A Stranger in the Woods

It was a remote section  of the Jocassee Gorges on the FHT  late in the day when I came up on a strange site. Ahead was an old man crouched over barely lifting his feet shuffling to make forward progress. I pulled up beside him and asked him how he was doing. “I’m running low on water, so I am preserving the remaining water I have”.

He had packed a 12 pack of half liter plastic water bottles and was down to 2 (13 pounds of water at the start). I slowed my pace and walked with him until we approached the next stream. I then filtered water for several of his empty water bottles and instructed him in the future to stop a through hiker if he ran low on water again and they would filter some more for him. I told him there was a campsite about 1 mile away where he could stop and rest for the night.

With daylight waning, I pushed on ahead. When I got to the campsite, a younger man with a ponytail was set up. There appeared to be only one other good ground site left so I decided to leave that for the poor old man. The younger man was a very kind individual and as I told him about the old man, he assured me he would help him through the night.

At this part of the FHT is very rugged and can have miles with no flat tent sites.  Immediately after this campsite there were wooden staircases climbing the steep gorge. The next campsite was 2 miles away but required a 500-foot elevation climb over about a half mile with numerous wooden stairs, and about 1,500 feet climb over the entire 2 miles. I got to the second campsite about 30 minutes before complete dark, so I immediately began the hunt for water, set up my hammock, and gathered some firewood.

Right after dark, the Old Man came shuffling into the campsite. I was astounded that he had climbed that climb so late in the day. He said the ponytail guy scared him and so he pushed on to the site he thought I might be at instead.

He had an old Coleman external frame canvas backpack within which was his “camping gear”. He then proceeded to pull out 3- 13 gallon white trash bags and carefully line them up directly on the ground as his groundcloth. He pulled out large wool blanket and one of those uncomfortable decorative pillows that had roses sew on it. “The pillow was my wife’s idea” he said. His dinner consisted of Debbie’s cakes and a gallon size bag of crushed potato chips.

I had a nice fire going so we sat around the fire chatting while I shared my meal with him. His name was Johhny Nations and he was doing the last LASH (long a** section hike) of the FHT that he had on his bucket list. This section from Laurel Valley to Whitewater Falls is the most remote and requires about 25 miles of hiking from road access to road access.

For our planned AT hike this year, I have no doubt that we have conquered mental aspects of the Appalachian Trials. Jonny Nations’ determination and other heroes like Grandma Gatewood just hit the trail with minimal advanced planning but unlike them I like to plan. This post covers the planning that I did for our upcoming AT hike.

Virtual Shakedown Hikes 

I have armchair thru hiked the AT 3 times in the past 3 years! To do this I had multiple tabs opened up on a browser and farOut opened on my phone. Each day I would decide how far to “hike”. One browser tab was opened to Google Maps where you can physically see the trail crossing at every road by dragging the little yellow man in the bottom right over the road crossing (non-highlighted roads have not been filmed by Google yet). When you drag the yellowman you may also see clear blue circles pop up on the trail. If you drop the yellowman on that circle you will see a 360 degree picture.

I also used my Komoot to map the route and see the elevation gain and loss as I “hiked”. I had the whiteblazes shelter listing that I used in the “morning” to plan my hike for that day. I even took virtual zeros in towns (days off). I started with 8 miles per day which is a rule I plan to adhere to on our through hike for at least the first 2 weeks.

I could see how close I was to the bubble. Depending on the season I could also track how good the views where due to leaf cover and scenic flowers or leaves in both Spring and Fall. And of course no RAIN, no pain, no Maine.

One of my favorite planning tools was this website. I especially loved the AT bloggers who posted daily (thank you prior Trek bloggers for taking the time to write). The Trek also has a plethora of knowledge and combined with the first hand input and opinions on reddit I gained a lot insight on gear, maladies and cures, on and on. Lots of rabbit holes to fall into.




My training consisted primarily of strengthening my legs and cardio in the gym with weighted backpack. I also went on 5–10-mile hikes around town on the weekend and on some nearby trails.

About a year ago, I decided to test my strength. With 25 pounds of books in a backpack I hiked up and back down Table Rock trail about 3.5 miles up 2,300 feet then a repeat back down again. I booked it up at 3 mph and then felt great coming down until I rolled my ankle. It was then that I realized, a rolled ankle may be the end of my AT through hike ambitions.

