Dream. Plan. Live.
In less than a week, yours truly, Goatman, will step back onto the Appalachian Trail to finish the last 969 miles of a thru-hike that began in 2013 with a 1200+ mile trek. The time for planning, prepping, training, and ruminating is over. And good riddance.
I know this may come as no surprise to many of you that know me, but you may as well stamp “Type B Personality” on my forehead. Making lists upon lists, worrying about details, lusting after improvement: not my style. Luckily for me, the AT isn’t an expedition. Nor is it a race, or a chore, or a job. And that’s what makes it so great. The AT is an adventure. Look that up in the dictionary.
Having read the other installments of the Return of the SLOBO series, you may think I really have everything together. Surely, a man conceited enough to presume to tell you how go on a very personal, very emotional adventure should himself be a shining example of the Fully Prepared Backpacker. Welcome to reality: I have no idea what is coming. Having hiked long-distance before, I know only one thing to be true: the trail teaches what needs knowing and nothing but putting feet to dirt is going to help you in the end.
Disconcerting? For some, I suppose. We are raised with the idea in mind that knowledge is inherently important to a task. I would argue that wisdom trumps knowledge a majority of the time. Knowing that you have 17.8 miles until you camp for the night and that water is 5.2 into the hike tells you very little about how your day is going to go. The elevation charts in the guide books are convenient fantasies and often misleading. It never rains for days on paper.
Am I saying to throw the guidebook off a cliff, sell your bag to a bear, and head off into the Great Unknown with only your cunning and sturdy stick to keep you safe? Or course not (okay, sometimes I get in a mood and say exactly that, but don’t listen to me all of the time. It’s bad for you.) I still stand by everything I said in the early articles concerning physical and mental training, buying gear that keeps your safe, happy, and moving, etc. All good ideas. Unfortunately, they are only that. Ideas. So you read the articles with good intentions in your heart, but now it’s go time and you didn’t hike as much as you wanted before setting out, your legs aren’t in the best shape they could be, you took some last minute things and now your pack is heavier than you wanted, and your mind is scattered and racing worrying about all of the “What Ifs”. Now what? Do you cancel your plans? Do you say, “Maybe next year”? Do you justify an existence in which your dreams are not manifested into reality?
You hit the trail. And you hike. And you get stronger and smarter and more wise everyday. Suddenly, you’re hiking the AT and you’ve done a week and you’re still scared, more tired than you’ve ever been, and still not so sure you’re ready for all of this. And then you hike for another week and realize that you are as strong as you want to be, that exhaustion is uplifting if related to a purpose, and that no one is ready for this! And then you hike for another week.
Excuses make terrible hiking partners.
In the end, trails are for hiking, not analyzing. I cannot wait to shut my silly mouth, strap up, and go. The next time you hear from me, I’ll have some good stories for you, I’m sure, and I’ll be sharing some here if I can.
See you out there.
Previous More Return of the SLOBO?
―from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
Oh! The dreaded gear installment!
One would think that, after hiking thousands of miles, working at an outfitter, and keeping up with innovations in the backpacking industry, old Goatman would just be waiting to tell you everything he knows about the gear you should take on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. The problem is this: I am not you. I’m not packing for you, I’m not resupplying with you, I’m not throwing your bag on my back, and I’m not hiking a single mile of the trail for you.
The gear I use is simply that: it’s what I use while on the trail. I could type up a spreadsheet with weight and cost and every other variable listed out, post it here, and be done with this article, but all you would know is what I take on a hike and not what you, dear reader, should take on a hike. Again, I am not you. I don’t have your feet, I don’t worry about your fears, and I happen to be as strong as one donkey and one mule combined in man form, thus rendering the weight concerns of your average human meaningless to me.
You may be asking yourself: “Well, Goatman, what exactly are you going to talk about in this article besides being a mutant-hybrid pack creature?” Good question. Let’s get to the meat of it. Despite current fashion or gear trends, the gear you take on the AT should do the following things for you: keep you safe, keep you happy, and keep you moving.
Gear Should Keep You Safe
Seems pretty simple. I don’t wear a rain shell when the skies are blue just to look cool. I wear it when it is raining to keep dry and warm. I might wear it above treeline to keep the sun and wind off, but otherwise, it is sitting in my pack, waiting for the weather to turn nasty. I don’t put it in a bounce box just because it looks like a nice couple of days ahead. It is not useless weight just because I carry it as much as I wear it; it is still serving its function as a piece of bad weather gear when tucked away.
Try and check the weather predictions along the entire AT for a six month period. Nonsense, right? You don’t pack for the perfect days. You pack with the hard days in mind and you pack to lessen the effect that hard days will have on you, whenever they come.
This can be extended to almost anything in your bag: a headlamp is only useful in the dark, but get caught without one on an overcast night when you get stuck out late on the bogs and see if you don’t wish you had one.
Before leaving something at home, ask yourself, “Am I sacrificing safety by not having this with me?” If you are fine with the risk imposed, then by all means, get it out of your pack. There are things that work as a safety blanket more than they work as functional gear. You will learn the difference on the trail if not before.
