A Shenandoah Shakedown
Now that we finally have most of or all of our gear, my sister, Jamie, and I finally were able to plan a long weekend for a decent shakedown trip. We opted for a 24-mile loop with 7,000+ elevation gain over two nights and three days, climbing up to Skyline Drive and the AT in Shenandoah National Park and ending with my favorite day hike within a reasonable drive of Washington, DC.
The weather forecast was not looking promising, and I woke up the day before our hike with a full-blown cold. We set plans to sleep in an AT shelter on the first night, when it was forecast to rain at least three inches overnight with temperatures just above freezing, and hoped we would be dry enough and warm enough.
We climbed 3,000 feet over 3.5 miles along a trail that was coated in ice in quite a few spots. The fog was constant, and both of our glasses kept fogging up, making visibility even more challenging. Luckily, the water crossings weren’t too challenging, and we connected to the AT around dusk. We reached the shelter around 20 minutes after we turned on our headlamps, and it was conveniently empty. The spring was straightforward to find, so we filtered water, heated up our dinner, and set up our beds on the platform level, hoping we could stay relatively dry.
After eating, we realized that the duct tape all above us indicated every leaky spot on the roof. They were unfortunately plentiful. We noticed early enough that our quilts hadn’t been compromised and moved underneath the platforms as we were greeted by a solo female hiker, the first person we’d seen since we started hiking. I took a NyQuil, we all did some gear gawking, and then we had a mediocre night’s sleep trying to stave off the damp and the cold.
Our shelter buddy headed out early, and we had a pretty leisurely morning, since we knew we didn’t have any major climbs that day. I had slept notably better with my cold outside in the cold weather than inside my stuffy bedroom. Besides some sniffles from the cold weather, I felt like most of my symptoms from having a cold were gone. I credit the cold, fresh air to that. The rain was on and off all day, and the fog never let up, so we missed out on all of the impressive views along the AT. We had a high-mileage day (~12 miles) but took it fairly easy because the terrain wasn’t too challenging. We hit one water crossing that was impossible to do without getting in the water up to our shins, so we were thankful we brought camp shoes that doubled as water shoes. Jamie also had the great idea to take a break to boil water while it was still light, since we both had treated ourselves to packaged dehydrated meals for our dinners, and we were able to hike a bit farther while our meals rehydrated, stop to eat dinner, and continue along.
Our final water crossing was after dusk, right before we crossed onto the fire road we planned to camp along. It also required a change of shoes and was a bit nerve-racking in the dark, but we made it across in one piece. It was then that I realized I had left my gloves on the other side, which I took off when I changed my shoes. Lucky me got to cross over and back again, so I learned my lesson about double-checking gear before attempting a challenging crossing! Finding a suitable place to camp didn’t take too long once we consulted our topographic map to find where the terrain flattened out a bit. The site we chose was a bit crowded for our two tents, so I couldn’t pitch my non-freestanding tent as taut as I would have preferred, but with the weather finally dry, it was totally doable.
And then it took us the better part of an hour to hang our food bags! Our tree options with low-enough branches we could actually throw a rope over were extremely limited and we were on a steep incline. After a few attempts, we got our rope and rock bag stuck on a branch for a good 15 minutes. We finally got it free, threw the rope once again, and decided that while our branch choice was not ideal, it was good enough that we weren’t going to worry about it. We did decide we needed a lot more practice before we start our thru-hike!
While the air got a bit colder than our first night, it felt luxurious having my own space in my tent and actually being dry.
We woke a bit before sunrise and packed up pretty quickly to get on the trail. At the trailhead of our big climb, we found a sunny spot and ate a quick breakfast. I had done this climb many times before, so I knew exactly what to expect and was looking forward to the scrambles. We hiked noticeably slower than most of the day hikers we saw, but we still kept a pretty good pace with our packs and made it up to the scrambles pretty quickly. At most of the tight squeezes, we had to work together. I climbed up first without my pack, Jamie passed me both packs, and then she climbed up.
We lucked out because all of the most-challenging scrambles were relatively dry, despite the recent wet weather. We got a bit battered and bruised, but we were having a blast and made it to the summit around noon. We got a quick photo and opted to escape the wind and continue on down. Our climb down had a few challenging icy spots, but it’s a relatively easy trail that leveled out onto a fire road, where a former PCT thru-hiker complimented my choice of pack. The rest of our hike was an easy mile on a fire road followed by a mile of road walking.
Skills to Improve On
Bear bag rope tossing: Here’s hoping we can get it down to less than 30 minutes before we start our hike
Cathole digging: With all of the rocks in the ground, it took me 10-20 minutes to dig a deep enough hole
Water carrying: I carried 1.7L each day, but I barely got through 1L while hiking and we encountered a whole lot of creeks. I want to have a better idea of water sources so I don’t have to carry so much water that I don’t touch.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack: I felt so organized with all of the external pockets on this pack, and it carried low enough that it didn’t feel overwhelming.
Thrupack Summit Bum with comfy strap: I just got my fanny pack last week, and I don’t know how I’ve ever hiked without it. It hung just over my hip belt buckle and was so convenient to always have on, and I was able to fit all of my food for the day, my phone, my spoon, and a few extra things.
Gravity filter set-up (CNOC, Sawyer coupler, Sawyer Squeeze, and twist tie): This is a bit of a luxury item, but it is such a breeze to fill my CNOC, attach everything to my Smartwater bottle, and let the filter do its work.
Dan Durston X-Mid 1P tent: I’ve liked this tent the few times I’ve used it in the past year, since the pitch is so quick, but it just feels so luxurious to have such enormous vestibules that I almost feel like I have a two-person tent sometimes.
Gear to be Improved
Rain pants: I didn’t pull my rain pants out once, despite the cold, rainy weather. My base layer leggings stayed relatively dry and dried fast if they got damp. Do I really need to carry my rain pants for my thru-hike? It seems like an easy place to cut more than six ounces off of my base weight.
Gloves: I have some relatively thin Outdoor Research gloves that I can bike in down to around freezing, despite the fact that my hands are always cold. Once they got wet on this hike, they did a pretty poor job of keeping my fingertips warm. At one point, I switched to rain mitts only, and my hands almost felt warmer than they did when I was wearing the gloves. Maybe I should be more cognizant to wear my rain mitts once it starts to rain, or maybe I’m better off getting some wool gloves that will stay warm when wet?
Sleeping pad: I like my Klymit Insulated Static V Ultralight pad, and I’m pretty comfortable as a side sleeper on it. It’s cut down to 60 inches, exactly my height. However, I did notice my feet were sliding around on it when my tent was pitched on an incline the second night, and it didn’t really affect my comfort whether they were on my pad or on my gear at the foot of my tent. Should I cut some more weight and make my tent feel bigger by considering a torso-length pad?
We’re planning a second shakedown trip next month along the AT. As of now, we’re planning on doing a one-way hike over three days and two nights again. We’re also hoping to have enough visibility to get some good views!
Note on route: We followed this loop on AllTrails
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