Lost and Alone: A Solo Thru-Hiker’s Perspective

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26 days lost, alone, and starving. Inchworm (Geraldine Largay) had gotten lost while backpacking along the Appalachian Trail and had survived for at least 26 days before perishing in the backwoods of Maine. I didn’t want to imagine it, but as I read the heart-wrenching words in her journal, imploring whoever found her body to let her loved ones know that she was dead and where to find her, I couldn’t help it. It’s the kind of thing that both tragic heroes and horror stories are made of.

I’d had similar thoughts in far less dire circumstances on my solo PCT thru-hike in 2014. Deep in the high sierra, alone, exhausted, hungry, and trudging through the snow with no trail in sight, no people in sight, and surrounded by nameless white peaks I was was overwhelmed by the realization that if I was truly lost, I might die out there and my body might never be found. I’d thought that I’d come terms with the risks and solitude of solo backpacking, but the thought that if something happened to me my family and the people I cared about might not even find my body… it haunted me as I doggedly plunged through the snow, postholing along the route where I imagined the trail to be.

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As it turns out, I wasn’t lost. I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Sure, I’d like to imagine that my experience, my GPS, my map, and my compass, would prevent me from ending up in a situation like Inchworm’s, but I have enough experience to know that sh** happens, the mountains are unforgiving, and nobody is perfect.

Instead of second guessing Inchworm’s decisions and her personal character (read this article in the New York Times and this one in the Portland Press Herald if you want to reassure yourself that this could never happen to you because you’re a better outdoors-person than Inchworm was), let’s take a more objective look at how prepared she was.

Bushwhacking through the dense forest in Maine a couple of miles away from where Inchworm was found.

Did she have the “10 essential” pieces of gear every hiker should carry?

She had at least 9/10 of the essentials listed on the HikeSafe website:

  1. Map (yes)
  2. Compass (yes)
  3. Warm Clothing (yes)
  4. Extra Food and Water (yes)
  5. Flashlight or Headlamp (yes)
  6. Matches/Firestarters (yes)
  7. First Aid Kit/Repair Kit (yes)
  8. Whistle (yes)
  9. Rain/Wind Jacket & Pants (yes)
  10. Pocket Knife (unknown to me)

It looks to me like she was fairly well prepared (in terms of gear). Besides, she had enough stuff so that she was able to survive for 26 days after getting lost, which is pretty damn impressive if you ask me.

FYI: Many thru-hikers I know skimp on this list (especially the map, compass, and whistle). I didn’t carry an emergency whistle on my AT thru-hike until I was gifted one by the folks at the Mt. Washington Observatory on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I’ve carried it ever since.

Did she share her travel plan?

According to the HikeSafe website you should “tell someone where you are going, the trails you are hiking, when you will return and your emergency plans.”

Inchworm shared her travel plan. Her husband knew her planned 3-day itinerary, saw her off, and planned to meet her at the next trail intersection.

Graphic: James Abundis/Globe Staff (Note that peak labeled Redington Mountain is not the 4000 footer; Redington Mt. is unlabeled)

Did she S.T.O.P.? (Stop, think, observe, plan)

If you get lost on an outdoor adventure, the general advice is that you should stop (or sit), think, observe, and plan (STOP). All of the evidence suggests that Inchworm did stop, think, observe, and plan, although it can be argued that she should have stopped sooner. The more detailed advice provided by Hike Safe says, “if the last known location is within a reasonable distance, try to go back to it. If you can’t find any recognizable landmarks by backtracking, stay put,” and further elaborates, “you may need to be on higher ground in order to identify landmarks such as streams and ridges.”

The evidence suggests that Inchworm followed this advice, perhaps to a fault. After realizing she was lost she headed to higher ground to try to get her bearings (and to try to get cell phone service) and then she stayed put. With 20/20 hindsight it’s easy to criticize her decision to stay put, but “staying put” and “charging on” are both considered reasonable actions after a few days of waiting for rescue according to some sources.

Did she do the “5 things” you should do if you can’t rescue yourself?

According to hike safe the 5 things you should do if you can’t rescue yourself are:

  1. Stay warm and protect yourself from the elements. If possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.
  2. Try to remain hydrated.
  3. Put bright clothing on, or put out something that’s bright to attract attention.
  4. Continue to blow your whistle at regular intervals
  5. Don’t lie on bare ground. Use the equipment you brought to protect yourself from the elements.

At first glance the evidence suggests that Inchworm did all 5 things. However, there’s that second sentence in step 1, “if possible, stay near an open space; move into it to be visible from the air and ground.” Inchworm’s camp was in a warm and protected space, but it wasn’t readily visible from the air and ground. It seems likely that she looked for an open space and didn’t find one, so opted for higher ground not knowing that there was a nearby ATV road. There is evidence that she tried to increase here visibility by hanging her mylar blanket in the trees and there’s eveidence that she tried to light signal fires.

