So, this is the real McCoy. My previous blog was written for fun during my furlough.
If you hike long enough in the backcountry, you will inevitably have to do a water crossing. It may be on a log, stepping on rocks, or fording through it. Over the past several years, I have done quite a few crossings and learned a lot along the way.
Honestly, I didn’t know much about the topic beforehand so I researched the Internet, read about it in my backpacking field guide and various articles in Backpacker magazine. I’ll share my experience crossing various bodies of water including an ocean inlet, streams, creeks, brooks and rivers. By no means am I an authority on water crossings – it’s mostly common sense. If crossing over or through water intimidates you, you are not alone – it’s very common. With a little planning and will power, you can conquer this.
My first real water crossings were on the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. This remote part of the Appalachian Trail has plenty of water. There were two of us and we used the buddy system on some crossings.
Methods for crossing (Fording the body of water)
Always – Put on your water shoes, roll up your pants. Loosen your backpack straps and unbuckle the sternum and waist strap. This may help if you slip. A pack can pull you under.
Solo – Facing upstream, use hiking poles. side step and try to keep three points in contact with the bottom at all times.
Two or more – Couple of methods here. You can face upstream, lock arms and side step your way across. You can also form a single file and face upstream. The person in the front forms a barrier. Place the weakest at the back of the line where there is less resistance to the current.
Swollen, fast current. This is a judgement call. My general rule is if the current is fast, I don’t usually cross if it’s higher than my waist. It’s difficult to keep your footing in a strong current with a slippery bottom.
Obstacles. Never cross upstream close to logs, tangles or debris in the water. If you slip, you may end up getting sucked under the obstacle.
Rapids, bends, waterfalls. Avoid crossing near these if possible. Water flows faster in curves and bends. Rapids are full of hidden hazards. Slip near a waterfall and well, you know…
Temperature. A cold mountain stream will numb your legs and feet within a couple of minutes. It can be shocking and cause you to panic. Move as quickly as possible to avoid cramps.
Some thoughts here. Did you know in Maine (other parts of New England as well) a brook is what most of us would call a stream or creek? A stream can be a large creek or what many out west would call a river.
Crossing over on a log
This is challenging if you are afraid of heights. The sound of rushing water just adds to the fear factor. I find it easiest to hold my poles out like a tightrope walker as it provides a bit more balance. One foot in front of the other and keep moving. If you are with others, it may help to carry the pack of the person who is struggling. That 30-40 lb pack lets you know that it’s there. Unbuckle the waist and sternum, loosen the shoulder straps. If you do fall, roll out of the pack to avoid getting pulled under.
Crossing on rocks, boulders
Choose your stones wisely. Most rock crossings are on shallow streams and creeks. I often use my poles for more stability and have slipped off many rocks. Your best tool here is a pair of hiking shoes with sticky soles like the Camp Four 5-10’s. Avoid moss-covered ones and test to see if the rocks are wobbly. Boulder hopping with a full pack is tricky. Lean to far and you’re going in. Believe me, I know.
While I’ve done a few, it’s a bit sketchy. Always use a headlamp and test the water depth with your hiking poles.
Equipment: You really don’t need much, but here are some ideas.
Water shoes – A good pair of waterproof shoes provides traction and forms a barrier between your feet and a rocky bottom. Hiking shoes with good soles for rock hopping.
Trekking poles – Gives you that third or fourth leg for added stability. Also can be used to pull you out if you fall.
Paracord – If you need to fasten it to your buddy, it can provide some assurance.
Extra socks – It’s no fun to hike in wet socks.
My hardest water crossing was an unplanned one. On a beach hike, my wife and I crossed a tidal inlet to a lagoon at low tide. On our return, the tide was rushing in and the 10 foot crossing at 1 foot deep became a 50 ft. wide crossing up to our shoulders. We put our daypacks above our heads, locked arms and barely made it across. Before and during the crossing, I briefed her what to do if we lost our footing. Fortunately, the current was coming into the lagoon. If the current had been going out, I doubt we would have risked it.
