A High Level Overview of the AT
If you live on the East Coast of the United States, and like to hike and camp, you undoubtedly know about the Appalachian Trail (AT) at some level; you may have even hiked a section of it. But since it’s so big how do you really sort out what you want to see? Where to hike or camp to see it? And how to go about planning and taking your trip? We’re lucky enough to live near 6 of the States that the AT traverses (and are within reasonable driving distance of 3 of the other states) so here’s some information that we have complied over the years to help us with our AT adventures.
First off, some background information about the Appalachian Trail. As the world's longest “hiking only” trail, the AT is approximately 2,192 miles (3,527 km) of footpaths along the ridge crests and major valleys of the Appalachian Mountains - from Katahdin (Baxter Peak) in Maine to Springer Mountain in northern Georgia – crossing the boundaries of 14 States as it meanders along the East Coast.
The States that contain some part of the AT are:
Conceived in 1921, built by private citizens, and completed in 1937, today the AT is managed by the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, numerous state agencies and thousands of volunteers in thirty hiking clubs performing trail maintenance. The AT was designated as the first National Scenic Trail by the National Trails System Act of 1968, covers ~250,000 acres (1,000 km²), sees approximately 3 million visitors each year and would take an average person 165 days to thru-hike (although Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy, a speed hiker, hiked it in 45 days, 12 hours, 15 minutes in 2017 – a feat that we don’t recommend).
If you hike the entire AT you would cover approximately 464,500 feet in vertical elevation as you went up and down along the trail.
To keep people on the trail the AT is marked for daylight travel in both directions using a system of “white blazes”, rectangles of white paint approximately 2 inches wide and 6 inches high on trees and other objects such as posts and rocks. There are ~165,000 white blazes on the trail.
If you’re serious about planning a hike along the AT then here are the primary resources that you might want to consult for maps, hiking/camping information, weather, fees, rules, required gear and all other manner of vital information:
Appalachian Trail Conservancy
National Park Service
National Park Foundation
WhiteBlaze.net - a community of Appalachian Trail Enthusiasts
Appalachian Mountain Club
Appalachian Trail Distance Calculator
Appalachian Trail Mileage Chart
If you’re in New England, like we are, another great resource is the Appalachian Mountain Club's Boston Chapter’s website – especially the page for their Hiking/Backpacking Committee:
Appalachian Mountain Club's Boston Chapter
Appalachian Mountain Club's Boston Chapter Hiking/Backpacking Committee
Finally, here’s Backpacker Magazine’s write-up about the Appalachian Trail and the definitive book about the Appalachian trail “Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers' Companion – 2019. They both have lots of great information about what to expect and how to go about hiking the AT – especially if you are planning a thru-hike of the entire AT.
Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers' Companion - 2019
Mountain Weekly News's list of "The 36 Best Books About the Outdoors"
If you’re looking for some interesting Summer reading (to either take on the trail with you or to just take to the couch with you), here's Mountain Weekly News's list of "The 36 Best Books About the Outdoors".
We liked their list a lot because it has quite a bit of variety - both on topics and geographically - and it's not just the usual list of "How To" books; which, no matter how good, get a little repetitive after reading a few in a row. Here’s the complete list of the books on their list by category.
Adventure Stories (9 books)
Climbing (3 books)
Environment (2 books)
Fitness (3 books)
Hiking and Camping (12 books)
Hunting and Fishing (2 books)
Mountain Biking (2 books)
Survival (3 books)
You can read their summary reviews of each book here:
Hopefully reading a couple of these books will give you even more motivation to get out on the trails and into the backcountry!
“Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning"
Everybody thinks that they know what a drowning person looks like - since we've all seen in on TV and in the movies hundreds of times.
But they’re WRONG! You learn this during lifeguard training – unfortunately most people don't have this training.
To help you identify the differences between Hollywood fantasy and reality here's a great article by Mario Vittone (updated online on “Soundings” on 4 May 2018) that describes the "Instinctive Drowning Response" and what a real drowning person looks like in the water.
SPOILER ALERT: A drowning person does not flail their arms and scream “Help Me!” at the top of their lungs since they are too busy trying to breathe, avoiding getting water in their mouth and can’t really control their arm motions since they instinctively feel compelled to place them flat on the water to try to press themselves out of the water.
