Saturday, January 26, 2013

Winter hiking: Lessons learned

The main goal of this trip in the Appalachians has been to gain experience in winter hiking - and I gained a lot. When reading my lessons learned though keep in mind that all this refers to winter hiking in moderate climate. The temperatures never dropped below 15 F and I never had more than a couple of inches of snow. Do not apply my experiences to harsher climates.

Campsite on the Pinhoti
NeoAir: A big problem on winter hikes is bulk. The sleeping bag is bulkier than normal, you need a good and big tent and of course an adequate sleeping pad. In order to reduce the bulk of all of this I specifically bought a new NeoAir All Season for this trip. It has a high R-value suitable even for hardcore winter hiking and is still pretty lightweight with 580 gr - and even less bulky than the TAR Prolites. I was still skeptical when I used it the first time: It still looked very delicate and the fabric rather flimsy. But after reading mostly good reports I decided to give it a try. Well, I should have listened to my bad gut feeling. Already on day 8 I woke up to a rather deflated NeoAir. I still hoped that the deflation had to do with the change of air temperature but that turned out not to be the case. The pad had a hole! And of course this was a very cold day... The NeoAir comes with a repair kit and the repair itself is very easy: You just put a patch over the hole and that's it. But first you have to find the hole and that is a huge problem in winter - as I had to find out the hard way. First you need a stream or creak that is not frozen and deep enough to submerge the NeoAir. Don't underestimate that problem as the NeoAir is very thick. Then you have to dink around in cold freezing water until you find the hole or your fingers are frozen stiff. In my case the latter happened first. And if you happen to find the you have to dry the fabric before you can apply the patch. I gave up before that and bailed out to a nice motel with a bathtub...  The most important lesson I learned was: NEVER trust a NeoAir! It is very comfortable, but still too delicate. I have used TAR Prolites for several years abusing them a lot and have had a puncture only once! But with the NeoAir I get a puncture within one week despite treating it like a raw egg? I think that even the NeoAir All Season is not robust enough for a single pad and I will never ever take it on a winter trip again without a backup. If you get a hole in subfreezing conditions you will have problems repairing it and that can lead to a potentially life threatening situation. Either don't get a NeoAir in the first place or only use it in combination with a close cell foam pad - which is what I will probably do in the future. But make sure that the close cell foam pad has an R-value high enough that you can survive with it if the NeoAir fails.

My canister cosy
Gas canister stove: I knew that gas canister stoves do not perform well in the cold - the gas cannot vaporize in cold temperatures leading to a very small and fickle flame. I thought I could solve the problem by warming the canister first with my body warmth but it was so cold that this trick did not work very well. As soon as I fired the stove up outside the canister got cold again and the flame diminished. I was getting desperate and even wanted to buy an external stove for inverted use and liquid feed. By turning the canister upside down the gas can be fed into the stove in a liquid instead of a vaporized state solving the cold temperature problem. But I could not get such a stove - and it would have been much heavier and bulkier than my beloved Snowpeak Gigapower. So instead I built a canister cosy. I used white packaging foam that I cut into 2 pieces. I wrapped one big piece around the canister and taped it together and cut another round piece for the bottom. Luckily the whole thing fit perfectly well into my pot together with the canister. And to my big surprise it worked incredibly well! Of course I had to pre-warm the canister before putting it into the cosy but with that combination the stove performed as well as it does in normal summer conditions. I can highly recommend the canister cosy for moderate winter use as a cheap and lightweight solution.

Rain gear: The biggest weather problem on this trip has been consistent cold rain with temperatures dropping afterwards and freezing my wet clothes stiff. I knew that no rain gear is completely waterproof but I learned that the biggest problem zone of a rain jacket are the arms. Why is that? I am hiking with trekking poles and using them your hands are in a higher position than your elbow. If it is raining this has the effect that water will slowly run down from your hands and wrists into your jacket soaking the arms of whatever warm layer you are wearing. In hard rain it got so bad that the water even reached my armpits and started trickling down the side of my body. I tried to avoid that problem by cinching close the arms of rain jacket but it did not help at all. The only solution for this kind of situation is NOT to use trekking poles! If your arms are hanging down all the time water will not get inside the arms. But unfortunately the terrain was so rocky that I had to use trekking poles...

Drying clothes: Because of the above mentioned problem I often had to deal with wet clothes and find ways to dry them in cold and wet weather. It did not help to hang them up in the shelters over night. They would drip dry a bit but still be wet. There are two ways to dry them: Smaller pieces that were only slightly wet I dried overnight be wearing them inside my quilt. I used my wind jacket to prevent the moisture of the wet clothes penetrating into my dry insulation. This method worked surprisingly well for damp socks and one piece of wet base layer. I guess it helped a lot, too that I was using a synthetic quilt. I'd be afraid to use this method with a down quilt because down uses its warming abilities when getting damp. But this method only works for one or two pieces of clothing. What to do with the rest? I let the stuff drip dry over night which can have the effect that you wake up and find your clothes frozen stiff. Keep in mind that frozen clothes are much bulkier than dry clothes! I then started wearing the wet stuff dry during the day. This is a slow process as you can only dry one piece at a time. If you wear too many wet clothes at a time you'll just get hypothermic. Again I used my wind jacket as a protective layer for my dry insulation layer.

