The Appalachian National Scenic Trail

What is it?

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, commonly referred to as simply the Appalachian Trail or “the AT” for short, is probably the most well-known hiking trail in the United States. As such it inspires a few thousand prospective thru-hikers and (estimates say) close to 3 million visitors (day hikers, section hikers) to the nearly 2,200 mile footpath each year. Though less than half of the prospective thru hikers actually go on to complete the trek.

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Appalachian Trail Map (http://swling.com/blog/tag/best-radio-for-appalachian-trail/)

How do you thru hike it?

The AT is most commonly hiked from its southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire before travelers reach the northern terminus at Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Although many of those starting later in the year choose to hike southbound from Maine to Georgia to avoid seasonal closure in Baxter State Park that would otherwise prevent northbound hikers from actually reaching the summit of Katahdin if they run behind.

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Approach Trail (http://cnyhiking.com/ATinGA-SpringerMountain.htm)

Mt Katahdin

Mt. Katahdin (http://www.summitpost.org/katahdin/150219)

What’s the draw?

The Appalachian Trail is iconic and has been the focus of several books, documentaries and a mainstream movie. But what makes people want to start an undertaking of this magnitude? The answer to that question is very specific to the person that is answering. Many people want to say that they thru hiked the grandfather long trail, some want to prove to themselves that they have what it takes to survive in the woods for months at a time. Others are just looking for an escape or change of pace. But one thing remains the same, everyone that starts the trail finds the same rocky path, lined by seasonal flowers, rhododendron tunnels, mixed forest filled with fresh mountain streams and spring water sources, breathtaking mountain views and comradery that most never expect to find in the middle of nowhere.

How long does it take?

The average hiker takes between 4-5 months, or 165 days on average, to finish the thru hike. But it can be done in less time by those determined to skip zero days (a day that you hike 0 miles), and can take longer for those wishing to really experience everything there is to experience on the trail. Many of the trail towns hold festivals. Damascus, VA hold an annual festival dubbed “Trail Days” and offers an opportunity for vendors and past and present thru hikers to come together and celebrate the trail.

How much does it cost?

An AT thru hike costs an average of $4500-$6000 depending on the amount of time the hiker decides to stay in trail towns or in hostels along the trail. The biggest expense along the trail is food, as the average hiker needs to consume nearly 5,500 calories a day to maintain their weight while thru hiking the AT. This constant need for calories has also spawned dozens of traditional eating contests in trail towns along the way. From eating a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting to hotdogs and pancake eating competitions. Thru hikers know how to load up on calories whenever the opportunity is presented to them.

In addition to actual hike costs, prospective thru hikers will spend between $500 and $2,500 on gear before setting out on their epic quest, cost mostly depending on the brand of gear that is purchased. While it is possible to spend less upfront, outfitters like REI stand by the items that they sell and will send thru hiker’s replacement gear while they are on the trail if anything happens to fail.

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Additional Links:

http://blog.rei.com/hike/21-appalachian-trail-statistics-that-will-surprise-entertain -and-inform-you/

http://www.projecttimeoff.com/blog/things-do/more-walk-woods-what-you-need-know-about-appalachian-trail

Hike Safety: How to Protect Yourself from Two-Legged Predators.

There is a lot to love about hiking, and the outdoor community. From the solitude of the forest to the unique and breathtaking mountaintop views that only the dedicated and slightly crazy (most of us) enthusiasts get to see. The hiking community is one of brother and sisterhood and we often greet each other as long lost friends even if we’ve never met before. But this sometimes lulls us into a false sense of security and an assumption that everyone we meet on the trail is a harmless thrill seeker like ourselves. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Sometimes people enter the forest trail with sinister intentions, and while we hate to admit that those people walk amongst us, it’s an unfortunate reality that we must face.

I didn’t want to write this post for a multitude of reasons, but the topic has been constantly on my mind since the news of the murder of two young girls on a trail in my home state this past month made it to my ears. Without going into detail out of respect for the young women and their families all I will say is that the murderer is still out there. Now I often find myself thinking of ways to spot these types of people before they reveal their intentions and think of what I would have done in the same situation. But truth be told, I’m a large intimidating figure on the trail, not a young teenage girl. This alone makes me less likely to become the victim of this type of crime. But not everyone on the trail is a 6 foot 270 pound man, so what can we do to make sure that we stay safe while we enjoy our favorite outdoor recreation?

