This is the trip I became a backpacker.
I've only ever gone backpacking with the DC Ultralight meetup and never anything greater than 15 miles in a day. I'm 28, in pretty good shape, but never had the desire to do big miles. I spend a lot of time researching super athletes, their diet and mindset. So right around the time I'm researching ultra runners, Andrew Skurka comes to DC for a talk at the National Geographic building. Needless to say, we all left inspired, but this was the point where I decided to go for the the 20+ mile days.
So the DC Ultralight crew posts a 34 mile overnight trip and I'm all over it. Immediately I start getting my gear in order and go trail running. I figure if I can run 10 miles on the trail, I can hike 20 miles in a day. I'm also experimenting with my diet while running. In the end, I decided against gels and anything that contains maltodextrin. I think the Tarahumara have it right with their Pinole and Chia seeds. Try drinking a couple of glasses of chia fresca with honey and then go for a run, see how you feel. I think all athletes should be drinking sprouted chia seeds instead of electrolyte drinks. Sugar should be avoided by all athletes.
So the plan is to do a 34 mile loop on Tuscarora Trail's Southern half. Things didn't go to plan. We new it was going to rain all day Saturday and get down to the 30s at night. I bought two pieces of gear that saved me. The first was the Birdipal Lightflex umbrella. I cannot rate this high enough. Trail tested in 9 hours of rain where the trails turned into small rivers. This thing kept my core dry and survived the wind. I was the only one warm. My torso stayed dry and that made all the difference. The second key piece of gear was the montbell UL inner down jacket. This thing kept me warm when it got cold at night. Thank god the trash compactor bag kept it dry.
So eight of us head out. There's 3 guys I don't know, but I figure only serious guys would show up to a 34 mile overnight trip in the rain. I don't have to drive this time, which is a relief. When we get to the trail I have to pack my bag using a liner I got from the organizer. I also had to fuel up with Heet I picked up at a gas station on the way out. This was my first mistake. You should be packed and ready to go before you get in the car.
I leave my keys and cellphone in Bert’s car, so I don't have to worry about them on the trail. I also left my camera by mistake because it fell to the side of the seat. Bert, the driver, and I start up little devil stairs 5 minutes behind the rest of the group. It's raining, but at this point we're so excited to be out it's hardly noticeable. I'm pacing myself because the organizer likes to start these trips off with difficult elevation gains and I don't want to burn myself out. I've got my umbrella in one hand and my pole in another, and am dancing across fallen logs to get over the multiple river crossings we have to do going up the stairs. Bert is trying his best to follow me, which he should not be doing. I've got Inov8 212's which are performing flawlessly in these conditions and my balance if off the charts from over a year of serious yoga practice. He's got gortex hiking shoes and should be just walking through the overflown river. My feet are wet after 3 crossings. Each time I get a little ahead then worry about this guy trying to follow my path and hurt himself. So I stop a little ways up and watch him trying to trace my steps. I'm doing this with an umbrella in my hand and he's on his hands and knees. I'm having so much fun though I don't really care that he's slowing me down.
I start to get worried the rest of the group is too far ahead and my feet are already wet so I just walk through the water trying to speed this guy up. It doesn't matter because his glasses are all fogged up and stops to put his contacts in. So I get a little frustrated at this point and get out a head of him a bit. I see the organizer heading down the trail who's been waiting for us at the top. I'm happy because I thought these stairs were going to be about 3 times longer and am ready to speed it up.
So we get to the cross trail at the AT, Bert and another guy, let’s call him Ernie, break off to go dry out in the shelter north up the trail. The rest of us do a loop, because it's early afternoon and wanted to do some more hiking. There's parts of the trail that are knee high in water. We also see some lighting that makes me nervous. It wasn't a really enjoyable hike. It was really just seeing what our gear could stand up to. The other guys got soaked. My legs are soaked, but the umbrella kept my core dry so at least I stayed pretty warm.
