Favorite Places on the AT: Virginia

This week’s edition of Favorite places on the AT, brings us the state of Virginia! At 554 miles, it is the longest stretch of the Appalachian Trail through any one state. While it does have its rough spots, much of the state is fairly conducive to easier/bigger miles. And there is so much to see! The stretch takes you through the trail town of Damascus, up through the Grayson highlands (Wild Ponies!), and to well-known landmarks like MacAfee knob, Tinkers cliffs and the Dragons tooth.

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As for my favorite parts of the trail, I have to start by giving a shout out to Seeker and his family (including his son Schweppes who just completed the triple crown). We met up in Georgia and hiked together for the first couple hundred miles until an injury took him off the trail. He invited a couple other hikers and myself to his home near the trail in Virginia a few times. We had a great time eating, drinking, fishing and shooting. All a welcome break from the trail.

 

On to the first spot, the Grayson Highlands. The highlands sit above 5,000 feet and cover some really cool terrain with grassy balds, rock formations and some sections of thick forest. Not to mention the famous wild ponies that roam the landscape.

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When I hit this stretch in April, I was slammed by a late season blizzard with freezing temps, snow, and high winds. The wind was blowing so hard, that I had to lean forward to make any progress and at some points had to stop completely and wait for a strong gust to pass in order to continue. At one point, a gust knocked me into a bush resulting in my Frogg Togg rain pants being shredded.

Despite the weather is was still a very cool stretch of trail, with unique geography and what I can only assume would have been very nice views! The winter weather also led to some great photo ops with the ponies in the snow. This would definitely be a place I would go back and hike through in nicer weather.

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Next on the list, is Trent’s Grocery and Dismal Falls. Despite the name, Dismal falls is a really nice waterfall on a little side trail off the AT. It is about 20ft or so tall and pours off of an expansive rock outcropping that leaves plenty of room to sit/lay down and enjoy the sights.

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Trent’s Grocery is a little grocery store located .5 off the trail about a mile or so before Dismal Falls (NoBo). If you want small town America, this is it. It sits across the road from a lumber mill and you can find a handful of employees hanging out and getting their morning coffee. The grocery store also has a little food counter and a handful of tables. I stopped in with another hiker (Peace Walker) to eat breakfast and grab some supplies for an impromptu lunch at Dismal Falls. Definitely worth the .5 mile road walk off the trail.

Another great spot in Virginia is “The Captains Place”. Basically just a guy that owns a house across a river from the AT. He lets hikers camp in his large backyard, has a great fire pit, keeps a fridge full of soda on the back porch and best of all, built a zip line for hikers to sling across the river on! There are signs on the trail around the 656 mile mark (NoBo) that point you towards it, definitely a must stop (I mean come on, it’s a zipline!)

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Finally, one of the places I really enjoyed (though had to work really hard to get there), was the Devils Backbone Brewery. You have to hitch a ride from US 250 (around mile 861 NoBo), to get there from the trail, but they will give you a ride back. They let hikers camp in the woods near the back of their property and have a $5 hiker breakfast in the morning.

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As for the actual Brewery, it is a really cool place with a bar, restaurant, outdoor stage for concerts and a giant fire pit surrounded by dozens of Adirondack chairs. While I was there, they were also constructing a distillery that will produce Bourbon when finished. A must stop for hikers on the AT and a cool place to go even if you are just driving through the area.

That will do it for this week’s post, as always I love hearing feedback, comments and questions. And feel free to share your favorites spots in Virginia along the AT!

 

Thanks!

 

Sean “Purge”

Favorite places on the AT: NC/TN

First and foremost, Happy Birthday to all my fellow Marines!

This week, because the AT runs the border of the NC and TN for about 160 miles, I decided to combine them on this week’s post on favorite places on the AT. The trail crisscrossed the border so many times, I was never really sure exactly which state I was actually in! But it is truly one of the best sections of the AT, especially the southern half.

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It takes you through the Nantahala Wilderness, across elevated grassy balds with expansive views, along high ridgelines, through the Smoky Mountains and down into great trail towns. Even as early in the year as I traversed this section, there were incredible views and scenery, especially when it began snowing in the Smoky Mountains. Below are a few of my favorite spots in this section (and it wasn’t easy to narrow down!)

Muskrat Creek

Located just a couple miles into the North Carolina section (NoBo), Muskrat Creek Shelter sits along an elevated ridgeline (about 4,500ft) that looks out to the west providing spectacular views.  We camped a bit down the trail from the shelter, near the ridgeline.

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After setting up camp and eating dinner, we all met at a little over look on the ridge and watched the sunset. As it set, we each attempted to capture the moment, trying to get a good picture; then, almost at the same time, we all put our phones away and just watched. It was one of those moments that just couldn’t be documented to the extent it deserved. Rather it was something to just witness to enjoy and make memories of. It is easily in the top five sunsets I witnessed throughout the trail (which might turn into its own blog post later on!)

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Max Patch was another favorite of mine, and was one of the many high grassy balds along this stretch. With uninterrupted 360 views of the mountains in the distance, Max Patch is a popular tourist spot and hiking across it was easy to see why. Unfortunately, we hit it early in the morning during a cold spell and it was completely frozen over. The ground was frozen solid, everything had a layer of ice/snow on it and the wind was whipping across, driving the temperature near zero.  It made for a very unique look at the bald, but also meant we couldn’t stick around long. After just a couple minutes I had to stop taking pictures and start hiking again at a brisk pace to warm back up and prevent frost bite on my fingers!

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My favorite shelter on this stretch was easily Overmountain Shelter. It was an old red barn in the middle of several large bald mountains. Its two levels offered plenty of space for hikers and it had a great fire pit that overlooked the valley below. And as a bonus, a local hiker had his buddy hike up with a case of beer!

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Rounding out the list of my favorite spots in this stretch is the trail around the Laurel River/Laurel falls in Tennessee (around mile 415 NoBo). Anytime you see a sign that points towards a secondary bypass route, you know it is going to be something special. Laurel falls did not disappoint.

 

The trail plummets down a couple hundred feet in just .2 miles, into a steep rock walled gorge with a thundering waterfall. The scene reminded me of the gorge in Deliverance (though we didn’t hear any Banjos!). The whole stretch or river looked like it was loaded with trout, but unfortunately I had broken the tip off of my fly rod the day before, so I was unable to test the waters.