Here are a few basic precautions that you should always take when you go hiking.

  1. Be familiar with the area that you’re hiking in. Unless you’re an experienced outdoorsman or outdoorswoman, always head into unfamiliar areas with a group. Either take friends or join an established group of hikers from a site like meetup.com, but always check the group reputation before heading to any remote locations. Look for active groups with a lot of people that frequent the outings. Make sure to visit places in groups several times before planning any extended solo adventures. Knowing the lay of the land and where you can hide without being found by others is an essential survival skill. Running, hiding and being able to camouflage  is your first line of defense if things go amiss. Never underestimate the power of camo, I’ve been standing on a creek bed filtering water 5 feet off the trail in camo and had people walk right by me and not notice that I’m there until I move.This can be invaluable when someone is looking for you and you don’t want to be found. Finally, don’t plan solo trips until you know the area well and are comfortable in the terrain.
  2. Tell a friend or family member exactly where you’re going. Even more specifically, tell a friend or family member that is capable of meeting up with you or finding you in that area should you fail to check in. Leave a map of the area with a detailed plan for where you plan to be at what time and any intended stops along the way. Be sure to check in with this person at a set interval during your trip. This is especially important when you’re going on a multi-day solo trip. Even the most experienced hikers and outdoor enthusiasts do this, so add it to your plan before you go.
  3. Carry something for self-defense. Always be prepared for other people’s bad intentions, being in the middle of nowhere doesn’t always make you safe. Even on the most popular and heavily trafficked long trail in the Nation has seen 11 murders in the last 40 years. The truth remains that we’re far more likely to be harmed by 2 legged animals than any number of the 4 legged animals on the trail. Plan for this before you go out and make sure you take something with you. I always hike with at least a knife and mace spray, no matter what trip I’m planning or the duration of the trip. Mace is effective against most of your smaller predators, and will give you a leg up if you’re attacked by a person while hiking. You can also carry a firearm if you’re old enough and have been through a firearm safety course, or have at least been taught by a competent person and have any licenses required by your state to own and carry and conceal a firearm. A .380 is small and lightweight enough that you can conceal it in a pocket without noticing the additional weight too much even for smaller built individuals. If you’re underage or have an aversion to firearms, you can carry a small pellet gun for emergencies. Catching a pellet or metal BB to the face will stop most people or animals in their tracks. Also remember that if you are attacked, make as much noise as possible while the attack is going on. Most hiking packs have a built in emergency whistle on the chest strap that can alert other hikers in the area to the attack so that they can assist you.
  4. Hike with a dog. Nothing says “don’t mess with me” like man’s best friend. Hiking with your dog is therapeutic for master and pup, but also serves as a deterrent to people who may have bad intentions on the trail. Strangers are often weary of dogs that they don’t know and the threat of having a set of jaws clamped onto their body is enough to keep most people at bay. Besides being fiercely loyal and willing to give their lives to protect their owners. Dogs make a hell of a lot of racket when something upsets them. A barking dog along with the sound of a commotion and an emergency whistle will be enough draw help from miles around. The attacker having to deal with a dog will also give you extra time to ready your personal defenses.
  5. Improvise, fight and commit. If you can’t elude the person and you don’t have a firearm or more lethal weapon, trekking poles are a walking stick can be used as weapons. Aim for the groin, the middle of the chest, the neck and the face. If you have trekking poles, pop the rubber guards off and jab like it’s a spear. Continue to make as much noise as you can, and never allow the person to force you off the trail. If they are planning to harm you, make them stay in the open where someone can see the altercation and help. Oftentimes help is just out of sight, if you go off trail your chances of being seen go down dramatically. Once you’ve determined that you must fight, do not stop attacking until you can safely get away. As soon as that opportunity presents itself, make a run for it. If they follow, keep making as much noise as possible.

