When backpacking, the weight of your backpack is a really big deal.
If you read my previous post, you’ll remember that on my very first Virginia Backpacking trip, I met a petite lady with a cup of coffee and a petite lady with a killer set of hiking poles. A few weeks later I realized that I basically won the backpacking lottery. These two ladies are both amazing and inspirational.
We all arranged to meet for coffee and Betsy got out her maps. She had found a stunning section of the Appalachian Trail: McAfee’s Knob and Tinker’s Creek.
I was a little nervy but I was even more excited. This would be two nights. My eyes sparkled and I envisioned a distant wilderness fraught with danger and excitement. I bought and packed a special first aid kit and special blood clotting gauze…just in case…and suffered a moment of reliving the scene in True Grit where the amazingly talented and gorgeous Hailee Steinfeld playing Mattie is fatally bitten by rattlesnakes at the bottom of a mine. Rooster Cogburn cuts an X in her hand to try to remove the venom then carries her on his horse to try to save her…and has to kill the horse…
There would be no snake biting, and certainly no snake biting leading to horse killing in my future.
Google can be extremely helpful in panicky moments. It turns out that several stores sell calf guards that are worn around the lower leg, sort of like soccer shin guards, to protect against snake bites. Serious boots with metal tips and guards are also available. Perhaps not the most practical option when hiking, but…
Fortunately, I started to calm down. It occurred to me to research how often people get snake bitten while out on the Appalachian trail, and thankfully, it isn’t often. One of the few reports noted that the hikers were stepping over rocks and stepped into a pile of leaves, surprising poor snakey who lashed out.
I brewed a steaming cup of Chamomile tea and rationalized that hiking poles and a keen eye were probably enough to keep me from Hailee Steinfeld, uh, Mattie’s, fate. I mean, not to give you all the spoilers here, but she barely survived and lost an arm in the process.
Come to find out, True Grit is all based on a true story. Check out this Goodreads info on True Grit if you’re into books.
Placated by internet reports and distracted by True Grit (2010) trivia on IMDB, I mulled over a few things that Betsy had casually mentioned while hiking. She had mentioned something…something about videos…showing how to pack things into backpacks. Hmmm, I thought. I know how to find things on Youtube.
An entertaining packing video quickly popped out! A charming young fellow explained that the best thing to do is to look for all the open nooks and crannies, and he demonstrated how to stuff things into these nooks and crannies.
My eyes gleamed. I was good at stuffing things into small spaces. There was so much more I could bring. Elated, I retrieved a small bottle of lavender essential oil. The ladies will just love this. It’s just like when posh spas or airplanes give you hot towelettes with lavender oil. In went the lavender oil.
In went many, many additional items. Finally, I stuffed and crammed all of the freeze dried meals for the trip. Hefting my backpack up, I smiled. This was going to be a real workout! True grit, indeed!
The drive started with a torrential downpour. No one suggested turning back. This is crazy, someone might have commented. We’re crazy, someone might have muttered.
We were headed to the final trailhead of our actual hike, where we would leave the car and would hitch a ride with a famous Appalachian Trail Steward, Homer. (Disclaimer for my city relatives who will invariably read this because I will pester them until they do: this was not literal hitching – this was more like an Appalachian Uber.) Homer deserves his own book, and I won’t steal any of his stories, but definitely look him up if you are ever doing the Appalachian Trail or any part of it. He knows his way around the Appalachian Trail.
Testing out each of our backpacks, he lifted mine. Homer shot me quite the stare.
Oh geez, he seemed to mutter. “Uh, yeah, it’s okay,” I said quickly. At this point, I was not ready to part with my lavender essential oil or any other necessities. Before anyone could start going through my backpack and tossing things, I bent my knees and wriggled my way into it, trying to smile as I pulled myself up to a standing position. “All good!” I proclaimed.
Homer shrugged and waved cheerfully as he set us off on our way. The rain had cleared, but everything was gleaming as the sun slowly started to sparkle from behind drifting clouds. Soft green lichen curled and crawled over the rocks on our path. Betsy and Melody spied a small green snake wriggling quickly away.