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The trail was carved into the base of the rock wall and it was easy to see why there was a high water bypass route offered. The trail ran alongside the river, passing several camping spots then climbs up out of the gorge after about a mile.

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That wraps up this week’s post on favorite spots along the trail. Have any questions, comments or maybe a favorite spot in NC/TN of your own? Leave a note in the comments!

 

Thanks for reading!

 

Sean “Purge”

 

 

Favorite Sections of Trail: Georgia

A common question after hiking the Appalachian Trail is “What was your favorite section/trail/place? I am usually quick to name Franconia ridge as my favorite, with its exposed ridge line, sweeping views and incredible scenery. But there were a lot other noteworthy places on the trail. Sections that don’t often get the attention they deserve.

For the next month or so, I am going to start a state by state run down of my favorite places on and along the trail. This week will start (naturally) with Georgia!

AT a little over 72 miles, the Georgia section of the AT tends to get a bit overlooked and definitely underestimated. Prior to the trip, I didn’t pay much attention to it other than it was just the first state, more of a place to get our legs under us before moving to more difficult parts of the trail.

But Georgia was not going to let you get by easy, at least not the freshly started North bound hikers. We were met with steep trail that took us up and over just about every mountain we came across. Basically, if you saw a mountain top in the distance, you could be sure you would be climbing it either later that day or early the next. No ridge running here, or as one resident Georgia hiker put it, “We don’t like to beat around the bush in Georgia!”

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With the tough climbs though, came great views especially on the tallest Georgian peak, Blood Mountain. Aside from the mountain trying to kill me (more on that later), Blood Mountain and Neel gap would have to have been my favorite part of the Georgia Trail.

The views were outstanding from the peak, the summit itself was a jumble of large boulders were fun to scramble on for better pictures of the mountains below. There was even a small stone shelter at the top which made for a great place to duck in out of the wind for lunch.

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It was a steep climb up, covering about 1,000 feet of elevation in just about a mile and was even steeper on the way down. With a bad knee, the descent seemed to take forever, a steep descent over exposed rock faces before returning to long dirt switchbacks and then finally depositing you at Neel Gap. In my case, a little bit of insult was added to injury as a tree root/rock/mountain troll, reached up and tripped me just as I was coming in sight of Neel Gap and the outfitter. I don’t know what happened faster, the rate of descent as I was sent falling forward to the ground, or the rate of obscenities/curses that I hurled at the mountain as I picked myself back up.

Neel Gap was a welcome respite from the trail, especially with a hurt knee. It is well known as the location of Mountain Crossings Outfitter, the first resupply point for northbound hikers. It is also the only time the trail goes right through a building!

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The outfitter itself had just about everything you needed to hike the trail also did “pack shakedowns” to help rid your pack of extra items/weight that you didn’t need. It is also the location of the famed “boot tree”, where hikers who have given up/quit, toss up their boots. I was told on a windy day you have to watch out, boots have been known to fall and “Kick” people in the head!

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Look out for next week’s post, I’ll be covering North Carolina and Tennessee. The trail crosses the boarder so many times, I thought I might as well combine them in the same post.

As always thanks for reading and feel free to leave any comments, questions, I love hearing from everyone!

Thanks!

Sean “Purge”

 

 

Hostels

While most nights on the Appalachian Trial are spent in a tent (or Hammock in my case), occasionally you need to get out of the woods to rest, refit, resupply and/or escape from bad weather.

Some hikers rarely, if ever spent the night off the trail, while others stayed in town every chance they got. I was somewhere in the middle. I tried to avoid staying in town if I didn’t have a solid reason for doing so. Usually the decision revolved around the weather, it can be pretty hard to walk past a warm dry place to sleep, in the pouring rain!

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The most common (and affordable) option for hikers, is the hostel. Hostels on/near the trail ranged in size from a couple of beds in a shed, to multi floor affairs with dozens of beds. Prices ranged as well from free/donation based, to upwards of $40/night. Amenities are usually pretty basic, a bed (usually in a bunkroom), laundry, shower and sometimes a community kitchen. Many hostels also offered rides to town so you could resupply.

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You could make the argument that hostels are as much a part of the trail as the white blazes themselves. In addition to a dry place to sleep, they offer a gathering place for hikers. A chance to meet up with hikers met earlier on the trail as well as a place to make new friends. Often, hostel owners were hikers themselves, which lends to a very hiker friendly environment.

Each hostel tends to have its own vibe and reputation. A few are so memorable; they are talked about months later on the trail. “Hey did you stay at Uncle Johnny’s hostel, wasn’t that shuttle driver awesome!” Or “How about that breakfast at Shaw’s?”

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One of my favorite Hostels was the Black Bear resort in TN. Basically it was a couple of small wooden cabins, a bunk house, little store and a room with couches and a tv. Best of all it was right next to a trout stream!

Seeker and I had been hiking all day when we came upon a note near a road crossing from a couple hikers we had met a couple days earlier, Dingo and Hooch. With rain in the forecast, a beer and a roof over our heads sounded great, so we hiked the extra half mile to stay with our friends.

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Black Bear was great, we got to take showers, do laundry and do a little trout fishing. The next morning, we woke up to a rainstorm and all decided spending the day in the rec room drinking beer and eating microwave cheeseburgers sounded a lot better than heading back out onto the trail in the pouring rain.

Like most hostels, the owners were super friendly, they had a cool dog (a lot of hostels seemed to have a great dog) and best of all, a smiling bear hands you your toilet paper!

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But as great and friendly as some hostels were, there were a few that were clearly just out to make money.  They are pretty easy to spot, the prices are a little higher than most, they don’t really have the things most hikers would expect from a hostel and the owners are clearly not interested in hiking or the outdoors in general.

We stumbled upon such a place in Tennessee after seeing a sign near a road crossing that said hostel and pizza for sale 300 yards down the road. It was midday, and a pizza sounded good, so we took the detour.

We arrived to what was literally a wooden shed (like the kind you would find for sale outside of Home Depot or Lowes) with two bunkbeds inside,a shower stall, a refrigerator and a gas grill outside. As we walked up, the “Owner” came out and asked if we wanted to stay. We told him we were just there for lunch and he cooked us two Tombstone pizzas on the gas grille.

