Book Review – Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike

31858255Thru-hiker extraordinaire Liz Thomas shares her wealth of hard-earned experience in Backpacker Magazine’s Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike. She covers the subject thoroughly, from why thru-hiking is appealing to an overview of several long trails to mental and physical readiness to logistics to nutrition to equipment.

One of the strengths of this book is how much Thomas emphasizes the “hike your own hike” philosophy. Each thru-hiker has his or her own reasons for hiking, as well as an individual approach to the trail. What is right for one hiker is not the right choice for another. This book highlights alternatives that will benefit different types of hikers instead of a “one-size-fits-all” method.

The sections on budgeting and scheduling are practical, presenting useful strategies for breaking down the daunting job of planning a thru-hike into manageable tasks. I benefited most from her tips on preparing for the physical and mental challenges along the trail–lots of useful pointers here, such as practicing packing and unpacking as part of the daily exercise regimen and how to communicate clearly with a resupply contact back home.

Rather than being intended for the beginning backpacker, Long Trails assumes some familiarity with backpacking and seeks to bridge the gap from shorter trail experience to thru-hiker. The information is focused on long trails rather than a weeklong trip.

The lush photography makes for both a beautiful and well-presented book. The pictures illustrate concepts nicely and show some of the wonderful scenery along the trail. I also appreciated Thomas’ cheerful, friendly tone; she comes across as very down-to-earth.

Several “asides” of paragraph-to-page length recount other hikers’ experiences. These frequently amplify Thomas’ points, and sometimes present alternative opinions and methods. A lengthy section examines different hiker’s gear lists piece-by-piece, showing multiple individual approaches to equipment.

Long Trails is vital reading for anyone interested in a longer trail–say, any trail where a resupply is necessary. Whether you’re headed for a more modest challenge or setting out on the Continental Divide Trail, this book will help you get there.

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Book Review – Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks

Hike Smart
Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks by Ann Marie Brown and Terra Breeden

4 stars.  Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks by Ann Marie Brown and Terra Breeden draws from the authors’ extensive backpacking experience to present a readable, instructive guide that benefits novices and experienced hikers alike. Topics range from safety to comfort to gear selection to navigational skills.

What I appreciated most about this guide is its conversational tone. Most hiking guides read like a textbook, alternating checklists with dry instructional material. The authors here do an excellent job relating information on a personal level, as if they are discussing what works for them, and most importantly why it works for them. In addition to their own experiences, they relate many anecdotes from other hikers. These anecdotes blend well with the text, either illustrating the rationale of the authors or providing an experience that they analyze and use to teach.

I also am a fan of the authors’ middle ground stance on ultralight gear. Many ultralight advocates are far more willing than I to trade ounces on their backs for substantial reductions in comfort and safety and/or more investment of time in camp and on the trail (and, to their credit, they have mastered the skills and attitude necessary for that). Brown and Breeden favor an approach of understanding and evaluating the trade-offs presented by ultralight gear–shedding weight where it makes sense, yet not being shy to pack something heavier that elevates one’s hiking experience.

Brown and Breeden’s self-deprecating wit adds to the warmth of Hike Smart. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and little asides like “If you’re a worry-wort like Terra, carry both” are a refreshing break from the “ZOMG You’re Doing It WRONG!!!” attitude that’s unfortunately found in many online hiker communities.

The only real shortcoming of this book is that some topics seem biased towards the experience of backpacking either solo or duo. For example, the section on stoves can be summarized with “use a Jetboil/MSR Reactor integrated canister stove.” While that is a good solution for the solo hiker, it’s not nearly as good when cooking for 4 or more.

I’d also say that this book is very western US-centric. This would be a complaint if the gorgeous pictures of all their Sierra Nevada hikes hadn’t managed to take all my breath away! But I did notice that while topics such as how to secure a tent when tent stakes cannot be driven are covered, whereas there is no real discussion of the use of a hammock as bed and shelter, as is popular in eastern US backpacking.

