Appalachian Trail Backpacking Trip

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Choosing Our Trip 

As someone who enjoys being in nature, especially while hiking, I was very excited when my husband Rob and I decided on a backpacking trip in North Carolina as part of an anniversary trip. While we have hiked and camped numerous times together in the past, we had never combined the two! Earlier this year, in July, we were supposed to go on a two day backpacking trip while traveling in Michigan, but we had to cancel that part of our trip due to an illness I developed during the first part of our trip. 

We decided on North Carolina, as it is a good driving distance from where we live in Indiana, only about eight hours, making it pretty feasible to easily transport our gear, avoiding flying or multiple days on the road just trying to get to our destination. And of course, I’ve always been intrigued by the Appalachian Trail and had never hiked any of it previously. Neither had Rob. 

A Google search brought me to a hike known as the “Standing Indian Loop”, and it wasn’t far from Asheville, which is an area we had visited previously, a couple years back, and we decided we would do the backpacking portion of the trip and then finish it with a couple days in Asheville, staying in an AirBNB, being able to enjoy some comfort afterward.

The source I got most of my information on regarding this loop indicated that it was a good backpacking trip for those new to backpacking, and it being almost 25 miles total, I felt pretty comfortable with our decision.

48 Hours on the Trail

So here’s how our trip went…overall, it was pretty good! However, I will say that it was more challenging than either of us originally anticipated. As people who hike regularly and are very active and in good physical condition, we figured it wouldn’t give us much trouble. However, when you need to carry close to 50 lbs. of gear in a backpack on your back and you are in the mountains, gaining quite a bit of elevation, the challenge level increases quite a bit! It was difficult to get used to wearing a pack, mostly because of the weight that it puts on the shoulders and against the collarbones, at times. It also affects your balance quite a bit, especially when descending, as you’re more top heavy than usual. 

We also took our year-and-a-half old Blue Heeler, Dobey, so we had to bring extra food and water for him. In my opinion, we really did well at keeping things light. We each brought a sleeping bag and an inflatable pillow, but no padding to put under it, so we slept directly on the ground in the tent. Clothing wise, I only brought my rain jacket, one change of clothes for daytime, one set of pajamas for both nights, one extra pair of socks, and a change of underwear for each day and night. I brought my Chacos to have a pair of shoes to change into once we made camp so that I could get my feet out of my hiking boots and have something easier to slip on and off. As far as toiletries…I really kept it basic. Rob and I each carried one pack of wet wipes, I had facial wipes to cleanse my face each morning and evening, a very small travel size bottle of Castile soap, a small Emory board, a small sandwich-sized plastic bag filled with basic first aid supplies, and that was it! I meant to bring my toothbrush and toothpaste but completely forgot it in the car and didn’t transfer it from my other bag after staying in an AirBNB the night before. Thankfully, Rob had packed two new extra toothbrushes, so I had one to use, and I just dipped it in water that had peppermint essential oil added to it, and it really did the trick! I was grateful I had brought that oil as well as a frankincense essential oil. I also had a 3L water bladder that I carried, 2 “meals ready to eat” (MREs), 3 small plastic bags of trail mix, 4 CLIF bars, 1 peanut butter packet, and a container with 6 eggs. I also had two 32 oz stainless steel water bottles that I carried filled with water. I had a very small camping cook set that was light-weight (and that we didn’t even get to use because we couldn’t start a fire due to heavy rains Thursday during the day and evening). We didn’t bring a propane burner or anything to make cooking easier for us. I also carried a camp mug for coffee and four packs of mushroom coffee from FourSigmatic for both Rob and myself. Other than that, just some bug spray (which I didn’t even need), my cell phone (although by the second morning my battery was completely dead), a lighter a small pocket knit, and my Nikon camera. The main part of our tent was strapped to the bottom of my pack, and I also was carrying the tent cover for the top. Rob carried the poles in his pack, and he also had my inflatable pillow and his portion of the food, other than the eggs that we didn’t get to eat (we ended up putting some of the raw eggs in Dobey’s food to give him some extra calories since we had no way to cook them). The only additional food we had was most of a loaf of banana bread that I had made earlier in the week, that Rob carried in his pack. Oh, and we each had one extra 32 oz plastic water bottle we carried. Looking back, we probably didn’t need to do that, as we were able to find quite a few water sources along the trail, however, they were somewhat sporadic and we didn’t come across most of those until the second and third day. 

The pack was something that I really started to get used to, especially after the first day. And it was nice because the pack would get somewhat lighter each day as the food and water supplies were beginning to be used up. Physically, this trip was challenging, but mostly because of what it did to my feet. As a yogi, I’m used to being barefoot or just wearing sandals most of the time. It’s rare that my feet are confined in socks and shoes, especially for hours on end, multiple days in a row, and all while carrying extra weight and dealing with elevation gains and losses. Looking back, I also probably could have had better socks…more breathable and moisture-wicking. The first day wasn’t bad, but by the second evening, I had started to develop blisters on the inside of my big toes and also one on the side of my right heel. The only became larger the next morning when we had to hike the remaining five miles back to our vehicle. Since then, I’ve been dealing with swelling in my feet and toes, and I’m still not so sure I won’t lose the toe nails on my middle toes on each foot. They are pretty painful, with quite a bit of swelling and discoloration still present. Other than that, I’m feeling great physically, and I know what I would do differently should I ever plan another backpacking trip!