We’ve run across many solo hikers in the backcountry where there are an abundance of water crossings. It’s all the more important to understand the hazards when you are alone. Find the safest place to cross and never cross at night when you’re alone, it’s just not worth it.
Some final thoughts. Hike long enough and you will have to cross water. With the proper gear and techniques, it’s just mind over matter.
The title should really have peaked your interest. How does a husband convince their wife to do anything? As we say in the military – here’s the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): It takes time.
Most things worthwhile take some effort. Typical of our manly ways, we tend to go for the gusto – straight away. Backcountry, or multi-day hikes take a bit of planning especially for someone who has never been. Specifically on the backcountry hiking, it’s easier when you live in an area that is conducive to camping and hiking. Either that or you have enough time and money to vacation in beautiful wilderness areas.
Living in southern California, we are within a days’ drive of the High Sierras which has made it uber-easy to do this outdoor activity. However, every state in the union has locations for hiking. From the Appalachian to the Continental Divide to the Pacific Crest Trails, including the national and state forests – there are many areas where you can get off the beaten path. Imagine Denali in amazing Alaska, or Waimea State Park on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
For me, I was determined to do an outdoor activity with my wife that we could enjoy together. We started by day hiking. I bought a book on trails within San Diego County and we began going out on Saturdays. We would pack a lunch and make a day of it. The more secluded, the better. Eventually, the hikes got longer with more elevation change. While flat terrain is a good break, the challenge of a good cardio workout made it more than a walk in the woods.
We would mix up mountain hiking with desert treks as the seasons allowed. We developed a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the creation. As believers, we observed God’s handiwork in the land and His animals. We also enjoyed each others’ company as we took breaks and drove to/from our hikes. The time in the car is a great time to talk about your marriage – and life.
You really don’t have to be equals as far as physical conditioning. In our case, she kicks my butt on the trail. However, consider the physical condition of your spouse. Start out with easy, short hikes and make a date out of it. It helps to start out with a trek that has awesome scenery. End with a sunset and/or dinner at a new café. We’ve discovered some decent eateries while out on the road. We also established a tradition of celebrating with a cup of hot tea after reaching each summit.
There were times when I pushed us too hard or it was too hot, but we learned from our mistakes. Once, we were almost swept into a lagoon in a rushing tidal inlet. We often share that story with others and always laugh. Another time, we got off track on a snow-covered mountain in the Sierras and bushwhacked for a couple of hours. Every year, there are new stories to share.
Day hiking presented an opportunity to do some camping. We eventually combined car camping with some hikes. If your spouse hasn’t camped before, car camping is a great intro. It allows for conveniences like coolers, chairs and bathrooms. If your kids are grown, go to campgrounds when school is in session. Much less crowded….
During this time, we also visited epic locations like Yosemite. Some places just leave you yearning for more. The Sierras are this way. I imagine the Rockies and so many other areas are similar. Eventually, we did a 3 day backcountry trip to the highest peak in our area – San Gorgonio. It was difficult, but rewarding. It really proved that she could hike in the backcountry with a full pack and sleep in the wilderness. We still laugh about being awakened at midnight by the spotlight of a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s helicopter looking for a lost hiker. Wilderness hiking builds memories.
I won’t exaggerate, it took a few years to get my wife into the backcountry on an extended trip. We worked up to it. I made sure that her needs were taken care of and that she felt safe. I gradually built up trust and gained some knowledge on our wilderness treks. Over the years, We’ve been lost a few times, but a handy GPS and some map skills would get us back on track.
I really could have made this blog a lot shorter by stating that backcountry hiking with your spouse (or significant other) isn’t going to happen quickly. Start out with day hikes, progress to car camping and do a short backcountry trip that has awesome scenery. “Now you’re cooking with peanut oil” Phil Robertson-Duck Dynasty, A&E.
