Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail

This is actually the over fifty’s guide to backpacking on the AT. For me it’s actually a guide to returning to the woods after forty plus years. I have hiked a multitude of places, from Mount Saint Helena in Napa, California, Tent Rocks in New Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru. None of those hikes were with a twenty-pound backpack. They were all day hikes; rather like a scenery stroll. And they all ended where I was sleeping comfortably in a cushy bed with running water, a flush toilet, and a solid roof over my head. The last time I had a backpack on was when I was at Camp Merrowvista in Ossipee, New Hampshire and I was sixteen years old. Things have changed. More importantly, I have changed.

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My boyfriend Roy attempted hiking the entire Appalachian trail in 2015. If you are unfamiliar, this is no small task. It can take upwards of five to seven months to complete the 2,190 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Roy made it 531 miles before a medical issue derailed his attempt. This brought me to wanting to experience the allure of the trail.

Here are my findings:

Water

This is a whole different ball game when it comes to backpacking versus day hiking. Though towns are close to the trail, it isn’t the point to hike and drop back into civilization. There aren’t handy convenience stores, faucets, or water fountains out on the trail. Carrying five to ten days of water is not feasible. Roy bought me a Sawyer Mini Water filter about a month before we went backpacking. I threw it in my closet and figured I’d be carrying my water with me. Nope. Water is the heaviest item you are carrying, so you should try and keep enough for one day. Make sure you know where the springs or water sources are along the trail. It’s not like a road trip, where you can stop off at the next exit to refill on water and use the restrooms! We had several empty water bottles to help filter from our bladder bags when we refilled at a water source on the trail. We were fortunate that the water source was a cistern on the trail versus a spring along the trail. It would have been a process and a lot more time consuming to retrieve water from a natural source. Sawyer filtration systems are very easy to use and are highly recommended by practically every A.T. thru-hiker. Don’t leave home without a water system at the ready and located water sources.

Guide

I was fortunate to be guided by a seasoned hiker like Roy. He knew that we needed the most recent A.T. Guide Northbound 2018. Roy had ripped out the page we needed for our hike. It showed the elevation, the location of the shelters, and water sources along the route we were taking. If we didn’t have the guide, it would have been impossible to know where the next water source or shelter might have been. You wouldn’t go on a road trip without a GPS or paper map. Make sure you have one that is most up-to-date before you head out. On the A.T., the white blazes on the trees and rocks are your guide. However, there are blue blazes (indicating a trail to a water source or shelter) and double white blazes (indicating some type of change coming up, such as a fire road crossing) as well. These indicate when you are off the main trail or if there is a change coming up. You might wonder why you need the most updated guide for the trail, but there are changes each year as trails become rerouted due to damage or are remeasured by volunteers. In contrast, my previous day hikes were trails that were heavily marked with frequent mileage indicators. The A.T. has very few signs, so the guide is invaluable when heading out. I found it frustrating, in retrospect, that I didn’t know whether I had walked a half mile or not. Most day hikes have a lot more signage with progress indicated along the way. It would be very easy to get lost rather quickly if we didn’t stick to the white blazes.

Clothing

My daughter Natalie is an experienced backpacker, as is Roy. Both kept warning me about not having ANY cotton clothing on the trip. Cotton will absorb sweat like a sponge and will not properly insulate. Boy, am I glad I listened. I opted for everything to be nylon or polyester, except for my wool socks. I tried a few shirts on that were merino wool but that particular material irritated my skin. In my practice hikes, I tested out several sets of shirts and pants to make sure nothing rubbed against my backpack. I cut every tag off every piece of clothing that I took with me. I get aggravated by anything rubbing against my skin. I didn’t want to be looking for a pair of scissors two miles in. I had a total of three (yes, three) jackets. One rain jacket for rain and wind. I started off the hike wearing a jacket since it was 40 degrees and windy at the start. I also brought a fleece jacket, which I changed into once the wind died down, as it was still cold. Finally, I wrapped myself in a puffy down jacket at the actual campsite since I was no longer exerting myself as much and needed to retain my body heat. I had a base layer under my hiking pants, which I kept on the entire trip to stay warm. The only thing I didn’t wear that was stored in my pack was my extra underwear. So my entire list was three pairs of wool socks (one for each day hiking and one pair to sleep in), two pairs of underwear, one short sleeve shirt, one long sleeve shirt, rain paints, convertible hiking pants, base layer pants (long johns), sports bra, bandana, buff, wool hat, cap, fleece jacket, rain jacket and down jacket. My advice is to try them all out with your backpack in different temperatures and weather conditions. Being as comfortable as possible is key.

Food

I figured that I would be starving the whole time we were backpacking. I’m not sure if it was nerves or exhaustion, but I ended up not eating that much. We had some peanut butter crackers, trail mix, and oatmeal bars. I think it’s easy to overthink and over-carry on food. We probably brought back about half as much as we started with. But gratefully, nothing went wrong on the trip. If we had been stranded for some reason due to injury, we would have needed all the food. We cooked a rice package for our only dinner on the trail and didn’t even bother cooking the ramen we brought. Having a hot cup of tea at the end of a daylong hike in our campsite was restorative. Coffee, the next morning, when it was 38 degrees was important as well. There is something about a warm beverage that makes everything feel better. Before you head out, make sure you’ve tested your burner and cookware. I’m not sure I would have been able to figure it out on my own in the waning light of day. Warm food makes a huge difference out on the trail.

