40 Days on the AT with a Baby, Part II: On the Trail

The following is a guest post courtesy of Katie Guillemette (full bio at the bottom).  Get caught up with part one, the pre-trail planning

We should not have left Catawba on the day that we did. But before we get there, let’s knock off a few Myths vs. Facts about hiking with a baby.

Myth: The wilderness is a dangerous place for a baby.
Fact: Babies are vulnerable and have very basic needs: be fed, hydrated, kept warm/cool, cleaned, protected from harm, and loved. Anywhere they are.

Myth: If something happens while medical care is far away, it will be dramatic.
Fact: If something happens while medical care is far away, it may or may not be dramatic.

Myth: The complications of having a baby on the trail outweigh the pleasure of being there.
Fact: Pleasure level throughout the experience will depend mainly on your love for logistics, your ability to adapt, your expectations, and your sense of humor.

Myth: Bringing a kid on the trail is selfish.
Fact: Long-distance hiking as a family unit is a bonding experience.

We headed towards the legendary McAfee Knob on a rainy day, surrounded by a thick, cold fog. We were so excited to finally set foot on the trail that we did not consider delaying our start by even a day.

This was a mistake.

It was very hard to keep Liv warm in these conditions, with temperatures barely reaching 50’F and a very high humidex. Shortly after we made camp at the shelter, Liv was eating, warming up in my arms, and in no time she was asleep. As we watched her sleep, warmly bundled up in her sleeping bag and her merino wool poncho, we talked through this first day and prepared for the night. The temperature dropped to close to freezing, so we spent most of the night checking on Liv. Unlike us, she kept warm between us and slept soundly through the night.

In the morning, we had a tough decision to make: to go on or to go back. The weather forecast for the next 24 hours was a replicate of the last 24 hours. Liv would not be able to keep herself warm during the day, and with the extreme humidity as well as the dampness accumulating in our clothing and quilts from condensation and the rain, we knew how unpleasant the next night would be. The right choice became clear: we should not expose Liv to this weather for another 24 hours. Using a fire road, it took us little time to get back onto the main road. A phone call later and we were in Daleville, drying and warming up in a hotel room.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail with a baby

There we were, taking a day off… on day two! Confident that the weather would get better (the weather we experienced was indeed unusual for Virginia in May), we used this “failed start” to make adjustments to our gear. We got something warmer for Liv’s legs and feet to wear during the day, and bought a couple of other accessories to better cope with the weather. We also sent back one of the camera lenses with our family, and two days of food that we would not need.

Day three turned out to be one of the most epic days of our trip. And in the following days, we discovered the trail we had dreamed of.

Here’s what a typical day with our 8-month-old baby looked like:

6:30am baby awakes, hungry
7:00am baby satisfied and plays with whatever she can find (headlamp is a big hit), parents eat, have coffee and start to pack up
8:00am camp is packed up, baby is in carrier, and we hit the trail
8:30am baby falls asleep to the sound of birds
10:00am baby awakes from nap, hungry, 30-minute break
1:00pm baby and parents are hungry, 45-minute break
2:00pm baby falls asleep, belly full
3:00pm baby awakes from nap, hungry, 30-minute break
4:00pm arrival at shelter, baby wants to play, snack time
6:00pm supper
7:00pm baby in bed, parents review next day’s itinerary

In the weeks that followed, we got smarter, and got used to adjusting our plans based on weather, energy levels, and everybody’s mood. For example, we forced ourselves to wait out a three-day episode of heavy rain, and at one point rented a heated cabin at a campground. It was modest but it felt amazing to be able to buy freshly cooked meals, take a break from dehydrated food, and have a roof over our heads; it felt like a real holiday! On some occasions, we diverged onto a blue blazed trail to see something different, like waterfalls or whatever the map or people said was worth seeing.

Two weeks into our itinerary, we had planned to stop in Montebello to pick up a resupply box and enjoy an overnight stay at what seemed to be a nice campground. We were tired, physically and mentally from the ups and downs of the weather and the trail itself, and our bodies were still adapting. The trail to the village was atrocious. Once there, we were exhausted and extremely disappointed. The laundry machines were out, there was no cellphone coverage, the staff wasn’t particularly friendly, and they didn’t sell the kind of beverage you want after a hard day. The only good thing was the hot shower, where I ended up washing our clothes by hand.

The thought of going back the same way we came to return to the trail was very unappealing. The magnificent but challenging “Priest” and “Three Ridges” also lay between us and Waynesboro. We knew that section would be difficult, and were unsure how dangerous it would be for Liv. That evening, we decided to skip the 40 or so miles and catch a taxi to Waynesboro, where we could make a fresh start for Shenandoah. Making this kind of decision felt like cheating, but we needed to remind ourselves why we were there: to be together and enjoy each other’s company in the beautiful setting of the Appalachian Mountains, and this is exactly what we were doing.

A couple of friends drove from Montreal and spent a few days with us in Shenandoah. This allowed us to do a few days of part-time slack-packing – though someone still had to carry Liv! It was brilliant. They had a caravan, which turned out to be very convenient on the two nights that the temperature dropped to the 30’s… Yes, in May! Crazy! It’s also in Shenandoah that we made met Major and Staats, who would become Liv’s trail grandparents, and whom we very much enjoyed meeting at the end of each day, all the way to Harper’s Ferry.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail with a baby

Jon, Liv and I arrived at Harper’s Ferry on May 27th, 35 days after we left Catawba, having walked 415 miles. When I think back to that final day, I wish we could do it all over again, especially with everything we learned! The precious memories created for our young family and the partnership between Jon and I that grew even more are immeasurable.

Stay tuned for Part III, where we’ll break down the ins and outs of our trip, and what we learned overall.

Bio: My name is Katie, 31, mother of baby girl Liv, born in August 2014. On a week day, you can see me in a suit and high heels, as a manager in IT consulting, but on the weekends you will find me under a layer of merino fabric and in hiking shoes, somewhere out there. In 2013, my husband and I, started a non-profit that leads groups on wilderness pilgrimages (www.randodupelerin.org). Hiking has always been a big part of our lives, since our very first date… wearing snowshoes (very sexy). In May 2015, we hiked a 415 km section of the AT with Liv on my back. It is to date our most epic hiking trip ever (www.quarantejours.com). We live in Montreal Canada where we get to enjoy all seasons of camping and hiking, even the Canadian winter!

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