Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hammock Camping Along the Appalachian Trail

One of the biggest decisions in planning a section hike along the Appalachian Trail is where to lie one's head at the end of a tiring day. The obvious solution for many is to sleep in one of the many wooden shelters along the trail. Some drawbacks are: shelters are open on one side to wind and rain; nocturnal noises from shelter mates, and shelter mice. Many others use the shelters for meals, but "go to ground" in tents for a bit more privacy, comfort control and to be relatively pest free. A number of freethinkers have decided leverage the many trees along the Appalachian Trail for hammock camping. In fact, recently one thru-hiker hung his hammock in the middle of the trail inside the famous crooked Bly Oak tree.

Hammock camping has developed over the past decade into an established method of camping. Hammock camping forums exist to document gear and methods. Hammock camping tutorials and videos adorn the worldwide web, putting the collective knowledge of the hammock camping community into the grasp of everyman. While homemade hammock camping gear is used, a number of commercial businesses catering to the hammock camper have taken root and supply an increasing array of hammocks and accessories.

Hammock camping begins with developing a hammock camping system. At minimum, "hanging" requires a hammock, a suspension system, and a tarp. Several lightweight hammocks are available at low cost. We've purchased Grand Trunk's lightweight travel hammock on Amazon for about $17 and will post a review shortly after an overnight test. Suspension can be as simple as some non-strech rope or more expensive commercial "tree huggers." Tarps can be relatively expensive custom silnylon or inexpensive, but heavier, polyurathane from the local hardware store.

One of the tricks of the trade for successful hammock camping along the Appalachian trail is to use a ridge line. Inexpensive hammocks don't come with one, but you can easily make one using low stretch rope. A ridgeline is basically a rope with loops at both ends and it attaches to the carabiners at both ends of the hammock. The purpose of the ridgeline is to ensure the same amount of slack, or "hang," in your hammock. In order to lie flat, a hammock needs some slack. Ridgelines are usually about 83% of the length of the hammock. Ridgelines also are useful for hanging water bottles for midnight thirsts and for drying socks and clothes.

As hammocks hang and air is free to blow beneath a hammock, a pad or underquilt is often necessary to ensure a warm night's rest. A 24-inch wide foam pad works better than a 20-inch pad as hammocks tend to curve and envelope the occupant. You'll be glad to have the extra 4-inches to insulate your shoulders. Surplus military foam pads are 24-inches in width. Many hammock campers custom trim foam pads to reduce weight.

If we can fine tune our hammock system in time, you'll find us hammock camping along the Appalachian Trail this summer. If not, well, one more season on the ground won't be too awful.

Tip 1: Tie the suspension line for your tarp BELOW the suspension system for your hammock. The hammock will sag with your weight and the tarp will be just right for maximum protection from rain and wind.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Appalachian Trail Data Book on Google Calendar

While playing with Google Calendar, I discovered how to create my own personal Appalachian Trail Data Book or page.

1) Create a new calendar. I named mine "AT Trail".

2) Add a new event for each trail feature you wish to include.

a. What: shelter name, scenic feature, road intersection, etc.

b. Uncheck all day box to right of date. This should enable entering start and finish dates and times.

c. When: Planned date and estimated time of arrival

d. to select 0 hours for a checkpoint, set delay for other events (photos, resupply, shower, etc.)

e. Where: put the mileage from Springer (e.g.; m1126.3)

3) View agenda. You now have a brief personalized data book page. One problem: Google Calendar doesn't print agendas, just calendars.

4) Copy the agenda to the clipboard.

5) Paste into favorite word processor. I pasted into Word and then used bold and other tools to improve layout and to highlight key events (resupply, showers).

Tip: By having your trip plan on Google Calendar, you can share your calendar with others. Meaning, they can import your trip plan directly into their Google Calendar.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Appalachian Trail Food: Trail Kitchen Video

Just added Sarah Kirkconnell's trail kitchen video on YouTube to the video slide show in the right-side information pane. Sarah is the author of Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Food Made Simple and authors the Trail Cooking blog that you should visit.

If you liked Sarah's trail kitchen video, there's a longer video of Sarah demonstrating freezer bag cooking to prepare easy gourmet trail food. Note Sarah's use of her freezer bag cozy, one of the secrets to enjoying warm food on the trail. The kitchen video mentions her freezer bag cozy, but underemphasizes the cozy's importance in preparing trail food.

Sarah also has several more good trail cooking videos demonstrating how to make various trail food that you might take some time to view. Anyone that carries a lightweight peppermill on the trail is someone I want to hike with.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Appalachian Trail Map: Interactive Google Map

One of the more useful Appalachian Trail maps I found when doing my section hike research was the ATC's interactive Google map. You'll find a large button and link to the interactive trail map on the right hand-side of the blog, just below the trailphone map.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has taken advantage of Google Maps' new ability to display ESRI shape files. The interactive trail map overlays a GIS shape file of the Appalachian Trail on the terrain version of Google maps. This allows hikers to zoom in to areas of the Appalachian Trail and get a feel for the lay of the terrain.