Above all else, remember that there is safety in numbers. Even if the attacker has a gun they can still be overpowered by a group. Most times a group of 3 or more will deter a would-be attacker, so when you’re planning a trip somewhere new, remember the more the merrier. Always be prepared for the worst and plan accordingly. Not everyone has the best intentions, but a little planning can keep you happy, safe and enjoying nature for your entire life. Above all, stay safe and enjoy all that the trails have to offer.

Please feel free to comment any additional advice below, this post is not all inclusive, merely some of the skills I’ve learned and personally use when I’m out. Don’t forget to share this advice with your friends in the outdoor community, it could save a life.

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Winter Hiking: How to Stay Warm

Happy New Year! People always seem to choose the beginning of the year as a time to commit themselves to be more active. Over the last few years I’ve really gotten to enjoy nature during the winter months, specifically winter hiking. If you live in an area that gets snow, hiking in the winter can make your favorite trail seem like a brand new adventure. Hiking in the snow and cold also burns more calories than hiking in temperate weather so it can help you keep off those holiday pounds that tend to creep up on us.

One of the big reasons that people tend to take a hiatus from hiking during the winter months is that they don’t want to be cold, cold is uncomfortable, who wants to be cold? But what people fail to understand is that with just a little knowledge and planning, you can beat the cold and have great day hikes, or even overnight trips. So here are a few tips on how to stay warm that I learned during my years in Alaska and during winter hikes in the Midwest.

 

  1. Stay Hydrated: When you’re dehydrated your body doesn’t work as efficiently. In a cold environment this leads to headaches and cold extremities. Just because its cold doesn’t mean you’re not losing water. In fact, because the air is less humid during the winter you’re actually losing a little bit more water through respiration and evaporation. Take enough water to get through your trip or be familiar with fast running water sources along the route that will not freeze all the way through. DO NOT attempt to eat snow if you run out of water. This will lower your body temperature and does not provide you with enough water to benefit you. In a pinch you can fill a bottle full of snow and place it in an interior pocket of your jacket until it melts. When this happens, repeat the process until your bottle is full of water.
  2. Layer your clothing: One of the biggest mistakes people make in this specific area is attempting to put on every layer of clothing that they have. But over layering actually makes you feel colder. The air between the layers of clothing is what keeps you feeling warm, so if you condense that air pocket by adding too many layers of clothing you will actually be colder than if you had layered correctly. In most cases a poly blend base layer (long tops and bottoms) with hiking pants, a long sleeve midweight top layer and a microdown jacket will be more than enough to keep you warm in all but the northernmost states.
  3. Layer on, Layer off: Only use what you really need in that moment. If you start to sweat while hiking, take off your hat, gloves and outer (or middle) top layer. The big tip here is to avoid excess sweating. Wearing too much and sweating through your clothing will destroy the insulating properties. So when you stop to take a break you will get cold. Instead of doing this, take off the excess layers and put them in the top of your bag before you start sweating. Then put them on when you stop. Your body heat will be retained by the dry layers and you’ll stay toasty warm even when you stop. Improper layering and use is the biggest reason that people have unpleasant winter hiking trips.
  4. Know your feet: Cold feet tend to be a pretty consistent problem in cold weather hiking. But there are a few tricks of the trade that you can use to beat this nuisance. 1. Bring extra socks on long trips. Dirty clothing loses its insulating properties. Bringing a change of socks for each day of trail time, plus a spare, is always a good idea. Loosen your laces. We’re back to the insulating layer of warm air again. When your shoes are tied too tight it hurts you in two ways. The first is that it compromises blood flow to the area, making your feel work less efficiently and allowing them to get cold quicker. The second is that it compresses the fabric in your shoes. When you compress the fabric too much there is no room for the air warmed by your feet to get caught in the fabric of the shoe. It’s the same reason your butt gets cold when you sit in the snow, the compressed fabric doesn’t trap heat as well as it would if it were not compressed.
  5. Clear snow from sleeping areas and bring a sleeping pad: You can sleep comfortably in the snow if you remember to clear away the snow under your sleeping area. Additionally, you’ll want to use a sleeping pad since the sleeping bag that is compressed under your body weight will not insulate you as efficiently. When you go to bed, strip down to your base layer. This will be cold at first, but when you wear too much clothing to bed it doesn’t allow your body heat to reach the sleeping bag and insulate you the way it was designed to. You will always sleep warmer in fewer clothes. To avoid that morning shiver when you get up, pull your clothes into your sleeping bag with you in the morning and allow them to warm up passively before you get dressed. If you plan on warming your tent with a fire source, always remember to open one side of the tent for ventilation. Once the tent is warm, removed the fire source before sealing the tent. If you hammock camp, a sleeping pad, sleeping bag and an underquilt will get you through even the coldest nights in relative comfort.
  6. Always bring tools for a fire: Know the area that you will be hiking in and what you will need to make a fire. In the event of an emergency this is an absolute must. I recommend taking waterproof matches or a ferro fire starter, some quick tinder like dryer lint or dry moss and a tea light candle. Before you attempt to start a fire scavenge for your firewood and arrange it next to you from smallest to largest. The biggest being about the circumference of your wrist. Build a teepee with your smallest twigs and keep finger size twigs nearby to add once it’s going. Light your tinder in the open air. Fire needs a lot of oxygen to burn and placing the tinder in the teepee cuts off precious oxygen that the fire needs to start. Once you have an adequate flame place the tinder under the teepee. Slowly add twigs of increasing size until your fire is established. *If you are attempting to start a fire in the snow, you MUST dig down until you are on soil before attempting to start a fire. Placing a fire on top of the snow will put your fire out when the snow melts from the heat.* **In areas that receive a lot of precipitation it will be easier to scavenge firewood and tinder from standing deadwood in the area. Firewood on the ground will likely be wet and will be difficult to light. In a pinch you can use a knife to cut away the outer layers of wet wood in order to get a fire started. But always look for standing dead wood first.**