Something we tend to emphasize that bears repeating: do not set foot on your thru-hike with gear that you have never hiked with before. Think you need a 7 inch bear hunting knife for safety? Well, take it out on a weekend trip and see how many times you actually need it. Guess what? People have hiked the AT with less useful things and made it every step of the way. Were they being stubborn? Undoubtedly. Could they have lightened their load? Of course. Did it matter in the end? Not one bit. No one is standing at the terminus, counting all of the calories you wasted carrying extra stuff. There’s no thru-hiker report card being filled out. Either you make it or you don’t. If the things in your bag helped you make it, then they were useful whatever they were.
Let’s step back for a moment: What do I mean by safety? Safety on a thru-hike for me means successfully hiking from town to town and eventually reaching the terminus without grievous injury to yourself or anyone around you. This does not entail carting around a 3 lb. first aid kit that you don’t even know how to utilize to its full extent. This does not mean bringing a gun. This does mean, however, choosing socks and footwear that do not cause blistering, loss of toenails, or nerve damage to your feet. It means having appropriate layers of clothing to deal with the rapidly changing temperatures on a long distance hike. It means having shelter from the elements when you get caught out in them. It means having a sleep system that allows you to truly rest at night and regain your strength for the next day. It means carrying enough calories to see you through to the next resupply and/or buffet. And it means having water purification so you don’t poop yourself off the trail.
Gear Should Keep You Happy
I realize that happiness is relative. I’m not worried about whether or not you define yourself as happy every step of the AT. You won’t. You will experience the entire gamut of emotions on the trail, including simultaneous emotional combinations that you didn’t even know that you had in you (i.e. “I’m sad that I’m out of peanut butter, which I hate as of now, but I’m hungry, which makes me angry, but my pack is a pound lighter and that makes me happy.”)
The point I want to make is that if you’re not going to be happy at times, it shouldn’t be because of your gear.
If you’re going to be sad, angry, or frustrated, it should be because of some existential longing within your soul or some jerk you met, not because your pack doesn’t fit correctly (because you bought it off the internet without thought to torso size or load capacity.) I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I can fit a pack to your back with precision. There are few problems with gear that can’t be fixed. Remember that hike you’re going to do with all of your gear before you head out on the AT? That would be the time to figure out what hurts and why. And to fix it.
Happiness isn’t just decided by physical means, however. Everything can fit great, your pack can be light and comfortable, and your head can still be a mess. Sometimes, you just need your lucky rocketship underwear. What I mean by this is: don’t skimp on your luxury item, whatever that may be. I hiked the length of Maine with a 600+ page copy of my favorite book. It probably weighed upwards of a pound (I don’t want to know.)
Why? Well, the short answer is that I’m an avid reader and collector of books. It is part of who I am and, without this aspect of my life, I feel less connected to myself and what I’m doing on this Earth. I don’t like reading; I love reading. My vision of hell is a waiting room with nothing to read. And my vision of heaven? To be in the woods, miles away from civilization, with a book in my hand as the sun goes down. It is as simple as that. I made the decision to carry the extra weight so that, in the rare moments that I wasn’t hiking, eating, or sleeping, I could wind down and do a bit of what makes me happy no matter where I am. And I brought this particular favorite book as a symbolic boon for my hike.
There are lighter, more weather resistant, more practical items that I could have brought to keep me busy when not moving, but that was not the point. Carrying this book made me happy, so I carried it. Don’t let other people dictate what keeps you smiling. That doesn’t work. You won’t look at any AT pack list that includes Giant Pretentious Modernist Novel, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring one.
Gear Should Keep You Moving
Being safe and happy isn’t what hiking is all about. If these were your only goals, you might as well stay at home. Hiking isn’t always safe. Being in the woods can be dangerous and there are certainly a lot of things you can do to minimize the risk, but at the end of the day a bit of the Fear is part of the experience of hiking. As for happiness, I don’t think I need to repeat that this is a conditional state that you will move in and out of on the trail just as you do at home or any other place that you happen to be.
What hiking is all about is movement.
There is a saying on the trail: “It’s not about the miles, it’s about the smiles.”
However, in the paraphrased words of SLOBO extraordinaire the Bartender (’13): “That’s bull, man. If it were all about the smiles, I’d be back in Monson, drinking beer and hanging out. It’s gotta be about the miles if you want to finish.”
You’re not a hiker when you’re sitting around town. You’re not a hiker before or after your trip. You are only a hiker when you’re on the trail, making miles, and putting another footstep towards your goal. The gear you take with you should help with your progress, not hinder it.
This is where your pack weight comes in. It’s trendy these days to try to go as “ultralight” as possible. There’s good reason for this: the less weight in your pack, the less strain on your body, the more miles you can potentially do on the same amount of calories. Makes sense, right? Yes, it does, unless you are going so “ultralight” that you are sacrificing your safety or your happiness (see above.) There is a balance to be met, just as in all things.
So the point is to keep moving. No one knows what keeps you moving better than yourself, but there are a few universals. If you are injured, you will have to stop and rest. Your gear should not be the cause of injury (once again: shakedown hike! Please, for the love of all that is good in this world, shakedown hike!) If you don’t have the gear to move through and survive inclement weather, you will have to hole up in town. If you underestimate the amount of calories to pack out, you will find yourself tired, grumpy, and disoriented on the trail. A light pack isn’t going to help with any of these. So, yes, please, think about the weight of your pack and make sure that it isn’t weighing you down unnecessarily, but cutting weight just to cut weight is foolish if you are sacrificing your safety or happiness.
