Lessons Learned at Linville Gorge

For my first shakedown hike after finally acquiring all my backpacking gear, I wanted to do something physically challenging that would let me see more of the state in which I’ve been living for the past few years. So, after doing some research, I learned of a place called “The Grand Canyon of the East,” or Linville Gorge. As a student of “The Harvard of the South,” I know that these sorts of comparisons can be rather quixotic, so I tempered my enthusiasm.

As I shared my plan with some friends, I quickly found a hiking buddy in my friend Jocelyn. Both of us are ultra runners capable of going long distances on foot, but after reading the AllTrails reviews of the route we were planning, I knew we should manage our expectations for how easy the 20-ish mile loop would be.

New Hikers Beware

Upon arrival at the trailhead, we saw a sign warning new visitors to the park to anticipate a pace of 1 mile per hour. We thought our initial two mph estimate was conservative, but we ended up somewhere in between when considering breaks, lookouts, and a rather sketchy river crossing. The good thing about backpacking is that there’s not much else to do besides keep moving forward, so this just meant less time at camp for the night and a slightly later drive home.

I picked this hike partially because its average elevation gain per mile was higher than that of the Appalachian Trail. However, its strenuous nature seemed unbeknownst to many of the fellow hikers we encountered. Passing by people barefoot or in fashion sneakers, dogs carrying their own packs, and children who seemed shorter than the river put things into perspective—it’s all really not that serious unless you want it to be.

The ups before the downs

I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, and I’m going to be honest: if this is a fair comparison, I don’t know if I need to. I enjoyed the views, but Jocelyn and I kept asking each other if we were at the gorge part yet. The blue mountains in the distance were sure pretty—and got me excited for the NC section of the AT—but the scenery of the East doesn’t photograph quite as well as that of the West.

I didn’t realize how tiring walking up stone staircases would prove—I’m going to hazard a guess they were built by someone a touch taller than me. The technicality of the vast number of rocks made me understand the oft-cursed Pennsylvanian section of the AT. However, I developed a vast appreciation for single-track dirt paths. I think my thru-hike will vastly change my perception of what a mile is and feels like.

Okay, I guess it’s kinda pretty

Don’t crash in the last two miles

As we descended the final switchbacks to the river crossing that we had been anticipating all day, I brought up a statistic I’d heard before about how most car accidents occur within a few miles of home. My memory was that it was two miles, but the actual stat is that just over half happen within five. Either way, my point was that I wanted to make sure we were careful not to go into autopilot mode right before reaching camp for the night.

AllTrails user Julie Miller put it well regarding the river crossing: “You will need to get your feet wet. Very wet.” The twenty-one—plus AllTrails tax—mile loop necessitates crossing the river about halfway, which, due to campsite locations, made sense to do at the end of day one. I’d never crossed a river before—well, not without a bridge or shallow stepping stones—and thus didn’t have much strategy going in beyond trying to find the shallowest point with the slowest moving water.

Many large rocks were throughout the river—some might even be called boulders. Unfortunately, they were not arranged in such a manner as to be conducive to rock-hopping the whole way. Honestly, if I weren’t there with someone else, I would have probably turned around, not because I thought I could get swept away, but because I was so far away from the car and, in the more likely case of getting completely soaked and a wet bag, I would be concerned about the cold.

Thankfully, while we both got a little wet in the process of crossing, we could throw our packs at the sketchiest jump, making it less likely that they would float away in the river. The rocks were somewhat slippery, and had I not brought my trekking poles, the crossing might have been impossible. The next day, we passed small children and dogs about to attempt the crossing, so I’m convinced there must have been a more accessible section of river to ford, perhaps deeper but less treacherous. It all worked out okay, but it freaked me out a little after, and on trail, I would definitely wait for another hiker to come by if there are river crossings of that magnitude.

Crossing the river

Water Incident, Fire Incident

After crossing the river, blood pumping with adrenaline, I thought that maybe the extra few ounces of bringing Crocs would have been worth it—when I woke up at 2 a.m. to dig a cat hole and had to put on my wet Lone Peaks, I was extra convinced. See, I crossed the river barefoot and could dry off the dogs before re-socking them, but I crashed in the last two miles by accidentally stepping into the river while gathering water for dinner after arriving at camp as it was getting dark.