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It only takes a little bit of knowledge and preparation to keep you warm and happy in nature, even in the cold.  I hope these tips help you get out and stay warm on your own winter adventure.

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Happy Trails,

Aaron

2016 Hikes: My Favorite Pictures

We had a very active year in 2016, logging hikes in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee/North Carolina and Texas. We put hundreds of miles on our trail shoes and even more knowledge in our heads. These are just a few of my favorites from the hundreds of pictures that we took during all of our hikes.

Be sure to follow our social media links to see the rest.

Mississinewa: Lost Sister & Blue Heron Trails with a little off trail meandering

I was born and raised in the Wabash / Peru, Indiana area so this reservoir was familiar to me going into the hikes. However, the last time my dad and I got out and hiked here was roughly 14 years ago when I was a child. So this held some special meaning to him and I.

We decided during the week that we would head up to my grandparents house Saturday night when I got off of work, sit around their fire pit and have a few beers before setting up camp for the night. I was pretty excited about this trip because I haven’t had the opportunity to get up north to see my grandparents since Christmas and I knew that I would be trialing my new Clark Hammock NX-270 to see if all the hype is true about this brand (it is and then some). So after running some errands in town we finally made it to our destination around 9:30 to a roaring fire and cold beer waiting around the fire pit. We had the chance to catch up and pass around a flash of Tennessee Fire for about an hour before we mutually decided to call it a night, camp was quickly set up by headlamp and we were dead to the world within an hour (pictures are from the next morning).

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The next morning we were up around 6:30 and ready to break down camp and get started. So after a hearty breakfast we cleaned up the camp area and headed off to the Lost Sister trail in the Frances Slocum SRA at Mississinewa.  This was listed as being 2.5 miles but when we came out our GPS units only showed it being a little over 1.5. While distance doesn’t matter a whole lot to us, we had still been expecting a little more. So after stopping for a hydration break and munching on some trail snacks we decided to load back into the truck and head over to the Miami SRA on the other side of the reservoir to see the Blue Heron trail. This went off without a hitch, but again, the trail was listed as being 2.5 miles and came up just short of 2 on our GPS. Of course, in our haste to get on this trail and because of the lack of signage, we took a game trail to find the trail instead of starting at the trail head on the opposite side of the picnic area that it starts at. I’m not sure if that equates to a mile or not, but we’ll figure it out next time.