A campsite in an open area near the Appalachian Trail in Vermont

FYI: Open spaces can be hard to come by in New England’s backcountry, and most of us are used to pitching our tents under the cover of trees. This is especially true since we know that the fields are full of ticks (Lyme Disease is endemic), and camping is strictly prohibited in most other open areas along the trails in the Northeast. “If you can’t see them, they can’t see you” is a helpful reminder if you’re only hope is a helicopter rescue. It’s also important to know that most searches on the ground never get more than 1/2 a days hike from the nearest road, so if you’re backpacking in a remote area you’re best hope is probably going to be getting sighted by someone in the air.

Conclusion

Based on the Hike Safe Hiker Responsibility code developed by the White Mountains National Forest and New Hampshire Fish and Game, I’d have to declare Inchworm a responsible (and prepared) hiker. In TV survival shows like Naked and Afraid they drop people into the wilds and see if they can survive for 21 days. Inchworm survived for at least 26 days in the wild, and in my opinion that deserves a heck of a lot of respect. Misfortune, tragedy, and death should not be mistaken lack of preparedness, lack of moral fiber, or irresponsibility. Were there things that she could have done differently? Undoubtedly. Does the evidence suggest that she was ill-prepared, or incompetent? No.

Our Role: The Hiking Community

Although there has been lots of discussion about what Inchworm did wrong, and a lot of second-guessing of her actions, I haven’t seen much reflection on what we, as a hiking community, could have done better, or things that search and rescue could have done differently. Take a look at the reduced search area where efforts were focused after the first 7 days.

Map of the narrowed search area for Inchworm

Now take a look at the location where Inchworm was found.

Though earlier searches had come very close to her actual location, later searches focused on a different section of the trail. Why? How did they end up focusing on the wrong stretch of trail? I’m sure that there are a lot of reasons, but one contributing factor could be “a tip the warden service received about a hiker who reportedly stayed with Largay at the Spaulding Mountain lean-to the night before she was reported missing.” Certainly when I hiked through the area in late September the prevailing opinion was that she had gotten lost somewhere between the summit of Lone Mountain and the Carrabassett River (and I’d thought that the river might have done her in). We were all wrong.

She’d made a wrong turn at Orbeton Stream, and was found  much closer to the Poplar Ridge Lean-to than anyone expected (GPS Coordinates of her final location: N44 59.011 W70 24.099). When you look at the time, effort, and heart that went into the search for her by both search and rescue and the hiking community it’s impossible to find fault, but it is a reminder that we should be careful when trusting our memories, and with our reporting of events.

This map shows the tracks of searchers and the location where the remains of Geraldine Largay were found.

Heartbreaking map of the search areas, with a yellow dot showing Inchworm’s final location.

Yeah, but what did she do wrong?

Let’s take a look at the things people say that Inchworm did wrong.

Inchworm hiked alone. Inchworm started out with a hiking partner, but when her hiking partner got off of the trail due to a family emergency she decided to continue on. Although there is no guarantee that hiking with others will keep you safe, there is also no doubt that there is “safety in numbers,” and Inchworm was hiking alone when she got lost.  There are lots of reasons why people hike alone. I always invite other people to join me on my adventures, but when I can’t find people to join me, I frequently make the decision to hike alone. I love hiking and backpacking, and I have no intention of letting the fact that I’m solo deter me from following my dreams. For me, the benefit is worth the risk. That said, I try to minimize that risk as much as I can… lost, alone, and starving to death is not my idea of a good time!

Inchworm may not have known how to use her compass. Inchworm’s friend Jane Lee said that even though Inchworm carried a compass she didn’t know how to use it. Regardless of whether or not this assertion is true, it serves as an important reminder that your safety gear is useless if you don’t know how to use it. If you are a hiker that carries a compass, when is the last time that you used it? Chances are pretty good that a little practice and review with a map and compass would do you good. I think that it is also worth noting that most of the “concerning evidence” reported about Inchworm’s incompetence comes from the hiking partner who had to leave Inchworm and the trail because of a family emergency. As her hiking partner is human, it is incredibly likely that Inchworm’s disappearance was traumatic for her and that she was struggling to understand her friend’s disappearance and trying to bridge the gap between knowing that her friend’s disappearance was not her fault, and feeling like Inchworm wouldn’t have gotten lost if she had still been there hiking with her… Coming to terms with those feeling in the immediate aftermath of Inchworm’s disappearance may have caused her to overemphasize her concerns.

My impromptu backcountry campsite nestled under the trees near Mt. Abraham in Maine

Inchworm stayed in one place for too long. This criticism largely seems like a hindsight is 20/20 kind of issue. Inchworm followed conventional wisdom, sheltering in place, near water, and minimizing her hypothermia risks. I haven’t seen any guidelines that say that you should abandon your camp and move on if rescue hasn’t arrived within a day or two (please comment and share if you’ve found any). Bumbling around in the woods, especially after you’re been lost and when you have a dwindling supply of food, puts you at a high risk of injury and will cause you to burn calories and eat through your resources more quickly. I don’t think Inchworm stayed in one place for too long, it is more likely that she stayed in the wrong place for too long.

Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her. The missing person’s report states “SPOT@hotel.” Inchworm had a SPOT locator device, but it wasn’t with her! Why? Why would it be listed as “SPOT@hotel”? Why didn’t she have it with her? My guess is that it’s absence from her gear and her person was 100% accidental. Why she’d taken it out of/off of her pack we may never know (perhaps to replace the batteries?), but this is the most tragic example of “your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you” that I have ever heard! Would Inchworm have been found? Would she be alive today if she’d had her locator device with her and activated it? Probably. Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes! Your gear can’t help you if you don’t have it with you!

An InReach satellite messenger lent to me by my friend Root Beer Float

What would I do differently?

If I get lost, I want to get found!! When I think about what I could do differently one thing immediately comes to mind. I can carry some sort of personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger with me. Sure, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll be found and rescued, (Kate Matrosova had a GPS, a PLB, and a sat phone with her when she perished in the White Mountains in the winter of 2015), but it certainly increases the chances.

The only question is, which device should I carry? Since I’m looking for a device/technology that my life may depend on, I’ve done a lot of research on the current SOS/locator/messenger technology and devices available. Stay tuned for my analysis, gear-review, and decision based on the three main options:

For more information on what you should do if you get lost and how to avoid getting lost, check out NOHLs “What to do when you’re lost in the woods” post.

USGS Topo Map showing the GPS Coordinates where Inchworm was found along with the AT and 4WD roads nearby.

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Patches the Asthma Girl! (Asthma Ditty)

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I’m Patches the asthma girl!
I’m Patches the asthma girl!
(Puff! Puff!)
I’m hiking across the world.
With new lands to see
I’m happy as can be!
I’m Patches the asthma girl!
(Puff! Puff!)

I feel healthy
And I feel strong
‘Cause I’m hiking
The whole day long.

I used to struggle
And I used to wheeze
Now I just
Give the inhaler a squeeze
(Puff! Puff!)

There’s no mountain too high
And no trail that’s too long
When I have my inhaler along
(Puff! Puff!)

I’m Patches the asthma girl!
I’m Patches the asthma girl!
(Puff! Puff!)
I’m hiking across the world.
With new lands to see
I’m happy as can be!
I’m Patches the asthma girl!
(Puff! Puff!)

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AT vs PCT: The first 150 miles

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Lots of people have been asking me how the PCT compares to the AT… At least in the first 150 miles there are lots of differences!

The AT is a green tunnel, the PCT is either a red racetrack or the yellow-brick road.

The AT has lots of tree cover and the trail was mostly mud or hard-packed earth. The PCT by contrast is incredibly exposed. There is rarely tree cover and much of the trail is yellowish beach sand or reddish rocks.

Walking on the AT was mostly walking on hard surfaces, walking on the PCT is mostly like walking on the soft part of the beach.

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On the AT I never used my sunscreen, on the PCT I use it four times a day.

On the AT I used my rescue inhaler four times a day, on the PCT I haven’t used it at all.

On the AT it seemed like there was water everywhere, on the PCT the creeks and streams have mostly been dry. The water caches, however, have been impressively stocked.

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On the AT almost 80% of the thu-hikers I met (in the first 150 miles) on the trail smoked cigarettes, on the PCT I haven’t encountered any smokers yet.

On the AT the birds started chirping an hour before dawn (a reliable alarm clock), on the PCT the birds start chirping sometime between dawn and an hour after dawn.

On the AT views were a rare commodity, on the PCT it seems there are spectacular new views around every corner.

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On the AT the lows were in the 40s, on the PCT the lows were in the 20s.

On the AT the highs were in the 70s, on the PCT the highs were in the 90s.

On the AT it’s possible to stay at shelters every night, on the PCT there are no shelters.

On the AT mice out number people, on the PCT lizards outnumber people.

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On the AT the crowd was mostly 20 something’s, on the PCT the crowd seems to be mostly 60 something’s (because I’m starting the PCT early and I started the AT late?).

On the AT people would look at you crazy if you hiked 20 miles on your first day, on the PCT that seems like the norm.

Blister prevalence seems the same for both the AT and the PCT. I’ve seen fewer knee injuries on the PCT so far though.

The PCT truly believes in switchbacks, Georgia thinks that it’s trying sometimes.

On the AT there are gaps, on the PCT there are canyons.

On the AT I never used my sunglasses, on the PCT I use them every day.

I didn’t seem any mosquitos the first 150 miles of the AT, I’ve seen tons on the PCT already.

There seems to be a higher default level of education on the PCT relative to the AT (could be due to the older demographic.

On the AT I hung a bear bag every night, on the PCT I sleep with my food on my tent.

On the AT I resupplied out of grocery stores and ghetty marts, for the PCT I am sending myself maildrops.

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Despite raining 4/5 of my first days on the PCT, it has generally been much sunnier on the PCT than on the AT.

