(part 4)

Dirt, hygiene, medical

    I have only met one hiker who let himself go and stunk like hell. I think most folks carry deodorant. I have found that a little hand sanitizer in the armpits with a deodorant chaser prevents BO. A good plan is to carry two bandannas. One will be the dry bandanna and one the wet bandanna. The dry one you use only to wipe sweat. The wet one you use only to soak in water to wipe dirt from yourself, or to wipe up spills, etc. I carry a small piece of tarp about 18 inches square and when I stop to rest, that's what I sit on. Sitting on logs, the ground and rocks will make your pants filthy. I always save one shirt to have something clean to wear in case, for example, I am able to eat in a nice restaurant along the trail. Which I did once in Maryland. Even though one gets dirty on the AT, I have seldom felt dirty. I think this is because I sweat like a pig and tend to dry quickly when I stop. (This probably is because I'm usually 2,000 or 3,000 feet above sea level.)
     I don't use toilet paper, but a piece of paper towel torn or cut to the appropriate size. If you're trying to shit in the woods, in the dark and in the rain, toilet paper can disintegrate in your hands more or less instantly. Paper towels won't. Sans an outhouse to use, trail ethics dictate you dig a hole and bury your feces. Some sneer at using a small hand trowel, saying they don't need it. I suspect they really aren't digging a hole, but just scratching the leaves away. A trowel will DIG a hole. And mine came in handy at the muddy spring mentioned earlier.
    I carry several changes of socks, since they get dirty fast. I have rinsed dirty ones out in a river and tied them to the pack to dry. I would never rinse them in a spring. I hope it's obvious why it's a mistake to wash anything in a spring, or leave anything in a spring, like food scraps. Some other hiker desperate for water will come along and the last thing he or she needs is to find a water source polluted by some inconsiderate dolt. I have heard that in the Old West, they used to hang people who polluted water sources. I'm not surprised.
    I prefer my pack (like my socks) to be black, because it will dry quicker if I can place it in the sun. Since my legs sweat and the trail is dusty, I often use the wet bandanna to clean legs at available streams. The only time I ever got sick in the woods was because, I suspect, I didn't keep my hands clean. So I wash those up, also.
    I have seen, btw, some thru-hikers wear light gaiters to keep dirt off their socks. I tried a pair once and both gaiters fell off when I wasn't looking.
    I have carried hand-wipes, but you must carry them out with you after you use them. I carry a dab of liquid soap in a tiny Nalgene bottle. I don't recall if I've ever used it.
    Most thru-hikers I have seen look pretty clean. I suspect they visit a laundromat at every opportunity.
    I always carry ibuprofen and Immodium (anti-diarrheal). I also carry a tiny Nalgene bottle with ammonia in it. For insect stings. I have had to use it. I also carry some bandaids and medical adhesive tape.
     If you haven't learned any already, I'd read up on first aid. The stuff on stopping bleeding, etc. Just in case. There are always hikers on the AT in spring, summer and early fall. If somebody passed out cold on the AT during the warmer months, odds are he or she would be found pretty quick by another hiker.
     For at tiny Nalgene bottle, see:

Getting lost

    It's pretty easy to keep your bearings on the AT. Most of the time. The trail is marked with "white blazes." These are white stripes two inches wide and six inches long, painted vertically. You will see them on trees, rocks, bridge railings, sign posts, etc. etc. One thing to watch for is there are hundreds, if not thousands, of side trails that run into the AT. These side trails are marked with blue blazes. Some of these blazes are such a pale blue that I have had to examine them from a couple of inches to decide if they are blue or white.
     The AT also crosses hundreds of paved roads, including a big highway here and there. Usually you can look across the road and tell in an instant where the trail starts on the other side. Sometimes it's not so obvious. If you don't see any blazes, you should look for anything like a path or dirt road on the opposite side and try that. Don't wander too far down the road in either direction unless you see a white blaze.
     Leaving the trail and wandering far into the woods would be a bad idea. Most of the trail is too hilly to even think about it. I urge all hikers to carry at least two compasses, and keep at least one in a pocket at all times. If you feel the need to wander into the woods, first check your compass to see which way you are going. If you get turned around, you just follow the opposite heading to find the trail. All kinds of bad stuff can happen if you get completely lost in a big woods. Make sure you don't.
     Some shelters are at the end of side trails that might be a quarter or half mile long. I have walked down such side trails in the morning only to reach the AT and wonder if I'm supposed to go left or right, cause I wasn't paying much attention the night before. So I look at the compass.
     There is at least one spot I know of where the AT goes over the top of a 20-foot pile of boulders. When I first arrived there, I looked to the left and right but saw no trail. Certainly the trail wasn't going to go over the top of this mess of giant rocks. Then I saw the blaze that proved yes, indeed, that's where the trail was.