He said there were drinks for sale in the refrigerator, but when we took a look, there was only some cheap ice beer and cans of Coke. I had seen the owner drinking a PowerAde and asked if he sold them, to which he replied “No, this is the only one I have. Do you think I should sell them?”. As we ate, we tried to give him a few pointers to help with the hostel (more for future hikers than for him) but he didn’t seem too interested, unless it made him more money.

After eating our pizza, we started to walk off, but before we could leave, he yelled out, “Hey! Could you get me on the Facebook or in the AWOL so other hikers could know to stay here?” Yea we’ll get right on that…

 

Thankfully, this kind of hostel/owner was fairly uncommon. I came across so many friendly hostels along the way, places like Rock n Sole, Four Pines, Hikers Welcome Hostel the Lakeshore House and more. They were a welcome respite from the trail and even to this day bring back warm memories of good meals, nice towns and great friends.

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Finally, a quick update on the book. I hit a bit of a setback two weeks ago, losing some files for the book. Luckily, I had been saving each chapter as its own file, so the loss was minimal. I am still not entirely sure why I was saving the chapters like that, but it seems to have paid off!

Anyway, I am taking advantage of the upcoming rainy weekend to head up to my campground and get a good bit of work done on the book. Writing about the trail, just like hiking it, has come with its own set of challenges but will be worth it in the end!

And as always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to ask/share!

 

Thanks for reading!

 

Sean “Purge”

 

 

 

What’s in a (Trail) name?

Out on the Appalachian Trail (and many long distance trails), most people go by their “Trail Name”, a sort of nickname picked up somewhere along their journey. They serve as a fun way to remember people, provide a bit of distance from your real identity and act as sort of an ice breaker when meeting new hikers. A common question is “How did you get your trail name?”. Some bars and restaurants along the trail even put up banners or let hikers sign the wall each year. Your trial name becomes sort of a calling card and its fun to see read the names of people you might have seen earlier in the trip.

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  • This banner was from an outfitter at Delaware Water Gap

 

While some people give themselves trail names, most hikers frown upon that, and believe a trail name should be earned/given by someone else on the trail. Whether it’s based on their backstory, appearance or something they said/did on the trail, the best trail names sort of happen naturally.

Early on in the hike, there was a bit of anxiety in our hiking group over when/how we would end up with trail names. We wondered what it would take to finally end up with a trail name. We also had a bit of an understanding that the group more or less had to agree on a name before it could be bestowed on one of our own.

Naked Savage was the first in our group to get a trail name, after hiking without a shirt on, a hairy chest and a giant bowie knife hanging from his belt.

Then Came Alex (Dr. Thor), who ended up with his name at the Top of Georgia hostel. The hostel offered scrubs as loaner clothes while hikers did their laundry so they didn’t have to for it to finish before going out into town for dinner and a resupply. Most of us had extra shirts, so we only took the scrub pants.

But Alex had put all of his clothes in the washer and when he walked out of the hostel, he was wearing the full set of blue scrubs and a bright red hat trucker hat with a picture of Thor on it. We all had a good laugh and immediately tagged him with “Dr. Thor.

We all seemed to agree that hikers shouldn’t just name themselves, and took it upon ourselves to prevent it from happening whenever possible (though usually in a lighthearted way. One example was a hiker we ran into a couple days into the hike, who was clearly trying to guide other people into giving him a “cool” trail name.

We were sitting around the campfire, and this hiker kept saying his knee hurt and how   it might make sense to give him some kind of “Indian name”. Me and Doug both looked at each other, immediately realizing, this guy was trying to get someone to name him “Wounded Knee”. Just as someone was about to reply to the hiker, Doug interrupted with, “Alright Opie”. The hiker tried to stammer out a rebuttal, but Doug continued on “Yea, that’s what we’ll call you…Opie”. I quickly followed up with “Yea! Opie really fits you!”

We didn’t see the hiker again and I doubt that he kept Opie as his trail name, but we had a good laugh over it and hopefully it led to him waiting until he actually earned a trail name.

Occasionally, you run into a trail name with a pretty funny story behind it (or embarrassing, depending on which side you are on). Probably the best I heard on the trail was “Bear Spray”.

He was staying at a hostel early in the trip and was attempting to take a can of bear spray out of the packaging. Somehow when trying to cut the zip tie, he flipped the safety off and squeezed the trigger, shooting a stream of bear spray into the side of the bunk bed in front of him Some of it splashed back into his eyes, sending him fleeing out of the room. The hostel ended up making him pay for a new mattress and had to air out the room for a night before letting hikers stay there again.

Finally, there is my trail name: The Purge (though it would quickly be shortened to Purge for simplicity). It isn’t the most entertaining story, but I felt I should probably include my own story after writing about everyone else’s.

I picked up the name towards the end of my first week. Our group had stopped at a shelter about 3 miles from the next road crossing, with the intent to hitch into town the next morning. As we went about setting up camp and preparing dinner, a hiker in his earlier 20s walked up and immediately rubbed us the wrong way.

The first words out of his mouth were: “Man I am glad I met you all, I hiked 20 miles today looking for someone to hike with!” (This probably should have been red flag number one). He went on to say, “I am going to hike with you guys until you group falls apart, then I’ll pick whoever I like best and hike all the way to Maine with them!”. We all kind of looked at each other like “Who the heck does this guy think he is?”.

As the night wore on, he continued being obnoxious and kept trying to assert himself into our group and even take charge of how we would hitch hike and where we would eat in town the next day. At one I was talking about pack weight with another hiker, specifically how heavy water is, and this guy came barging over, interrupted the conversation and stated that water” was not that heavy”. In fact, a liter of water only weighed about a pound (Its really about 2.2 lbs.). He was sure of this and could not be convinced otherwise, because he has “read it online”.

Whenever he stepped away from the group for a minute or two, everyone would start talking about how to ditch him. Several people wanted to wake up early and head out before he was ready while others wanted to stay behind and let him get out on the trail first. Finally, I spoke up and told the group that I didn’t want to go out of my way because of someone else. I assured them that if this guy was still a problem the next day, I would deal with it.

Morning rolls around and we decided to tell him that he might want to leave camp first so he had a better chance of hitching a ride first. (after all, our group had eight people). He agreed and hiked out alone.