When packing for the PCT I made a few adjustments to my gear. The main one was switching my alcohol stove to a jetboil sol. I loved my little alcohol stove, but because of the fire danger California has banned them this year.

In the first 150 miles I’ve also switched some of my gear. I traded out my baseball cap for a more desert friendly cap with a neck guard. I bought down booties to keep my feet warm. I bought a chrome dome umbrella for shade, I bought extra sunscreen, and I bought some Chapstick with sunscreen in it. I also realized that having a v-neck long sleeve shirt meant having extra sunburn area to worry about so I would definitely get a high-colored shirt if I were to do this again!

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Things that have been weighing on me…

Bullying and trying to shame people into reducing their pack weight is relatively new to the backpacking community (Does pack weight come from fear?), but it has been commonplace in American culture as a way to try to motivate people to lose weight for decades. Though I’m sure (or at least hope) that the people who coined the term “pack weight comes from fear” were not intentionally tapping into the very sensitive issues surrounding size/weight-based prejudice, they stumbled into it anyway. Issues of bullying and weight shaming have bled over from mainstream America into my idyllic community in the woods and I don’t like it!

Americans obsess about food and weight.

I was shocked when I returned home from the trail and was immediately inundated with commentary about food, eating, and beauty. The culture I’d been immersed in on the trail viewed food and eating very differently from mainstream society, and I had forgotten the pervasiveness of our cultural programming about food and body image. On the trail, I lost count of the number of complete strangers that walked up to me and offered me Snickers bars or other kinds of food. On the trail, the Snickers bars and other unexpected treats were referred to as “trail magic,” and the strangers providing them were called “trail angels.” Meeting a trail angel and getting unexpected trail magic was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I still smile thinking back on those Snickers bars! On the trail I’d stopped being ashamed of my hunger. I’d stopped being ashamed of eating. I’d stopped being ashamed of taking food from strangers. If I went into a restaurant and ordered 2 appetizers, 2 meals, and then every dessert off of the menu my friends and acquaintances would look at me with approving surprise and say, “You go girl!” while the wait-staff would laugh wholeheartedly and say, “You must be a thru-hiker.” On the trail, the pervasive attitudes about food and eating were all very positive. No one ever said, do you really need that candy bar?” or “You’d really look great if you just lost another X (fill in a number) pounds.”

According to Weight Watchers, a healthy weight for my height (5’10) ranges from 139-174 pounds, which is consistent with my internal metrics (I know that if I drop below 140 pounds, I become amenorrheic, which is a sign that I’m underweight). The CDC on the other hand suggests a normal range of 129-174 lbs. In the five months that I was on the trail I had gone from being over-weight (185 lbs and a size 16) to underweight (135 lbs and a size 3). When I returned to civilization I felt like a completely different person on the inside, and had forgotten that my outward appearance had changed too. My weight was often the first thing people noticed and wanted to relate to me about, not my experiences or my personal growth. I was surprised by how complicated my feelings about that were, both personally and culturally. Suddenly I had ‘thin privilege’… All of the women on TV looked like me, all of the food advertisements seemed to be saying that women should look like me, and people kept telling me that I was beautiful.

None of it quite felt right though. I definitely was not at a reasonable long-term stable weight for me. At first it seemed laughable to think that people would look at me and think that I was. It was ridiculous! But then I realized that I was the weight that the media was telling me I should be: I was the weight where everyone on TV looked like me. Suddenly I wasn’t laughing anymore. I was horrified. This was compounded by the fact that I knew I was underweight and people were already starting to shake their heads and make comments like, “You better start watching what you eat or you’ll gain it all back!” It was incredibly unnerving. Though I enjoyed the privilege and praise that came with being thin, the message that I needed to be careful if I wanted to keep my new found privilege was coming through loud and clear. Being a size 3 meant thin privilege, but would I get to keep that privilege at a healthier, more stable weight? I wasn’t sure.

What I do know is that whether I am underweight or overweight, what I was eat, how much, and how often is a topic of conversation whether I want it to be or not. Typically when I am heavier, the comments are more critical and less positive than when I am lighter.

Being heavy, overweight, obese or fat in America, “is associated with being ‘lazy, ignorant, hated, ugly, weak, and lacking in will-power.’ As a result, ‘fat’ isn’t a description like tall or redhead – it’s an indication of moral character: fat is bad.” According to the CDC, 35.7% of American adults are obese (having a BMI or body mass index greater than 30) and many more are considered to be overweight (BMI greater than 25 but less than 30). Given the stigma associated with weight and the large number of people that are considered to be overweight or ‘fat’, it’s not surprising that many people in our culture are sensitive about weight issues. Is it reasonable to be concerned about the health risks associated with being overweight or obese? Yes. Does weight discrimination help people evaluate and improve their health? No. Weight discrimination can make it even harder to navigate the health care system since doctors respect their patients less as their weight (BMI) goes up. Is weight shaming an effective way to motivate people to lose weight and to combat America’s obesity epidemic? No. “Weight discrimination, which is often justified because it is thought to help encourage obese individuals to lose weight can actually have the opposite effect: it is associated with the development and maintenance of obesity,” (according to findings published in 2013 on PLOS ) and discussed in the Huffington Post.

