Friday, January 23, 2015

Lining up the Domino's

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A successful long hike starts months before you even step foot.  I think of it as lining up a string of domino’s, not knocking any over before you’re ready but getting them set to swiftly and easily fall.  I haven’t been updating the blog that often the last few months but preparations are steadily making progress.  Here’s a breakdown of how I’ve been doing it:
Make an Itinerary

The Spreadsheet

The first step for me is to get a handle on where I’m going and when I should get there.  That means timing my steps to arrive during decent weather.  As a hiker, we’re limited to the gear we carry on our backs and have to select locations with weather and trail conditions that roughly match our skills and gear.  Adding some snow specific gear like an ice axe or microspikes isn’t too complicated but switching from 3 season to 4 season camping would mean a huge overhaul in gear, skills and methods of travel – from walking to skiing for instance and the many skills required to assess and avoid avalanche risks. 

I started out with the CDT as the sort of centerpiece of my plan with the TA and AZT as gratuitous extra’s.  Originally for a September start, the AZT made the most sense with a winter spent in New Zealand.  A knee injury forced me to delay, find a new apartment but keep saving money at my unsatisfying but well-paying job.  Now the CDT is still the focus and I’m using the Arizona and Grand Enchantment trails as “approach trails”, cutting off the lower 180 miles of the CDT that don’t look all that appetizing anyway. 

Timing for weather means hiking in the desert in spring and getting to Colorado as the weather warms enough to prevent significant fresh snow fall.  Fresh snow leads to avalanche danger and extra slow hiking/post holing.  Consolidated spring snow generally doesn’t avalanche and ices over in the mornings and at night for faster travel.  Snow storms can still hit in June but the chances are much lower than in May.  I could start earlier in Arizona, but that would mean hitting Colorado in May.

Now that I have an idea of when I need to get to difference spots on the trail, I can come up with a rough schedule to make sure I’m not planning too many or too few miles to time the weather correctly.  I started with someone else’s CDT google spreadsheet and manipulated it to fit my hiking plan:

The first step is to pick where on the trail you want to resupply.  Early on I plan on moving slow to allow my body to adapt to hiking every day, so I’m basically resupplying at every possible location.  Later, I can pick and choose a bit to make it more convenient to pick up packages.

At the very top of the spreadsheet is my start date and all the dates at each town are linked to it.  That allows me to estimate where I’ll be based on different start dates.  I’m actually a little concerned I’ll hike too fast and arrive in CO too early, so I’m open to side trips to different areas to kill time.  On the very left hand column is the resupply box number I plan on sending and the far right is the address.  Another column estimates hiking days to give me an idea of how much food to send and I add notes if I’ll need extra to cover time spent in a town without any restaurants.

Taking Care of Life

Now that I have a start date and a rough idea of how much food I need to prepare ahead of the trip, I can start assembling food.  I can also figure out when I need to put “normal” life on hold.  That involves subletting my apartment, moving all my stuff to storage, arranging health insurance, cancelling my car insurance and quitting my job. 

I just found a subletter starting March but haven’t given my job notice yet.  I still need to figure out the health insurance thing and move everything I own from my place in Boston to storage in my parents’ house in Maryland.  I don’t really own much furniture, so I’m selling my bed and dresser to the subletter and trimming down other possessions to fit into my Honda Civic. 

The last piece is parting with friends.  I won’t be back for quite a while, 6 months at least – that is if I even return to southern New England.  The hardest part has been feeling like I’m avoiding making new friends because I know I’ll be leaving soon – a state of mind I’ve been in since last spring when the trip planning first got started, then delayed.  I still do make new friends but often feel like I hold them and my old friends at arm’s length.  This leads to a sort of pre-trip anxiety and feeds into “what-if” type thinking which isn’t helpful.  I often have to refocus on why I’m doing the trip, what I experienced on the PCT and that people and places will be there.  I don’t want people to feel like I’m abandoning them, but in a way I am, for quite a while. 

Gathering Trail Stuff

The 3,700 miles I have planned (not including the TA) is going to mean I have to know where I’m walking to and how I’m getting my resupply.  The itinerary helps with the big picture but maps and databooks are needed for the day to day.  I have to print out a mix of about 400 double sided 8.5x11 and 11x17 paper maps (some of those made by me!), plus the GPS tracks loaded into my iPhone for backup navigation.  I really like the Gaia app and Guthook gave me his CDT and Colorado Trail apps to boot.  I’d rather rely on map and compass and use the phone as backup, so if I do take an external battery it’ll be only 4,000 mAh rather than the 8,000 to 12,000 mAh monsters you see the more “wired” hikers using. 
Other than maps, I’ll also need replacement shoes and clothing, snow gear for Colorado.  I’ll be assembling all of that at my parents’ house to be send with resupply boxes as needed.  I also need the guidebook for the Grand Enchantment Trail since a lot of it is off trail or on unmaintained trail and is extremely remote.  There are sections of the route that have burned and not yet been repaired where reroutes may be necessary. 


I lost a lot of fitness due to my knee injury over the summer.  I’ve gained a lot of the aerobic fitness back this past fall and winter but haven’t been able to get my volume up.  I can’t really replicate hiking in the desert while living in Boston in January and February.  The mountains here are too steep and the snow is too soft to simulate the long days repetitive foot pounding and sun exposure.  I could go for long “hikes” wandering around the city on pavement but there isn’t enough elevation gain and that’s pretty boring.  Instead, I have fun in the White Mountains with winter hiking, go mountain biking, do yoga and stay active during the weeknights.  I’ve been running a lot more too and I’m hoping that helps build foot strength.  Recently I ran a mile in 6:45 so my fitness isn’t doing too bad. 


Notice I’ve barely said anything about gear and this huge post is almost done? Ironically if you research backpacking or thru-hiking especially most of the information and questions people ask on forums will be on gear.  Many people obsess over it far more than what I think is necessary.  This is totally evident when you’re out in the backcountry and stumble across someone with a Coleman tent or other giant outdated gear who’s having the time of their life. On the PCT I met people hiking with almost every reasonable combination of gear possible and most of them finished or did thousands of miles of hiking.

At a certain point you have to put your foot down and say enough is enough.  I could buy every single thing on my back over again and be only marginally more happy but significantly poorer in money and time.  At some point you have to ask if you gear will keep you safe, warm and reasonably comfortable.  If the answer is yes to all three then you probably don’t need to worry about it.  I did a gear post for Appalachian Trials here although I think the audience doesn’t really understand what I was talking about.   
For me, I want simplicity because it lasts longer than complexity and with a little flexibility works better too.  That means a big square tarp, a bivy bag and simple sleeping bag and foam pad.  A frameless pack should work fine for what I intend to do.  Sure I’ll have inevitably have too much weight in it here and there, but I’ll be fine.  I’ll either start with my warmer quilt or switch to it in northern NM.  I could go on and on about gear, but the real important thing is everything that comes before it.

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