Rather than the traditional hiking guide which focuses on instruction in a particular method, Hike Smart relies on teaching sound decision-making skills for hikers. I found myself agreeing with a great deal of this book. In many cases, the authors have put into words what I have discovered through experience or by accident. I checked this out from the library expecting to skim it, and found myself reading, enjoying, and learning from it.

Book Review – On the Trail: A History of American Hiking

297716552.5 stars. Silas Chamberlin examines trail development and culture in the United States in On the Trail: A History of American Hiking. Starting with the developments in technology and culture that first led to the rise of walking as a leisure activity, the author traces how interest in hiking developed, what factors drove its growth, how trails were built, and the decline of the trail club in favor of individual hikers.

The book is rich with noteworthy information about the hiking clubs that actively developed trail networks and promoted hiking as a leisure activity. At its genesis, hiking required the rise of a working class exempt from physical labor (who wants to walk for fun when one must walk all day to put food on the table?). The clubs were largely egalitarian, with membership being extended to all interested regardless of sex or race; an interesting sociological observation. Clubs typically designed, developed, maintained, and shared information about routes within their purview.

The history of these clubs contains many fascinating tidbits that give insight into the mindset of the hiker community. The story of the Dartmouth Outing Club is a great read. I liked the tale behind the founding of the Mazamas in Portland, Oregon: to ensure that membership was for accomplished climbers, the first meeting was held on the summit of Mount Hood. Another great anecdote was how a club in New York was laying out a trail with string, only to find that they were just ahead of hikers following their route.

After World War II, On the Trail turns nostalgic, examining a decline in membership and influence of the trail clubs. Many clubs, such as the Sierra Club, turned to a conservation and environmental focus. Governmental funding focus changed towards multi-use pathways seen as a transportation alternative rather than featuring closeness to nature as the main purpose. Technological changes in equipment, the availability of military surplus, and advances in food storage enabled people to hike individually. As hiking has become more popularized, the paradox of being “loved to death” has forced hikers to adopt lower-impact methods and environmental causes.

And here I veer from review to rebuttal…

At the genesis of hiking culture, hiking or backpacking was virtually impossible without club membership or guidance. Routes did not exist until clubs established them, and there were not resources available outside club newsletters and word of mouth. Equipment was not readily available, and was of such a weight that it was only suited to group use. Since then, the availability of trails, information, and equipment has lessened the importance of a club (or for that matter even a group) to a beginner.

Another factor in group hiking’s decline that this book does not cover is that barriers often exist that prevent large groups from hiking. Permits or campsite reservations often specify maximum limits on group sizes, and popular areas frequently need to be reserved considerably prior to the trip.

I would also posit that many hikers had their first experience outdoors within a social structure: friends, family, and organizations. My first hikes were on family vacations, and my first backpacks were with my Boy Scout troop. In college, I was a trip leader with the school outdoor recreation program, taking many first-timers out into the woods. One of the common sights on trails around me is the fruits of an Eagle Scout service project: benches, trailhead kiosks, interpretive signage, and often even the trails themselves. Most hikers are ecstatic to share trips, hike preparation tasks, and skills instruction with newcomers. Leave No Trace is widely practiced and preached. Many hikers actively participate in governmental park and trail planning. We may hike individually more often, but we’ve also taken a much larger sense of personal responsibility for trail development, maintenance, and evangelism.

One of the huge weaknesses is that the author’s perspective seem to drive his narrative. He spent the summer of 2003 on the trail crew of the Adirondack Mountain Club (thank you for your contributions to the trails of that beautiful area, Mr. Chamberlin!), and he clearly lets his experiences there determine his idea of what hiking should be. Through its erroneous need to equate trail clubs with the hiking community, this book becomes far less authoritative and interesting as its reporting approaches modern day.

