Shakedown – Erwin to Roan Mountain

I recently went on a 4.5-day shakedown hike from Erwin, Tennessee, to Highway 19E near Roan Mountain. The goal was to test my gear as I prepare for a late February start on the AT. Here are a few of the lessons learned.

#1 – You Can’t Buy Trail Legs

Most things that you might need as you prepare for a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail can be purchased at REI or another outdoor adventure store. Unfortunately, trail legs are not one of them! We drove from the Raleigh area to Mountain Harbour Hostel on Wednesday morning. We got there a little before 1 and Sharon shuttled us to the bridge where the AT crosses the Nolichucky River near Erwin. By the time we hit the trail, we had about three hours of daylight left and a relatively easy hike to Curly Maple Shelter (4.2 miles). That was the only easy day. On each of the next four days, we hiked 12-13 miles. I will be starting out much slower this spring. Those miles combined with the large elevation changes in that stretch really took a toll on my knees and legs.

Lesson learned: You can’t buy trail legs and mileage moderation is key to long-term success.

#2 – Frozen Pants Are No Fun

The purpose of a shakedown hike is to test your gear and learn how to handle specific situations. Thursday as we crested the summit of Beauty Spot and stopped for lunch, it began to rain. We finished eating and quickly donned our rain gear. I have not done much hiking in the rain and realized quickly that I will need to adjust my setup. We spent the rest of the day hiking in the rain, over Unaka Mountain and down to Cherry Gap Shelter. We had managed to keep our gear covered and protected so I had dry camp clothes and a dry sleeping bag. After dinner, we hung up the wet gear and went to bed. Friday morning, we woke to below freezing temps; I am guessing it was about 17 degrees. The rain had stopped but everything was coated in ice, including the wet pants that I had hung up the night before. I am sure this will not be the last time I exchange my warm, dry camp clothes for less-than-optimal hiking clothes. This first time though was definitely a lesson.

Lesson learned: Frozen pants are no fun.

#3 – Can’t Have Enough R-Value

We hiked from Cherry Gap Shelter to the campsite near Little Rock Knob Vista on Friday. It was actually a great day of hiking once our clothes thawed and began to dry out. They say start cold, right? This was our night to set up our tents and ensure that everything was good in that regard. The temperature in Roan Mountain was supposed to be 26 so I am guessing it was around 20 degrees where we were. Everything went well; we made a fire and a great dinner before heading to our tents. I was warm and toasty for the first hour but then the ground temp started seeping upward. It was not the best night of sleep. I will be bringing a closed-cell pad to go under my BA Q-core for the start of my hike and plan to research other ways to keep the cold from seeping up from the bottom.

Lesson learned: Frozen ground makes for a cold night’s sleep. No such thing as too much R-value!

#4 – Weekends Are for Tourists

Saturday, the weather changed. It was sunny with temperatures in the 50s. The first hour of our day was a gradual descent to Hughes Gap. We warmed up quickly and actually hiked the first 3.2 miles in about an hour. We crossed the road and then started the climb up Roan Mountain. Thankful for the numerous switchbacks, we gained about 3,000 feet in elevation on our way to the top. Once at the top we noticed a drastic increase in hikers on the trail down to Carvers Gap. When the trail led us out of the woods, we immediately noticed the crowds. The parking lot was full, cars and trucks were parked on both sides of the road as far as we could see. The short hike up Round Bald was a very popular hike that day. It was easy to see why. The 3/4-mile trip up the paved path resulted in the best views of the day. Just don’t expect pictures without other hikers in the shot if you go on the weekend.

Lesson learned: Weekends are for tourists; plan to hit hot spots on off days.

#5 – Roan Highlands Are Amazing

We thought the views from Jane Bald were great, even with the crowd. The day finished with a two-mile downhill to the Clyde Smith Shelter. We woke up early, and with Roan Mountain behind us, we anticipated an easy day. We hiked the two miles to the turnoff to Overmountain Shelter. Dropping our packs, we decided we would make the side trip to see the big red barn even though it had been closed by the ATC. There was a large group of campers that had hiked from Carvers Gap for an overnight. After our break, we headed to Little Hump and Hump Mountain. We completely underestimated these two, based on Guthook. The climbs were well worth it, however. You can see the Smokies in the south and Mount Rogers in the north. We could trace our path from Unaka to Rocky Knob and Roan Mountain. Every step gave you an excuse to stop and take another picture. Hands down, the Roan Highlands provided the best views I have seen on the AT.

Lesson learned: Roan Highlands are work but well worth it!

All in all, it was a great trip, I will adjust my gear to be better prepared for the weather that we will expect as we start the trail in February.

Y’all be careful out there!


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Comments 4

  • Howard Rollins : Dec 1st

    Excellent fun read, Steve. I have hiked on much of the route that you described. You are correct that the views from that part of the trail are just spectacular. And Big Hump and Little Hump are tremendous fun. One correction, however. It is CARVER’S Gap, not Carters. Thought you’d want to know.

    • Steve Shelton : Dec 1st

      Thanks Howard, must have missed the autocorrect when editing. Corrected.

  • Bruce Hall : Dec 1st

    Steve – A suggestion for a better night’s sleep in the cold. Piece of Reflectix, cut to the size of your air mattress. It provides an additional 3-4 R-value. Also, add hand warmers between the Reflectix and the mattress. The hand warmers will heat the air in the mattress. An alternative to the Reflectix is a space blanket. It packs smaller and probably weighs slightly less. Either way, you can skip the closed cell pad which I find a bit bulky unless you want it for the extra cushioning.
    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Travis : Dec 2nd

    Good read. Learned my lesson with the BA q core after a similar experience. Went with the thermarest xtherm and what a difference it made. I felt no cold coming through the pad in 20 degrees. Good luck on future hike!


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