Tick tock, tick tock…. Only 11 days until I get on a plane to New Mexico!
It probably feels like I haven’t talked that much about preparation, but believe me, there has been a lot going on behind the scenes! I’ve been busy getting organized and making decisions. For example, remember how I said I wasn’t going to carry paper maps? I changed my mind. I got mixed feedback from other CDT thru-hikers as to whether they felt paper maps were necessary, but it is not a lot of extra weight to carry for the peace of mind of having a useful backup if my phone dies or malfunctions. I plan to carry one state at a time, so I will start with the New Mexico packet, then have the Colorado packet shipped with my winter gear to Chama, NM, and so on.
One of the things I’ve been working on for a while is food and resupply logistics. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition has a great spreadsheet on their website that lists all of the trail towns, at what mileage point and what routes along the trail you can access them, along with the essential details of resupplying there. The spreadsheet tells you whether the towns have stores like Walmart or groceries that offer comprehensive resupply, or whether options are limited and/or pricey, in which case a mail drop might be a better option. On the AT I used the AWOL guide for this type of information. The best part about this spreadsheet, other than it being free, is that I could download and customize it. I added notes for myself, as well as tailored a tentative resupply plan. Of course, things will change. The trail will ultimately decide where I end up resupplying. However, the exercise was really useful for contingency planning and familiarizing myself with towns along the various routes.
In addition to logistics planning, I have been thinking through what I will eat along the way. Surprise, surprise, it’s going to be a lot of the same fanfare. Why? Well, I honestly don’t have a lot of time and energy to get too creative with food. The types of things I ate on the AT will do the job. I am shaking up my cooking gear a bit, as well as considering cold soaking at some point on the trail, just to try it. For my cooking kit, I’ve been using a new stove and I also have been cooking directly in my pot, versus using the homemade cook pouch I had on the AT. These are weight-saving decisions.
Cold soaking appeals to me because after a long day of hiking, sometimes I just want to eat as quickly as possible so I have time to journal and then go to sleep sooner. It appeals to the cat in Hungry Cat - always looking for the quickest way to a nap! It would also save a lot of weight because I would no longer need a camp stove, cook pot, or fuel. For those who might not know this term, “cold soaking” is when you simply use some kind of container (like a peanut butter jar) to rehydrate food and eat it cold. Couscous works well for cold soaking and isn't bad to eat cold. You can cold soak Knorr rice sides (i did this out of necessity on the AT once or twice). You can really cold soak anything, though I find the idea of cold mashed potatoes hard to swallow. Get it? :-) The downside is not having a hot meal, which can be a big morale booster. My wife will tell you though that, in general, I’m not picky when it comes to food; I just like to eat!
I have my first 5 days of food ready to go. Lordsburg is 85.6 miles from the Mexican border, so my plan is to cover that in 5 days. I made a short video about food and food resupply on the CDT on the Unfettered Footsteps YouTube channel. For those interested, it provides the following:
An overview of my food strategy - a combination of buying and mailing
An overview of what five days of food looks like in terms of volume
A breakdown of the items I’ll be eating each day
A guide on where to find the master resupply spreadsheet on the CDTC website
A short blurb on how I break down my food to fit into my food bag and mail drop boxes
I apologize for my voice in this video. It has taken me forever to get my voice back after the bronchitis, and it still wasn’t quite there when I filmed this, but I was running out of time and figured a hoarse video is better than no video. It’s meant to be a tool anyway, not a piece of cinema (which it certainly is NOT!). Hopefully some of you, or other prospective thru-hikers, find it useful or informative.
Thinking through logistics was one of the more time-consuming aspects of planning the CDT thru-hike. I spent little time thinking about town resupply strategies for the AT. My strategy was to start with 5 days of food and figure it out as I went. That works on the AT, but is a little harder to pull off on the CDT. I feel really good about where I landed with my CDT strategy.
Once I got that sorted, there was one thing I was dying to do: TRAIL MAGIC!!!!! We are well into prime time Appalachian Trail northbound thru-hiker season. In fact, mid-March to mid-April is usually when the volume of thru-hikers starting out at Springer Mountain peaks. I also really wanted to get a shakedown hike in. It didn’t need to be anything drawn out; I just needed a night in the woods to play with some things and help me make some final gear decisions.
