Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tech tricks and treats, plus why beach hiking fails

I want to go high tech for my AT hike, and there's so much great stuff out there to sort through--it's like trying to decide on a Halloween costume.

I have three basic tech desires:
  1. I am using the AT Conservancy's maps, guidebooks, on line interactive map, in combination with the Delorme topo map books and Google Earth's mapping and street view applications to do advance scouting of trail crossings and parking areas.  In some cases it's actually easier than scouting by car, trying to stay on the road while craning your neck to see where the trail emerges from the woods at an obscure crossing, etc.
  2. I intend to carry one or two high-tech gadgets with me that take geo-tagged videos and still pics and record geo-tracking info, with the goal of posting all this on line using map-based software such as My Maps on Google Earth.
  3. In some ideal user-friendly universe that doesn't seem to exist in this dimension (yet), I'd hope to integrate all this info seamlessly, with a few clicks, into a single link to which followers can go and be able to post it in real time right from the trail.

For item 1, pre-hike scouting, I'm afraid it's just a matter of slogging through all the data.  But what's available online has great potential.  Witness this screen shot, taken from  A Google Maps Street View, of a small AT crossing and parking area near the Blue Ridge Parkway above Buchanan, VA (a place I plan to be hiking next week):
(Note the white blaze on the big tree at the woods' edge, right center.)  Since my hike will consist of individual day-hike Yo-yo's (back and forth from road crossings where I'll park), this advance work can save me time and headaches.  It won't tell me if a muddy Forest Service road is impassable, but actually there may also be some on-line help with that (National forest web sites, etc.) - OK, yet more layers of on-line research to consider!

Item two, choosing the right gadgets to carry, is far more tech-intensive.  For those few of you even more tech-bewildered than I am, my hope is to provide a link to a detailed customized map of the AT based on, for example, Google Maps, for use by those who want to follow my progress.  Instead of using the map to find the nearest restaurant that sells a Virgin Daiquiri smoothie, you use it to search for my photos, videos and information I've posted from my gadgets, all organized precisely by their location along the trail.  Google Maps has the software to do this, but it appears you still need to be a serious geek to understand all the ins and outs.  Even understanding what gadgets are most user friendly is a ghoulish proposition.  There is an increasing number of hardware devices available that provide geo-tagged photo and video data--everything from your Smart Phone to rugged head-mounted light weight video equipment such as this GPS-integrated video camera from Oregon Scientific.  I spent all day today researching other such specialized units and found half a dozen.  They are available from several manufacturers, and I won't go into details.  Suffice it to say that none of them does exactly what I want, and each one has strong points and weaknesses.  There are even geo-tagged Sony Handi-cams and Garmin GPS units that take photos.  The trick is to sort through these various tempting treats and figure out which, if any, I want to spring for.

Item 3: how to get the info on the web:  With the advent of smart phones with cameras and wireless internet access, a good chunk of the trail is potentially connected.  But is a Smart Phone all I need to post frequent photos and video *and* GPS tracking info?  Ideally, the answer is yes.  Practically the biggest issue is battery life.  Other issues I have are the limited features of the camera and near inaccessibility of the GPS info for any practical trail use (compared to my Garmin hiker's GPS).  Lastly, is there a "helmet mount" for a smart phone???   On the other end of this high tech info stream (the target site on the internet to post my information), there are other issues.  I'm already posting here on Blogger, and also on Facebook (I can share these Blogger posts to Facebook directly but what Facebook posts is only the title line and then a clunky and repetitive reference to the blog in general--none of the content of the actual post).  I am also regularly posting on the especially thru-hiker friendly AT journaling site,, which is even more clunky to integrate with the other sites (you need to 'code' links by hand using HTML for example).  And it gets worse ... For items 1 and 2, I'm likely to want to add more target sites to the mix: a map-integrated photo site, probably Panoramio, and the 'My Maps' application under Google Maps.  Again, there's nothing that perfectly fits my vision (that's how start-up tech companies came into being, isn't it!)  But I'm just a retired old geezer, well beyond wanting to start a business.  So this Halloween bag full of tech-candy puts a lot of tempting but stomach-turning sugary-sweet calories on my plate.

Still, I'm doing pretty good, dontcha think?  Remember, I'm 63.  I went to school in the pre-computer slide-rule era; and despite a high-tech science career, I still have a hard time keeping up with the break-neck pace of developments.  Wish me luck!

Last note:  Why Beach Hiking Fails:  I was out on the AT a few weeks ago (see earlier posts) after a couple months of hiking only my level beach strand (albeit long hikes of ten to fifteen miles daily).  But back on the AT I quickly found that the muscles used to ascend and descend had gone flabby.  I had some muscle soreness that surprised me.  Beach hiking works well to keep my feet accustomed to the long miles, but I need to keep in touch with the hills.

