Hiker How-To

Later this month I’ll be taking my third annual week-long trip into Baxter State Park, home of Maine’s highest peak and northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. BSP has been in the news in recent years because of friction with Appalachian Trail hikers who are used to very light management of the land the AT passes through– because of how the Park was created and its focus on preservation of the wilderness, the Park adopts a very strict management system. I feel strongly that the heavy management is part of what makes the Park such a special place, but I’ll admit that it does turn sometimes turn off first-time visitors.

With that in mind, here’s my advice to folks planning to visit to Maine’s most wonderful wild place. I’m writing this in September 2016, so if things change in the future, I’ll try to keep this up to date.

Chimney Pond Campsite on Katahdin

Chimney Pond Campsite on Katahdin

First, let’s start with two important links.
1- Baxter State Park’s Hiking Map page has an overview of the park, including campsites. Currently, the map is a little out of date, with some backcountry sites not shown, but there is a link to the Park Store, where there are very good map options. The Baxter State Park Map is the most up-to-date, since it is produced by the Park and updated frequently. The National Geographic and Map Adventures maps are both good, as well.
2- Baxter State Park’s Summer Reservations Guide has all the nuts-and-bolts information on how to make a reservation for a campsite in the park. You should refer to this once you’ve read the information below.

Day-Trips into Baxter State Park

If you’re just going in for the day and not camping, you’ll want to arrive at the Entrance Gate early, since the Park limits the number of vehicles allowed in each day. Many people drive up from points south and sleep in their cars in line at the Entrance Gate in order to get ahead of the line. This is more common at the Togue Pond Gate (south, access to Katahdin) than Matagamon Gate (north, access to Traveler and other parts). This is also not the way I recommend enjoying the Park, so that’s all I’ll say about it for now.

Camping Reservations in Baxter State Park

The best way to experience the Park is to make a campsite reservation and spend a few days in there. Reserving a campsite ensures that you have a place to stay, guarantees you entrance to the Park, and cuts down on the morning drive to trailheads.

Start planning by looking at the available campsites on the map, and deciding which are closest to where you want to visit. The closest sites to trails up Katahdin are most likely to be filled, so also try looking for campsites that are a little further away.

Once you have an idea which sites you’d like to camp at, and you know the dates of your trip, go to the Reservations site (see link above) and see if those sites have already been reserved for those dates. It may take a few tries to get things just right, but once you have a list of sites and dates that they’re open, then comes the next step.

Call the Park Office. You can make the reservations online, but I can’t stress enough that calling the Park is the best way to make reservations. The staff there is super friendly, they can help you make sense of the process, and they’ll offer helpful advice along the way. Phone lines have been pretty busy through the summer recently, so you may need to be patient, but trust me– it’s worth the wait, especially if this is your first or second camping trip into the park.

Newowadnehunk Field Campground in Baxter State Park.

Newowadnehunk Field Campground in Baxter State Park.

Advice for Specific Cases

If You’re Finishing the 100-Mile Wilderness or Appalachian Trail

Long distance hikers heading north and finishing at Katahdin are the only overnight visitors exempted from the reservations rule, since you are allowed to camp at The Birches near Katahdin Stream Campground. However, long-distance hikers are required to register with a park ranger and get a permit for entering the park. If you don’t see a ranger upon entering the park near Abol Bridge, make sure to find one at Katahdin Stream Campground to get the permit.

Either way, you should also check in at the Monson Visitors Center, which opened recently (2016) to provide detailed information for through-hikers heading toward Baxter. You can pre-register for a permit here, but you still need to see a ranger when you arrive in the Park. For now, you can get more information on the permits here.