On Wednesday I checked both of those boxes. I filled my car with delicious things and refreshing beverages, left the house early with a mug of coffee and my pack, and drove up to Unicoi Gap. Unicoi is about 53 miles into a Northbounder’s thru-hike, so it’s a decent spot for trail magic in Georgia. People are bound to be tired and wet and ready to eat something. I wasn’t sure what to expect really - whether I would see many people, or none! My plan was to get to the gap early, sit and wait with trail magic until mid-afternoon or so, and then hike north up to Tray Mountain to spend the night and tinker with my gear.
When I got to the gap there were a few parked cars, but no no sign of hikers. I got my cooler out and a few chairs set up, and lined some snacks up in the back of my Subaru. I tried to think of what I would want as a thru-hiker on trail: a mix of healthy stuff that I wouldn’t bother packing myself, like fruits and veggies, and the good stuff - the kind of food that would win an olympic gold medal if the judging criteria were based on processed sugar and saturated fat content. I'm talking about snacks that might not even be real food, but that taste so good you don’t even care. Here’s what I brought in my spread, in case you’re interested:
Clementines (nothing beats juicy citrus on the trail)
Bananas (potassium, yay!)
Avocados (healthy fats, and with some fritos, bam! Trail Guac!)
Greek yoghurt cups with fruit (high protein, probiotics, various nutrition thingy’s inside)
Baby carrots (blah, but ok for the nutrition - wish I’d brought something to dress them up)
Little Debbie Nutty Buddys (My hiker friend Whitewater got me turned on to these last year)
Hostess Cupcakes (the trash food classic)
A whole variety of chips - doritos, cheetos, fritos, SC&O, etc.
Blue Gatorade (The only flavor that matters in the gatorade world. Ok, lemon-lime exists too....)
Coke Classic (no room for diet on the trail!)
Spicy V8 (vitamins and whatnot)
Gallon-sized plastic bags for people to replace their trash bags if needed (that’s generally the size thru-hikers use for trash)
A big garbage bag where people could empty their own trash to get rid of the weight and bulk.
Aside from those planned things, my sunscreen ended up being a surprisingly popular item. I brought it for myself because the only tan I get is a bright red one. A number of hikers ended up using it as they were getting more sun exposure than expected. The AT is known as the “green tunnel” because it fills in with a lot of tree cover during the summer; however, until it fills in, there isn’t a lot of shade from the sun up on the mountain ridges. It is a good item to add to my list for next time - small takeaway tubes or packets.
Trail magic was a lot of fun and I ended up meeting a ton of thru-hikers. A ministry group showed up and added to the spread with hot chili, more snacks, and bottled water. They had a lot of plastic chairs, so I ended up moving my stuff over to their table. It was quite the party at Unicoi Gap!
Just being around the energy of the hikers really got me pumped for my own hike. I also loved asking them why they were hiking the AT and hearing their stories. One couple, Bear and Lambo, talked about how they were trying to prioritize the things they wanted to do in life now because time and health are not guaranteed. We talked about living small, how there is a fine balance between working to achieve financial independence and working too hard for too long and getting “sucked in.” It was great to meet these like-minded hikers, and even more exciting that they were letting go of traditional ways of doing things and getting out and living their lives at a relatively young age. Bear said he was 35, and Lambo was a bit younger.
I met a couple of hikers from Germany, one from the UK, and another from Australia. One of the German hikers was hiking with his German Shepherd. That dog was so smart and well-trained! Apparently the dog was able to come over in the cargo hull of the plane.
By 2pm, most of the food was gone. The day was quite warm and beautiful, so I decided to start my hike up the mountain. I packed some remaining snacks - clementines, avocados, and delicious sweets into my bag. I planned to hike to Tray Mountain Shelter to disperse the food, and then head back southbound and find a quiet spot to camp for the night and play with gear.
