Trip Report: Packing for the Appalachian Trail

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Preparing for your first thru-hike

Cutting Weight, Training, and Meal Planning for 30 Days on the Trail

When I was a little girl my absolute favorite book was My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. The book describes the odyssey of a young boy who runs away from home and learns to thrive in the wilderness. He captures a pet hawk who hunts for him, fashions his own fishing equipment, and makes a house with a deerskin door. I would listen to my parents read me this story snuggled into my blankets at night picturing myself sewing my own shoes, hunting for survival, and living off the land. I didn’t know what it meant to be “off-grid” but I was already fantasizing about it.

I was seven years old when I started coming to Colorado for a week every summer to visit my aunt and uncle. They took me camping, hiking, and bought me my first compass. I was in love. I would fill my fanny pack to the brim with rocks I collected along the trail and snap roll after roll of film. At the ripe age of 16 I finally had my first backpacking experience, 14 days on the Appalachian Trail with the North Carolina Outward Bound School, that ultimately transformed me into the woman I am today. At first it was difficult and miserable. I was cold, wet, and homesick, and my pack weighed more than 50% of my body weight. It wasn’t until about halfway through the trip that I realized that I was overcoming these challenges and felt confident in myself and proud for the first time in my life.

Now, 11 years later I’m setting out to do it all over again! This July I will embark on the Appalachian Trail for 30 days and I couldn’t be more excited.  I’ve spent 9 months preparing for this trip; reading endless gear reviews, making my list over and over again, and taking longer and longer training hikes. I’ve learned quite a bit preparing for this trek and in this article I hope to share some of those tips with you. Who the heck am I and why are you reading this article in Heather’s journal? My name is Kayleen Cohen and I’m the graphic designer for Heather’s Choice. I hand traced each topographic map and created every label you see on the packaging today and Heather was gracious enough to allow me to share my story with you.

Many of you will have exponentially more backcountry experience than I do and I encourage you to comment below and share any additional wisdom you may have for me. This article will be the most valuable for anyone preparing for their first thru-hike or extended section hike. If you’re like me, clamoring for every backcountry how-to article you can find, this article is for you. Here’s to many healthy and happy trips!

Plan for the Trip You’re Taking. Not the Trips You Plan to Take

This was by far the most expensive lesson that I had to learn. When I started buying gear for the Appalachian Trail I figured I’d purchase equipment that would be functional for all of my future backpacking trips. The problem is that said “future” backpacking trips will be with my partner and two dogs. Not solo on the AT. I bought a two man tent, a Jetboil stove, a 2 liter water filtration system, and other pieces of gear that would be perfect if split between two adults, but added up to a startling 27 pound base weight when stuffed into one pack. (If 27 pounds doesn’t sound like an intimidating base weight for you, then just picture yourself as a 120 pound woman for a few minutes and trust me, it’s intimidating).

If I was packing for a 3-5 day trip, I probably would have just accepted the weight, but we’re talking about a 30 days on the trail. I need my base weight to be more manageable for my small frame so I don’t risk injury. Ultimately, I had to replace several essential pieces of gear with lighter one man versions. I switched to an ultra-light one man tent and cut 2.5 pounds from my pack. I also replaced my Jetboil with an alcohol stove and cooking pot and switched from a 2 liter gravity water filter to a Sawyer Mini. With these changes and several more described below I was able to reduce my base weight to a reasonable 21 pounds.

Pack Your Pack and Pack it Again

Once I had finally purchased all of the gear for my trip, I stuffed it all into my 65 liter pack and headed out for a 6 mile training hike. When I came home feeling absolutely crushed, I had to face the reality of two important lessons; this sucker is going to be heavy and there are definitely more intelligent ways to pack the contents of my pack. I’ve spent the last few weeks packing and re-packing my bag to experiment with different arrangements and to figure out what feels the most comfortable. I’ve moved my food sack toward the bottom of my bag, along with my stove, and learned to keep lunch at the top and snacks in my hip belt. I’ve separated the components of my tent to keep lighter items, like the rain fly, toward the top and heavier items, like my poles, toward the bottom.

I read tons of articles describing the ‘best ways to load your pack’ and at the end of the day it seems as though everyone does it a little differently. I would highly recommend experimenting with different arrangements of your gear. Figure out what feels the most natural on your body. This is also good practice from a time management perspective. It took me upwards of an hour to load my pack a few weeks ago, now it takes me just a few minutes.

