Here are some photos and notes from a trip I took way back over the Memorial Day weekend earlier this year. I haven't been doing a lot of internetting recently, and I don't seem to have the time or skills to get the photos and the narrative all in one place. Sorry about that.
Photos here if I did the html tag properly.
(got it on the second try thanks to Greg).
I did the narrative by theme instead of chronologically, mostly because it was months ago, I didn't keep notes, and it's a little jumbled.
Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail winds for 70 miles along a patchwork of mostly public land in the foothills of the Alleghenies, starting at Ohiopyle State Park in the south and ending near Johnstown, PA in the North. Hiking this trail was one of the goals I set for myself after I started running and getting in better shape last summer. With family obligations and not much time off work I looked at the three day Labor Day weekend as a window of opportunity.
This was my first time out for more than one night, and my first time doing 20+ mile days. Talking to people about it afterwards I had a hard time finding anything on the trip that was actually, you know, "fun", but that doesn't mean I'm not glad I did it. It was a physical challenge and a test of skills and gear I've been reading and daydreaming about way too much compared to how much I actually get out.
The absolute high point of the trip for me was finishing the second day in the middle of a terrific thunderstorm. Thunder had started rumbling as I sat eating dinner along the trail, but it hadn't made up its mind about storming by the time I headed out on the last leg. A quarter of a mile later the storm hit. It got dark like the sun had gone down, trees were thrashing in the wind, rain was going every direction, and the trail ran like a stream. It was as strong a summer storm as I've seen in 10 years except this time I wasn't watching it from inside the house. I kept muttering a litany of ways I could die in a thunderstorm, but I couldn't think of a reason to do anything other than keep warm by hiking through it to the campsite. I made it safely there and set up my shelter in the midst of the storm. The coolness was a huge relief from the heat and sweat of the day, the noise and wind were terrifying and exhilarating, and finishing it with a warm comfortable night felt like a real achievement.
Sadly, I didn't get many "aaah!" moments on this trip. The eastern woodlands, which used to look very alien to this west coast native, have lost their novelty. The densely forested hills provided occasional views, but those were few and far between. I was very glad to be outside and on my own, but the physical challenge aspect of this trip overwhelmed any intent I had to relax and absorb nature.
A few things do stick out. The rock formations were splendid. At a few points along the trail these big slabs sticking out of the sides of steep were cracked by sidewalk width fissures into blocks the size of shipping containers. The paths between them were mossy and cool and felt almost like masonry ruins. I passed some taller formations, cliffs I guess, but didn't have the inclination or climbing gear to go explore them properly (a woman fell to her death from a similar cliff this year).
The first part of the trail was characterized by open woodlands with dense fern ground cover, and at one point the light was coming in at just the same angle as the ferns leaned resulting in some striking diamond shape shadows. The mild winter left a lot last fall's dried leaves on the ground and these were crawling with little black beetles and inch worms which made rustling sounds like rain falling. I saw a lot of deer fences in the hunting reserves but only one very nervous deer and not much other wildlife.
For water treatment I carried micropur chlorine dioxide tablets, and probably should have brought more than 20. The plan was for six liters per day, plus two backup, supplemented by a few potable taps along the way. For storage I had two one-liter gatorade bottles. I also took some electrolyte tablets. It was pretty hot, highs up to 90 F, very humid, and I was working hard and sweating a lot.
The first day of the trail follows the ridge line pretty closely, so water is pretty scarce if you stay on the trail. I tanked up on the drive out, skipped the Rte 651 pump at mile five, and made it eight more miles to the pump at Rte 271 (passing two dry marked streams) for my first refill. I drank two liters there, refilled, and went another 11 miles to the pump at the Rte 30 campsite. In camp I treated my last two budgeted liters and boiled an extra half liter.
The next day was just as hot, but the trail came down off the ridge a little and I started seeing some small streams. I refilled in the morning, and after eight miles I had the option to detour into a campsite to pump water, but I opted to press on and try my luck at two upcoming marked streams, which worked fine. At this point streams were common enough, but I was low on tablets. After four more miles and lunch I refilled two liters, counting on that to get me to the potable tap seven and a half miles farther. That's where I ate dinner, tanked up, and took two liters with me for the night.
On the third day after the rain storm there was no problem finding water, but the streams were a little muddy. I did the first six miles on my left overs from the night before, drank and refilled at the final potable tap (when I finally found it). I don't remember the exact water spots, but I drank and treated liberally from that point on and made it to the end of the trail with no tablets and one liter left.
