What Am I Even Doing Here?

The daily grind. Processes. Routines.  Habits.  I have gotten very accustomed to life on the AT to the point where it is now “normal”.  Besides normal, I will continue to insist that life on the Trail, or generally living in nature, is living in the “real world”.  Maybe more on that in a later post.  My normal life shapes my perception of reality, causing me to make assumptions of others’ understanding of my daily activities.  I just do what I need to do, and it all makes perfect sense to me.  But based on many conversations with day hikers, section hikers, friends, and family, I have come to realize that a lot of y’all don’t really know what I do on a day-to-day basis.  This post will cover what I do on the daily.  If you are unfamiliar with backpacking/thru-hiking, you may learn a lot.  If you are old hat, this is just what I do of the many ways to do it.  Plenty of viable ways to get all your stuff down the trail while adhering to Leave No Trace principles.

Decisions I make in the morning affect the afternoon, and evening decisions affect the next morning.  I actually struggled with when to start the time loop for the post, but I guess we should start around daylight.


I generally wake up about 15 minutes before dawn these days.  Some days I will stare at the roof of my tent for a while.  Some days I get right to packing up.  Whenever I decide to get moving (remember, no one has any expectations of me out here), the first thing I do is pack up my sleep system.  During the summer months, for the last 800 miles or so, I used a light sleeping bag line paired with a poncho liner.  The poncho liner is a light blanket that is legendary in the military.  More affectionately referred to as the “woobie”, the poncho liner is a versatile piece of equipment that brings warmth and security to the wearer.  The woobie is typically camouflage pattern, keeping you hidden from the enemy.  Mine is DD-214 pattern, which has mythical powers.  Instead of keeping me hidden from the enemy, it keeps me safe from the long arm of the U.S. Army and any silliness associated with it.  Nothing on the AT has made me more comfortable than snuggling up under my big DD-214 and sleeping soundly.

Pre-dawn wake-up before packing up the sleep system.

I also have a small pillow and an inflatable sleeping pad as part of my sleep system.  The woobie, sleeping bag liner, and pillow get stuffed into a waterproof stuff sack.  I usually roll up the sleeping pad right before I pack up my tent so I have something soft to sit on while organizing everything else.

Next, I usually go through what I call “rearranging the deck chairs”.  This is just a stalling mechanism, the length of which is based usually on the weather.  The worse the weather, the the longer the rearranging takes.  I’ll move my battery bank from one side of the tent to the other.  Maybe I think it’s more efficient to have my socks near the door rather than hanging from the attic storage area.  I look at the map and ruminate over where to eat lunch or get water.  Basically, I find random tasks to do that make zero progress towards getting moving.

After I finally come to grips with getting moving, I will change out of my sleep clothes and put on my hiking clothes.  My sleeping set consists of a midweight long-sleeved shirt, midweight long underwear pants, underwear, and merino wool socks.  I’ll stuff all of that in a waterproof stuff sack and put on my hiking pants, shirt, and underwear.  Sometimes I will delay this if the morning weather is good, but my hiking clothes are wet.

Once the sleep system and clothes are secure in their respective waterproof stuff sacks, I get to cooking breakfast.  Typically, I cook 2 packets of instant grits or oatmeal and a cup of coffee.  The “cooking” portion of this is boiling 20 oz of water.  It’s a pretty quick process, as long as I have water ready to go from the night prior.  While I wait for the cereal to firm up and the coffee to cool off, I dig in my food can and pick out what I want for lunch and get that packed in accessible pockets.  I’ll eat my food, drink the coffee, and get the main food can ready for packing in the bottom of my pack and get the cook set packed.

Somewhere in this process, pooping is involved. If I’m at a shelter, I’ll use the privy, which is just a fancy term for outhouse. When I camp at an unnamed site, it’s time to dig a hole. There are various methods to achieve evacuation, but I think site selection for a seat is most important. I prefer a log approximately 10 inches in diameter that isn’t decaying. Surprisingly, Pennsylvania was one of the better places to poop. The rocks often had dead spaces of easily diggable dirt by behind them. 4/5 would recommend.

The last step is to get the last little odds and ends put away like the hand sanitizer, battery pack, toothbrush, bandana/potholder.  Finally, I’ll get the tent put in a stuff sack.  Once the tent is down, I’ll throw everything in my pack and get rolling.

The Day

On the Trail, I typically just walk until lunch. I will stop for a few minutes at a good view, or maybe to get water. But usually, I keep moving forward.

One of my recent lunches. I’ll change these up periodically, but the gorp and quart of Liquid IV are staples.