Hikers obsess about pack weight.

Just like Americans seem to have a pathological obsession with body weight, backpackers are obsessed with pack weight (See my previous post: “Does pack weight come from fear?”). Is it reasonable to be concerned about the weight of your pack? Yes. Should we adopt pervasive American attitudes about body weight and apply them to pack weight? No. Like body weight, there is no single number that you point to and say that it is an ideal weight that all people should strive towards in all conditions. However, we can use science to help define a reasonable range of pack weights that people can then tailor to their individual needs.

The upper limit of pack weight that you should carry is defined by human structural load carrying capacity. The US Army Science Board in a study suggests that 50 pounds is the maximum load that should be carried by a soldier for any length of time based on physiological constraints and musculoskeletal concerns. In addition to a cap of 50 lbs, the optimal backpack load for soldiers in combat has been determined to be 30% of their body weight. Research in recreational contexts suggests a similar threshold for pack weight of of not more than 30% of body weight. Based on these studies, the maximum pack weight you should carry is 30% of your body weight unless you weigh 167 pounds or more, at which point you shouldn’t carry more than 50 pounds (note that the % body weight calculations are based on an individual’s ‘fit’ weight or ‘ideal’ weight).

The lower limit of pack weight or “base pack” weight (defined as pack weight excluding consumables eg food, water, and fuel) is currently established by experienced ultralight backpacking enthusiasts like Ray Jardine (who pioneered the ultralight movement in 1992) who are able to get their base pack weights below 10 lbs. Food and water then get added to the base pack weight depending on availability and local resources. For most people, a reasonable pack weight is somewhere between 12 and 50 lbs, but will vary with personal experience, financial constraints, and the science of survival.

Knowing a “healthy” range of pack weights provides a rudimentary (at best) guideline about pack weight, but doesn’t actually help when it comes to figuring out what you should put in your pack when venturing off into the wilderness. When I pack my pack, I use scientific guidelines to determine the minimum that I need to carry for survival:

  1. Food (for glycoregulation).
  2. Water (for osmoregulation).
  3. Shelter/Heat (for thermoregulation).

In the next three posts I’m going to discuss how the science and privilege around these requirements influence the way I pack my pack and hike my hike.

Does pack weight come from fear?

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The catchphrase “pack weight comes from fear” (Ultralight hiking in Yogi’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook, p.66) is gaining popularity in the backpacking world as a way to motivate people to “lighten up” and it is driving met nuts. If you had to choose between packing your pack fearfully or fearlessly, which would you choose? I cringe when I imagine novice backpackers hearing that “pack weight comes from fear” as they accept the unspoken challenge to “live their lives without fear” and dump out the contents of their packs before marching off into the wilderness.

In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” With those words, he established a new definition of fear in the American psyche. The connotation of fear suddenly became unbalanced and strongly skewed towards irrational fear. Assuming the popular definition of fear, my pack weight definitely does not come from fear, and I don’t want other people to assume that it does.

“If you fear being cold, you’ll carry more clothes,” the handbook continued. “If you fear being cold, you’ll stay home!” I grumbled. “If you want to be more comfortable, you’ll carry more clothes,” but it was more than just that. “If you don’t want to die from hypothermia, you’ll carry more clothes.”  Hypothermia is a big deal and under-preparing for the cold is a mistake that people on the trail die from each year.

“If you fear going hungry, you’ll carry extra food.” “No,” I grumped, “that’s not why you carry extra food! If you don’t want to run out of food and impose on other hikers, you’ll carry extra food.” I’d gotten tired of the infamous moochers on the trail that would consistently run out of food one or two days before town and look to the rest of us (with sorrowful eyes) to bail them out and share our meager supplies.

The handbook wasn’t done yet, “If you fear floaties in your water, you’ll carry a filter.” Are floaties something that people actually fear? No. “If you dislike being sick, you’ll carry a water filter or some other way to purify your water.” Water contaminated with bacteria or parasites (e.g. giardia and e. coli) can give you the runs, make you miserable, and force you off of the trail (the EPA has a nice report about giardia and drinking water here). My experience with giardia (acquired in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine) was absolutely no fun.

“If you fear bugs, you’ll sleep in a tent (p. 66),” the guidebook finished. “Hrmph,” I don’t carry a tent because I fear bugs. “If you want shelter from the rain, wind, and snow, you’ll sleep in a tent.” Even though I don’t fear bugs, I do fear some of the diseases they carry, “If you fear Lyme Disease, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, West Nile Virus, Malaria, and yellow fever, you’ll carry DEET, bug nets, long pants, and long-sleeved shirts, or maybe you’ll just stay home!” Lyme disease in particular affected at least five of my thru-hiking friends in 2013 and forced them to take time off from the trail. Lyme Disease was definitely something I feared, so I constantly checked myself for ticks and tried to keep myself, my pack, and my tent out of the tall grass (check out what the CDC has to say about Lyme disease here).