This little experiment also forced me to decide which luxury items are worth the weight and which ones will stay at home. As I mentioned above, I did replace my tent, stove, and water filtration systems with lighter options, but I’ve decided to keep the weight of my 4 pound goose down sleeping bag. Yes, it’s a little heavier than would be ideal, but it’s oh so fluffy and warm, and for me, it’s worth it. I’ll be using a closed cell sleeping pad instead of an inflatable pad, so the extra cushion is welcome. I also know that I’m a cold sleeper (especially without my usual tent mates) so having a 20 degree bag won’t be excessive for me.

Other luxury items that went to the chopping block? Taking the advice of several friends currently on the Appalachian Trail I’m replacing my raincoat and pack cover with an ultra-light poncho. I’ll look a little silly, but this exchange will save me weight and space in my pack. I also removed my journal and pen. This was a hard one for me, as I was really looking forward to scrawling my musings across the crisp lined pages, but since I am already carrying a 6oz charging block for my phone, I’ll just have to journal using two finger technology.

Say Goodbye to All the Stuff Sacks

I’m an organization queen! I think that’s part of the reason I’m so drawn to backpacking, because of the list making and preparation required to have positive experience. I bought myself a pack of groovy rectangular stuff sacks, thinking myself quite the genius, and loaded everything into my pack. As a part of my purge from 27 pounds to 21 pounds I read an extremely helpful article that suggested eliminating stuff sacks and even the brain of your pack. This was all very frightening to me, as I assumed I would need all of the compartments to stay organized, but ultimately cutting the stuff sacks and removing the brain cut about 8 ounces from my pack and allowed me to compress everything into a tighter space. I’m still keeping one mini stuff sack for my toiletries and medical supplies, a dry sack for my food, and a compression sack for my sleeping bag.

Research Water Needs for your Trip

I have been doing the majority of my training hikes here in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. It’s an extremely dry climate out here and I carry a minimum of 3 liters of water on every day hike I do. (Keep in mind I also share water with my two dogs if we aren’t hiking by a stream.) I was convinced that I would need my 3 liter Camelback on the Appalachian Trail. (That’s 9 pounds of water!) After spending more time talking to my friends on the trail they have convinced me that I’ll need a maximum of 1 liter of water at a time. I’ve decided to go with two collapsible .5 liter water bottles and a Sawyer Mini for my filtration system. Obviously reducing your water capacity is not an option for thru-hikers in many parts of the country, but my suggestion is to thoroughly research the availability of water on your specific trip and outfit yourself accordingly.

Training: Do your Best and Embrace it

Let me start by saying that I am not a lifelong athlete, in fact, fitness is a relatively new part of my routine. If you’ve played sports your entire life, and you’ve been a Crossfit athlete for half a decade, you’re a heck of a lot more prepared for this type of physical challenge than I am. I was a yearbook nerd for ten years and couldn’t run a mile if you paid me. Since moving to Colorado about five years ago I’ve finally started to get my butt in gear with regular hikes and runs with my pups. Since determining about 9 months ago that I would embark on a 30 day journey I’ve been continuously ramping up my training. I joined a local gym and started building muscle from ground zero and challenging myself to take longer and longer day hikes.

Despite all this effort, I still know that nothing I do will adequately prepare me for the challenge of covering 17+ miles a day with 30 pounds on my back. I will ache, my feet will hurt, and it will be utterly exhausting, but that’s why I’m doing it right? To overcome the challenge? Not to mention the views! My advice for anyone training for a thru-hike or extended section hike is to train to the best of your ability, and embrace that it will still be challenging and humbling when the time comes.

Create a Custom High-Calorie Meal Plan

Researching gear and honing in on an ideal base weight is loads of fun if you’re an OCD backcountry planner like me! Even the physical training is fun, but by far the most daunting part of preparing for the Appalachian Trail for me has been meal planning. I have some sensitive dietary needs. I’m dairy-free and like to emphasize protein in my diet over grains. My goal is to accommodate a 4,000 calorie a day diet without adding too many pounds to my base weight. That’s why I’m so grateful that I’m in the know about Heather’s Choice. I compared Heather’s Choice to other popular backpacking foods and found that her meals contain more calories per ounce than any other product on the market. Plus, they satisfy my need for dairy-free meals with copious amount of delicious protein.

Click here to read expert advice from Heather Kelly on meal planning for the backcountry and stay tuned for my next post in July. I will be sharing a complete 4,000 calorie a day backcountry menu for a 3-5 day trip using Heather’s Choice meals and supplemental snacks.

Be sure to signup for our email list and follow us on Facebook or Instagram for updates!

See you out there on the trail!

Kayleen

Adventures

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