Sleeping bag/quilt: I have used a synthetic quilt for this trip, the Enlightened Equipment Prodigy 20 quilt. For quite a while I have been very disappointed with down and for this trip down would have been a catastrophe. Almost every night I had to deal with plenty of condensation. When I woke up in the morning the footbox of my quilt was wet from touching the tent walls. And very often the upper part of the quilt was wet from my breathing. With a down sleeping bag moisture would have penetrated into the down, made it clump and the insulating qualities of the bag would have been seriously compromised. Synthetic is so much more robust! The humidity did not degrade my synthetic quilt's temperature rating. My quilt came with 10d Nylon shell fabric which dried surprisingly fast. When I woke up in the morning I turned the quilt inside out and slipped back into the quilt. It took only the time I needed for breakfast to dry the shell fabric through my body warmth. Do not take a down bag/quilt on such a trip. The prolonged exposure to humidity will degrade the down's insulating qualities quickly and you'll be unable to dry it properly. Synthetic is the material of choice for cold and wet climates.

Ford on the Georgia Pinhoti
Stream crossings: I had to manage dozens of stream crossings that I could not boulder hop any more with dry feet. In summer conditions I would just ford with my shoes, I was awfully afraid of getting wet feet and socks because in the cold weather all that would just freeze. So I applied two strategies: If the water was less than ankle deep I took advantage of my Goretex mid size hiking shoes. I would just quickly walk through the stream. Although Goretex is not completely water proof it is still relatively water resistant when submerged only briefly. So as long as the water did not come in over my shoes and I walked through quickly my feet remained relatively dry. The little water that penetrated the Goretex shell usually dried during the day. But when the water was higher than ankle deep I was facing a bigger problem. Fording barefoot was usually not a good option. First of all I did not want to hurt my feet and secondly the water was ice cold and I would also step into snow. Neoprene socks were the ideal solution! I had brought them with me from my paddling trip and put them on only for river fords. They are NOT waterproof, but only little water will penetrate and because of the insulating quality of neoprene my feet would not get cold. Plus the Neoprene offered good protection against sharp rocks.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Winter hike in the Appalachians: Conclusion

This hike has been an experiment and my first extended winter hike. So has the experiment been successful? Yes, indeed! I have learnt an awful lot! Did I enjoy it? Strangely enough, yes I did, although I had expected this trip to be more of a type II fun (trips that you enjoy only afterwards when looking back on them). The hiking has been hard and the weather threw every problem possible at me from snow storms, 4 days of continuous cold rain to T shirt hiking weather. When I hiked for days in the cold rain I felt plain miserable. But almost every night I lay in my warm quilt and was so happy and content with the day's achievement. I am usually happy when I am hiking, but the feeling of achievement on this winter hike made me feel even better. And of course it feels great to be warm and cosy inside your tent or shelter and watch the rain and snow outside!

The loop hike on the AT, BMT and Pinhoti was a great route because it had a lot of variety and threw different challenges at me. The AT and BMT are at relatively high altitude which gave me the chance to experience hiking in snow. I did not have a snow problem on the Pinhoti, but the continuous cold rain did test my limits and gave me ample opportunity to try river fords in cold weather.

Sunny winter day on the BMT
Two factors that made me decide for that route did indeed work out well: Daylight and infrastructure. Let me explain this in more detail as these two factors were decisive in making this trip enjoyable. Even end of December I had 10 hours of daylight due to the Southern geographical location of the route. Counting in dusk and dawn I could hike almost 11 hours. By getting up 1 hour before sunrise and eating/packing in the dark and setting up camp only at dusk I minimized the hours I had to spend in my tent. The hike was pretty demanding, too and I had no problem sleeping 10 hours every night. I therefore never felt confined to my tent like on other winter trips. I have done winter trips in Scotland and Germany before with only 6 to 8 hours of daylight forcing me into my tent for 16 hours. Because of the cold temperatures I could hardly do anything in the tent - even reading was a problem. It got so bad that my back started hurting from lying immobile for so long every night. So if I do a winter trip again I will chose a season or location with at least 10 hours of daylight - which will still slow down my progress. I usually hike 20+ mile days which was a bit difficult on this trip. An average of 15 - 18 miles per day is more realistic for a winter hike without night hiking.

Campsite on the Pinhoti
The AT and the Alabama Pinhoti have shelters that came in very handy in bad weather. Although you are not warmer in a shelter than in your tent there is a big difference. In a shelter you can hang up your clothes for drying, you can walk around and don't feel confined and you have plenty of dry space to spread out. And of course you don't get wet packing up! I don't need a shelter every night, but it was great to be able to plan ahead in bad weather and know that I'll get a break from the rain soon. The BMT and the Georgia Pinhoti do not have shelters but there were trail towns that served the same purpose. So on another winter trip I will make sure there are shelters or trail towns in good intervals to make bad weather bearable. Without this infrastructure I would have needed a bigger tent - which would result in a heavier pack weight! Tipi Walter whom I met on the BMT goes that way and enjoys it very much. He carries a 2 person Hilleberg tent, plenty of warm clothes and sleeping bag plus food for several days. This way he can comfortably sit out several days of bad weather, but the heavy pack weight reduces his daily mileage considerably.

