That’s the total weight of everything in my backpack—gear, food, water, and stove fuel. I used that 10 pound backpack to hike 100 miles (plus a few more) of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park in 3 days. No fair weather hiking, it was more late winter than early spring conditions—rain, sleet, light snow and hard freezes at night. I think I am very close to dialing in a Light Pack that is also supremely efficient at covering long trail miles*.
But more important, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was warm, happy and comfortably cruising along one of the most spectacular ridge lines on the east. The kooky weather made for great entertainment and some spectacular views. (Scan through the photos below for a few of them.)
|* Anyone can adopt the techniques I used to reduce wasted time and become a more efficient hiker. Even if long trail miles is not your goal, this gives you more time to enjoy the great views, take photographs, fish, or get some extra swimming in a lake rather than fiddling with your gear.
And just to be clear: My 34 miles/day average on the AT through Shenandoah National Park is far from super speedy. The fabulous Heather (Anish) Anderson averaged 42 miles per day on her record setting, unsupported AT through-hike last year. And my guess is that each year, more than a few hardy through-hikers cover the Park in 3 days as well. Nonetheless, I’m happy with my hike given the unusually cool and wet weather and short daylight hours of early April.
This a three part series:
- My 2007 attempt to section hike the 102 miles of the AT Trail through Shenandoah National Park in three days (I came up short)
- My March 2016 plans: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail to use better gear and techniques
- And this April 2016 report of my successful completion of the 102 miles of the AT in SNP in three days.
Why it Worked this Time – 10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles
In previous posts, I’ve discussed coming up short in my 2007 attempt to section hike the 102 miles and 22,000 feet of elevation gain of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park in 3 days. So what were the keys to succeed this time even though the weather was more challenging:
- Focus on efficiency—no wasting time: Running out of daylight was the major reason why I came up short in 2007. Minutes matter. Less wasted time equals more time to hike in the limited daylight of early spring. Just a few minutes wasted per hour adds up to 10 miles over 3 days.
- Gear: I chose practical but light gear, with a focus on zero fiddle-factor (= no time wasting).
For a full discussion of this as well as the gear list see: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail
- In this post I discuss two major gear choices, my 11 oz backpack and my 2.8 lb sleep system, and how they contributed to the efficiency (lack of time wasting) of my hike.
- Adjustments for crap weather: As they say, “when we make plans Nature laughs.” Here’s the last minute gear adjustments I made for unusually wet and cold trip weather: Major Adjustments for Cold Weather
- Shakedown trip: Two weekends prior, Alison and I did a 3 day Early Spring Backpacking Trip in cold and wet conditions with the gear I intended to use on the hike. On that trip we put in a hard and fast 22 mile day. In addition, in previous winters I tested my very cold weather hammock gear at 12°F (-11°C) so I had a tried and true light winter hammock quilt system ready to go.
- Food: I used my usual 3-day-trip strategy—bring a small amount of very high calorie and nutritious food. I ate a huge breakfast before I started hiking on day 1, and a huge dinner when I came out on day 3. To save time, I ate much of my food while walking. See: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly
- Water: I drank when thirsty following current advice from experts in the field of sports hydration. The AT with its frequent springs and streams lends itself to a drink at source and not carry water strategy. I was not thirsty between water sources. But more important, I spent less time collecting/purifying water and making fewer side trips to springs (= more time to hike). I felt healthy and fine and woke each day ready to hike another 34 miles. See: Drink When Thirsty – Myths and Facts about Hydration.
- Training: Listed next to last, but certainly among the most important contributors to trip success. It was critical to be in good hiking shape from the get-go; I didn’t have the luxury of hiking 850 trail miles to season-up, like North Bound through-hikers that started at Springer Mountain, GA. I followed my own 2 day a week training schedule, Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking. I couldn’t, in training, match my longest expected day (36 miles with 15,000 feet of elevation change). I did my best with a a few fast and hilly 20+ mile hikes pre trip.
- Fun: And last but certainly most important is enjoying the trip. Yes, I had fun. Sometimes more “fun” than I wanted, but for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The Blue Ridge put on a spectacular show with weather fronts rolling through. With more time, I would have happily picked up food in Waynesboro and kept on heading south.
Running out of daylight was the major reason why I came up short in 2007. While you can hike in the dark under headlamp it is neither as fast nor as efficient as hiking in daylight. Rather, you have to slow down to miss rocks and other irregularities in the trail. In addition, it is much harder to follow the trail after dark. It is also easy to loose the trail—and re-finding the trail is a huge loss of time. That’s why all the speed records on the AT are done in the middle of the summer with the most daylight.
