It all started talking over some beers at a friend’s house. We had served in the same unit and spent plenty of time in the Middle East. I left the West Coast, where I had served most of my career, to take a position as an instructor on the East Coast. Over the years we had kept in touch and on a couple of occasions while I was out on the West Coast for training opportunities we would get together and shoot the breeze. This time was different after taking a job at the program office and was able to get out to San Diego for the better part of a week. I reached out to Mac, as my friend is known in certain circles, and was able to stay with him before doing some work in the Arizona desert. Well Mac told me about his business that he was trying grow and some of the outdoors trips he had taken. After a little more talk we agreed that we should go do some of the Appalachian Trail. We have tried to get up with each other over the years and it hasn’t always panned out that well, but I was committed to making this time different so I started researching things.
The first thing I needed to figure out was what type of gear I was going to take with me. There are many different mindsets when it comes to backpacking and being that I am no dainty person I wasn’t going to try and pack ultralight, but by the same token I wasn’t going to go super “tacticool” and be weighed down by 10 pounds of Molle webbing. I settled somewhere in the middle, possibly a bit on the heavy side, and found a Kifaru Timberline 3 pack for sale. I decided on a foliage color as to not look like the rest of the “super cool dudes” who enjoy outdoor activities, e.g. the one person that has to own everything in MultiCam or coyote brown. The pack itself is around 50-60 liters and perfect size for doing multiday trips. I added two long pockets on the side for another 20 liters or so bringing the total capacity to right around 70 liters. Now I know some will say that is way too much and to some degree I will agree that I probably over packed for this trip, but at the end of the day it was me dragging this pack and it worked for me.
For sleeping a sleeping pad I looked around and found a killer deal on a Big Agnes Stillwater mummy sleeping pad. It is inflatable and served me well, with 3 inches of padding between you and the ground it made for a good night’s rest though in the future I do plan in adding a closed cell sleeping pad to the arsenal. I also brought a Big Agnes Seedhouse SL1 with me in case we needed to stay at one of the camp sites along the way, as it were we didn’t need it as the shelters were plentiful and pretty empty for the time of year we went.
Cooking was done in the typical manner and I brought with me a Jetboil MiniMo with me and had the normal types of food. I packed all my cooking gear and food into a BearVault 450 which served me well. I had done some reading on the area we were going to be and while bear encounters were on the scarce side I decided I would rather be safe than sorry. Yeah the added weight was sort of a pain but not was unmanageable. For clothes I just packed 4-5 days of clothes I had around nothing special, mostly cotton. I did bring rain gear and a pack cover just in case we got stuck in some weather. In the future I may look into getting some moisture wicking garments I just didn’t allot the time to procuring these items at the time. As for footwear I just used a pair of surplus warm weather boots that I had around. They served me well and didn’t make my feet overly sweaty although I do plan on actually getting a pair of hiking/backpacking boots in the future. As for footwear in camp I just used a set of running shoes I had.
From the park we hopped on the trail with my 40+ pound pack and started north to the Pennsylvania/Maryland state line, also known at other times as the Mason-Dixon Line. This portion took us around 15 minutes after which we started on our southbound leg the first miles or so were just pea gravel and we were thinking “hey this is pretty easy going”, we were in for a sort of rude surprise. A couple of miles in we diverted to High Rock, which is the highest point on the trail in Maryland, took in the vista and moved on. From High Rock on down the trail was definitely a challenge with rocky undulating terrain, not exactly what we were thinking when you hear about the trail at least in the section of it. We were up to the challenge and just kept trucking gathering water where need be or grabbing a snack, around six hours from stepping off we had made it around ten and a half miles and called it a day stopping at Ensign Cowall Shelter which wasn’t bad for our first day. We made camp rather early that day and met an interesting person who had been traveling the trail for quite a few years which we conversed with and generally shot the breeze with. We gathered fresh water for the upcoming day and made dinner and called it a rather early day I wasn’t complaining in the least as it were I was thinking to myself “What the hell have I gotten myself in to”. As the sun was getting ready to go down I inflated my sleeping mat and wrapped up in my Kifaru “doobie” and wrapped up for the night, though it got down in to the 40’s that night I was plenty warn on top of my mat sleeping in a fleece top and shorts with the blanket on. In the morning we got up a little later than expected, but we needed it, packed up and got on the trail.Now that we have talked about the gear we need to talk about the route and trip its self. At the same time I was bargain shopping my gear selection I was also in contact with Mac, we went back and forth on how much distance we wanted to do and how many days we would take doing our trip and decided that we would do the section that covers Western Maryland. We gave ourselves 4 day to do the section as it was 41.5 miles, although we did more than that by the time it was all said and done. We decided to take our trip in latter half of September, 24-28, as the temperatures during this time would be in the mid 70s and generally good conditions for backpacking. I headed up to pick Mac up at Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) on Friday the 23rd. Because of traffic around the beltway it made me a little later than I wanted to be and not a good start to this trip. I eventually got there and picked him up after which we proceeded to the local outdoors store and topped off on last minute supplies. After the trip to the store we commenced the two hour drive to my dwelling in Southern Maryland where we crashed for the evening. The morning of the 24th we got up plenty early, around 3:30-4:00 and drove the 30 minutes or so up the road to where I had a friend of mine Joe picked us up. Joe was kind enough to both drive us out to our starting point and pick us up at the end, thanks dude. After about two and a half hours of driving Joe dropped us off at PenMar Park in Cascade, Md. This is where the true adventure would start.