Light

I had a light attached to the end of a cap for my entire trip. I knew where that hat was whether it was in the tent, in my pack or on my head. We hiked at the end of October and the sun was setting around 6:30 PM. I did not want to be stuck hiking, eating, finding water, or unpacking my sleeping bag without a light. It was critical to be able to see at night, especially when trying to go to relieve yourself. There were warnings about black bears in the area and being aware of my surroundings was critical. Have a light and know where it is always.

There are more must-haves like a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress. Trekking polls were invaluable as well. If you take anything away from this at all, test out everything you are planning to take with you in as many ways possible. You don’t want to find out five miles into your trip that your hiking shoes are uncomfortable, your backpack is too small, or that the tags on your clothes won’t stop rubbing your skin. When you head out backpacking, you have your entire life on your back. Thankfully, we only went out for a two-day hike, but getting the right combination of necessities can make the difference between a miserable and wonderful hike. Make sure you have the right basics for you.

Thoughts on Seattle

My son and I spent Thanksgiving in Seattle with my daughter and her boyfriend. It was a first-time trip for my son and probably my fourth. My daughter moved to Seattle this July and it was fun to have her as the tour guide for her new stomping grounds. To see the city as a resident rather than a tourist.

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Here are my observations about Seattle:

Rain.  This is by far the rainiest it has been on a trip to Seattle for me. Cold, windy rain. It’s funny but because of the rain, I realized how the city is built around rain. There are coat racks and umbrella racks by the doors of most of the establishments we went into. It reminded me of Phoenix with its covered parking spaces; obviously used for different reasons. Seattle has set up the infrastructure that works with its weather. Somehow it makes it all more tolerable. By the third day, I was just expecting rain at some point and carried along my umbrella. This apparently, is a sure sign of a tourist. Seattleites usually just wear raincoats. By the end of my visit, I had purchased said raincoat with a hood because carrying an umbrella is a wet, messy drag. Adapt to the rain because you know it’s coming.

Coffee.  I have been to plenty of cities with ample coffee shops but in Seattle coffee is an art. It’s where the gourmet coffee industry started. Whether it was a freshly brewed pour-over coffee, a latte or a cup of coffee at a local diner, it was all terrific. You can’t serve Maxwell House in Seattle, only the best will do. There are the ubiquitous Starbucks everywhere, but we found a place called La Marzocco Café, which was a coffee shop inside a radio station studio. It was amazing. The kind of place to sit down and relax while you watch it rain outside and listen to great music from KEXP. It is a must-see in Seattle. My son and I ended going there several times to chill out and relax. It’s within walking distance of the Space Needle, so even tourists can make their way there. My daughter’s boyfriend, Kevin, made several pots of delicious coffee at their apartment. Be sure to relax and enjoy the coffee.

Transit.  There are many modes of transportation in Seattle, and my son and I used Lyft for most of our journeys. Walking is another popular mode, and once you have purchased a raincoat (see bullet one), it’s really not that bad. Plus, walking with an umbrella becomes a game of strategy on crowded streets, so I highly recommend wearing a rain jacket instead, just so there isn’t collateral damage as you make your way on foot. Kevin and his brother Brian suggested we take a bus from Pike Place Market to their apartment in Ballard. We had a whole afternoon together with no rush, so I was game. I have to say I was skeptical. I can’t remember the last time I rode a bus, but it was cheap ($2.50) and took us to within a half mile of the apartment. There is a certain Zen to riding a bus, as the world rolls past and riders stare blankly ahead, or intently at their phones. I was glad I had the experience, since my daughter rides the bus to work every day and I now understand the appeal. There is this transition from home to work or vice versa that frees up time for thought and reflection that driving doesn’t.

Food.  We had amazing food all week. Whether it was a diner near the Space Needle, pho at a local Vietnamese restaurant, or tacos at a Mexican spot. When we were walking around Ballard one night there must have been twenty plus restaurants we passed. I would have eaten in any one of them. There is something comforting about walking in the rain (again see bullet 1) and ducking into a cozy spot for some delicious food. Pike Place Market (with the world-renowned fish throwers) has an amazing assortment of everything, from chanterelle mushrooms to Dungeness crabs to moon drop grapes. I’ve always thought of the San Francisco Bay Area as the food mecca of the world, but Seattle could give it a run for its money. It was ironic that several of the places where we ate were Southern in theme. Whether it was shrimp and grits, biscuits or collards, I didn’t feel like I was a 6-hour flight from home. I think the cold rain makes food taste better. The pinnacle of food was our Thanksgiving meal with Brian and Natalie at the helm.  There is a peace in letting go and not being responsible for the biggest meal of the year. I don’t need to worry about whether the turkey is carved. Turns out, it is still delicious, regardless of how it is carved.

It was a great trip with the highlight being a trip to the Japanese gardens at the Washington Arboretum and spectacular Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum. There is always something fascinating to do in Seattle, regardless of the weather. What are your favorite spots in Seattle?