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Based on my choices from a week ago, I nominate myself for "Bonehead of the Year"

Rating: 5 votes, 4.00 average.
Firstly, I did NOT have the worst trail time ever. When my short section hike was over, all I had were insect bites.
These were not mistakes of a careless newbie or lack of planning, prep, or thinking. I have (1) camped and hiked for decades, (2) day-hiked on the AT for years, and (3) done a few over-nights, to ensure I could do okay with just a pack.
Nor was this over-ambition. For my first attempt at true back-packing, I chose a trip of about 45 miles of walking over four days walking and two travel days. I also chose a time of max daylight and predictions of clear weather.
I spent hours researching every aspect, even using Google Earth{R} to look at the roads. I wrote out landmark mileages and printed topo maps.
I'm aware that minimum weight and size are key to success, and thought I'd done so. I bought a new backpacker tent, made a pop-can stove, and reduced my cooking & food to nothing fancy or heavy.

So how did an un-ambitious and well-planned hike end up featuring the worst night of my life? That's where my nomination comes from! If, as you read this, you think "What a maroon!" I won't disagree.

My choice for this hike was based on being close to Philadelphia and accessible to mass transit. Peekskill NY to Pawling NY looked ideal, as both cities are on rail lines for NYC Metro North, and I can easily get between Philly and NYC via Greyhound. Then I noted the Manitou Rail Station just north of Peekskill, less than two miles from not only the trail, but a camp ground for that first night.

And I started just fine. No problem to downtown Philly, to the NYC Port Authority, to Grand Central Terminal, to the correct door to exit at Manitou, to the campground, and to a fine camp site. When I awoke at 5:30 am Tuesday morning after a fine night's sleep, I thought everything was under control. But then I made my first blunder.
It's 12.3 miles to Dennytown Road, my planned stop, and I thought I could manage 1.5 miles per hour and arrive well before dark. Thus, I spent that morning doing a trip to Anthony's Nose, cleaning up camp litter, filtering water at a nearby creek, taking photos to assist later hikers, and properly packing everything. I now wonder if I was just trying to avoid what I had come for: hiking with a backpack. I was stunned when I saw that it was 10:45 when I left camp.
LESSON: Leave camp as soon as daylight permits doing so.
LESSON: Get enough water the night before so that you won't have to waste time doing so in the morning.

When I got to Hiway 9, I knew I wasn't keeping up the planned pace. In addition to other mistakes, I realized (too late, obviously) that I still had too much size and weight in my pack. Most particularly, my sleeping bag was not one for backpacking -- it took up half my pack volume and made it seem I was over-packed. Also, it forced me to store stuff higher than necessary, un-balancing me.
LESSON LEARNED: Buy a summer sleeping bag, since I only backpack in the summer.
LESSON LEARNED: Ditch even more stuff from the pack, which I have since done.

When I got to South Highland Road after sunset, I knew I wouldn't make the next 2.7 miles before I can no longer see the trail. I chose to do something I'd never done: camp outside a designated area. As thirst was catching up with me, I resolved to stop when I first came across water for filtering. At least the rain predicted as possible that afternoon hadn't come.

The trail flattened at a place where I could water gurgling, and I chose the most used and flat area possible as my tent site: the trail itself! Not exactly stealth camping!
I've always been able to set up a tent in pitch dark, and I'm fastidious about keeping stuff in the pack in the same place, every time. I got the water I needed, skipped dinner, and lay down to sleep. At that time I felt good about how well I handled this problem day.

I was so hot and sweaty that I just set up the inside layer of my tent, leaving the rain cover somewhere nearby. **BIG MISTAKE!**

I never sleep very well in a tent, so it was no biggie to be awoken by a jet flying overhead in the middle of the night. While lying there, I then noted double flashes of light in the night sky. I couldn't figure out what they were -- about every minute or so, I'd see a bright flash followed almost immediately by a lesser flash -- but, as I heard nothing with these flashes, I "knew" they couldn't be lightning.

Then I heard the first thunder -- and knew I was in for a rain storm. No problem, right? -- just get the rain cover and put it on top, taking as much stuff inside as you can, and wait it out. But I couldn't find the tent's rain cover! I knew I had placed it SOMEWHERE nearby, but in pitch dark that fact wasn't much help. Use your flashlight, right? -- except I don't carry a flashlight (save weight, never needed one TIL NOW)! Light a match, right? -- exactly what I tried, about fifteen times, and every match either failed to spark, blew out in less than a second, or (and only once) did no good for light. When lighting an alcohol stove that has a wind shield, cheap matches are not a problem. But, when using them as your sole light source to find something in the middle of the night, the free matches I had were not worth what I paid for them.
LESSON LEARNED: Buy a small, light flashlight for emergencies like this.
LESSON LEARNED: Buy a lighting source that, unlike matches, never fails.
IDEA I SHOULD HAVE THOUGHT OF AT THE TIME, BUT DIDN'T: Use your cell phone as a flashlight. Even if you have no service, the display will allow you to see large objects in pitch dark.

