feet away from the tree trunk. Yeah, right. Not so easy to find in real life! (See more detailed instructions HERE, if interested.)
Because of the lack of perfect bear trees, most shelters and official campsites along the Appalachian Trail have installed “Bear Poles.” These metal trees have multiple hooks 12+ feet above the ground. The goal is to use the attached metal pole to lift the bear bag into the air and slide it onto one of the hooks. HAH!
I am hardly coordinated enough to do this at chest height where I can clearly see what I’m doing and where the weight of the bag is manageable. Trying to manage this feat with a heavy pole unbalanced by the weight of food bags becomes a comedy of missteps and errors.
I’ve decided these contraptions are actually “human torture devices.” Better yet, they are probably secret “candid camera” set-ups for the entertainment of bears.
Yep, I can hear that young black bear snickering right now, and I’m sure granddaddy bear is guffawing at my pathetic attempts to master the seemingly simple “bear pole.” Wish me luck, folks, I think Yogi is about to have a picnic with my food!
(Note one: these photos are not representative. They were taken at the shortest bear pole we have seen so far. Many posts are more than 12 feet high!)
(Note two: it is stacking the deck against me to have to reverse this process in the morning BEFORE I can get my hands on breakfast and morning caffeine…)
Grab a cart to buy mountains of food. Rebag it and throw away the wasteful packaging.
Logistics can be challenging when long-distance backpacking. The ultimate goal is to carry the lightest possible pack. In the case of gear, lighter weight means higher costs. With food and fuel, it is a balancing act of carrying enough supplies to stay on the trail for the most days possible without risking injury or exhaustion from carrying too much weight. Resupply expeditions are costly in both time and money. Most towns are at least a few miles away from the trail. This extra mileage plus all the things that get done on a Town Day usually means a day of no hiking. (If you missed it, read about the delights of a Town Day from 9/18.) Staying overnight in town obviously increases costs when compared to tent-camping in the woods for free.
“You carry your house (tent), your bed (sleeping bag), your stove, your food, and everything else you need until the next opportunity to resupply. If you need it, you have to carry it.”–AWOL (Thru-hiker David Miller)
At our slow pace and low mileage, we each eat 1 ½ pounds of food per day. (Thru-hikers pushing for 3-4 times our mileage often consume 2-3 pounds of food per day and still don’t get enough calories!) We generally plan a partial resupply at a gas station or convenience store 4-5 days after a Town Day. Other items such as fuel and dinners are only found at bigger stores in larger towns—which we reach every 7-9 days. We hustle through the grocery store with our list—oohing and ahhing over all the yummy looking food. We can buy some treats to eat while still in town. But we have to stick closely to our list for trail food—otherwise our packs would quickly be too heavy to carry!
After we lug all the bags back to where we are staying overnight, we dump it all out to organize the food. Every time, we wonder how that mountain will ever fit in our packs! Daughter carries the lunch and dinner food. I carry the breakfast items and multitude of snacks. (To see a list of the types and amounts of food we carry, check out the post on Trail Journals from 9/5/15, found HERE.)
We take most foods out of the wasteful, over-large, heavy packaging. Snacks are divided into individual portions to make sure we don’t mindlessly eat three or four days’ worth at one time. Don’t worry, most of these bags will be saved and reused. Other foods are mixed together in freezer weight bags, ready to have water added at meal time.
We have a mound of trash by the time we are finished. But now the food will fit in our packs.
Hopefully we didn’t forget anything—it will be a long week before we get to another store!
Have you checked out the FAQ tab here on the blog? At the end of the list I explain the steps involved in considering a new Big Epic: “Brainstorming a big idea, researching what others have done, making extensive plans as to how this dream might be implemented, talking with friends, family (and yes, even strangers) about this big idea, abandoning the project if it is way too big for even me, and making the feasible plan(s) become reality.”
Obviously I brainstormed the idea of a long-distance hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail. At two weeks into our two month hike, this Big Epic has certainly become a reality. But what about the middle stages? What was involved in the research and planning steps before we left? And how does that compare to the realities we are now experiencing?
“I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Since high school, I have read books about folks who have completed epic hikes. (I’ve also read extensively about those who climb Mt. Everest—but that’s another story for another time.) In considering this trip, I conquered a mountain of books about the Appalachian Trail. Some I discarded as having little relevance to daughter and I. (Nope, we are not attempting to run the entire 2185 miles in less than two months. Nor was I looking for compulsively detailed reviews of each calorie consumed and every single shelter available along the length of the trail.) As I read, I took notes on any tips or hints that might come in handy for us. That became almost 30 typed pages (saved to my kindle for reference).
In addition to haunting our local library system for books, I did extensive research on the internet. I was especially interested in the experiences of families who hiked with their children. I needed to assess how feasible a long-distance hike would be with daughter as companion. If you wonder about families on the trail, check out these 2014 blogs from the Kallin Family and from the Tougas Family If you have some money to spare, definitely check out the video series put together by the Tougas Family. (update 2017–these videos are now available for free) The videos were both entertaining and informative! (This was the only way I could get daughter to investigate what to expect for our trip…)
Finally, any of you who know me personally, know that I am the Queen of Lists. I made lists of possible routes, lists of gear, lists of food, lists of how to divide the weight between each of our packs, lists of school projects for daughter, lists of temperature averages, lists and lists. And, of course, I had to make a master list to keep track of all the lists! A few of the most important lists are on the trail with us (such as learning ideas and what is included in our daily rations). A few other lists are in our “bounce box” to use when we are in town (including a master shopping list for food resupply). (If you want to see a few of these detailed lists, I have posted them at Trail Journals.)
A significant question is how closely my plans and research match the realities of the trail… (that sounds like a good topic for another post…coming soon!)