My speed is most affected by the condition of the trail, especially at this point. Steepness and grade play a role, but at this point they don’t affect my speed much.  If anything is steep, it’s usually a quick climb or descent that won’t play much in consuming time over the day. Maine was a different story, but that is a long way away in the rearview mirror.

Below are some examples of trail conditions in Pennsylvania.

The Good

The Bad

The Ugly

So that’s what I do all day. I just walk with my house on my back. This is the time when I can “zone out” and think about life. Of the time I want to be in nature decompressing from the Army, this is it. Sometimes it’s at a great view, but often it’s just hiking miles on the trail.

I do not wear earbuds or listen to music. The sounds of nature are enough to keep me going. If it’s not, the thoughts in my head can take me to some interesting places. I have a theory that people who do listen to music or podcasts or whatever are afraid of what their inner thoughts might manifest. I prefer to encounter my inner demons head-on. Most have gone away, and I find that therapeutic.

The Evening

Usually, step one is to get water. The source is typically 100 yards or so from where I pitch my tent. I’ll need at least 2 quarts for dinner with one to drink and one for cooking and cleaning. If I decide to filter at the spring and haul another 2 quarts of dirty water to the tent, this will save me some time in the morning. Filtering 2 quarts takes about 10 minutes. I do this for every drop of water I drink or cook with, except when I can find spigot water. I’d say 80-90% of my water is filtered.

2-liter silicon bag of dirty water pushed through a filter into a clean water bottle.

If it’s raining, or about to rain, I set my tent up first. It’s a double wall, 2-person tent. The design keeps me from getting wet with condensation.  I have a process with tent setup that hasn’t failed me yet. Just the same steps every time.

Once the fortress of dryness is up, I’ll inflate my sleeping pad so I have something soft to sit on. Then, I get everything I want for the night inside the tent. Dry clothes, sleep system, small towel for condensation, guidebook, phone charger, etc. For the most part, everything has a place so I know where to look and feel for it. Nothing smellable goes in the tent. All the Tums, matches, first aid cream, etc. goes in the bear canister and stashes about 100ish yards from my tent.

Once everything is securely in the dry fortress, I start to cook. Cooking is heating up some amount of boiling water, adding some type of flavored starch like Knorr sides or macaroni and cheese, and waiting for it to absorb the water. I’ll throw in a packet of tuna or chicken once the cooking is done. About once a week I’ll have a bagged backpacker dinner where you add the boiling water and eat out of the bag.

Noodles ready to eat

Cooking the noodles

Heating the water to cook the noodles

Next comes clean up and brushing teeth. Then, everything that smells goes in the bear “proof” canister away from the tent. I use quotes there because a bear can defeat anything you can carry. But so far, I haven’t had any issues.

Mostly food in here, but all smellables get packed away for the night.

After the bear canister is put up, I crawl into the tent, put on my sleeping clothes, and get in the sleeping bag. I’ll usually study the trail guide, journal, or blog a little before sleeping. Then the process starts again when the sun rises.

So that’s about it. I pretty much spend all day worrying about food, water, and shelter. When I’m not doing that, I zone out. Pretty much a day you might have at Initech.

The States

I have really enjoyed the hiking since the New Jersey border until now on the north end of the Shenandoah National Park. NOBOs warned me how bad the rocks in Pennsylvania would be and how boring Virginia is. Frankly, I don’t have time for a) the lies or b) the attitude. There is some excellent hiking here, and I recommend everyone to try a little. Maybe not when it’s 95 degrees and half the creeks are dry, though.

– Pennsylvania

I flew through Pennsylvania. A lot of people have problems with the rocks, but I just hiked on them. I attribute my experience to wearing actual hiking boots instead of trail runners. I always wear the boots because they protect the bottoms of my feet and ankles. Either way, I think Pennsylvania is not as bad as people make it out to be. Maybe 10% of the miles are worth labeling rocky. The other stuff is just trail. A whole lot of it is really nice trail.

Pennsylvania is also one of the flattest states on the AT. This helped make up some mileage I lost in Maine.

Two things I found remarkable about Pennsylvania were the agriculture and wildlife. I really enjoyed walking through the corn and hat fields with distant farmhouses. It reminded me about what made, keeps, and will continue to make America great.

On the wildlife, I don’t think there was a single day I didn’t see a deer. One day I saw 14 deer and a bear. I had porcupines visit my camp one night. Those things are as big as beach balls and whine! So much whining at 430 AM!

Overall, Pennsylvania has some great views and very nice people. I would like to go back in the spring because the trail was covered with mountain laurel. Plus, the creeks would have water.

