Preparing for the Appalachian Trail: The Dry Run

In one week I am hiking 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park to Harper’s Ferry, WV.  I have been preparing for months, but it dawned on me recently that I have mostly been preparing for the hiking, not the camping

The hiking part was the main attraction for me but how would I do on the camping part?

I have been in the gym, I have been doing practice hikes on actual trails, I have broken in my boots, learned about the appropriate food, but I haven’t been preparing for the camping part of it!

Fortunately my son Andrew, who is lending me most of the gear I will use, has a lot of experience and agreed to go out on an overnight trip with me to get me checked out on all the gear and give me some pointers.

Since my trip will end in Harpers Ferry from the south, I decided to begin there and go north.  I wanted to get on the actual trail, visit one of the shelters, and camp overnight at a tent site.  I also wanted to visit the Headquarters for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy which, sitting in Harpers Ferry puts it within 150 miles of the midpoint of the entire Maine to Georgia trail.

The day began with a lengthy checklist.  I had to stock a first aid kit, and anticipate as many medical issues as possible.  Next I had to bring food. 

The food is subject to three variables, weight, calories (for once you want as many as possible!), and time to cook, i.e., fuel consumption.  This means a lot of dried, high calorie food.  As one friend put it, you want to basically eat the diet they ate crossing the Atlantic in the 1600’s!

Finally there were a few minor last-minute items I needed at the camp store.  I needed rope, fuel for the stove, etc.

By the time we were packed and ready to go it was 4pm, but that was ok because there would not be a long hike this time. Harpers Ferry is about an hour’s drive.  We arrived a little after 5:00 and hiked for 3 miles.  Normally this would take exactly an hour but my pack was 42 pounds and we climbed over 700 feet in elevation in the first mile.  There was a lot of huffing and puffing and water breaks!

The Ed Garvey Shelter just north of Harpers Ferry is reportedly one of the nice ones. It certainly was a welcome sight after hiking up a mountain!

We met a hiker at the bottom who asked if we minded him joining us.  “Music Man” (his trail name) was just beginning, this was day 1 and he had already gone astray by almost 12 miles!  He was hiking the northern half of the trail and hoping to make it to Maine by October. 

He, like us, was looking for the Ed Garvey Shelter.  This was the first one we would encounter and I wanted to see what the shelters were like.  For many others, this was a planned stop to camp for the night.

We arrived to find a welcoming, if rustic 2 story shelter completely open on one side.  It sits up on a ridge looking out over the Maryland side of the Potomac Valley.  There were already a half-dozen people there and they had a fire going and had claimed their spots.  By the end of the night there would be a full dozen at the shelter.  It’s a nice social spot for the hikers and there’s a guest book to sign in which many people are leaving messages for hikers behind them on the trail.

The front of the shelter is open and everyone just claims a spot. In rainy weather however, this is the dryest place to be.

Since we were practicing the camping part, we chose to grab a nearby tent site rather than stay at the shelter.  We set up camp and got about to dinner.

Andrew and I chose a tent site so I could get a feel for setting everything up. Our home in the woods!

Dinner was a one-pot meal, but I couldn’t just eat ramen noodles!  I cut up a scallion and some dried sausage and

The addition of this powdered sauce mix to the pasta water made for a satisfying campsite meal!

sautéed them over the burner in a small pot.  I then poured that onto a plate and added water to boil,, and then Barilla Plus pasta (high protein, high fiber).  When that was just about ready I added the ingredients of a powdered sauce called “Balsamic Red Wine Sauce’. to the water.  I added the sausage scallion mixture to that and we both agreed it was a fantastic meal!

After dinner we had to wash the dishes away from camp, and then hoist up a tree, everything that might smell good to a bear.  This included all our food, the trash, and toiletries like soap, deodorant, and toothpaste.

This was quite the process and one that had us laughing as we took turns trying to throw a rock tied to a piece of rope over a tree limb.

Once it gets dark in the woods, it is really dark!  We walked over to the shelter to say hi and meet a few folks but didn’t stay long and went back to our site and turned in for the night. 

Thus began a mighty uncomfortable night’s sleep! One thing I definitely need is a better sleeping pad under my sleeping bag!

Food and toiletries have to be hoisted in a tree to avoid attracting bears.

I called this trip the “dry run” but that is more of a figurative label.  During the night it began to rain.  By morning it was

This small burner and quart-sized pot make a great cup of instant coffee!

pouring and I am pleased to say we were dry and relatively comfortable in the tent.  I got up first and retrieved the bag from the tree.  The shelter has a large roof overhang and was dry so I brought everything over there.  I boiled some water on the stove and added Starbuck’s Via, which is their instant coffee.  Sitting there looking out at the rain in the valley, watching a few hikers set out for the day and several lagging behind, it was one great cup of coffee!

We had some breakfast and went back to our site to pack up.  Slowly we moved things to the shelter so we could re-pack in dry conditions.  The last thing to go was the tent and that just got rolled up and tied to the bottom of my pack.

Now the three-mile hike was down the mountain which has its own challenges! 

We saw a few people on their way up and had a good hike.  You could hear that it was raining rather hard but we were under a thick enough canopy that if felt like a light drizzle. 

As one hiker packed up to head out–into the rain–his dog slept snugly on the sleeping bag of another hiker…
It’s all about attitude and for me the rain was a beneficial training condition.

The point of the trip was to practice, learn the equipment and techniques,  and experience a sample of what life will be like. 

So basically the rain was a good thing because there are some tricks to staying dry and protecting your gear that is best learned under actual conditions!

It’s all about attitude!

…soon the dog was saddled up with his own backpack and heading out into the rain with his owner.

At the bottom we got into the car and sunk into the comfortable leather seats, ahhh!  We went into Harpers Ferry and visited a tavern for lunch and the AT Headquarters.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters in Harpers Ferry, WV is approximately the halfway point between the start of the trail in Georgia and the end of the trail in Maine.

I returned from the dry run with a great list.  This included things I brought but will not need, and some I didn’t bring but wish I had.  I learned a lot and had a great time with Andrew on the trail.

The Weverton Cliffs tower 300 feet above the rapids of the Potomac River. This alone was worth the trip!

I believe I’m ready for the big trip.  In 7 days I will set out with a partner for 100 miles and 5 days of hiking the trail and camping along it.  I know I’ll meet lots of great people, and, I suspect I’m going to love it.


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