Here’s a breakdown day-by-day of time spent and mileage covered on the trail:

Day 1: Friday morning at approx. 10:30 AM, we began on Long Branch Trail in the Southern Nantahala Wilderness of North Carolina near Franklin, NC. At just over 2 miles on the Long Branch Trail, we turned right onto the Appalachian Trail. We made our way to the firetower at Albert Mountain, which was an incredible view, especially when climbing up as high as you can on the firetower, which provides an amazing panoramic view! Until this point, the hike was pretty much all elevation gain, steadily ascending. After taking time to take in the view and climb up the tower, we decided to continue on, even though there were multiple campsites near the firetower. Once we left this area, we came across some very rugged descending terrain over large rocks. Once we got through that, we happened to stumble upon the most amazing campsite on the entire loop, which was tucked off the trail a bit, and it had a large black rock formation at the start of the campsite, with the fire pit located right up against it…but the best part, which wasn’t even visible from the main part of the campsite, was an incredible overlook with the most amazing view I’ve ever seen, which also had two benches built in! Rob and I called it the “honeymoon suite” of the loop. Rob tried and tried to get a fire going (with my help), but after a valiant effort, we had to give up as everything was just too wet, so we added our water to our Chana Masala MRE and just enjoyed a colder, crunchier version. It really wasn’t as bad as it sounds!

Time on trail: ~10:30 AM-3:30 PM = 5 hours; Approximate mileage: 8 miles

Day 2: We woke up before sunrise on Saturday morning, of course! We took our time and really enjoyed taking in the sunrise at the overlook I just described above. Just watching and taking photos. We were above the clouds, so looking over, it just appeared to be a sea of clouds, with mountains peaking up over them in the distance all around. It was beyond breathtaking (photos will be included below)! We ate a breakfast of banana bread, and I attempted to make my mushroom coffee into a paste with just a bit of water to spread over my banana bread, but I added a bit too much water, so it only partially worked, and the coffee remaining in my cup I had to add more water to in order to finish. We had everything packed up and left this gorgeous campsite at about 8:30 AM. This was the most emotionally challenging day for both of us, as we had an unexpected mishap. Just after taking our first real break, probably just before Noon, in order to take a break from our packs and have our snack of CLIF bars and trail mix, we hadn’t been back on the trail long at all before Rob tripped over a root as he was trekking ahead of me with Dobey. It all seemed to happen so fast and one second everything was great and the next thing I know Rob is on the ground, groaning in pain, saying I had to get his pack off of him. My first thought was that he had thrown his back out, after he had just had an incident where his sacrum had popped out of place six days before, but after two chiropractic adjustments that week, he was feeling pretty good. I began to silently panic, thinking something was wrong with his sacrum or his spine. When he told me that it was  his ankle that he had sprained, I was relieved; although, he was in a lot of pain and initially he was letting that really get to him. After several minutes of walking around and breathing, giving the pain time to pass, he was able to continue on. I took over control of Dobey and we found him a stick to use to help support him and give him more balance. Rob had sprained this same ankle just over three weeks earlier on his birthday, and immediately ran a 5k not even an hour later. He has sprained this ankle so many times, and he knows that continuing to move around is usually the best thing for it. By this time, my feet were really starting to hurt, so I was getting to the point where I wanted to make camp sooner than later. We continued on three more miles to Standing Indian Mountain, thinking there might be good campsites there; however, we were disappointed by what was available there, so we continued on another two miles to the Standing Indian Shelter. The campsites here didn’t even come close to comparing to the site we found the night before, but at this point, we were very grateful to have a decent spot to make camp and get some much-needed rest. We set up our tent almost immediately, didn’t attempt to make a fire, and spent just about all evening in the tent, again having a cold MRE…it was Pad Thai this night. It was probably just about 8 PM or slightly after when we fell asleep. We ended up both waking up around 11 PM thinking it could be a long night, but thankfully we were able to pretty easily fall back to sleep. 

