To Err is Human. To Err Again Is… Slackpacking?

When a hiker we met recently claimed she’d mastered the art of slackpacking, I inwardly scoffed. How hard can slackpacking be? You pack up some water and food, grab your gear for the day, and go. And I was already an experienced hiker, so I doubted I had much else to learn.  I was wrong.  Turns out, there’s a learning curve for slackpacking, just as there is for a thru-hike. And we’ve made our share of mistakes.

Warming up is a great idea before a marathon or footrace. Hiking an extra 0.9 miles uphill – and back down – before embarking on a 15-mile trek isn’t so smart. In fact, it can turn an already challenging day into an ordeal. We could have eliminated this step by checking our GPS before setting out, even if one member of our party insisted he knew which way to go (ahem!). The trail looks different from the road. It might seem like it’s heading one way and then curve in the opposite direction.  And trailheads don’t always post signs indicating which way is north.

We need paper maps. The AWOL guide and Guthook app served us well during our attempted thru-hike, and we still use them every day. But driving to a trailhead deep in a forest – where there is no cell phone coverage and Google maps won’t load up – changes our needs. So unless we want to spend our days driving down rutted dirt roads, dodging rocks and fallen branches as we search for the elusive trailhead, having a detailed section map showing the backroads is a must.

A good map would also help us locate better motel rooms. While thru-hiking, staying close to the trail was essential. We were obviously limited in how far we could go, so we took what we could get. But with a car, we have more flexibility, assuming we know which roads are nearby — and online maps don’t give us the perspective we need. For example, a larger map would have saved us from bypassing perfectly fine motels to stay in a forest cabin with a slanted floor, hairs in the bed, and bugs that feasted on us all night. Of course, we would have missed meeting the quirky proprietor who refused to let us into our room on time because he needed to install a shower curtain. Never mind that we were his only customers. Forget that there were dozens of vacant cabins he could have put us in instead. He wasn’t going to stir himself until he was darn well ready and we could just deal with it. On the plus side, the room didn’t smell too bad, and it still beat the legendary Forest Motel, our all-time low.

We shouldn’t overestimate our abilities.  Sure, slackpacking is easier than thru-hiking. Without a doubt, climbing thousands of feet with ten pounds on our backs is much more comfortable than doing it with 25. But the AT is still not an easy trail, regardless of how much weight we are carrying. The terrain is still rocky and steep. The weather is still rainy or hot. And while slackpacking certainly helps save my knees, which is why we are doing it, those long miles still result in sore muscles and throbbing feet.  (But showering every night is bliss!)

And finally, we need to slow down. While thru-hiking, we were so focused on making our daily mileage and finding a camp at night that we always felt rushed.  Now the urgency is gone. We can take more frequent breaks. We have time to admire the scenery and take photos of all the flowers. We can chat with the people we meet along the way — day hikers, sections hikers, thru-hikers, even excited neophytes who have never set foot on a trail before.  They’re all interesting.  They all have something important to say.  And we are finally learning to listen — which is never a mistake.

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Comments 2

  • Avatar
    Terry Houchin : May 31st

    I love following you on your journey. I’m glad you’ve found a way to complete the trial. Thank you for sharing all the pictures. I am thoroughly enjoying them.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Gail Barrett : Jun 1st

      Thanks so much, Terry! I’m still disappointed that my knees can’t take a thru-hike, but this is better than sitting at home. And one bonus is that we are seeing more of the surrounding area. You don’t really see much on the trail because the woods are so thick. Now we can drive through the countryside and see all the little towns.

      Reply

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