View from Hawk Rock over Duncannon

If I can see you, you can see me

– Maryland

Rockier than Pennsylvania but with more history ready to consume. Much of the trail in Maryland is along South Mountain near Sharpsburg. Some of the bloodiest fighting of the Civil War happened in the area, and there are a good number of monuments and markers keeping record of those terrible days. The views were quite nice, and I only remember filtering water once as there was spigot water in multiple locations.  Maryland is also home to the original Washington Monument.

OG Washington Monument

Enjoying the view at Annapolis Rocks

– West Virginia

I had my picture taken at the ATC in Harper’s Ferry. Nothing else to report.

As I start into Virginia, I have been launched by meetups with great friends from high school and time in the Army. More friends have more visits lined up further into the longest state on the AT by far. I even got to spend my first zero day since Manchester, VT, with my parents at Luray Caverns! What a life! These visits with good and great friends keep me going. One in Maine probably kept me from quitting. Being there for people is incredibly important, so be excellent to each other.

Anyway, it’s good to be home.


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Comments 10

  • Roz : Sep 15th

    Thank you for the glimpse into a “day in the life”. Interesting perspective on boots in PA. Makes total sense. Happy trails to you.

    • Brad Brannon : Sep 15th

      My perspective on rocks is also completely warped by my experience in Maine. But even with the other SOBOs, sturdy shoes seemed to improve the PA experience.

  • Otter : Sep 15th

    Hahaha. I had no idea you could get a woobie with a DD-214 on it. Brilliant!

    Happy trails wherever you hike!

    • Brad Brannon : Sep 15th

      Medals of America. It was reasonably priced, but the freedom is invaluable!

  • thetentman : Sep 15th

    Thx for the post.

    • Brad Brannon : Sep 15th

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Holly : Sep 15th

    I really enjoyed reading this post today. I grew up in Pennsylvania and I miss those beautiful forested trails. Your photos certainly did them Justice. Every time I read a blog like this I get new tips. Thank you! I had not heard of camp resilience. I did research at the NIH on PTSD, we studied Vietnam era POWs. It was an extraordinary privilege to work with them.
    I wish you the very best. I look forward to your next post.

    • Brad Brannon : Sep 15th

      Thanks, Holly. I really enjoyed PA and would enjoy it in the spring even more. It’s not exactly New Hampshire views, but they are beautiful and less costly with the climbs. I hope something I shared saves you weight or time, or adds some comfort.

      Thank you for your work with those Vietnam POW heros. What they went through is tragic and a true testimony to resilience, determination, and trusting your friends. I’m glad your were helping them get the treatment they needed.

  • John Michael Woodrum : Sep 15th

    I truly enjoyed reading your blog. I am planning my first AT hike next year and already got a blog to set up soon. I hike every day here in Colorado, just to be ready for the AT. But what I was concerned about is what you ( and only you) have mentioned. Being unsure what to do about my daily meals has been my issue, but as you explained it, I can certainly go with your ideas. I much appreciate it along with your story. I was never in the service due to having epilepsy. But after major surgery, it bothers me no more. Hiking is my way to celebrate the new life at the age of 66. I agree that hiking is not boring because every day while hiking, I always find that special thing or person that makes it all worthwhile. The sounds of nature are what hiking is all about. Thank you for your story and I’ll keep checking in how you are doing. One question is what do you think is better- NOBO or SOBO?

    • Brad Brannon : Sep 15th

      Hiking Mike,

      Glad you are feeling ready to hike! The AT is an amazing place, and I’m happy that you feel ready to take on the challenge.

      As far as eating, if you want to go ultra light, try cold soaking. I’m not a fan. Gotta have my hot dinner. I make my choices based on calories per oz. My cut off is 100 cal/oz. If it’s less than that, I don’t carry it. Except the tuna or chicken packets. That’s the only exception. Try stuff at home, try it in the trail. Your tastes will likely change, but that’s ok because resupply is pretty easy everywhere except the 100 Mile Wilderness.

      Controversial topic on NOBO/SOBO, but I’ll put some stuff in writing. First, ask yourself if your more a Benton MacKaye kind of guy, or more Bill Bryson. MacKaye, go SOBO. Bryson, get on the NOBO party train. SOBO tends to be more solitary. The hikers tend to hike alone and keep to themselves. Friendly, just more solitary. Springer Mountain never closes, so you don’t have to worry about your end date…just whatever winter weather you are willing to tolerate. I’m about to hit fall colors in Virginia. Plus, all the signs say Maine to Georgia. But as the saying goes, if it were easy, everyone would do it. All of the hard stuff is done in the first 400 miles. The last thing I did that I consider hard was the Kinsmans, about mile 380.

      Whatever you do, go confidently and hike your hike. NOBO is a great way to stay connected to people. It’s just not what I’m looking for. Cold soaking makes sense if you want to cut weight. This guy ain’t doing it. Do your thing, and enjoy every day!


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