Ever several minutes of frantic (but never panicked) attempts to get some light, I finally decided that I should just take my lumps and endure the rain. I was in a thick forest, under an insect shield, in a sleeping bag, and I had a water resistant wind breaker -- so I figured some rain could be endured.
And I was right: SOME rain could be endured, but not the gully washer that hit. I seriously doubt I got a minute of sleep the rest of the night -- which means I got only a couple hours of less than ideal sleep followed by being forced to be wide awake. Not the way I wanted my first night of backpacking to proceed!

When the sun began to lighten the sky the next morning, everything I had was wet if not soaked. My main pack of matches, such as they were, were dry (I have a dry storage container) but my backups were worthless. If the temperature had been much lower after the front came through, or if it was still raining or windy, I would have been in MAJOR danger of hypothermia -- and I knew the danger. Surprisingly, I felt quite warm upon getting up for what I figured would be not the best day of hiking, and began to get ready to go. I wrung out my sleeping bag, emptied the water in the tent, found all my equipment (including the tent rain cover, just a couple feet away), and put on the least wet clothes I had. I knew it was going to be problematic to carry a bunch of wet equipment, both weight-wise and space-wise; but my only answer to "How will I carry all this wet stuff?" was "I'll just carry it."
Fortunately, I also knew I was just over two miles from the Dennytown Road Campground I had planned to reach the previous night. "Two days of backpacking and I'll be one day behind schedule!", was my lament; but what choice did I have? I clearly couldn't hike even as fast as I thought I could, so what change was there to hike much FASTER than I had planned?

As I climbed up the hill that followed by camp "site," I began to think that I had a made a BIG mistake in thinking I could do this A.T. thing -- I just wasn't in the shape or mindset necessary for the task. After years of planning and dreaming and trial hikes and purchases, it seems like my dream was going to end on the morning of Wednesday, 2011 June 29. The combination of physical misery (wet and carrying a too-heavy load) and emotional dumps made these few hours what I hope to remain the low point of my A.T. adventures.

At the top of this hill I found EXACTLY what I was hoping for: a large bald spot of granite, directly in the sun, with a sometimes breeze. For the next three hours, I spread out my equipment either on the granite or hanging from the bushes, and got all of them pretty much dry enough to pack up and carry. I didn't want to spend the afternoon just sitting at a campground just two miles down the hill, so I borrowed a guidebook from the first hiker who passed me by (thank you, again!). I decided to continue on to Pelton Pond Campground in Fahnestock State Park, and did so with no problem. By waking up at the crack of dawn AND getting on the trail as early as possible, the rest of the backpack went without incident -- to the RPH Shelter, to the Morgan Stewart Shelter, to Pawling -- even arriving at the latter in time for the 10:49 am train, exactly as I had planned!

I write this to let people know why I didn't bore them at the shelters with this story, just telling them to look for the above title in a post here at WhiteBlaze.net. I also write to let people know that I am NOT giving up my goal; figuring that, if I can survive this stupidity, I can get through any mistake. As Elton John sings, "I'm Still Standing -- Yeh, yeh, yeh!" And I encourage others to use experiences like this as a learning tool.

To all my fellow backpackers who assisted me, took pity on me, and never added insult to injury -- Thank you!! One day you'll see me at Katahdin!
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  1. Mouser's Avatar
    You don't carry a headlamp???? You crazy!!!
    Hint: If you sleep in shelters, carry a mousetrap!
  2. Tinker's Avatar
    My first overnight hike included a couple of mountains on the AT in NH, setting up the tent (with two other guys) in a swamp right on the trail in a sleet storm, and spending half the next day making it 1.7 miles to the shelter over icy rocks.

    You are not alone!
  3. imscotty's Avatar
    Goldenbear, thank you so much for your excellent post. Success teaches us nothing, only failure teaches. You have done a great service in sharing your story.
  4. Teacher & Snacktime's Avatar
    Out of curiosity....did anyone "second" the nomination?
  5. CedarKeyHiker's Avatar
    This is an absolutely wonderful narrative. I am so glad I found it. A very wise person once told me, "your level of competence is directly proportional to your mistakes." Thank you for your honesty and candor.
  6. The Roaming Gnome's Avatar
    Great story. Glad you made out ok.