I was also rubbed the wrong way by occasional prejudices and unsubstantiated claims. As an example, he points to the National Trails System Act of 1968 as the turning point of when we began to expect government-provided trails to be the norm and “the volunteer ethic that had defined the hiking community for more than one hundred years was lost.” Yet he provides no evidence to substantiate this assertion other than club membership numbers. His statement would have far more credence had he quantified a change in volunteer hours, number of trails, general decline in condition of trails, etc. He then goes on to build a strawman, again without offering any evidence: “New hikers believed that they were entitled to clean, well-maintained trails. Why, they wondered, should they be asked to do more?”

In the epilogue, his prejudices are again apparent:

“Even the most unlikely of places, Brentwood, Tennessee–located in what has been called the most conservative county in America–had at least 20 miles of trails.”

I happen to live in the county he refers to, and have hiked many times in Brentwood (make sure you check out the Red Trail at the recently-established Marcella Vivrette Smith Park if you visit!). I’m curious as to why it is “the most unlikely of places,” as Tennessee has a rich outdoor tradition. And what does its political leaning have to do with its trails? The author has already established that the rise of the hiking club culture he so prizes was fueled by middle class and wealthy preservationist benefactors, and if there’s a place that’s middle class or wealthy in Tennessee, it’s Brentwood for sure.

Chamberlin fails to mention current ambitious trail projects, which are often driven by clubs who coordinate government and volunteer effort. Examples are Boston’s Bay Circuit Trail and California’s Bay Area Ridge Trail. In my area, many park trails are maintained by “friends of” groups that organize work days and promulgate information. As an example, private land access revocations led to a significant rerouting of the excellent Fiery Gizzard Trail, and the Friends of South Cumberland State Park led the charge to have it rerouted, and volunteers working with Tennessee State Parks were able to complete the rerouting ahead of schedule.

On the Trail‘s most glaring oversight is its total ignorance of online hiker communities. There is no mention whatsoever of the huge number of online gathering places for hikers–hugely popular Facebook groups for the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, the large number of Meetup groups regarding hiking, collaborative trail sites featuring user submissions, recommendations, and reviews of trails, Instagram sharing by and for hikers, and so on. I find it very hard to take Chamberlin’s account of the decline of hiking community seriously when he neglects these resources.

Permeating On the Trail is the author’s implication of “wrongfun” that if you’re hiking by yourself, you’re doing it wrong: you’re an individualistic “consumer” hiker (boo! hiss!) instead of a “producer” club member who is social and contributes to the community (applause!). For me, part of the appeal of hiking is that it can be a private activity, or it can be a social activity with family, friends, and even strangers. There isn’t a “right” reason to set boot to trail, and I certainly can’t see any basis for stating that hiking as a social activity is better or worse than hiking alone. The hiking community has a phrase that perfectly captures how different hikers have different goals: “hike your own hike.”

The text is authored at a very high reading level, with dense, information-packed paragraphs. One simple improvement to its readability would have been to break up its five chapters into smaller, more focused ones (for example, one chapter on the Long Trail, one on the Dartmouth Outing Club, one on the National Trails System Act of 1968, etc.). The text would flow better without even having to be altered, as the reader would have both a logical stopping place between topics instead of monolithic prose and a cue that the text was shifting to a new topic. (I suspect that the author’s chapter layout was dictated by his “decline of the hiking club” theme, and a shift to shorter chapters would not have helped his case, though.)

The interspersed pictures are excellent, adding life to the text. They are drawn from a variety of sources and are nicely illustrative of the history of trails and trail clubs.

I’m very torn on my rating for On the Trail. Were it simply a history, it would be a 4 star examination of trails and trailbuilders. Where Chamberlin veers into sociology, his obvious and pedantic axe to grind detracts substantially from the value of his work as he laments the supposed “golden age” of the hiking club. The information is good; improvements in the presentation and thematic content would have made a much better volume.

Book Review – Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

13459855Unique among thru-hiker guide books, Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail discusses the mental outlook necessary for the rigorous 2,200 mile hike. Zach Davis covers mental preparation prior to a thru-hike, keeping a mindset of enjoying the experience even when severely challenged, and acclimating back to “real life” after the hike.

