Thursday, January 27, 2022

Thru Stories: That Time I Didn’t Go Hypothermic Because I Had Already Gone Hypothermic


Jack and I entering Baxter.  2003 was so long ago
everything was in Black and White. 

Note: while NHTM is for the most part a (hopefully) humorous blog, hypothermia is no joke.  Please avail yourself of the helpful links in this story to learn more about it.  I’ve also included some unhelpful links if you just want a laugh.

“Good judgement comes from experience.  And experience?  Well, that comes from bad judgement.”

There may be people who are good at learning from experience, but generally speaking that’s not true of me.  Hell, I’ve completed seven long hikes on six trails and I still haven’t figured out that I don’t particularly like walking.  But every once in a while — usually when I almost die — I am not The Boy Who Doesn’t Learn.

This story is one of those whiles.

In 2008 I was hiking the PCT and found myself in Washington State rather late in the Fall.  I'd like to say that this was due to a late start date or severe injury or at least the vague catchall phrase “circumstances beyond my control.”  But if I’m honest the real reasons would include the also-kind-of-vague but not as self-absolving “having way too much fun in California.”

Rough (but normal) conditions in Washington

In any case, Washington State was doing what Washington State does late in the Fall — dropping the temps, dropping cold rain, dropping the snowline.  And in the process, dropping my core temperature.  The last couple of weeks were a town-to-town slog, pushing big miles to get to the next resupply before EVERYTHING was soaking wet.  And constantly considering the fine line between uncomfortable and dangerous.

I was a couple of days North out of White Pass hiking solo on a cold and rainy day when I arrived at Chinook Pass.  And the thing about Chinook Pass is: there are very nice bathrooms there that would be excellent to sleep in.  And by this point in the hike, sleeping in a warm, dry bathroom was definitely an attractive option.  However, even though by this time I was walking to the rhythm of my teeth chattering, it seemed too early in the day to stop.  So on I pushed, into a wet, foggy day that was getting wetter and foggier as I hiked.

Chinook Pass, where I didn't sleep in a bathroom.

I was aiming for Government Meadow and Mike Ulrich Cabin.  Much like a bathroom, the cabin would provide shelter from the elements.  In addition it had a wood stove, and hopefully also had the hikers who had left Packwood the day before me.

But at a certain point it was getting dark, the temperature was dropping further, and the fog was so thick I could no longer guarantee that I could stay on trail and end up at Government Meadow.  More importantly, I was feeling the beginnings of the onset of hypothermia.  I was only a couple of miles away from a warm, dry cabin.  It was tempting to push on.  What to do?

Decision time.  Fortunately not a last known photo.

Foremost in my mind at that point was my poor decision making a few years earlier in 2003.  Some friends were finishing their AT Thru-hikes, and I joined them for the 100 Mile Wilderness and Katahdin.  This was probably my first bad decision.  Have you ever tried to get off the couch, brush the Cheez-Its off your chest, and keep up with Thru-hikers finishing a trail?  It seemed effortless for them; for me it seemed like something I had been sentenced to by a particularly cruel Judge.  Every part of me ached for every minute and by the end I had trench foot and a simmering distrust of my friends who said it would be AMAZING.

2003 was a particularly rainy year on the AT, and that Fall in Maine was no exception.  It was late on a cold, rainy day when I left East Branch Lean-To — where some of the crew I was hiking with were now safely tucked into their sleeping bags — and pushed on to meet Baltimore Jack at Cooper Brook Falls Lean-To.  Those hikers looked warm and dry at East Branch.  I wanted desperately to stay.  But I had told Jack I’d meet him, and I didn’t want him worrying about me (or worse — backtracking in the bad weather trying to find me).  So on I hiked, after one last jealous glance back at those done for the day.

Cooper Brook Lean-To in 2015.  Note the obligatory
mystery underwear hanging on the wall.

It was only about 8 miles to the shelter.  Doable, and I thought I was moving pretty fast in the cold & wet.  At a certain point, though, I stopped to get water and eat a snack.  I sat down, shivering.  I took my gloves off.  I continued to sit.  In the cold.  In the rain.  I lost feeling in my hands.  I stopped shivering.  Something in me snapped me out of the fog I had fallen into and told me I had to move.  I got up and started walking, but I didn’t put my gloves back on.  It was dark now, but I decided that getting my headlamp out of my pack would take too long.  This had the effect of slowing me down dramatically as it continued to rain, and eventually led to me blowing right past the blue blaze that marked the side trail to the shelter.

