Thank you to travel writer extraordinaire, Everett Potter, for this wonderful article!
Thank you to travel writer extraordinaire, Everett Potter, for this wonderful article!
To say I’m a hiking fanatic may be underestimating my enthusiasm. I’ve often wondered as I’ve hiked along, exactly what it is that keeps powering me up and over hills and exploring new territories.
I always sensed that optimism played a part. I am optimistic by nature. I thought that a positive outlook was something I was born with and sustained me without ever needing much in the way of care and feeding. Now I realize I was feeding and nurturing my optimism all along.
Just how important is an optimistic outlook?
Researchers are now discovering that it could save your life.
In a 2009 study, Italian scientists found evidence “that optimistic people present a higher quality of life compared to those with low levels of optimism or even pessimists.” In addition, they determined that “optimism may significantly influence mental and physical well-being by the promotion of a healthy lifestyle as well as by adaptive behaviours and cognitive responses, associated with greater flexibility, problem-solving capacity and a more efficient elaboration of negative information.”
(Source: “Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being”, Conversano et al. 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2894461/)
A case for setting long-term goals
While I can’t site any scientific study, my own experience is that the practice of setting and consistently pursuing long-term goals has sustained my optimistic outlook. It’s been the spiritual equivalent of eating a lovingly prepared sit down dinner (as opposed to gobbling down burger and fries from a drive-through window).
Our journeys should sustain us, not drain us
A funny thing happened in the midst of my 28-year section hike of the Appalachian Trail. Every time I returned to work after being on the trail for 10-14 days, I sat down to write with renewed energy and purpose. My vacation hadn’t worn me down, it had inspired me. I quickly determined that was the way I wanted to live my life on and off the trail — to identify long-term goals that kept my optimism healthy, strong and powering my way toward new opportunities — and to consistently make progress toward each of them. So far, it’s working out pretty well.
How bout you?
Case in point: my choice of backpack.
Over the years, I’ve carried more than thirty different packs into the wilderness. Day packs, weekend packs and beasts built for multi-day and even multi week trips. For the past ten years, I used the same pack for trips that lasted 5 to 20 days. I saved up until I could afford a (then) state-of-the-art carbon fiber frame pack. It met my two most important criteria at the time: It needed to carry a lot of gear and it had to weigh less than the pack I had been using for the same purpose.
When a local outfitter was going out of business, I snagged the last one. It was a sweet deal all around. It weighed less than the aluminum frame pack I had been using, had giant capacity and I even saved 40% off the retail price.
A lot has happened in the intervening years. For one, the technology has really changed. Outdoor companies are hyper-focused on creating ultralight gear. Where a through-hiker on the Appalachian Trail used to carry about 40 lbs. of gear, now the average base weight is around 24 lbs.
The idea of packing light isn’t new. (As far back as 1924, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Arthur Comey was giving a presentation called “Going Light” and wrote a pamphlet about it.) But the means of obtaining a light pack have never been greater. Everything got lighter. Hammocks have become the hottest trend in shelters. Even tents have cool new designs that let you use your hiking poles as tent poles to save weight.
After finishing up my section hike of the AT in 2013, I started looking for ways to lighten my load. (I know. I could have done it sooner. But I wanted to finish with the same old school gear.) I got a new ground pad that shaved off a few pounds and gave that a test drive two weeks ago. That was a nice start. I also bought a new solo shelter with the aforementioned dual purpose pole design.
But the real game changer arrived in the mail today.
With the help of adventurer Andrew Skurka, Sierra Designs rethought pack design. They came up with the aptly named Flex Capacitor pack. This pack solves two significant issues at once.
1. Shedding excess weight
True minimalists want their pack to be basically a sack with straps. Everything else adds weight. I understand the reasoning, but in practice, I can’t go there. I prefer more structure to my packs. It’s how I roll. At 2 lbs. 11 oz. (size M/L) the Flex Capacitor fits my needs perfectly. The “Y-shaped” aluminum tube frame gives it enough integrity to comfortably carry heavy loads and the lumbar and shoulder pads allow air to circulate between my back and the pack. Nice touch.
The designers also shaved weight by streamlining the bells and whistles. My carbon fiber pack had a lot of beefy straps and buckles on it. It also had a detachable hood that doubled as a fanny pack. That was useful at times, but also added more weight than it was worth carrying all the days I didn’t need it. By eliminating the roll-down inner collar, floating hood and buckles and replacing it with a zippered top, Sierra Designs eliminated a lot of top-heavy weight.