Breakfast the first day was a bacon and egg sandwich on a freshly baked bagel and a big coffee from the Ohiopyle bakery. I had two dehydrated dinners, a fettuccine alfredo side dish with a packet of salmon (I forgot to bring parmesan), and a mountain house chili-mac. For breakfast, lunch, and snacks I brought six energy bars, a couple of of pounds of nuts and dried fruits, eight ounces of something very close to Clelland! super spackle, and three big slim jims, very close to 4.5 lbs total, or 1.5 lb per day.
Based on how I was sweating and what tasted good I should have brought more salty stuff. The dinners tasted great and the slim jims were surprisingly good. The spackle didn't last long either, but the energy bars, the fruits, and the (unsalted) nuts especially were not appetizing by the end of the trip. I didn't finish the pecans. I was actually surprised that my appetite was not greater by the end of the trip, and I had a hard time finishing my celebration burger at the end. A goal for next trip is to bring some stronger and more varied flavors.
--Backpack and total load--
For a backpack I carried a Flash 18 modified with an extension collar made from the cinching half of a 10 liter stuff sack. Call it the Flash 23 if you like. Last summer I did an overnight with basically the same equipment in an unmodified Flash 18, but had zero extra capacity and ended up attaching bits to the outside. With the extra space at the top I had room for everything to go inside along with the extra day and a half of food and a light fleece pullover.
With two liters of water and hiking poles strapped on the whole package was just under 20 pounds. Subtracting food and water, and not counting some pocket items, base weight was about 11 pounds. The extension collar made the weight carry a little too high, and by the end of the first day my shoulders were feeling a little sore. On the second day with a lot of the food gone weight and bulk in the pack were no longer an issue. By the time I finished I was cinching the cords I added to the daisy chains to compress the pack.
I wore Salomon trail runners, can't remember the model, with chunky non-minimalist soles, more or less breathable body, and light synthetic running socks. My feet got a little beat up.
Not long into the first day I started getting pain along the inside bottom of my left foot, but this went away by the end of the second day (and a couple ibuprofen). By the end of the first day blisters developed on both feet where the top of the shoes rubbed against the ankles, and I got a hot spot inside my left heel. I tried applying moleskin the second morning. That fixed the heel but rubbed off the ankles right away. Duct tape over the ankles worked longer, but didn't last. My toes were feeling a little battered too by the end of the third day especially after the steep two mile descent.
After the hike I found a small blister between two toes and bruising under one toenail. I experienced constant foot dampness despite daily breaks to sit down and air them out. This makes it sounds like I need new shoes, but compared to what my feet looked like five years ago after my first ten miles in boots, this is all filed under "mere annoyance".
--Sleeping and shelter system--
My sleeping system consists of an REI Travel Down 45 bag, REI Minimalist bivy, and cut down 3/8 inch blue foam torso pad. For shelter I use a Sea to Summit silnylon poncho tarp. I actually slept out three nights counting Friday night when I drove in. It was hot and humid but happily bug free after dark (permethrin treatment on clothes may have helped).
The first night, in clean dry clothes and with forecasts for dry weather I pitched a lean-to with the tarp and just lay down on the bivy sack with the pad and bag inside. I fell asleep a little, woke up chilly, zipped in the bivy but on top of the bag, and slept well.
The second night, in sticky sweaty clothes and not having a weather update I pitched a high A frame and lay down on the bivy next to it to, trying to dry out. After hissing at some racoon sounding critters and drifting off a little I starting having some mouse sized critters rustling around my head and onto the bivy, so I changed into my light long underwear and got in the bvy. After sleeping a bit, something snuffly and bear-sounding started snapping big sticks off in the direction of my food bag. I jumped up and shined my flashlight around until the sounds wandered bear sounds went away (no sight of anything) I got some more sleep half under the bag.
The third night I set up camp in the middle of the thunderstorm, pitching a low A frame between a big tree at one end and my crossed hiking poles at the other. Site selection was easy because there were already puddles or streams in all the low spots, and the spot I found was sheltered on two sides by the big tree and a fallen log. I stuffed pad, bag, and dry clothes in the bivy and then sat on it while awkwardly changing clothes. This worked out great for sleeping. The storm cooled everything off, the rain washed away the day's sweat, and I ended up pleasantly warm in the bag wearing my long underwear, hat, and smartwool socks. My light fleece pullover was not needed for insulation and made a decent pillow. By morning there was minimal condensation in the bivy, and significant spray on the exterior at the foot of the bivy.
Thanks for reading, and don't forget to check out the photos. Thanks to absolutely everyone here for all the great technical discussions and awesome trip reports.