When we made it to the road crossing, He was still there, standing near a parking area. Since we had a larger group, we decided to “Active Hitch” or walk in the direction we wanted to hitch, while still trying to flag down any passing cars.

We got a few hundred feet down the road when Doug looked back and said “Aw hell, he’s following us”. I looked back and sure enough, he was trying to catch up with us. I told the group to continue on ahead and as promised, I would take care of it.

I quickly walked back down the road to meet him and said “Hey I’m not trying to be a dick, but we have had our little group together for a little while now and you’re not going to be a part of it. I always said I would try to be honest with people, so I’m just being up front with you. I hope you make it all the way to Maine and all, but it isn’t going to be with us.”

And with that, I shook his hand, and headed back down the road to meet up with the group as he headed back the way he came. Everyone was excited to be rid of the nuisance (and even more relieved that they didn’t have to do it themselves).

I think it was Doug that said I “Purged him from the group” and just like that I had a trail name “The Purge”. We also started referring to the hiker as “Roadkill”. Eventually we shortened the name to Purge, as it was just quicker to say.

So that is the story of my Trail name, how about yours? If you have an interesting story, feel free to share in the comments below. And as always if you have any questions about the trail or anything in the blog, please do not hesitate to reach out!

Thanks!

Sean “Purge”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take better Cellphone Pictures on the Trail

Throughout my hike of the Appalachian Trail, I took a lot of pictures. In fact, that is probably an understatement. By the time I left Millinocket, Maine, I had over 6,000 pictures/videos saved to the new (empty) memory card I had started the trail with!

As a result, I ended up with some incredible pictures of scenery, wildlife and fellow hikers. When asked online, what kind of camera I was using many were surprised to learn it was just my cellphone. Specifically, the Samsung Galaxy S7.

Through trial/error, I learned how to get some pretty good shots with a simple camera phone. (Though to be honest, some lookouts were so incredible, it was hard not to come away with a good picture).

This week I wanted to dedicate a blog post to sharing some tips and tricks I picked up along the way. As I mentioned earlier, I used a Galaxy 7, though most of the tips can be broadly applied to other phones as well.

Panorama Shots

One of the more common features, is the Panorama setting. This setting is great for getting wide angle landscape shots that simply won’t fit in a normal frame. Traditionally this is done by keeping turning the phone horizontally and sweeping from side to side to get the shot.  This is a great feature, but gets even better if you flip the phone!

I also like to use it to get a more detailed photo of something that is just a bit too big to fit in the frame of a normal picture without having to back up. Maybe a stretch of wildflowers or a little waterfall.

This shot is similar to a standard Panorama shot, only you keep the phone vertical, and then sweep left to right, just enough to capture the scene you want to shoot. Is allows you to take a slightly wider shot and keep the detail you want.

Another shot, is a vertical Panorama shot. basically taking a really tall or long picture, maybe a tall tree or a shot of the trail stretching out before you. To take this shot, turn on the panorama setting, flip the phone horizontally and move the camera vertically (as opposed to sweeping it left to right in a traditional panorama shot.  This will flip the little panorama arrows to the top and bottom of the screen, and allow you to take a taller/longer shot.

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Close Ups

A favorite shot of mine while on the trail was the close up shot. Whether it was a flower, mushroom or even a frog, close ups let you capture interesting pictures on days when maybe the scenery isn’t that scenic on the trail. (Believe it or not, the AT is not actually full of waterfalls, wildlife and expansive overlooks/mountain tops!)

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Since most smart phone cameras do not have an optical zoom, the goal is to get your lens as close to the subject as possible, for the greatest level of detail. This will put the background out of focus, and draw the eye towards the subject for some neat shots.

The actual placement of the subject in your frame is important too. Sometimes I would leave the main subject off to the side in or order to show some depth in the background. Maybe a tree with a white blaze or other objects/wildlife to give some depth and context to the shot.

Some phones have a “Food” setting that works particularly well for these shots. It allows you to tap the screen and put the focus on a certain area of the picture without having to move the camera. (Though it still won’t make the acorns or wildflowers in your picture any more edible!)

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Selfie

Ah the selfie… after all, if you visit an awesome place, but don’t have a picture to share, were you really there? Getting a good shot of yourself and the scenery in the background is both a science and an art. While they do sell “selfie sticks” and also attachments that you can put on your trekking poles to hold your phone, you can still take great selfies just by using your phone or the trees/bushes around you.

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The first thing to consider is lighting. Make sure the sun is not directly behind you, this will cause a silhouetting effect and will lose a lot of detail. While you cannot always position yourself with the sun behind you, sometimes a step or even a slight change in the angle can give you a completely different perspective and lighting. Another option (if it is cloudy) is to try and time your shot. Wait for a cloud to partially block the sun and snap your shot!

On the technical side, there are a number of things you can do, to make taking a picture of yourself a little easier. The first is, assigning an external button for the shutter. Most phones have an option to use the volume control button on the side of the phone as the shutter button. This allows you to hold your phone more securely as well as not have to contort your hand/finger to hit the little circle on the screen to take the picture.

Another cool setting is voice control picture taking. I am not sure if iPhones have this feature yet, but on a Samsung you can go into the settings and configure the phone to take a picture whenever a certain word is spoken such as “Smile”, “Cheese”, “Capture” or “Shoot”. This is really helpful if you need to stretch your arm way out to take the picture or setting your phone down to take the shot.

Which leads us to the next tip, taking selfies without holding the phone. Occasionally, you will be in an area with a fantastic view, but no one is around to take your picture. The first challenge is finding a place to set your phone. If possible, a bush works great to “hold” your phone, but if one isn’t available, you can also lean it on your pack, signpost or a rock or something. I like to leave the phone in “selfie” mode, so I can see what the shot will look like as I am balancing/adjusting my phone. This also allows you to see when the picture is actually taken, so you are not left smiling at a camera a minute after the actual shot was taken!

From this point, you have two options to actually take the picture. The first is setting the timer. Most phones have several time settings for the timer, varying from 3 to 5 or even 10 seconds. Choose one that will allow you enough time to make it back to area you want to photograph. A word of warning, error on the side of too much time, you do not want to sprint back to the edge of a cliff and risk tumbling over, just for a picture!