Getting back on the AT with other thru-hikers felt kind of like riding a bike again after a long hiatus. I was a little rusty, but it felt good and natural. I also had a new secret weapon - Hungry Cat socks! A few months ago, the week before my wife and I went to New Zealand, my AT thru-hiking friends from Maine, Bear Meat and Clooney, came down to Atlanta for a visit and gave me this great pair of crazy cat socks to go with my Hungry Cat hat. You may remember them from my trail journal last year - Clooney gave me the trail name Hungry Cat, and later I ended up naming her Clooney. I decided that trail magic and a gear shakedown were two perfect occasions for the socks, so up the mountain we all went - me and the cats on my legs.
My kit for the CDT is pretty light compared with last year, and I noticed that immediately. It’s good though, because I will have a lot more water and food to carry on the CDT. I made the 5 miles to Tray Mountain in short order. I am not sure if I visited that shelter when I hiked last year, but it has some really fantastic camp spots, and the water source there is piped from a spring coming right out of the mountain. There were already a few hikers there, and more pouring in behind me that I had passed along the way. I decided I would eat my ramen, then pack out water and head south to camp on the next mountain over. These are two things I will have to get used to doing on the CDT: eating before camp and camping without a water source.
Eating away from camp is a good idea in general, but especially when you cannot hang a food bag (no trees in the desert or up on high ridge lines). It minimizes food smells that can attract fun playmates to camp, like those cuddly, sweet grizzly bears. There is not a lot of water in the desert either, so camping by water will not always be possible. Therefore, I figured I might as well start myself off on the right foot and practice those two things on my shakedown hike. It was more mental prep than anything.
I ate my ramen and chatted with a few of the hikers, then dispensed my remaining goodies. The best part of trail magic is watching peoples’ faces light up at the simplest things. That’s the thing about the trail - it helps you really appreciate the little things. I said my goodbyes and headed south to find a campsite. I ended up camping with a nice view off of the next mountain over, and spent the rest of the evening tinkering with gear and mentally checking off boxes and making final gear decisions for the CDT.
When I woke up in the morning, it was raining and it rained off and on as I hiked back to the gap. There was a gaggle of thru-hikers at Unicoi Gap, so I fed them the rest of my snacks in the trunk of my wagon and talked with them for a while. A offered three hikers a ride into Helen, and apparently I was their first hitchhike on the trail. I probably freaked them out a little bit because I accidentally selected “Hiawassee” (another nearby town) in the Google Maps app instead of Helen. I knew the general direction to go in, but I didn’t want to get lost (and I’m good at getting lost); however, I didn’t realize I hastily selected the wrong town. I was driving towards Helen, but the GPS kept saying I was farther and farther away. Since I kind of knew where I was going, I wasn't paying attention. The hiker in the passenger seat noticed that my GPS was telling me to loop back and saying it was 35 minutes to our destination. He asked quietly, " Is it really 35 minutes away?" I might have heard him gulp.... I pulled off the road and realized that I had accidentally selected Hiawassee, explained that to them, fixed the map and we were back on track. Hopefully I didn't scare them! If I were in their shoes on my first hitchhike, I would have probably panicked a little that we were going on a trip to some crazy man’s basement. “What was his name again? Crazy Cat? Oh boy….” Lucky for them, in 5 minutes we were in town and they could see that I had, indeed, gotten them where they needed to go. Phew!
The gear shakedown was very valuable for me. I definitely feel like all of my gear decisions (for now) are done, and I feel really good about my kit. I’ve already mailed off my trekking poles and other TSA-restricted items to New Mexico. I didn’t want to risk checking them on the plane and never seeing them again or having them get crushed. Mailing was just easier, though I suppose they could still disappear or get crushed. The trail will provide, right? Everything is both slowly, and quickly, falling into place. I have more to say, but this entry has been long enough.
Don’t forget to check out my YouTube video on food prep and resupply logistics if you are interested. I’ll try to be more of a Matt Damon/Morgan Freeman combo in the next one. It was such a confidence-boosting, energizing, fun trip! Spring in Georgia is in full effect and the mountains and trail were beautiful. I still have time to soak it up before I hit the desert. I’ll write more soon.