Hello Explorers! Today we are actually going to talk about one of my list items that I was particularly excited about: Hiking 25 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Before we actually get started, a little housekeeping. We ended up hiking about 9-10 miles of the actual Appalachian Trail, but that is just how our trail happened to fall. We could have done all 25 miles on the AT, but then it would have created a whole ‘how are we going to get back to our car/dude where’s our car scenario’ and no one wants that. So we chose a trail that looped back around to meet up with where we left our car, and since this is my list i’m going to count it.
I began my backpacking travel plans with figuring out who was going with me. By that I mean I asked all my Boyscout friends to come with me so I wouldn’t get lost and go all My Side of the Mountain. Which is a good book, by the way, if anyone is interested. Most of my friends have real, big kid jobs now so a lot of them weren’t able to take off the days, but a couple had some extra vaca days to spare so we started planning for a backpacking trip for 3!
Our destination was Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, about an 8 hour drive from where we live in Ohio. So the plan was to start eeeeeearly in the morning (think 3am) so we could get a decent hike in on the first day. And get a decent hike in we did! But i’ll save that for later. Before we started the actual hiking, we had to do a little prep. As anyone who has ever gone camping or backing packing will know, it takes a decent bit of preparation. I have never gone actual backpacking before. I’ve only gone backpacking around countries for travel/shenanigan purposes, not legitimate hiking backpacking. Let me tell you, it was a very different experience. Obviously backpacking for travel is a lot easier than backpacking for hiking. True, my pack weighed about the same, true, I wasn’t hungover on the hiking trip, true, I got to take actual showers while traveling, but backpacking while hiking I thought was harder. I was pretty glad to have at least one person who had been actual backpacking before with me so I wasn’t completely throwing myself into this blind. Below, I have included a short list of tips from a beginner backpacker to other beginner backpackers. There are plenty of more knowledgeable resources out there, one of which is linked at the end of this blog, but here are a few things I found to be the most helpful and useful.
Useful Tips for Beginner Backpackers:
1.) Above all things, pack as light as you can. One pair of clothes for the trail and one pair for the camp site,and if you think you might not use it, especially for shorter hikes, don’t bring it. Obviously don’t leave out essentials like a compass, but are you really going to need that hammock? (note, I did use my hammock, but I didn’t really need it.)
2.) Take a plastic bag for trash. No one wants to come to a campsite to find it trashed. Literally.
3.) Remember to bring toilet paper!
4.) Get to know the area you are hiking in a bit first by studying maps or researching it online. There is something whimsical and exciting about exploring a new unknown place, but there is nothing whimsical about getting lost for days or exciting about meeting a bear you had no idea lived in the area.
5.) Invest in a good backpack and use the waist belt. Don’t throw it away like I did. In my defense I bought the backpack in China for travel backpacking and never thought I would use it for real backpacking. I ended up using an old gun belt and attached it to my backpack. It worked pretty well other than cutting into my waist a bit, but having the weight of my pack off my shoulders was worth it.
6.) Bring lots of protein. You’ll burn through it fast.
7.) Take some friends with you, the forest can get eerie at night and friends make everything more fun.
After about a month of preparation, done mostly in the week prior to the trip, the day finally came to set off on the road less traveled! We had our bags packed, our dehydrated meals ready, our water bottles filled and our hiking boots laced.
Day 1: The Journey Begins
Start time: 2:45am
Miles Covered: 10
We set off dark and early from Ohio to start our journey down to Virginia. We made only one stop along the way (respective rest stops for potty breaks not included) at Tudor’s Biscuit World! Now I’m not sure if you all have heard of Tudor’s Biscuit World or not, but it was a discovery my friends and I made a few years ago while traveling down to West Virginia to go white water rafting. It is one of the most delicious places I’ve ever devoured a breakfast sandwich in. Which is saying a lot because I’ve eaten at my fair share of breakfast sandwiches. Especially at Sheetz where the mot sticks are AMAZING when you are drunk and the breakfast sandwiches will save your life the next morning. So what i’m trying to say is if you are ever driving somewhere and pass a Tudor’s Biscuit World and think (much like we did) ‘What is that!?’ then do yourself a favor and stop cause it’s awesome.