So overall I can recommend this loop hike a lot, but if you hike it in winter don't expect a walk in the park. It will be hard hiking and you'll need the right winter equipment. The winter question aside I can highly recommend both the BMT and the Pinhoti. They are both little gems that I personally prefer to the rather crowded AT.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Pinhoti Trail: Conclusion and tips

The Pinhoti Trail is a little gem and I was surprised that it is not more popular.  Don't expect spectacular scenery though. Like the AT the Pinhoti is routed through forest almost all the time and in summer there aren't too many views. In winter that was a bit different though, but still all you see is more forest. You will mostly walk on ridge lines or contouring around slopes. Almost all of the Pinhoti is on single file trail. The combination of forest and unobtrusive single file trail gives the Pinhoti a strong wilderness feeling. You'll feel like Leather Stockings or Pocahontas.

The Pinhoti can indeed be walked year round because of its low elevation and Southern location. It hardly rises above 600 metres. I did encounter snow but it is minimal and will not impede your progress. There aren't many steep ascends or descents either making the trail not particularly hard. But it is very rocky in places and the narrow trail can be quite slippery in wet weather on slopes, so don't underestimate it either. It is generally well marked but dead leaves can obscure the trail bed and you'll have to pay attention in order not to be led astray. I found it very difficult to night hike. I met few hikers on the Pinhoti but the ones I met were all very interesting. I guess this is what you get on lesser known trails.

The Georgia and Alabama Pinhoti differ greatly and for hikers the Alabama Pinhoti is the better one. In Georgia the trail is open to hikers, bikers and horses. Almost all the trail volunteers are mountain bikers and the Pinhoti there is mostly geared towards bikers. When talking to a trail crew I learned the reason for it: Hiking volunteers in Georgia tend to work on the popular AT  instead of the lesser known Pinhoti whereas the bikers don't have that alternative and gravitate towards the Pinhoti. There are even several popular mountain bike races on the Georgia Pinhoti every year. The result is a trail free of obstacles like blow down trees, a higher percentage of old logging roads instead of single file trail and no trail shelters. I happened to hike it after a race and sadly encountered lots of trash left by cyclists but volunteers were already cleaning up. I want to emphasize that this MTB orientation does not diminish the hiking experience. The volunteers keep the trail in great shape for all users. The biggest problem in Georgia are two long roadwalks of 20 miles each at Dalton and Cave Springs. As far as road walks go they are not too bad. You are either routed over very quiet country roads or on road shoulders and side walks.

View from a shelter
The Alabama Pinhoti on the other hand is 100% geared towards hikers. No other users are allowed on the trail. In the Northern half of the trail there are beautiful shelters about every 10 miles. And the trail is almost exclusively on single file. Between the Georgia border and Rebecca Mountain trail head you have 150 miles of almost uninterrupted single file trail through beautiful forest. Currently there is still a 20 miles road walk after Rebecca mountain to the official terminus at Flagg Mountain, but many hikers just finish at Rebecca mountain for that reason. Although you don't walk through any towns in Alabama resupply is still easy as there are some county stores close to the trail and you can hitch into nearby Heflin or Piedmont. I just carried food for the whole stretch which just takes a week at thruhiker speed.

The Pinhoti Trail has a rather chaotic website. There is lots of information on it but it is difficult to find what you want to know. Unfortunately, there is no town guide available so you have to figure out yourself where to resupply or take a rest day. You can download maps for the entire Pinhoti from Mr Parkay for free. You'll find the link on the Pinhoti website. Keep in mind that these maps have not been updated for a while. The Pinhoti is also shown on US trails transparent map at gpsfiledepot.com but again it does not show recent changes.

Because there is no town guide here my resupply info:

Antique shop in Cave Springs
Dalton is a huge town with all services. Going South to North you first cross the Interstate where there are several chain motels. There is a Days Inn and a Rodeway Inn as well as several other more expensive chains. In the first big mall after the Interstate there is a big Kroger supermarket and a couple of shops away is RAK outfitter which is a small but full service outfitter open daily. As you walk out of town you'll pass plenty of fast food places and at the edge of town there even is an Aldi. If walking North you can also resupply at the end of the roadwalk at Ramhurst where there is a Dollar General.

Cave Springs is the perfect little trail town. The only motel charges 40$ for a nice single room. There is a Dollar General and a medium size food store in town, but no outfitter or any hiking gear.

View from Cheaha State Park
I did not go into Heflin or Piedmont, but stopped at Cheaha State Park. There is a rather expensive hotel, a little store and a restaurant. You can't do a full resupply at the store but you can get snacks and ramem soup, though no gas canisters. Your best bet is the reasonably priced restaurant. In summer they offer a daily AYCE breakfast buffet and a weekend lunch and dinner buffet on top of their regular daily lunch and dinner menu. In winter there is no breakfast at all except on weekends and no lunch and dinner buffet, only the menu. The restaurant of in a nice setting having a great view - there is even free wifi.

