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. In this three-part post frenzy, I will recount the most notable backpacking adventures and failed hiking plans (let’s call them shakedowns) Garrett and I have had over the last year. These have been both for enjoyment and long-term thru-hike preparation in regards to gear, while also providing an opportunity to work out some kinks. I say over the last year but really I can’t count November ’18 through present day because winter in Maine is ridiculous for camping unless you’re prepping for Everest. Also, we work like fiends with little to no time off from basically Thanksgiving through mid-April, so the 2019 camping/backpacking season won’t really kick off for us until we hit the AT. April 17, y’all!
Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (4/27 – 5/4/18)
The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT) is the big kahuna of our hiking repertoire as a couple, taking the cake for longest backpacking excursion we’ve planned and completed 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, maintained, existing guide book with topographical maps.
Parking: Able to leave car in outfitter lot (Wilderness Voyageurs) at southern terminus; easily arranged a shuttle to northern terminus for a fee with same outfitter.
Ease of access: Within reasonable driving distance from my parents’ home, where we were visiting.
The winter season leading up to this 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, despite the fact that I had been in a desk-bound hibernation for months and would get physically winded walking up to the base area from the slightly lower-elevation parking lots. Yikes, I digress. Long story short, I was stir crazy and rip-raring to go, especially excited to check out a hiking trail within my home state as well as test out some new gear items.
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 from a blustery day of near-freezing cold, wearing every article of clothing in our packs, to an early May heat wave that had us stripped to underwear and “bathing” in a creek after sweating profusely all day. Luckily we are both experienced backpackers and carried 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) clearly carried 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 somehow, but Brrr!
2. Strict Camping Regulations
Another challenge was one we encountered prior to setting foot on trail, which ended up affecting our entire 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 of this, 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. Only one night’s stay is allowed at each location.
Reservations for individual camp spots each night had to be made days in advance via phone or website. Costing $5/person/night to use a shelter or set up a tent, an itinerary of reservations had to be carried along as proof in case a ranger showed up to see who was actually camped out. We never saw a ranger on our thru-hike, and rarely encountered other hikers on trail, spending nights alone at camp areas 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 if we wanted to skip over a shelter on a given day; i.e., the first shelter might be eight miles in, which is kind of a short day, but the next one would be a farther 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. The AT introduced me to the wild foot swelling of long-distance backpackers while giving me a reminder that more miles hiked = greater foot soreness at the end of the day. Shocking, right? Anyway, aside from having difficulty finding trail runners that worked for me in 2015, and the subsequent foot pain associated with making miles in shitty shoes, I never had crazy blister action and I would not say that my hiking has been previously governed solely (pun intended) by my feet.
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 stick through a watermelon. And the plantar fasciitis…. ugh!
I dealt with plantar fasciitis seriously following a summer hike down steep ski slopes at our home mountain of Sugarloaf, having strained the connective tissue between heel and toes in my right foot, which put me out of hiking commission for months. The LHHT managed to bring on a flare up of plantar fascia and heel pain that was bad enough to consider ending the hike early, though luckily we were on a short sub-six mile day, and already pretty close to the shelter when I was about to reach a breaking point. We spent the afternoon massaging my feet, keeping them elevated, and trying to rest up for reassessment in the morning. Thankfully I was able to finish out our thru-hike, making a conscious effort to take more frequent breaks to elevate and massage the feet on our last day or two.
Relevant to all of this is the fact that I was trying out a new pair of trail runners, the Altra Olympus 2.5. I had worn these shoes around the house and at work, though really hadn’t gotten any significant hiking miles on them yet, and I think I paid for it. As cushy and springy as they feel, the zero drop sole is definitely something to take the time and condition your feet for, increasing training and mileage slowly. After the LHHT, I remained open to further testing with the Olympus 2.5 and used it on other hikes, which I will chat about in the other posts of this multipart shakedown 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. A decent-looking ski mountain for PA in terms of scope (elevation 2,530 feet), the open slopes of grass took us out of the dull brown trees and up onto an exposed area where a large snow-making pond and ski lodge crown the summit. Decks and picnic tables surrounded the building, and we were thrilled to discover that the doors to the lodge’s lower level were open. Inside were fully functioning restrooms, power outlets, tables, chairs, trash cans, and hallelujah, a drink machine with bottles of cold, sweet Gatorade inside. We stopped for the day a little early, taking full advantage of the sinks to clean up and rinse out our salty hiking clothes, setting up a line to dry clothes on the deck, cooking dinner, getting rid of trash, swigging Gatorade, recharging electronics, and cowboy camping under the stars and full moon on the lawn. I consider this day to be my favorite despite the heat and climbs, and I also would say we cheated the designated camping area system for the night, not pushing bigger miles to make it to our reserved site when we were somewhat gassed out with sore feet. Sorry, not sorry.
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. Clothing-wise, I feel we’re both well set up for the cooler months on the AT, and I’m glad this shakedown occurred during a similar time of year and within the same state as our jumping off point for the SOBO portion of our flip-flop.
This was the first time in a backpacking capacity that we had tested out our BRS stoves and TOAKS cookpots, my ten degree Enigma quilt from Enlightened Equipment, our Therm-a-Rest Neoair sleeping pads, our down puffy coats (not what we will be carrying for the AT this year, see note below), and the Katadyn BeFree filter systems (1L and 3L). Aside from the puffy jackets, all of this gear has made our short lists 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, mostly due to synthetic material being able to retain warmth when wet, and it’s wet a lot on the AT.
Individually, I encountered more physical issues on this hike than Garrett, primarily as a result of being in terrible shape rolling off the 17/18 winter season as a desk jockey. I’m in a better place job-wise coming out of the current winter season, having been on my feet waiting tables and standing in a kitchen for anywhere from four to 12 hours a day. It definitely hardens the soles a bit.
Look for my next post in the mini-shakedown series about our prep for the AT. T-minus 19 days until we hit the trail!
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