If You’re Meeting Someone Finishing the 100-Mile Wilderness or Appalachian Trail

Many families and friends stay in the Park or go in for the day to pick up a long-distance hiker. If you know the exact day your friend is finishing, you can always go in for the day and pick them up at the end of their hike. If you’re making a campsite reservation far in advance, though, you might be in the Park with no cell signal when your friend shows up. So I recommend, regardless of where you end up camping, to coordinate with your friend before he or she leaves Monson and the 100-Mile Wilderness to set up a time and place to meet. Again, I highly recommend getting a map of the Park to help in the planning.

As for campgrounds, Katahdin Stream Campground is by far the most popular for this kind of thing, since the AT passes right through it. But there are a lot of other great options: Abol Campground is a few miles away and also quite popular. Daicey Pond has cabins right on the AT. Kidney Pond also has cabins, and is a short hike from the AT. Nesowadnehunk Field Campground is a half-hour drive from Katahdin Stream, but almost always has unreserved sites. Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond are very popular, but they can make for a more interesting hike for the AT hiker since they can go up one side of Katahdin and down the other.

If You’re Only Planning on Hiking Katahdin

You’ll be missing out on so much that the Park has to offer, but I understand. I visited the Park four times before I finally did anything else besides hike Katahdin. If you want to climb via the Appalachian Trail (aka The Hunt Trail) or Abol Slide Trail, camping at any of the campgrounds from Nesowadnehunk Field to Abol will set you up for a relatively quick drive or walk to the trailhead in the morning. If you go up from the east side of the mountain, you basically have two options: Roaring Brook Campsite or Chimney Pond. Chimney Pond is a great option for the easiest ascent: hike three moderate miles to the campground on day one, camp overnight, and then do the strenuous 2.5 to 3 mile climb to the peak on day two, then descend and either spend the night again at Chimney Pond or go all the way back to Roaring Brook.

If You Want To Maximize Your Chances of a Clear Summit

Imagine you’ve reserved one night in the Park, and you arrive on a sunny afternoon to set up camp, then the next day– your day to hike Katahdin– the mountain is stuck in rain clouds dumping sleet and freezing rain. That’s not an uncommon situation. The more days you reserve in the Park, the better chance you have of finding one good day to hike to a beautiful summit. My recommendation is to camp at one of the roadside campgrounds for two or three nights, and plan on arriving early on the first day. That way, you can spend some time enjoying low-elevation trails along lakes and streams on cloudy or rainy days, and check the weather each day (Rangers post weather reports each morning) to decide what to do the next day.

One of the Fowler Pond Campsites in the northeast corner of Baxter State Park.

One of the Fowler Pond Campsites in the northeast corner of Baxter State Park.

Backpacking Trips Through the Park

This is my favorite way to enjoy the Park, but it requires a lot more planning than your average backpacking trip, since even backcountry sites must be reserved ahead of time. One bonus to backcountry sites is that, unlike roadside sites, most have only one lean-to or tent site, so if you reserve that spot you can be reasonably sure you’ll be the only group camping within a few miles.

To make a backpacking trip itinerary, there are two general rules I like to follow. The first is to aim for campsites that are closer together than you think you can hike in a day. That way you can hike further by adding side trips each day, but you aren’t required to hike very far in case of nasty weather. The second general rule, also related to bad weather or injury, is to make sure you don’t absolutely need to go over a peak to keep your itinerary. If you’re at Katahdin Stream Campground one night, and you have to be at Roaring Brook the next, you wouldn’t want to have to go over Katahdin in a thunderstorm to get there.

Last year, I adopted a section of trail with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club to become a volunteer trail maintainer. Since then, I’ve been to my trail three times to clear fallen trees, trim brush, clean water bars, and clean trash from campsites. These are all things that I could have done on my own without officially becoming a volunteer maintainer, but making it official is the best way to keep an immense trail like the Appalachian Trail in good shape. Here’s why.

TrailMaintenance

My section of trail is about 8 miles long, and each of my trips to maintain it has taken 1 to 3 days. When I’ve finished my work trip, I send a work report to the district overseer– the sections of trail that MATC maintains are broken into districts throughout the state, each with an overseer. Each overseer coordinates a handful of volunteers who do trail maintenance on a given section of trail. If no volunteer is responsible for a section of trail, as was the case before I volunteered, the overseer either takes it upon himself to do the trail maintenance, or tries to find more volunteers.