With Summer quickly approaching you might want to read Mario Vittone’s great article so that you're a little better prepared when you hit the water. Here’s the URL:
Preparing for Hiking and Camping as Winter Ends
The last remnants of snow are finally melting here in our part of New England – so it’s time to get serious about preparing for our Spring, Summer and Fall Hiking and Camping adventures. Given that we did some casual Winter hiking, in both the snow (to see the beauty of Nature after the big snowfalls) and on days when the trails were mostly clear between snowfalls, we’re not totally out of shape – but we’re also probably not ready to hike the most challenging parts of Mount Washington. So what’s our plan?
Like most of you, we’re not professional hikers and consequently don’t have days of spare time each week to dedicate to training for our Hiking or Camping trips. So we try to train as efficiently as we can in the time that our schedules allow. And that training isn’t just for leg endurance – it also has to include strength and balance. So here’s what we do:
1) We start walking outside as soon as the snow melts and the local sidewalks and trails clear. It’s never too early to start Spring training – we just prefer to do it when there’s no snow on the ground since we find that it’s more efficient and we’re more motivated since we can watch Spring arrive as we walk. Try to take walks and short hikes at least three times a week.
2) Any walking is better than no walking. So we walk whenever we can – and we take the stairs where ever possible. After all, we’ve all seen those rocky uphill trails that look just like stairs – and leg-based cardio is a critical part of your training.
3) Since you’ll probably have a variety of different adventures during the upcoming months, it pays to give yourself up to a month to initially train. That way you can cover all your bases and be in reasonable shape (e.g. leg strength, arm strength, core strength, endurance, etc.,) before you hit the trails for the first time.
4) Since two of the most common hiking injuries are ankle sprains and rolling an ankle we try to make sure that we don’t just walk on flat terrain – especially since that’s not what you will find on your “real” hikes. We like to mix up our training terrain walks so that some of them are on flat ground, some hilly, some rocky, some uphill and some downhill. The better you can replicate the type of terrain that you will ultimately be hiking on during your training walks – the more prepared your body will be for what’s to come.
5) As with number #4, you need to walk in different weather conditions too – since that’s going to be the reality of your real adventures. Although this isn’t always the most exciting proposition, think of it as a great way to test out your gear. Are your boots waterproof enough? Does your jacket breathe when it gets wet? Do you need more or less layers of clothes? Do you need different socks for different weather conditions? Finding these things out on a short walk close to home is a lot better than dealing with them in the outback.
6) Wear the same boots that you plan on wearing on your Hiking adventures. This serves two purposes a) it makes sure that your boots are broken in and adapted to your feet, and b) it gets your legs used to the weight of the boots. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people complain on the trails that their boots feel so heavy only to find out that’s because they did all their training in lightweight running shoes.
7) In addition to walking you should probably plan on doing some crunches to build your core strength, some push-ups to build your upper body/arm strength, some step-ups to build up your quadriceps, calves, and hamstrings, and any other exercises that you think are applicable to the type of adventures you are planning (i.e. training for rock climbing requires different exercises than kayaking).
8) And finally, you should train with your backpack. Yes this might look a little odd when you are walking around your neighborhood, but trust us – you need to do this since the last thing you want to do is put on a 40 pound backpack for the first time when you hit the trail for that 3-day camping trip. Hint: A fully loaded backpack should probably not weigh more than 20% of your body weight.
As always, there are lots of great articles out there on the internet that will give you all sorts of ideas about how to get ready for Hiking and Camping season. Here are six that we found interesting:
1) How to Get in Shape and Train for Hiking
2) Training for Hiking
3) Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking and Hiking
4) How to Train for Hiking
5) Ultimate Hiking Workout: 6 Best Training Exercises for Hiking
6) How to Prepare for Your Trekking Adventure: Our 10-Step Training Guide
Last Resort Protection from Bears – Will a Handgun Save You?
Across the wooded parts of the United States and Canada, there are bears. Here in New England we have Black Bears; lots of Black Bears. Black Bears prefer large forested areas with a combination of evergreen and deciduous trees with a mix of wetlands, thick vegetation and a wide variety of food to include berries, beechnuts and acorns. Since Black Bears are omnivores, in addition to nuts and berries they also eat carrion, small animals and insects. They like to stay in areas that are relatively undisturbed by humans and are without high traffic roads. Their dens range from hollowed out or fallen trees, rocky ledges, small caves and brush piles. Most Black Bears camouflage the entrance to their den with wood, leaves and brush to make it hard to find them during the winter.