But only a hundred yards past it, as the trail went uphill to the left, that same thing that snapped me out of my previous stupor told me I had passed the shelter.  I worked my way backwards, straining in the dark to see the blue blaze.  I eventually found it, and made my way down to the shelter.

There was a lot of scary stuff happening in the last two paragraphs, but by this time I didn’t have the wherewithal to realize it.

Fortunately, Jack was at the shelter (which I realized afterwards wasn’t guaranteed).  And from this point on I have no memory of what happened, and have to rely on Jack’s telling of the tale.

He said that I stumbled into the shelter, dropped my pack, sat on the deck, and proceeded to do nothing.  Just sat there staring at nothing.  Jack asked me what I was doing and I mumbled, “just resting for a minute.”

Jack said that at that point he realized from my behavior and my condition that I was showing signs of being deep enough into hypothermia that he needed to spring into action.  He started ordering me around, starting with telling me to get out of my wet clothes.  Which I couldn’t do.  So he got me undressed and into my long underwear and then into my (fortunately) dry sleeping bag.  He boiled water, put it in a Nalgene, and had me place it in my armpit.  He fed me hot stew and then some warmed water.  And he kept me awake through all of that.

Eventually the grogginess lifted and I remember being in my sleeping bag with no idea how I got there.  Jack hovering over me, talking to me and looking at me with concern.  Gradually I regained full mental function.

Now that I think about it, my friends would probably dispute whether I ever have full mental function.  “You can’t regain something you’ve never had!”  But at least I was thinking relatively clearly again.  I believe that at the point he started treating me I was somewhere in the middle of HT II (moderate hypothermia) and spiraling downward.  Did I die?  That I’m writing this would suggest no.  On the other hand, there’s a fair amount of evidence that I’m such a stubborn person that maybe I did die and have been choosing to ignore that fact for the past 19 years.

But I’m pretty sure I’m alive.  And there’s little doubt in my mind that if Jack hadn’t been there — or if he didn’t know what to do — I wouldn’t be.  Instead of dying I got a harsh lesson about the limits of my expertise, and the urge to make sure I never put myself in that position again.

Then in 2008 in Washington State I went right ahead and put myself in that position again.

But not exactly.

This time, I was aware of what was happening.  I had been monitoring my hand dexterity all day.  I knew the signs and symptoms to look for — I was on top of “the umbles.”  And as I did mental checks on my condition my goal was to (if necessary) catch hypothermia in the mild stage when I could self-treat and arrest the progression.  In other words, do all of the things Jack had done for me back in ’03 in Maine when I could no longer help myself.

So did I hike on towards Government Meadow?


Government Meadow from Ulrich Cabin.

My headlamp was bouncing off the thick fog and I couldn’t see a thing.  In fact, the next day I found out I had passed a tent about five feet off the trail without seeing it.  I was shivering, and my hand dexterity had degraded to the point that if I waited to set my tent up much longer I didn’t think I’d be able to.  A warm, dry cabin was definitely a better place to end up, but I suspected that I might not end up there.  So while I still had my wits about me I set up my tent, stripped out of my wets, got into my dry long underwear, and slid into my sleeping bag.  I cooked a hot meal in my vestibule — not ideal, but I wasn’t going to do it in the cold rain — and then warmed up some water to drink.  At no time did I fall into the deep mental fog that affected me in 2003, but I had felt a bit addled and it took me a while to warm up.  I believe stopping when I did was the smart move.

Tex, Karen, and I drying out at Ulrich Cabin

The next day I did my shortest day on the trail — about three miles to Ulrich Cabin.  I was joined by Tex and Karen, whose tent I had passed in the fog.  We decided to bag further hiking for the day, chop some wood, and spend the day recovering by the wood stove and drying our gear and clothing.  It was a good day, and it was a smart move.

And when I made it to Snoqualmie Pass 46 miles later, I got a room at The Summit Inn and sat in their hot tub for two hours.  Which might have been the smartest move of all.

Heading to Snoqualmie.  Post-crisis but pre-hot tub.

(for another story about what happened in my tent that night in 2008, click HERE)

Thanks to Andi Lowry for the inspiration to get off my metaphorical butt and write this story down (I was on my actual butt when I wrote it).

