Based on everything I’ve read about hiking the AT, there needs to be a lot of pre-planning involved. Planning is in my nature, so it shouldn’t cause much problem. My basic plan for this year is: (i) to lose weight; (ii) to improve my physical conditioning; (iii) to research, select, and acquire needed gear; and (iv) to develop a general itinerary for the first two or three sections that I will be hiking.
In late February, I stepped on the scale for the first time in a while. The display gave me a number I wasn’t expecting: 242 even. I knew I had crept up to the low 230’s in the fall, but I didn’t realize I had grown so much over the winter. I’ve been in the upper 220’s often enough in the past, and around 230 occasionally, but I’d never been close to or over 240. While this is part of the drive to get myself back into shape and ready for the challenge of the AT, I’m also going to use it to my advantage in the planning process.
Since I’ve regularly hiked in the 220’s, I’m going to use that as a base weight for calculations. Some articles I have read use 20% of body weight as a guide for the max weight of your pack on a thru-hike, including food and water. To keep things at round numbers, I’m going to use 225 as my calculation weight, yielding a max pack/gear weight of 45 lbs. I’m also going to approach this from a little different angle than the articles I’ve read.
Every step up or down, your legs are lifting or lowering your entire body weight, as well as everything you’re carrying. With this in mind, I’ll be targeting a total hiking weight of 270 lbs. for training purposes. My theory being that as I lose body weight and add weight to the pack, my legs will be conditioned properly for that weight. If I select gear appropriately, I will hopefully be able to hike at significantly less than that 270 total, making the actual AT hikes easier from a conditioning standpoint.
Beginning in late February, I started by changing my diet in order to lose some initial weight. Right now the “shoulder season” of hiking is in full swing and a hike right now in the White Mountains (“Whites”) can have you hiking in anything from dry trail to trail with running water to ice to three feet of snow and periodic post-holing, even in snowshoes. These trail conditions are more difficult to hike in than true winter or summer hiking and with my lack of physical conditioning over the winter, the hiking would have to take a lower priority to dietary changes to start.
A couple of weeks ago I took a vacation day from work and headed to the mountains to get a hike in and boost my metabolism a bit. I’d lost about 6 or 7 pounds at that point and my weight had started to stabilize at that level. I needed to get some exercise to kick my body back into calorie burning mode again. The weather had not been particularly great with warmer weather and periodic rain making trail conditions less than favorable as the snow pack on the trails softened up and less supportive of weight. However, I chose the day I did based on the weather forecast of a nice clear sunny day, but, more importantly, a crisp cold night before.
The cold night would solidify the trails and make hiking easier until the temperatures warmed up enough to turn the snow mushy again, hopefully avoiding the need for snowshoes for the bulk of the trip as well as post-holes.
The hike I planned started out at the Lincoln Woods parking area on the Lincoln, NH end of the Kancamagus Highway. This Scenic Byway is sometimes referred to as “The Kanc” locally, and definitely shortens the typing time for blogging. Knowing I had nowhere near enough conditioning to actually summit a mountain, particularly in the changing trail conditions I was going to run into, I chose a route to accomplish what I needed to accomplish, while giving me the flexibility to extend or shorten based on trail conditions or how my body felt.
Starting at the Lincoln Woods parking area, I followed the Lincoln Woods Trail, which follows an old logging railroad line for nearly five miles. I started off bare-booting from the parking lot, but quickly put on microspikes, as there was quite a bit of ice and hard pack on the trail right from the beginning. There is very little elevation gain on the Lincoln Woods Trail. I think it is about 200 feet total for the entire length. The trail is wide and heavily traveled, making it an easy walk along the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River.
At roughly the 1.5 mile mark the Osseo Trail splits off to the left, which is the route had chosen to take. The temperatures remained below freezing at that point, and the lesser traveled Osseo Trail had a solid packed foot path, but only one person wide, rather than the sometimes 4 to 5 person wide Lincoln Woods Trail. For another quarter mile or so the trail remains mostly level with minimal gain, winding along the Osseo Brook through bare-branched hardwoods.
At this point, I started the section of the hike that was my main goal. I knew I needed to work on elevation gain, but I also needed to get some mileage on my legs. I had done an easy hike of just under two miles so far and would have to hike those same miles out again. Now came the part to work on my climbing. Having not been out at all since December, and even that was more of a light hike instead of a mountain, I chose the Osseo Trail due to its long, moderate climb with minimal steep sections until getting close to the summit of Mount Flume. It gave me what I needed, at a rate which would be good for my present condition, plus, if everything exceeded my expectations, I could continue into the steep section and ultimately summit the mountain.