One last word on logistics: to get to the Northern terminus it is probably easiest to take advantage of the AT infrastructure. Take the hiker hostel shuttle from Atlanta or Gainesville to Springer Mountain and hike 60 miles on the BMT to the Pinhoti terminus. There are trail angels who can shuttle you from the Southern terminus to Birmingham, AL. Find their contact info on the Pinhoti website. Birmingham has an airport and there is a daily Amtrak train to Atlanta. You can also take Megabus from Birmingham to Atlanta. I booked the ticket 6 Weeks in advance and paid as little as 5$.

Overall: If you are looking for a relatively easy trail that can also be hiked in shoulder or off season, if you like hiking in forest and if you are not afraid of hiking a lesser known trail, the Pinhoti is great.

Winter hike in the Appalachians: Alabama Pinhoti Trail

Cave Springs was the ideal little trail town. A nice cheap motel with wifi, 2 cheap restaurants, 2 food stores, a bank with ATM, a public library, a laundromat and a post office - all within 5 minutes walking distance. It doesn't get better than that. On my way out I ran into a group of trail volunteers who had actually been looking for me. It was great talking to them and I am always interested to find out what is going on behind the scene. They even gave me a ride back to the trail this saving me almost 5 miles off road walk.


The forecast was not good: although I started in Cave Springs in T shirt weather the temperature was predicted to drop dramatically - combined with 4 days of rain! This was bad news but at least the weather was going to hit me at the best possible time of this hike. In the upcoming section of there were shelters about every 10 miles and I was shooting for the first one on my first day out of Cave Springs. I arrived at the shelter before sunset and could hardly sleep in my warm quilt. As predicted right at midnight the train started - and every minute the temperature seemed to drop by one degree. A real deluge had started with thunder and lightning - and I started to wonder about the metal shelter roof. It just poured down but I was snug and cosy in the lovely shelter.

When it was still raining in the morning I decided to take it easy and just hike 10 miles to the next shelter. A procedure that I repeated the next day because the rain still continued. Hiking was plain miserable - wet and cold - and I was so thankful for the wonderful shelters. At  least I could hang my stuff there and had plenty of dry space. My clothes did not dry over night, but at least they went from soaking wet to just wet. On night 4 I ran out of luck. So far I had had the shelters all to myself but I had seen in the trail register that two guys where ahead of me and I would catch up with them that day of 17 miles. I hoped so much that they would be young and fit guys - and non-snoring! The trail was hard that day and I had to walk the last couple of miles in the dark hoping not to kill myself on the narrow and slippery trail. But when I finally arrived at the shelter in pitch darkness and totally soaked all my hopes were shattered immediately. Two middle aged and beer bellied guys in long johns were totally surprised to see another hiker. They were very friendly and immediately made room for me but they both looked like hardcore snorers. While eating dinner and still contemplating about what to do one of the guys feel asleep and immediately started to snore like a chain saw. When I remarked about it to his friend he confessed that he was snoring as well - and I was supposed to sleep between them to get the full stereo effect! No way! Although it was still plain miserable out there I decided that being in a wet and cold tent was still ten times better than being dry in the middle of a chain saw snoring massacre. And to the two guys big surprise I went out into the rain to set up my tent in which I spent a quiet and comfortable night.

Next day was predicted to be the very worst. Rain would turn into snow and the temperatures finally drop below freezing - and I either had to camp in that or hike 20 miles to the next shelter. I decided to go for the shelter. At least my snoring friends would not make it that far and I would have it to myself. Luckily it was easy hiking that day and I had a short and cold lunch break in a shelter. As predicted rain turned into snow around noon. I had hoped that the snow would be easier to handle but it was wet snow and after a while it drenched me like rain. I did not succumb to the temptation to camp early and pushed on - and really made it to the shelter with the very last light. I was happy to have made it and quickly changed into dry clothes watching the snow fall outside. For the third time on this trip one of the worst weather situations occurred. After a lot of rain (translate that into wet clothes) the temperature drops below freezing and you wake up to all your clothes and tent frozen stiff.

But I was not overly worried. The forecast predicted no more rain and even sunshine for the remaining 4 days of my hike. And for sure I woke up to a blue sky - and a frozen backpack. But spring seemed in the air and I greedily soaked up the sunshine. I needed to buy more snacks and was headed to a small country store roadwalking on a scenic byway. There was hardly any traffic but a Harley Davidson passed me. 15 minutes later it came back the other way and stopped. Would that be another deliverance experience? The driver was quite friendly and claimed to have walked on the Pinhoti himself. He explained in great detail how to best get to the country store and left - only to come back 5 minutes later. But still no Deliverance experience - only more directions. This is the South where even rockers stop to help you...

