This was a weekend through-hike of the Massanutten, a short trail here in Virginia. This trail is 71 miles long, running on ridges virtually the whole way in a loop around Fort Valley. Parts of it are flat, but it is fairly rough trail, often steep, and usually very rocky. Jess and I thought it might be interesting to try and do in a 3 day weekend. We weren't at all sure we'd make it, but wanted to try.
This is a rather long post. I broke it in to the preparation and the trip. I recommend reading the whole thing if you are planning a through-hike of this trail. The prep section is also probably interesting to anyone doing warm-weather ultralight backpacking regardless of region.
It was supposed to be warm, but rain part of the trip, so it was the perfect time to finally rely on things I've been testing. Here's everything I carried but food, full skin-out. The following was written before I left:
- external backpack frame with belt, pockets, and water-bottle holders
- drysack for gear
- drysack for food
- string and grossgrain ties for tying the above to the pack
- heat-shrink groundcloth
- 50ft trip-teas line
- silnylon sack to hold the above
- 5F quilt (I don't own another option, pretty sure a sheet is heavier)
- drysack for the above
- 1/8" gossamer-gear sleeping pad
- compression shorts
- shorts (my compression shorts are too worn to wear alone)
- thin nylon long-sleeve shirt
- tilly hat
- 2 pair darn-tough socks
- runamocks (shoes I made need repairs first, so using these)
- Thin icbreaker skull-cap
- 2 plastic water bottles
- 0.9L titanium pot
- titanium spork
- belt knife
- salt lick
- polar pure iodine
- several "cheater stcks" for starting fires
- tinder and backup matches
- Pill bottle
- sewing kit
- perscription drugs w/ backups
- hiking poles
Note that I could reduce the number of items I'm carrying fairly easily. For example, I could swap my water-bottle and cookpot for a steel waterbottle. Or I could not cook and just drop the pot. But that would be heavier overall, and this time my goal is weight rather than minimalism.
The quilt is silly, but I keep going over options. Good sleep makes a big difference. A blanket is definitely heavier, even a sheet probably only about breaks even. A sweater and long-pants are probably also heavier. A 40F quilt would be optimal and probably drop a pound off my weight, but I don't really want to push one around, so I don't own one.
You'll notice I have almost no insulation here. I'm counting on it being warm and on not sitting around outside my sleepingbag if it does chill off.
The sleepingpad has 2 purposes actually. First and foremost, we may end up sleeping in a shelter one night. Some folks can sleep directly on hardwood, but I'm not one of them. Secondly I would stick to the groundcloth really badly making sleep difficult. This gives a comfy layer to lie on under my quilt.
I rarely hike with hiking poles these days. That said, they were a godsend on the AT. Occasionally my ITBS flares up when I do something stupid like try and hike 71 miles in 3 days when I haven't been doing 15 every day. The hiking poles will hopefully stave this off a bit.
Much like the hiking poles I haven't used compression shorts in years. I can usually make it through a weekend trip these days, even a high mileage one like my last trip, without the compression shorts. But I usually come home a little sore from chafing. It doesn't get too bad and I figure this helps toughen the skin up for a trip like this one. So when I do wear compression shorts, I can be confident I won't have issues.
I *could* get away without the Ground-cloth, but my sleepingpad is not all that large, and if the ground is wet I don't really want to spend time dealing with that (e.g. digging through leaves looking for dry layers, or finding something dry to lay down under my quilt). Long days of hiking mean making camp at night, and I want to be able to go to sleep fairly quickly.
We had a 3-day weekend, so we arrived on Thursday night. Around 7pm and hiked out. Jess brought Beau along. Beau had a pack and radio GPS collar as she was still being trained.
We aren't sure of the exact mileage we covered any given day, but the plan was to try and get 5-8 miles in the first night. Leaving us ~21 miles a day for the next 3 days of hiking. Our first campsite was in known territory. We had a little trouble finding wood in the dark, but we found and enough small twigs, and by lighting it and immediately starting to cook with it were able to make our Lipton sides for dinner. The rain had hit early, and we were only getting sprinkles. Jess' gear was similar to my own and we each pitched our ponchos as shelters and went to sleep.
The next day after maybe a mile of hiking Beau bounded by in front of us with no pack on! SHOOT! The harness the pack mounted to was still on her, but the pack had fallen off as Beau ran through the forest. The pack had contained the spare leash, her water bowls, and all of her food. We considered the idea of Jess bailing and taking Beau home, leaving me to do it it alone, but after taking stock of our food decided we would try running a little thinner on our food and letting Beau eat our food too. Suddenly our food was barely sufficient for the trip. To make her a water-bowl I cut up my spare water-bottle I'd intended to use as a bladder to make it through the longer runs... hoping I wouldn't need it.