A little ways behind, I hustled to try to see the snake. Little green snakes are totally fine. It didn’t even occur to me to wish that I had brought calf snake guards.
Besides, I was hunched over so far under my pack that my face was smack in the trail in front of me. There was no way I would miss a snake.
“Um, are you okay”? Melody asked. “Slow but steady,” I reassured her.
Just for fun, check out the topography incline of McAfee’s Knob.
I remember the beauty of that hike – I think selective memory loss has helped me forget the pain. Finally the path lead us between rocky outcroppings and to a jutting ledge of stone. I unbuckled the chest strap and let the pack thud behind me.
Hmmm, I thought as I peered over the stone point to the valley far below. Would it really be that terrible if I just happened to drop the pack over the ledge?
After photos, after helping a British family who had run into a swarm of bees, and after enjoying the view, we headed to a nearby spot to filter water and set up camp.
While eating dinner and chatting, Betsy mentioned the packing Youtube videos again. “Oh yes, I watched them,” I reassured her. Then I demonstrated the proper uses of my lavender essential oil. “Very relaxing,” I explained. Betsy smiled noncommittally. “Uh, yeah,” she elaborated, “so there’s a video series that Dixie does, and she breaks down the weight of everything.”
“Deodorant,” Betsy continued, “Does it really do anything when you are sweaty and gross? Nope. Toss it. 3 ounces lighter. When weighing your gear, every ounce counts.”
A lightbulb started to flicker, but then faded. We headed to tents and slept soundly as rain started to pelt us. The next two days were exquisite hiking days – outstanding scenery, a black bear, tons of lichen, and beautiful wildflowers. Reaching our next big milestone was amazing. This gorgeous outcropping of pillared rocks was named Tinker’s Creek. Annie Dillard wrote a book called Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, and it has since been on my to-read list.
We made it to the second camping site, set out gear to dry, and relaxed. A friendly black bear youngling visited us, showing off as he loped across a fallen tree at the end of our campground. Falling asleep with a neighborhood bear nearby was a little difficult, but sleep eventually came. The rest of the hike was beautiful. The trail eventually climbed out of the trees to a low ridge that encircled a beautiful teal lake before a steep climb down to civilization.
It was a couple of days before I remembered Youtube, Dixie, deodorant.
After a few videos, I found her. Dixie is a young Alabama babe who has tackled the entire Appalachian Trail. And unlike the videos I watched before our McAfee’s Knob trip, Dixie does not talk about backpacking through Europe and using empty spaces to stuff extra souvenirs and treats. She talks about carrying weight on your back while trying to make miles…and here is her point. Every ounce counts. Dixie is serious about this. She has a scale. She weighs her pack. Sleeping bag ready to go in pack? It gets weighed. She knows the weight of everything that she is carrying. Dixie’s also on a quest to get her pack as light as possible.
So, yeah, leave the lavender essential oil at home. And, yes, leave the deodorant at home. The person sitting next to you might move upwind, but they won’t judge you for smelling at home at the outdoors. Take what you need, and maybe a few extra things, but be cognizant of your general weight pack, because once you sling that pack on your back and step out on the trail, you’re stuck with it.
Backpackers are really so kind and I have been given so many helpful ideas and suggestions. Here are some of their additional hints for packing and prepping:
- Get a scale and weigh your backpack + what goes in it. This is all Betsy. She is amazing at this, and she is the most amazing camp breaker-downer I have ever seen. Efficient and organized.
- Check out GearLabOutdoors for specification breakdowns and information about gear. This is Melody’s advice. She has years of experience backpacking all over, and she loves this website for researching and reviewing gear.
- Keep a spreadsheet. This is Steve’s advice. I have just started doing this, and it’s really helpful. He keeps an organized spreadsheet of all of his gear, then maintains a separate one for food and clothing. He can keep track of weight of all items, note what needs to be repaired or replaced, and can use it as a checklist when packing.
What suggestions and tips do you want to share with future backpackers?