After much preparation, our section hike of the JMT commenced. Our plan was to do a 60+ mile section from south-north. We would start around Devils Postpile and finish in Yosemite Valley. There are a lot of logistics that go into an extended backcountry trip. From clothing, food, transportation – the options are numerous.
How much will it cost? It will vary widely depending on your choices for transportation, gear and food. Don’t go cheap on essential hiking gear. You get what you pay for. The $25 tent is not a good idea for a High Sierra backcountry trip.
It started with choosing a time of year to do it. In the Sierras, the previous winter has a lot of impact on trail conditions. This year was a low snow year, so the streams were not very high. Since there was less snow, that usually means less standing water so mosquitos should not be as bad. Well, that’s debatable. To some, any mosquitos are bad. Ensure that you don’t have problems fording streams or walking across logs over rushing water. Late June/early July worked for us. I hear late August/early September is a good time.
Next choice was the distance to hike. This is where you need to know what your limits are. Can you hike 8-10 miles per day with a full pack at high altitude in 80 degree temps? I can tell you as an avid day hiker, there is a lot of difference between hiking 10 miles with a daypack and with a 40 lb. pack. It’s not pleasant to do a forced march just to make your mileage.
Clothing was another choice. What to wear? Best advice I can give is to check blogs and user groups to see what others are doing. Yahoo has a great JMT user group with relevant info. Due to a forecast of high temps, we would take synthetic short and long sleeve shirts, convertible pants and rain/wind jackets. Still, conditions in the Sierras vary widely, so an extra layer or two is a good idea. Those light weight hiking shoes may not provide enough support on a multi-day hike with a full pack. Test it out first.
Food was next. Dehydrated meals are the easiest and they’ve come a long way. Test some out ahead of time and read the reviews for each. There is some amazing innovation in the area of crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon. Ensure they you have plenty of snacks like energy bars, trail mix, beef sticks and fruits like apples. My wife found healthy alternatives in the form of grass fed beef sticks and even some gluten free snacks. It’s amazing how many calories you can burn in 6-8 hours of hiking, so do the math. Bear canisters are mandatory in most areas on the JMT, so plan to rent or bring your own.
Transportation. Since we were doing a section hike, we chose to leave our car in Mammoth Lakes, catch a shuttle to the trail and for the return leg, catch public transportation (YARTS) back to Mammoth. It ended up working out great. Have a backup plan in case you miss your ride.
Research and planning was everything on this trip which helped make it successful. I learned so much reading others’ blogs and experiences.
NEXT: John Muir Trail Section Hike – Day 0
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
As we prepare for our section hike of the JMT, I am enjoying watching my wife pack, unpack the bear canister. Her frustration mounting, I assure her that it will all fit or we will hang the non-essentials from a tree. Hopefully, by the time we hit Yosemite where bears come to feast, we will have mostly empty bear cans. Whoever created the saying it’s like packing 10 pounds of “stuff” in a 5 pound bag must have invented the bear canister.
The logistics of a section hike in the backcountry are significant. Permits, transportation, food, clothing, checklists, on and on…. Watching her pack, it’s obvious that organized people can get more in their canisters than the rest of us. If you’ve ever crammed a bear canister into an ultralight backpack, you realize that you may be wearing the same clothing all week because it’s either food or clothing.
Keep in mind the pack-it-in, pack-it-out rule. While I agree that we should be good stewards and not leave our trash in the wilderness, it literally stinks to carry your garbage around for a week. I would advise that you rinse out those foil tuna packs after you empty them or your apples will smell like Chicken-of-the-Sea by day three.
Should you pack your bear can with each day’s meals? Like day 5 on the bottom, day 4 above that and so on. I guess if you are OCD then yes. Otherwise, it’s fun finding your food, kind of like the treat in the bottom of a Crackerjack box.