At the end of the paragraph I grumpily put the book down and tried to figure out why the idea that “Pack weight comes from fear” had touched such a nerve. It implied that the reason my pack was heavy was because I was irrationally afraid of cold, hunger, floaties, bugs etc. Was that the reason that my pack was heavy?

No, it wasn’t and it wasn’t ok for people to assume that it was. My pack weight came from a combination of the things I needed for survival, the things I wanted for my comfort and enjoyment, and the experience to know the difference; experience that I had gained hiking and backpacking thousands of miles over more than 20 years in all kinds of conditions, all over the world. Have I perfected my pack yet? No, but that’s because I’m still learning (and always will be) and improving on things, not because I am afraid.

Have I gotten really tired of people giving me unsolicited advice about my backpack as they point out their smaller, lighter, and clearly (to them) superior packs? Yes. Will this be even more irritating if people assume that my pack weight comes from fear? Yes! If people start assuming that my “pack weight comes from fear” then they are likely to dismiss my rational/experience-based assessments of risk and gear without bothering to have a real conversation with me about it first. Even though I really enjoy geeking out about my gear (and gear weight), I would like it if the conversation at least started by assuming that everyone involved was equally experienced or otherwise on equal footing. Having yet another hurdle to jump before people are willing to take me seriously and converse with me, instead of just lecturing or mansplaining things to me was not something I looked forward to. The emotional milieu of fear, judgment, dismissal, and disrespect surrounding issues of size and weight suddenly felt awfully familiar.

It felt like bullying. It felt like weight shaming. “Pack weight comes from fear,” was forcing people to justify every pound and every ounce of their pack weight so that they wouldn’t be judged as inferior, weak, or afraid just because they had a heavy pack. The metaphor between pack weight and our societies pathological obsession with body weight leapt out of the page and lunged at me. I tried to reign in my thoughts and save that rant for another post.

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I took a deep breath and tried to refocus, it wasn’t just the metaphor and issues of weight shaming that bothered me, the whole idea that pack weight comes from fear reeked of privilege. As I thought about backpacks and privilege Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” immediately came to mind. She referred to privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” Speaking of white privilege, did you know that 97% of AT thru-hikers are white? (See the National Park Service Use and Users Of the Appalachian Trail guide for 2000.)

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How much privilege (white privilege, middle class privilege, male privilege, thin privilege, first world privilege) is embedded in backpacking and in a comment like, “Pack weight comes from fear?” A lot. If you have a lot of money do you have access to lighter, less bulky equipment? Yes. Perhaps then we should say “pack weight comes from money.” Is the threshold temperature at which men and women become cold different? Yes (See the EN ratings for sleeping bags and compare Tlim(men) and Tcomf(women)). Does this mean women have to carry more gear (which weighs more) than their male counterparts? Yes. So, perhaps we should say “pack weight comes from gender.” Argh! I was getting even grumpier as I thought about backpacking and privilege. There are ways that being on the trail changes our relationship with privilege, but there are definitely ways that it does not. I’d stumbled onto yet another topic that I had lots of things to say about (fodder for yet another post).

Wild

I had to stay focused though, I wasn’t quite done with talking about “pack weight comes from fear,” and how dangerous that concept could be for inexperienced or novice backpackers. Without experience how do you know which things you need to ensure your safety, which things you carry because they make you comfortable, and which things you carry because of irrational fears? The short answer is that you don’t. Most novice backpackers carry a lot of things that they don’t need and end up like Bill Bryson in “Into the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed in “Wild,” with huge overstuffed ‘monster’ backpacks. Providing novice (and experienced) backpackers with advice about how to eliminate unnecessary weight from their packs is a noble goal, but we shouldn’t be trying to motivate people by making them feel ashamed about their packs or their weight. How do you figure out what the healthy range of pack weights is if you don’t have any backpacking experience yet? The engineer and physiologist in me suddenly had a new mission; to compile the research about physiological and mechanical boundaries for pack weight (both high and low) instead of relying on ranges based on hearsay and fear mongering (the idea for yet another set of posts was born)!

If pack weight doesn’t come from fear, what does it come from? It comes from the things we’ve learned from: society, privilege, exposure to other hikers/backpackers, experiences with the wilderness, and experiences with our bodies/health. Though it’s an ongoing process, with enough experience, backpackers learn the difference between what they need to survive, what they want for their comfort and entertainment, and how to make compromises between the two to lighten their loads.

By the time my rant about “pack weight comes from fear,” started to wind down it was way past my bedtime and I was exhausted. Quietly, a quote from the movie Donnie Darko came to mind, “As you can see, the Life Line is divided into two polar extremes. Fear and love. Fear is in the negative energy spectrum. And love is in the positive energy spectrum,” and I laughed to myself. Making the assertion that “pack weight comes from love,” sounded just as ridiculous to me as “pack weight comes from fear.” Sure, it eliminated much of the negative spin, but it still didn’t encourage a rational discussion about how we pack and unpack our packs.