I started the moderate climb and I could tell from the trail conditions that the temperature had gotten above freezing, even if only a bit. The sun was well up and without leaf cover, the snow was getting the full brunt of the spring sun. I ended up climbing for a mile, maybe a bit more. The trail mostly ranged from one to three feet of snow and traction was sufficient. I had my snowshoes with me, but hadn’t needed them to this point. I did run into a couple of small areas where the trail was open to the sun for long periods of the day and had actually melted down to bare, albeit muddy, ground.
I started to find myself needing to stay in the very center of the trail or else I started to break through the snow crust. I never really post-holed, but that was only because I quickly shifted my weight back to the other foot when I started to sink in. I even started sinking into the trail’s monorail a bit at times as well, but never broke through. My legs were starting to feel like they were reaching the end of their day, at least for going up, and the temperature had continued to climb, so, with about three miles to hike back to the car I turned around and headed back, hoping that the lower elevations hadn’t warmed up enough to require snowshoes before I got back to the almost pavement-like Lincoln Woods Trail.
Thankfully, the trail remained firm enough, since I don’t think my hip flexors were in any condition to do any snowshoeing at that point. I was able to return to the car without any issues, had gotten a good early season conditioning hike in, and tried to kick my body into gear to help lose more weight. In the two weeks since, I’ve lost another few pounds and I finally dropped under the 230 mark, down to 229.4, however my weight is back to fluctuating up and down with a very slight trend downward. It’s definitely time to get out on the trails to boost the metabolism again.
As for gear, I have some work to do. Over these past 8 summers, I’ve hiked a lot of trails and completed the 48 4,000 footers in New Hampshire. I never spent the night on the trail for any of them. For one long traverse I did sleep in the back of my SUV and start my hike at 4 am to avoid the 2.5 hour drive to start the day. With this in mind, I have a sleeping bag, a self inflating pad, and all the necessities for day hiking, plus some extra preparedness types of things for emergencies.
One of the major items I need to get is a tent. I need to research it, buy the right one, and go out and use it a few times to get comfortable with setting it up, taking it down, and packing it away. Doing this will also let me assess my current sleeping bag’s usefulness on a backpacking trip, as well as the inflatable pad. Some of my reading suggests I should go with a foam pad, with similar weight, but without the risk of leaks/repairs, and more easily strapped to the outside of a pack for space concerns.
I also know I need a backpacking pack instead of the day pack I have. My pack is on the large size for a day pack, but it isn’t large enough to handle the gear and food for a week or two. I originally chose large so I would have room for the extra layers needed for hiking during the winter, but that still doesn’t compare to the 45+ Liter capacity of backpacking packs. I should be able to make due with it for an overnight or a weekend during the summer, until I get a new pack and trial run a several-day hike, hopefully mid-to-late summer.
Lastly, itinerary planning is something that I’ll be able to do during evenings and bad weather stretches where I can’t, or don’t want to, get out hiking. My intent is to have a number of hikes planned in advance, starting with the hike up Springer Mountain in Georgia. I’m planning to have a 1-week plan for each section, as well as 2-week plans for upcoming sections. In that manner, I can mix and match the plans to be adaptable to the amount of time I might have available to me when I’m able to take time off to hike the AT.
For these 1-week plans, I’ll be assuming a 9-day week, containing two weekends and a full work week in between. Initially, I will be estimating a 15 mile day, but I’ll adjust that based on how campsite options present themselves in each section. The benefit to living where I do and hiking the Whites is that I have probably the best training ground in the east. Realistically, I reach almost any part of the AT from Hanover, NH to Mt Katahdin in approximately 3.5 hours or less. Many thru-hikers feel that the Maine and New Hampshire sections are the hardest part of the trail and this is where I’m conditioning myself. With that in mind, I think 15 miles a day will be a good starting point. I know I can do 20 miles when I’m in decent condition and that will leave some flexibility for trail conditions and camping locations.
As for me, I’m ready to get out for another hike, but I don’t have time this weekend. I have some family things going on and I also will be driving to Exeter, NH on Saturday to celebrate my completion of the New Hampshire 4000 footers with lots of other people who completed their list last year and many previous members of the club. For those in the northeast who are interested in this achievement, you can visit http://www.amc4000footer.org/ for more information.