Jo Someday and Hillbilly Bart
Supplied with more chocolate from the gas station store I spent my first rain free night in a long time. Still my tent was frozen solid in the morning from condensation. Next day brought me to Cheaha State Park and a restaurant only a quarter mile from the trail. I had hoped to get there for dinner but meeting other hikers prevented that. I had finally run into Jo Someday and her partner who try to thruhike the new Great Eastern Trail. And as soon as I entered the State Park on a Saturday afternoon I met more hikers in two hours than normally in two weeks. I gave up on dinner in the restaurant which turned out to be a very good decision because the very same restaurant served an AYCE breakfast buffet. I dreamt the while night of crisp bacon strips... Overnight a bit of a breeze had come up and I woke up to a very nice surprise: a dry tent!

Cheaha State Park
I was the first guest in the restaurant and stayed for almost 3 hours eating probably a pound of bacon and drinking 6 glasses of sweet tea. Free wifi and recharching my phone delayed me as well.  But I was not worried: I had seen on the map that a forest road was paralleling the Pinhoti Trail in the next section. The Pinhoti Trail itself is rather difficult to night hike because very often  there is no obvious trail. But a broad forest road could easily be night hiked. A clear sky and a bright moon helped - I was followed by my moon shadow. Only my planned camp spot turned out to be the local garbage dump... but I found a good spot a bit later on. I repeated this strategy the next day. I took it easy during the day and enjoyed the sun and various breaks - and hiked into the night to make the miles.

Before I realised it my trip was over. I had expected to be very happy to be finished but on the contrary: I could have hiked on and on. But my winter hiking experiment ended on Dec 22 when Mother Nature's  Son's wife picked me up at Bull's Gap.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Winter hike in the Appalachians: Georgia Pinhoti Trail

Hiking in a T-shirt in January
Let me start this blog entry with the weather because it has been crazy! For two weeks I had been freezing my butt off in the mountains in ice and snow - but as soon as I left Dalton I was in spring! It got warm, unusually warm. So  warm that even I could not believe it but I ended up hiking in a T-shirt during daytime at 22 Celsius. Well, that is if it did not rain... and it rained almost every day. Sometimes the whole day, sometimes only a couple of hours. But it was so warm that the rain hardly bothered me. It was so warm that I was seriously sweating under my 15F quilt. A couple of nights ago I had to wear 5 layers to stay warm at night and now I was sweating in a T-shirt. And of course all this happened after I had bought a bulky sleeping pad as a backup for the delicate Neoair and could sleep on several layers of ice. But rest assured: I read on weather channel that these have been the warmest days in January in 50 years, but the forecast predicts more normal temperatures for next week - I'll soon be hiking in winter again and lots and lots of more rain.

But I also had plenty of interesting encounters on this stretch. Day 1 started with an early wake up call. My CS hosts brought me back into Dalton before their work started and that brought me into the local Waffle House at 7.15 am for a 4 hour breakfast. I left at 11 am and only hiked a short day to a beautiful campsite next to a creek. I did not see anyone hiking the whole day. But to my big  surprise, just as I was cooking dinner I saw strong lights outside. This was single file trail, so how could an ATV get here? But this was no ATV, but a bunch of mountain bikers. I have never seen mountain bikers night biking but it must be very popular as 4 groups passed my tent that night.

Ridge walking
Next night was even scarier. Again I had not seen a single soul the whole day. As it was already dark I camped at an established campsite before a river ford and tucked myself a bit away from the forest road. But still at 8 pm I saw a light shining on my tent - and I was scared to death. I had not heard any car or even MTB - this must be someone on foot! Who was sneaking around in the middle of the night around my tent? First I could not believe it was a hiker. I had not seen another hiker for days and now one should camp right next to me? It sounded very improbable but it turned out to be exactly the case as I should find out the next day - after spending a very quiet night in order not to attract my camping neighbor's attention. I got up early in the morning and saw a typical lightweight tent pitched only 100 metres away from me. I eyed the tent and whatever was to be seen from the equipment brought me to the conclusion that this really must be another long distance hiker, although he or she must be fast asleep when I left. And for sure later that day Robert aka Alabama caught up to me and solved the mystery. He had thruhiked the AT this year and continued now on the Pinhoti to his home state of Alabama. He turned out to be a very enjoyable and intellectual hiking companion. We spent the while day talking philosophy and the like. But he was on a much tighter schedule than I. When I stopped to camp at dark he continued hiking on into the night. At least I did not have any more unexpected night time visitors for the rest of this stretch.

Forest road
But I ran into some more interesting people: Sunshine Matt, who thruhiked the AT the same year I did and who is friends with Franklin. Matt is on the board of the Georgia Pinhoti Trail and gave me some good information about the trail when I met him mountain biking one morning. And then I met 10K, another AT thruhiker I had seen on an outdoor forum. The long distance hiker world is a small one...

After another long roadwalk I finally made it into Cave Spring, a small little town with one hotel and a supermarket. No cell phone coverage, but at least the hotel has wifi. I have one more week to hike through Alabama. Although the forecast predicts rain and more rain for the next days I am not planning to stop in any town. I'll carry food for the rest of this trip and look forward to the trail shelters.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Benton MacKaye Trail: Conclusion

Disused logging road
The BMT has been great and I can highly recommend it. The BMT has been created to take pressure off the popular AT and it definitely rivals its big brother. If you are not dead set on hiking a section of the AT I would rather hike the BMT or a BMT/AT loop. Why is that?

