Appalachian Trail

All posts tagged Appalachian Trail

Ten years ago today, I finished my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Since then, more than 7000 people have also finished their through-hikes of the AT. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy maintains that the completion rate has been consistently between 20% and 30%, so we can conservatively estimate that at least 35,000 people have attempted the AT in the past ten years. Pretty crazy!

And while there have certainly been growing pains with the number of hikers on the trail, overall I’m pretty happy about the fact that more people are getting out and enjoying the experience of long-distance backpacking. I hope that leads to more people getting involved in protecting the land and environment for future generations. Judging by the big increase I’ve seen in hikers on other trails, it’s certainly translating to hikers getting interested in more long-distance hikes. Good! If even one in ten through hikes is as life changing as mine was, I think it would be a good development for the world.

I’ve had to think often about how the hiking world has changed in the years since my hike (not to mention world as a whole), and it can be overwhelming to dwell on the changes. The obvious difference, the elephant on the trail as it were, is the introduction of smartphones which have made social media and other apps (ahem…) ubiquitous in the wilderness. I’ve also noticed a big difference in the number of businesses catering to long-distance hikers, especially hostels and shuttle services, and a vast improvement in how these services run their operations. I’m pretty happy about that, too.

It’s easy to look back at the way things used to be, and complain about the way things are now. I’ve certainly bemoaned my fair share of changes, and I count myself as lucky for having hiked the AT when I did. But I also think every Appalachian Trail hiker is lucky to have hiked the Trail whenever they did, be it 1997, 2007, or 2017. The challenges are different every year, and the culture will always change.

There will always be challenges to the experience of the Trail, and as long as there are people who care enough for it (like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and every local maintaining club), I hope it will change ever more lives for the better in the next ten years and more.

When I head out onto my adopted trail for seasonal maintenance trips, I like to keep my pack as light as I can, even with the additional tools. Since most of the work I have to do in the spring consists of cutting up fallen trees and clearing encroaching underbrush from the trail, I can get away with a wonderfully small set of tools that can take care of most of the work while adding less than 3 pounds to my pack.

Guthook’s arsenal of trail tools

This tool set includes:

  • Silky Gomboy 240mm Folding Saw (9.5 ounces): A very lightweight and sharp folding saw made for branches up to 3 or 4 inches in diameter, although with plenty of time and sweat I’ve cut through trunks up to 8 inches.
  • Silky Tsurugi 400mm Saw (16 ounces including sheath): Also very lightweight, but a fixed blade that’s about 16 inches long. Like the Gomboy, it’s best for branches that are up to 5 or 6 inches diameter, but I’ve cut 12 inch logs a few times.
  • Fiskars 15″ PowerGear Super Pruners (13.4 ounces): These loppers are pretty compact, but the geared mechanism makes them surprisingly powerful. They cut through brush up to an inch thick like it’s not even there.
  • Ironclad Gripworx Gloves (3 ounces): Good for preventing blisters while sawing away all day, and for keeping poking bits of logs from sticking your hands. And thin enough that you can still tie your shoes with them on.

Of course, two saws is unnecessarily redundant, but I just like both of them a lot.

Enough trail tools to take care of basic maintenance will fit in the side pocket of an ultralight backpack.

This small set of tools is great for clearing overgrown trail, or for most of the fallen trees I encounter (since much of my trail is high in elevation, the fallen trees are rarely very huge), and it fits easily in the side pocket of my Gossamer Gear pack. There are often obstacles that are bigger than what I can handle with these tools, but the vast majority of what I encounter is no match for them.

When I have digging to do, or when there are really big fallen trees, I’ll need to bring some bigger, heavier tools. But one of the benefits of the light tools is that I can take a quick trip to my trail in the beginning of the season, or a few times in the summer, and slice up all the easy stuff without having to haul a chainsaw or other heavy equipment. On those trips, I’ll note the locations of any larger issues so that I can come back for them later. Or, I can tag-team with a friend who has a chainsaw– splitting the load is a great way to deal with heavy group gear.

Of course, if you’re going to take up being a volunteer trail maintainer, you should make sure you officially sign up with the local trail maintaining club or land manager. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Pacific Crest Trail Association are great places to start looking.

One of the most common questions we receive about our trail guide apps is whether or not they work when you do not have a cell/mobile phone signal. The answer is a resounding “YES, they do work offline”! All of our apps are designed to work when you are in the middle of the wilderness, nowhere near a cell tower. (Otherwise our apps wouldn’t be very useful, would they?)

So, how does that work?

Searching for signal in a wild place.

Searching for signal in a wild place.

When you first download the app from the App Store or the Google Play Store, the device to which you download the app must have an internet connection. The connection can be a WiFi connection or a cell/mobile connection (though a mobile connection may not be the best idea since unlimited/unthrottled data plans are quickly becoming a thing of the past).  While you have that initial internet connection, the latest waypoint and track files are automatically downloaded to your device, plus you have the option to download photos and offline maps to your phone. You should download a map set so that you have topographic and other information about your surroundings.

When you are offline, the app uses your device’s built-in GPS unit to detect where you are and plots that information on a map. GPS, or “global positioning system”, is truly global, and works anywhere on planet Earth since the information is received from satellites.

FAQs:

  1. Will your app work when there is no cell/mobile service? Yes. So long as your device has a GPS receiver, it will work.
  2. Do I need a service plan on my phone to use your app? No. So long as you can connect to the internet with WiFi and your device has a GPS receiver, our app will work on your device.
  3. Will your app work on my iPod Touch? It can. The iPod Touch does not come with a GPS receiver. The same is true of a lot of tablets. But you can purchase an external GPS unit to plug into your iPod Touch, such as a Bad Elf.
  4. I’m pretty sure that GPS isn’t available in [remote location X]. Will your app work? Yes. GPS is global. So long as you are not deep in a canyon or cave (i.e. your phone cannot receive a GPS signal from space), you will be fine. Even in canyons, deep mountain valleys, and under deep foliage, the signal will usually just take longer to acquire.
  5. Can I send messages to my family using your app when I do not have cell/mobile service? No. The GPS unit in a phone and tablet is a GPS receiver. In order to transmit messages using GPS, you need a GPS transmitter, such as a DeLorme inReach or Spot.
  6. Why can’t I see Google maps when I’m offline? We do not use Google maps for offline use because it is against Google’s terms of service to cache the maps for offline use. Rather, we use topographic maps (the style depends upon trail location) that you can download to your device and which are displayed in the background of the map.

Let us know if we forgot anything and we will add to the FAQs.

 

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)