So when I took over my section of trail, that freed up the district overseer from having to make extra trips to my section, and he can now focus on making sure other sections are maintained properly. Even better, if I or another maintainer run into something we can’t fix with the tools we have, as was the case for many maintainers after 2015’s harsh New England winter, he can coordinate groups of volunteers to tackle the problems together.

You’ll notice I’m talking about volunteers, not paid trail crews. The fact of the Appalachian Trail is that the vast majority of trail maintenance is done by unpaid volunteers. Paid trail crews usually take on major work that requires technical skills, like building stone stairways, relocating large sections of trail, or building shelters (although volunteers often do much of the heavy work for those, too). The most common stuff that you might complain about while hiking through an overgrown or muddy section of trail– that’s volunteer work.

Volunteering comes with an obligation to visit your section of trail two, three, or four times a year in order to maintain it, and that’s also important. While tossing fallen branches off a trail that you’re hiking on is helpful, one can’t rely on casual hikers to stop and clear all the blow downs. It’s important to have one or more people who are responsible for a trail, who commit to those multiple trips each year.

I often hear through-hikers or people who appreciate them asking how they can “give back to the trail”, but few responses ever focus on what is absolutely one of the most important things you can do to help hikers. Volunteer to maintain a trail. If you can commit to three trips to the trail each year (which I know isn’t something everyone can do– that’s the reason I only started last year), look into volunteering. It’s not just something to do on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail– National Forests and National Parks often rely on volunteer trail maintainers also. Here are a few big ones:

Appalachian Trail (get in touch with your local chapter)
Pacific Crest Trail
Appalachian Mountain Club (NH, NJ, ME)
For National Parks, find the “Friends of…” website for the park (many National Parks have official Friends organizations that help raise funds and maintain trails)

Using a Phone on the PCT

You’re ready to hit the trail, your fully-loaded smartphone in hand. But how long will it last when you’re nowhere near an electrical outlet? I decided to find out by testing various conditions with two of the most popular smartphone models: iPhone 6+ and a Samsung Galaxy S5. I tested these models’ battery life with and without the use of a supplemental Ravpower 3,000 mAh and 10,400 mAh external battery pack. The test results conformed to the phones’ and battery packs’ published specs. With that knowledge in hand, I feel comfortable calculating expected battery life of other phones based upon their published specs.

External batteries I used for the tests:

I chose these Ravpower models because they are inexpensive, lightweight, and have a good reputation for reliability.

If you follow these simple steps, you have a good chance that your phone will have power between opportunities to recharge (a note of caution: devices fail — you should NEVER rely solely upon an electronic device as a navigation aid):

  • Keep your phone on airplane mode during the day when not in use
  • Turn your phone completely off while you’re sleeping
  • Do not use your phone for high-battery use activities for more than 2-6 hours per day:
    • GPS use
    • Internet browsing
    • Phone calls
  • Carry an external battery backup, size depending upon how long you expect to hike between town stops and how much you plan on using your device (see charts below)

Reality check: these results closely match my actual experience hiking the PCT with a smartphone and external battery backup.

NUMBER OF DAYS OF PHONE USE UNDER VARIOUS CONDITIONS

Phone Model # days,
no battery/
minimal use*
# days,
no battery/
typical use**
# days,
3000 mAh/
minimal use
# days,
3000 mAh/
typical use
# days,
10400 mAh/
minimal use
# days,
10400 mAh/
typical use
iPhone 6+  8.3  3.6  13.0  6.0  31.8  14.2
iPhone 6  5.0  2.1  9.9  4.4  28.1  12.2
iPhone 5s 3.9  1.6  8.4  3.5  24.8  10.1
iPhone 5 3.2  1.3  7.2  3.0  21.8  8.7
Samsung S5  7.6  3.2  12.1  5.4  30.0  13.0
Samsung S4  6.2  2.6  10.2  4.6  25.8  11.1
Samsung S3  5.4  2.1  12.0  4.8  35.7  13.8