2. Solving the capacity dilemma
In the past, I had to choose my pack for a trip based on one thing: How much space I needed on day one. The problem is that your pack needs change as you’re out on the trail. As you eat your food, your pack gets smaller. On day five, you have extra space that you didn’t have on day one. Some pack designers tried to solve this by adding cinch straps to the sides, but they never really worked well. Sierra Designs did it right. Their gusseted bag and cinch strap system lets you adjust the entire pack size to accommodate precisely what you are carrying on a day-to-day basis. Brilliant!
The Flex Capacitor has some nice extras built in. Two waist belt pockets let you keep a guidebook, map and other essentials in reach without having to take the pack off. A shoulder holster carries a 20 oz. water bottle, bear spray or whatever you prefer. A removable interior pocket is designed to hold a water bladder on short trips (there’s a pass-through hole for the tube as well). Sierra Designs also makes four sizes of waist belts for the pack, so you can be sure of getting the right fit.
When I pulled the Flex Capacitor out of the box, I was immediately struck by how their team created something special. I stood on the scale with it, then stood on the scale with my old pack. The difference was a full 5 lbs. I can’t wait to get this baby out in the field. I am sure I’ve found my new “go to” pack. It will be hard to knock this one off the “favored gear” list. I’ll provide an update when I’ve put it through its paces for a while.
You can check out the pack here. There’s also a nice video walking you through the feature set.
Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor retails for $199.99.
It’s been an excruciating few weeks here in Maine. And I only have myself to blame.
I fall for it every year. You’d think that coming up on six decades of going through this would make me older and wiser. But so far, I’m just older.
The problem is, of course, the promise of spring.
First, the sun gets higher in the sky. Then, nudged along by daylight savings time, it actually stays light past seven at night.
“Oh, boy”, my over developed hiking brain says to me, “it’s almost time for a long walk on a snow-free trail.”
But my over-optimistic forecast always turns out to be a cruel joke.
We almost always get an April wallop of snow. This year we got two of them that buried us under a foot or more. The second was the toughest to bear. And it wasn’t the accumulation in this neck of the woods that brought on the angst.
My buddy, Wayne and I had decided to hike part of the New England National Scenic Trail in Massachusetts. That area generally gets less if any snow than we do up here in the northeastern-most corner of America. But the second storm turned the world on its head. Massachusetts got the brunt of the accumulation. So, we postponed the trip for a week.
I had already spent late February and all of March making the best of the winter that arrived like a late dinner guest, then refused to go home even though the hosts were straining to stay awake. I browsed my shelves of guidebooks, read a few, then ordered a few more. I can never be too careful in this regard — the hedge against my furnace of dreams running out of fuel. I inspected every piece my gear. I even patched and waterproofed my tent, hoping to coax an incredible 23rd year of duty out of it.
For the past few days, I’ve been acting like an Irish Setter sitting by the back door hoping against hope that my owner will let me out. Three nights from now we’ll be back on the trail and back in the tent. Our pace will slow back down to that of Mother Nature herself. A time to walk. A time to heal. The days will be marked by sunrise and sunset instead of manmade “to do” lists.
And will be good.
It took me 28 years to hike the Appalachian Trail, a feat I accomplished with my great friend, Wayne Cyr and wrote a book about. This cutting the hike into pieces is also known as “section hiking.”
Last year, while touring the country doing book signings, I was struck by the “eureka moment” often evoked by the idea of hiking the trail in sections. An impressive number of folks said, “It never occurred to me to hike the trail this way. I thought you had to quit your job to hike the AT.”
No, you don’t need to quit your day job. And there are many satisfying reasons to do the trail in sections. Among them are that shorter hikes generally take less of a toll on your body and that doing the trail in pieces provides future trips to look forward to.
I go into more detail about the considerations for section hiking (including the mental and physical aspects) in Appalachian Odyssey, but to get started here are some pointers.
Determine how many trips you would like to take to complete the trail. This may seem easier than it is. If you are an experienced hiker, you can pretty accurately assess how many miles you can cover day after day (also factoring in rest days or days you can’t cover as much ground due to poor weather or fatigue). At almost 60 years old, I figure on covering ten miles per day when I’m out on the trail. When I was in my 20s, it was more like 17. If you have little hiking experience, I suggest taking a few shake down trips to get a feel for how much ground you can predictably cover.
Grab a copy of The AT Guide by David Miller. The AT Guide is a comprehensive data book that gives you all the baseline data you need to plan a hike and a lot of info you can use on the trail. It is extremely helpful for determining places to get on and off the trail.