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Since we’d finished the trails that we came to do and the day was still very early, warm and cloudless. We decided to head over to some of the horse trails in the rougher part of the SRA and try our luck out there. This turned out to be the most fun of the whole trip as we spend about 2 and a half hours winding through a myriad of different unmarked trails, followed a trail that ended up being under water, which led to us scaling a very steep hill about 200 feet and wandering through thickets, heavy wind and rocky ledges as we exercised our inner explorers. The off trail parts of our hikes always end up being the most fun. Even if we’re never more than a few miles from civilization in Indiana it always makes you feel a little more at one with nature. Which is after all, why we do this.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/lost-sister-trail  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/blue-heron-trail

Happy Trails!

GPX Maps and Pictures of these hikes are linked below.

This past weekend we took a trip up to north central Indiana to check out some of the trails at the Mississinewa…

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Monday, February 29, 2016

 

Tents Vs. Hammocks: The Great Debate

One of the subjects you’ll hear debated the most between hikers and backpackers is the preference between tent camping and hammock camping. This is probably something that you don’t think about a whole lot until you do some research, talk to someone who enjoys hammock camping, or have enjoyed using a hammock while out in the wilderness before. On the surface this doesn’t seem like it would be something that would require a whole lot of thought either way. But the more you dig into it the more you see that there is a wealth of information for both sides and avid supporters of both.
One of our biggest concerns as hikers / backpackers is the weight of our packs. For this reason alone a hammock seems like the logical choice for overnighters in the back country. Without the added weight of tent poles you can easily save yourself precious pounds and make those steep uphill climbs and downhill treks a little less painful. As anyone can tell you that’s ever hiked any significant distance. A few pounds can mean the difference between feeling a little tired at the end of the day and feeling like your legs have been utterly destroyed.

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There are clear positives and negatives to each, for example in order to use a hammock you need to find a place with grown trees that are spaced in a way that allows you to hang the hammock. In the same regard you have to be in an area that has trees in the first place. A lot of people on the hammock side of the argument will pose the question “If there are no tree’s is that a place you really want to be camping anyway?” which is a point that I see eye to eye with, but doesn’t necessarily hold true in every situation. Something else to contend with is the fact that you’re suspended in the air all night. While this can do wonders for people with back problems, it does make it a little more challenging to stay warm on cooler nights, unless of course you invest in a pricey underquilt. There is also the issue of bugs and rain that you have contend with when using a standard camping hammock. There are however much more cutting edge hammocks that address these concerns and the problem of heat loss if you’re willing to pay for the technology. A great example of these cutting edge hammocks are available online at https://www.junglehammock.com/ by Clark Hammocks. These are really more of a hybrid between a tent and a hammock and some models can even be used as a tent if you’re in an area that doesn’t have trees.  Another added benefit to our more patriotic hikers is that Clark is an American company that uses American material to build its gear, they also stand behind everything they build 100%.

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On the other side of the argument are the tent campers. If you did any kind of outdoor activity as a family when you were growing up, you’re probably more than accustomed to tent camping. This is generally what we think of when the word camping comes to mind. However, for the hiker / backpacker there are some extra considerations to consider when you decide to drag the old tent along. Foremost among these concerns is the fact that you need to find a suitable place off trail to pitch the tent. This means doing your best to clear the ground of twigs, rocks and debris. Only to find out in most cases, in the middle of the night, that you missed one or two of them. At which point you spend the rest of the night with a rock or stick in your back. However, you do get the added protection of being enclosed in the tent, which conserves warmth and usually does a fantastic job of stopping the wind and rain if you’re stuck in bad weather. While single person tents tend to be lightweight and easy to assemble and disassemble, they can get a little pricy. In most cases you’re going to get what you pay for, unless you get lucky with an Amazon deal or find a gem somewhere in the discount section.

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At the end of the day (literally) it comes down to trying both and sticking with what you prefer. I recommend playing around with both tents and hammocks to find what fits your needs and your style the best. I know I intend to get plenty of campfire time with both this year. Hopefully you get the chance to get out and do the same.