Friday, 25 January 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.

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