This is also the point where the longevity of your gear comes into play. Going into town is both fun and necessary at times, but going into a town you weren’t planning on going into in order to find a replacement for malfunctioning gear is a huge waste of time and energy. I realize that hikers are all about frugality, but there comes a point when it is more cost-effective to buy quality than to settle for something less that you will have to replace (possibly multiple times.) Case in point: I thought paying over $10 for a titanium long spoon was crazy when I could buy a cheap plastic spork that weighed less for a couple of bucks. And then I broke my plastic spork eating noodles. And then I broke my second plastic spork eating mashed potatoes and now I’m eating my dinner with filthy, burnt fingers for days before I can replace it with the spoon I originally snubbed as being too expensive.
There are definitely things that you can go cheap on, but when it comes to gear that is keeping you on the trail, you’ll find that spending the extra dough to get gear that is proven to last and warrantied against damage will save you a lot of time, effort, and money in the long run. The spork is a silly example in that I didn’t need it to keep moving. Had I skimped on my footwear and socks, however, I would have been limping back into town. Had I skimped on my backpack, I could have found myself at war with what should have been my dearest asset, whether that meant the straps rubbing me raw or the pack becoming nonfunctional.
Again, the goal is to keep moving. Keep this in mind when gathering your gear. Keep an eye on weight. Too heavy and you’ll be huffing and puffing every step. Too light and you might be sacrificing safety and happiness.
No one can pack for you. There are hundreds of example pack lists available on the internet. Look at them, learn from them, but in the end, you will come up with your own system that works for you. In all of my years of hiking, I have never come upon another hiker that is carrying the exact set up as I am. Why is that? Am I wrong? Is she wrong? How about that guy over there?
Find what works for you. Test it. Make sure it does what you need it to and that it will last. If you need advice, we at RRT are always here to help. In the end, no one else is going to hoist your pack and hit the trail for you.
Previous More Return of the SLOBO? Next
Read the first article in the Return of the SLOBO series, 799 Zero Days Later
“Whatcha wanna do today? Go on a hike? I know this great trail.”
We would joke like this in the morning as I filtered water from a stream and Jubilee broke down our tent.
And sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was a painful reminder that there was nothing else to do, that we had no choice but to hike. We lived on the Appalachian Trail. Hiking was not only our sole mode of transportation, but also our entertainment, our defining sense of purpose, and the task at hand. You either hike or you go home. This is what makes long distance hiking so difficult. Not the sore feet, empty belly, cold rain, or looks of derision while stinking up a laundry mat. It remains true to my experience that the easiest way to lose the joy in something is day in, day out repetition of said thing. Anything can be exciting when new.
It is a hard lesson to learn: perseverance and happiness do not walk hand in hand. You don’t wake up and hike another 20 miles because it makes you happy that day. You wake up and hike because that is what you set out to do and there is happiness in following through with your dreams. Thinking that thru-hiking is months of endless fun is like thinking that working at an amusement park is fun. Trust me: it’s not. You get to see a lot of people having fun, yes, but you are there after the rides close, dealing with the reality behind the illusion.
A heavy start to a blog, I must admit, and not usually my style, but the time has come to get down to it. Mental preparation for the Appalachian Trail is anything but frivolous and it begins the second you decide to take on the trail. In the spirit of the thing, we’ll start heavy and lighten the load as we go. So let’s look at what you can do to strengthen your resolve before you even put shoe to dirt.
So you’re going to hike over 2,000 miles on foot through the oldest mountains on Earth, experience iconic towns, beautiful mountain summits, rivers and lakes galore, live with everything you need on your back, and make lasting relationships with people from across the world. Excited? Oh yeah, you’re excited! You are going to do it and its going to be the trip of a lifetime. So tell people! Tell your friends and family, tell your co-workers, tell people on the street. Tell them when you’re going and why you’re going. Talk it up. Make people associate you with your hike.
You’re not just talking because you’re excited and love talking about backpacking; you are turning on the social pressure machine. Thinking about going home after a couple of hard days on the trail? It will happen, but are you ready to explain to everyone back home that you are a quitter and that your will is weak? Sounds like a lot of fun, right?
We are social animals, for better or worse. Many people spend their entire lives worrying about what society thinks of their actions and appearance. For some of us, this is a nuisance of which we would gladly be rid. In this case, however, the best thing to do is to make sure to use it to your advantage. Don’t want your older sister making fun of you for quitting the AT? Then don’t go hiking with quitting on your mind. I believe that we are what we do, not what we plan to do or have done in the past, and the only one that can act in the present is you, now.
But boy can people gossiping about your business put a fire under you. It’s up to you whether you let the fire burn you up or you turn it into rocket boots.
Physical Training is Mental Training
So you’ve told people that you’re going on the trail and you’re hitting the local parks with a pack on your back to strengthen up your legs for the mountains. What can you be doing mentally to train while you are training physically? The good news is that you’re already doing it. Your mind and your body do not work as separate entities. If you got out of bed early to put in some miles before work or spent your Saturday with your pack on, outside and moving, you are participating in mental training. Every time you could be sitting at home, staring at a screen and giggling as you eat cheese-o’s, and decide instead to hit the trail with a pack on to put in some miles, you are winning the mental challenge game.