Additional shape files may be overlayed depicting parking areas and scenic vistas. A third option, which I find the most useful, is the ability to toggle the shelter layer to display the locations of the many wooden shelters that adorn the Appalachian Trail. I find the icons a bit large and would prefer an icon about half to quarter size as that would make the map a bit more precise.

Being in Google maps, one always has the option of switching to satellite view to get a feel for the ground cover. There been some talk of through hiking a backpack Google Streetmaps camera to add the ability to get a 360-degree view of any section of the Appalachian Trail. I'm not holding my breath, but it really would be something if the triple crown trails of long distance hiking were available in street-level view.

Take some time to get familiar with ATC's interactive Appalachian Trail map. Teach your "support team" to use it also.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Trekking Poles: Outdoor Products Hiking Poles

While searching for some trekking poles for our upcoming Appalachian Trail section hike, I discovered Walmart carried some hiking poles by Outdoor Products for a mere $13 each. I initially bought just one and took it home to examine.

Outdoor Products trekking poles are constructed in three major sections. The ends of the upper sections have a keyhole cut on two sides. A wrap around clamp squeezes the two "wings" against the bottom telescoping section. The clamps are adjusted by a single cross-point screw. Recommend carrying extra screws and a small crosspoint screwdriver on a multi-tool or keyring.

The bottom two sections are marked with various lengths in centimeters. I found 133 about right for 6-foot tall hikers.

The top of each trekking pole has a molded hand grip that was comfortable. An adjustable wrist strap is attached at the base of the hand grip.

Just prior to a weekend shakedown hiking trip, I bought a second matching trekking pole. Both trekking poles performed well with no bending. While hiking, we used the tips to flip small branches off the hiking trail. We'll have to take these hiking poles out to a nearby mountain with a boulder field to see how they do in steeper and rougher terrain.

Tip 1: Get some fingerless cycling or golf gloves to wear when using these trekking poles. By the end of a day of walking, your hands may become tender from the constant friction of the handles.

Tip 2: Wrap some duct tape around your hiking poles.  A water bottle developed a hairline crack after 20-years of service. We quickly patched the area with duct tape from our hiking pole.


We used our Outdoor Products trekking poles from Walmart for our first Appalachian Trail section hike. The poles held up wonderfully. Don't know how we would have made it through some of the rocky, bouldering sections without them. That said, the basket on one pole did shatter, but only after repeatedly being jammed and caught between rocks throughout the trip. The other pole does have a very slight bend from a fall that took more of our body weight than designed, but the pole collapses normally and works fine extended.

We took along a mini fishing multi-tool that included a screwdriver for tightening the clamps. Only one pole needed adjusting and then just once during the two weeks.

We plan to add another set of Outdoor Products hiking poles to the family gear cache over the coming year.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hiking Backpack: Outdoor Products Arrowhead

UPDATE: Walmart seems to no longer carry the Outdoor Products Arrowhead backpack, but the Arrowhead backpack is available on Amazon.com.

The local Walmarts have been renovating their outdoor products aisle. They now feature backpacks and accessories by Outdoor Products. The Arrowhead backpack caught my eye. The price is shown as just $29.98. Increadibly inexpensive for a backpack. The tag says backpack dimensions are 21.5 X 15 X 8.5 inches. My math produces about 3,900 cu. inches. Outdoor Products describes the backpack at 3,096 cubic inches, just under the 3,500-4,000 range I'm looking for.

I was curious as to the packs weight, so I tromped over to the grocery section and weighed it on a fruit scale. It weighed in at about 2.25 pounds. I removed the two aluminum stays and reweighed the pack. About 2 pounds. Back in sporting goods I opened the pack up and dropped in a blue foam pad. It fit right up to the top. It seems there's enought room to expand the pad and stuff clothes, food, and maybe a hammock inside.

The outside of the backpack sports gear loops down the middle and a compression strap above each of the two side pockets. So, a sleeping bag, tent, or other gear could be lashed onto the outside of the pack, if needed.

The pack is also hydration capable. Walmart carries Outdoor Products 2-quart bladder for just $9. Spare bite valves are available.

I think I'm going to buy one of these for use by family on weekend backpacking trips. If it works out that it carries enough gear, then I may consider using the Outdoor Products Arrowhead backpack for my multi-day Appalachian Trail section hikes.


Bought the Arrowhead backpack and took it on a weekend trip of about 12 miles. It easily held dry clothes, 3-days food, and a sleeping bag in the main compartment.

We tried lining the interior with a standard foam pad. Everything fit inside: pad, clothes, food, bag. However, we couldn't close the top flipover pocket due to the bag being just a few inches shorter that the width of the pad. We attached the foam pad to the daisy chain of gear loops on the pack exterior with a set of nylon straps.

