Shakedown Street

Ya win some, ya lose some, right?

This past weekend, I talked some AT pals into doing an overnighter on the Skyway Loop in Alabama. It connects a part of the Pinhoti with a side trail resulting in a 17-mile loop. I mainly wanted to get out there because it’s been three months since my last backpacking trip, but I also wanted to test out my old AT gear on some harsh weather to make sure it’s ready for the PCT. It’s all held up fine in the summer post-AT, but the last time I used any of this stuff winter camping was when it was brand new.

I don’t plan to swap out much gear from my AT hike for my upcoming PCT hike simply due to gear prices being absolutely outrageous. This means I need to know if my well-loved and well-used gear will hold up for another 5 or 6 months of constant use. What better opportunity to test my gear than in the midst of a winter storm?

The Best Laid Schemes of Mice and Men

As the weekend grew closer, the weather forecast worsened. One of my buddies dropped out. Still, I insisted this was no biggie! “We’re thru-hikers, we can do this!” Famous last words.

What’s the worst that could happen?

We hit the trail in the early afternoon Saturday. To my delight, I immediately noticed longleaf pine saplings along the trail. They’re my favorite kind of pine, native to the southeastern US, with one of the most interesting histories! Longleaf pine forests used to cover 90 million acres in the south, but now only cover three million acres, much of which is due to recent restoration efforts. Very few old-growth longleaf groves exist. They were highly valued for their sap and timber for naval uses, but what really did them in was fire suppression. They’re a highly fire-dependent species, requiring near-annual burning for successful regeneration. We’ve all heard of the issue of fire suppression in regards to the Western US, but it’s a problem across the entire country to varying degrees. They’re also very cute because they’re pom-pom-shaped!

Can’t you see the delusional optimism in my eyes?

The big appeal of this hike was the “stairway to heaven,” an ascent of about 1000 feet over a mile and a half. I haven’t had any real climbs since Katahdin, so I was truly stoked to feel the suffering of an uphill slog. Once at the top, we spotted the bad weather approaching. We didn’t linger long.

Spectacular Disaster!

We set up camp at dusk as it started to drizzle. Then, it started raining. Then sleet. Maybe a bit of hail, too. Then snow. The wind gusts were so strong that I woke up over and over from my tent bowing almost flat on my body. Around 3am, I rolled over and grumbled, “this sucks.” My buddy replied, bless his heart, “it’ll make a good story.”

Then, around five, we discovered the bathtub floor of my tent decided to live up to its name and hold an inch of water at our feet. At least Therm-a-Rests float.

Who could have seen this coming?

Bail? Bail.

In the morning, with the snow falling, we packed up and turned back. The call of the warm car was too strong and we left the loop unfinished. Excuses like, “We need to let our down bags dry out as soon as possible,” and, “We don’t know what the trail conditions farther along are like in this snow,” were pouring out of us. As I write this warm and dry, this all seems pathetic. What happened to the hardened grit I earned as a hiker? Shouldn’t I have known better than to let my tent flood? Shouldn’t I have known better than to hike in these conditions in the first place?

The truth is it’s hard to embrace the suck when you have an out. Had this occurred on a thru-hike, our only option would be to keep hiking. This was no thru-hike. Furthermore, my severe disappointment at my gear failing was a mental block I’m not sure I could have easily pushed through. I felt defeated and a bit panicked at the idea of replacing items I didn’t plan to so soon.

Don’t let the smile fool you.

It’ll All Come Out in the Wash

Though plenty of things went wrong, there are many reasons I’m glad I went out and did this.

First of all, it’s much better that I was able to find out my gear can’t handle severe weather anymore on a one-nighter, not somewhere in the Sierras when I wouldn’t have the resources I have now. I can perform some patching, seam sealing, and waterproofing and maybe make things work.

I’m grateful to have been able to spend some time in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, reminding me of the beginning of my AT thru-hike.

I’m grateful to have seen the longleaf pines and adorable pine warblers hopping through the snowy woods around us.

Lastly, I am most thankful that I was able to get a dose of humility. It’s easy to forget just how much the trail can kick your ass when you’re reminiscing through rose-colored glasses. The reminder that I’m not an invincible feral forest-being will absolutely serve to keep me from making sketchy decisions on the PCT.

