Appalacian Trail Gear Test

Appalacian Trail Hike / Gear Test
Twenty-eight point four (28.4) pounds of gear is light compared to what I used to carry as an infantryman. For many years, I continued to use a medium Alice pack and Army surpluss / TA-50 gear as my go-to because that’s what I was familiar with. No more, I’ve finally embraced high-cost / low-weight gear as a health insurance plan to save my knees.
I recently did an overnight on the Appalacian Trail. Because I got a very late start, bear activity reports along the section I chose, and the need to do an out and back because of lack of transport options, I ended up only doing 14 miles of hiking (starting at NoBo 164.7 through 171.7ish and back).
To even get to the Fontana Marina / Fontana 28 AT crossing required driving along the 11 miles of Tennessee Highway 129 known as the Dragon’s Tail. This was a combination of hair-pin turns, spectacular views, and challenging driving. I was happy to see this steel sculpture at the end of the route:

By 3pm I was on the trail, northbound with 28.4 pounds of gear on my back. There was a steep uphill climb from Fontona Marina to Fontana Dam, which immediately made it clear that the AT is no joke at all. The distance was not going to be the problem — it was all about the elevation change.
By the time I reached a small babbling brook that crossed the trail at NoBo 164.0 it was a huge psychological boost. I had been going through water faster than expected. I had a chance to test out my platypus GravityWorks 4L filtration system for the first time in the wild (I’d tested it at home of course). I had to take in the water only about 1/2 liter at a time, but eventually got another 3 liters. I decided between my remaining .7 liters and my emergency bottle of .5 liters and the aditional 3, I probably had enough water until the next water spot. Balancing water needs with weight with work output is a tricky calculation.
I continued northbound and met up with a hiker who told about the branch in the path leading to Shuckstack fire tower. It isn’t marked but the additional 0.2 miles of uphill climb was worth it. The tower is at a high point of 3800 feet and goes up an additional 5 stories. Railing is missing, things are a bit wobbly, and the plywood floor of the tower is basically one set of rotting 1/2 inch plywood covered with another 1/2 inch that isn’t in as bad condition. In short, climbing the tower was an intense experience. The view though, was magnificent. I could see all the way back to Fontana Dam and even the little cove where the Marina was can be seen in the third photograph below.

I continued onward, past the trail junction at NoBo 171.0 headed toward Birch Spring Gap. However, the position of the sun and the shadows appearing on the trail let me know I had < 45 minutes to find and make a suitable camp. I was probably almost to Birch Spring Gap at 171.9 when I started to double back to a flat part of the trail that I knew would be right for ‘stealth camping.’ Most of the trail had very little room left/right of the trail due to the steepness of the mountain. Some flat spots had too many widow makers, while others were more in the shadow and therefore more wet which always equates to more insects. I found a spot about 50 feet above the trail that was perfect.
The next piece of gear I tested was the combo of the Eno Sub7 hammock and Eno Atlas XL straps. The last time I had gone camping was also the last time I ever want to sleep on the ground — always difficult picking a spot with little slope that is comfortable in all weather conditions. The hammock functioned as advertised, but the rope braiding covering the cables frayed a little even though it is rated at 300lbs and I’m nowhere near that test weight. I am also happy to report I only managed to dump myself out of the hammock twice when trying to climb in. I think I have the hang of it now.
My trusty Army poncho liner (some people call this a Woobie), was pretty good, but the temperature dropped to 50 degrees with a breeze that kicked up to 5 mph. Let’s just say that a long sleeve compression shirt and shorts combined with the poncho liner made for a very long night. Your back gets cold in a hammock. I probably only got 1–2 hours of solid sleep spending most of the time zoning out and watching the clock and playing mental games to get to first light when I could break camp. For future outings, lesson learned #1: substitute in a polypropelene pullover and bring my compression pants too (though my legs didn’t get that cold, I could have repositioned the poncho liner if I didn’t need to cover them). I couldn’t easily get to my pack to get an additional shirt, or put the rubber poncho under me as my pack was many yards away, I had no headlamp and there was little to no moonlight most of the night.
I put all my food inside zip lock containers and double bagged with kitchen garbage bags and hung in a tree per SOP for bear country. I left my pack over there as well as bears sometimes dig into backpacks just based on sight / association with food.
This was a first time for me camping in bear country. I’m used to having my pack right next to me. My only light source was in the pack across numerous tripping hazards and thorny undergrowth. Not being able to get to the pack leads to lesson learned #2: get an LED headlamp. And lesson learned #3: bring more 550 cord. I hadn’t put up a poncho over the hammock since the forecast was zero precipitation. But had I needed it, all my 550 cordage was used hanging my food.
Though I changed out of all of my wet clothes, and tried to lay them out to dry, they were still damp the next day. Lesson learned #4: bring clothespins and more 550 cord.
My meal for the night was a dehydrated meal from Alpine Faire — Honey Lime Chicken. Since I didn’t start a fire and didn’t invest in a Jet Boil, it did not reconstitute very well. The rice / chicken stayed pretty crunchy but the overall taste was not the greatest. I bought it based on the 600 calories and 22 grams of protein as well as light weight (5.75 oz) and decent price. The reviews online aren’t so great for the flavor. I think it would have been ok if served hot. Of course, the Army set the bar pretty low for field rations — so my opinion is different from a connoissuer. I’m the guy that really hated to see the ham and chicken loaf MRE get retired.
I broke camp the next day. Going downhill was just as slow going as the uphill, though easier in terms of overall effort the risk of injury seemed greater. I found a nice deadfall branch to use to steady myself on the trip back down. I ditched the full sleeve compression shirt after the sun was fully up.

