I spent some time backpacking in the Appalachian Redoubt last week. It was a remote area well off the AT in peak Black Bear country, with barely maintained trails full of Rhododendron that criss-crossed boulder-filled waterways that ranged from ankle to chest deep.
The players were all experienced outdoorsmen, with individual specialties in tracking, land navigation, medical, ropes / rigging, radios, killing it and grilling it. The purpose was recreation and some skill development, especially in the land navigation department.
Weather was beyond excellent. No rain, cold nights (~33F), warm days (~70F), but HUMID near the rivers, streams, and creeks, Especially at night.
Smartphones and iPads were left behind, but topo maps, compasses, and headlamps were packed in. Hunting was not on the itinerary, so we packed in our chow.
This group gets together ad-hoc throughout the year, with aggressive day hikes with rucks in local mountains and the occasional multi-day excursion into the Redoubt when lives and schedules align. To that end, the “forming-storming-norming-performing” cycle is repeated every time, since we have to get used to each other again. The crew used a USGS topo map and a Forest Service topo map with trails marked to navigate. We agreed on the route for the trip at the trail head and took off.
We had a great trip, but it was amazing what kind of little dumb things happen during a simple trip that remind you that chaos is always the guy behind you on the trail and will catch up to you if you don’t use your heads. The following are some lessons that I found worth sharing, from the mundane to the life-threatening.
High humidity makes cold worse
I chose to pack light, so I froze at night. I overestimated capabilities of 40F sleeping bag inside a Gore-Tex bivvy sack for warmth and packed no thermal underwear, just a pair of nylon hiking pants. I was still in a tent and on a sleeping pad, but holy smokes, did I get cold. Early in the evenings, the dew point would be reached and you could feel that wet in the air. It was so wet, when you’d get out of your tent in the AM, it looked like it had rained all night. I digress. I foolishly stripped down to my skivvies on the first night and crawled into my bag. I fell asleep quickly in warm comfort, only to awaken three hours later shaking like a jackhammer from the cold. The inside of my rainfly was soaked and I could feel the cold, wet air pushing through the fabrics onto my skin. I quickly donned pants, a t-shirt, a polypro fleece, a wool overshirt, and a toboggan and jumped back in the bag, but it took forever to get warmed back up. I let the cold get ahead of me and it took damn near all night to get back on top of it. The next night course corrections were made. I slept in pants, toboggan, t-shirt, and fleece, and my buddy had a spare mylar emergency blanket that I laid on top of my air mattress OUTSIDE of my sleeping bag. Putting it inside of my bag would have made me sweat, and we all know that sweating in the cold is a great way to kill yourself. Hot water in a Nalgene bottle or two stuffed at your femoral arteries on your groin are a remedy as well, but I didn’t need to go that far with the course corrections I made.
See this? It’s cold and wants to kill you.
Lessons learned: (a) If the terrain is called a “rain forest,” believe it and know it’s going to be wet, (b) fill your pack, break your back, stay warm in the sack, (c) if you are shivering all night, you ain’t sleeping.
Wool is better than polypropylene for moisture-wicking garments
Polypro is awesome technology that I commend the Italian and German chemists for synthesizing. Its uses seem limitless and there are many, many things that I am grateful for lightness and strength. Clothing, however, is not one of them.
These polypro underwear are really warm!
At its base (apology to all the chemists and engineers, corrections taken as needed) is a molecular chain that looks something like this with variations:
Then there’s this…
…which is the formula for the simplest hydrocarbon, methane.
With polypro — warm, hydrophobic, and light as it is, you are wearing a woven hydrocarbon, and when an ember from the fire lands on your arms and your polypro fleece becomes grafted to your skin, you see the benefit of good, old-fashioned wool, itchy as it is.
Lessons learned: (a) Life is imperfect and wool is expensive, but if you can get a non-flammable layer between your skin and your polypro, or, (b) wear a non-flammable layer over your polypro to slow its ignition, do it.
Force fiber and force water
Ahh, trail food. Who doesn’t love a bag full of Mountain House or an ever delicious Meal Refusing to Exit? In addition to appalling amounts of salt, saturated fats, carbs, and cholesterols, these calorie-dense gifts to the outdoorsman lack fiber on a grand scale. To that end, in the absence of fresh and dried fruits and veggies, you might think about packing in psyllium seed husks (aka Metamucil) and / or chia seeds to help keep things moving along the inner trail as well. Both of these supplements are fiber dense and light, with a major nutritional edge given to chia seeds, which “[o]ne ounce (about 2 tablespoons) contains 139 calories, 4 grams of protein, 9 grams fat, 12 grams carbohydrates and 11 grams of fiber, plus vitamins and minerals.” Some people are making miracle claims about the chia, I just think of it as fiber with vitamins and minerals, and nothing else. In any case, you can pour a tablespoon or two of either of these into whatever pouch of goo you are eating to help keep you from blocking up.
