It was a tryout experience. I wasn’t just trying out my new backpack, sleeping bag, and tent; I was testing my mettle as a camper and hiker. It was not unlike last year’s group backpacking trip in the mountains of northern Georgia, but this time I had my own gear and was exploring my own state.
In the long view, I saw myself thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail as early as 2015. I’d read 25 books about hiking the AT, and No. 26—a new account of 67-year-old Grandma Gatewood’s historic thru-hike in the 1950s—was on its way. I knew the history of the Trail and the names of towns and shelters all along it. Sometimes I felt like I’d already walked “the roller coaster,” “the green tunnel,” “the presidents,” and all the PUDs (pointless ups and downs) in the 14 states from Georgia to Maine. Through my reading I’d hiked alongside Bill Bryson, Earl Shaffer, Jeff Alt, and the Barefoot Sisters. I’d answered the call of the mountains with “Brownie,” “Badger,” “Skywalker,” ”Odyssa,” and others whose trail names I’d forgotten. They had walked the five million steps to support charities, forget wars, set records, channel grief, make life decisions, or simply appreciate nature.
When I took the short view of my hiking self, I saw a gear junkie fascinated with hiking equipment but inexperienced at using it. I’d lovingly researched every item I’d bought, but until Easter weekend 2014 I had not field-tested most of my purchases, especially the “big three.” A hiker’s comfort, and even her life, can depend on the performance of her tent, backpack, and sleeping bag. Those large investments have to be worth it.
My first “big three” purchase was a Marmot EOS 1 single-person tent I bought online. Seeing a tent before you buy is not a common experience; many brands and types exist, limiting retail floor displays. I caught a sale, and between the tent and its footprint (a separate ground cloth) I saved about $70. When the package came, it was the size of a large computer tower but the contents were light, as advertised.
I found my ideal sleeping bag, a Marmot Ouray, in a store but I’d chosen it long before on the basis of internet research. Being a cold sleeper, I’d placed the highest value on temperature rating. I would not be one of the poor souls I’d read about freezing in the Smoky Mountains! The bag was light, too. Its downfall was volume. I bought a compression sack to squish the bag small enough to fit in its compartment in my pack, but a 20-minute wrestling match with my dream bag convinced me to trade it in for a less voluminous REI Flash.
The backpack I bought was a popular model, the Osprey Ariel 65. It was so popular, in fact, that the color I wanted was unavailable. I hadn’t intended to buy a pack before my outdoor Ohio weekend, but I changed my mind when I discovered that REI had only one left in my size.
My plan was to drive to my friends’ country acreage four counties away, pitch my tent in a flat area away from their house, sleep there overnight while they slept inside, and hike the hills of their property wearing my new backpack. That was a good plan in daylight. However, when the sun began to sink and shadows fell across the valley floor, when the temperature dropped and the trees on the mountains blended into one big blob of darkness, that plan wasn't quite so appealing. I had to wonder what I'd been thinking.
(To be continued…)