The heavy stuff

    I am what is called an ultralight hiker. That is, all of my hiking stuff inside my pack, minus water or food, weighs about 10 pounds. Some folks are confused about what ultralight means. They think it means not carrying a tent, or not carrying enough food, or not carrying enough junk. I carry a tent, globs of food and all kinds of junk. But it's light junk. Even with food and water, my pack almost never weighs more than 25 pounds. I usually have three quarts of water, which is six pounds. And when I start out I have maybe eight or nine pounds of food.
     I would emphasize that young, strong people should have no problem carrying 40 or 45 pounds on the AT. Ostensibly, that is.
     I have seen lots of young, strong hikers on the AT. Some of them hike incredibly fast. Like 4 or 5 mph. And some of them tell me (as I have mentioned) they are covering huge distances every day, like 30 to 40 miles. The young people I have seen doing that are lightweight or ultralight hikers. I've never seen anybody with a huge heavy pack moving that fast. When I was lumbering over the pile of boulders mentioned earlier, a skinny little guy in his 20s, about 5 feet 5, came outta nowhere and made the top of that pile in what seemed like three jumps. He was hiking in sandals and had an ultralight pack.
     The backpack, sleeping bag and tent are sometimes called "the big three" by hikers. My pack, sleeping bag (for the summer months) and tent weigh about 1 pound each. Specifically, it's 3 pounds, 4 ounces total. My stove weighs 3 ounces. The pad I sleep on weighs 9 ounces. Those 5 items (4 pounds) are really what make me an ultralight hiker. Other than those items, I'm not much different than most people.
     By comparison, some packs weigh 6 pounds, some tents 4 or 5 pounds, some sleeping pads 2 pounds, some stoves 1 pound, some sleeping bags 3 pounds. If you're carrying those, that's 17 pounds before you even add a toothbrush. (A water filter would make it nearly 18 pounds.)
     There are a lot of packs that weigh 3 pounds or less. There are a lot of sleeping bags at 2 pounds or less. My tent is called a "tarp" tent because it has a single wall and no floor. Some hikers will sleep under an open-side rectangle sil nylon tarp, for example tied between trees. It's pretty easy to find a tarp tent or tarp (both sil nylon) that weighs two pounds or less. (When a hiker talks about a "tarp," he's not talking about the kind of thing you'd use to cover a load of wood in a pickup truck.) The point is there are a lot of options and one need not travel as light as I do.
     When I tell some people I sleep in a floorless tent, they say, "What if a spider gets in?"
     A spider? The AT is crawling with bears, poisonous snakes and thieving mice. Who cares about a measly spider?
     Manufacturers who produce heavier gear often will tout it as more "comfortable." For example, the heavier packs will have a built-in frame of struts and padding that ostensibly make them more comfortable to carry. My pack has no frame. Its concept is that the hiker will roll up a foam sleeping pad and stick that down inside the empty pack. All other items go inside the rolled-up pad. The result is the pad gives the pack a semi-rigid structure and softens the load against the back. I find it plenty comfortable.
    The message boards I mentioned earlier will contain many opinions about all types of gear one can use.
     The item that makes me most comfortable on the AT is my tarp tent. Again, I find a tarp tent always warmer and more comfy than sleeping in a shelter, because it keeps the wind out. I have two tarp tents. I learned to sew and made a sil nylon pyramid tent that covers an area 7 by 8 feet. Weighs 20 ounces. I also own a factory-made item called the Sil Shelter. I have used both repeatedly. Because the Sil Shelter is narrower than the pyramid, it's easier to find a place to pitch it. For that reason, I intend to use it more frequently. It weighs 15 ounces as it's sold, but I sewed a sleeping bag zipper in the front to make a door, adding an ounce. Both of these use a hiking pole as the tent's center pole. (More on hiking poles later.) As it's sold, the Sil Shelter's door is open all the way to the top of the pole. Before I added the zipper, I sewed the top 8 inches of the opening shut. I hiked a week with it that way, and had no problems.