With day three beginning we managed to get that early start that we had been looking for. We started off back up to the trail and got the party started, it was a pretty steady climb out from our shelter to the trail and even up the trail first thing in the morning but we were feeling up to the task. About five miles into our trip we came across Gathland State Park which has some importance to the Civil War and namely the Battle of Antietam. After a quick break here and some delicious water from the spring we continued towards our destination. A couple of hours in and we took a pause at the base of the final ascent of our trail fueling up on both food and water, we had decided to bypass the final shelter on the trail and continue. This break was greatly appreciated and felt great we trudged on and made it over the summit and started down the hill towards Harper’s Ferry, WV. On the way down the hill we diverted to Weverton Cliffs and took in the scenic overview of the Potomac River Valley. Prior to this trip I had read about the section leading down to the valley below and had heard what a challenge it was and thought “it can’t be that bad”, boy was I wrong. This section by and far with the switchbacks and sleep terrain made us work for it. After approximately and hour and a half navigating this terrain we came into a meadow and were close to the finish line after a bit we made it to the C&O Towpath which parallels the old locks that they used to use to get barges up and down the river. I consulted my GPS and it told us we only had a little more to go, well that little more was longer than what we thought and after we passed a bridge I was certain would lead us to our destination we were both a little discouraged, but we kept on and arrived at the correct footbridge. We made our way over the Potomac and to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy where we would later be picked up. After making it to the conservancy we had some drinks and a candy bar and I swear to you that this was probably the best Dr. Pepper and Snickers I have ever had in my life. Day two would see us go up and down some challenging terrain and we both agreed that we were happy that we hadn’t pushed it further the previous day. There were sections that were closer to being closer the walking over boulders, but we made good time and by pushing it a little past dark we were able to put around 15 miles behind us. During the day the trail took us through some pretty neat historical stuff and we were able to visit the first Washington monument climb to the top and take in some breathtaking scenery. We stopped for lunch at the monument and to just relax for a while when we finally mustered the strength to get back on the trail we headed down to the park at the bottom of the hill and ran into one of the park rangers. We stopped and talked to him for a while and he gave us the lowdown on the trail up ahead and where to stop and so forth. We came down through some Civil War monuments, read the plaques and learned some pretty cool history on the way. When we called it a night we ended up at the Rocky Run Shelter. This shelter was pretty interesting in the fact that it had a new build shelter closer towards the trail where we ran into some guys we had seen at the Washington monument and one from the 30s that was down a bit closer to the water. As both me a Mac are a little anti-social at times we picked the one by the water source and crashed out for the night. We had a light dinner and partook in copious amounts of water as we wanted to get an early start the next day.
Overall this was a great experience for getting my foot in the door and back to nature. It was great times with great people and I would do it all again. There are things I have learned that I will take with me on trips in the future. I know now that I would definitely scale down my pack and some of the stuff in it to make life a little more manageable and comfortable. I am definitely looking into investing in some quality hiking/backpacking boots, picking up a set of trekking poles and getting some synthetic garments. I hope that this is just the beginning of some awesome outdoors adventures.
A Big Thanks to our buddy Pete for the great write up and great trip!