When I got our bear cans, by the way I picked two different types, a Garcia and a Bearvault, I got some reflective tape and made smiley face designs on them. That way, if we need to find a bear can in the dark after Yogi rolls it away, it will be smiling back at us. Along with my phone number, I added a little graffiti like “eat me” and “sorry Yogi” on the reflective tape with a Sharpie. If I have to use those darn things, I will make the best of it.
The old standby canister used by the Park Service: Backpackers’ Cache – Bear Proof Container
BearVault BV500 Bear Proof Container Bear Vault – This one is my favorite, roomy and you can see your stuff.
Always stow your bear canisters between 50-100 ft. away from your tent and wedge them between rocks or trees. Never place them around a cliff or near water unless you plan on fasting for a few days. Enjoy packing them, practice or watch others pack a bear can for cheap entertainment. It’s better than watching Duck Dynasty.
Most of our hiking is in southern California with a desert climate that is arid and dry. From the Colorado Desert in the Anza-Borrego region south to the San Bernardino Mountains, we can go for months without significant precipitation. Water is one thing you can’t scrimp on. The mind plays tricks on you if deprived of this vital liquid, especially since the brain is made up of approximately 75% water.
It’s really important to understand the area that you hike in. On longer day and section hikes, you should know where there are water sources or carry a boatload with you. At over two pounds per liter, it adds up quickly and can make up the bulk of your pack weight. Hydration really is a common sense thing-especially if you’ve ever run out of water. On multi-day and section hikes, it’s a good idea to research trail conditions and water availability. During low snowfall years, many streams are dry by early-mid summer.
How your body loses water
On the trail, the most obvious ways are 1. perspiration (evaporation), 2. breathing-especially if you’re a mouth breather, and 3. urination.
Let’s talk about the symptoms and effects of dehydration on the body first. Dehydration simply put is “deficiency of fluid within an organism” Ha, I like that one. Deficiency is lack of and the organism is your body. When your body lacks the fluid, it’s like running your car with no water in the radiator. You can only go so far before the engine shuts down from overheating. Your body can only go so far because your blood plasma needs water and your organs need the blood.
Symptoms of Dehydration
Dehydration doesn’t occur instantly, there are stages and warning signs along the way. The most obvious symptoms may be thirst, dry mouth, dizziness, headaches and nausea. Urine is a great indicator of your hydration state. Dark or yellow pee is an obvious sign that you need more water. However, in some cases people in a dehydrated state don’t even urinate because there isn’t enough fluid in the body. As your body loses water through dehydration, it can reach a point where it starts taking fluid from the organs, which is a very bad thing.
I am the master of the obvious. Prevent dehydration by taking in more fluids than you lose. If you start out with a deficit, and you exert yourself on a tough hike, you never catch up and put your health at risk. We always try to “tank up” and drink 16-32 oz. of water before a hike. Doctors say it’s always good to start your day that way. The two cups of coffee don’t count either. On the trail, we ward off the thirst by frequently sipping from our water bladders. Drinking a few sips every 5 minutes or so while going uphill barely keeps us ahead of the curve on a hot day. Some people use water bottles like a 32 oz. Nalgene or Camelbak, but use whatever works best. We prefer the 100 oz. Camelbak bladders and I carry a spare liter of water in a bottle.
If you recognize symptoms of dehydration in yourself or a fellow hiker, take a break and drink as much water as is comfortable. Other health issues like heat stress or acute mountain sickness are made worse if you are in a dehydrated state. Remember the car radiator analogy…. Your body regulates itself better when it has plenty of fluids to work with. On a challenging hike, a liter of water lasts me 2-3 miles. Figure out your usage and plan accordingly.
I have used some of the following products for water filtration and highly recommend them:
Sawyer mini-filtration: http://amzn.to/1FDDL48
Katadyn Vario Water Filter: http://amzn.to/1cDgkRd (the absolute best)
Platypus Gravityworks 2L: http://amzn.to/1JtIWee (for several people, good for group camping)
1. You don’t need as much water in the winter time. Actually, you may need more as cool temps provide a false sense of hydration. It’s typically drier in winter and you may lose more through perspiration and respiration.