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

All Of The Mountain House Memes

My hiking partners and I have a running joke about what Mountain House meals do to my gastrointestinal system, and what my gastrointestinal system does to my pants and everyone around me as a result.  It's the sort of thing that makes me happy I already had a trail name before this came up.

With thanks to David Vitti!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Fecal Matters: Four Short Hiking Stories

As this year draws to a close I realize that I only spent about twelve days in the woods, and I was thinking about all of the things I missed most about it: the immersion in nature, the enjoyment of physical exertion in fresh air, the feeling of freedom, the views.  But as I imagine is the case with pretty much everyone, the thing I missed most about backpacking was, of course, talking about poop.

And seeing as I also imagine that you — if you didn’t get out on trail much — missed listening to people talk about poop, I decided it might be nice to metaphorically dig a 6-8” hole and drop some stories in it.  Enjoy!

Appalachian Trail 2000: “The Jewish People Figured This Out Thousands Of Years Ago”

Many of the Shelters in the Smokies now have privies, but there was a time in the not-too-distant past when none of them did, on the theory that dispersed pooping done during the course of the hiking day was a better management plan than concentrating use at a privy that would have to be maintained. Unfortunately that plan didn’t really work all that well, and each shelter ended up with a nearby “Poop Hill” that in some cases seemed uncomfortably close to the water source. And maybe that still would have been okay too, if not for all of the people who decided that carrying a trowel and digging an actual cathole was unnecessary. What you ended up with was a surface dookie minefield at every shelter, replete with white TP warning flags blowing in the wind.

Smokies shelters were generally pretty gross
even without the Poop Hill.

But that’s all background. The important part of this story is that I always carry a book with me hiking. ALWAYS. And I don’t limit myself to short books like a person with common sense would do. I read Lonesome Dove on the CDT (900+ pages). I read Shogun on the PCT (1100+ pages). Reading is such a part of my in-camp routine that I find it difficult to get to sleep if I don’t read at night.

So you can imagine my dismay when, shortly before entering the Smokies in 2000, I had finished a copy of The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper and had nothing to read. Fortunately some well-meaning religious person had left a copy of the Bible in a shelter, and I thought to myself, “well, I’ve never read THAT the whole way through before.”

I suppose it was serendipity that on the same day I experienced my first “Poop Hill” I was up to Deuteronomy in the Bible and came across this passage in Chapter 23:

“Thou shalt have a place also without the camp, whither thou shalt go forth abroad:
And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee:
For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee; therefore shall thy camp be holy: that he see no unclean thing in thee, and turn away from thee.”

Right there in the Bible: directions for digging a cathole.

And from that point on I did two things: I wrote the text of Deuteronomy 23:12-14 in all of the Shelter Registers until I left the Smokies — with a note that said “God wants you to bury your poop.”  And for the rest of my hike whenever someone asked me where I was going with TP and trowel in hand, I responded, “going to ease myself abroad.”

Pacific Crest Trail 2008: “I Blame This Decision On The Hypothermia I Didn’t Have”

I suffered from a bout of full-blown hypothermia while in Maine in the fall of 2003, and I was (I thought) justifiably paranoid about it in the fall of 2008 as I hiked through a cold and rainy fall season on the Pacific Crest Trail. And so it was that on Day 2 out of Packwood I was hiking alone in a cold rain monitoring myself for the Umbles and doing hand dexterity tests as I hiked. Dreading the idea of setting up my already wet tent in the rain, I briefly considered pulling up short and sleeping in a trailhead bathroom at Chinook Pass before deciding to push on towards my goal for the day: Camp Ulrich at Government Meadow.

Almost slept in a bathroom near here.

Camp Ulrich was the goal because there was a cabin with a wood stove there, and hopefully other hikers. It was 23 miles from Chinook Pass to Camp Ulrich, though, and as I slogged along it started getting dark. My progress slowed as my headlamp bounced ineffectually off a thick fog that set in. I was losing steam fast with about four miles to go and I realized I was getting slightly addled. Not wanting to risk missing Camp Ulrich in the pea-soupy darkness, I decided to bag the plan, set up camp, and do my best to ward off the early signs of hypothermia I felt setting in.

