I’m headed down to the Pennsylvania Appalachian Trail this spring to finish section hiking the state. It’s tough living in Massachusetts or New Hampshire and getting down south to finish the trail on section hikes, but I am shooting to finish the AT by the end of 2020 so I can start hiking some other shorter, long distance trails.
By March, I start to get cabin fever in New Hampshire, where I do most of my backpacking. The winter snow lasts well into May and it’s challenging to get out. But spring arrives earlier in the mid-Atlantic states, so I like to head down south each March or April and hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail. It’s still on the cold side in terms of temperature, but the snow is gone, and I prefer hiking the trail when it’s less crowded.
The pace of my section hiking the AT has fallen off in recent years because I fell in love with backpacking in New Hampshire when I started section hiking the state in 2009. But I finished a major hiking/backpacking milestone last July when I finished hiking all 608 trails in The White Mountain Guide (becoming the 36th finisher) and feel the time is right to get back to hiking the Appalachian Trail. I hope to finish my loose ends in Pennsylvania (180 miles), New Jersey (10 miles) and Maine (50 miles) this year, so I can finish the rest of Virginia in 2019 and wrap up the trail in 2020. Some November section hikes are not out of the question, when backpacking in New Hampshire gets too dark and cold to be much fun.
Part of my ritual preparation for long section hikes is figuring out what weather conditions I’m likely to encounter and modifying my gear list accordingly. I’ve been to this area before during the same time of year, so I know to expect:
- Near freezing temps at night
- Cold wind exposure, since the trees don’t have leaves yet
- Potential for all day rain
- Periods of sun and but lots of cool grey days
- Frequent resupply opportunities
I’m convinced that hammocks are the best shelter for hiking the Appalachian Trail because they give you maximum flexibility in terms of campsite location and the freedom to avoid noisy shelter mates. Hammocks are easy to pitch in the rain (tarp first) so your hammock and sleep insulation doesn’t get wet and there’s no shortage of trees to hang from.
While it’s true that cold weather hammocking is a bit bulky since you need a warmer top quilt, bottom quilt, and an extra wind protector (called a hammock sock), I sleep much more deeply in a hammock than I do on the ground and have come to prefer it over a ground-based shelter.
I carry a 55L Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 Backpack to accommodate my cold weather hammock insulation. In warmer weather, I switch to a lower volume (40L) version of the same pack. It’s not the lightest cuben fiber backpack you can buy, although it is one of the most durable. I also like the way it fits.
Stove, Cooking, Food
There’s nothing like a hot meal after a cold day of hiking and I have no issues with carrying a stove and pot to cook at night. I use Esbit fuel cubes to boil water, so my stove and cook pot weigh virtually nothing. Going stoveless in cold spring weather sounds utterly unappealing, to me at least. Most of my hot meals are GLOP based around wheat cereal, polenta, or pasta and quite easy to clean up. I prefer eating real food when I hike instead of “backpacking food”, which means I eat wheat bread, peanut butter, honey, cheese, and everyday foods on the trail. It’s also easy to resupply even in crappy gas station marts and convenience stores.
The biggest change in my hiking gear over the past few years has been in the area of electronics. I used to carry a big bag of extra batteries, all in different sizes, for different devices including my camera, headlamp, cell phone, and satellite communicator. They’ve all been replaced by a single battery recharger which I top off in town. That really simplifies things.
All my clothes are also tick-resistant and have been treated with Insect Shield or Permethrin. Lyme disease is no joke and is the most dangerous thing on the AT, as far as I’m concerned. I haven’t caught it yet and don’t plan to.
The only other condition I pack for specifically is rain, which is impossible to avoid on the AT. You’re going get wet, either from rain or sweat, but the thing I dread most is being cold and wet. I’ve packed some rain mitts I picked up this year, in addition to my NON-breathable and inexpensive rain jacket (with pit zips) and my regular non-baggy rain pants. I thought about bringing some of the rain jackets I want to review this spring, but decided against it since this is supposed to be a vacation.
The weight of my section hiking gear list comes out to be just under 15 pounds. It’s definitely not ultralight, but then again it’s hard to break the 10 pound limit in early spring when it’s so cold at night. The weight of my gear list really depends on the season more than anything. I’m a strong hiker and a couple of extra pounds aren’t going to slow me down.
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