I find the BMT much more varied and therefore more interesting than the AT. The AT is religiously routed over single file trail going up every single mountain along the way. This leads to lots of strenuous climbing on rather difficult terrain. You'll get very little reward for it though on the long green tunnel. All you'll see is a lot of trees and the occasional mountain view - and tons of hikers! The BMT takes a different approach, probably because it was created much later and because it receives much less funding. Most of the BMT is on single file trail, too but it usually lacks the steep climbs of the AT. But the BMT also uses a lot of old and long disused logging roads which makes for an interesting change. There is only a couple of miles  paved road walk on the BMT.

Rare trail sign
The scenery is much more varied on the BMT and involves some incredibly scenic walks along rivers and streams, the Hiawassee being the most spectacular. You'll find an interesting mix of ridge and river walks and nice unspoilt trail towns.

The hiking itself is a bit easier on the BMT than on the AT but overall I found the BMT at least as demanding due to the following reasons: There are only two shelters on the entire BMT. This is on purpose as BMTA considers the abundance of shelters the main reason for overcrowding on the AT. So you'll have to camp on the BMT, there is no shelter infrastructure. Also there are tons of river fords on the BMT whereas you can hike the AT with dry feet for almost 2,000 miles. None of the fords are particularly dangerous in normal conditions but rain and snow melt can make the hike demanding. The trail marking varies a lot on the BMT from good to non existent.

Luckily there is a lot of BMT info material out there. You can download the entire set of BMT maps for free on postholer.com. These maps are excellent! You can download the important waypoints from the BMTA website for free. You'll find the whole BMT route on the US trails overlay map on gpsfiledepot.com. And last but not least there is an excellent thruhiker data and guidebook by Sgt Rock for 13$ available on the BMTA website. This guidebook also includes trail town information and elevation profiles and is invaluable.

But what I liked most about the BMT is that it is still a bit of a secret tip. I did not see a single other hiker on the whole trail. Although there is some infrastructure for hikers the BMT still feels like an adventure and not like the AT hiker highway in high season.

One last word on when to hike it: I chose the BMT for a winter hike and other hikers consider it a winter destination, too. But although it can be hiked in winter be warned: the BMT goes several times above 4,000 ft! I had solid frost almost every night and encountered snow several times. Stream crossings in sub freezing temps are challenging. If you want to hike the BMT in winter make sure you are mentally and gearwise prepared - it will not be a walk in the park.

Winter hike in the Appalachians: BMT and Georgia Pinhoti

I left Ducktown worried. I had been able to fix the Neoair, but I did not trust it any more. The weather forecast was cold, cold, cold and I realised that another defect of the Neoair could be life threatening. But I had not been able to find an alternative in Ducktown. I did not dare to hike the rest of my trip with just the Neoair and after some research I saw light at the end of the tunnel. Dalton, my next town stop had an outfitter and Dalton was only 3 cold nights away. I had to take that risk and prayed that the Neoair would survive. I treated it like a raw egg. I cleared the campsites meticulously and used all my rain liners as ground sheets. I barely dared to move when lying on it and prayed fervently every night. My efforts paid off: I made it to Dalton without any further leaks!

But it was a cold hike and it did not help that I had to go up over 4,000 ft again for the last time on this hike. The hotel manager of the Copper Inn motel brought me back to the trail entertaining me with stories of how he had to defend himself as a cyclist against car drivers with a pistol. Welcome to America! He and his wife had been very helpful and hiker friendly and the motel is decent although the state of the motel owners teeth might have led you to other conclusions.

Tipi Walter
Day 1 involved a huge climb up to Frog Mountain and I was eager to make it up and OVER Frog Mountain to camp at lower elevation. But then I saw a lonely backpack at the side of the trail with nobody in sight. First I worried about an accident or a bear attack but then I spotted a Hilleberg tent strapped to the backpack and it dawned on me that this must be famous Tipi Walter. Tipi Walter has lived in a tipi for decades and is now roaming the forests of the SE US in all seasons. Wildcat had told me about him and I knew he was in the area. And for sure after 10 minutes he re emerged from fetching water. We had a great talk and I was sad to leave but I still had some miles to do and I was freezing. At that elevation temps were below freezing even during day time and I was already dreading camping that night. After beautiful but cold Frog Mountain I dropped down to 3,200 ft and decided to camp at Double Springs Gap right on the border between Tennessee and Georgia. It turned out to be a turbulent night as hunters were in the area. I could hear dogs barking till way after midnight and at some point it felt like they were running right past my tent! I was ready to get my trekking poles and defend myself. Only a couple of days ago I had run into two hunters. I had heard their dogs and not wearing blaze orange I wanted to make myself known. I walked down the trail shouting "hello" all the time but no reaction. I finally saw two older guys aiming their rifles in luckily not my direction but I basically had to tap them on the shoulder before they noticed me. They confessed to being nearly deaf... I thought they were hunting birds but it turned out they were shooting squirrels. It its beyond me why you'd do that but it seems to be quite popular here.