The cold rain continued coming down as I got my tent set up. I got into dry clothes and into my sleeping bag. I cooked in my vestibule. I made a Nalgene hot water bottle that I put in my armpit. And after eating I settled in to sleep wishing I had made it to the cabin while thinking I had made a solid decision not to try.

And then: I had to poop.

My brain still wasn’t firing on all cylinders but I knew I wasn’t going out there in my dry sleeping clothes and I also didn’t want to put the wets back on. Conundrum. Naked? Should I go out there naked? Is that what you do in this situation? I took a look outside and it was sleeting. Suddenly I realized that those stories you hear about finding dead hypothermia victims in various states of undress might be due to them simply needing to poop, and I was not going down like that. So I did the only other thing I could think of:

I pooped into a gallon Ziploc freezer bag.

Somewhere in this photo is a well-hidden bag of crap.
It's like a smelly version of Where's Waldo. 

The next day I rolled into Camp Ulrich early in the morning and called it -- it was a short mileage day but I needed to recover and dry out my gear.  Tex and Karen showed up (I had unknowingly passed their tent in the dark the night before) and they decided to stay as well.  We got a good fire going in the stove, and I am happy to report that as I spread all of my gear out to dry they did not notice — and I did not have to explain — the freezer bag full of poop that I would carry for another 46 miles before getting rid of it at Snoqualmie Pass.

Continental Divide Trail 2012: “The Cow Dung Trail”

"Can I . . . Can I get some of that water?  No?  Okay."

If you hike the Continental Divide Trail you’ll notice that a fair amount of your experience revolves around cows. You hike through BLM land leased to ranchers. You go over and under barbed wire cattle fences. You get water from windmill-driven wells that are there for the moo rather than you. You’ll probably accidentally spook a herd at least once, and you’ll definitely get comfortable with cow shit. Because all of the places you might like to rest are also the places cows like to rest, and the places that cows like to rest are also the places that cows like to poop. I have taken naps laying directly on crap more times than anyone really should.

One of the other things about the CDT is that it’s not always as well marked as you’d like, so it’s not unusual for hikers to occasionally build piles of rocks for the friends behind them at particularly tricky navigational spots. They're not the “artistic” rock stacks made by people with the hubris to think they arrange rocks better than nature does.  They're just helpful and boring directional cairns that are normally pretty unremarkable.

At a certain point you don't even really notice the poop.

Almost out of New Mexico, we were eagerly headed for Ghost Ranch and the cafeteria at Ghost Ranch (which had the food at Ghost Ranch) on a dirt road that we can call that only if we’re being charitable with our definition of “road.”  We had taken a break a few minutes earlier and checked our maps while stopped, so we knew that the trail took a hard right off the road at some point. Eventually we found the turn at a fenceline, but would we have been looking for it if we hadn't just checked our maps?  Possibly, but maybe not.  It was unmarked and a classic spot to build a cairn, but the problem was there were no rocks. At all.  What to do?  We could wait for our friends behind so they didn’t miss the turn. That was certainly a short-term solution, but what about friends a day or two behind? And more importantly, what about the food at Ghost Ranch? Would the food at Ghost Ranch still be there if we waited? Probably, but maybe not. And even if the food was still there, it felt like cutting into Ghost Ranch food eating time was more of a sacrifice than anyone should reasonably expect from us.

So looking around and considering our options, we did what anyone who had hiked through most of New Mexico would think was completely normal: we made a cow pie cairn.

It was a perfect directional marker, because you definitely noticed it. You didn’t have to play the “cairn/not-a-cairn” game that would occasionally happen when you saw a small pile of rocks. No, this was a very tall, very obvious stack of crap. It was either a directional cairn or these were the weirdest cows in all of New Mexico. And thanks to the poop, everyone made it to Ghost Ranch with ease. Where the food was, in fact, still there.

Appalachian Trail 2015: “Proper Planning Prevents Poop Panic Performance”

I have hiked enough trails by now that I am usually pretty good at planning. So it was with both surprise and disappointment that I found myself in Caratunk, Maine waiting for the Post Office to open as my hiking partners walked out of town. We had crossed the Kennebec on the first ferry trips of the morning and had breakfast at Northern Outdoors. And then had another breakfast at the Sterling Inn. Having already hiked 4 miles and with 14.7 still to go, they rightfully didn’t feel like loitering any longer due to me being an idiot. So off they went; I would get my mail and do my best to catch up.