The other option is to use voice commands to take the picture as mentioned earlier. This can be a little difficult based on the distance and background noise though. It can also get a little awkward if another hiker walks up in time to see/hear you yelling “CHEEEEESEE!” by yourself at the edge of a cliff!

Security

From texts/pictures to credit card information, we carry a lot of sensitive information on our phones that we don’t want strangers to have access too. This can be a bit of a concern when you want someone on the trail to take a picture of you near a cliff/waterfall/mountain top etc. You are basically giving your phone to a complete stranger and walking away, hoping all they do is snap a couple good pictures and do not snoop through and/or run away with, your phone.

Most of the time there really isn’t any reason for concern. In general, people, especially fellow hikers are more than happy to take your pictures, and may ask for you to do the same in return. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take some precautions.

To start, the best practice is simple awareness. When possible, ask a fellow hiker to take the picture, vs someone that might just be out for the day. If only day hikers are around, try and ask someone from a larger group or a family if possible.

You can also enable some security features on your phone to limit access to just the camera app itself. If you use a security code to unlock your phone (which you should), you would have to give that code to whoever is taking your picture. To get around this, several models of phones allow you to put a button on the unlock screen that opens up the camera, limiting access to just the camera app. Samsung’s in particular have a feature that connects the main push button on the front of the phone to your camera. Once the setting is enabled, a simple double tap, opens the camera up. It also limits the user to taking pictures and videos, blocks the photo album (with the exception of pictures they just took), and prevents sharing of the pictures.

Have Fun!

The best photo tip is to simply have fun with your pictures on the trail!  Make an effort to get some unique pictures. Take different angles of traditional pictures, pictures of interesting things in nature like tree pants and (safe) wildlife selfies.

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Lastly, take pictures of fellow hikers and friends! Scenery shots are great, but having pictures of fellow hikers and friends, capture memories that will last a life time. The farther away from your trip you get, the more you appreciate the time spent with amazing people out on the trail!

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Do you have any tips for taking pictures on the trail? Feel free to share them in the comment section along with any questions or thoughts you might have!

 

I will close with an update on my book. I am still working on it, the process has been a bit slow, but steady. It has been really fun reading back through my blog and journal, reliving moments/memories from early on the trail. I am really excited with the prospect of sharing my journey with everyone.

Now quit reading and get outside!   🙂

Sean “Purge”

Eating Butter and the Story of Hiker Hunger

When I was researching and preparing for my thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, there were a lot of risks/dangers/concerns to consider: bears, snakes, dangerous river crossings, lightening, frostbite/hypothermia…the list goes on and on. However, one thing stood above all else, being hungry. I had read all kinds of stories about hikers and their increased appetites on the trail; tales of hikers stopping in town and destroying all you can eat buffets, eating entire large pizzas themselves (and going back for dessert) and never really feeling full.

Throughout my life I have stayed pretty active and developed a pretty high metabolism, Especially during periods of increased activity. In fact, most mornings, I begin to feel almost physically sick if I do not eat something shortly after waking up.  Of course, prior to the trail, this was remedied by walking into the kitchen and making breakfast.

But now I would be embarking on a long journey, miles away from the nearest food source and burning more calories than I ever had before. I was very concerned that I would not bring enough food, or that I would eat too much, too fast and be left hungry out in the middle of the woods.

This resulted in me packing way too much food at the beginning of the trip, causing my pack to tip the scales at around 42lbs and probably contributing to the knee trouble I had later on. I packed ramen, pasta sides, beef jerky, protein bars, oatmeal, peanuts, nearly two pounds of trail mix (which is ironically a heavy food item for something mean to be carried on the trail.) and more. After the first couple days, I was literally giving food away to lighten my pack.

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I realized quickly, that I wasn’t really eating more or less food than I had off of the trail. Perhaps, I started off as hungry as some hikers get later in the trail and this was just normal for me? It turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. Hiker hunger would hit me full force, it would just take a few hundred miles.

I first began to realize it in mid Virginia When I ate an entire day’s worth of snacks in one sitting by 10am. I just couldn’t stop eating. Eventually I had to stop putting snacks in my hip belt and instead keep them buried in my pack, so that I was at least forced to take the pack off each time I wanted a snack and dig around find them.

About a week later, I reached another tipping point. I found myself about a day and a half away from the next town, and had essentially run out of food. I had packed enough for (What I thought) was about 4-5 days of food, and had eaten it all in just three days! Luckily there was a hostel noted in the guidebook nearby (Four Pines Hostel) and I was able to stay the night and found enough extra food in the hiker box to carry me to the next town.

I once even went as far as eating packets of butter! I had packed a bunch of packets I snagged from a restaurant, to flavor some freshly caught trout that I was sure I would catch. (didn’t happen.) Anyway, I was running low on food, and spotted the packets in my pack and thought “Why not?”  I ate a couple, then began to dip a Cliff bar into the rest. It wasn’t super appetizing, but it did give me a few more calories to finish the day on.

 

Hiker hunger was in full effect. But why?

It’s all about the calories (and protein). On the trail you are burning as much as 3-6000 calories a day, depending on the terrain and distance you are hiking. It is extremely difficult, to keep replacing those calories. Protein plays a role as well, as your body tries to repair and strengthen muscle tissue overnight.

As a result, the body begins to feed off of itself. First any unnecessary fat is consumed, (great right?), but after excess fat is burned off, the body begins to feed on any muscle that isn’t being used throughout the day. On the trail this generally means upper body muscle.

The only way to combat this, is to hike less miles or pack out more food. It is quite the conundrum, as your body needs more fuel, but in order to provide more, you have to carry it. The more food you carry, the heavier your pack and thus the more calories you burn in the process. Even if you choose to hike less miles, it now takes longer to reach the next resupply point forcing you to carry more food anyway.

Things kept getting worse for me the longer the hike went on. What was normally a five-day supply of food, suddenly only lasted 2-3 days. I could almost feel the exact point in time that my body had burned through breakfast, forcing me to stop and eat something.

Every time I made it to a town, I tried to cut back into the caloric deficit by eating as much as I could before heading back out on the trail. I remember one particular morning before leaving town I had 18 pieces of French toast, two orders of bacon and an order of scrambled eggs for breakfast. And it was not a struggle to finish at all, in fact, I probably could have eaten another half dozen slices.

