Not a Happy Camper (Lessons Learned from an Aborted Shakedown Hike)

We simply couldn’t resist.  The lure of this incredibly mild weather, combined with all the accounts we’ve been reading of people who have begun their thru-hikes, made us anxious to hit the trail.  As a result, we decided to turn our two-night shakedown into the official start of our hike.  Our plan was to go from Turner’s Gap in Maryland south to the Ed Garvey shelter (11.2 miles) the first day, head down to the AT Conservancy office in Harper’s Ferry the next day to get our AT passports stamped, and then return to the same shelter that night (about 13 miles).  On the third day, we’d hike the eleven miles back to our truck.  After that, we’d take our time hiking through Maryland, front-loading a lot of zero days until we left in April for good.

packIn short, it didn’t go well.  We ended up bumming a ride home the second night because I was in so much misery I couldn’t go on.  Here are the lessons — good and bad — I learned from our less-than-stellar start:

When people say to start out slow, I NEED TO LISTEN TO THEM.  Our first day wasn’t too bad for the first eight miles.  After that, my plantar fasciitis kicked in, and I hobbled through the last few miles.  Carrying a 24 lb. pack was also a lot harder than I expected, especially since I’d only slept four hours the previous night.  But instead of learning from that experience, I stupidly extended my hike the following day.  Instead of merely hiking 13 miles, I decided to go 17! And it destroyed me.  By the time we reached Gathland Park I couldn’t take another step.  I was so exhausted I could barely stand upright, let alone hike another mile to the camp.  It was dumb of me, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I flaked out after just two days, but I guess it was a lesson I needed to learn.  From now on, I can not push the pace!

Other bits of wisdom I gleaned from our brief hike: I don’t need to carry so much food, at least until the infamous “hiker hunger” kicks in (although I might want to go easier on the nuts and beans). This should help me reduce my pack weight.  I thought I was doing well at 24 lbs., which included water and a three-day supply of food.  But the stark reality is that 24 pounds is a lot to carry for me.  Ideally, I need to keep closer to 20. It’s time to ruthlessly cull the contents of my bag.

hair

Mutant Hair

My hair goes rogue in the woods.  Seriously, my hair had so much static electricity that I couldn’t even comb it.  It literally stood on end.  I have no idea why.

I now know why hikers stink.  At the end of the day I was too tired to think about hygiene.  I managed to brush my teeth and swipe a wet cloth over my face, but my usual fastidiousness went out the window due to fatigue.  This is something I obviously need to improve.

Hot running water is an absolute marvel.  Even after one night of camping, being able to wash my hands with soap and hot water (in a public restroom in Harper’s Ferry) felt like bliss.

There is a lot of noise in the woods – and I don’t mean from the wildlife.  Trains went by in the distance.  We could hear cars and trucks, even though the nearest road was miles away.  And the planes! I had no idea the Ed Garvey shelter was in the flight path to Dulles Airport, but those blasted airplanes flew overhead all night.  I sure hope the rest of the AT isn’t as noisy.  If it is, ear plugs are a must.

tarpSetting up camp is harder than I anticipated in the woods.  Staking out my tarp in my mother’s grassy backyard was easy, but in the forest, the ground was either too rocky or too soft. I finally got the tarp at roughly the proper angle but lost a stake when I bumped the tarp and it popped out. (Luckily, I’d put colored duct tape on the end, and John found it the next day.)

Hanging a bear bag is also more of a challenge than we thought. John was perfectly accurate with his throw, but none of the trees had limbs at the right height or angle.  The bag ended up tangled in some small branches, and it took a lot of effort to get it down.  On the positive side, I found our incompetence oddly entertaining. It provided some badly needed humor and really cheered me up.bearbag

Thanks to John, who channeled his inner boy scout, I rediscovered how wonderful a campfire feels.  The beauty of it relaxed us, and the delightful warmth lifted our moods.  I doubt we’ll make one often, but a campfire really is nice.

There were a lot of other lovely moments on the trail, such as when a herd of deer ran by.  I also have to give a shout out to my Warbonnet Blackbird hammock.  Sleeping in a cozy cloud of down was so wonderful that I actually missed it when I got home. (Although to be honest, taking a hot shower, soaking my feet in Espom salts, sleeping for ten hours, and availing myself of a hefty dose of Aleve felt pretty great, too.)