Why did I have a package waiting at the Post Office? I have no good explanation. I had a new pair of shoes mailed to Caratunk despite the fact that I would literally be in Monson the next day (a town where I had a planned zero day). And it wasn’t like I was being clever in avoiding a day the Monson PO would be closed when I got there. I was going to arrive in Monson on a Tuesday. And to add another layer of dumbassery to my decision, the Caratunk PO was only open from 2-4pm.

Later, on the far shore, the phrase "dropping a Caratunk"
would be coined.

So there I was, sitting in front of the closed Caratunk PO at noon, when I started receiving warning signals from my gastrointestinal tract that a pint of ice cream as part of second breakfast had been a terrible, terrible choice. I looked around me and started to sweat. They were doing construction on the building attached to the PO; the workers told me the bathrooms had been torn out the day before.  My last thought before getting truly frantic was “that’ll teach me to take a zero in Gorham.”

I ran around behind the building. Realistically, there was no place to poop without being seen. And reviled. Back around to the front of the building, and now I was desperate.  Desperate enough to do something embarrassing, but something not nearly as embarrassing as pooping my pants.

I went up to a random house and knocked on the door.

You want to talk about Trail Angels? I’ll tell you about a Trail Angel. Because the woman who answered the knock on that door graciously let a random stranger into her house to destroy her bathroom. Granted, it was the half bath next to the garage, but it had a toilet and that’s really the only thing that mattered. I apologized profusely on the way in, and I apologized even more profusely on the way out. She said it was okay, emergencies happen, pay it no mind. I’m sure after I left she Febreezed that room like she owned stock in it.

My hero.

Anyway, I got the new shoes, clocked the 14.7 miles in them before dark, and to this day I still don’t know why I had shoes sent there instead of Monson and ended up having to poop in downtown Caratunk.

The new shoes: KEEN McGuffins.

I like to imagine that woman telling someone that same story right now, about the day she saved a dirty hiker’s dignity and also his pants. As for me, I like the story not only because it’s about how things can go wrong even when you think you know what you’re doing, but also because it’s about the kindness of strangers that is a hallmark of long distance hiking. It’s the sort of thing that reaffirms your faith in humanity, and I think we can all agree that’s exactly what a really good poop story is all about.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

This Just In: Hiker Who Never Carries A Trowel Has Also Never Dug A Cathole

Despite years of recommending something other than a trowel for digging a cathole, NHTM has recently discovered that long time hiker and advice-giver Jim “Stank” Brandley has never actually dug a proper cathole.

A selection of items with which Stank has definitely not dug an actual cathole.

“Honestly, when I first started backpacking — and not carrying a trowel — I genuinely tried to dig catholes,” explains Brandley.  “I’d try digging with my heel or a rock or a spoon or a stick or what have you.  But I discovered that the amount of time between when my brain told me ‘you have to poop’ and poop actively coming out of me was way too short for me to dig a real hole with a stick.  I started having to carry, like, five pairs of pants.  Which more than offset the weight savings of not carrying a trowel.”

Instead, Stank settled on the compromise of telling people he digs catholes.  “I discovered it’s way easier to just tell people you dig catholes than to dig a 6-8 inch deep hole with the heel of your shoe.  I mean, six to eight inches deep?  With the heel of my shoe?  C’mon man.  I’m wearing ALTRAS.  They don’t really even have a heel.”

John Gordon, a trail maintainer in an area of the AT where Stank regularly backpacks, confirms his behavior.  “If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘character is what you do when no one’s watching,’ then Stank’s character is ‘Drop Your Pants And Poop On The Ground.’  And then maybe cover it with some leaves.”

Hikers who are concerned about trowel weight might want to think of
a trowel as dual use item.  Of note: Stank doesn't claim to eat food
with a tent stake or a stick.  "That would be ludicrous." 

Stank insists that despite never digging a cathole, what he does works just fine.

“I’ll, you know, scrape at the ground for a few seconds before I drop trou.  Maybe make, like, a two inch deep divot.  And then when I’m done I definitely cover it with a rock or something.”

(Gordon: “Yeah, he definitely does that.”)

“And I’m always considerate enough to be far enough away from the trail that no one will ever come across it.”

(Gordon: “I wouldn’t describe any of the poop rocks I’ve picked up while maintaining as ‘far enough away,’ but that’s just me.”)