Minutes matter. This overarching goal trumps everything else. Less wasted time equals more time to hike in the limited daylight of early spring. Just a few minutes wasted per hour can add up to 10 miles over 3 days. So I did whatever I could do with gear choices and technique to be hiking as much as possible during each hour, and spending the least amount of time stopped or fiddling with things.
Note: time wasting has far more universal impacts than just trying to make trail miles. For instance, if you’ve just spent a lot of money and your precious vacation time to take a big trip, wouldn’t you rather spend your time enjoying the great views, taking photographs, fishing, or getting some extra swimming in a lake rather than fiddling with your gear? I will cover this topic, “Backpacking Time Wasters and Time Savers” in an upcoming post.
This is not a fringe gear list. I want to be safe. I hate being wet, cold and uncomfortable. I want a good night’s sleep. This gear list does all of that. In fact I’d wager that I am warmer, more comfortable, have more living area, and sleep better than most campers. For a complete discussion on gear selection and a Complete Gear List see my previous post: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail.
Each minute of daylight hiking time is precious and once squandered cannot be recovered. As such I chose practical but light gear, with a focus on zero fiddle-factor (time wasting). If gear was lighter but took away from my hiking time (or sleeping time) it was out. I’ll use my backpack and sleep system selection rationale as examples.
- The Mountain Laurel Designs Burn Backpack’s Cuben Fiber construction is plenty durable. I don’t have to waste time trying to handle it gently, or to not scrape it against brush or rocks. (vs. the single rear pocket, no hipbelt, 3.8 ounce spinnaker fabric pack I used in 2007)
- The Burn’s numerous pockets save time as I rarely need to take the pack off to get what I need. Most often, I can do this while continuing to walk. From the two side pockets and two shoulder strap pockets, I can instantly access my most-used-gear and all of my day’s food. Rainwear is in the rear pocket and accessible in less than 10 seconds. Most days I don’t need to go into the main pack-bag during the day—which is good since that’s a lot of time wasted.
- The Cuben Fiber main pack-bag with a roll top closure is virtually waterproof. Combine that with stowing my quilts and down jacket in Cuben Fiber stuff sacks and I don’t need to do anything different when it rains, just keep hiking. So my backpack is always packed the same, regardless of weather. No messing around taking on and off pack covers (imperfect rain protection anyway) or fussing with pack liners, both of which are a pain and waste time.
- It has a simple and light hipbelt capable of supporting at least 15 to 20 pounds.
- Getting a good night’s sleep was essential to putting in back to back long days on the trail. My body needed rest to recover and get up and do it all over again the next day. Any impediment to getting my recovery was “time wasted.” This was arguably more important than wasted hiking time.
- I need a light sleep system that I know will give me great sleep every night! One that I will relax and start to doze off minutes after I lie down and know that I will sleep soundly for the rest of the night.
- For me on the AT this is clearly an 8 oz hammock paired with warm down quilts and a cuben fiber tarp. Read more here: Hammock camping article. Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems
- Another advantage of a hammock on the AT, hammock camping equates to more miles hiked at the end of the day vs. sleeping on the ground.
- Why? Sleeping in a hammock dramatically increases suitable campsites on the AT. With a hammock all I need to camp is two trees—the ground below is largely irrelevant. That means I can hike until dusk without the risk of being in un-campable terrain. (Since much of the AT is sloped and rocky it’s not suitable for ground camping.)
- So if I were ground sleeping I would likely need to stop hiking sooner than dusk to camp. I.e. I need to stop at the last shelter or campground that I could comfortably make before dark. Thus I might miss an hour or more of available daylight to hike.
I was hoping for pleasant spring conditions—sunny and in the 60s during the day with crisp sleeping temps in the 40s at night. Unfortunately, this was the weather I got. It would be even colder than this at higher elevations along the Blue Ridge in the park with temperatures likely dropping into the low 20s and rain becoming wind-blown sleet. Life is like that sometimes.
My major changes were:
- do the hike in 3 vs. 4 days
- take warmer, +20F hammock quilts but with trimmer dimensions to save weight
- take a bit warmer clothes; a down jacket vs. down vest, and to add a light fleece shirt that I wore the whole hike.
Click here to see Major Changes for Winter Wx full page, as a Google Sheet
Original (non winter modified)5 Pound Practical Light Gear List
Click here see it full page, as a Google Sheet
Shakedown trip: Two weekends before Alison and I did a 3 day trip in cold and wet spring conditions with the gear I intended to use on the hike. We got 35 degree rain, and hard freezes at night. My gear performed well and I made only a few adjustment prior to the Shenandoah. We also did one hard and fast 22 mile day to see test fitness, leg strength and endurance.