Here are some pictures as I approached Fontana Dam southbound exiting Smokey Mountain National Park.

I would like to take time for a shout out for some gear that worked especially well — The UltraThon Inect Repellant Lotion (34.34 % Deet) and the great smelling Neutragena Triple Protect Face Lotion. I only used ankle high socks, shorts, and compression shirts for this hike. I put these two lotions all around my face, wrists, forearms, ankles and shins and had zero problems with insects or sunlight. Zero. This took a lot of the misery factor away. The lotions were also fairly thick and probably provided some measure of protection for my ankles and shins from poison ivy/oak when I had to go off trail to make camp / answer the call of nature.

Finally, for reference for myself and others, here’s the entire gear loadout that I am tweaking for future / longer excursions . . .

Osprey Aether 60 Pack
Camelback 1.5 liter — just the ballon and tube/mouthpiece as the Osprey accomodates easy carry. The tube did get crimped a few times and I had to adjust its position as I drank. Sometimes I could reach behind my head to do this. Other times, I had to take the pack off to readjust.
Upper left corner. Army waterproof bag.
Eno hammock and Atlas straps
Food/nutrition — only consumed one of the three meals I had (2 Alpine Faire and one Mountain House). Also carried, in sets of sandwhich bags, mini packs of 3–4 Gu gels and 1–2 mocha Cliff Shots. The gels seem to get in your system faster to prevent / relieve cramping. Given my age and prior endurance training, I was happy taking 1 of these per hour hiking on this trip. Gave one of these little mini packs away to a young hiker who was cramped up (his quad was really spasming). For this trip I carried 13 Gu Gels and 5 Cliff Shots. I was prepared for a 22 mile out/back so I overpacked given what I actually accomplished.
Ultrathon Insect Repellant, Neutragena sun screen, Barcolene foot powder
Two kitchen garbage bags.
Topo map/trail info/backcountry pass in a 1 gallon ziplock bag.
0.5 liter aluminum water bottle (this is my emergency supply / container to boil more if necessary)
Army poncho liner
Army OD-green towel
Platypus Gravity Works filtration system
Clinique OD green dopp kit with personal hygiene items/wallet/car keys
New Saucony Everun trail runners. Mildly broke in, did well.
Old Saucony Peregrine trail runners. Veterans of two Spartan races and much additional hiking/training. But they would have come in handy for fording any water crossings so I could keep my primary shoes dry.
Gallon zip lock bag with toilet paper, moleskin, Qtips, cotton balls, butterfly bandages, ace bandange, tweezers, P-38 can opener, lip balm, petroleum jelly, waterproof matches.
Army sling which serves as a bandana, rag, dust mask, etc.
Poncho
Breathable baseball hat
Four pair of socks. Happy with the performance of the three Darn Tough socks, especally the tan/orange ones. Not so happy with Smart Wool pair as it caused a little hot spot to form very quickly.
On/about the pack there’s a knife/scissors sharpener; hand crankable LED flashlight; 550 cord, gardener’s multitool with knife/saw/etc. Army lensatic compass, roll of electrical tape (I find it works better than duct tape for camping YMMV).
1 gallon ziplock bag with several benedryl, 2 prescription Pro-air inhalers, space blanket, Army presure bandange, a baggie of dryer lint for firestarting (petroleum jelly and cotton balls are another source).
2 pair Ex Officio underwear (one was worn, one in pack)
1 pair Under Armor shorts (worn) and 1 pair cotton shorts for night time comfort)
2 Under Armor compression shirts (one short sleve, one long), 1 microfiber shirt not compression type, and my cotton Spartan Super finisher shirt.
Not pictured — garden trowel for digging cat holes, etc.