To that end, the additional fiber means you need to drink more water. Every day was started with everyone forcing at least one liter and ended the same way. We all monitored urine color as the measure for hydration status and took it pretty seriously. Keep in mind that if you’re sweating profusely (or shitting your brains out because you didn’t purify your water), you may need to add some powdered Gatorade, salt or, the Ebola-fashionable Oral Rehydration Solution to your water to avoid electrolyte imbalances, which can kill you pretty dead.
Lessons learned: (a) Be good to your intestines, and they will be good to you, (b) both psyllium seed husks and chia seeds are worth the weight penalty of packing them in (c) if you think you’ve had enough water, drink another liter, because when you are moving you are sweating more than you think, (d) having a filter pump prevents you from having to carry around multiple liters of water in your pack.
Moist towelettes > toilet paper
This one is so simple I don’t really need to explain it. Lesson learned: Morale enhancing greatness. You understand why dogs run around like idiots after unloading.
If you’re crossing water, you’re going in, and Gore-Tex works both ways
The water crossings we encountered had lots of currents, unstable rocks, boulders, algae, and other things that added to the fun. Couple that with a 60-80lb ruck on your back enhancing your top-heaviness, and everyone became a member of the Cold, Wet Underwear Club. Everyone had their gear that needed to be dry in waterproof bags inside their rucks, so that was some good planning across the board. One guy had trekking poles, which helped. Occasionally, someone would find a straight tree branch and use it as a trekking pole / third point of contact with the wet, algae-coverd river boulders, until it broke, and it always broke. Sploosh.
Gore-Tex boots were common, and Gore-Tex works both ways if your foot goes in deep enough that the water crests the top of your boot and pours into it. There are no drains in the boots and that water just wants to stay there, so once you have wet feet, they are going to stay that way until you correct the situation.
The smart way to do it. Just get wet.
To that end, once you went in the drink the first time, the rest were free, and you could just slosh through the crossings with aplomb. We’d pick lines so that the water was no deeper than our thighs and that worked fine.
A pair of Crocs at the campsite allowed you to air out your boots and socks, and avoid nasty things from happening to your feet. You have damp boots the next day, but fresh socks mitigated them somewhat. For me, Thorlo Anti-Fatigue and Carhartt Merino Wool were best.
Nylon pants are great, and they dry out really fast. Within an hour of a good dunk, they were dry.
Jungle boots. Yeah.
Lessons learned: (a) If you are crossing water, you will get wet, so plan accordingly, (b) if temperatures and terrain preclude getting wet, then change your route away from water crossings or learn how to build a rope bridge, (c) consider hot weather or jungle boots with drains if you know you will be crossing water, (d) Mr. Murphy is in charge at every stream and river crossing, (e) you can never have too many pairs of good socks.
Do something stupid, like assume
On the day we were going to tear ass around our location with just daypacks, we made a classic error. We got deep out on the first trail and lost it. Mind you, these trails are barely maintained. Blazes were very, very rare. Rhododendron grew think everywhere and obscured views in all directions. Therefore, we needed to bust out our land nav chops.
“OK, who has a compass?”
“I thought you brought one.”
“I did, but I left it at base camp because I figured everyone else brought theirs” x 5.
Cool. We at least had the topo map with trails marked on it, but were going to get more basic in our orienteering.
This was the fun part where the group dynamics played in. To say that four of the five liked to be in charge is an understatement. For the first couple of hours, there was a squabble about where we were and where we needed to go. We’d be two minutes into a direction and the Good Idea Fairy would show up to persuade us to do something different. At that point, we became Circle Jerking Through Appalachia, the reality TV show. Time was being wasted and we realized we were far from camp and pretty well lost. Egos were parked and we’d consult the map, study the topo lines, assess trees and rocks to determine North and cross check it with the position of the sun in the South. If we were in disagreement, a scouting party of two would set out and the rest of the group would stay put and make fart jokes. We either got a shout from the scouts to continue on or they’d come back and we’d reassess. Before we knew it, we developed a great rhythm and got our heads aligned. Forming-storming-norming-performing all within the space of a couple of hours. Fortunately we knew each other and could insult each other without taking it personally.
Lessons learned: (a) chaos is always there, waiting for you to become stupid, (b) egos kill, (c) Romper Room-level inclusion for inclusion’s sake kills too, (d) know the balance between the two and draw on the experience of the members of the team to guide you by focusing on the desired end result, which in this case, was wiring together our heads and asses and getting back to camp.
Know your knots
You don’t have to be Joe Rigger, but here are the basic knots we used routinely throughout the trip to secure loads, bear bags, clotheslines, etc. These are just basics and by no means comprehensive. These are easy to learn and really open up possibilities when you are presented with a challenge requiring ropes.
Bowline on a bight
You are lifting, right?
Months of weightlifting with lots of squats and deadlifts had a noticeable effect on my hiking and endurance. Less pain, faster recovery times, more energy. I mean VERY noticeable. My back still hurt when we finished the trip, but it was way less pain than before, and it went away by the next day. My usual recovery time was about a week.
Lesson learned: Make sure you are doing your PT, and make sure you are strengthening your core. It makes a huge difference. Huge.
We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.