The Appalachian Trail (AT) stretches some 2,178 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Maine. Of every 10 hikers who attempt it only 2 to 3 will be successful. The Virginia section alone is 550 miles long. They typically burn around 6000 calories a day and by the time a thru-hiker summits Mt Katahdin, the finish point for a north bounder, they will have ascended an astonishing 141,568 metres, the equivalent of climbing Everest 16 times. This is not a 2 week stroll in the Dales; it is a physical and psychological minefield where there is a very real chance that you won’t make it.
Having already hiked 1,000 miles on El Camino de Santiago in Spain and 2,640 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on the western side of the USA, my reasons for taking on the AT were numerous but it was mainly down to a case of unfinished business. 2 years ago I made the decision to attempt it but changed my mind some 2 months before and took on the PCT instead. To be honest, I’m not a fan of the rain and the AT has a huge reputation for precipitation. I heard reports of some hikers in previous years walking for 40 days straight with the elements pounding them at some point every day. This is not my idea of fun and despite us outdoors folk having to deal with inclement weather, especially if they are based or hiking in the UK, my logical hiker brain sent me off to the PCT instead where I walked in light rain for perhaps 10 days out of the entire trip. It was a good decision but somewhere in the back of my adventuring mind, the AT settled down with a nice cup of tea and regularly took little nips at my sanity and choice to pass it up. It has haunted me ever since.
2 years later I’d had enough of the pestering and found myself looking at a plaque set into an innocent looking stone marking the southern starting point of this magnificent adventure. Feeling thoroughly chuffed that I had several months of glorious hiking ahead of me through sensational mountain regions, it then proceeded to rain.
I started around the time when most thru-hikers (those that attempt to walk the entirety of a trail in one attempt) head off, late March. Winter is coming to an end and Spring is just around the corner. In fact, if you time it well and pace yourself, the AT is famed for being a hike where you can walk through all four seasons. Get it right and you can enjoy late winter, spring, summer and a glorious Maine autumn in full colourful majesty.
This does, however, mean making some very shrewd gear choices capable of dealing with a variety of extreme conditions. I needed equipment to deal with temperatures below freezing and up to 38° Celsius. Humidity regularly hovers around 100%, snow is guaranteed at some point during the first month and I have already mentioned the rain. Just for good measure a thru-hiker also has to deal with the famous AT storms that come from nowhere, bush whacking, water crossings and a host of other obstacles that test gear to the absolute limits.
Having approached Rab I was delighted when they responded positively. Why them? Basically their reputation is second to none. Reputation is everything. Their gear has been up the highest mountains, the hottest deserts, jungles and some of the remotest regions on the planet. The brand just commands respect.
A thru-hikers number one priority is weight. When you hike for 5 months every gram has to be accounted for. There is no use taking a sleeping bag weighing 2 kilos when there is another doing a better job that weights a third of this. Rab has commanded a lot of respect over the years for producing gear that is durable and lasts the distance. Climb Everest and you need gear that is tough, take on a thru-hike and it needs to be not only tough but light as well. In recent years they have been offering superb equipment with weights that have plummeted.
My main requirements were short and long sleeve tops capable of dealing with colder conditions as well as high temperatures, a sleeping bag and jacket to fend off the cold. Rab succeeded on all counts.
For my hiking tops I chose Rabs Meco 120 long and short sleeve shirts. This is predominantly an ethically sourced merino wool base with recycled polyester and Cocona technology (derived from coconut shells). Cocona adds an antimicrobial element, meaning it deals with odours better. I used the t-shirt mainly during the day and the long sleeve in the evening when the temperature dipped or at higher elevations. These were wonderful to hike in, wicking beautifully, feeling great against the skin, keeping me cool when it was warm and warm when it was cool. They dried super quick so perspiration evaporated rapidly and they were ready to wear quickly after washing. They also dealt with odours efficiently, hang a top over a tree branch at days end after just an hour it didn’t even smell as though I had used it.
With the AT’s reputation for wet and damp, down does not fare well. In retrospect, a synthetic sleeping bag should have been the first choice I went for so I was a little worried having made the decision to use their Neutrino 200 down filled bag when I realized how damp it can get. A lot of the time during the early part of the hike a low cloud hung over the mountain tops. Regularly I woke in the early hours to see a swirling mist that had penetrated my tent. It settled on everything and forced its way into most of my gear. It was also cold, dipping below freezing. I needed this bag to fend off the moisture but also for the down filling to keep me warm. The Neutrinos outer layer is made from Pertex Quantum which performed a long way above expectations. After a freezing baptism by fire during the second week I realised very quickly I could depend on it to keep me warm but more importantly to keep the down dry.
Rab's final stroke of genius was the Generator Pull On jacket which uses the same Pertex Quantum outer layer but was filled with Primaloft One synthetic insulation which worked superbly well even when wet. Such is the detail and thought in this jacket that a slightly thicker filling is used in the main body where it is mainly needed than in the arms. It weighs a ridiculously light 365g, partly helped by a half zippered front and elimination of unnecessary trim accessories that a thru-hiker doesn’t need. The Pertex Quantum again dealt with the moisture superbly and a few nice touches such as a softer fleece material next to the chin and elasticated cuffs were welcome. Having fended off some cold nights, and days, it was a bonus to be able to wash and dry quickly and without the need for too much delicate care.
All this gear lasted the entire distance. 2178 miles and 5 months of severe weather, being stuffed in a rucksack for hours on end, getting dirty, damp and despite being respectful to my gear as I always am, it did live a somewhat hard life. Even the Cocona tops dealt with the entire distance, sometimes for 7 days without washing, being encrusted with body salt, rubbing against my rucksack and squeezing through undergrowth. Both tops, amazingly, are still fully usable. I have never had the same top for an entire thru-hike before, ever.
Further hikes are planned for the future and I thank Rab for their generosity and support. I’m proud to support them and to fly the British flag.[gallery link="file"]
Find out more about Keith at http://keithfoskett.com/