2. You can get fluids from other drinks like soda, tea. Some beverages actually act as diuretics and can cause increased fluid loss through urination. Water is always best. You can add flavor or add electrolytes if needed. Alcohol and hiking? Niet.
3. I can drink water from that stream. Sure you can. Be prepared to get a classic case of diarrhea due to giardia and cryptosporidium, two bacteria that can probably only be eliminated with antibiotics. You should always filter or treat water from a stream or lake. The animal that pooped upstream just didn’t know any better.
Hiking and good hydration practice go hand-in-hand. Never hit the trail without enough water. Bless you friends, enjoy your walkabout – where ever you are!
P.S. – I often use my Nikon 3300 series camera on the trail. Durable and takes amazing pics. http://amzn.to/1F0F38L
You can usually tell the experienced hikers from the rookies on the trail. With only 3 years of hiking under my belt, I’m no longer a rookie you see, I’ve moved up to a novice. Not that I don’t make rookie mistakes on the trail now and then. Like the time I almost lit my friend’s JetBoil with the little foam koozie thing still on. Man, I might dedicate one of my future blogs to my rookie mistakes.
So back to the subject at hand – hiking or trekking poles. Almost every seasoned hiker uses them. Early on in hiking, it was with a single pole. Not sure why I started using one. One pole was ok, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Either that or I wasn’t using it properly. After some research, it became obvious that I could have gotten by with less knee pain with two poles.
Most people will tell you that they use poles to lessen the impact on the knees. The knee is an amazing feat of design by our creator. It absorbs repeated pounding and tremendous weight over and over. The compressive force exerted on the knee going downhill is significant. One study revealed that the typical runner’s knee absorbed between 2-4 times the bodies’ weight. for a 150 lb hiker, that’s approximately 500 lbs each time! The average person’s stride is 2.5 ft. So, in a 10 mile hike, you take roughly 20,000 steps. So here’s some numbers that will blow you away. That’s over 10,000,000 pounds of force or 5,000 tons absorbed by your knees on this particular hike. Good golly, check my math on that one. No wonder my knees ache sometimes. Supposedly, a 1999 Journal of Sports Medicine study revealed that used properly, poles reduce the stress to the knees by up to 25%.
I bought my single trekking pole a partner and that’s when the benefits became obvious. With two poles, I developed better balance going downhill, didn’t slip as much, moved faster and even learned how to “spider” with them. Yes, I know arachnids have eight legs, but someone came up with the name for the technique. The poles even gave this boy some rhythm, where there was none before.
One of the reasons I took up hiking was to get some exercise. Using the same math as before, imagine lifting your trekking poles even 5,000 times on a hike. At an average of 10 ounces each, that’s over 3,700 lbs of lifting. Wow, who needs a Nordic Track? Back to the balance discussion – poles provide the stability when carrying a heavy pack on those extended backcountry trips. They are invaluable when you have to ford those fast-moving streams. Think about it, having 3 points on the ground at all times when crossing over those slippery rocks.
There are times when poles are a nuisance or even a hindrance. Bouldering or rock scrambling is not the time to be using your poles. Hand over hand climbing or bushwhacking through dense vegetation may be some other situations where they are best left strapped to your pack. Lash them down and stow them with the tips down to avoid skewering yourself in the neck or head.
If weight is an issue, then shelling out the money for lighter high-tech carbon poles may be for you. Expect to spend $150 or more for those. I remember a time on the A.T. where we ran into a fellow with 1 – 1/2 carbon fiber poles. We saw the other half of his pole 20 miles later in a swamp with thigh deep mud. The brittle carbon fiber pole was no match for the Maine muck. On the other hand, my $25 aluminum poles were going strong 200 miles later. Even something as simple as this comes with accessories. Rubber tips are more eco-friendly, mud and snow baskets will keep them from sinking down. Some have compasses and thermometers built into the handle. Handles are typically plastic, rubber, or even cork, with straps to prevent flinging them over the ledge when you point out the awesome scenery or mountain lion. I prefer cork handles since it is comfortable and doesn’t cause as much sweating.