The most common question we have been asked about making a long-distance backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail has been “Is it SAFE?” The short answer is YES! The most significant way to be safe is to plan ahead. I’ve done extensive research to assure myself that this is a reasonable endeavor. I’m not generally a risk-taker about physical things. I’m careful without being fearful. (*Except heights…I’m terrified of heights*) Obviously, I would never want to cause nor allow harm to my daughter.
“A prudent camper is always asking ‘What if?’ in anticipation of potential human and natural hazards.”–from Hiking and Backpacking by the Wilderness Education Association
A number of friends have asked if we are carrying mace or pepper spray. Some have even wondered if I have a conceal/carry permit. Sprays have limited usefulness—needing to be kept close at hand and only being accurate at a short distance from the threat. In addition to being extra, unnecessary weight, guns are banned from most park service lands, including much of the Appalachian Trail corridor.
Many folks worry about human violence. Statistically, far fewer violent crimes occur along the AT than in any city. Backpackers are poor targets. They rarely carry anything of value. In addition, few criminals have any interest in hiking miles of challenging trail for the possibility of robbing or attacking someone. It is far easier to commit a crime and quickly escape while in an urban setting. We will take basic precautions such as camping further than a mile from any road crossing and not sharing details of our hiking plans with anyone—in person or online.
Others worry about being attacked by bears. This is actually a very rare occurrence. Black bears live near much of the AT, but these bears are shy and prefer to avoid humans if possible. It is recommended to sing or whistle while hiking so any bears in the area have time to move away. To avoid attracting bears (and other critters such as porcupines or raccoons) to our sleeping area, each night we will hang all food in a “bear bag” from a high tree limb at a distance from camp. While looking for illustrations for this point, it was interesting to see that the only photos of vicious looking bears were grizzly bears which are not found in the Eastern United States.
So what hazards are we likely to face? Driving to and from the trail is likely the most risky part of the entire trip! We need to carefully avoid poison ivy. Health precautions such as filtering all water, burying human waste, and using hand sanitizer helps prevent illness. Being aware of weather conditions and taking appropriate measures avoid hypothermia are important. If one of us is injured, we are carrying basic first aid supplies. (Plus, I have certifications in Outdoor Emergency Care and as an EMT.)
Some folks get lost when driving a route they have used for months. Others apparently have an internal map in their heads including compass directions and a marker of where they are at any given moment. I’m somewhere in the middle.
Fortunately, there’s no need for an internal compass when hiking the Appalachian Trail (although it obviously wouldn’t hurt!) During the planning stages of making a tentative itinerary, I studied the latest edition of “The Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers’ Companion.” This guide offers detailed information in chart and written form about shelters, water sources, road crossings, and re-supply points. It has elevation charts of each mile of the trail including icons for pertinent information. It also includes maps of towns near the trail. I’ve torn out the relevant pages to carry with us and refer to as needed.
There are detailed topographical maps of the Appalachian Trail. Rather than buying paper sectional maps that need to be repurchased as they are updated, I’ve chosen to buy an app for my phone. Guthook’s AT Trail Guide allows us to zoom in to see close-up details of the route, including relevant photos. Although it can be used with the GPS feature on my phone, we will use it off-line as a more traditional map. Unlike paper versions, updates are free.
Finally, we will travel the AT by following the white blazes. These 2 by 6 inch vertical rectangles are painted in white on tree trunks, rocks, and signs. They are generally located within sight from one to the next. Blue blazes indicate side trails (to shelters, towns, roads, etc.) As explained by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, if we don’t see the next blaze down the trail: “If you have gone a quarter-mile without seeing a blaze, stop. Retrace your steps until you locate a blaze. Then, check to make sure you haven’t missed a turn. Often a glance backwards will reveal blazes meant for hikers traveling in the opposite direction. Volunteer trail maintainers regularly relocate small sections of the path around hazards or undesirable features or off private property. When your map or guidebook indicates one route, and the blazes show another, follow the blazes.”
With three types of navigational aids and two pairs of eyes, we should do just fine in getting from Point A to Point B without getting lost!
We will be (mostly) living in the woods for two months. We will carry what we need on our backs. In general, most folks understand this concept. For those who have not been on a long-distance backpacking trip before, the details may be fuzzy. Most books and movies don’t show the nitty gritty of daily life on the trail.
There is no plumbing in the woods! No faucet to turn on for water. No shower or sink (or ready hot water) for cleaning. No toilets to do our “business.” Roughing it may sound manageable for a day or two…but how does a lack of modern amenities work for longer times?
There are streams and springs along the Appalachian Trail. In some places, the water might be clean enough to safely drink. To lessen risk and avoid getting sick, we will filter all water before drinking it.
Long-distance hikers quickly become dirty, smelly folks. Hair goes unwashed. Sponge baths are taken with a wet-wipe or with biodegradable soap and cold water (at a long distance from the water source to avoid contaminating it). Socks and underwear get hand-washed most evenings—since we are carrying just one pair to wear and one pair to be drying for the next day. Otherwise, the same clothes are worn day after day. Each week when we are in town for food and fuel resupply, we will savor a hot shower with plenty of soap and shampoo to get body and hair squeaky clean. In addition, we will do a big load of laundry to get smelly, dirty clothes clean again before heading back into the woods for another week of hiking.
Do you REALLY want to know about pottying in the woods?! Some of the lean-to shelters we might stay at overnight have outhouses nearby. Otherwise, we walk off the trail into the woods to do our business. Poop gets buried 6” deep. All toilet paper used gets packed out and disposed of at the next town. The same applies to monthly feminine pads. (See, I knew you didn’t really want to know…)
The nitty gritty details show that…long-distance hiking is not for beauty queens!