After packing the interior with the foam pad, we discovered the zippers on the two side pockets are sewn too close to the pack to slide in water bottles. After removing the pad and thumping the clothes and food a bit, we could slide water bottles into the side pockets. Really recommend buying the optional 2-liter water bag for use with this pack.

The top pocket is a little small. After stuffing a poncho inside there was room for some flat maps and very little else. Consider adding a belt pouch or two to the nylon waist belt to carry sunblock, lip balm, iodine tablets, etc.

If we substitute an emergency bivy sack for the the 3lb sleeping bag, we probably can squeeze a hammock system or a small single person tent inside. If that's the case, we'll likely pick up another 1 or 2 before the price increases or they're discontinued.

Overall, this seems a very good warm weather pack for May through August. If you don't need to carry anything bulky, this pack is a good way to go fairly ultralight for very little cash.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Appalachian Trail Safety: Spring Hazards

The New Jersey/New York Trail Conference tweeted about an article on hiking the Appalachian Trail during Spring Break. The article includes several very good safety points to keep in mind during Spring:

1) Wild animals on the trail in March are hungry. Do not approach.

2) Rocks and logs hide snakes. Do not flip over or move.

3) Hollow trees may contain thousands of bees. Do not touch. Also, carry auto-injectors if allergic to bees.

4) Trail is very wet and still icy.

5) Bears are out in force. See #1 above.

6) Carry a first aid kit. If you think someone else already has one, surprise! Many hikers do not.

Read the entire article: http://tinyurl.com/ya8l2fa

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Appalachian Trail Journal: TrailPhone Audio Journals

Many Appalachian Trail hikers keep online journals of their trek. While reading one such journal, I discovered TrailPhone.net, a FREE (as in beer), toll-free, audio trail journal service. You'll find a Google Map with hiker pins in the right-side green sidebar. Click on a hiker and their most recent audio trail journal will play.

Clicking through to the TrailPhone.net website will display a larger map and six of the most recent audio trail journals. There are over 28 pages of archived audio journals covering nearly every section of the Appalachian Trail.

TrailPhone.net is a free service and uses a toll-free number which can be accessed by cell phone or from the many pay phones found along the Appalachian Trail. The ability to record brief audio messages is a great way for family members to keep abreast of their loved ones progress, or lack of progress, along the trail.

I highly recommend all first time hikers listen to several reports for their planned section hike. Hikers often report conditions along a section of the Appalachian Trail, as well as bear activity, wildlife, and useful intelligence such as weather, ticks, etc.

TrailPhone audio journal is donor supported. If you use the service on your section hike of the Appalachian Trail or you become a regular follower of particular hikers, please consider donating to help keep this valuable journal service up and running. Vounteer labor only goes so far. Some of the commercial services used to enable TrailPhone only accept cash. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Backpack Alcohol Stoves: Trangia Spirit Stove

Made another trip to my local outfitter and discovered they also carried the Trangia Spirit Stove backpack alcohol stove. The box was quite heavy when I lifted it. I discovered that the wind shield/pot support seemed to be steel and accounted for most of the weight. The Trangia Spirit weighs about 10 ounces compared to the Vargo Triad XE's 1.5 ounces.

The alcohol stove element was cleverly designed. It came with a screw cap to save leftover fuel. Replacement o-ring seals are available. The overall stove element was light weight and could be used without the wind shield, but one would need some means to support a pot or cup at the optimum height over the flame.

I'm still leaning towards the Vargo Triad XE backpack alcohol stove that I reviewed earler.

Appalachian Trail Access: Harrisburg, PA

Harrisburg, PA is near two access points to the Appalachian Trail. Harrisburg is also served by both Amtrack and Greyhound; both use the same facility downtown. Capitol Area Transit (CAT) runs two routes of interest to Appalachian Trail section hikers. The CAT Market Square Transfer Center is across the street from the Amtrack station/Greyhound depot, about 1 block west.

Route 23 serves the Duncannon area, actually the park-and-ride parking lot across the river about 1 mile away. The problem for Appalachian Trail section hikers is this bus runs only twice each work day (Monday - Friday). The first runs is at 6:45 a.m. inbound to Harrisburg and the second is at 4:05 p.m.outbound to Duncannon and arriving at 6:20 p.m.. Compared to expensive private shuttles, the price is right at about $2.85.

Route C to the Carlisle area crosses the Appalachian Trail to the West of Harrisburg. The Route C bus is the more frequent with about 10 inbound buses daily to Harrisburg. The first at 6:01 a.m. and the last at 6:08 p.m..  Outbound buses from Harrisburg start at 5:30 a.m. and the last is at 5:30 p.m.. Fare is currently $2.85. There are two later express buses that stop at the I-81 interchange and require some backtracking to access the Appalachian Trail. The local Route C bus also passes a WalMart Supercenter and a K-Mart inbound to Harrisburg.

The ATC's Boiling Springs Appalachian Trail Information Center is located south of the Route C trail access point. White gas and denatured alcohol stove fuels are also available for a small donation. Hours are  8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays. Contact: (717) 258-5771;