Some other uses for trekking poles:
– The make great spears for self-defense.
– You can wrap duct tape around the shaft which can be used in emergencies.
– You can make a huge cross symbol for those trail vampires
– Use them to make noise so that you don’t sneak up on a bear or to scare away mountain lions. No, really.
– Sword fights or fencing around the campfire. Rubber tips on of course. 🙂
So, like anything else in hiking gear, you get what you pay for. If you’re not sure about the need for poles, borrow some from a friend or spend a small amount on an entry-level set. Your knees will thank you.
You ever heard of the adage “you can learn something new everyday”? Well, maybe it’s not an adage, but it should be. A couple of years ago, some young Marines taught me a valuable lesson on a backcountry hike. The lesson was one that I’ve taken to heart. Disclaimer: The observations that follow are based on my experiences and are not medical advice.
When you think about which part of your body takes the most abuse on the trail, what comes to mind? For me it is the feet. Your tootsies can really take a beating out there. If you’ve been hiking for a while, you have probably suffered from some of the maladies that I’ll discuss. My first cardinal sin of hiking was buying shoes that fit. In other words, I got boots the same size as my everyday shoes. They worked great on short hikes on varied terrain. However, my week of hiking in Yosemite demonstrated the flaw to my thinking. After a long hike, the downhill stretch hurt my toes. You see, the feet can swell and the arches tend to flatten a bit on long hikes. The result can be a foot that is up to one size larger than normal. Since the toes have nowhere to go, they bang up against the toe box in your boot. The result may take a few days, but the toenails turn black and blue and eventually fall off. Lesson Learned – Buy hiking shoes/boots that are at least 1/2 to 1 size larger than normal. You can make up the difference with thicker socks.
Blisters, unavoidable – right? Not always. While the primary cause of blisters is friction, moisture (sweat) is a key contributing factor. Reduce the rubbing and moisture and you will typically get less blisters. After your toes, the heels take the most abuse on your feet. You can reduce heel rubbing by a shoe that fits well. You can also use a lubricant made especially for runners which is somewhat effective. Shoes that are too wide in the back allow for excessive movement and will rub those seven layers of skin off by lunchtime. Some tips to reduce moisture – use synthetic sock liners followed by the appropriate thickness of wool socks. The merino wool works well for me. Together, these socks wick away moisture where it has a chance to evaporate. Lastly, as far as blisters go, dirt in your shoe – it is an abrasive that increases the risk of blisters. The solution is to pick up some gaiters to slip over your shoes. There are many varieties from simple synthetic pullover to heavy-duty trail blazers that resist cactus. They do a great job at keeping debris out of your shoes.
By far, the most comforting thing that you can do on extended treks is to occasionally stop and take your shoes and socks off. This is especially true on those warmer hikes, but the feet perspire on those winter hikes due to the thicker socks. A 5 minute break cooling your jets will go a long way in warding of those blisters. Massaging the bottom and ball of your feet is very therapeutic. Be careful, as I’ve read of hikers losing a boot over a cliff. Can you imagine hiking out in your socks?