Anyhow, the shakedown was a sobering experience, and it’s time to take stock of what I’ve learned.  I’m definitely still going to thru-hike.  But there is no denying that the endorphin buzz I got from hiking was no match for the pain caused by doing too much too fast.  Bottom line: I’m not superhuman. Carrying a loaded pack is hard.  I also have chronic plantar fasciitis that hits me after eight miles.  My feet seem to recover by the following day, but I’d better start stop pushing the distance before I end up off the trail for good.  Oh, and I’d better stock up on Ibuprofen, too.

fire

 

 

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Comments 29

  • Deane Giordano : Mar 2nd

    Oh my gosh, you are a bad ass! One who’s willing to learn and help the rest of us learn from your lessons. (I stocked up on ear plugs just yesterday!) I’m curious…what bottom insulation are you using in your hammock? I’m still on the fence in the hammock v tent debate…leaning towards the hammock but unsure of the insulation. Tips?

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 2nd

      Ha! I appreciate the compliment, Deane, but I was a total wimp, wallowing in self pity for miles. I really hate that about myself and hope this thru-hike will toughen me up! As far as hammocks v. tents go, I’m a total newbie at this myself, so I can’t really offer any insights. From what I can tell, though, both have their pros and cons. We decided on hammocks because we are both tall (I’m 5’10” and John is 6’2″), and we would have needed a big tent. I have arthritis in my hips, too, so no matter how thick the cushion, lying on the ground is not something I looked forward to. I figured a hammock would be more comfortable, and so far I think I’m right. There are drawbacks, though. It’s kind of hard to organize your stuff. In a tent you can lay it all out on the ground and still be enclosed. My hammock has a little shelf, which is great, but it’s still hard to get at everything. Setting up a tent might be easier, although we are quickly getting the hang of our hammocks and tarps. I think the warmth factor is similar with both. I have the Warbonnet Wookie full-length underquilt, which I believe is rated to 20 degrees, and the EE Revelation top quilt (also 20 degrees). I wore my fleece hat, wool top, down mittens, and down parka to bed. My legs and feet felt a little chilled, but it was because I was too lazy to put on my wool tights and heavier socks. I’m thinking of adding down booties. I hesitate to add another ounce of weight, but they might be worth it if they are light enough. I think it was in the low 40’s at night, possibly a bit colder, but not much. I just used my fleece jacket as a pillow. I could have put it on if I had really felt cold, but I didn’t need it. So, in conclusion, I don’t really know which is warmer. I find the hammock extremely comfortable. It takes a little getting used to, and I had one panic attack when I couldn’t find the zipper on the bug net to get out and started hyperventilating, but I solved that problem by adding a long zipper pull in a bright color so I can see it better now. (And I suspect I’d feel even more claustrophobic in a tent.) All in all, I’m very happy with my cozy little hammock and look forward to getting into it at night.

      Reply
    • Mark Stanavage : Mar 5th

      If I may jump in. Hammock Gear makes great underquilts and top quilts. Very light, very good compression. Used to get cold butt, not anymore. Pair with a top quilt and you will have more freedom of movement. Also makes getting out in middle of night to relieve yourself much easier. Adjusting sleeping pads and mummy bags in a hammock is a pain!

      Reply
      • Gail Barrett : Mar 5th

        I agree, Mark. I love my quilts. Do you think the Hammock Gear ones are better than the Warbonnet Wookie and EE Revelation?

        Reply
  • Tinkerbell : Mar 2nd

    Thank you for sharing this! So many aspiring thru-hikers NEED to hear this. The lessons you learned are valuable ones, and a lot of people don’t learn them until their thru-hike attempt is already in full swing. Now you can go home and make the needed changes to your gear, your plans, and maybe practice your camp set-up some more. My shakedown hikes before my thru-hike attempt ever even started were my most valuable preparation. You’re doing great! Keep it up.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 2nd

      Thank you, Tinkerbell! That’s exactly what we are doing. We took yesterday off to recover, then started our day hikes again today. We cut WAY back on the miles (only 7.2 today), but kept the loaded packs to get into better shape. We also forced ourselves to go slower. We are going to work our way through Maryland like this and spend at least one more night outdoors before heading out for real. Hopefully by then we will have increased our skills and conditioning, and have a better chance of success. Honestly, this is much harder than I expected, but we are definitely learning. And like you said, I’m so glad that we are learning these lessons now!!!!