Orthopedic Doctor visit then PT gave me a bunch of balance and strengthening exercises for my ankles. The strengthening consisted of eccentric loading exercises on the machines. Eccentric is when you hold the bag of groceries while trying to unlock the door. An example is the quad curl machine. Most people load the concentric push up motion, but the PT taught me to use less weight and push up with both legs but let one leg hold the weight as you curl back down. This is especially powerful for hiking downhill.

PT also gave me ankle exercises that used resistance bands on the feet to strengthen the feet and ankle muscles. I would never have thought about strengthening my feet and ankle muscles. I also started a routine of balance and foot/ankle exercises using both sides of a Bosu Ball.

Love the Shaking on Shakedown Street

The only way to really train for an AT thru hike is to do some real hikes. Not only do you get to learn your body strengths and weaknesses but you also get a chance to dial in your gear (decide which gear is good, which needs to be replaced or left at home, and which gear could use some mods). I got some really cool gear mods to share later on as I hike.

For our Shakedowns we chose the same Table Rock State Park (TRSP) but went up the Foothills trail (FHT). It’s almost 10 miles from TRSP to the highest point in South Carolina- Sassafras Mountain. But the first 4 miles are about 500 feet per mile. I did 3 shakedown hikes and my last shakedown hike a few months ago was at a great pace of 2 miles per hour for 9 miles gaining some 2500 feet of elevation mostly in the first 4 miles.

During one of gym training sessions a few weeks ago I felt a pop in the bottom of my foot. Ortho Doc just gave me the green light to start my hike in June but that that has dialed my training down to floor exercises and yoga. I had a 30 pound training pack that I have purposefully not used since then and I have not done any weight bearing training since. While this will set me back on my readiness, my hope is that I can get this injury stashed away before I hit the trail next month.

Foot Fetish

In my prior posts I explained how my backpacking gear was decades old until I rediscovered the AT 3 years ago. Since then, I have bought and modified our gear repeatedly, but nothing is as important as footwear.

With 400-500 miles per pair of shoes, I will need 4 to 5 pairs for the entire AT. After trying several trail runners, Rob at Outdoor 76 got me into a Topos that I love. With the REI garage sale section, I have grown my collection to include Altras and Hokas. While I sized up a half size, I recently discovered that your foot may swell, and you need a full size or more later in your hike.

The big 3 come in around 10 pounds. Our tent is the Big Agnes Tigerwall 3p. We are taking the slight weight penalty by sizing up one person on our tent. The extra weight is worth the extra space you get to store your gear and have a nicer homeless shelter for 6 months. Recently I redid the guylines to make setup simple and easy but again I am taking a very slight weight penalty on the new rigging.

For packs we are using the Osprey Exos 58L. Being from the Southeast we have to have some airflow between our packs and our backs so we are taking the weight penalty here also.

We got the ridiculously light 15 degree down REI Magma sleeping bags which may be swapped out after the Whites for part of our travels. For now, we have closed cell pads and blow-up pads but we may end up ditching one or the other. I would love to have the ability to sleep on the CCF pad so I don’t have to blow and unblow the blowup pad every day.

The rest of our gear is a mix of higher and lower tech stuff. Lots of wearables from thrift stores (it’s amazing what we found) and lots of stuff from REI (their return policy has allowed us to change our minds repeatedly). We are taking the weight penalty on a few other items also to add some additional joy to the hike but some of that may end up being sent home or in the hiker boxes. Overall, I hope to be less than 30 pounds total for the 100-mile wilderness (including food).

Wetsoak is not an option at this point. I love a cup of coffee and we love our teas so we will have stoves. My Jetboil comes in at a heavy 12 plus ounces and we have a cook second set up of a Toaks 750 ml titanium pot and a cheap ($17) Amazon stove which combined come in at a bit over 5 ounces. I may ditch my beloved Jetboil to gain back some weight savings.

There is a 1 pound Flexlite Air camp chair that may or may not make the final cut or may be sent home later. Sawyer squeeze, battery for phone etc.. is typical gear we will add to our backs.

The redo of the tent rigging made me decide to learn some basic knots. I learned the best way to wrap my 50 feet of 550 reflective paracord. I also learned the clove hitch which is a critical part of the PCT bear hang.

I love to plan and while the planning was fun and I enjoyed it, at this point I am burned out on planning. I just want to get started now. I got one more post on the plan before we actually get to start posting from the trail in later June.

Lead photo credit 


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