Choose your food and gear carefully. As a rule, through-hikers take more detours from the trail for rest days and resupply stops than section hikers. We found that we didn’t want to make side trips unless there were burgers or groceries less than a mile or two from the trail. We wanted to be making as much forward progress as we could when we were out. Everyone is wired differently. Some people want to make more side trips. But because we planned on taking no side trips, we packed enough food for the entire trip. Our packs were heavier at the beginning, but we enjoyed the flexibility.
Plan your transportation. Where you get on and off the trail is important as it relates to transportation. Both Wayne and I live in New England, so we could easily spot cars at either end of a section. But once we got out of New England, we used public transportation and private shuttles to get to and from the trail. There were two reasons. First was flexibility. If, for some reason, we wanted or needed to cut a trip short, we wouldn’t have to work out getting to our car. Second, we wouldn’t be leaving cars unattended for days on end. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy publishes a list of shuttles.
A note about Uber and similar services. We have successfully used Uber for shuttles, but beware that cell phone coverage (and the availability of Uber and similar services) in some areas may be unreliable. When in doubt, I suggest planning your end of trip shuttle in advance. If plans change, you may be able to contact the provider from an area with reception along the trail.
I was in my early 20s, preparing for a six-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail when I picked up a hardcover version of one of the most influential books of my life, The New Complete Walker, by Colin Fletcher.
I had already read his books The Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time, both accounts of memorable, “never had been done before” solo trips through the desert-scapes of the American west. But the Complete Walker was not about someone else’s fantastic journey. It was about my own.
I remember initially reading Fletcher’s gear and clothing recommendations not so much as if I was seated at the feet of the master, but that I was being let in on important information that I could choose to accept or reject. At that relatively young age, I already knew that even though we most often hike with other people, many of the decisions we make before and during any trip are our own. In fact, when it comes to gear and clothing, almost every one of them is. Yet, Colin Fletcher’s well-considered gear list was the standard by which I gauged every choice. Without it, I would have made some poor decisions to be sure.
But more than teaching me what to bring on a hike, Fletcher was inspiring me to leap out of my predictable daily existence to take one. Not just any hike—an audacious, “wonder if I can really do it”, life changing one.
A Path Never Taken Before
During a bout of insomnia, Fletcher spontaneously fashioned the idea to walk the length of California. Obsessed with the idea, he plotted a route seldom, if ever, walked by man—including through Death Valley. Many might have looked at that self-drawn plan, declared themselves daft and tossed it aside. But Fletcher was undeterred. Weeks later he was heading north from the border—completely on his own and largely into the unknown.
One of the interesting things about Colin Fletcher was that the more famous he became, the more secretive he was about where he went. After his book “The Man Who Walked Through Time”, an account of solo hiking the length of the Grand Canyon National Park, he made it increasingly difficult to follow in his footsteps. This was by design. Fletcher wanted us to find our own secret places in the wilds. All we needed to do is use our imaginations and maps, just like him.
In this age of sharing everything to everyone in an instant, it’s an idea worth exploring again. I think I’ll pull some old maps off the shelves and see what I can come up with.
Author’s notes: In 1989, a Colin Fletcher book entitled, The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher was published. It remains the only book he wrote that I have yet to read. Nonetheless, the title seemed apt for this blog.
Colin Fletcher died in 2007 at the age of 85.
“I like wandering through the woods and doing some light hiking, but I have absolutely no desire to camp out anywhere that doesn’t involve a cabin, a bed, and a hot shower. So it may surprise people that I thoroughly enjoyed a memoir about hiking the Appalachian Trail. But I did!” — The Book Fetish Blog
Inspiring people to get outside is the most rewarding thing I can imagine. Tonight’s event was fantastic. Thank you to everyone for attending and especially for supporting Teens to Trails.
Yes, I’ve been at it again.
On last year’s road trip, I was repeatedly drawn to explore the many roadside attractions of yore that are disappearing by the day. What remains of these old trading posts, restaurants and gas stations says a lot about how we’ve changed.
The family vacation (and almost all vacation for that matter) has been replaced by work. And even when we are going somewhere, the focus seems to be on getting there instead of stopping to make discoveries along the way.
This trip I made the decision to go old school. To drive out into the desert wilderness on a whim. To take an exit when there was no compelling reason to pull off the highway except to see what the nearest town was like. What I inevitably found was bits and pieces of a time that were still powerful enough to make me remember that it’s not where we are going but what we are doing that’s the most important thing of all.
You can read a description of my book on the Blurb website.