Why not just carry a trowel?  Stank explains.
“Listen, a Deuce of Spades weighs 0.6 of an ounce.  0.6 of an ounce!  Do you know how heavy that is?  I know you’re going to say it’s not very heavy at all.  And it’s not.  But when you consider that I’m never going to use it?  It’s excess weight.  It makes a lot more sense to claim I’m digging catholes with a tent stake I’m already carrying if I’m not going to dig a cathole anyway.”

Brandley went on to add that he also doesn’t carry soap or sanitizer and then stuck his hand in our bag of M&Ms.

Stank only uses one of these items and you definitely shouldn't
share food with him. 

So what’s next for Stank?  Brandley recently bought hiking poles for use on his backpacking trips, and he’s excited.  “I think they’ll really help take pressure off my knees, help me maintain a rhythm, and aid in balance on a lot of the uneven parts of the trail.  Who knows?  I may get one of those tents that uses hiking poles too.   But mostly they’re another thing I can claim I dig catholes with, even though I think we both know that’s never gonna happen.”

Note: As always, thank you to my friends for letting me steal their names for articles.  Especially Jim, whose trail name is not "Stank" and who definitely doesn't just crap on the ground.




Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Six Questions To Ask “Budget” Thru-Hikers And One Question To Ask Yourself

One of the questions frequently asked in hiking social media groups is how much it costs to complete a Thru-hike, or more to the point, “is it possible to hike the entire Appalachian Trail on $800?”  And they will definitely get an answer to that question, but unfortunately they will also get 843 other answers to that question.

Invariably, a few of those answers will be hikers saying it’s definitely possible (and I suppose it is), but I suspect the better question is, “yeah, but is it probable?”

I’m not going to answer either of those questions.

What I’m going to do instead is run through six questions you might consider asking someone who says they hiked the trail on what sounds like an extremely low budget, with one question to ask yourself.  Because if you’re like me, those claims always sound a little bit suspicious.  And if the people making those claims are also like me, they’re at least a little bit full of crap.  This isn’t to say that everyone who says they’ve hiked on a small budget is lying about it.  It just might be that they’re leaving some information out.

Sitting in an air-conditioned room drinking beer
and soaking my feet instead of sweating my
nards off in the free camping area in Waynesboro.

When did they hike?       

One of the problems with social media is that you tend not to really know anything about the person answering your questions.  So while the guy who says, “oh, yeah, I hiked the entire AT on a dollar a mile” might not be lying, he might also not think it’s important to point out that he did that in 1983.  It’s not malicious.  Most people know in some part of their brain that things get more expensive, but they don’t really think about how much more expensive, particularly when they remember their hike like it was yesterday.  Which it wasn’t.

And when you point out to someone that “a dollar a mile” in 1983 is about $5,600 now, they’re genuinely shocked.  That’s still a pretty normal amount to spend on a Thru-hike, by the way.  And it’s an incredibly cheap 4-6 month vacation.  A one bedroom rental at the Jersey Shore in the summer will run you about $1K per week.  Just for a place to stay.  Five months worth of weekly Disney passes will run you $11,550.  Just to get into the Park.

Was it their first Thru-hike?
It may not make a lot of sense if you’ve never attempted a long hike, but people who have done one before tend to be the sort of people who can do them for cheaper.  Why?  Dunno.  Maybe they just know all of the budgeting tricks of the trade from the get go.  Maybe they’re doing the same trail again and they know a lot of trail town folks.  Maybe it’s because in between Thru-hikes they live a pretty spartan life anyway, so as to be able to afford another Thru-hike.  If I’m living in the bed of my truck to save rent, staying exclusively in my tent on a hike isn’t as big a deal.  Because neither of them have showers.  Or actual beds.  Or chairs with backs.  But mostly I think it’s because previous Thru-hikers have a better idea of what they need and don’t need to stay happy on trail; they’re not learning about the trail version of themselves as they go.

Note: I can combine these first two questions to give you an example of both at the same time.  ALL of my hikes have cost around $5K.  And I did long, multi-month hikes in 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2015, with the first and last being the Appalachian Trail.  But in 2015 dollars, my first AT Thru cost about $6,800.  And my second one, as mentioned, cost about $5,000.

Are they only telling you what THEY spent?