We passed a bunch of runners. It turns out they were running the marathon that day, where runners run the entire 71 miles in <24 hours. They were near the beginning when we met them, only maybe 20 miles in, and a few even chatted with us a little as they ran by. We ran out of water, badly, up on the ridge, before we finally dropped down to a valley where we were able to get more. I was getting sick and light headed and so was Jess. We didn't have enough to spare to give Beau a whole lot either so she was starting to suffer from heat exhaustion. It was a slog, but we pushed through. Once in the valley we ate dinner by the water, sucking down water and cameling as much as we could for the next stretch. We then hiked into the night finally camping up on a ridge. We were getting near the northern end of the trail. That night I looked at my compression shorts and realized they had a big hole on them on the left side. I was near bleeding in that spot. I pulled out my sewing kit and repaired my shorts.
The next day we dropped down off the ridge at the furnace. At the northern end of the trail you have to cross between ridges so there's a lot of up and down for a while. Some of that trail is very rarely traveled so it's some rough going (the roughest spot we'd actually done the night prior though). Eventually though after quite a bit of climbing and dropping again we dropped down on to a smooth crushed gravel road. My feet were hurting a LOT by this time. The rock trails had bruised my feet up pretty badly in my minimal shoes, and every slightly poky rock hurt to step on, crushed gravel being no exception. We met a few hikers through here, and happily got more chances to fill up on water. After the previous day we were pretty paranoid and cameled at every water-source we passed.
We then climbed up the ridge and ran down the ridge for a long time. We'd been discussing what to do about this section for a while. As you're probably starting to notice, water is a problem on the Massenutten. We knew it was a likely problem, and that there was a drought on, but as it turned out the drought was bad enough that a lot of springs that are normally running were dry, same for small streams. So far we'd been on the west-side of the trail, where the stretches between water aren't that bad. Looking at the east side we estimated a potential for 30 miles without water.
Our solution was to drop off the ridge. So that night we took a side-trail and dropped off the ridge to where there should be water. This was extremely rough trail, really more bushwhacking than trail, but at the bottom we found a stream and a fire-ring. We cameled up again and cooked dinner, then hiked onwards. It wasn't until later that I learned that the mosquitos had been feasting on us and I was covered in bites. I was too tired and hungry to care... I wasn't miserable to be clear, my feet hurt, but I'd been having a blast so far, I was sore, tired, and hungry, but happy. We then proceeded with the plan, which was to walk down the dirt-road in the valley for a miles or 2, and then ride back up to the ridge. We were going to "blueblaze" as Appalachian Trail thru-hikers call it. That is, hike a side-route instead of the primary trail for a short time. The total distance was still farther than hiking the Massanutten the whole way, but it let us get water with only about a 1-mile side-trip, instead of the full 2-miles it would've taken had we gone straight back the same route.
That night as I was sizing up how I was doing I looked at my thighs. My chaffing was terrible, my left thigh where the hole in my shorts had been was healing, but I was soaked in ichor along where my thigh meets my butt-cheak, along the back and into my crotch. I had a line of swelling along each side. My feet were fine, just the normal blister I get on my forefoot where my toes meet. But my thighs were bad. I resolved to go without compression shorts and hope that worked better.
The third day was *grueling*. Some very nice folks in the 4-wheel park actually drove off and got us water from a spring they knew was still running about a mile downhill. Very sweet of them. They also told us that the Massanutten is sometimes called "the ring of fire" by locals, due to how little water was on it. Even with that water we were having to carefully ration. I started to get heat sickness. At one point I even started to feel aggressive/violent. I sat down and let myself cool down for a bit, and drank more water than I had to spare. My core temperature was too high, I *felt* hot and I like I couldn't cool off. The ridge we were on at the time was low with a higher ridge guarding it from wind, so the air was completely still, there was just no way to dump enough heat. Eventually I felt somewhat better and stood up... when we hit a stream I was so happy.
My highs were far better, not wearing compression shorts had resolved my problem. I'm still not sure if I would've been better not to wear them at all, I suspect I would've had other chaffing problems. In the future though I'll keep my eyes out for that problem. Otherwise though My feet hurt, I was walking awkwardly due to chaffing, like a bowlegged cowboy. Wincing every time I stepped on a rock slightly wrong.
Oddly though, after we dropped into a valley and went up the next ridge, we both felt... fine. As the temperature fell and we got near the golden hour, suddenly home seemed near. I hurt, but I was having fun again. The last 6 miles still hurt, but it was a happy hurt. We finally hit the car at about 7pm, the same time as we'd left on saturday.
This was a blast. It was at the edge of what I could do, and I used a lot of skills and tricks to make it work. Had I not known how to start a fire in the rain, known how to ration my water carefully, how to keep from getting hyponatremic, had the skills to walk on rough terrain in minimal shoes, had at least a clue how to manage my chaffing, known my gear well and just what my body could do, this trip probably would not have worked, and we would've ended up bailing. As it was I had fun almost the entire time, despite being sore, tired, and hungry, there were probably 6 hours or less when I was miserable and just pushing forward anyway.
I felt like a wimp actually when I was done, some people did this entire loop in 20 hours, on the same weekend I was hiking it! But always remember that other people are not you, just because another person can do more takes nothing away from accomplishing something yourself.