So ... This coming week looks like a great crisp fall week for some AT hiking.  I'm heading out tomorrow morning and may not leave the trail until Saturday (when I'll head up to Maryland).  Look for a progress report next week.  And meanwhile, Happy All-Hallowed's-Eve to one and all.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Random trail prep - a busy real life week

Took another trip from the NC beach to Maryland for a family party and to take care of car issues after my son's '97 Mazda died.  There wasn't much time for hiking but I did 'break in' my new Asics gel trail running shoes on an 8.8 mile out-and-back hike over Bob's Hill and on to Cat Rock in the Catoctin Mountains of north central Maryland.  The links above are courtesy of Summit Post where I maintain a page under my trail name, Seeks It.  There you can find some pics of some of my other adventures.

Another note on gear.  As long as the temperature is reasonable, I'll be hiking in shorts.  I have a great pair of lightweight 100% nylon Columbia Titanium cargo shorts (sorry, but it looks like they're no longer making these--bought them about four years ago).  I really prefer having lots of pocket space, so cargo shorts are ideal.  I keep my camera, cell phone, and other personal effects in plastic zip lock bags in the pockets as well as a half liter of water.  By properly arranging these I don't have any problems with chafing.

A note on temperature regulation:  Being skinny as a rail (6' 2" and under 150 pounds) I need to pay close attention to this.  I prefer to start out warmly dressed and shed layers on ascents when I'm on the verge of sweating, then add layers as soon as I begin to cool down on descents.  This constant adjusting is a real pain in the butt, but important for me.   Also ... I've started my "AT beard" in anticipation of winter conditions for the first few months of my thru-hike.  I think male AT thru hikers grow their beards more as a status symbol than out of necessity.  A quarter-ounce disposable hand razor in the backpack or a more robust unit mailed to supply drops and used only when in town (then mailed on) are easy solutions to stay clean shaven.  When summer comes, I may 86 the beard--we'll see.  Here I am with the first two weeks of 'fuzz':  Call it the "Before" shot:

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Two AT training hikes, and bought some gear

Over the past week the AT beckoned.  Fall leaf peeping was an unexpected added bonus.  I hiked two sections - one atthe north end and one at the south end of my current completed segment of the trail.  The above shot is taken in the surprisingly level two or three miles in the middle of the James River Face Wilderness - ten miles of trail between Petite's Gap and the James River Foot Bridge (shown below):
This time of year, the AT 'green tunnel' transforms to the 'technicolor tunnel'.  I hiked this 10 mile section out and back (total of 20 miles), just as I intend to do with the entire trail starting January 1st.

The other section I hiked was in southern Pennsylvania from Snowy Mountain Road to Caledonia State Park - an out-and back twelve mile walk over some very rocky trail - what did I expect from a ridge called "Rocky Mountain"!  Here's a sample: I call this 'hole-in-the-rock':

On one 5.5 mile section here, I had the great pleasure of crossing paths with a group of about 80 first to twelfth grade kids from the Anchor Christian School, a Mennonite affiliated private school near Shippensburg, PA.  Virtually every one of the kids from the school were there, and completed the hike before being treated to a picnic feast at Caledonia State Park.  That's where I had my pic snapped with a few of them:
Gear discussion:  During the period of a few days between the two hikes on the AT covered above, I made some gear acquisitions:  Foremost among these was a pair of lightweight mountain running shoes:  12.2 ounce Asics Gel Trail Sensor 5's.  In addition, I splurged for a Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Tarp/Poncho, only 11 ounces.  It comes in a tiny 4 inch stuff sack.  At Dick's Sporting Goods I bought an UnderArmor hooded fleece sweat shirt (100% polyester).  I much prefer having a hood available to keep my head warm, and this was a top priority acquisition.  Finally, I got new carbide tips for my much-used and well-loved Leki Makalu Trekking Poles.  The original tips came loose more than a year ago down in South America and I didn't even realize I could get new tips!  I was prepared to buy a whole new set of poles.

Great week, great progress.  I'm stoked to start this adventure!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Itinerary: The 'Yo-Yo' my way

In 2008, Brian 'Yo-Yo' Doble hiked the AT both ways (4352.4 miles) in 181 days.

I have decided to do a 'Yo-Yo' my way: hike the entire trail twice in one calendar year.  Yep, I'm doubling my challenge.  The logistics work better for me because I love day-hikes but don't have any interest in camping.  So I will essentially hike daily out-and-back legs and return to my vehicle at the end of every day, when possible.  (Some places with limited road crossings won't allow that so I'll have to spend some nights on the trail.)

Hike the whole AT by day hikes?  Yes, that's been done too, and there's a book about it.