The Black Bear is the largest meat-eating mammal in New England with males weighing from 130 to 600 pounds and females weighing from 100 to 400 pounds. Based on the latest estimates Maine has ~30,000 Black Bears, New Hampshire has ~5,700, Vermont has ~5,150 and Massachusetts has ~4,500 - and their population is growing.
So if you are out in the woods hiking or camping this Spring, you will certainly see signs of bear activity – and you might even run into one of them. Because of the potential danger bears pose most of us know that if you encounter a Black Bear you should make your presence known by making loud noises and waving your arms. If you surprise a Black Bear, walk away slowly, while facing the bear. Do not turn your back and run, which may trigger them to give chase. Never look a bear straight in the eye. The bear may perceive this as a threat and charge. Sometimes a Black Bear will bluff charge you to within a few feet. If this happens, try to stay calm and slowly retreat, waving and shouting as loudly as possible.
Even though most of us know about the danger that Bears present twenty-five fatal Black Bear attacks have occurred in North America during the past 20 years (1997 - 2017). If you want the details on these fatal attacks you can find them in this great article from Wide Open Spaces:
So what if you take all of the precautions and actions listed above and none of it works? What then? Well if you’re really in Bear Country then you should probably have a firearm with you. If you’re hunting that firearm is probably a rifle – and that will certainly dispatch a Black Bear if used properly (e.g. you shoot the bear before it gets close to you). But, if you are just hiking or camping, chances are that it’s not a rifle – it’s probably a handgun. So the age old question is “Will a handgun save you from a bear attack”? Well now there’s an answer to that question thanks to Dean Weingarten’s recent detailed analysis of 63 bear attacks where a handgun was used to fend off the bear. Contrary to many myths, Dean’s analysis found that handguns were 95% effective in defending against a bear attack.
Dean’s bottomline is that of the 63 pistol defense cases, 60 were successful and three were failures. The three pistol defense cases that were categorized as failures were:
Based on Dean’s detailed analysis of these 63 bear attacks it’s clear that using a pistol to defend against bear attacks is a very viable option. You can read the complete Ammoland article here:
A Pocket Guide and Smart Phone App to Help You Identify Animal Tracks
Are you wondering who made all those tracks in the fresh snow? If so here's a great pocket guide to animal tracks. It shows both the track pattern (e.g. how the wildlife walks) and what the front and hind footprints look like. It even has a ruler so that you can measure the prints. It's a lot of great information on a single page.
If you want even more information about animal tracks - here's a link to the iPhone app that we use - "iTrack Wildlife Pro" by Jonah Evans. The app has detailed photos and information for 70 common mammals of North America, to include over 700 high quality track (with precise front and hind track drawings and detailed track, gait, and “similar species” descriptions for every animal), sign and animal photos with detailed captions. It even has 120 detailed skull photos for 41 of the species just in case you run across a skeleton during your adventures. The app also stores the Wikipedia page for each species so that no internet connection is required to obtain even more details about the animals.
The app allows you to search by the following criteria:
The 70 animals currently covered by the app are:
You can learn more about the app, and see more information about tracking, at the “Nature Tracking” website: http://www.naturetracking.com/
If you want to purchase this app you can get it at the Apple App Store or Google Play store. You can download the “iTrack Wildlife Lite“ app for free, the “iTrack Wildlife Basic” app for $4.99 or the “iTrack Wildlife Pro” app for $14.99. The Pro app may seem a little expensive – but if you’re serious about animal tracks you should spring for the extra cash because it's good.
Here’s the link to the Apple Store for iTrack Wildlife Pro:
Here’s the link to the Google Play Store for iTrack Wildlife Pro:
Inputs from the Field
Recently one of our readers, Michael Bourke, the Founder of SciCamps.org, dropped us a note with links to several articles that he's found useful in his outback adventures with his son and family. In Michael’s own words:
“I’ve always been a fan of being outside because I’ve always been a science guy, but since my son has been old enough to go camping, I’ve really taken advantage of exploring the great outdoors. Being in nature, and especially camping, has been a great way to spark my child’s interest in natural sciences, not to mention it’s just plain fun and a great way to spend time with my favorite kid. Regardless of the type of camper you choose to be, one thing is true for all, camping is a moment to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and a time to appreciate nature and create lasting memories.”