Thru-Hike Camera Review

The camera that I primarily used on my 2013 AT thru-hike was the:

  • Sony NEX-5N with the 18-55mm/ f3.5-5.6 OSS lens.
  • 32 GB SD Card
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Separate Flash
  • Weight: 1lb 2 oz
  • Charger: 3 oz
  • MSRP: $699.99
Sunset in the White Mountains caputured with my Sony Nex5N

Sunset in the White Mountains (Sony Nex5N)

Overall thru-hike review: 9/10. It was a bit heavy by thru-hiking standards (weight: 7/10), but seemed to be the perfect compromise between the much bigger, heavier, and more expensive DSLRs and the smaller (but poorer photo-quality) standard point-and-shoots. I was a little concerned about how it well it would do when faced with the brutal treatment and conditions I knew I was bound to subject it to on the trail, but it held up impressively well (ruggedness: 10/10). I carried that camera from Georgia to Maine and used it every day! The battery life was also really good. If I used it exclusively for pictures it easily lasted me 5-7 days between recharges, using it for video sucked up much more battery, but was not the way that I usually used the camera (battery life: 9/10). I had only two complaints about it on the trail, 1) I didn’t feel comfortable using it in the heavy rains that I experienced fairly often (waterproofness: 6/10) and 2) the 18-55 lens didn’t give me enough zoom to take good, high quality photos of the wildlife that I encountered along the trail (zoom: 7/10). Overall I loved the Sony Nex, it was easy to use, relatively convenient, and allowed me to take the kinds of photos that I wanted to document my trip with (Check out the series of photobooks, Parts 1-5: Walk it Off that I made after returning from the trail, they pair the photos I took with the Sony Nex-5N with the blog posts that I made for the same days).

part5b

In addition to the Sony Nex-5N, I also used my cell phone as a camera:

  • iPhone 4S
  • Weight: 6.4 oz
  • MSRP: $450

Overall thru-hike review as a camera: 6/10. The iPhone was convenient for taking pictures and sharing them on my blog and on facebook whenever I got to town (10/10). The size of the phone and the fact that I used it for multiple purposes also made it incredibly convenient (10/10). Some of the downsides to using my cell phone as my camera were that the photo-quality wasn’t nearly as good as the Sony Nex (5/10), and it took a long time to boot up if I had it powered down (5/10). Leaving my cell phone in airplane mode allowed for better response time, but drained my cell phone battery more quickly (6/10). If it was raining and I wanted to take a picture, I used my cell phone camera. The only technical problem that I had with the iPhone was early in the trip (my first week in Georgia) when I discovered that it didn’t power down correctly, which drained the cell phone battery really quickly. After contacting Verizon, they sent a replacement phone to my next maildrop. The replacement phone lasted me for the rest of the trip to Maine. Overall thru-hike review of the iPhone 4S as a phone: 10/10. Though my iPhone didn’t get great reception everywhere on the AT, it had good coverage for most of the tip (typically much better coverage than other providers). Keeping the phone in airplane mode, I was able to use it as a quick and easy camera without draining the battery too much. I also used it to send and receive text messages and to write my blog posts from town. I even used it as an mp3 player occasionally when my radio died. Overall it stood up to the wear and tear of the trail and functioned admirably.

Which Camera should I use for the PCT?

Cedar Waxwing (Canon Powershot)

Cedar Waxwing taken with the Canon Powershot

When I returned from the AT, I wished my camera had been better at taking wildlife pictures so I experimented with a camera with more zoom. Over the winter I tested out the:

  • Canon Powershot SX50 HS
  • 32 GB SD Card
  • Built in lenses and flash
  • Weight: 1lb 6.4 oz
  • Charger: 2.8 oz
  • MSRP: $429.99

Overall thru-hike review: 6/10. What I found was that the Canon Powershot was really good at taking pictures of birds, and was, in many ways, superior to SONY Nex 5N for this purpose. The image quality wasn’t as good as what I’d grown used to with the Sony Nex, but the zoom and image stabilization for the Powershot were definitely impressive. If I wanted to take pictures of anything other than birds (people inside with low light, or landscapes), my SONY NEX 5N was better, hands down. A downside that I anticipate with the Powershot as a camera for thru-hiking is the number of moving parts and fancy electronics involved with all autofocus the camera. Knowing me the camera would get damp and covered in dirt and grit like the Sony Nex did, and I’m not sure that it could withstand the kinds of abuse that I put my cameras through on backpacking treks). The battery life for the Powershot also didn’t seem to be as good as it was for the Sony Nex 5N. Overall backyard birding review: 10/10. Even though I wasn’t convinced that this was the camera to take on the trail with me, it is definitely an awesome little camera and does an amazing job when it comes to taking pictures of stationary birds in good light, even when they are far away! Check out the book that I made with all the fun bird pictures I took over the winter:

