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  1. #1
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    Default Newbie going SOBO: Fording, Flies, Fears

    Hi,
    I've been backpacking before but never for an especially extended period of time. This year I plan to hike the AT. Because of my concerns about increased trail activity (since it was closed last season) and desire to create less impact on the trail, I want to go SOBO. I know that the trail start is challenging in Maine due to the 100-mile wilderness and NH. I am training my body for this. However, my dad is expressing concerns due to his reading about challenging fords and black flies (read on appalaciantrail.org). Is there a way for me to alleviate these fears or should I be reconsidering?

    Thanks,
    Lara
    Last edited by sam1000000; 12-29-2020 at 21:32.

  2. #2
    GoldenBear's Avatar
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    Exclamation A newbie starting in Maine - not recommended

    In view of the fact that you've never done extended backpacking, you should reconsider.
    Maybe start in Harper's Ferry so as to arrive in New England AFTER the black fly season; then, after reaching Katadhin, doing a flip-flop -- either going south from Harper's Ferry or north from Georgia.

  3. #3
    LT '79; AT '73-'14 in sections; Donating Member Kerosene's Avatar
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    Black flies will be a concern until about Independence Day. If you must depart before July, then seriously consider using a full bug-suit plus DEET. I met two young ladies who started in mid-June when I was doing a section hike in New Hampshire in July. Yes, some of the terrain is tough, but the black flies will drive you absolutely batty.

    Late-spring fords can be a challenge due to ice melt and/or spring rains. There are enough of them through Maine that you may very well have to wait a day or two for the water level to drop before attempting a ford. Of course, every year is different, but the later you start (see Black Flies above) the easier the fords will be. By September all but two fords (those just south of Katahdin) were very easy. Once the water level gets above mid-thigh, it can get very tricky (even low, fast water can sweep you off your feet). Unbuckle your hip belt and sternum strap and loosen your shoulder straps in case you need to jettison the pack to stay above water. Ideally you are using trekking poles, which help immensely with balance and "sounding" the depth of the stream in front of you. Do a search for "How to ford a river backpacking" and check out tips.

    The 100-Mile Wilderness is actually pretty straightforward, as long as you're carrying enough food. I went NOBO in 8 days in September 2014, but I could have easily covered that mileage in 6-7 days. If the weather forecast looks decent and you're in good shape (I was in great shape at age 57 with a lot of backpacking experience) then I'd budget for 7 days.

    Southeast Maine and New Hampshire are tough. By the time you get there you should have your "hiking legs", but I would plan to reduce your estimated pace by a full mile-an-hour until your reach Moosilaukee. It's not the steeps (though it is steep) but the footpath and weather that will likely slow you waaaay down. It can take a full day to cover 10-12 miles, although some sections are certainly a bit faster. Once you get through NH, everything else will feel pretty darn straightforward until you have to cover miles on a hot, humid day with little water.

    I'd suggest that you get out and do a few 2-3 night practice trips before you head to Katahdin. Head up to Delaware Water Gap and climb both sides of the river "at pace", then maybe go up to the Catskills and pick a one of the tougher trails (Devil's Path?) to experience the type of poor footing you'll encounter in the Whites.

    If you take care of your feet, avoid pushing the pace when you're starting to tire, stay hydrated and stay on the right side of the cautious-adventurous line most of the time, you'll do fine. If you can't find a StairMaster, then put your pack on and climb the steepest hills in your area several times a week (for NJ, that means hiking a hill multiple times a workout, as there aren't any real mountains!).

    As the father to a daughter, remember that good dads really care about your well-being and safety. Keep his trust by not pushing too hard or taking too many risks (it's not a race!), and perhaps pairing up with a more experienced hiker at some point if that works for both of you. Regardless, get out there and enjoy your hike!
    GA←↕→ME: 1973 to 2014

  4. #4
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    Go for it. Kerosene makes some great points so please read his post a couple of times. My daughter did a SOBO thru in 2012 and started in mid June. She was similar age as you (22 at the time) and as a father I certainly had my concerns as most any parent would. She started out solo but quickly met other hikers and they quickly became a wonderful little trail family.