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I really didn’t think anything of it, assuming everyone was going through the same hunger issues as I was. That it was just part of being out on the trail. But that opinion began to change after hearing multiple hikers express their astonishment at how fast/much I would eat when we met up in towns or hostels. One hiker exclaimed “Man, you eat fast…and a lot!”.

For a while I even held an eating record on the trail at the stand run by “The Omelet Guy”. He was a retired fan of the AT and set up a little camp kitchen on the side of the trail out in New Hampshire. He has fruit, cookies, drinks and would make omelets for passing hikers. I had heard about him a few days earlier and was looking forward to the break and food before heading into the White Mountains the next day.

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When I arrived, he how big of an omelet I wanted, 6, 12 or try for the record at 23 eggs. Since 23 seemed pretty intense even for me and I had just eaten breakfast a couple hours earlier, I opted for a 6 egg omelet with cheese, peppers and onions. I blew through it quickly, and had another 6 egg omelet. Still hungry, I said “well, if you don’t mind cooking it up, I guess I’ll shoot for the record”. He was more than happy to, and even brought out a special casserole bowl that is used for record breaking attempts. Ten minutes later, I held the new record at 24 eggs (and peppers, onions and cheese)! Though the real challenge, was making it to the hostel about 9 miles away afterwards!

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Looking back on the trip I believe there were a couple things I might have been able to do differently that may have helped. Eating larger breakfasts before leaving camp in the morning would have helped fuel me throughout the day and cut down on the snacks I needed early on. I didn’t really make this change until later in the hike.

I should have also eaten more protein earlier in the trip. This would have given my muscles the fuel they needed to repair and grow, without cannibalizing, lesser used muscles. Once the process begins, it is very difficult to turn around, especially on the trail.

Finally, I should have planned my resupplies a little better. I was certainly more reactive when it came to purchasing food. As I began to hike more miles and reach more difficult terrain, I always seemed to be about a week late in adjusting the amount of food I expected to eat on the trail.

 

I will close with two of my favorite, food related quotes from the trail:

When asked how much food he had left, my friend Karaoke responded with a sad look, “I am going to have a tortilla wrapped in a tortilla for breakfast in the morning”

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After hearing about the recommended caloric and protein intake for the level of exertion hikers face on the trail, my friend Seeker responded “Hell, to keep up with that amount of calories, I’d have to shove a Snickers bar up my ass every half hour!”

Firearms on the Trail

Are you going to bring a gun with you on the hike?

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This had to be the most common question I heard when I told people I planned to hike the Appalachian Trail.  It seems to be a common question for others as well, as I have noticed an uptick in discussion on several Facebook hiker groups lately.  I think having a Marine Corps Infantry background, a concealed carry permits and having hiked thru hiked the AT this year, gives me unique perspective on the issue so I figured I would throw my two cents in.

 

Please keep in mind that what follows is strictly my opinion, to which I am entitled just as you are entitled to your own (which I respect). That seems to be a concept that often gets ignored when a hot button topic like this is brought up.

This post is also strictly dealing with a long distance hike on the Appalachian Trail. There would be additional considerations made for trails out in Grizzly territory.

Let’s start with the basics:

Did I carry a gun on the trail…No

Would I recommend that someone else carry a gun on thru hike of the Appalachian Trail…No

I can now also say, there wasn’t a single time on the trail that I wished I had brought a firearm.

If you are considering carrying a firearm on a long distance hike, there are several things to think about, including:

  • The level of anticipated threat (both wildlife and human)
  • Legality of carrying a firearm
  • Safety concerns
  • Weight

 

Let’s begin with the threat (or perceived threat) on the Appalachian Trail.  There is a saying on the trail “We carry our fears”. If we are afraid of being cold, we may carry an extra layer. We may pack extra food for fear of running out and so on. Carry a firearm is no different. You are adding about a pound of weight (at a minimum) to carry a firearm, ammunition and holster, to counter what you may believe is a threat.

And let’s consider the threat itself. Many immediately think of Bears and other humans as a threat and justification to carry a firearm. On the AT, most bears are more afraid of you, than you are of them. I personally scared off more than a dozen while walking through Virginia. Most I didn’t even get to see, they heard or smelled me coming (probably smelled if we are being honest!) and took off well before I could see them. I would hear the thunderous crash of the bear tearing through the woods. Unless you openly provoke a bear or happen to get between a mother and its cubs, the only problem you should have is getting your camera out in time to snap a photo.

As for people, most research has shown that criminals tend to be fairly lazy. That is to say, it is very unlikely that they will hike deep into the woods to commit some sort of crime. Of course the trail does pass near and even through some towns, but generally the crime rate is no higher than you would find anywhere else in the country. In fact, it is probably lower.

The next issue, is that of Legality. The trail passes through 14 states, each with its own set of laws regarding the carrying of concealed firearms. There are also a number of national parks with their own rules/regulations as well. Without the right permits, you may be forced to carry illegally or miss sections of the trail

Then there are the safety concerns. I am going to forego the traditional anti-gun argument guns are a threat to the person that is carrying it and everyone around them and make the assumption that if you are going to carry a firearm, you understand how to handle and carry it safely. My point is more on the inconvenience that carrying a firearm on a long distance hike brings about and the safety concerns that arise when a corner is cut.

If you chose to carry a firearm, you are essentially tied to it for the next several months. Everywhere you go, everything you do will be with that firearm. You simply cannot put it in your pack and walk away from it.

For example, you cannot go for a swim to cool off or clean off in that nice mountain pond you just found. You cannot have a couple beers in town. You cannot walk into a bank, post office or other federal building (legally anyway). You are essentially babysitting a handful of metal and gunpowder.

There is also the weight to consider. Sure a pound or two doesn’t seem like much, especially if you have not spent much time long distance hiking. But give it a week or two and you will be looking for any way to lighten your load. There is also the issue of where/how to carry the firearm. Some keep it tucked into their waist belt, others opt for a fanny pack, and still others use a chest harness.

As anyone that has carried a concealed firearm can tell you, it is all about finding a balance between concealment, comfort and accessibility. This can be pretty difficult when you are wearing a pack that keeps shifting around as you climb up and down mountains. I noticed at least a half dozen people carrying “concealed” firearms throughout the course of the trip.

