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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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November 17, 2019

Gear talk: Still learning after 1600 miles

After my unsuccessful trip into Bennington and the first couple nights where it dropped into the forties, I made it into my planned stop in Manchester Center with winter gear and all the other changes that would be required for the final stretch of trail on my mind.

I had already anticipated cooler temperatures, so I had a long sleeve hiking shirt waiting for me at the post office, and my down jacket is waiting near the New Hampshire border. I looked in both outfitters in town for rain gear because I have been hiking through the summer rain in just a tshirt. This doesn’t fly when it’s in the 30s or 40s, but I didn’t see anything reasonably priced so it looks like I’ll wait for a cheap windbreaker like I used through the southern sections.

I have considered my feet my most important asset on this journey, and so have been somewhat superstitious about what I put on them. I started with Solomon Speedcross 3 trail runners and SmartWool socks and they worked out so well I have been afraid to change anything. I had zero blisters until the laundry detergent catastrophe north of Harper’s Ferry, and those quickly healed and disappeared.

Still, these trail runners had two major drawbacks. First, they were not very good on wet rock so rocky ridges during rainfalls become even more treacherous than they already are. Second, the soles are very thin because they are lightweight. This doesn’t cause blisters or any type of permanent damage, but it’s very painful when walking over rocks and roots all day. Stubbing your toe is also no fun — you might as well be wearing slippers.

For these reasons, I decided that I might try something else for the final stretch. I get the impression that there is a lot of rock ahead of me, and better tread and support sounded like a good idea. I also knew that my feet has become more resilient over the last 1600 miles, and shoes that might have caused blisters during break-in don’t scare my hardened feet.

Still, I didn’t want to go with a boot because they would feel like bricks after five months in trail runners. Thus, after chatting a bit with the first sales associate in an outfitter, I found myself face to face with their “foot guru.”

One thing I have begun to understand when walking into an outfitter is that thru-hikers represent such a small percentage of consumers of backpacking and hiking equipment that a great deal of information, even from experts, is going to be off. (And every person in every outfitter has a different opinion).

For example, the foot guru was shocked that I had been using the Solomon Speedcross 3’s because they were meant for “mud and sand.” She mentioned the Solomon rep had recently been in and said that these were not meant for hiking and at best should be used for 200 miles. I would say that anything that gets you a thousand miles without a blister should rank pretty high up there. As far as mileage, maybe this is true if you are hiking in them 20 miles a month for years, but I can attest the Solomon’s are good for at least 500 miles.

In the end I decided to try on a pair of Adidas hiking shoes and a lightweight Vasque boot. The Adidas had a much thicker sole, true boot-like tread, and were about as low-cut as my Solomon’s. After walking around a bit and going up and down the ramp, I was sold. They were the same cost or even a little cheaper than the Solomon’s I’ve been using, and I felt they would be much kinder to my feet through the Whites and the rocky mountains of Maine.

The foot guru assured me they didn’t need to be broken in, but in this I also knew better. When you are hiking 15-20 miles a day, any change will cause an adjustment period. Still, I didn’t have time to hike a bunch of short days, and it would be 6 miles just getting back to the trail, mostly on a rocky dirt road.

The first day I did 16 miles including the dirt road, and my feet definitely appreciated the difference. I couldn’t feel the piles of rock under my feet and bumping my toe against larger rocks was no longer a painful ordeal. The second day I did 19 miles and I began to feel the break-in period harder, but still saw no signs of blisters forming and my feet actually began to feel better at the end of the day.

They do feel a bit heavier, a bit stiffer around the ankles, and my step is not as easy as in a “runner,” but the pros definitely outweigh the cons. I am still not convinced they are that much better on wet rock, but I haven’t had opportunity to truly test this out yet.

In many ways my stop in Manchester Center felt like my time to gear up and prepare for the final 500+ miles, so I also reviewed the entire end of the trail guide. Towns would continue to become more rare and with much longer hikes into town, so I wanted to minimize these stops as much as possible. After having to make two 11-12 mile round trip excursions into town within a few days, I was eager to find ways to avoid future repeats.

I can’t make the towns any closer to the trail, but I can find the absolute closest spots. By looking carefully, I was able to plan my next 4 resupplied either on-trail or very close to the trail using a combination of mail drops and grocery stores. I even shipped ahead a box of food to an Inn right on the trail on the other side of Killington, allowing me to carry much less food this week.

I don’t think the learning process on the trail ever ends. If I were to do a full thru-hike every single year, I think each new trek would bring about new knowledge and fresh tips and tricks. This is refreshing and a good metaphor for life in general. We never cease to learn if we keep our eyes open, and no amount of experience can change this. The day I have nothing left to learn is the day I am in need of a change because I must not be living life to the fullest b

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