We reached the park in good time and shortly after we were checked in and debriefed on bear stuff. Then it was time to hit the trail! Our first 15 minutes went about like this:
Us: “Yea! Woo! Let’s do it! Onward! Here we go! Let’s hit the ol’ dusty trail.” Ten minutes later…and a straight mile up.
Us: “Oh dear god. *pant* Is the whole trail going to be like that? *guzzle water* Wait that was just the trail leading to the actual trail. F!#*.”
Obviously we need General Shang here to make men out of us.
Needless to say, it was a bit of a rough, and eye opening, start to the hike. But luckily the entire trail wasn’t like that, just most of it. Apparently Shenandoah has ‘never heard of switchbacks’. After we caught our breath we continued on our first leg of the trail, which happened the be the actual Appalachian Trail part of the trip.
This is also where we met our first thru hiker, who I believe was going South to North so he was probably about 1/3 of the way through and was really excited to meet up with his sister’s family for the weekend and eat hot dogs. I can’t blame him after weeks and weeks of eating dehydrated meals and Cliff Bars.
We started off the hike fairly high up and had a pretty fantastic view from up there.
But there was only one way to go from there. Down. And down and down and down. We must have gone down a straight 2 miles nonstop which was murder on the calves, but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was knowing that we would have to eventually climb back up again! By the time we reached our camping area for the night it was starting to get dark and we were pretty exhausted. After a nice, cooling hobo bath in the river, we tried out our water filtration system for the first time and were pleasantly surprised by how tasty the water was, not a bit dirty at all! Science.
We set up camp for the night in pretty much the only spot there was, and made due. At that point, i’m not sure we cared. We had hiked about 10 miles, which granted isn’t a ton, but it was a fairly strenuous hike and we had been awake since 2:45am. We quickly set up camp and started dinner since it was getting dark and we still needed to set up the bear bag. After we scarfed down our instant mashed potatoes and dehydrated meal,
we went through the process of putting up the bear bag which went something like this:
Tim: “Do you think this tree will work?”
Me: “Uhh, sure. Did we put everything with a smell in the bag?”
Tim: “I think so. Sarah anything else need to go in here?”
Tim: “Cool, all done!”
Me: “Isn’t the bear bag supposed to be away from the tree? Can’t bears climb?”
All of us: “…”
Me: “I’m sure it’s fine.”
Ten minutes later in the tent…
Sarah: “Oops, I forgot to put my toiletries in the bear bag.”
Tim and I: “Dammit.”
Day 2: The Never Ending Trail
Start time: unknown
Miles covered: 6
We started our morning with some instant oatmeal and coffee and before long we were off again to blaze the trail! We passed a decent amount of people on the trail, and were glad to see that they were as equally sweaty as we were. Cause it was HOT! Soaking through our shirts, backpacks damp from sweat kinda hot. About an hour after we started for the day we reached a river crossing, not a big one granted, but a river crossing non-the-less. This seemed like the perfect time to bust out our Oregon Trails skills. So since there weren’t any Native Americans around that we could pay to ferry us across, and since we were fresh out of wagon wheels to caulk, we decided to forge the river. It was successful for the most part, none of the oxen (aka us) got stuck and we only lost one walkie talkie. Which was recovered, but never worked again.
Very shortly after we made it safely across the river, without any bouts of dysentery I might add, we started going up. I don’t mean a steady incline either, this was a very abrupt, sharp upwards angle. Sort of the mountains way of saying, ‘Hey, remember how you went downhill for awhile yesterday? Well now it’s time to work off some of those chicken fingers you’ve been enjoying at work.” Way to be a dick, mountain. I worked a double and I was hungry. So we went up, and up, and up, and stopped for a lunch break mid mountain, and then went up and up some more.
I honestly couldn’t tell you how long we hiked up for, I may have blacked out at some point just to stop feeling the crushing disappointment of going around another bend and finding out it continued up. Eventually, after what seemed like days we reached our stopping point for the day and scouted out a campsite. We managed to find a pretty decent clearing to set up the tent, but the only water nearby was just breeding ground for mosquitoes and was no good to us. Even having to travel a ways to get water was worth it though because I was able to set up my new hammock. Can I just say… Heaven. This photograph was definitely not staged.