On extended backcountry trips, it is imperative that you baby those feet at the end of the day. I usually break out the wet or antiseptic wipes and give my feet a good cleaning. It’s always a good idea to apply some triple antibiotic ointment to any open blisters or abrasions. It is possible to get an infection from an open blister or raw area on your feet within days, especially if you fiord a few streams. Afterwards, I’ll rub some foot lotion or ointment (like Gold Bond or Kerasal) to moisturize, before putting on a clean pair of socks at bedtime. Your feet will appreciate it and the socks will keep your feet comfy. Like many of you, I’ve logged hundreds of trail miles on these feet and they haven’t failed me yet. Take care of them and you’ll be amazed where they can take you. 🙂
Do you remember the first time you hiked in the dark? Was it unplanned? Many, if not most of our day hikes end up at dusk or near dark – mainly because we frequently start late. We do it to avoid crowds on our local/regional day hikes. Having done a few backcountry trips, I can tell you that we try to finish before dark. However, there was this one backcountry trip……
The allure of the Appalachian trail was enough for me to fly out to the east coast from sunny San Diego. While hiking the entire A.T. is a dream, my friend and I would settle for a 7-8 day section hike. Decidedly, we would make this interesting and hike one of the hardest sections of the trail-The Maine 100 Mile Wilderness. In previous blogs, I’ve written how it was the one of my greatest challenges. This section of the trail was unforgiving. At 12 miles per day, we could easily make it out in time. A miscalculation of the terrain caused us to fall behind schedule. Well, my friend was doing fine. At half my age and a Marine, he was like a darn gazelle on the African plain. We had to make it out by a certain day to meet family and for me to catch a flight home. Anyhow, by the end of the first day, I experienced night hiking with a full, no – overloaded backpack.
I learned many things on that trip. Mainly, if you bite off more than you can chew on a backcountry trip, you just suck it up and go with it. The first night hike wasn’t extreme by any means, just different. As night fell, I broke out the headlamp and concentrated on the trail beneath my feet, occasionally looking up front for my friend – who must have had built-in night vision, because he wasn’t using a headlamp. I was starting to think that the government must have put night vision implants in their Marines, but as I would learn later, your eyes will adjust to the dark with pretty good acuity. Fortunately, after a couple of hours we stumbled on an empty campsite and settled in using our headlamps. Sleep came quickly after a long day on the trail.
With each passing day and night, the novelty of nocturnal trekking wore off and at times became drudgery. Much of the trail in the Maine Wilderness is composed of obstacles. For the duration of the 100 miles, every other step seemed like I was stepping on a tree root. Navigating a trail made of roots with the 40lb pack was tough. Even with my acquired “trail legs”, the root jumping ritual gets old quickly. By the way, the A.T. is fairly well-marked with the white blazes on the trees or rocks every 100-200 ft. – during the day that is. At night, the supposedly bright blazes get absorbed by the darkness. Often, my partner would hike ahead to find a campsite and I would trudge along through the darkest forest east of the Mississippi. I was usually so tired, that I didn’t give the darkness much thought. Thinking back, it was probably downright spooky. In Maine, the forest canopy is so thick that you don’t see many stars at night. Sometimes, the trail is only 2-3 ft. wide and the forest so thick and dark that it seemed to close in on me.
Did I mention that a good portion of the A.T. in Maine is built out of logs and cut lumber? The trail is often surrounded by water and much of it passes through creeks, streams and swamps. The “bridges”, many of them built by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, provide a way to navigate these watery areas. At night, the bridges seem narrow, loose and rickety. One slip and you could end up knee-deep in muck. Looking back, I can’t say that it was enjoyable. Fortunately, the swamps in Maine are not home to anacondas or gators. But, as you make your way over these logs late at night, don’t let your imagination wander too far. Occasionally, I would stop and scan the swamp with my headlamp, hoping that I would not see a pair of green eyes looking back at me.
On one night, I was in a particularly thick part of the forest near Joe-Mary Lake and lost the trail. My friend was probably 15 minutes or so ahead of me scouting out the campsite as usual. For a minute, panic set in as I couldn’t see the next blaze. I gathered my wits and focused on what appeared to be the trail and scanned the trees and rocks with my headlamp. A faint blaze appeared 50 ft. ahead on a tree. Was it a blaze or a faded piece of bark? Eventually, the trail became more apparent and 20 minutes later, I would find my friend setting up our home for the evening.