Now we start to combine methods: Your friend invites you to a BBQ in the afternoon. You tell him that you’re going to be hiking to prep for the AT. He sends you a picture of steaks, cold beer, and an empty hammock. You send him a picture of Katahdin. Then you skip the BBQ and hike even farther than you were planning originally. So now your friend knows what you are doing, sees that you are serious enough to skip out a good time, and talks about why you aren’t there with others. Meanwhile, you put in the miles that you need to put in, pushing yourself both physically and mentally.
The toughest day on the AT for many people comes when leaving town and going back into the hills after a relaxing zero day, back away from all-you-can-eat buffets, air conditioning, and clean beds. Practice choosing the trail over convenient distractions. You’re going to be doing it a lot and you might as well practice.
You are the Mountain
Your friends all know about your trip, your family is excited and anxious for you, you’re as fit as you’re going to get and the date of your departure is coming up fast. You even think you know the first few shelters you’re going to stay at and your gear is all laid out, ready to go.
You’ve been busy. Now is the time to learn to be un-busy. Some would even called it bored. It’s an uneasy truth, but true nonetheless. Hiking everyday can be boring. You are going to be alone a lot. I say this having hiked with a partner. Yes, there’s conversation and camaraderie at times during the day, but not all of the day. Not even most of the day. Most of the day, you are staring at your ever moving feet, completely in your own head.
There are modern “cures” for this: You can listen to music. You can listen to audio books, podcasts, or recordings of cats falling off of things and meowing. You can do all of this and still be bored. Call me a Luddite, but I believe that entertainment technology is but a band-aid on a wound that will never close if you keep messing with it.
Music can take you out of your head, yes. It is good at that. But isn’t it better to be comfortable where your mind dwells without the need for distraction?
Spend time in your mind before leaving for the AT. The best way I know of is meditation. You don’t need incense and chimes. You don’t need an esoteric mantra or expensive cushion. You don’t need to prescribe to anything in particular at all. All you need to do is sit down for 20 or 30 minutes with a straight spine, breath slowly and methodically, and let your mind settle. And don’t move, no matter what you do. Boredom is what we call the transitional phase between activity and non-activity. If you’re interacting with outside stimuli all day and suddenly give your mind nothing to grab onto, it will panic and tell you that you are bored, that you need something other than what you have. Meditating is a good way to let your mind know that it doesn’t need anything outside of itself.
Everyone is different and I don’t mean to speak for anyone but myself. Meditation works for me, but there are other ways to slow down and let your mind get comfortable being alone for a while. Only you know what works for you and what doesn’t. But whatever method you find, make sure to stick with it, especially when it becomes inconvenient and difficult. The more inconvenient and difficult the better, to tell you the truth.
Are you ready to be ready?
Overwhelmed? Sorry about that. Talking about mental preparation for a thru-hike isn’t the most light hearted topic and I refuse to sugar coat things. You’re going to be tired, hungry, and ready to go home. What you do next is what will decide how your hike goes. I want to disabuse you of the notion that the AT involves months of skipping through the woods with a flower in your hand, singing Kumbaya, and smiling every step.
You only do that on Tuesdays.
Seriously though, there are days when your spirits are higher than the mountains and love is the law of the land. These are the days that will keep you going. And they are more numerous than I can emphasize. But no one needs to prepare for being happy and free. That will come naturally.
However, if you get good at navigating in the darkness, you won’t miss the light so much. So be tough on yourself, but be hopeful. Be optimistic while practicing your bad days and you’ll realize that the difference between a bad day and a good day has little to do with everything else and a lot to do with you, yourself, here and now.
I could tell you to look for the silver lining around every storm cloud, but cliches are of little help when the rain starts falling so instead I’ll leave you with this thought:
The only clouds inside your mind are the ones you put there.
Read the first article in the Return of the SLOBO series, 799 Zero Days Later
“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least…sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldy engagements.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walking
When people ask me “What was it like hiking the Appalachian Trail?”, I normally space out for a few minutes, stare into the ever-deepening hole of my memory and watch as fleeting images pass of those free days in the hills, drinking fresh spring water, laughing with new friends around a rustic shelter at night, and sitting on a mountain summit, spirit emboldened, knowing that the day would bring only more beauty.
And then my brain kicks sentiment out on its butt and I recall the reality of chronically sore knees, swollen feet, cracked toenails, ravenous hunger, blood, sweat, mud, rain, rain, rain, and waking up in my own filth once again, knowing that the day would bring only more pain.
When I come out of my trance, if the person is still there, I answer with a smile and something like, “Well, I got really good at walking.”
It sounds snarky, but it’s true. When you start out to do a long distance hike, no matter what trail you are setting out on or how much past experience you have, your mind cannot help but to romanticize the prospect of spending all day, everyday trekking through the woods. It just sounds so peaceful, doesn’t it? As if blue birds should be greeting you every morning upon waking with a song and a pancake breakfast. On the other hand, when you are deep into it, caught up in making miles and pushing yourself to your limit, you might forget to stop and take in the view or to appreciate a gang of frogs burping out a back country symphony as you’re trying to sleep. There is, as in all things, a balance to be struck and despite hardship and despite joy, at the end of every day, there is one thing that is always true on a hike: You get really good at walking.