      Reply
  • Notebook : Mar 2nd

    Way to go, lesson learner!!

    What you’ve learned is so critical, BUT, unfortunately, I think you might want to slow down EVEN MORE than I’m sure you are already planning to. Two days out and those huge miles were extreme. But even if you stick to under-10-mile days when you start out, you still might wind up getting injured–I thought I was excruciatingly conservative at first but still wound up with tendinitis in my right foot within the first 10 days that ultimately caused a stress fracture in my left foot and ended my hike 600 miles later. EVERYONE says they’ll take it slow, and EVERYONE thinks they are, but very few of us take it slow ENOUGH.

    Also, Ibuprofen can be a miracle, but it can also mask dangerous pain and cause other problems. Not to be a debbie downer … I really want you to succeed! Just don’t be frustrated if success looks different from what you expected.

    You got this!!

    -Notebook

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 2nd

      Those are excellent points, Notebook. I still can’t believe you went all that way on a fractured foot! That’s just amazing, and you have my undying awe!!!

      We have decided to finish Maryland by doing short day hikes. Today we went 7.2 miles carrying our loaded packs (mine was 22 pounds). We’ll do the same thing for the next couple of days, then take a day off, etc. We will probably keep going back and forth through Maryland until we officially begin our thru-hike in April at the PA state line. I have a couple of commitments coming up, so we might only manage four days of hiking per week. I’m hoping that by keeping our mileage low and carrying weight I can get into better shape. Do you think that is low enough?

      And yes, you are absolutely right about measuring success. I used to be a long distance runner, and I am so used to trying to do things fast. It is very humbling to now have physical limitations that I can’t seem to overcome. It is going to be hard, but I really need to look at this hike differently and stop worrying about the speed.

      Reply
  • Niki : Mar 2nd

    I’m also 62 and I am hanging on your every word of wisdom! We are planning our thru-hike for next year but I keep getting these twinges of “Screw it! Just go now!” I am so eager to begin this adventure but am probably far less prepared than you! I am very fearful of making the hike ending, painful mistakes like those you have described.

    I’m in slightly better shape than my sister and I would feel totally responsible if she was to come up incapacitated. So, I am listening carefully and paying attention to those who offered their comments, wisdom and experience.

    I thank you for sharing and wish you the very best!! It sounds like your shakedown was your best teacher and in turn you have become one of my best teachers! Keep posting, please! Priceless!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 2nd

      Niki, I doubt you could be less experienced than I am. To be frank, aside from a couple of camping trips decades ago, I have spent a grand total of two nights outdoors — once in my mom’s backyard, and now this fiasco in the woods. All I can say at this point is that I am sooo glad we decided to do that shakedown hike. It highlighted our inadequacies in a way nothing else could. It was a much needed shock, and we are now planning to spend at least one more night out before we start the thru-hike in earnest (hopefully two). We have also cut back on our mileage and are forcing ourselves to carry 20+ lbs. packs on our day hikes to get into better shape. We still have so much to learn, but this is helping a lot. On the positive side, I did a ton of research before buying our equipment, and overall, I’ve been really happy with my choices. That research really paid off. But there are things no amount of research prepared us for, such as the pain and effort of lugging a pack up a rocky trail. We’ve been hiking the AT here in Maryland for a year now, but mostly without packs, and it is a totally different experience, MUCH harder. So I guess my only advice at this point is to not skimp on the training — and try not to make my stupid mistakes!!!! I’ll be eager to hear how your hike goes!