Since the main purpose of our website is to spread knowledge about Hiking, Camping and Shooting, we thought that we would pass the links to these interesting articles from Michael along to all of you.
Camping Gear and Apps
Camping Gear Checklist
Trekking: Stay connected with our favorite outdoor apps
Camping with Kids
25 Camping Hacks to Teach Your Kids
Backyard Camping for Kids with Disabilities
20 Fun Camping Games for Kids
Camping with Dogs
Camping with Dogs: An in Depth Guide to Doing It Right
13 Insider Tips for The Perfect Winter Camping Experience
On his website Michael has a "growing list of sortable science camps across the United States”. So, if you have a minute, and are interested in camps that have a scientific slant, you might want to check out the SciCamps website that’s in the early stages of currently being built out: http://scicamps.org/
If any of you have any interesting articles, or comments, for us – please send them along. We’re always happy to hear from our readers from around the world!
Unimi Professional Sharpening Water Stones (600/1,000 Grit and 2,000/6,000 Grit)
Keeping your knives and other blades sharp is critical since a sharp blade really reduces the effort you need to expend to cut something. In our experience, to really sharpen your blades correctly you need three sharpening stones - one to rough-grind, one to sharpen and one to hone. So, although we already have a file for when we’ve really nicked up our machete, hatchet or axe blades, a dedicated sharpening stone (325/750 grit) for normal sharpening, and a small sharpening stone (120/400 grit) for on the spot touchups, and backup in the outback, we decided to add some finer (e.g. higher grit number) sharpening stones to our gear – especially for our knives. To that end, for medium to fine sharpening and honing we purchased two different dual-sided Unimi Professional sharpening water stones; one with 600/1,000 grit and the other with 2,000/6,000 grit – both for use before we head out on any adventure.
You can find the details about the Unimi Professional Sharpening Water Stones on the Camping/Tools page.
Enhancing Your Backwoods Navigation Skills
When we’re in the outback, especially the deep outback, we like to have all the necessary navigation tools that we can (e.g. trail map, compass, GPS app, etc.,) to make sure that we successfully find our way to where we are going. But, in addition to having these tools, you need to have the knowledge related to how to use them, and the basic knowledge of how to read the signs of the wilderness around you.
So, if you're looking to enhance your backwoods navigation skills, you might want to check out Tristan Gooley's "The Natural Navigator" website. The site gives some great tips on how to use the Sun, moon, stars, sea, plants, animals and weather to help you find your way. The website has lots of great information and write-ups on how to navigate in the wild; it even has tips about how to navigate in a city and in extreme environments.
You can check out “The Natural Navigator” at: https://www.naturalnavigator.com/
If you want to read a brief overview of natural navigation, here’s a good article, written by Sommer Mathis for Atlas Obscura back on 25 July 2017, that provides a good overview – “An Animated Guide to Nature’s Best Wayfinding Secrets”. The article covers five of Tristan’s favorite natural navigation tricks:
You can read the entire Atlas Obscura article here:
If you want to learn even more than is covered in the brief Atlas Obscura article, or what is written on Tristan’s website, you might want to check out one (or more) of the books that Tristan has written to share his knowledge and expound on his point of view:
What’s the Right Saw for You?
After I posted the blog about getting a new Silky Ultra Accel Curved Blade Folding Saw (Large Teeth 240mm, 446-24) for Christmas I received a few questions asking about the pros and cons of different types of saws and how a person should go about choosing a saw. So I thought that I would take a crack at answering those questions in this blog post. Note: We also have a Chainmate CM-24SSP 24-Inch Survival Pocket Chain Saw. You can see the details related to both of these saws on the Camping/Tools page.
Types of Saws Overview
First of all there are three basic types saws to consider when looking for a saw to take with you into the outback (specifically excluding the typical “wood shop” hand saw – which is great for construction at your house – but lousy in the woods):
1) Bow Saws
2) Folding Saws
3) Pocket Chain Saws
Since each of these types of camping saws are significantly different let me touch on their advantages and disadvantages.