There’s a case to be made that “what was the total cost of the hike?” is a better question than “what did YOU spend on the hike?”  Because sometimes when you dig into this sort of thing, you discover that, yeah, THEY spent eight hundred bucks.  But their grandparents paid for them to get to and from the trail, their parents bought and shipped all of their food, and they started a GoFundMe in New Hampshire when they ran out of money that pretty much nobody contributed to.  So they “borrowed” five hundred bucks from their Uncle Steve and he is definitely never going to see that money again.  Don’t worry.  Uncle Steve knew.

Everyone says Uncle Steve is too nice.

Did their hike rely on work-for-stay/hiker boxes/mooching?

The former two are strategies for making a hike cheaper; the latter is a strategy for having everyone around you think you’re a monumental pain in the ass.  The problem with the first two is that you really can’t count on them, and therefore they shouldn’t be part of a plan.  Work-for-stay is nice if you want it, but a lot of places you might end up won’t need any work done.  And sometimes you’ll be so exhausted that you don’t want it even if it’s available.

As for hiker boxes, there will occasionally be some nice finds, particularly in places where a lot of people ship food.  And you should always check the hiker box before you head off to do your resupply or get new gear.  My hiking partner found a brand new pair of shoes in Pearisburg right when he needed new shoes. But everyone who’s been on trail knows that hiker boxes are frequently full of stuff the original owner didn’t want, and neither did any other hiker who was there before you.  The mystery bag of white powder is not a myth.  And guess what?  It’s also not powdered milk.  Enjoy your foot-powder breakfast cereal.

So work-for-stay and hiker boxes are solid ways to spend less money while on trail, but they’re not really something I would recommend planning on.

As for mooching, just don’t.  Don’t be that hiker.  Yes, people like you and want you to stick around.  We all know this.  You’re very likable.  At first.  Yes, at first that cool couple you met at that shelter that time and “hey!  We’re all here in town together” will let you use their shower after they’ve used their shower.  Even though that’s theft of services.  And those people you’ve been hiking with for a month?  They’ll definitely let you have a couple of slices of that pizza.  At first.

But pretty soon everyone starts to notice that you never chipped in for that shuttle and you drank half of that case of beer they paid for and I just noticed you’re wearing my rain pants to do laundry and now your balls have been all over the inside of my pants.  Now you’re no longer likable, and at this point nobody wants you around anymore.  Especially me, because that thing with the rain pants was not cool.

How many days was their hike?

One of the best pieces of advice for budget hiking is “a faster hike is a cheaper hike.”  So you might discover that that guy who did a hike for what you think of as pretty cheap also did that hike in 90 days.  And that’s fine.  For some people that’s the kind of pace they want to do.  But are you that kind of person?  Maybe.

Or maybe you’re like me, and the only way you would hike the AT in 90 days is if a series of bears were chasing you the entire time.  Weirdly, I’ve actually gotten faster as I’ve gotten older.  But I’m never really gonna be interested in hiking much more than about a hundred miles a week repeatedly unless I have a really good reason, and I’d rather not have my pace dictated by my budget.

Did they hike the entire trail?

Not really something you’d think you’d have to ask someone who says they’re a Thru-hiker, and yet here we are.  It should go without saying, but someone who only hikes half of the trail on their “Thru-hike” will spend about half of what they would have spent if they hiked the entire trail.  So it doesn’t really matter if they’re “going to go back and get those miles someday” (they’re not).  If they skipped all of Virginia and Pennsylvania you should probably take their budgeting answers with the amount of salt in a Mountain House meal, or at the very least with a grain of salt.  

Unless you’re also planning on skipping all of Virginia and Pennsylvania.

And finally, one question for you:

Do you have a plan for when the plan doesn’t work out?

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

                                          —Boxer/Philosopher Mike Tyson

It’s really heartbreaking to see people quit the trail for no other reason than they’re out of money.  I’ve seen it happen a ton of times over the past twenty years.  So, yeah, sure, right now you’re “not out there to spend time in town,” and you’re “going to get into town and then get right out again” and you’re “fine with splitting laundry with five other people and discovering once back on trail -- later that same day -- that you’ve lost half of your socks.”  And maybe all of that will be the case.  Or maybe not.