My last day on the BMT and my first day on the Pinhoti involved a lot of stream crossings. Again and again I had to get out of my shoes to wade across a stream. Nothing dangerous but very time consuming. In summer I would have kept my shoes on but I did not want to risk frozen boots in the morning. I was glad to finally reach the Pinhoti Trail. From now on elevation would be much lower, hopefully less climbing and warmer temps. But unfortunately the Pinhoti is not finished yet and involves two major road walks in Georgia. The first one through Dalton was coming up now and I was facing 23 miles of walking on pavement. I had timed it that I camped right before the start of the roadwalk where I had finally T-mobile reception again. Could I dare to send out a CS request for the next day? I decided to give it a try and was delighted when my host accepted my request next morning. The roadwalk did not seem too bad now with the prospect of meeting some interesting people.

Although roadwalks are never ever great this one was not too bad. I was routed on relatively quiet country roads and once in Dalton there was a sidewalk all the way. But what really made my day was seeing my beloved Aldi right on this roadwalk! No Snickers bars and horrible gummi bears, but good German chocolate and cheese for resupply. I spent another 40$ on chocolate and left delighted for the last 4 miles into Dalton. I quickly found the outfitter but unfortunately the only closed cell foam pad they had was a heavy and bulky Ridgerest. But I did not have much choice. It was either that or constantly being afraid of another puncture of my unreliable Neoair. I sucked it up and bought the Ridgerest. 40$ is not that much money for peace of mind for the rest of my winter trip.

My CS hosts in Dalton were an interesting lesbian couple with an adopted son. It was interesting to hear about their experiences in the conservative South. This is what I love about CS: you meet so many different interesting people.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Winter hike in the Appalachians: Benton MacKaye Trail

Tired of rain and snow
I was pretty much exhausted after 8 days on the AT: physically and mentally. The trip had been much harder than expected and I was really looking forward to some rest at Wildcat's. I had suggested to meet at the Fontana Dam Visitor Centre as I had assumed to be there well before our appointed meeting time and the Visitor Centre would be a nice and warm place where to meet. I very well remembered its warm showers from my AT thruhike. But like everything on this winter hike my last half day of hiking took much longer than expected. I was still on schedule but things dragged on and I cursed myself for not having suggested the highway crossing 2 miles before Fontana Dam Visitor Centre. And then as I came hobbling down the mountains to the road - whom do I see? Wildcat! He had apparently read my mind and was waiting for me at the road crossing already assuming that I had lost interest in the next 2 miles... What an incredible surprise that made my day. Wildcat had picked me up from the AT 4 years ago and like last time he brought a little resupply package for hungry hikers that I devoured immediately.

Wildcat dropping me off
Wildcat's house felt like paradise and I was easily convinced to stay 2 days instead of 1. Day 1 was spent problem solving and I had lots of problems! First of all my rain gear had turned out to be inadequate and Wildcat working at Little River Trading, an outfitter was very helpful. I decided to keep my rain jacket but bought a new pair of rain pants on sale. Next problem was my stove. Due to the low temperatures my canister stove did not work very well and warming it in my sleeping bag did not help very much. I had hoped to buy a remote canister stove with inverted feeding but neither Little River Trading nor any other outfitter in the vicinity carried any of those stoves. Wildcat suggested making a pot cosy or switching to an alcohol stove. I have never been happy with alcohol stoves and opted for a canister cosy for which we found some insulation foam at Little River Trading, too. The highlight of the day though was a visit at my beloved Aldi's. Neither Wildcat nor his wife knew much about it and I proudly gave Wildcat the grand store tour - and bought tons of chocolate and Christmas specials. Wildcat even arranged a meeting with Sgt. Rock aka Ernest Engman, the author of the Benton Mackaye Trail guidebook who not only gave me great advice on hiking the BMT but also a little bottle of Tennessee whiskey. Day 2 was spent in front of the computer updating my blog and organising the rest of my trip. Time just flew by and I only discovered on my last evening that Jake, one of Wildcat's two dogs is an expert in licking tired hiker feet! I had such a great time with Wildcat!

On day 3 Wildcat took me back to the trail. I had been much slower on the AT than expected and therefore I had asked Wildcat to get me right to the BMT at Mud Gap skipping the infamous crossing of Slickrock Creek that even Sgt. Rock had warned me of in winter. Last night had been very cold but I had not expected to see so much snow. We were climbing higher and higher and I saw more and more snow. The road did stop to be ploughed and I started wondering whether we would get through in the car. Wildcat dropped me off at 4,200 ft of elevation and about 3 inches of snow. It was a beautiful sunny day but the snow worried me as I trudged off waving good bye to Wildcat and his wife. The hiking was fantastic - ice cold, but very sunny in another winter wonderland. And almost all the time down hill! I hoped to get as low as possible to get out of the snow for camping but I was stopped by a stream crossing. Other than its big brother, the AT, the BMT has tons of unbridged stream crossings and with so much snow melt these stream crossing turned out to be a problem. None of them were particularly dangerous in normal circumstances but winter conditions make things a lot more dangerous. This first creek crossing had a blow down tree across it - but due to the subfreezing temperatures the tree was completely iced over. Rock hopping was not possible either and as the sun was almost down I decided to camp right there and tackle the problem in the morning. The last thing I needed now was a late night incident!