*minimal use: 2 hours high-battery usage + airplane mode 14 hours + device off 8 hours
**typical use: 6 hours high-battery usage (GPS on/internet use/phone call) + airplane mode 10 hours + device off 8 hours

Minimal Use Chart

Typical Use Chart

  • It takes about 5 hours to recharge a 100% drained 3000 mAh external battery from an electrical outlet.
  • It takes about 6.5 hours to recharge a 100% drained 10400 mAh external battery from an electrical outlet.

Other Power Saving Tips: (Updated based upon reader comments)

  • Turn the phone completely off (or at least put it in airplane mode) while charging it from the external battery or you can accidentally drain both the phone and the battery!
  • Turn off your cellular data, Bluetooth, GPS and WiFi when not in use.
  • Reduce display &  brightness to a minimal level.  A brighter screen uses a lot more power than a dim screen.
  • Use a dark background (wallpaper) on your screen.  A bright white background uses more power than a dark background.
  • Set your screen timeout to the shortest possible time.
  • Turn off the phone vibration function.
  • Do not leave apps running when not in use.
  • Keep your phone warm to prevent battery drain (e.g. put it in your sleeping bag at night)
  • Android users: carry an extra device battery rather than a heavier external battery

 

A recent question from one of my readers got me thinking about a very common problem for backpackers– how to hike in the rain, comfortably. As a day hiker, it’s possible to avoid hiking in the rain most of the time if you have a good forecast, but as a backpacker, you’re going to get rained on eventually. And, really, any kind of hiker is doing themselves a disservice by avoiding rain all the time. The best way to get used to hiking in nasty weather is practice, after all.

Trying to stay dry in the White Mountains.

Trying to stay dry in the White Mountains.

That said, I’ve found myself avoiding trips with really ugly forecasts for the past few years– mainly because I’ve been doing fewer backpacking trips and more day-hikes, which means a lower hiking to driving ratio and an easier decision to push the hike back by a day or a week if there’s a better outlook later on. So I’ve become less comfortable hiking in pouring rain. The solution is just to get out more often when I know it’s going to be ugly.

It’s no surprise that the times when I’ve been most comfortable hiking in the rain have been during or soon after long backpacking trips– at the end of the New England Trail, where I walked through frigid, pouring rain for days; after walking through Washington on the PCT where, even when there was little rain, the dew-laden leaves hanging into the trail would soak passing hikers to the bone. I’ve used different rain gear on most of my wet backpacking trips, and had different strategies for what to do when the weather went really sour, but nothing changed the fact that, eventually, I’d be totally drenched.

Dry moss never looks quite so vibrant.

Dry moss never looks quite so vibrant.

So how do you hike in the rain comfortably? The short answer is “you don’t.” The longer answer is that you get used to it– accept that you’re going to get wet, make sure you keep your insulation and water-susceptible equipment dry, and remember to take care of yourself. The biggest problems I run into when hiking wet inevitably come from not taking any breaks (because who wants to stop and stand around while it’s pouring?), which is really no different from hiking in good weather. The most important things are to stay warm enough to keep going, be able to get dry once you make camp, and to stay dry in camp.

A good walk inside a cloud gives some of the best views.

A good walk inside a cloud gives some of the best views.

The last part of the equation is to find the joys in wet hiking that you don’t find on sunny days. Mountain springs and brooks gush, mossy forest floors glow, the sound of water on leaves drowns out everything, people become scarce, mist clings to mountaintops and forest canopies. The wilderness feels more wild. Mother nature throwing some inhospitable conditions at you is a reminder that being away from civilization isn’t meant to be comfortable.

Pretty, but leaves like this are worse than the heaviest downpour.

