Shaking It Down in AT Prep Town: Part One
Here I come with a blog mini-series because one post with all of this information is Just. Too. Much. This three-part post frenzy serves as a collection of backpacking adventures and mishaps; we’ll just call them shakedown hikes. Largely for gear testing and experience, a shakedown hike provides opportunities to work out some kinks and challenge ourselves. Working like fiends from mid-November through mid-April means we won’t log any more backpacking miles until we hit the AT. April 17th, y’all!
Shakedown Hike #1: Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (4/27 – 5/4/18)
The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT) takes the cake for longest backpacking excursion we’ve planned and completed together to date. Ranging 70 miles in southwestern Pennsylvania between Seward and Ohiopyle, this trail had a combination of winning attributes that led to our decision to hike it:
Location: Good for hiking with mid-spring weather and trail conditions.
Distance: Manageable length to attempt within seven- to ten-day time frame.
Terrain: Easy to moderate hiking difficulty.
Established route: Well-marked and maintained, with an existing guidebook and topographical maps.
Parking: Able to leave our car in an outfitter’s lot (Wilderness Voyageurs) at southern terminus; easily arranged a shuttle to northern terminus for a fee with the same outfitter.
Ease of access: Within reasonable driving distance from my parents’ home, where we were visiting.
Budget-friendly: Campsite or shelter use cost a reasonable $5/person/night and included access to water, bathrooms, trash cans, and firewood.
A Plan Was Born
The winter season leading up to this shakedown hike was the primary one in which Garrett and I revamped our backpacking gear (check out my previous post for more info). I also was holding down a job as a dispatcher with the police and security department at Sugarloaf for Carrabassett Valley, ME, and slowly losing my nature-loving mind while stuck in a small boxy office during 12-hour shifts.
Needless to say, I was more than ready mentally for an active hiking escape. My months-long, desk-bound hibernation, which left me physically winded walking up to the base area from the slightly lower-elevation parking lots, couldn’t keep me down. Yikes, I digress. Long story short, I was stir crazy and rip-raring to go, especially excited to check out a hiking trail in my home state and test out some new gear.
Short Trail, Many Hurdles
The LHHT presented us with myriad obstacles to overcome along its attainable 70 miles, both expected and unexpected. Any and all of these challenges we would expect to deal with on our 2019 AT thru-hike at some point, so no shortage of training here.
We ran a gamut of temperature extremes on this hike. From a blustery day of near-freezing cold, wearing every article of clothing in our packs, to an early May heatwave that had us stripped to underwear and “bathing” in a creek after sweating profusely all day. Thankfully we’ve experienced wild weather swings before and carry appropriate layers and gear in anticipation of a wonky forecast. One group of teenage girls in a shelter near us on the coldest night (temps in the 20s) carried in their belongings from a nearby vehicle, toting pillows, gallon jugs of water, old sleeping bags, etc. while wearing pajama pants and sweatshirts. They all made it through the night, but Brrr!
2. Strict Camping Regulations
Before we even hit the trail, we faced a challenge that affected our entire shakedown hike. The LHHT runs through PA state park and game lands, state forest, and various other privately owned properties and public lands. As a result, all camping is restricted to eight designated shelter and tent areas, spaced six to 12 miles apart along the route. Each designated area has five shelters with fireplaces and room for up to 30 tents. One night’s stay is the maximum at each location.
I made reservations for each night’s camp spot days in advance via website. Carrying an itinerary of reservations along ensured our legitimacy in case a ranger showed up to check the area. Funnily enough, we never saw a ranger on our thru-hike. Honestly, it was rare to encounter other hikers on the trail. Nights alone at camp happened more often than not. We must have chosen a slow time of year to be out there.
My prior experience with camping restrictions and permits coincides with hiking on the AT in 2015 (Blood Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Watauga Lake, Baxter State Park), and none of those rules affected my hike then as much as on the LHHT. These more stringent camping regulations played a large role in planning our daily mileage. We (read: me) were unable to do the higher mileage necessary to skip over a shelter on a given day. For example, the first shelter we hike to might be eight miles down the trail, which is kind of a short day, but the next campsite would be another ten miles away, which was way too far for my fitness level at the time. Let’s be real — desk-bound worker to ultra-hiker doesn’t happen overnight.
3. My Feet (Are the Worst)
I wish I could say that I stomped my way down 70 miles of trail without incurring the toll of blisters, plantar fasciitis, and rolled ankles, but that’s just not my style. In 2015 the AT introduced me to the wild foot swelling of long-distance backpackers. It also repeatedly taught me that more miles hiked = greater foot soreness at the end of the day. Shocking, right? Anyway, I struggled to find trail runners that worked, and I became frequently challenged by the subsequent foot pain associated with making miles in shitty* shoes. Somehow I navigated that hike sans crazy blister action. Regardless, I hesitate to say my feet solely (pun intended) governed my hiking plans.