Though I may have failed to complete the planned trek, I consider this shakedown a success. 

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Comments 7

  • Greg W : Jan 21st

    Pippin, I had a similar experience last weekend. There was a drenching rain as we drove across Arkansas to the Ouachita Trail. When we arrived at the trailhead the rain changed to sleet and then snow as we hiked the ten miles to a shelter. I had waterproofed some gear (tent fly, gloves, shoes, and pack cover), and picked up some galoshes to wear over my trail runners. The galoshes were a godsend as my feet stayed dry and warm as we hiked 32 miles on the snow and ice covered trail!

    Fortunately, my tent, new sleeping bag and clothes stayed dry. I don’t know if everything would have worked out as well had the rain continued instead of the sleet and snow.

    This was the first of several shakedown hikes for the inevitable “bad” weather I’ll experience on the AT later this year.
    Your comment, “The call of the warm car was too strong and we left the loop unfinished” really resonated with me and I’m working on my “Embrace the Suck” mindset in preparation for the life changing experience of a thru hike.

    • Pippin : Jan 21st

      Hi Greg! I am jealous that you went on the Ouachita Trail. I’ve been wanting to check it out since I heard about it from a hiker I met in September while on Eagle Rock Loop in central Arkansas.
      I have no doubt you’ll succeed in embracing the suck on the AT if you were able to keep it up through last weekend’s weather. The AT can throw some seriously mean weather at you, but the promise of a shelter or hostel will keep you going. Happy hiking and the best of luck to you on your thru!

  • Jhony : Jan 21st

    Great post. Super well written.
    And this cracked me up:
    ” The reminder that I’m not an invincible feral forest-being will absolutely serve to keep me from making sketchy decisions on the PCT.” Bravo!
    I enjoyed the the post V much. And what a great ending.

    • Pippin : Jan 21st

      Thanks for reading! Fortunately, it’s much funnier in reminiscence than it was in the moment! 🙂

  • George : Jan 23rd

    Pippen. Great post. Thanks for the info. Just curious what was the tent failure allowing water to leak or was it just very severe weather. And did you have your guidelines out on the tent. I take away from your post in always set your tent up slightly on a slope so you head is on the high side and keep your gear on the head high as well. Finally. What text do you use.

    As an FYI: I started the AT (60 year old male) as a section hiker this past November. Was 45 miles in feeling great with endurance, strength stamina. But had to pull off for a knee injury that kept getting worse and worse but only on downhill. Turned out to be a previous meniscus tear that finally tore again. Doc post surgery said I would never had push through it. Oh well such is life.

    Im getting ready to do 5 day late this month and 6 day mid February before the trail gets full with the spring rush of through hikers.

    Definitely a different gear selection from a late fall hike to a full blown winter hike. But my attitude to read and plan and listen to your body and the trail and take one more step.

    My goal is to finish the AT on my 65 birthday in Aug of 2026.

    Rescue Cowboy

    • Pippin : Jan 24th

      Hi George! I think my tent failed due to a number of factors: I used it my entire AT thru-hike, so most of the seam tape is peeling up. The weather last weekend was shockingly bad and unrelenting. The rain fly got blown off one of the corners and I didn’t notice til the morning. I didn’t position it in a low spot but it wasn’t very high either because I was trying to avoid some of the wind. It was just a perfect storm I think. It’s a Nemo Hornet 2P.

      Good luck on the AT! I was told a thru-hike may not be possible for me after a bad car wreck, but here I am. Don’t be discouraged. And if the doctors were right and you can’t do it in one go, your backup sounds just as meaningful!

  • julianne : Jan 27th

    great story, been there , done that, good learning experience. Now that i am old, when cold weather hits n w florida , all i can dream about is taking my good on gas little car and pointing it south to the keys . I have never been there and am told it is not a “real ” thing, adventure anymore but just a bunch of 70 plus year olds sitting around eating grilled fish and watchin sunrises and sets. count me in! I am 70 plus and thats as much adventure as i can stand. but watching u great, wild youngens learning the hard lessons is so good for the spirit.!!! keep up the good work.


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