I stopped in at the AT Conservancy office in Harper's Ferry on Friday and picked up a bunch of maps, books, and valuable info and have been doing some itinerary planning since then.  My basic design is to try to be at various parts of the trail during the optimum times (best weather conditions), so I'm splitting the trail up into about seven sections:
  1. I will start in Troutville, VA as near to January 1, 2012 as weather permits.  Troutville is near the southern end of the 300 mile section of AT that I've already done by day hikes.  I plan to re-do this 300 mile section last of all (see below).  From Troutville I will hike south toward the Smokies (encountering much higher altitudes and presumably more snow as I go south and winter melts into spring).  I will take zero days whenever the weather is lousy, particularly if there's more than a few inches of snow on the trail.  This long leg will end at Davenport Gap on the north border of Smoky Mountain Park.
  2. Move to Springer Mtn. - southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and hike north to Fontana Dam.  Depending on timing, I am likely to be in the thick of the fresh-starting NoBo thru-hikers, so I'll have a taste of that unique human environment.
  3. Weather permitting I'll hike Smoky Mountain National Park.  If it's not yet April 1st, I'll delay this section, coming back do it later in spring.  I want to hike the park when the road to Clingman's Dome is open.
  4. Skipping north beyond the 300 mile section of the AT that I've already hiked, I'll pick up the trail 20 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line in southern PA and hike north from there as far as I can go until July 1st.
  5. On July 1st or thereabouts (perhaps after a few days off the trail and back at the beach), I'll skip north to Hanover, NH and hike north from there to Katahdin (the northern termius of the Appalachian Trail).
  6. Return to Hanover, NH and head South from there to the point where I stopped on July 1st.
  7. Return to the north end of the section I hiked in 2009 and 2010 (Michaux State Forest, PA to Troutville, VA) and hike south to Troutville, completing the trail there hopefully some time in the late fall.
Sounds a little complicated, I know, but with my trusty vehicle accompanying me along the entire adventure, the logistics of the various legs should not be a big deal.

I'm in Maryland this weekend celebrating my son's 22nd birthday, and on the way north I put in 20 more miles on the AT (which gave me the excuse to stop in at Harper's Ferry).  I forgot to bring my camera cable with me, so I'll put in a post about that AT hike when I get back home later this week.  Fall colors were developing, and the weather was beautiful.  More later ...

Monday, October 3, 2011

Major gear decisions: going semi-"ultra-light"

Beginning to line up my gear and make the major basic decisions.  Any decision can be reversed once on the trail, but to begin, I'm going the ultra-light but mostly inexpensive route, following in the tradition of the legendary female senior-citizen three-time AT thru-hiker Emma 'Granny' Gatewood.  Here are the basic gear choices:
  • Backpack: I own a real workhorse of a mountaineering pack: Osprey Aeather 70, which is great for carrying huge loads (60 to 80 pounds) *very comfortably* up mountainsides from base camp to high camp. But it weighs five pounds empty. Instead I'm going to use my 1.5 pound 40 year old REI day pack shown above. I bought it at the REI store in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1970 or 71 and have used it on thousands of hikes and outings, yet it still has no tears or holes and is as comfortable as an old shoe. It has about 1/3 the capacity of my Aether 70, but with the other gear choices, it ought to be sufficient--will be testing it in advance, of course.
  • Sleeping bag: none!  I'll sleep in extra clothes on my Therma-Rest closed cell ground pad.
  • Tent:  Large size 11 ounce rain poncho will double as a tarp and tent on rainy or damp nights, otherwise I'll sleep cowboy-style (under the stars).  Beneath me I will use a simple shower curtain liner as a ground cover--inspired specifically by Granny Gatewood.
  • Speaking of old shoes:  I'll be using running/walking shoes (about two pounds)--will buy one new pair of trail running shoes but also have three pairs that have already walked the AT extensively, including some very rocky sections.  They work fine for me.
  • Cooking gear: none.  I'll be going entirely with cold food, including staples like peanut butter, Oreo coookies, and (yes!) Spam - there must be a little Hawaiian in me: I love the stuff :-)
  • Hydration:  No heavy Nalgene bottles - will be using the commercial half-liter water bottles made of minimal plastic.  Nalgene is great if you want to pour boiling water into it and mix stuff (or use it inside the sleeping bag to keep your feet warm on a frigid high-altitude night), but otherwise it's just excess packaging.  I am going to 'splurge' and carry a water pump/filter rather than the much lighter alternative of treatment tablets--want to enjoy the taste of the pure mountain water that is abundant along the AT.
  • Clothing:  One change only--still debating whether to carry heavy fleece vs. ultra-light down.  The latter loses loft when wet and could be the express route to hypothermia.  I may experiment with both during the cold early months.  Down will be the clear choice for temperatures below freezing, but when it comes to cold winter rains ... well, I've experienced what it's like to be under-dressed and soaked to the bone during 40 degree unrelenting rain on the AT, and it's not something I want to go through again!
  • Weight concessions:  I will be carrying my Garmin GPS and a decent Canon digital camera with 8x zoom.  Each weighs about a pound, but I'm a data freak and also want a good documentation of the experience.  I'll also carry paper and pen for field journal notes to be later transcribed to my digital journal here (and my personal journal, kept daily since 1979).
More details on gear will follow.  Meanwhile I continue to hike the beach daily here in NC.  In September I logged 250 total miles of beach hiking, walking the entire length of Topsail Island (26 miles) ten times.  The only problem with beach walking is that I'm actually beginning to miss the thru-hiker's bane: the PUD's - "Pointless Ups and Downs" that the AT is so notorious for.