WinterWildlife

Final decision for PCT:

Ultimately I have decided to go with the Sony Nex 5N for my upcoming PCT thru-hike. Since my biggest complaint about it was the lack of zoom, someone helped me fix that glitch by giving me a new lens:

  • Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 Telephoto lens
  • Weight: 12.8 oz
  • MSRP: $349.99

This new lens gives me the added zoom that I’m looking for, so hopefully I’ll gett even better wildlife pictures on the PCT than I did on the AT. I found that trying to exclusively use the telephoto lens was annoying for pictures of scenery and people so I splurged on a small wide angle lens for the camera as well:

  • Sony 16mm f/2.8
  • Weight: 2 oz
  • MSRP: $249.99

Between these two lenses I hope that the Sony NEX 5N will meet all of my needs as I hike the PCT. A definite downside is that my camera gear has gotten heavier between my AT hike and my PCT hike. The total weight of all of my camera gear (including chargers, lenses, and camera body) is now:

  • 1 lb, 12.8 oz

Making my camera gear a rival for the heaviest thing in my pack!

Prologue: Why I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail

The short answer is asthma. I’ve decided to leave my existing life behind to go hike more than 2,000 miles along the Appalachian Trail (AT) because I’m sick and tired of asthma controlling my life. Though it sounds crazy, I actually think that this trek will be good for my health and good for my asthma. How can hiking the AT possibly help make my asthma better? To understand why I think that this isn’t a completely crazy plan I need to provide you with some back story:

I have occupational asthma. This means that there is something associated with my job that literally takes my breath away. I didn’t know that becoming *literally* allergic to your job was something that could happen when I starting working in a neuroscience lab six years ago. I was excited about my job and learning how to run electrophysiological experiments and didn’t realize at first that I was getting increasingly fatigued and sicker as the years started to roll by. I figured maybe it was just stress, or the fact that I wasn’t in my early twenties anymore. I figured that it just meant that I needed to work harder to push through it. Unfortunately it just seemed to get worse and worse. Eventually it got so bad that I ended up getting admitted to the hospital and was diagnosed with occupational asthma. Then the question was, what was I allergic to? We assumed that it was mice and rats since that’s what the people in my lab worked with, so our lab took precautions to reduce/eliminate my exposure to airborne allergies associated with the animals. Unfortunately I continued having breathing problems. Eventually we figured out that what triggered my asthma the most was when our colleagues down the hall were working with guinea pigs. I wasn’t even working with the damn things, but they were still making me sick.

As it turns out, developing an allergy to work is incredibly common if you work someplace with guinea pigs, 80% of people that are exposed to guinea pigs in their workplace develop an allergy to them. I am part of the unfortunate 20% of that group that goes on to develop asthma. Developing an allergy to guinea pigs is a slow and insidious process that takes place over the course of 3-4 yrs and eerily matched the timeline over which my breathing troubles developed. I had to stop running experiments, and I moved my office to a different floor, but by then I had developed an extreme sensitivity to seemingly all rodent based airborne allergens (guinea pig, rat, mouse, and rabbit). I ended up not being able to breath whenever my boss sat down to talk to me (she eventually ended up figuring out that it was a result of her angora sweaters! Unbeknownst to me she figured out that the sweaters were the trigger and when she stopped wearing them and I was able to breath around her again). With so many of my colleagues working with animals, my breathing would get worse just being in the building. Things got so bad that even outside of lab I started losing my breath and voice, typically around friends who had pet guinea pigs. Decontamination showers started to become routine for me (on days I went into lab) and for my friends and their children before they could hug me. It seemed like allergies and asthma were starting to rule my life. I talked to my doctor and I talked to the occupational health personnel about my occupational asthma, and they told me that I didn’t really have I choice… I was going to have to leave my job. It felt so unfair. I had dedicated so much to my career and now it was making me sick and I was going to have to leave.

They are right though, when you can’t breath you don’t really have a choice. You have to fix the glitch. I have to focus on my health. Since hiking the AT has been a lifelong dream of mine, it seemed like life was giving me the perfect opportunity to walk away from my job… and to keep walking for another 2,000 miles. I hope that this decision to hike the AT will have the side effect of forcing me to focus on my health, to get into shape, and to modify a lot of bad habits that I’ve developed in the past few years as I’ve been struggling to keep my head above water. Struggling to deal with what has felt like a continual onslaught of both physical and emotional challenges. I am really looking forward to this trip. Looking forward to stepping away from the routine of my life and to doing something incredibly different with my time for a while. When I finish hiking the AT I don’t know whether or not I will return to academia and the career to which I’ve dedicated my entire adult life. I do know that I have to prioritize my health over my career, and that I will have to make some changes. I’m looking forward to the changes in perspective that I think will inevitably result from this journey.

I can’t believe that in about a month I will be flying to Georgia to start hiking the AT. I can’t wait!