Shakedown: Not Shaken
I am thru-hiking in 2017. Essentially, that means I will live out of a backpack for 4 months or so, spend my days climbing mountains and my nights sleeping in the woods. Have I ever backpacked before?
I have backpacked zero times in my life–until this past summer. My dad, being the wise father that he is, suggested a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, a trial run, a chance to get my feet wet. I planned what became a 5-day shakedown trip on the trail in the Harpers Ferry, WV, area. I had two friends who were interested in going with me, but at the last minute neither of them were able to come along. So my dad, being the awesome dad that he is and at the urging of my mom, decided to accompany me. Luckily, he had gear from a two-week backpacking trip a couple of years ago. He had not trained at all, so we knew we would take it slow and not push for any big mileage days. I had trained some, mostly at our local high school football stadium climbing stairs with my loaded pack (fun and scenic–not). Like a procrastinating champion, I left packing my backpack until the night before our departure. Thankfully, everything fit.
We woke up at 5 a.m. and drove 6 hours to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, West Virginia. In the span of 6 hours, I was in 5 states. Even though Ohio and West Virginia share a border, my dad assured me that it would take longer to reach our destination if we drove West Virginia’s winding roads. It was way too much time in the car, but it was scenic and how often can you say you’ve been in 5 states in 6 hours? A gentleman shuttles us to the trail at Snicker’s Gap in Virginia. We are about halfway there when we realize our trekking poles are still in the back of my car, so we turn around. We reach the trail and I load food and water into my pack and wrestle it onto my back. Crap: it’s heavy. Am I really about to hike 3 miles with this thing on my back? I drop my trekking poles at least three times as we adjust things and dang-it it’s a long way down when you have 35-40 pounds on your back. Dropping your trekking poles must be the telltale sign of a rookie backpacker.
I set foot on the Appalachian Trail for the first time in my life. Within five minutes of beginning our hike, the sky opens up and it pours. I dearly love the rain, so I was smiling the entire time and it lifted my travel-weary spirit. There is something beautiful about a hard rain in the middle of the woods and having no where to run to escape it. We hike 3 miles, traversing the northern end of the Roller Coaster. We had planned to camp at a site just off the trail. Unknowingly we pass the actual site, arrive at where we think the campsite is, and begin to set up camp at a stealth-camping spot just off the trail: uneven ground, thick leaf litter, and tiny trees. At this point, I am tired, hungry, and just a little shellshocked at the stark reality of backpacking. This is a campsite? Not that I was expecting luxury, but I was expecting a little more than what we found. Well, then we hiked down to get water and found the actual campsite–flat, dirt, with a fire pit–and my spirits lifted considerably. We made dinner, spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to find a good branch to hang our bear bag from, and went to bed.
That first day left me convinced that backpacking was out to get me. Issues included but were not limited to: that first “campsite”; going to the bathroom in the woods; stove problems; the time-consuming nature of treating water; not finding a decent branch to hang a bear bag from even though you are standing in the middle of a forest (seriously, it made me think about carrying a bear canister); and waking up in the night convinced that someone is walking around outside your tent about to steal your gear or murder you. If I had been by myself, I definitely would have sat down and cried at some point. I know, all of you veteran backpackers are probably thinking, “She’ll never make it.” But be merciful: this was only the first day I’d ever spent backpacking.
I spend most of the day hiking with gut troubles. Lots of sodium (freeze-dried backpacking meals) + consuming lots of water=not fun. We hike 7 miles to the David Lesser Memorial Shelter, which seems like luxury after the night before. The campsite has tent pads, there is a privy, and there is even a pole to hang a bear bag from. I never thought I would appreciate a toilet seat. Some thoughts from the day: It is amazing to walk along the top of a mountain. You look to either side of you and all you can see are trees and the sky peeking through them. I had several bird nerd moments (I take care of birds for a living), including seeing a black vulture soaring (it was even more epic because it’s not often that you are standing on a cliff looking down at a vulture soaring) and appreciating the young wood thrush that hung out at our campsite singing all evening long. All in all, it was a better day.
We had planned to do a 10-mile day to get us back into Harpers Ferry for church on Sunday. Realizing our overambitious intentions, we tame the hike to 3 miles and call for a shuttle to pick us up at Keys Gap. We began hiking at 6a.m. and witnessed the sunrise, stunning rays of light that pierced the trees on the ridge. Alive moment. When we were driving, it was an awesome feeling to look back and see the mountains behind us and think, “I just walked over those.”
We go to church at the historic St. Peter’s and spend the rest of the day sightseeing in Harpers Ferry. I thoroughly enjoyed the town! You can feel the history there. We end the day with ice cream. Now, my family will tell you that I am a chocolate-lover. I always go for the chocolate and/or peanut butter dessert. Well, I went for the black cherry ice cream and it was the best. Since we are not on the trail, we camp at a KOA Campground that evening, which has a bathhouse and free pancakes. Luxury. However, being back in civilization also makes me realize how much noise humans make. I also feel more nervous about sleeping among other people at the campground than I felt about sleeping in the woods.
We hike about 8 miles northbound into Maryland. The view at Weverton Cliffs was amazing! We reach the Ed Garvey Shelter around lunchtime and stop to eat. My dad is ready to hike on, but I had not slept well the night before (because I was too lazy to get up in the middle of the night to get my towel to use as an extra blanket, and because I also did not want to walk to the bathhouse to use the bathroom–dumb, I know) and was exhausted, so we set up camp. To refill our water supply, we have to hike down a half-mile trail that is all downhill–and then all uphill on the way back. Again, we run into struggles finding a branch for our bear bag and have to settle for something less-than-ideal. Luckily, our food survives the night. Highlight of the night: a great horned owl was calling outside my tent early in the morning!
We hike the 6 miles back into Harpers Ferry. We take a morning snack break and I stick my feet in the Potomac, something I had resolved to do. Back in Harpers Ferry, we decide we haven’t hiked enough miles for the day. The local outfitter allows us to leave our packs there so we can hike up the Maryland Heights Trail. This was about another 4 miles, so that brings our day to about 10 miles. There are amazing views from the top of the cliffs!
After some sightseeing in Frederick, MD, where my parents met and got married, we get a hotel room for the night and wash off a few days of dirt and sweat. As we relax that evening, the air-conditioning, fan, and television are all on, creating an overwhelming amount of noise when you are used to sleeping in the woods with only the breeze and the birds.
All in all, it was a good trip. I learned a lot, one of the more or less profound lessons being that it is impossible to stay clean in the woods. I still want to thru-hike. That being said, five days was long enough for my first backpacking trip. I didn’t ace backpacking, but backpacking also did not kick my butt.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
My husband and I are planning an October short hike on the AT. Your trip sounds about what we would like to try. Where were you able to park and leave your car in Harpers Ferry?
We left our car at the visitor’s center at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. There is a lot there where you can leave it parked for up to two weeks, if I remember right. I believe it was around $16.
Just want to let you know the trail will probably take 6 months or so, not 4. Unless you demolish miles every day and don’t take zero days.
I understand it usually takes 6 months. I am going to try to complete it in 4. I don’t have a deadline, so if it ends up taking longer, so be it. Will see what the trail holds. 🙂
Great post…we all started at the beginning! The lessons the trail will teach you as you hike forward will be incredible. Each day, mile, summit and descent brings knowledge, confidence and great stories.
My best to you on your thru hike…you’ve got this!
AT 2016 thru hiker
Thank you, Slipper! Congratulations on your thru-hike!
I’ll see you out there.