Planning the Number of Miles to Hike. It’s Complicated.

Scheming the number of miles to run on a particular day has always been easy for me. The number of factors (apart from injury) that impact the mileage I can accumulate on an average day are small. I’m faster in the cold than the heat. I’m faster on asphalt than on sand or a trail. I’m faster on bare ground than ground covered in snow or ice. Pretty simple. In addition, past performances are the best predictor of future ones. With my nearly two decades of running experience, I can always accurately hit my mileage/time targets.

When I set out to do my first day hike on the AT, I had zero idea of the time it would take me to cover my planned six miles. I had never hiked a real trail before. And running miles do not in any way translate to hiking miles when one begins to consider the high number of variables inherent in a hike. There’s level of fitness, of course. Experience hiking on varied terrain. Elevation gain. Pack weight. Rain, which doesn’t impact my pace on asphalt at all, would definitely limit my pace while navigating rocks and roots like those on the AT northbound out of Monson. One bad slip and fall on a wet root, and…

So as I sit and plan my next day trip out of Monson (this time southbound), I have but one experience to draw from. While that’s helpful, it’s too small of a sample size to establish an accurate baseline. I’ve run nearly 30,000 miles. I’ve hiked six. But those six miles did give me something to work with, at least. I wore my Garmin on that first hike to make sure I hit the Leeman Brook Lean-to after 3 miles. Yeah, I was that confident in my ability to follow the trail, which turned out to be pretty easy. The other key data the Garmin gave me was elevation gain and elapsed time. I wasn’t as concerned with the elevation stats, but the elapsed time interested me greatly. What can I say? I’m a creature of pace-habit.

Overall I did the six mile out-and-back in 3:45, which is about 1.5 MPH. Considering the photo, drink/snack and chit-chat breaks I took, and my complete lack of experience on the rocks-and-roots terrain out there in the Hundred Mile Wilderness, I was pleased with that. And it gives me a small sample to work with.

But I have to force myself to remember why I’m hiking which, as my blog name suggests, is to slow down and enjoy myself. It will be hard for me to not fret about keeping that 1.5 MPH pace next time. That’s the runner in me. But I need to make sure that I don’t worry about pace. Because the best parts of my first hike out there were stopping to talk with seven southbound thru-hikers and one northbound section hiker, and breaking when I saw something photo-worthy. As a runner, you (typically) don’t stop to chat with people when you’re cruising along at 7+ MPH. You don’t stop to take photos either, unless you’re one of the few who runs with their phone. I don’t. I run unplugged. Not even music. But as a hiker, meeting my first thru’s after reading so many AT memoirs and journals added such value to my experience that I was excited to stop, and grateful to them for stopping to talk with me.

I dilly-dallied quite a bit on my first hike over moderately rugged terrain, and still averaged 37 minutes per mile. So I think what I’ll do is use 1.5 MPH as a minimum baseline. That way, when I get to sections of the AT in my later hikes that aren’t the ankle-twisting newbie nightmare I experienced on my first foray out of Monson, I’ll feel like I’m flying…

The Bargain Train Keeps Rollin’

When I first decided to take up hiking/backpacking as a means of easing the strain on my body from marathon training/running, I was humbly impressed with the cost of decent gear. And while it’s not necessary to buy a $300 pack and $500 tent to get out there, even a modestly priced setup totaled around $1200 after much research. That cost included everything, including the Ten Essentials, clothes, shoes, etc. And starting from zero like I was, twelve hundred bucks for the full kit really wasn’t that extreme.

Since generating that fiscally daunting list, I’ve come upon some great bargains which, combined with the odd gift card and birthday present, have allowed me to accumulate an impressive slice of my needed gear at very reasonable prices.

The latest arrived yesterday, and is a fun story all its own. On my list I had placed The North Face’s Furnace 20 sleeping bag. The best price I had found on it was a brief sale for $165, but it typically sells in the $179 range at places like REI. Given my limited disposable income, I relegated that purchase to the when-I’m-REALLY-ready-to-overnight list.

I have a credit card that accumulates frequent flyer miles for one of the major airlines. I haven’t flown anywhere in eight years, but it gathers up miles from all of my purchases in little bits and pieces, and I had accumulated a bit over 20,ooo. This airline has an online store of odds and ends where miles can be used for purchases. And given that I now shop flights by price and less by brand loyalty (especially since frequent flyer programs have lost their cachet and have been gutted by the airlines, but that’s for another blog and blog post), I figured I’d zip over there and see if they had any outdoor-related items I could pick up with my tiny accumulation of miles.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that they actually had three sleeping bags available. And imagine too the huge, shocked grin that spread across my face when one of those bags was the Furnace 20. Of all the hundreds of sleeping bags that live in the retail wild, the bag I wanted was one of the few they carried. Talk about beating steep odds!

But I was a few thousand miles short. Luckily, they allow you to use a combination of miles and cash to pay for items. So I added it to my cart, emptied my mileage bin and clicked to see what it would cost me in real money. The answer? $29. I started laughing. I couldn’t believe it. The EXACT bag I wanted, for a bunch of abandoned frequent flyer miles and $29.

I have been extremely blessed through this whole build-up to find the items on my list at a great price. I’m just a tent, sleeping pad and a bigger backpack away from being finished, and my total dollars outlay will be far below the $1200 original I had calculated…

 

Where’s the Wildlife?

That’s the question that was posed to me by a southbound AT thru-hiker a week ago while we took a short break at the Leeman Brook Lean-to. He was pretty disgusted that he had traversed nearly the entire Hundred Mile Wilderness and had seen but one rabbit. Of course, I didn’t make him feel any better when I admitted to having seen a rabbit myself after hiking just 2 miles of the HMW.

It did seem unnaturally animal-free to me, too. I live in a bedroom community for a small city, so it’s not exactly deep-woods-rural here. But I’ve seen a black bear (twice), a coyote, a handful of foxes and more deer than I can count while running or driving within two miles of home.

So why didn’t we see anything on the AT? Well, I have two theories. First, the terrain is watch-every-footstep rugged. That section is an endless minefield of rocks, tree roots, mud and water crossings. When watching one’s feet, it’s difficult to see an animal doing its best to stay invisible as you pass by.

Then there’s the volume of traffic. I was frankly surprised by the number of southbound thru-hikers I passed (seven) in just three short miles out there. I followed one hiker’s journal as he journeyed northbound from Springer, and he passed through the Hundred Mile Wilderness the same week I was there and summited Katahdin two days after my hike (Congratulations, “Coach”!). According to him, all the shelters (and the tent sites around them) were clogged with southbounders. That means a pretty steady stream of hikers would be on the trail, and unless you were first in line on the way to Monson every morning, there’s a good chance that many animals had been startled away from the trail by the time hikers like the disappointed college grad from New Hampshire that I chatted with at Leeman Brook got there.

I was hoping to see a moose or two, or least a bear. Maybe I’ll have better luck heading south, away from the Wilderness. In November, when the thru-hikers have all gone…