    Water crossings were a bit of an issue but they were smart about them and on one occasion had to wait a full day before proceeding for levels to drop. The black flies and mosquitoes are inevitable. Bring a head net and find a repellent that works for you.

    As Kerosene mentions, take care of your feet. She didn't and while in the Whites she developed a blister on the ball of her foot and by the time she got to southern Vermont she ended up with a staph infection and had to get off the trail for 2 weeks. (Conditions were such that she was able to rejoin a portion of her trail family in PA and VA.) Keep a clean pair or two of socks and take every opportunity to air out the dogs.

    You've got a good 6 months to get ready both physically and mentally. Get out there and walk and slowly add some weight on your back. Stairmasters are great. Local steep hills are great. A few overnight or 2-3 nights trips will be invaluable to get familiar with your gear. Read books, read blogs & trail journals, watch videos. This White Blaze forum is great so keep visiting and reading. Post your questions and post your gear list when you're ready. (You will get some snarky comments and responses and some that are downright rude but don't take it personally). The vast majority of the folks here are wonderfully helpful and there is so much experience and expertise.

    It will be tough but ..... as they say: "nothing ventured, nothing gained" My daughter had such a wonderful experience made up of good times as well as the tough ones. Countless memories and some friends she will be close to for a lifetime. Best of luck and keep us posted with the progress as you move forward.

  5. #5

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    Hi Lara.
    Yes there are bugs, long sleeves, a headnet, DEET, sleep in a tent and you're fine.
    The spring runoffs from snow melt are over by June. Your first ford in the 100 will be just a rock-hop at Hurd Brook.
    This may help: The 2021 SoBo’s Guide to Baxter and Katahdin
    Teej

    "[ATers] represent three percent of our use and about twenty percent of our effort," retired Baxter Park Director Jensen Bissell.

  6. #6
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    Issues at fords are usually only heavy rain related buy June. Late April/early May when the snowpack if melting is a different story. Mud on the other hand will be present and the 100 mile wilderness has some low land sections on the east end that can be muddy. Black flies are annoying and you need to manage them. Dont plan on sleeping in shelters as the black flies/mosquitoes can make it miserable without a bug net. Most folks carry at least a bug net to go over hat and some wear a bug suit. The days the bugs will be that bad will happen but not all the time. If you have folks who want to help start working on your Yogi and see if someone will spring for a resupply in the 100 mile wilderness. its not essential but real nice for SOBOS. there are couple of firms in Monson who do them (for a fee).

    A general comment about bug repellent, there is DEET and then everything else which are inevitably ineffective or short duration. Many people douse themselves with any repellent, Deet is best applied sparingly. 100% Deet sounds like a winner but must tests indicate that 50% is all that is needed. The US military used 3M Ultrathon lotion repellent for many years and its 34% Deet with some other additives to make it last longer. It is far less destructive to plastic and nylon but harder to find (buy before you head up).

    The big thing to do is pick a cold wet nasty day and night and go out and camp. The nastier the better. Rework your gear and do it again until you feel comfortable and then do it over a weekend. Repeat as needed until you get your gear sorted out. Include some hiking in the rain all day and then camping.

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    We sectioned the AT over several years. Most of our trips to the New England states were in the late summer or early fall (August/September). One exception is that we did the Whites in early July. One advantage to section-hiking is that you can choose the best time of year for each area. Since you're doing a thru, I'd recommend one of the ATC's alternate itineraries. My favorite is the one they call Cool Breeze.

    The point is to ENJOY your hike, not just ENDURE it.

  8. #8

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    Here are the ATC suggested flip flop hikes.

    https://appalachiantrail.org/explore...ing/flip-flop/

  9. #9
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    As one who hiked SOBO without any prior backpacking trips over 10 miles or so (spread over 2 or 3 days) at the age of 23, I would highly recommend it.

    With headnets, thin cotton gloves, ball cap, deet and a proper tent, I expect you and your dad will do just fine wrt bugs.

    When you make it to Monson, my guess is that meeting the special challenge of going SOBO will have cemented a mutual respect and sense of accomplishment that will serve you both well for the entire trip.