Bow Saws – Bow saws are probably the most efficient type of camping saws. A reputable brand’s saw will have a stronger frame, more clearance and longer blades, improving your ability to cut larger logs and green wood. The biggest advantages of bow saws are that they are sturdy and efficient. The biggest disadvantages are that they are heavier, oddly shaped and do not pack very well. To address these disadvantages there are several folding bow saws on the market, but in our opinion these hybrid designs decrease the effectiveness of the saw (mostly due to the reduced clearance space between the saw blade and the frame) and only partially solve the packing issue since you have to reassemble the saw to use it. If I was in a stationary campsite, I would choose a bow saw because of their stability and efficiency – but a bow saw would not be my choice if I’m hiking and camping due to their packing shortfalls. If you want to check out bow saws you might look at the following 8 popular ones:
Folding Saws – Folding saws are our preferred type of saw for camping since they do the best job of balancing cutting efficiency and packability. There are lots of folding saws on the market, but we prefer saws that cut on the “pull stroke” instead of saws that cut on the “push stroke”. In our experience the fatal flaw on most folding saws is the thickness (or thinness) of the blade. On pull stroke saws there is less pressure on the blade when it is cutting since it is being pulled back toward you. Whereas on saws that cut on the push stroke there is maximum pressure on the blade when it is being pushed forward to cut. Often times this causes the saw blade to flex and bend/break if it binds up while cutting. In contrast, if a pull stroke saw binds while cutting it just gets stuck – without bending/breaking the blade. The biggest tradeoff on folding saws is the length of the blade since that dictates what size wood you can cut and how long/heavy the folded saw is. We think that you need a blade that is at least 8 to 9 inches long to be effective. The other critical component of a folding saw is the handle – so make sure that you have one with an ergonomic design that fits your hand (diameter, length and material) and how you saw. Also make sure that the saw has a mechanism that locks the blade into position when it is in use since there are few things more painful than having a saw blade cut into your hand while sawing. If you want to check out folding saws you might look at the following 8 popular ones:
Pocket Chain Saws – Pocket Chain Saws are just what they sound like; a chain similar to that on a gas-powered chain saw that is driven by you pulling back and forth instead of a motor. The critical considerations on a chain saw are the length (since that determines what size wood you can cut) and durability (since the only component is the chain and a cheap one will either quickly wear out or break). If weight is an overwhelming consideration then a pocket chain saw is a good option since it will pack into a small pouch (approximately 3" x 4" x 2"), weighs only 3 to 4 ounces and will get the job done on any reasonable sized log that you want to cut. The biggest shortfall of the pocket chain saw is that it really can only be used for rough sawing of wood; you can’t easily use it for cutting notches or joints. So if you are using it for bushcraft activities it might suffice for the getting the timber – but not for the finer cuts. If you want to check out pocket chain saws you might look at the following 4 popular ones:
Selecting the Right Saw for You
So now that we’ve covered the basic differences between saw types, what factors should you evaluate when looking for a saw to take with you on your outback adventures? Although the evaluation factors differ a little depending the type of saw you prefer, in general we think that you should look at the following: 1) length, 2) strength, 3) weight, 4) number/type of teeth on saw, 5) diameter of log that can be cut, 6) durability, 7) ergonomic design, 8) ease of blade replacement and 9) cost.
Of course one of the most critical items on a saw are the teeth on the blade. The standard way manufacturers measure the teeth on a blade is by the inch - often listed as “teeth per inch” (TPI). In addition to the number of teeth, the size of the teeth is also a factor. Larger teeth (and lower TPI) typically provide faster cutting and are better at cutting softer wood and smaller teeth (higher TPI) are good for cutting harder wood. Blades with 2-8 TPI are good for ripping soft woods with the grain. Medium blades with 10-20 TPI are for crosscutting and moderately hard materials. Fine blades with 20-30 TPI (not really applicable to camp saws) are for very hard materials and/or very precise cuts.
If you want to see more detailed information, and reviews, about saws here are some good articles/websites to checkout:
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Here's where we post reviews, questions, answers, thoughts and other information that's of general interest to our followers in a blog format.