     The trick to pitching a Sil Shelter tightly (so it doesn't sag) is to stake the sides and tail end first. Stake the door last and pull it tight. Another option: There is a web loop at the peak of the Sil Shelter. I tied a cord to the loop, and stake the end out front to pull the thing tight. I use titanium stakes I bought at
     My summer sleeping bag is called the Western Mountaineering Highlite. It's down-filled and rated for 35 degrees. I also have a 20-degree down bag that's about 2 pounds. (If I attempted a thru-hike, I would use the 20-degree bag in early spring. And might even buy a 10-degree bag.)
     Instead of a sleeping bag, one could use a backpacking quilt. Unlike the bag, the quilt is designed to cover you on the top and sides only. The theory is that since you will be sleeping on a pad, you don't need anything else under you. And the quilt will be lighter than a bag, because it uses less material. All of this is true. I bought some rayon and Primaloft and made my own backpacking quilt. It's good for about 40 degrees and weighs 1.5 pounds. Such quilts are sewed so the hiker's feet are enclosed in a pocket at one end. I camped with mine a couple of nights and it worked like a charm. I never took it on the AT because I bought the lighter down bag.
     Because my tents have no floor, I have a black piece of plastic I bought at a farm implement store that I put under the sleeping pad.
     One nice thing about floorless tents is they don't flood. I have been in many floored tents that developed a pool of water in the rain. This has never happened to me in a floorless tent. For this reason, I never hesitate to use a down sleeping bag. Many people are afraid of them, because if a down bag gets soaking wet, it's useless and won't keep you warm. (A heavier, synthetic bag would dry faster than a wet down bag.) A sleeping bag is carried in a stuff sack, and inside my pack the sleeping bag and stuff sack are carried in a black plastic garbage bag. My sleeping bag faces a greater danger of getting wet inside the pack, compared to inside the tent. A couple of times when it was really raining heavily at night, I would pull the garbage bag over the foot end of the sleeping bag, up to about my knees. In retrospect, probably a needless precaution, but I had the trash bag there anyway, so what the heck. For the record, if you pitch a tent in a depression, a heavy rain might turn it into a flooded puddle.
     Some critics of ultralight complain the gear is light and easily damaged. They would have a point, if the hiker drags his pack over rocks and barbed wire, and pulls his tent and sleeping bag through underbrush and thorn bushes. If one can avoid that, the gear is durable.
     If the inside of the tent is warmer than the outside, condensation can form on the inside of any tent. To prevent this, manufacturers put vents in the top of the tent, usually covered by a rain fly. My tarp tents have no vents. There is usually enough air movement under the tent walls to prevent me from having problems. If it's raining, I keep the tent door open about 12 inches (both doors open from the ground up). And if I miscalculate and do get condensation, I wipe it off with the wet bandanna.
     Some people use hammocks. Interesting idea, since you don't need flat ground. A tent has four walls, a shelter three, a hammock none. Which is the warmest? I have no interest in a hammock.
     My pack is the GoLite Gust (20 ounces).

Here is the Western Mountaineering Highlite:

     Here is the Sil Shelter:

Backcountrygear.com also sells lots of other stuff.

     Many nice sleeping bags (and other things) are sold by Campmor

Table of Contents
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

The Bent Stick