Jocelyn had texted me before leaving on the trip, asking if I’d tested my stove yet. I hadn’t and didn’t think the security guards who sleep throughout—sorry, guard—campus in the evening would appreciate me taking my MSR PocketRocket 2 for a spin in the quad. Still, I figured it would be pretty straightforward. I guess I should have brought it with me for a day hike to test it before, but really, how hard could it be? I mean, the instructions seemed pretty straightforward.

Answer: more challenging than you’d expect.

After removing the rubber cap of the fuel canister and screwing on the stove, I heard the hiss of gas. Okay, so far, so good. I had practiced using a Bic lighter beforehand—I had to Google that one—so I knew that step was covered. Still, the stove took many tries to light. Maybe I hadn’t twisted the stove on far enough.

However, once it lit, it was really lit! Huge flames spurted out of the canister at unprecedented angles, fully engulfing the adjuster. My first idea was to throw water on it. Then I remembered it was a gas-based fire. I yelled to my friend for help. She suggested dirt, but again, it’s a gas flame. Finally, Jocelyn found a stick, and we reasoned that unscrewing the stove from the can would put it out. Thankfully, it worked—I’m glad this incident happened before my thru-hike because I can only imagine the trail names this could have elicited.

After that, it took ages for the stove to light, and it didn’t want to stay lit the first couple of times—perhaps a few drops of water and clods of dirt had something to do with that. Eventually, thankfully, we were able to boil a pot of water to use for our dinners. Interestingly enough, come morning, the stove worked fine. I’d be curious to hear any insights as to why it behaved the way it did on the first go around!  Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to photograph the odd stove phenomenon.

A Brand New Day

In the light of day the next morning, more mistakes became apparent. There was a dead tree near where I set up my tent, the bear hang was certainly not far enough off the ground to be of much use, and the campsite was rather slanted—well, that one was apparent at the beginning of the hike.

I learned that after a long day of hiking, I will be very lazy and need to set myself up for an evening routine that is as easy as possible. Some of this had to do with the fact we started hiking at around noon, since the park was a few hours away from school and the sun set in the seven o’clock range. On trail, it should be easier to get started early and end late—however, once my mileage increases, this may cancel out.

After testing my Nemo tensor sleeping pad while tenting for basketball tickets, I knew it might be pushing it with the 30-degree lows predicted. Thus, I also brought an old-as-hell Therm-a-Rest foam pad that I had acquired through said tenting with the plan of stacking them to increase my sleep system’s R-value. However, I was far too tired to blow up the pad and ended up just using the foam one. And, controversial as it may be, I slept better on it than I had on the Nemo. Maybe there’s something to be said about firm sleep surfaces causing less muscle soreness because after returning from the trip and sleeping on my comfy bed, I was almost as fried as I was after running a marathon. Thus, I’m deciding to start with foam.


I felt happy with most of my gear, which was reassuring since most of it I bought based on vibes, REI salesperson advice, or what random people on the internet recommended. There are a few things I will take out for warmer weather and a few swaps I’ll make for comfort, but my base weight of around 17 pounds feels very manageable. Once food—way too much of it—and water were added, it did feel a little heavy, but my Osprey pack does a great job of weight distribution. After another upcoming shakedown hike, I’ll post a list of the gear with which I’m starting the trail.

Beyond gear, it was helpful to get a sense of my backpacking style. I like to keep a steady pace and take very quick breaks for things like using the bathroom and applying sunscreen, favoring to eat and drink while I walk. I also like to get ready quickly in the morning and have more time to unwind at the end of the day. As I mentioned in another post, I’m fully prepared to walk most of the trail alone, as I don’t like having to adapt my pace to others if it isn’t a natural fit. While this hike was challenging, in the days following, I was left with a yearning to get back outside and feel as though I am heading in the right direction with my thru-hike just around the corner.

Some cool rocks

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Comments 2

  • TripleM : May 7th

    Your first stove attempt — sounds like it’s possible that you didn’t have the stove firmly screwed into the canister before you opened the gas valve. I think it helps to screw it in fairly quickly, too. (And, yes, you do have to find the “sweet spot” of how far to open the valve, so that you get a flame, but not an instant towering inferno, lol.)

    • Heidi Smith : May 9th

      Oh, I see—I think I just screwed it in until I heard gas and then tried to light it. Thanks for the tip; I’ll try doing it that way to see if it lights more normally!


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