Camping in a narrow valley with a big creek right next to you is not the greatest location in winter and I was very cold settling into my tent. Luckily my canister cosy turned out to be the greatest idea and dinner was ready as quickly as in summer time. A little bit of Sgt. Rock's whiskey helped warming me, too. Still I had a very cold night. First thing in the morning was the creek crossing that turned out to be easy a couple of feet downstream. But this was only the first of several creek crossings that day and it slowed me down tremendously. The creeks were not deep or difficult but in sub freezing temps I did not want to get my shoes wet. And walking around barefoot in snow was not great either. I had therefore brought my neoprene wading socks that I had used on the Mississippi and they did a great job here. Although not completely waterproof they kept my feet from freezing in the cold water and snow - and dried relatively quickly afterwards.

My New Year's Day shelter
This was New Year's Eve and lots of rain was forecast. I therefore had to find a good campsite that of course would not emerge when the sun set. And so I spent New Year's Eve like Christmas Eve night hiking. But whenever I found a good campsite it was located on a ridge or gap and exposed to the strong winds... I hiked on and on until I was so exhausted that I camped right on the trail at 9 pm. No fireworks disturbed my sleep but I woke up to constant rain. New Year's Day would turn out to be one of the worst days of hiking. It rained the whole day long. Not very much, but continuously every single minute until I was thoroughly drenched. I had hoped to make it to the campsite with shelter at the Reliance Fly and Tackle shop but difficult trail slowed me down again. The BMT follows the spectacular Hiawassee River for several miles but in this miserable weather I could not see much in the fog and mist and was afraid of slipping. I started fantasizing about the rest rooms at the picnic areas along the river and just got there at sundown. The restroom did not smell very bad and looked clean - and I decided to settle in for the night. What sort of a person have I become to spend the first night of the new year sleeping in a latrine and being grateful for it? I could have slept in my tent but all I had was so wet that I needed to dry things out which is difficult in a tent. I spent an hour arranging my wet stuff in the little toilet. Luckily it was not very cold that night and I could dry some clothes by wearing them over night. The picnic area was next to a paved road but dead ended after 2 miles and there was no traffic. But to my big surprise at midnight cars pulled into the picnic area and horrified me. I just hoped that none of the drivers needed a pee.... But several times cars would pull in, cut the engine, wait for 10 - 15 minutes and then suddenly disappear with a roar and load yelling. It scared the shit out of me!

Hiawassee in the fog
Next morning I got the explanation for that behaviour. I had finally walked up to the Reliance Fly and Tackle shop that was mysteriously open in the morning despite saying differently in my guidebook. The very friendly guy working there cooked up a breakfast for me, hooked me up to wifi and told me that the people last night had been bear and/or boar hunters. They hunt with collared dogs that they can track down via radio. Therefore they let go of the dogs, wait in places like my picnic area and then track the dogs and communicate with their fellow hunters via radio. It all made sense now and I remembered that I had seen hunters with a huge dead wild pig on their pickup truck just the day before. But the best news was that the weather was improving. No more rain for a week was the forecast and I hiked on happily - only to be struck by bad luck again. I found a good campsite that night and had a good nights sleep only to wake up on a flat sleeping pad. I had feared that problem all along. I had bought a brand new Neoair All Season for that trip but had had a bad gut feeling all the time. The NeoAir felt so delicate and other than the Prolite it offers no insulation when flat. I had thought of buying a new sleeping pad while at Wildcat's but as everyone praised the Neoair I had been talked into keeping it.

Ocoee River near Ducktown
I had to repair the Neoair or I would not survive a single night out here. In order to find the hole I had to submerge the pad into water which is difficult with only half frozen creeks around. After a half hearted attempt in a creek I decided to wuss out. There were too many problems: I could not find deep and still water to detect the hole. My fingers got frozen from playing with the pad under water. And how would I dry the pad after repairing it? Only 6 miles from my campsite was Hwy 64 that lead to Ducktown with a cheap hotel offering shuttles. But when I hit the highway I had no cell phone reception whatsoever. My guidebook recommended walking 1 mile to the next visitor centre and a pay phone. The visitor centre was closed and the pay phone dead. I almost hijacked a tourist and asked him for cell phone reception. He had Verizon and after hearing my sad story let me use his cell phone. Ten minutes later the Ducktown Copper Inn Hotel owner showed up in a warm car and brought me into civilisation. I am now staying in another cheap little dive, but it is warm, I have had a great lunch, found a public library with Internet - and have found my hole in the sleeping pad. I could have found it in the creek as well if I had just tried a bit longer... Now cross your fingers that the repair will last as I have still more than 2 weeks to hike.