Pretty, but leaves like this are worse than the heaviest downpour.

Then there’s the other side of toughing out the difficulties of slogging through harsh conditions. The rewards of a clear day on a mountain, or even of finding refuge back in your car or home, are so much sweeter after you make it through the hardship of a thorough soaking. The more frequent your reminders of harsh conditions in the mountains and forests, the more you can enjoy the easier days, when you can sit back and soak in the sun with a long view.

Dear Trail Angels, Trail-Magic Providers, and Anyone Aspiring to Give Generously to Hikers,

In the past seven years, since I first set foot on the Appalachian Trail, I’ve come to think of trail magic as an exciting and heartwarming experience. I love trail magic, and what hiker doesn’t? Finding someone with a cooler of soda and snacks at a remote forest road, being invited into a stranger’s home for a hiker feed with joyful company, coming upon a roadside cookout with homemade chili and burgers– strangers helping strangers. What better affirmation of the goodness of humanity can there be?

A bucket of candy on the PCT

A bucket of candy on the PCT

But I want to give you a few examples of trail magic that I’ve seen in the last few years that I hope will give you pause.

Exhibit 1– An Appalachian Trail shelter in Maine, ten miles by trail to the nearest road, but on the shore of a remote lake. I came upon the shelter to find half a dozen plastic grocery bags hanging inside, filled with packages of hot dogs, hot dog buns, bottles of ketchup and mustard and relish, six-packs of soda cans, and various Hostess cakes. A couple from Boston had come up for the weekend, driven on remote logging roads to the other side of the lake, and paddled across to deliver a feast to hikers. Then left for home. By the time I arrived, a few of the soda cans had been emptied, crushed, then put back in the grocery bags. The hot dogs, buns, and condiments were untouched.

Exhibit 2– A road crossing on the Appalachian Trail, one hundred yards from a Forest Service trailhead. Just into the woods was a large cooler sitting on the ground, full of Hostess cakes, candy, and other treats. Next to the cooler were two 24-packs of beer and soda cans (cardboard cases, sodden with rain), and a shredded trash bag with crushed cans and empty wrappers strewn about. A note on the cooler said it had been left for through-hikers by someone who had hiked the AT last year. There was a bear-proof trash can in the parking lot about 100 yards away. Judging by the shredded trash bag, nobody had noticed it.

Exhibit 3– Another road crossing on the Appalachian Trail, this one more remote. Sitting on the ground in the middle of the trail are two boxes– one of Hostess cakes, one of granola bars. No note, nobody nearby.

Exhibits 4 through 87– Any given road crossing on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail. Sitting on the ground just off the road is a small, battered, styrofoam cooler with a note saying “enjoy, thru-hikers! Courtesy of [local business or trail angel]”. There is no indication of how long the cooler has been there, but there is no food or drink in it– only empty cans and wrappers from what had been inside.

Do you notice something about these examples? Here is my message to current and potential trail angels:

Trail Angels: PLEASE DO NOT EVER LEAVE UNATTENDED FOOD ON THE TRAIL!

No matter how close to a road, no matter how well protected, no matter how soon you plan to come by and pick up the trash– you’re still leaving trash on the trail, attracting animals, and leaving a mess that someone else will likely feel the need to clean up.

I’m not saying you should give up on the idea of helping hikers. But if you don’t have time to stay with the food that you plan to give to hikers, find another way to give back to the trail. Giving food to through-hikers in person is a far more rewarding experience for you and for the hikers than leaving it in hopes that more people will find it. If you don’t have the time to sit and wait with the food, try something else:

  • Offer rides into town.
  • Pack trash out from a campsite.
  • Volunteer to do trail maintenance.
  • Listen to hikers’ stories.
  • Share local knowledge.

And if what you really want to do is feed hikers, just take all of the leftovers and trash with you when you leave.

Thanks for listening, and please spread the word.
Heart,
Guthook