    What a remarkable opportunity, regardless of itinerary though.

    I wish you and your Dad every luck in overcoming any stumbling blocks between now and then, and on the Trail.

  10. #10

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    DEET does nothing for me. The odor annoys me more then it seems to annoy the bugs.

    Sure you might swell up after they bite (some people are really allergic to them) but after a dozen bites or so (in the first hour) you build up an immunity in a few days. The main issue is they can overwhelm you with shear numbers. I can not hike with a head net, too hot and reduces visibility. You just have to keep moving - and have a net handy for when you do take a break. If the flies are bad, about a million will follow you into camp. The way to deal with that is to make a small, smokie fire with damp leaves. Smoke the little blood suckers out.

    Long sleeve shirt and pants are a must. Cover up as much as possible. There is always the sanctuary of your tent. Though it takes a while to find and kill all the ones which follow you in. I once had a pretty big pile by the time I was done.

    Anyway, it seems that with the changing weather patterns, the Black Flies aren't as bad these days as they once were, at least at the time people are starting to be out hiking. And it can be quite localized. Personally, I find the little tiny forest mosquitos to be much more annoying when their out. At least Black Flies have the decency to go to bed after dark.

    Fording streams : DO NOT DO IT BAREFOOT. I have broken toe to illustrate the point. BTW, that water will be cold, about 40 degrees.

    It's hard to get exact numbers, but SOBO hikers have a high attrition rate, many not making it out of the 100 mile wilderness. OTOH, those that do make it through Maine seem to have a high completion rate.

    Lot to be said for a traditional April 15th NOBO. Pleasant weather for the most part, lots of wild flowers, lots of companions. On a SOBO hike, you meet a lot of people, but you don't get to know any of them. On a NOBO hike, you don't meet as many people, but the ones you do meet you get to know pretty well.

    In any event, either way you go is an adventure.
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  11. #11

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    I can’t speak to its effectiveness vs black flies, but I found the Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus pretty good vs mosquitoes in PA last summer. And the smell is kind of nice. And it has weirdly warm cooling effect, at least to me. It does require some frequency of application, every couple of hours or so.

  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by peakbagger View Post
    . . . A general comment about bug repellent, there is DEET and then everything else which are inevitably ineffective or short duration. Many people douse themselves with any repellent, Deet is best applied sparingly. 100% Deet sounds like a winner but must tests indicate that 50% is all that is needed. The US military used 3M Ultrathon lotion repellent for many years and its 34% Deet with some other additives to make it last longer. It is far less destructive to plastic and nylon but harder to find (buy before you head up).
    Inre black flies and mosquitos: The good news on black flies is that the swarms tend to be localized, they don't fly well in the wind/breeze, and they aren't out after dark. The bad news is that when they do swarm there can be hundreds, maybe more (not kidding) of them getting at you all at once. They will get in your eyes, ears, nose - EVERYWHERE. Of course, they are replaced by the mosquitos when the sun goes down. Dusk tends to be the worst time of day as you'll have both trying to feast on you. Some people are extremely allergic to black fly bites and infections can happen as well from scratching. Google some pictures. Nasty buggers. Long pants, long sleeve shirt, hat, head net is a MUST. They will still sometimes get in at clothing seams like around collar, cuffs, waist/belt, ankles/socks, etc., and around your neck/hairline so make sure you are sealed up as much as possible in your permethrin treated clothing.


    Unfortunately IMO, the BEST repellent for black flies is no longer available. I still have a big bottle of Sawyer Broad Spectrum repellent, which was approx. 25% DEET, MGK R-326 fly repellent (pyrethoids), and MGK 264 synergist (piperonyl butoxide), that I bought before they stopped manufacturing and distributing it in the US around 2008 or so (carcinogen according to CA and US EPA). It was also sold by REI as "Jungle Juice". I won't debate the ban, but honestly I'd still use it if I needed, as similar stuff is still used routinely on dogs, horses, and most other mammals (amazingly, as a fly repellent) with no issues. 8~\ If you can find some old stock, well, consider it an option.