When we get to the shelter it's full. Bert and Ernie are in there warm in their bags. We go to find a place to camp and the organizer makes it very clear to them to wait for us to come get them in the morning. The rain finally dies down around 9pm and we watch the sky clear. My pants are soaked and other than my long underwear bottoms, I don't have anything dry to put on. A couple other guys just left their pants on until they dried, but I'd already taken them off and was too cold to put them back on. I didn't have booties or camps shoes and didn't want to get my sleep socks wet, so I just hung out in my bare feet. I lasted until about 10:30 when I had to retire. In a moment of genius I decided to use my backpack liner around my legs and feet. Kept me toasty warm all night.
It was a confidence building day for me. It was the most prepared I've ever been for a trip and yet there were some moments I had to improvise. The zipper on my bag broke. I needed a pliers but just used my hands, even if it meant squeezing so hard to break my fingers. I had no problem keeping up with the other guys and was able to keep my spirits up despite being cold/wet.
This morning started off great with a rare cup of coffee and oatmeal. Everything dried out except my pants, so I hiked out in my long underwear. Someone goes to the shelter to get the other two guys and instead finds a note they went back to the car. Remember, they were given firm instructions to wait for us in the morning.
We take a quick easy route back to the cars. I'm starting to worry at this point because my keys are in Bert’s car and I don't have a lot of confidence that they can find their way back. When we get to the cars, they are not there. We wait an hour. We see a hot 40+ something french women in the parking lot about to go up devil stairs with her friend. I guess she stripped down to a g-string to get over the first crossing, but nobody mentioned to say hey come look at this. We figure Bert and Ernie must have retraced their steps from the previous day which meant going down the stairs. I'm thinking they are either hurt or lost and the start thinking how much it's going to cost me to break the window of his car.
We go into town to get some lunch. When we get back we see Ernie is in the parking lot. I’m relieved I can stop worrying at this point. I hear Bert is in the house next store for some reason. There's a cute dog that looks like a stray. I try to get in his truck but it's still locked. Some guy says Bert lost his keys on the trail. I'm in utter disbelief and ask if he's kidding. He tells me he's in the house trying to get a locksmith out. It's been one thing after another with this guy so I'm not surprised.
He says it's going to be another two hours before the locksmith gets out. Bert got a bowl of dog food and says he's going to take the dog home for his kids, so at least he gets something out of this trip. Someone says name the dog LD for little devil. A guy brings Bert in town so he can get enough cash to pay the locksmith. Then the other guys leave me behind with Bert, Ernie, and LD.
We wait two hours. The whole time I'm petting little LD. LD looks like he's been out a couple days and is real timid. The people in the house next door said people leave their pets out here all the time. The locksmith shows up and it's an old retired military guy who doesn't make me too confident by the looks of him. He gets all the paper work done and then I can tell he's hard of seeing by the way he's going about getting the car unlocked. He finally gets it unlocked and I'm relieved that I can grab all my stuff. I figure this guy is old and a little hard of seeing, but surely knows what he's doing.
The next step is to take out the cilynoid so he can make a key. He takes his sweet time about it. I see the hot french women and her friend coming from the other way having finished their loop. The french women is missing a shoe. I get to talking to her about barefoot running and turns out she's a DC native and goes to Billy Goat trails all the time. I know I can get a ride back with them but don't ask. I figured give the locksmith the benefit of the doubt and it felt like a completely selfish thing to do.
They leave. An hour and a half goes by and the locksmith gives up. He's going to give us all a ride in town to try and rent a car. I'm not thinking straight at this point. The other guy and I sit in the front seat of the utility van, Bert is on a chair in the back. We have to leave the dog. On the way out I cry a little but don't let anyone see. My one regret was not taking that dog with me. Maybe I couldn't have found a home for him and he'd have to be put down, but at least I'd know.