      Reply
  • Kate G : Mar 2nd

    I’m sorry to hear your plantar fasciitis is still giving you trouble despite all you’ve been doing for it, but it’s good that you’re listening to your body and it sounds like you had a very valuable shakedown with lessons learned. I am hoping the weather in Wisconsin will allow me to get out for a few days and nights sometime soon with a fully loaded pack.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 2nd

      Yeah, it’s a real bummer, Kate. I’ve tried almost everything, and it keeps coming back. My goal now is to try to keep the pain low enough that I can still hike. Are you starting your thru-hike this spring?

      Reply
      • Kate G : Mar 2nd

        48 days until I start! My plantar fasciitis has thankfully been very well behaved lately, so maybe I’ve finally turned the corner after years of stretching? However, my right shoulder has gotten to be a real problem and physical therapy hasn’t helped. The good news is that the pack doesn’t seem to bother my shoulder, though I have to be very careful about putting it on. I’m really really really hoping it can hold out for 6 months or maybe even improve on the trail.

        Reply
        • Gail Barrett : Mar 2nd

          That’s great news, Kate. Hopefully the PF is gone for good. I’ll be rooting for you!!!! Best of luck!

          Reply
          • Kate G : Mar 3rd

            Thanks, Gail! I’m rooting for you, too, and always enjoy your updates!

            Reply
  • Pat Block : Mar 2nd

    Great to hear your update Gail. I will keep reading trying to prep my own ’18 trip. 😊🌴

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 2nd

      Thanks for taking the time to read it, Pat. Hopefully you can learn from my dumb escapades and be a much smarter hiker than I am!

      Reply
  • Lou Eckert : Mar 2nd

    Gail, that’s a wonderful account of your learning experience! I enjoy your writing a lot, and have read (and re-read) many tales of long-distance hiking. You paint a nice picture with your words! My hope is that you keep a notebook (or an audio record) of your mis-adventures, and turn that into a book some day. Good luck finding the fun out there, stay safe and healthy. ~Lou in Maine

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 3rd

      Thank you so much, Lou. That was a really nice thing to say, and I appreciate it a lot! I am definitely planning to keep a journal and turn it into some sort of book. I doubt anything I write will be as funny as Bill Bryson’s book, but maybe someone can benefit from my “misadventures,” as you say. Where do you live in Maine, by the way? Our son spent a few years in Portland in the Coast Guard.

      Reply
  • Chris G. : Mar 2nd

    I always carry ear plugs, a little wind brushing against a cuben fiber tarp will play you a song all night. If you pull your guy lines out on the side of your tarp a little on the side you get in you wont be brushing your head up against it. Hope to see you guys out there!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 3rd

      I know what you mean about the noise, Chris. The tarp does made little crinkling sounds. So far it hasn’t been bad, but I’ve packed ear plugs just in case. Thanks for that advice! I did a great job pitching the tarp in the yard, but the ground at the shelter was terrible. It was so soft that I had a terrible time getting the stakes to stay put. As a result, the angle of the guy lines wasn’t ideal. It took me much longer than I anticipated just to get it to stay put. And them I bumped one side while getting in, and a stake popped out and flew off into the leaves. It was a miracle we found it the next day (and certainly wouldn’t have if I hadn’t put red and yellow tape on the end). I hope we see you on the trail, too. What are your hiking plans?

      Reply
  • NCFlyGirl : Mar 3rd

    I’m very interested in following your thru hike. Do you plan on blogging or posting as you go?
    Sounds like you learned some valuable lessons on your shakedown. I wish you the best on your adventure!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 4th

      Thanks so much, NC! I appreciate the good wishes. Yes, I intend to keep blogging on this site, hopefully once a week. I guess it will depend on how often we can get to a town. Stay tuned and keep your fingers crossed for us!

      Reply
  • Bevil : Mar 4th

    Hi,

    For your foot problems, I was recommended ‘SuperFeet’ inserts. I have them now but haven’t had the opportunity to try them out hiking due to flu for the past 4 weeks! They might be worth trying Oh, I’m 66 so …