 

So those are my counterpoints to carrying a firearm on the trail. There is no right or wrong answer. Anyone considering carrying a firearm on the trail, needs to weigh the pros and cons of carrying and come to a decision for themselves. Personally, even though the benefit of carrying a firearm was that it might save my life, I did not feel that the probability was high enough to outweigh the items I wrote about in this post.

The best advice I can give is to simply be aware of your surroundings and if you feel unsafe, hike in groups, especially in town and you should be just fine. After all, if you can’t accept a bit of risk in your life, the trial probably isn’t for you anyway.

Finally, I will end with one little story of a firearm alternative I saw on the trail (on two separate occasions actually). Early in the trip, I passed a hiker that look to be around 20 years old, that was carrying a walking staff with what looked to be a 6in spear on the end of it. The spear was covered in a leather sheath to protect it (or maybe to protect others from it).  It was about 6ft tall and had a manufactured look to it, clearly not hand made.

I didn’t think too much of it, until a month later when I saw another hiker carrying an identical walking “stick” with the same spear point and sheath. This time I stopped and asked about it. He said he did buy it for the hike. I jokingly asked if he intended on hunting with it, he said “no its for protection…I couldn’t bring my gun, so I had to bring something”, you know, for bears and stuff”

I couldn’t resist asking the obvious question, if a bear did attack, was his plan to reach up, unsnap the sheath to expose the spear, then lower the spear and hope to land a killing blow on a charging black bear. As we was considering his response, his hiking partner laughed and said “thank you! That is what I’ve been telling him the whole time!”

It was another example of carrying your fears, although in this case, I guess he gets extra credit for at least combining it with a useful walking stick!

 

 

Life After the Trail

Hello everyone!

I apologize for missing last week’s update, I have been busy at the office after completing my transition back to the real world and rejoining the workforce (more on that later).

Over the past month or so I have been following friend and fellow hikers still out on the Appalachian Trail as they wrap up their journeys begin their transition back home. It has been really interesting (and at times entertaining) to see everyone’s reactions and feelings after finishing.

Most immediately miss the trail and long for the simplicity, adventure and comraderie of trail life. A couple have even gone as far as to go straight over to the Pacific Crest Trail and begin another adventure. But like me, most return home and begin adjusting to life in the “Real World”

(Me on the flight home from Maine)

Personally, it was quite the experience as I returned home. The simplest of tasks like getting dressed each morning suddenly stood in stark contrast to the trail where I wore the same shirt and shorts for months at a time. Every time I was at a restaurant, I had to remind myself, that I no longer need to take a couple extra packets of peanut butter and jelly for snacks later on the trail.

But perhaps the greatest difference was all the distractions that life in off the trail presents. Social media, the news cycle, tv, the internet and what the heck is a fidget spinner?!?

The first couple weeks at home, I would wake up with the intention to do something specific, laundry, clean/organize my hiking gear in the basement, mow the lawn etc. and before I knew it, I had spent 5 hours binge watching a show on Netflix.

The transition hit me especially hard one morning while sitting on my front porch drinking coffee. I had been out there for about 5 minutes when I realized, I was looking at, one single tree. Across the street. For the last 5 months, I had been, for the most part, surrounded by thick forests of trees. It seemed so odd, to be looking at a single tree by itself.

I sat there gazing at the grand Oak tree before me. Its large trunk, high branches full of green leaves, birds fluttering about and a pair of squirrels scurrying around. I knew that something had changed inside me. I had always loved the outdoors, but I now realized that it was much more a part of me now than ever before.

While I couldn’t run off on another months long adventure (just yet anyway!), I could do more to get back outdoors. I began to try and spend more time outdoors, down at a local river near my house, fishing, hiking and even hauling my laptop down to write outside. Shorter canoeing and camping trips help take the edge off as well. I also took a drive back down to the trail for a couple days to meet up with some friends that are working their way down the southern half of the trail (and killing it!)

And when I get too caught up in the day to day life back in the real world, I need only look as far as my wallet for guidance. I keep a fortune from a cookie I got the day I summited Katahdin and finished the Appalachian trail. It couldn’t have been a more perfect message on a more important day. It reads: “In life it is good not to get too comfortable” .

I keep it as a reminder to keep life interesting, get off the couch, out of the house and go on a new adventure!

 

Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, I have rejoined the workforce as a project manager for a software company in Northeast Ohio. And yes, software companies with awesome cultures, coworkers and ping pong tables are not limited to the west coast!

I am continuing to work on my book in my free time and will post updates as I have them. I have really enjoyed writing about the trip so far, gives me a chance to relive some great moments and hopefully pass them on to readers who might one day step off on an adventure of their own!

Finally, I will leave you with this, a picture of a frog on my office window yesterday!

Gear Review: Sleeping System

With a mid February start date on the Appalachian Trail, one of the biggest gear decisions was my sleeping system. Freezing temperatures and snow are common in northern Georgia through mid Virginia and proper gear is needed to not only survive the night, but wake up ready to tackle the next day’s challenges.

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(Snow/ice when I went through the Grayson Highlands in early April 2017)

Using a hammock and tarp as my primary shelter furthered the need for an appropriate sleep system. As even a light breeze on a summer day can sap warmth from a hammock and its occupant.

When exploring backpacking sleep system options, you are immediately presented with a choice, sleeping bag or quilt.

Quilts are normally filled with Down or synthetic down, and are essentially a large blanket or sleeping bag without a back. You lay down on your sleeping pad (or hammock) and cover yourself with the quilt similar to a blanket. Many have straps that secure the quilt to a sleeping mat, trapping the air inside.

By cutting out the excess material, quilts are generally a lighter option vs traditional sleeping bags, but require a bit more set up to stay warm on a really cold night.

The second option is a traditional sleeping bag. by nature, these will trap more heat inside and require nothing more than sliding in and zipping up.

Sleeping bag

For an early start on the trail, I selected a Marmot, Never Summer mummy style bag, rated to 0 degrees.