Walking all day, over rocks and roots, up and down mountains, through streams and over fields, is not a simple as it sounds. Unless you already live in a rugged area, most of us don’t spend our days staring at our feet, watching every step, and varying our gait to match the lay of the land, avoiding slippery roots and sharp rock edges. Most of us walk on nice even floors, convenient sidewalks, and maybe even nicely groomed trails in the local park and never have to think about where our feet are going to land. You can count your steps-per-day in the city, but this will not translate to steps on the AT. Not really. Not without a pack on your back, sweat in your eyes, sore feet, exhausted muscles, and no prospect of a clean bed for days.
I learned this the hard way. In late 2012, knowing that I was to leave for the trail in 6 months, I began to train (without actually researching what training I should be doing.) So I started trail-running, climbing steps, doing squats and push-ups, and tried to walk everywhere I went. I went on shake-down hikes and made sure that my bag fit properly and that I had everything I needed (and more, it turned out.) When the time came to fly to Maine, I was feeling better than I had in years. I had lost some weight, gained some muscle, and saw my endurance more than double. When people noticed, I always told them, with pride in my voice, that I was training for the AT.
Skip to June and see me at Thoreau Springs, just having climbed to the tableland of Mt. Katahdin, only a short 4 miles in, with over a mile left to the summit and 5 more back to camp after that, sitting on a rock, waiting for my legs to start working again, hoping that they would come around before the lightning storms rolled in. As a south-bounder, you don’t technically start the AT until you reach the summit of Katahdin. I was beat and I was still on the approach hike.
Had I not trained hard enough? No doubt that I hadn’t. Did I know what I was getting myself into? Of course not. Was my body ready for the test of climbing mountains everyday? No. Not yet. Then came the most important moment on the trail for me: I snacked, I rested, I hydrated, and I got to my feet and I walked (slowly) the last mile to the summit. My lovely partner, Jubilee, was there waiting for me, having passed me up at some point. We took our customary summit photos, looked off into the wilderness below that was to be our new home, and started hiking back to camp before the weather turned. This would be the first of many of these moments – moments where I felt drained, out of my element, and daunted by the task ahead. Call it stubbornness or call it willpower, but there is something inside that does not listen to the aching of our bodies and ignores the cries of our emotions. This is what we must train, I have decided.
You’ll hear this “secret” spoken of in any reliable AT prep article, but it bears repeating: there is no true way to prepare for hiking everyday except for hiking everyday. For most of us, this is not easy to accomplish in our modern lives. However, the truth of the statement stands. This time around, I’m taking this advice to heart. And it won’t be easy, but neither is hiking the AT.
As I write this, I once again have 6 months until I leave for the trail to complete the final leg that I failed to hike the first time around: Shenandoah Nat’l Park, VA to Springer Mountain, GA. The time has come once again to get these bones ready for a long ramble. And I’m going to do it by hiking. I believe that one cannot truly learn by any method but doing, especially in the realm of the physical. This past weekend, I strapped on my pack, loaded in more weight than I will be carrying on the AT, headed out into the snow and frigid winds, and climbed some ridges at Red River Gorge. Not many, but it was a start. I felt the old, familiar pains and groans and with it came a sense of peace. It was like my body welcomed back the burden of the pack and my legs started to strengthen just bit at the mere hint of going back out on the trail.
So as I finish the last 900 odd miles of the AT, my goal is to hike 100 miles a week after the first few reconditioning weeks. For now, at home, I will start even slower to build up to this goal. I will hike, with my pack at or above trail weight, 30 miles per week, whether it be over a couple of long days or a series of short hikes, on top of the squats and exercises that are my routine. When this becomes easy, I will add miles. And so on. At some point this summer, I will take 5 days and head off into the mountains to see the state of my legs.
From here on out, when I have the opportunity and the time, instead of settling for anything less, I will have my pack on and I will be moving. Let this be a warning to my friends: if you want to see me on my days off for the next few months, you might want to check out the local trails.
The time has come to get really good at walking again.
Previous Article RETURN OF THE SLOBO Next Article
Call me Goatman. In 2013, I flew to Maine with a friend and a backpack to attempt a southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
We walked for 4 months through the mountains and across rivers, hitchhiked into town for food, slept in the woods most nights, and were beholden to no schedule but our own. When we got to Virginia, we were told that Shenandoah National Park was closed due to a government shutdown and that hikers found within the park were to be fined hundreds of dollars and escorted out. We didn’t have hundreds of dollars. In fact, we barely had any money left at all. So we came home. Got jobs. Got soft. Became norms again.
But the trail, she don’t stop calling.
It’s 2016 and time for the Goat to return to the hills.
And I want you along for the journey this time. The whole journey. And that journey doesn’t start when my bag is all packed up and I see my first white blaze on a tree in the distance. The journey starts now.
This blog series, Return of the SLOBO*, will be an inside look at how I, a thru-hike hopeful turned LASHer (Long A$$ Section Hiker) gears up and prepares for three more months on the AT. Each section of the blog series will have a unique focus, ending with actual trip reports from the trail as I hike it.