*They weren’t shitty shoes — there are so many cool and diverse trail runners these days — I just wanted a pair that didn’t make my feet feel like hamburger after only 5-10 miles!
Blisters and Plantar Fasciitis, Oh My!
Enter the LHHT experience, which gave me a taste of it all and provided the greatest challenge to overcome. I’ve had some good ankle rolls in my life, so that isn’t a new issue, but it still blows when it happens. I’ve also had the occasional blister before (who hasn’t?), but not the blister-hiding-behind-callous monstrosity that emerged on the balls of my feet. Trying to lance and drain a blister underneath such incredibly tough skin with a sewing needle is like trying to drive a blunt stick through a watermelon. And the plantar fasciitis…. holy guacamole!
I dealt with serious plantar fasciitis following a summer hike down the steep ski slopes on Sugarloaf. Straining the connective tissue between the heel and toes in my right foot put me out of hiking commission for months. Hiking the LHHT brought on a flare-up of the plantar fascia and heel pain bad enough to consider bailing out. Luckily that day mileage was short and we were already close to camp when I was about to reach a breaking point. We spent the afternoon massaging my feet, keeping them elevated, and resting up for reassessment in the morning. A conscious effort to take more frequent breaks to rest the feet on our last days made the thru-hike a success.
New Shoe Blues
Relevant to all of this is the fact that I was trying out a new pair of trail runners, the Altra Olympus 2.5. Wearing these shoes around the house and at work didn’t compare to miles hiked, unfortunately, and I think I paid for it. As cushy and springy as they feel, increasing training and mileage slowly is the way to go. The zero-drop sole is definitely something to take the time and condition your feet for. After the LHHT, I remained open to further testing with the Olympus 2.5 and used them on other hikes. I’ll chat more about that later in the shakedown hike series.
Trail Magic Exists on Shorter Trails Too
In the throes of the hottest and longest hiking day of our eight days on trail, we came upon something unexpectedly amazing: Seven Springs Resort. Open slopes of grass took us out of the brown treeline and up to an exposed area where a large snow-making pond and ski lodge crown the summit. Decks and picnic tables surrounded the building, and we felt a thrill to discover that the doors to the lodge’s lower level were open. Inside were restrooms, power outlets, tables, chairs, trash cans, and hallelujah, a drink machine with bottles of cold, sweet Gatorade!
We stopped here for the day a little early, taking full advantage of the amenities. A hiker trash takeover in full effect, we rinsed out our salty clothes, set up a clothesline on the deck, cooked dinner, chucked trash, swigged Gatorade, recharged electronics, and cowboy camped under the stars and full moon on the lawn. This day may be my favorite despite the heat and climbs. It was awesome to cool off and relax without having to eke out more miles to reach our reserved campsite. And effectively (though unintentionally) cheat the designated camp area system for the night. Whoops! Sorry, not sorry.
Shakedown Hike #1 Takeaways
Overall, Garrett and I had success on this trip, especially with our newer gear items. Everything performed in a way that we were excited about and happy with. We’re both ready for the cooler months on the AT clothing-wise and feeling confident in that regard. Testing kits during the same month in the same state as our planned SOBO start was huge!
This was the first time in a backpacking capacity that we had tested out multiple items. BRS stoves and TOAKS titanium pots updated our camp kitchen. My 10-degree Enigma quilt from Enlightened Equipment and our Therm-a-Rest Neoair sleeping pads lightened sleep systems. Our down puffy coats did not make the cut (see note below). Katadyn BeFree filter systems (1L and 3L) were an interesting diversion from the more popular Sawyer Squeeze. Aside from the puffy jackets, all of this gear has made our shortlists for the thru-hike.
*Note: We switched from jackets we already own (an Eddie Bauer and an LLBean, both in the down sweater style with thin baffles, tons of stitching, and more weight) to lighter Enlightened Equipment Torrid Apex synthetic puffy coats. Synthetic material retains warmth a bit more when wet, and it’s wet a lot on the AT.
Physical Prep Notes
Unsurprisingly, I encountered more physical issues on this shakedown hike than Garrett did. Rolling off the ’17/’18 winter season as a desk jockey left me in terrible shape. Coming out of the current winter season, I’m in a better place physically due to a much more active job. Waiting tables and standing in a kitchen from four to 12 hours a day definitely harden the soles a bit.
Look for my next post in the shakedown hike series about our prep for the AT. T-minus 19 days until we hit the trail!
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