 

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(Picture from REI.com)

It is important to remember the temperature rating of a sleeping bag is simply the lowest temperature at which the bag will still keep you alive in. In other words, inside a 30 degree bag, you may survive the night in temperatures as low as 30 degrees, but you probably won’t be comfortable and won’t get much sleep. As a rule of thumb, I like to add at least to 10-15 degrees to any sleeping bag/quilts temperature rating. Though some manufacturers are now printing a temperature rating and a comfort rating to avoid confusion.  My sleeping bag had a temperature rating of 0 degrees and a comfort rating of 12.7 degrees.

Another consideration in choosing a sleeping bag is the type of fill. Generally you have two options, Down or Synthetic.

Down fill is usually lighter and warmer than a synthetic fill, though tends to be more expensive. It also has little to no insulating properties when wet and therefore MUST be kept dry. This can lead to potentially life threatening situations in the colder months. If it does get wet, it can take a very long time to dry out, especially on the trail. Whereas Synthetic fill can be a bit heavier a little less warm, but will retain some warmth in wet conditions.

I selected a down filled bag to save on weight. By keeping my sleeping bag inside a waterproof stuff sack which was inside of my waterproof pack, I was not concerned about getting it wet.

The down itself was a 650 fill down. the number refers to the quality of the down. The higher the number, the warmer the down itself is. 650 is on the lower, more inexpensive fills.  You can purchase bags/quilts of up to 850 fill down, though your wallet will be lightening up as quick as your pack weight! I have seen 0 degree bags of higher fill sell for 600+dollars.

The sleeping bag had a couple extra features that I liked, including a large glow in the dark zipper that was very easy to use (especially when you needed to hop out in the middle of the night!). It also had a small zippered pocket on the inside, this was useful for storing earplugs when camped near a snoring hiker. Finally the hood of the sleeping bag was constructed with a lot of thought. It has drawstrings on each end and a raised collar that would trap heat in from the neck down.

I read a lot of negative things about using a mummy style sleeping back in a hammock, but going back I would do it all again. I never had an issue with it and always slept warm.

The Never Summer bag retails for about $300, though I was able to find mine for $250 on sale at backcountry.com

For a full run down of the specs, check out the link below:

https://www.rei.com/product/895824/marmot-never-summer-down-sleeping-bag

Underquilt

As I mentioned earlier, when using a hammock, some sort of insulating layer is needed underneath to stay warm. A common option and one that I went with, is the use of an under-quilt. Basically a down filled quilt that is attached to the underside of the hammock, it traps warmth and blocks out wind. Some people make their own while others (like me) lack the crafty handiwork to go at it alone, and purchase one.

I selected the Winter Wooki underquilt from Warbonnet.

One of the main reasons I went with the Winter Wooki (other than a great name!) was it was produced by the same company (Warbonnet) that produced my Hammock (the Blackbird XL). Being made specifically for the hammock, it was incredibly easy to set up. It is fitted to the hammock and only requires a clip on each end to be perfectly aligned. No adjustments needed. This saved a lot of time setting up the hammock and underquilt and also ensured I would not be woken up in the middle of the night by a draft and need to readjust it.

The underquilt was filled with 850 down, was rated to 0 degrees and weighed in around 24 ounces. Between the sleeping bag and the underquilt, I slept comfortably every night on the trail in the colder months.

For more details, check out the link below:

https://www.warbonnetoutdoors.com/product/wooki-full-length-hammock-underquilt/

Quilt

When the weather finally turned warmer (around the halfway point of the trip), I swapped out the heavier sleeping bag for a lighter quilt. The quilt kept me from overheating in the hammock on warm nights and still gave me the option to cinch it up with straps if it got colder.

I chose the Enlightened Equipment, Revelation quilt 30 degree 850 fill down quilt.

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(Picture from enlightenedequipment.com)

Weighing in at less than a pound and taking up a lot less pack volume, I was really excited to swap it out with my winter sleeping bag.

The revelation quilt is a little different from other quilts with its zippered foot box. The zipper extends about a foot and a half from the bottom to trap a little more warmth when needed. This also makes for less adjusting to eliminate drafts.

Enlightened Equipment custom builds each of their quilts from a selected number of options including color, design, down fill and size. Because of the custom nature, it can be a while before you receive your quilt. Because I was on the trail when I ordered mine, I purchased one “off the shelf”, a number of quilts they have available for immediate purchase. some times orders are cancelled, returned or not processed for a number of reasons and these are available to ship immediately. They were also nice enough to give me a military discount, bringing the total cost of my quilt to around $225 I believe.

I would absolutely recommend a quilt over a sleeping bag for any hiking trip that is not expecting prolong time in sub freezing weather conditions (although they do make quilts rated that low as well).

For more details on the quilt, see link below:

https://enlightenedequipment.com/revelation/

Sleeping Mat

In Pennsylvania I ran into a situation that led me to the switching over from an underquilt in favor of an inflatable sleeping mat.

somewhere after Boiling Springs PA I had put in a 20+ mile day, arriving at the shelter as it was getting dark. As soon as I arrived, it began POURING rain. In addition, the forest and undergrowth around the shelter was very thick and had no space for a hammock. So I decided to sleep in the shelter. The temperature started to drop as fast as the rain, cooling off to around 40 degrees. this  presented a problem, as I knew the floor of the shelter would sap the warmth out of me without any kind of sleeping mat to insulate against it. I ended up emptying out my pack, laying it as flat as I could manage and sleeping with my torso atop the back padding of the pack. I stayed warm enough that night, but it was not comfortable to say the least. I vowed to find a solution the next time I made it to an outfitter.

I was able to find a Big Agnes Air Core inflatable sleeping mat on sale for about $60.  There is a newer model out now that has a slightly different air valve/quick release. the picture below, is the model I had.

 

(Picture from Massyoutfitters.com

The model I purchased was 3.25 inches thick and had some insulating properties (down to around 35 degrees), more than enough for late spring/summer camping. It weight in at less than a pound and a half and folded up to the size of a small nalgene bottle.

It gave me the option to sleep in shelters when I needed/wanted to, and also provided a layer of insulation when in my hammock. One tip for the hammock though, you do need to under inflate the mat for a more comfortable nights sleep. I would inflate mine to around 40%, just enough to provide a layer of insulation.

The sleeping mat was especially helpful in the White mountains of New Hampshire when we were able to sleep in the dining halls of the huts.

With  an early season start tot he hike, I would still recommend an underquilt for the hammock, but anything after that, an inflatable mat would be a better route to go with a hammock.