When I flew to Maine to begin this journey, I was green to backpacking. I had been out for a few nights here and there, but had never spent a significant time in the wilderness unsupported by modern convenience. I loved hiking, but who doesn’t love hiking when you have a warm bed waiting for you at the end of a couple of days roughing it?
This time will be different. I have done my homework. I have lived the life and have been anointed with the sweaty sword of destiny and dubbed Hiker Trash Extraordinaire, Knight of the Dirt. For the past two years, I have also been working at Roads, Rivers and Trails, studying gear innovations, talking to other long distance hikers from all over, and even helping hopeful AT thru-hikers prepare for their time on the trail. I’ve come a long way, you could say, on the trail and off.
In this blog, I will talk about training. I will talk about gear. I will talk about hopes and fears, food and sweat and feet and mud. Overall, I will talk about backpacking and the joy of hoofing it over hundreds of miles with everything you need on your back.
The series will be broken down into sections. Links to other articles in the series will be added at the bottom of the articles as they are written.
So please, join me as it all goes down and do feel free to comment below with any questions, concerns, or rambling diatribes on how I’m “going the wrong way.”
*An explanation of the term SLOBO: short for “slow south-bounder”. Even in the backwoods of Maine, one may not be able to avoid being categorized. My hiking partner, Jubilee, and I were known for three things at the start of our journey: “heavy” (40+ lb.) packs, sleeping until after sunrise (which was around 5 AM that far north in the summer), and taking afternoon swim breaks when we came to a beautiful lake. Such a lackadaisical attitude towards pushing miles was apparently frowned upon by other more Type A hikers. Fortunately for us, we found fellow souls on the same pace that shared a similar philosophy concerning long distance hiking (a shout out to Phoenix, Blue Tick, Ado, and the Bartender. SLOBOs for life!) As it were, our packs got lighter, our legs got stronger, and we started to catch up to a lot of the hikers that had left us behind in Maine. I’m not sure who coined the term, but invariably we began to hear, “I never thought I’d see you SLOBOs again.” The name stuck, even when we started passing people who had burned out early. At this point, we’ve taken it as a name for our hiking tribe and proclaim it boldly, with honor.
RETURN OF THE SLOBO Next Article
Trail Food with the Goatman Installment #2
2. Materials and Tools
3. Key Factors to Success
4. Storage and Trail Preparation
5. Tips and Tricks
Dehydration is easy. Just hike into the wilderness without any water, lie down in the hot sun, and wait for a day or two. Oh, this blog is supposed to be about dehydrated food? Well, I can do that too, I suppose. The principle is the same.
So, you’re going on a backpacking trip but you don’t want to starve. Typical human urge. You would also like to cut the weight in your pack to a minimum so that you don’t get super strong and grizzled like the Goatman, who town folk whisper about dreadfully in the night (though I am usually out cold at sundown and miss all the late night small talk). Or maybe you just don’t enjoy hauling around 50 pound packs for some reason. Either way, a simple, effective way to cut down on pack weight is to bring dehydrated foods. Backpacking 101, right? Well, this blog entry isn’t just a list of prepackaged foods that you can buy at the store (though they do come in handy on those really long hauls). What I aim to do here is to lay out the basics of DIY dehydrating from your own home with a focus on preparing weeks, if not months, ahead of time for backcountry adventures.
To be honest, my interest in dehydrating goes beyond backpacking. Sure, I love the fact that foods with moisture removed become lighter and easier to pack. I also love that I can supplement store-bought noodles and instant rice meals with veggies and meat that I myself prepared, adding not only to the flavor of the meal, but also to the nutritional value. Good food equals good health and that goes double for hard-working backpackers whose options are limited.
That, however, is but the beginning of the usefulness of dehydration. When water is removed from food, you are also preserving that food by denying bacteria a foothold. Just like us humans, those little food spoilers need water to live and to reproduce. Dehydrating increases the shelf life of food to a great extent (exact numbers depend, of course, on the properties of the exact food itself). So, when fruits and vegetables are in season and relatively cheap, I can stock up, knowing that the portion I don’t use immediately can be dehydrated and kept throughout the winter. Have a garden? Perfect. Plant some extra rows. You’ll be making stews all winter with dehydrated vegetables. There is a lot of money to be saved with DIY dehydrating, money you could be using to plan your next trek.
2: Materials and Tools
That brings me to the meat of it: What do you need to get started? Behold, the basics:
1. Dehydrator. These can run you anywhere from $50-$300. In its most basic form, this is a box with a hot air fan blowing through ventilated trays on which food is placed. Opting for a model that has both a timer and a thermostat will make dehydrating a variety of foods a lot easier.
2. Colander. There are times when you will need to blanch food (we’ll deal with this in a moment). This handy tool makes it easy to remove excess moisture from food before it is placed into the dehydrator.
3. Heat-proof metal strainer. Again, for blanching.
4. Fine mesh tray liners. These are normally sold specifically for dehydrators by the manufacturer. They allow you to dry food that becomes tiny when dehydrated without it all falling down into the bottom of the machine.
5. Parchment paper. For dehydrating wet items such as fruit leather, soups, or chili. Can also be used to prevent sticking (in the case of high sugar fruit such as strawberries, for example). Alternatively, the manufacturer of the dehydrator may also make a specific “leather tray” that is a reusable alternative.