Time on trail: ~8:30 AM-5 PM: 8.5 hours; Approximate mileage: 12 miles

Day 3: I think it was about 6 AM or just after when we were awake for the day. We ate our breakfast of banana bread covered with peanut butter in the tent, as it wasn’t quite daylight yet, and went about getting everything together and cleaning ourselves up a bit so that we could get an early start. We headed out of there just before 8 AM, happy and grateful to get an early start. Rob’s ankle was hurting, but it was bearable. It was difficult for him as this was mostly descending terrain at this point, which made the pain worse. But he really did well and was able to keep his normal pace the majority of these last miles. My feet didn’t feel too bad at first after so many hours to be and recover, but after the first hour, they were really starting to bother me again, and I knew it would be rough the remainder of the way. We trekked down just under a mile before reaching Deep Gap, and this is where our time on the A.T. came to an end. We turned right onto Kimsey Creek Trail, which was about 3.7 miles and ended at Standing Indian Campground, not too far from where we had parked our vehicle. This was also somewhat rugged terrain, with a lot of roots and rocks, and there were many ascending as well as descending areas. We were grateful for any and all flat terrain we came across. Even though we were both in pain for most of this home stretch, this was a really pretty area and another beautiful morning! Toward the end of this section, Rob was ahead of me with Dobey at one point…we had just a bit more than two miles to go, and he stumbled across a black, wild hog in the middle of the trail in front of him. Thankfully the hog ran off across the creek into the woods. I didn’t see this one up-close at all, but a few minutes later as we had continued to walk, I happened to glance back and to my left toward the woods and I saw three wild hogs running up the mountainside very quickly! Rob also glanced back and caught a glimpse of them…it’s amazing how such large animals can move so quickly! Rob estimated the one he saw up close to be between 300 and 400 lbs. In many ways, for me, I think the last two miles were probably the most difficult for me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I knew this backpacking trip was coming to an end, but each moment I was brought back to sharp, burning pain in my feet, and in those moments, it seemed like it would never end. At the same time, I also had a sense of satisfaction, being out of my comfort zone for so many hours and miles and using my breath to help me get through the mental and physical challenges I was facing. I felt like I began to realize that I am capable of so much more than I even imagined, that I could stick with the difficulty, and still find a way to be with and in each moment. We came to the campground and end of the trail probably at about 11 AM, and then we had to walk the paved road in the campground for just a bit to get back to our vehicle. So in total, we were just over 48 hours from start to finish. I was very relieved to be back, but I also didn’t want to take off my socks and hiking boots to deal with the reality of my feet, but I did, and the three blisters that had began the day before were much larger and my toes were very painful, but I decided not to make that my focus and take a few moments to really feel the accomplishment, knowing we had overcome difficulties together to finish this part of our trip. 

Day 3: ~8-11:20 AM: 3 h 20 mins.; Approximate mileage: 5 miles

3 Day Totals: Almost 17 hours of hiking time and 25 miles completed

Reflection

Any regrets? No, not really. Would I do it again? Yes, but not any time soon and with some modifications. This trip taught me a lot about myself. It put me up against the edge of what I am able to handle in many ways. And the experience also brought with it some of the most breathtaking views of my entire life! Doing this with Rob is something that I’ll always remember. In many ways, we relied on each other at different times, and overall, we make a great team! The day after we completed this trek, Oct. 1, 2018, we celebrated four years of marriage! I’m very grateful for him and for the life we have created together, and I think this experience was a great way to mark where we are at this point in our lives. 

Two nights of sleeping on Mother Earth and also just so many uninterrupted hours spent in nature also felt very healing for me in many ways, even if the price of being able to do so was tearing up my feet. In many ways, this experience felt like it’s own type of yoga, especially thinking of it like a fast-paced, more intense Vinyasa class. It brought me right up to my edge, and even though I had to take a few breaks and had a few moments where I questioned if I could keep going, I stayed with it. I had to quiet the stories my mind was telling me and utilize my breath to help me continue on and keep moving with each moment, and each night when I rested my body on our beautiful Mother, it felt like a very long, much-needed Savasana. The hiking itself felt like tapas, or the “burning of impurities” that is spoken of in yogic philosophy. By the end of each day, I didn’t have a lot going through my mind. I was able to just be, supported by earth, grateful for moments to feel at ease and to rest, without feeling any need to be entertained or “do” anything. What a gift to give oneself!

A Few Other Notes

We did not use a GPS or any type of navigation device for orientation. We used the signs on the trail, along with the info we had read prior to venturing out. Rob did have his phone with him as well, and he was able to conserve his battery a little better than I was for some reason, even though we had both been using our phones for photos, and he did have one other map he found online that he would look at from time to time to keep an idea of where we were, how far we had gone, and how much longer we had to go. 

As far as water goes, we brought a decent amount along with us. I had a filled 3 L water bladder and Rob had a 2.5 L water bladder that did not run out until the end. But we also each carried two stainless steel 32 oz bottles full that we were able to refill along the way with fresh running water from the recent rain (we did not filter it in any way, but it was moving steadily and was clear and we had no issues). The only other water we had were two additional 32 oz plastic bottles (each of us carried one in our packs) and this is the water we used for our MREs, with just  a little remaining at the end. If you were to complete this trip during a time where it hadn’t recently rained, you would probably be okay as there were other spots to stop for water along the A.T., but we really didn’t see any of those until the second day. 

In my opinion, doing this loop the reverse as we did, or counterclockwise, would have been much more difficult. I think this would especially be the case if you are new or a novice backpacker. The rocks we had to descend the first day would be toward the end of this loop in this case, and would have to be ascended. Overall, I think the terrain that would have to be ascended doing it in this way would be a more challenging ascent than doing it clockwise. 

Should you have any questions about this particular loop or about backpacking, in general, please feel free to reach out to me! Also, enjoy the photos below!

“Mother Earth supports us!” -My Trail Mantra

 

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