Summertime brings out the bugs on the trail and they love lights. One night, we were taking a break on a boulder and we had our lamps on. We scanned the area around us and saw something moving about 20 ft. away. Suddenly, it flew at us and thumped my friend in the head, me in the chest. It was the largest iridescent moth ever. It continued to dive bomb us and we would run away screaming until we realized that we just needed to turn our lights off. After sneaking away in the dark, we would turn our headlamps on hoping that Mothra was long gone. As the adrenaline faded, we continued to be hounded by smaller moths until we made camp.
By the 6th or 7th night, we would be putting in 12+ hour days and able to hike well into the darkness without headlamps. You really do gain confidence and your eyes seem to gather in every bit of light possible. We even braved a river crossing at night. Fortunately, the water was only to our knees so it wasn’t too bad.
Near the end of this trip, I was a seasoned night hiker. Did I enjoy it? No, not really, it was done out of necessity. On the A.T., the “green tunnel” really makes the night seem darker. I never realized how pitch black it gets in the woods. I think it comes from just being a city dweller. However, many thru-hikers absolutely enjoy night hiking and can knock down some serious mileage. Is it risky? Yes, you just have to know what the acceptable risk is.
Some tips for night hiking, based on my limited experience:
– Have a backup headlamp or flashlight, plus spare batteries
– Know the terrain and assess the risks of hiking in the dark.
– Water crossings at night can be dangerous. Have an idea how deep the water is. Always loosen or unbuckle your backpack straps.
– If you lose the trail, stop and gather your wits. No need to panic. GPS works in the dark too.
– Don’t let your imagination wander too far. You probably aren’t surrounded by alligators.
– When moths attack, turn off your light
I will do night hiking again, perhaps next time it will be under the wide open sky of the John Muir Trail. 🙂 Hike your own hike my friends, and don’t forget the headlamp.
The last series of blogs journaled a trip from last year that helped me realize we often set limits on what we can do. Thinking back, there were several times that I wanted to shoot up the red star cluster and give up. The reward for persevering was scenery that will never be forgotten, camaraderie with others and an appreciation for our natural parks. The 5 day trip raised the bar for me as far as physical challenges.
Too frequently, we get caught up in the rat race, you know the requirement to put food on the table and survive. Backpacking has become a release. A release in the sense that the cares of the world seem far away when you are miles away from the nearest road. Understand, as a believer in Christ, I have a firm foundation on where my hope is. It is not in our government, nor any other person, place or thing. My hope rests in Him and what He has done for us. The salvation offered through grace, is all-sufficient. Backcountry hiking for me is an opportunity to reflect and appreciate the majesty of his creation.
There is something neat about carrying everything that you need to survive on your back. Others, the minimalist backpackers, learn to survive with even less stuff. It makes sense after I carried an extra 15 pounds all week. I noticed that once you get home after spending a week on the trail it becomes apparent how much stuff you have. Needless stuff in boxes or in closets. Things that you haven’t worn in a year or junk that takes up space. The gypsies of old had it right. Take what you can carry.
Ten Lakes area, Yosemite
It doesn’t matter where you live. We just happen to live in an area where it is easy to get out and experience the adventure. Just ask my family, wherever we have lived or traveled – we have gotten out. From the beaches in Nags Head, NC to Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon or a huge boulder field in the Lehigh Valley, Pa. Whether it’s the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Rockies – just go.
I need to spend more time in the backcountry. Maybe it will help me get rid of stuff.
Thank you for taking the time to check out my blog. It seems that almost everyone has something to say and this forum is a great way to do it. If you are one of my Facebook friends, you already know one of the things that I love to do. I am blessed to live in one of the most beautiful areas in the U.S. – Southern California. If you love being outdoors, this is the place to live. It is the most geographically diverse area that I’ve ever seen. From the Pacific Ocean, to the mountains, to the desert – all a little over an hours drive apart.
So, hiking is something that I’ve come to enjoy. While admittedly a novice of the trail, I’ve discovered that common sense is the most important skill that’s required. That and a good pair of shoes. So, overlook my grammatical errors, endure my dry humor, and I will attempt to share my experiences on the trail.