6. Sharp knives. The more precise you are when cutting food, the more evenly that food will dry. This is huge and we’ll talk more about this later, but don’t count out the importance of a simple, sharp kitchen knife.
7. Vegetable peeler. Sometimes, the skin of a vegetable or fruit needs to be removed before dehydrating. Make sure you have a sharp one. No use wasting food by peeling too much of it away with a dull peeler.
8. Air-tight Containers. Glass or metal containers with air-tight lids work the best for long-term storage. Plastic bags are great when packing for your trip, but let in too much air and moisture to be effective for long-term storage.
Some other things you might consider having around would be a food processor or blender, a jerky gun, kitchen scissors, or a mandolin. These items are used very specifically. As a first time dehydrator, I wouldn’t worry about these until you’re ready to branch out.
So you’ve got your kitchen ready. Before you get to chopping and waiting patiently, there are a few things to consider that, if done correctly, will save a lot of time later on.
First, you must prepare the food to be dehydrated in the appropriate manner. Not all food dehydrates equally. There are ways to deal with stubborn food that we will get to in a moment. Here, I simply want to state a few basics that apply to all and any food being dehydrated.
The act of dehydrating goes something like this: hot air moves over the surface of object, carrying away moisture. As the outside of the object loses moisture, water from the center of the object moves to the outside (this is called diffusion). When all of the moisture is diffused, the object is thus dehydrated. Diffusion itself is a slow process, however, and can be helped along by cutting food into the appropriate thickness, thus revealing extra surface area over which air can move and moisture can escape.
Cut your food evenly into 1/4 inch (0.5 cm) pieces. This thickness helps foods to dry quickly and evenly while being thick enough to prevent over drying.
Once cut uniformly, you will want to spread the food as uniformly as possible. This prevents uneven drying. You may also need to rotate the trays within the dehydrator as food closer to the fan may dry faster than that further away. It’s all about balance here. You want all of your food to dry equally in order to prevent over drying of some and under drying of the rest.
Other factors in successful dehydration are all tied up together. For every food product, there is an appropriate time and temperature:
1. Most fruits and vegetables do well at 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Meats must be set at a higher temperature to ward off bacteria. 155-160 degrees Fahrenheit will do the trick.
3. Herbs can be more delicate than other foods. 110 degrees Fahrenheit will work for these tasty treats.
For a more comprehensive list of drying temperatures, as well as times to expect, see the list of resources at the bottom of this article. I don’t have room here to go into great detail, unfortunately, but there are a lot of great books on the subject.
Consistent temperature is important. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that cranking up the temperature in order to speed up the dehydration process will work well. In a lot of cases, this will actually slow down your drying time due to a little something called “case hardening”. Basically, a higher temperature than what is recommended can dry out the outside of your food to an extent that it hinders the process of diffusion from the inside. Think of searing a steak to lock in moisture. We are going for the opposite of that. Consistent, correct temperature will in the end not only dry food faster, but will also retain the flavor of foods once re-hydrated.
4: Storage and Trail Preparation
I have already mentioned the fact that air-tight containers are ideal for long-term storage of dehydrated food. These can be made of glass or metal. You will want to store these in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight such as a pantry or cabinet. Foods can also be refrigerated after drying to increase the shelf life. Another common practice is to obtain a vacuum sealer and to freeze the food once sealed. For long-term storage, this is obviously the best option. However, if you know that you will be using the foods within 6 months to a year, such measures are not required.
There are a few things to look for when storing dehydrated food:
1. Again, make sure all of the food is evenly dried. If some food contains moisture, this can leach out into the rest of the food, allowing bacteria to spread or mold to grow.
2. Some foods turn strange colors when dehydrated raw (cauliflower turns purplish black. Yum.) This can be avoided by a process called blanching. Blanching is boiling a vegetable or fruit for a short of amount of time, mainly to kill the enzymes that cause discoloration. Blanching can also loosen cells in tougher foods, such as broccoli, that allow for a tenderer re-hydration.
3. If oxygen permeates your container, even well dehydrated food can develop off flavors. Make sure those lids are on tight!
When preparing for a backpacking trip, take your food out and put it in a plastic bag. Make sure, however, not to mix foods that are not meant to be together (onion flavored blueberries anyone?). If you dehydrate ingredients separately, you can combine them before leaving for a trip into single meal packets. For example, I have dehydrated onions, peppers, kidney beans, tomato sauce, and ground beef. Throw it all in a bag and I’ve got some backcountry chili. It only gets more elaborate from here. Below, in the resource section, I have listed a variety of great dehydrated food cookbooks that are more decadent than you thought possible.
5: Tips and Tricks
I am going to get specific here for a section and troubleshoot a few common problems one might come across while dehydrating different styles of food. Obviously, this list is not comprehensive, but is meant as a good starting place for beginners.
Fruits and vegetables are traditionally the easiest type of food to start dehydrating. In fact, starting out by experimenting with some basics will teach you a lot your first time through. So go ahead and slice up those apples (evenly). That brings us to our first tip: color preservation. Food you buy in the store has all sorts of preservatives to protect color. One point of DIY dehydrating is to avoid such things. This one is easy. Take a 1/4 cup of lemon juice and 4 cups of water, mix them in a bowl, and soak your apples in this solution as you slice. This will prevent browning.