We actually had daylight left to relax with so after dinner, and after we properly put up the bear bag in a tree away from the trunk (and made sure everything was in it this time (Sarah…)) we took shelter from the bugs in the tent and played cards. Unlike the first night, sleep didn’t come so quickly this night. Mostly because a curious critter was outside the tent for awhile snuffling around for some good eats. It was probably just a possum or a raccoon, but when you’re in the middle of nowhere in the woods and there is no one around for miles, small critters seem much scarier. It could have also been the other, much louder, noises we heard a bit later. It was probably a good thing we put the bear bag up right this time because I’m not sure there are many other nighttime critters in that area big enough to make the loud footfalls we heard. Unless Bigfoot just happens to have gone wandering away from the Pacific North West. The evening progressed about like this:
10 minutes later… Outside the tent *snuffle snuffle snuffle*.
Me: “I think there is something outside the tent.”
Tim: “Just hit the side of the tent and it will scare it away.”
*smack side of tent* Ten minutes later… *snuffle snuffle snuffle* then giant *crack* from the opposite side of the tent.
Sarah: “That didn’t sound like a raccoon.”
Me: “Probably a good thing the bear bag is pretty far away.” This led to about 15 minutes of tense, alert listening for more noises from outside the tent.
Tim: “Ok, I think we can try and go to sleep now.”
Ten seconds later… *snuffle snuffle snuffle*
Day 3: The Waterfall Whoops
Start time: sometime around 8
Miles covered: 4 ish
When we awoke this morning I, for some reason, thought it was 10:30 and we were way behind schedule. Imagine Tim and Sarah’s confusion as to why I was rushing them, and imagine mine when I found out it was barely passed 9. Our actual early start worked to our advantage when we ended up at our campsite pretty early in the day.
However, we still had quite the adventure getting there. We covered the first 2 miles pretty quickly and had a nice long lunch at a little clearing of pine trees, but then we went down again on a trail that truly was a road less traveled. It felt like a proper jungle exploration, all we were missing were the machetes to cut through the foliage. We eventually made it to the bottom and were rewarded very shortly after with another steep uphill climb. Oh sorry, did I say rewarded? I meant punished. If I had been rolling a stone up that hill I would have said that the bear from the night before had actually eaten us and we had all been fated to the same task as Sisyphus.
This time when we climbed the mountain we seemed to have reached the very top. What kept us going was the promise of a waterfall and swimming hole at the next camping area. When we had just about reached the peak of (dear God please let it be) the final summit, we stopped to take a breather and were passed by four friends on a hike. One of whom was carrying a small backpack and seemed to also be breathing a bit heavy, but the other three were backpack free. I’m not usually one to judge, in fact I try to steal clear of it, but since when did it become a thing to hike in your underwear? Seems like a full body poison ivy rash waiting to happen. But I suppose to each their own, just don’t look at me like I’m out of shape when I’m carrying 35 pounds on my back and you aren’t even carrying clothes. But I digress.
We eventually made it to our stopping point for the day, only to discover the waterfall we were so looking forward to was another rock scramble a straight half mile down. So we hiked/fell down the trail and made it to the waterfall!
It was a pretty nice swimming hole, but it had begun to sprinkle so it cooled down a bit. After we ate lunch by the falls we realized that there was no good place to camp near there and we would have to climb allllll the way back up the scramble to the top with our packs.
I’m not ashamed to say I resorted to climbing on all fours.
We did find a pretty sick campsite off the trail and set up camp before heading allll the way back down to the waterfall to wash off and get our water for the day. Thus began the 15 minutes of mishaps. What started off as a lovely, but so very cold dip in the water turned into a bit of a disaster. Whoops! Here’s what happened:
1.) I found a tick on my stomach. Not just on me, but in me. Just thinking about it makes me shudder. I guess that is what I get for changing in the woods.
KILL IT WITH FIRE!!
2.) Tim slipped on a rock in the water and busted his shin.
3.) We found a whole bunch of teeny spiders covering our clothes where we had laid them out to dry.