    The big thing to do is pick a cold wet nasty day and night and go out and camp. The nastier the better. Rework your gear and do it again until you feel comfortable and then do it over a weekend. Repeat as needed until you get your gear sorted out. Include some hiking in the rain all day and then camping.
    ^^^THIS^^^
    Practice and be competent at woodcraft - making and breaking camp, operating your stove, cooking, etc., in wind and rain BEFORE starting a thru-hike. You don't have to be an polished expert, but the first night on the trail on a rainy night is neither a good nor enjoyable place to learn.
    Last edited by 4eyedbuzzard; 12-31-2020 at 17:34.
    I was self employed once, but it proved too stressful. My boss was a jerk and my employee was a slacker - I didn't know whether to quit or fire myself.

  13. #13
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    Looks like everything is covered, but one thing i noticed nobody mentioned is get a hat with a brim all the way around and buy or make a bugnet big enough to cover the hat and to tuck into your long sleeve shirt collar. Black flies will bite through the bugnet if its up against your skin especially around the hairline and back of your ears. One other weird fact black flies love love summits.

    go easy and enjoy eating the desert first!

  14. #14

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    I agree with most everything already stated above, but I'll throw in my two cents.

    The first time I started SOBO was in 1998 on June 1st. The Black Flies quite literally drove me mad, and the tops of my ears were raw. I did not take a head net or use DEET. There were other SOBOs so I quickly made friends. It was easier being miserable with a group. :-)

    The next time I went SOBO was in 2013. This time I started the first of August. There were no blackflies and the weather was pretty amazing! Chasing Fall was also pretty great. I made sure I was in shape, so I could try and beat the bitter cold of Winter. I was doing higher mileage - 17-20 out of the gate. I had also backpacked a good bit by this point so I knew what I was and was not cable of doing as far as miles. I also knew my gear quite well. There were fewer SOBO's but I still met people, although usually only for a day or two before moving on.

    I've hiked in both directions and prefer SOBO, primarily because I like a quieter experience at this point in my life. If it was my first hike I would probably go NOBO. NOBO is a more social experience, and sharing the experiences, learnings, etc., when just starting out long-distance hiking, make that first hike easier.

    As far as water crossings, I don't consider AT crossings difficult and you have a canoe for the Kennebec. This is a relative statement though since I've done some pretty gnarly water crossings out west. Take your time and cross with others if possible.

    I like to hike in shorts in three seasons if it is above freezing, and only wear rain pants if absolutely necessary. Because bugs love me, and because I don't like pants, I use DEET. It's never caused me any physical problems, but I still pause when it eats my gear :-).

    My only other comment is on my family. They always worry, but I now include them on my hikes. I use a Garmin InReach. It tracks my progress on maps, and my Dad LOVES to log in and follow my journey. It also provides him peace of mind.

    Whichever way you go, have a fantastic trip! The hike will impact you and provide memories for a lifetime.

  15. #15
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    The black flies and mosquitos in Maine can be horrendous for early SOBOs. I started on June 5th 2019 and they were so bad that we all had to keep our headnets on unless we were in our tents. Long sleeves and pants are an absolute must. I have a video of me sitting at a logging road in the 100 mile for a snack break (which by the way, you have to sneak bites under your headnet) and there are hundreds of mosquitos in the video flying around my head. One guy I was with had short sleeves, even with Deet, he got so bit up his arm was red and swollen. Picaridin lotion worked wonders though.

    Fords are hit and miss. There were people who left literally days before me who said the water crossings where high and scary. A week prior to that, one was impassable. But when I went, they were all fine.

    If you're not experienced, but still want less crowds, I suggest leaving in July. Maybe after the 4th. Less bugs (unless it was as bad as 2019, they lasted until August) and normal water crossings.

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    Thank you, everyone! You've all given me much more confidence and thoughts on gear. I already own a bug net for my head (I was an ecology major and had to deal with a week of nasty shore mosquitoes in south jersey) but I'm eyeing up some exofficio treated clothing. I'm thinking I'll leave mid-June. I also purchased a spot device as a Christmas present for my parents haha Once I have my hammock I'll probably go out on some grizzly days to test things out.

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