Another common problem with produce is how to dehydrate “tough” fruits and vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, green beans etc.). I have already mentioned the answer a few times: blanching. The rule here is, if you don’t typically eat the food raw, blanching will help with re-hydration when the time comes. Take your food and cut it up while boiling enough water to cover all of your food. Place the food into a heat-proof metal strainer, dip it into the boiling water for approximately 30 seconds to 1 minute, and remove from the water. Throw in a colander to drain and you’re ready to put it in the dehydrator.
Some fruits have a thick casing, such as blueberries and cranberries. This is nature’s way of preventing dehydration, so we have to be smarter than nature (or at least a bit clever now and then). The case must be broken to allow diffusion to occur. This can be done by heating until the case breaks (the fast, easy way, though flavor may be affected) or you can pierce the casings individually with a toothpick or other pokey object (tedious, yes, but makes for better tasting fruit).
2. Starches and Beans
I put these together because they share a common method. Both starches (rice, pasta, barley, etc.) and beans must both be cooked prior to dehydration for fast and effective re-hydration (Canned beans are ready to use and don’t require extra cooking). We’ll use an example that involves both: red beans and rice. Delicious, nutritious, and filling, this makes a great trail meal. Although both beans and rice are dry when you buy them at the store, both take a long time (hours in some cases) to cook as to be edible. Instead of wasting fuel in the wilderness, cook these ingredients at home, either separately or together, and then dehydrate the meal afterwards. When you get out on the trail, fire up your camp stove, boil some water and you’re done. The meal should only take a few minutes to rehydrate, saving you both time and fuel when such things are a precious commodity.
Jerky takes a while to perfect and I don’t have the space here to treat it as in-depth as I would like. Luckily, there are a lot of great books and recipes out there that take the guessing out of jerky making.
Here I will simply mention the basics of choosing an appropriate cut of meat (you’re on your own for finding a recipe that you like!). The general rule with jerky is that the leaner the meat, the longer the jerky will last. Fat and oil are enemies of dehydration, unfortunately. Any fat left in a piece of dehydrated meat (or anything for that matter. I’m looking at you, avocados) will eventual turn rancid and ruin your snack.
That being said, you want to look for meat with less than 2% fat content. Cooking your meat and draining the excess fat is the first step (which also kills any bacteria within the meat). While dehydrating, you will need to periodically test your jerky with a paper towel. If oil is absorbed, take your meat and press it between paper towels to remove the oil. Do this a few times on and off and, once the meat is dried to your liking, do one last test. If no oil comes out, you’re good to go.
I’m not talking about cow hide here. Leather, whether fruit or vegetable, is a pureed, dried form that is great for snacking, among other uses. Basic fruit leather can consist of nothing more than applesauce and your favorite berries, mixed together and dried into strips. This is where a food processor or blender can come in handy.
A few tips for good leather: Press the fruit mash down when placing it on your leather tray or parchment paper. Avoid spreading, especially spreading thinly. Once again, the magic dimension is 1/4 inch. This thickness is more important than covering the whole tray. 1/4 inch, pressed uniformly, will make for leather that doesn’t over dry and crack. Leathers will firm when cooled, so don’t worry if it’s a bit wobbly when first removed. A good indicator is the stickiness of the leather: too mushy means underdone, not sticky at all means overdone.
If making veggie leather, it is better to powder the result after dehydrating than to leave it in its leather form. The whole point of veggie leather is to add flavor and nutrition to meals. Powdering makes this easy. A food processor works best for this.
Don’t forget: leather doesn’t have to be all fruit snacks and veggie powder. Take some tomato sauce and follow the instructions for making leather. Ta da. You have backcountry pasta sauce that doesn’t weigh much. Try this with salsa or barbecue sauce and suddenly your bland backpacking meals aren’t so bland anymore.
Goatman didn’t invent dehydrating food. Caveman did (or cave woman. I don’t know. I wasn’t there). The point being this: I have tried to lay out some basics for DIY dehydrating, but there is a lot more to learn. The best way to learn, as in all things, is through trial and error. To start out on the best foot, however, there are some resources that have been a great help to me and my friends as we prepare for our trips, treks, and rambles across this wild planet of ours. Below are a few specifics I have found helpful (I left out internet resources simply because there are too many to include and a simple search will pull up more than you will ever need). We stock a lot of these at RRT, so stop in for some knowledge.
MacKenzie, Jennifer, Jay Nutt, and Don Mercer. The Dehydrator Bible. Ontario: Robert Rose, 2009. Print
March, Laurie Ann. Fork in the Trail: Mouthwatering Meals and Tempting Treats for the Backcountry. Birmingham: Wilderness Press, 2007. Print.
March, Laurie Ann. Another Fork in the Trail: Vegetarian and Vegan Recipes for the Backcountry. Birmingham: Wilderness Press, 2011. Print.
Meredith, Leda. Preserving Everything: Can, Culture, Pickle, Freeze, Ferment, Dehydrate, Salt, Smoke, and Store Fruits, Vegetables, Meat, Milk, and More. Woodstock: Countryman Press, 2014. Print.