    Bev

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 4th

      Bev, I do use Superfeet insoles. I tried all sorts of types and ended up with the Superfeet blue. I tried the greens (which are very popular with hikers) but the arch was too high. I have a normal arch, and the blue version worked better. I also switched from trail runners to a heavier hiking shoe, the Oboz Sawtooth (non Gortex version). They seemed to protect my feet better. Carrying weight, though, is tough on on my feet. I’m usually good for eight miles, but after that my arches start to hurt. I’m hoping that if I can get used to carrying weight and hiking in steeper terrain then maybe my feet will toughen up a bit. I hope!!!!! And I hear you about the age. I NEVER had this problem before. All my life my feet were perfectly fine, even when I ran long distances. But after seeing two physical therapists I’ve learned that the problem probably originates in my arthritic hips. Because I don’t have the same range of motion I once did, I am landing on my feet differently or stressing different parts of my feet, and that is what is causing the problem. One PT wanted to sell me her custom insoles, but the other one (who is an ultra distance runner) said that the Superfeet were just as good.

      Reply
  • Pam & Jay : Mar 5th

    Bev, I love your writing style! Thanks so much for sharing your shakedown experience! My husband and I (I’m 58, he is 56) will be doing a flip flop starting the end of April. Last week we did a shakedown overnight and it was so valuable to us. We were both with loaded packs, walked about 10 miles to a state park. The 10 miles there was hard (basically flat ground), but doable. I got big blisters halfway back. I have come to realize that with weight I need bigger, wider shoes. We also decided to buy a lighter tent, and possibly new sleeping bags too. So glad we are doing shakedown hikes this next month while we can!

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 6th

      Pam, I agree that a shakedown hike is invaluable. As miserable as ours was, we learned so much! Even spending a night in my mother’s backyard helped a lot. During that little adventure I suffered a panic attack when I couldn’t find the zipper on my hammock to get out. As soon as we got home I attached a bright colored pull to the zipper and solved the problem. It was a small thing, but I think those little things will contribute to the success of our hike. Sorry about the blisters, by the way. That sounds like agony! I hope your new shoes work out better. Foot pain is the worst! I also hope we see you on the trail. We are starting off earlier than you are, but we will probably take a week or two off when we flip, so we might cross paths. Best of luck!!!

      Reply
  • Jeff Mann : Mar 6th

    I wish I hard read your story first. I started my AT adventure Friday, March 3. My brother in law drove me from Ohio to the approach Trail at Amicalola Falls. Took out like a young pup. Did all of the stairs! I am 59. Thought I was Hydrating enough. Should have stop at Springer Mt. hiked in to Stover for the night Struggled through dinner, (cut my finger on my stove setting it up), wet sleeping bag, (my camel back leaked) it got below 30 degrees. I slept sparingy. When I woke up at 6:30, I my a decision to hike back to springer Mt. Caught a ride to Atlanta airport. I had to be helped off the plane. Paramedics hard to check me out. I had to ride the handicapped assistance cart to my next flight. Back in Ohio by 9 pm. Lots of tears for leaving the Trail so quickly. As I looked back. It was better to be helped at the airport ratter than getting hauled out of the woods on a stretcher. AT won this weekend challenge. As I regroup more water, more training, bring a friend. Feeling great now.

    Reply
    • Gail Barrett : Mar 6th

      Oh, Jeff!!!! I’m so sorry you went through all that, but I can totally commiserate with your misery! I could never have made it through the airport after our 17 mile “death march.” I could barely hobble from the driveway into the house, and even standing upright in the shower was almost more than I could manage, so I would have been right with you in the handicapped cart. One thing I can say about our debacle, though, was that it really taught us a lesson. And in a way, I’m glad it happened now so that we can maybe keep from making that mistake when we’re far from home. Ever since our failed shakedown hike, we have been training WAY more prudently. We have been going out every day on our local section of the AT (Maryland) and doing 6 to 10 miles with weight in our packs (22 lbs for me, 25 for my husband). We are going to take weekends off, but we expect to continue like this for the next three weeks, gradually adding a bit more weight. We are also going to sleep out one or two more nights. At the end of 8 miles I am beat, and I certainly don’t feel that I can do any more, but I’m nowhere near the point of absolute exhaustion I reached on the shakedown hike. And already I’m feeling a little stronger. We should have been smart and done this from the start! I hope you regroup and try again. It is humbling to feel the limitations of our age, but we can still do this. We just need to do it a little slower at the start. Please keep me posted on your progress. I really hope we meet up on the trail!

      Reply

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