I especially enjoyed his focus on keeping perspective on the trail, which is infused with optimism and remembering that, while a particular uphill, rainy day, or overcrowded shelter may be taxing, you are there to both enjoy the experience and accomplish something memorable.

“The trail should be enjoyed, and when joy is difficult to achieve, personal growth should become the focus.”

Appalachian Trials is definitely focused on thru-hiking, but its lessons can apply to almost any facet of life from personal improvement to on-the-job goals: optimism, taking in the moment, keeping the goal in focus.

In the most moving passage in the book, Davis tells about how near the end of his hike, he passed the body of Michael “Open Mike” Guerette and a crowd of hikers who had attempted to revive him (he likely either collapsed on the trail or fell and sustained a fatal injury). Davis was shaken by the experience, feeling sorrow for the death of a man he did not know but could easily identify with. Upon reaching the next shelter, he found Guerette’s entry from earlier in the day, describing the pleasure he felt at talking to a family of hikers on the trail. The entry ended with this statement: “Today is a great day to be alive. – Open Mike”–a touching reminder to appreciate the moments we’re given.

Davis draws from his thru-hiking experience to explore the psychological components necessary for success on the AT–arguably far more important than which pack or water filtration is best. Appalachian Trials is a great read for anyone interested in thru-hiking, or simply looking for an engagingly-written book about achieving success.

Book Review – AWOL on the Appalachian Trail

114584324 stars. David Miller was a “regular guy”: 41, married with three girls, working as a software engineer, yet wanting something a little more. He sought it by turning in his notice and heading out on the Appalachian Trail to thru-hike the 2,200 mile footpath from Georgia to Maine. He takes us along the path with him in AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, the story of his 2003 AT thru-hike.

Miller communicates well, with direct sentences and little flowery prose. He’s pretty even keeled and approaches the AT with a pragmatic sense, but he also realizes that the goal is to enjoy himself rather than simply to reach a destination or put a feather in his cap. I get the feeling that Miller finds satisfaction in simply taking in the moment:

“…spectacular overlooks and scenic waterfalls have universal appeal. But I have come to recognize that most of what is memorable and pleasing about my time on the trail is ordinary moments in the outdoors. Simply sitting unhurried in the shade of leaves is an irreplaceable moment. It is a joy in itself to amble through the woods for hours, even when views are limited to the dense trees surrounding me. It is fulfilling to be saturated with the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors. My fond recollections of my hike are full of unremarkable moments, like the smell of a dewy morning, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the blaze of a campfire, the soothing trickle of a stream, or the rays of sun through a maze of trees.”

Any AT trail journal is, by necessity, repetitive: get up, hike, eat, set up camp, repeat until resupply point/town is reached, shower, eat massive amounts of food, hitchhike back to the trail, hike. Just as the sum is greater than the parts on a thru-hike, so is AWOL on the Appalachian Trail: no single thing kept me turning pages, but I did anyway because Miller’s hike was satisfying to experience through his eyes.

Miller is frank about the challenges of the trail: foot pain, gastrointestinal distress, drudgery, steep climbs, inclement weather. He also gives a good sense of the pleasure and fulfillment of the trail.

As a fortysomething code monkey myself, I easily related to Miller’s outlook and wish to fulfill a dream. It’s inspiring to know us cubicle jockeys can do something extraordinary when we put our minds to it! What I appreciated most was his frank discussion of why he chose to go, and what he got out of it:

“…it is important for parents to continue to live their own lives. We can’t sit by and say we’ve already made our decisions, done our striving, and dish out opinions on the doings of our children. Words alone lack authority, and we risk making them surrogates for the life we’d like to lead. We can better relate to the budding aspirations of our children if we follow dreams of our own.”

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail shows that attitude and persistence, combined with planning and preparation, are keys to success on the trail (and probably in life as well). This would be a great book for any prospective thru-hiker to get a good feel for how to proceed on the AT, and very enjoyable to armchair hikers everywhere.

