Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Occasional Definitions: Backpacker

  1. A person who hikes, stays overnight along a trail, and carries all needed equipment and supplies.

  2. Irresponsible, antisocial, smelly and pigheaded individual who follows his own rules while grinning madly and/or talking loudly to himself. (Yes, they tend to be male.) Quote: "He came to town with one shirt and $20 and didn't change either one."

From: Fire In Your Hand

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Occasional Trails: Enchantment In A Grand Way


  • Name : Grand Enchantment Trail
  • Location : Arizona and New Mexico
  • Length : 730 miles
  • Best season : Spring or fall
  • Features : A well-watered, almost unknown and unused desert and mountain trail connecting Phoenix, AZ and Albuquerque, NM
  • Permits : Not needed except for the Aravaipa Canyon wilderness area in Arizona
  • Info at : Simblissity Ultralight

Ever thought about creating a new trail? Would you
  1. Choose the best scenery and force it to work?
  2. Pick two borders and connect them, somehow?
  3. Beg government agencies, for decades?
  4. Spend millions on plans, surveys, staff, and digging?
Or copy Brett Tucker?

He created a trail. Everything was in place, waiting for an idea, and Tucker provided it. In 2003 he began scheming, poring over maps, making calls, walking, and thinking. The result is G.E.T., the Grand Enchantment Trail.

So what's it like?

Tucker calls the G.E.T. "a loose assemblage", combining trails, riverside paths, canyon walks, short cross-country hops, and primitive roads. It is distinctly unlike the usual dedicated single track, with few campgrounds and no shelters, no trail angels, or true believers either.

Tucker says "the Grand Enchantment Trail is not for those in search of an encore to their last long hike on a well-established National Scenic Trail. In terms of character and challenges, the route most resembles New Mexico's Continental Divide Trail or the Arizona Trail - trails which the G.E.T. itself uses in part - but it is also a distinct experience."

The Grand Enchantment Trail hugs creeks or rivers for 90 miles, has over 170 water sources and 12 resupply points, shuns any contact with pavement for 217 miles, intersects with 14 mountain ranges, ascends from 1750 feet to 10,783 feet, visits both the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, covers 460 desert miles along with 250 forested miles, and owns not one mile of its own trail tread.

Its hallmarks are convenient access at each end while ensuring scenery, solitude, diverse geography, closeness to flora and fauna, easy water, and handy resupply in between. Because it began as a unique idea and needs no bureaucrats (or even volunteers), the Grand Enchantment Trail has no brand identity, no crowds, no "paternalistic rules and regulations". It is fuss free.

Gear needs are minimal. Temperatures in season are moderate, but nights are cool, so hikers need warm bags. A light tarp is fine, with a ground sheet and netting to defeat small nighttime creepers.

Though the occasional snake or scorpion wanders by, thorns, burrs, and stickers are likely to be more trouble. In the mountains bears and cougars are common but unused to people, so food hanging is optional. Even mice are scarce away from camp sites and water. Too much water, as spring runoff or lingering snow, is the main hazard, but varies by year.

Not all resupply stops are on trail, but each has at least a post office, and most have more. Maybe even a motel, hardware store, library, laundromat, medical facility, Forest Service or BLM office. Only four lack ATMs.

Well done, Mr. Tucker. Well done.

References:

Brett "Blisterfree" Tucker's trail journal
Brett Tucker's photos
The Grand Enchantment Trail Guidebook
Yahoo Grand Enchantment Trail group


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sock Me

It's been a while since I gave up boots. I'm starting my ninth season of vigorously not wearing boots. Labor Day weekend of year 2000 was the last time I went backpacking wearing boots, and I haven't done it since. Nor worn boots on ordinary hikes.

That was the same year I switched to using alcohol stoves and carrying an ultralight pack. The rest of the switchover, like finally settling on a hammock for shelter, took a few months more.

And I'm still learning.

In fact, I'm really glad that other people get out and tramp around because I keep learning from them. Perfection eludes me and every now and then get a chance to try new ideas without doing all that hard thinking stuff that has to be done first.

The story today: switching to shoes wasn't complete victory. I'm still paying attention to de feet.

Partly thanks to Andrew Skurka. He's famous, I'm not. There are reasons for that, none of which make me look good, so let's get to the story.

A while back I was doing the newsletter for the American Long Distance Hiking Association - West, and got a submission about the Sea To Sea Trail, and a guy who wanted to hike it, in one year. Well, that was Andrew Skurka, planning to hike 7,778 miles. Then he did it.

So far my longest trip is 200 miles. I'm a hero in my own mind but don't have the chops to qualify as a real hero, or even a consultant.

But I check Skurka's web site now and then and last summer came across a discussion of footwear and socks. Way late into my bootless phase I got a new idea.

See, when I began wearing shoes instead of boots, my first pair was a little wide so I wore thick socks. I'd been wearing two sets of socks with boots for years. Even so, I'd have sore (almost raw) spots on my feet and ankles at the end of each day. So in moving from boots to shoes, I kept that up. Anyway, that first pair of shoes was on the wide side. The socks filled in the corners.

Then after switching to tighter fitting trail running shoes I continued with two pairs of socks, two thin pairs. It was logical. The inner pair clung to my feet and the outer pair got hung up on my shoes, and the socks rubbed against each other instead of my feet rubbing against shoes.

So. It worked.

Later on, three years or so, I was reading a trail journal where someone I respect said that she wore only one pair of socks. So I tried that. Dang. Worked even better.

There was more room inside the shoes, my feet stayed drier, and there was no problem with blisters. In fact my feet got tougher faster because of air circulation keeping them dry.