The locksmith gets us out to the highway. I'm nervous driving with him and a pretty upset at his incompetence. We get up the highway a bit and there’s a huge accident. The police have the road blocked off, so he turns us around and goes on side roads. The way this guys driving is not helping me keep my cool. He calls his daughter for directions. Then we stop and ask for directions. He's trying to take us to Warrington, VA. We call ahead to the rental car place, but it's 8pm on a Sunday night and they're closed. Finally he says he'll drop us off at the Walmart in Warrington. We get to Warrington and he can't find the Walmart. He turns around and decides to use his GPS this time. Finally we get to Walmart. I get out of the van and this is where I begin to break down.
Bert calls his wife to come pick us up at Walmart. I overhear some details about his wife and the car she's coming in that makes me think I'm not going to get out of Warrington. So I call my friend and no answer. I call again and no answer. Finally I get her on the phone and in a panic ask her if she'd come 45 miles out at 8:30 on a Sunday night to pick me and two other guys up to give us a ride to DC. She comes to the rescue.
Involving her in this was the last straw for me. We go out on the trails to be tested. Some of us find our breaking point after hard miles, or cold and wet nights. I found my breaking point at a Walmart in Warrington, Va.
So what can I take away from this trip? A good story? Maybe, I'm still not laughing about it. I'm definitely going to be more careful with who I hike with. I learned not to rely on any person or piece of gear. I learned I have friends who will come to my rescue. I learned that I'm a backpacker, that there is such thing as walking technique. I learned to always be myself, to hike your own hike. For me that means I'm doing yoga on the trail when I can, singing kirtan, and eating like a vegetarian endurance athlete. I also learned that if you're going to keep in good spirits you've got to have some junk food. In the future my trail diet will consist of healthy fuel and a variety of good snacks, but I'll still stay away from refined sugar.
Inov8 X-Talon 212
This was my first time hiking in these shoes. I've been trail running in them to train. While running I was disappointed. They gave me blisters and the toe is too narrow. I love the 6mm heal and the flexible sole. Hiking in these shoes is a dream. The grip is phenomenal and if you've done the prerequisite conditioning to transfer to a minimalist shoe I think these are a good first step. My only critique as a hiking shoe is they've got to put in a better tongue.
Bullet proof. This thing doesn't lock when opened, which confused me at first. If you get a wind gust it will slide down and close protecting the umbrella. Even if it does blow out, as it did me a couple times, it won't break. Trail tested and approved. Seriously awesome piece of gear.
Montbel UL Inner Down Jacket
When I first got this thing I honestly thought I got just the shell without the down in it. It kept me warm. For the size and wait, I'm happy and don't see a reason to upgrade to the parka.
Handy piece of gear. Performs well. Its a towel, hat, balaclava, and drys quick.
Osprey Exos 47
This pack is heavy but it has a lot of neat features once you learn how to use them. The stow and go is awesome. I wish the help belt was a bit beefier.
ExOfficio Boxer Briefs
My favorite piece of gear. If I did the gear of the year list these would be on my list every year.
Like I said, the 212's gave me blisters while running so I didn't want to take any chances. I got hydropel, moleskin, and leukotape. I made the mistake of putting the hydropel on first. When I put the leukotape on the first time it didn't seem like it was going to stay in place. I was real dissapointed but just went with it. After a day of walking through water, I was suprised to find the tape in place when I took my socks off. No blisters! This stuff gets stickier as the day goes on. It almost gets too sticky. Be careful leaving it on too long.
Trash Compactor Bag
Kept my gear dry and my feet/legs warm at night.
SS StarLyte Stove
Awesome little stove. Smaller than it looks in the picture.
Snow Peak 600
Quality piece of gear.
Bombproof. I little heavier than my liking, but has performed well with everything that's been thrown at it. If I ever get around to seem sealing, it would be perfect. Still performs without the seem sealing.
Rolls compact and is comfortable. Maybe not as warm as my prolight, but the compactibility really makes up for it. I like having space in my pack.
[b]Gear to Sell to Dummies[/b]
Montbell 40 Degree Sleeping Bag
Hate this bag. Zipper broke. Had too many cold nights in it. Quilts are the way to go. Not only is compressed insulation useless, but why have an uninsulated line down the side of bag?