Maybe after six straight days of cold rain/snow/sleet you’re going to split a hotel room and eat an entire Meat Lover’s Pizza.  While sitting, not standing, in a hot shower.  For 45 minutes.  And then ordering another Meat Lover’s Pizza.  Or maybe you’re going to be in Virginia, chafed to the point of considering field amputation and so encrusted with sweat salt that you’re starting to look like Sean Patrick Flanery in Powder.  And the only thing you want to do for an entire day is ice your crotch and sit in front of an air conditioner going full blast.  While eating a Meat Lover’s Pizza.

Or even more simply — and definitely likely —maybe you’ll discover you really like the people you’re hiking around and you want to stay with them, even though you started out thinking this was going to be your big amazing self-sufficient solo adventure.

Which is to say: it’s fine to plan a “cheap” hike — go for it.  But maybe consider using the same discipline you think you’ll have on trail to save up enough before the trail to deal with the possibility of that plan not happening.

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Monday, June 4, 2018

Hiker Asking For Advice On Facebook Doesn’t Actually Want Advice

Mike objected to "people on their couches" suggesting
that his homemade bleach water treatment helmet
was the "dumbest and possibly most dangerous"
thing they'd ever seen.

When inexperienced hiker Mike Smith recently went online and asked for advice regarding his hiking plan, he thought it was pretty clear that he didn’t actually want advice.

“Totally not what I expected or wanted.  I went on this Facebook group and outlined the plan I came up with without knowing what I was doing and asked what everyone thought,” said Mike, who goes by the trailname Samsonite.  “The last thing I wanted was experienced people being negative by politely suggesting that what I wanted to do might not be the best idea.  I mean, it's not like I'm going to change my plan.  Jerks.”

“All I did,” said 2-Time Thru-hiker Rachel "DUCK" Hecht, “was point out that carrying all of his gear in a hard-sided Valor 2-Piece Luggage Set seemed like a bad idea.  Even if they do have wheels.  I think I said something like, ‘what’s wrong with a backpack?’  And then he and a bunch of other people in the group attacked me for being negative, so I didn’t even get into all of the other stuff he was planning on doing.”

Samsonite, who got on the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain on January 1st, had no previous backpacking experience.  But he did read a lot of crowd sourced information from people he didn’t know who were possibly marginally less clueless than him.  Or not.  “I decided to use a 40-degree bag, go no-cook, and not bring rain gear.  I really needed to get my baseweight down so I could be the first person to carry a cello on a Thru-Hike,” said Samsonite, “and then some jerk told me I’d be the second person to think he was going to carry a cello on a Thru-hike, and also the second person to quit while carrying a cello on a Thru-hike.”

“Yeah, that was me,” said Triple Crowner Katie "Wing-It" Howe.  “I mean, I didn’t really go into the possibility of him freezing to death in his 40-degree bag in January.  But I probably implied it when I said that once he regained feeling in his hands he could play Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 for the SAR guys after they pulled him off Blood Mountain.  And then a whole bunch of people said I was being mean-spirited.  And complimented me on my musical taste.”

“I just don’t understand why experienced hikers can’t just say ‘you got this.’  THAT’S what I’m on Facebook for.  Why can’t they be like all of the people who were super-supportive of my decision to keep hiking with severe tendonitis?” asked Samsonite, who ended up quitting the trail due to severe tendonitis.  

“It was all, you should rest it, you should take a couple of days off, blah, blah, blah, blah blah.  Fortunately I found a Facebook group for hikers called, ‘You Got This! (For Hikers Asking For Advice Who Don't Really Want Advice)’.  No negativity.  Zero criticism.  And very little common sense.  Just a bunch of people you don’t know typing ‘GO FOR IT!’ even if it’ll lead to you seriously injuring yourself and getting off trail.  Because they understand that I’m there for the positivity, and they also understand that bad advice has no consequences for them.”

Some people prefer to get backpacking advice exclusively from cheerleaders.

What’s next for Mike?  He says he feels he’s “conquered the AT” after his ten days on trail, and now he’s ready to move on to the CDT.  “I’m going to carry two live chickens for eggs and a folding bicycle so I don’t have to hitch,” says Samsonite, who has apparently not learned anything.  “I’m gonna go SOBO this time, starting in April.  And nobody suggesting the trail is gonna be under twelve feet of snow is gonna stop me.  Haters.”

As usual with these things, the quotes are fake but the names are real.  Thanks to the people who let me use their names, and thanks to all of the folks who inspired this post.  Sort of.