Then last summer Andrew Skurka inspired me again. He has sponsors. He's a professional backpacker. That's a spooky term, but if he can make it work for him, OK by me. You have to be careful about what the pros say though, because sometimes it's advertising. And sometimes it isn't. And mostly you can't tell which is which, so when he says he likes Wooleator socks made by DeFeet I think OK there, what's the idea behind this statement?

The main idea is thin socks.

I had been wearing Wigwam Ultimax synthetic socks. They are good, and pretty thin, but not compared to Skurka's socks. His were barely there. More like an idea than a real sock. Painted on almost. I couldn't find any Wooleators here so I bought a couple pair of Smartwool hiking liners. Yikes. They make a difference.

Suddenly my shoes are loose. But that's OK. More room to pump air around my feet, and the laces can still tighten them. It worked.

Now my feet stay really dry all day. No need to hang socks in the sun when I stop. Just take off the shoes and everything is suddenly bone dry. The socks are so thin that they hug the feet like crazy, forming a blister busting barrier. Sure, they'll wear through quickly, but I'm willing to sacrifice them. I've had ugly blisters and sores in the middle of a trip, using other socks and it's better not to go there. These really thin socks really work.

These Smartwool socks are probably equivalent to Skurka's Wooleators. An exact match is beside the point. These work. They are 61% Merino wool, 35% nylon, 3% elastic and 1% polyester. And as I said, really thin.

Last year was a sucky season. Extremely heavy snow blocked most trails until August or later. I didn't get out much. I hope to do better this year, finally bagging a 240 mile route in northern Washington's Pasayten Wilderness. Last time I tried I bumped up against a forest fire. A big one. Burned for months. Luckily I was off to one side, saw it, and turned around.

The fire headed off into Canada. Maybe it had a burrow up there. Anyhow, this year could be the year. I'd like to go back and nail this trip and give these new socks a real test. Andrew Skurka couldn't be wrong, could he?

No, don't think so.

References:

ALDHA-West
DeFeet Wooleator: The thinnest wool sock in the DeFeet collection
Skurka: Sea-to-Sea Route: Post-graduation, transcontinental 7,778-mile coming-of-age hike
Skurka: Two Seas, Two Feet: Five-month long 92-stop slideshow tour about C2C hike
Smartwool (warning: a stupid Flash-based site)
Sock Dreams (Got a sweety? Get socks here.)
The Sea-To-Sea Route


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Four Legs, British, Walks Like Crazy

I don't remember. Some days are like that, and it's been a while, but I was searching for something on the Continental Divide Trail, for whatever reason. Sometimes I do things like that. I don't even remember the reason now, or when it was, or where else I'd looked for whatever it was, but I got somewhere unusual.

I fell right into one of the episodes of "Cookie and Paul do America". It's a long blog, about 500 entries, written by Simon "Cookie" Cook, an English designer and illustrator, who along with his buddy Paul Hayton were near the end of a 3100-mile trudge north along the Continental Divide Trail.

This seemed a little odd, or unlucky, because I think when I stumbled onto their adventures it was already near the end of September 2008, and they were still early into Montana. Traversing Glacier National Park late in the year seems to kill a lot of trips, and I expected theirs to be one, but they made it.

I haven't read each and every blog entry but I have been back to Cookie's web site "Made in England by Gentlemen". A lot, in fact. It's a good place to stumble on all kinds of visually interesting ideas because it's more than a showcase for a hike. Even a big hike.

And hey, Mr. Cook has now finished doing up a video of his trip, and if you happen to be in London on February 6, you can stop by 10 Redchurch Street half past sixish and take it from there. "Three years in the planning, six months in the walking and about four months in the edit - Finally I've got the video / documentary of our 3000 mile Continental Divide Trail hike finished."

But on the off chance that you are not in London that night, or they simply won't let you in, Mr. Cook has put up links to three versions of his video, suited to different attention spans. Three minutes, 15 minutes, and 120 minutes: one of them might suit you.

The two minute preview I got is six MB, and runs in a tiny window. But it's good. This man knows what he's up to. If you're like me and have a painfully slow internet connection, then I've already begged Mr. Cook to publish a DVD. I'd pay, but don't think he'll do it, so I might have to go ahead with the overnight download thing. I simply don't think I can fit a trip to London into my schedule this week. Or is it my budget? Or both?

Anyway the video looks interesting. Anyone who walks 3100 miles in a season gets applause from me. Let alone hiking daily with a partner and not being involved in homicide. I wish I was that good.

If sharing his video and blog isn't generous enough, Cookie also has up a bunch of useful links, and his companion, Paul Hayton, put lots and lots of photos on Flickr. You have to see.

In case you're wondering what could have inspired this, Cookie says "Back in 2000 when we left university, Cookie & Paul made a pact to walk the Continental Divide Trail in 2008... The reason we choose it was purely because it was the longest walk we could find any information on, the reason we picked 2008 was because we had no money and thought by now we’d have all our student debt paid off!"

But maybe one of the most interesting aspects is how Cookie brought his visual design skills to bear. Take a look at the map. "I made this map of the CDT split into each section with basic info like how far it was in between towns, what I thought our daily mileage would be based on the terrain and estimated date we’d be getting to each place. We found it incredibly useful to visualise an overview of the route ahead and get a quick mental summary of the next state etc." Brilliant. No other way to say it.

OK, the rest is up to you. Take a look at Cookie's site. Download the video. Check out the stills on Flickr. And if you make it to London for the premiere, then say howdy for me. I'd appreciated it.

Postscript: I seem to have a lot of trouble accessing Made in England with Firefox (it keeps crashing). Opera works OK though. I'm on Linux as well. No idea how things might work for you.

References:

The Continental Divide Trail, Made in England video version
CDT section planner
The CDT in 20 pictures
Paul's Photos of the trip on Flickr