4.) Tim got bit by something which we thought might have actually been a bee sting. Tim’s allergic to bees. (This ended up being a fortunate false alarm).
So after the 4th thing we gave up and went allll the way back up to our campsite to pack it in for the day. Curiously Sarah remained unscathed by all these things. It is possible she is working together with Mother Nature? Must warm Tim.
We took care of Tim’s wounds first because I mean the tick was already in me it wasn’t going anywhere. Ew. Dawww true love.
That is until we burned it out of me. We could have used tweezers, but I’m not positive that is the lesser of two evils. You can either dig into your skin with tweezers and hope to get a hold of a tiny tick head and pull it out still intact so it doesn’t get infected, or you can heat up a knife and burn it out while in the process also burning your skin. Really how can a girl choose!? Can I just say that wasn’t the most pleasant experience i’ve ever had. This is actually the face I make when I’m happy.
Also another 3 inches lower and Tim and my friendship would have been taken to another, super uncomfortable level.
That’s a good friend right there.
So eventually the little bugger pulled his gross head out and I killed it with fire. I’m sorry that i’m not sorry, but it feeding off me. Nope. Nope. Nope.
It was still fairly early in the day when we finally settled down to have our last dehydrated dinner of the trip. We had saved the beef stroganoff for last, what a treat. (Actually, no joke those dehydrated meals aren’t bad). So without any bear or other incidents we laid down to sleep in the peaceful quiet of the woods for one more night.
Day 4: Journey’s End
Start Time: Close to 8
Miles Covered: 2-3
On this, our 4th and final day, we only had a small leg of our journey to finish. We were lucky in that the last few miles were relatively flat and we didn’t have any insane trail to climb to reach the car. And what a sight for sore eye (sore legs actually) it was to see Sarah’s beautiful car sitting there in the dazzling Virginia sun! It was a relief to sit down on something that wasn’t the ground or a rock. I absolutely admire people who do thru hikes of the AT or the PT or any long hike. It wears you out!
After we had driven to the visitor center and changed into non stinky clothes, we left the park on our way to find food and beer and then home! Except we sort of may have had a few set backs along the way. Tim may or may not have lost his phone in the parking lot of the visitor center, so we turned around to get that. Thankfully it was just sitting right where our car was. Then we tried to find a brewery that was supposed to be on our way home, but ended up being very far out of the way and we never made it. Oops. Then we tried to go see a local, silly tourist attraction when we passed through West Virginia and it was closed. Which was very pleasant considering we drove half way up a mountain to see this so called ‘Mystery Hole’ and all we got out of it was a brochure and some pictures of the outside. I expected better of you, middle of nowhere West Virginia. We finally did make it home though full of delicious Thai food and memories from the last 4 days!
What Did I Learn:
When I started doing research for this trip I read a blog about tips for first time backpackers. In this very informative blog the writer tells us that as a first timer it is probably a good idea to start off with a shorter one night backpacking trip. Well we just went ahead and shot that all to shit and went big with a 3 night 4 day 20+ mile trip, so I guess we don’t head advice very well. Still a good blog though! I learned several things from checking off this list item. I learned that backpacking is something I really enjoy doing, and it’s also harder than I thought it would be. I learned that I can go for extended periods of time without having an actual shower and still not smell too bad. Although I sorta already knew that from traveling, cause let us be honest showering is optional in South East Asia. I also learned that I enormously respect any person that attempts these hikes by themselves and someday I hope to be one of those people. I learned that my friends are people who I not only don’t think I could live without, but I never want to (although that one I kinda already knew as well). Finally, I learned that the more I experience and the more I do the more it makes me want to push even farther, to expand my horizons ever so much more. Finally, I learned that strapping on a heavy backpack with its makeshift waist belt cutting into my stomach, eating dehydrated meals and filtering my water through a plastic tube, pooping in a hole in the ground that I had to dig first (it’s first right? Yeah, definitely first), sweating and panting and fighting away bugs and making endless bad puns that would make even a dad cringe, I never knew all of that could be so much fun. Although the whole pooping in a hole thing… maybe I could do without.
Until Next Time, Never Forget:
Adventure is out there, so never stop exploring!