Book Review – Lost!: A Ranger’s Journal of Search and Rescue

4 stars. Each chapter of Lost!: A Ranger’s Journal of Search and Rescue details a disappearance in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and subsequent rescue effort as told by ranger Dwight McCarter. The introductory text describes the circumstances that necessitated the search and rescue effort. McCarter’s journal entries outline his role once he joins the search, and he details the terrain, weather, evidence found by the searchers, and most interestingly, his impression of the decisions and actions of the lost party.

The writing is clear and direct, favoring the factual over the dramatic, yet doesn’t miss McCarter’s love for the land, appreciation of its beauty, and emotional involvement with each search and rescue. The stories are memorable, sometimes tragic and sometimes happy. The willingness of the searchers to trek through the treacherous backcountry and “laurel hells” of the Smokies in any weather, day and night, is inspiring even when the outcome is sad.

As an avid hiker and frequent visitor to the Smokies, I found this book to be very interesting for several reasons. I’m familiar enough with many of the trails and areas described that I can very easily relate to the rescues. I appreciated reading about the park from the point of view of someone whose intimate knowledge of its terrain gave me extra insight into the park; even walking GSMNP’s trails doesn’t give more than a hint at how rugged and wild a place it is. The line between finding a lost person and recovery of a body often comes down to pre-hike preparation combined with sound decisions, and this book highlights how both are essential when conditions worsen or the unexpected occurs. I also found it very interesting that there are a number of airplane crash sites in the Smokies (McCarter often checked those to see if lost parties took refuge in the wreckage).

A quick and interesting read, Dwight McCarter’s Lost! is a great addition for anyone who loves the outdoors.

Book Review – Stepping Wild: Hiking the Appalachian Trail with Mingo

4.5 stars. Phill Grounds left his day-to-day life behind in 2011 to hike from Georgia to Maine, and he tells his story in Stepping Wild: Hiking the Appalachian Trail with Mingo. He recounts the joys and difficulties of well over 2,000 miles worth of steps along the trail, as all-too-common momentary misery of rain, sore feet, colds, hunger, bugs, and the ilk became a life-changing trip through the beauty and challenge of nature.

Grounds’ narrative is direct yet expressive, able to easily put me in his well-worn shoes and describe what he experienced and thought. His informal prose conveys both detail and a sense of the grandeur and challenge of the AT. I also appreciated his no-nonsense personality when confronting people doing stupid things along the trail; etiquette and rules exist both for the safety and consideration of those enjoying the great outdoors and the preservation of the environment. His blunt retired police officer personality doesn’t disguise his love for his trail friends and his wife Deb, though!

Stepping Wild offers a treasure trove of information for hikers and backpackers. Grounds is brutally honest about his own mistakes and assumptions, and anyone planning an AT hike will benefit greatly from reading about his experience. More importantly, I gained a sense of the emotional and mental expenditure of taking a long trail. One point that I’ll do my best to remember is his discussion of how the moment tended to set his outlook: when he was miserable, he felt like every remaining step was going to be an ordeal and when he had a good day, everything left seemed easy. I also admired that was out there doing the hike for himself; “hike your own hike” is a frequent hiker saying, but I haven’t read a hiking memoir that brought it home quite like his.

Throughout Grounds’ story is an ongoing sense of the support necessary to hike the AT. Deb’s assistance and trips to meet him were invaluable. His trail friends encouraged and uplifted him, and it’s easy to see how deep bonds can form quickly between thru-hikers. The numerous “trail angels” lent a helping hand, a ride into town, or a cold beer at the end of a long day. And the support of those in hiker-friendly communities contrasted greatly with those who looked down on the disheveled, stinky backpackers.

I wholeheartedly recommend Stepping Wild to outdoor enthusiasts; it’s an easy and pleasant read with a lot to offer anyone who dreams of trails.

Thanks to Phill “Mingo” Grounds for sending me a copy of his book in return for an honest review!