The Wonderland Trail: Field Test for the AT

Perhaps one of the most intimidating factoids about an Appalachian Trail thru hike is the vertical elevation to be ascended (and descended) as you walk the 2189 miles from Springer to Katahdin – 500,000 ft!   As I was planning, for other purposes, a thru hike of Washington State’s iconic Wonderland Trail (WT) I became aware of the statistics for this 95 mile trail that circumnavigates Mt. Rainier and its glaciers – 22,000 vertical feet to be ascended and descended.  When I did the math I found that the AT, at an average of 228 vertical feet per mile and the WT, at 231 vertical feet per mile were almost identical. 

My recent successful thru hike of the WT thus became a field test for my planned 2017 AT thru hike.  Because of the high demand for this trail, the National Park Service issues only a limited number of passes each day and assigns you to specific campsites for each night.  I declared, and obtained a pass good for a 12 day transit of the WT.  This extended time frame afforded me a number of opportunities to test out equipment.  Below, I list the results:

Food

The overwhelming percentage of people with whom I have spoken have told me I should plan to resupply on the AT every 4 to 6 days at a maximum.  Being iconoclastic (or perhaps just stubborn, or dumb) I have focused on being on the trail for much longer between resupply runs.  Thus, although the WT affords you with multiple places for food and equipment caching, I decided to hump all 12 days of food in my pack just to see what it would be like.  The shocking result?  A very heavy pack at the beginning and a very light pack on Day 12.  But, the bottom line – it worked out well, and I don’t plan to change my resupply schedule for the AT where I will average about 8 days between resupply points.  Stubbornness has been reinforced.

Rain Gear

I have read that you should expect rainy weather 25% of the time, or more, on the AT.  I hiked the WT in September this year and had 4 solid days of rain, 4 days of misty foggy weather and 4 sunlit days.  In other words, a typical Pacific Northwest Fall and a great opportunity to spend quality time in the rain and see how I liked it.  I met a number of people on the WT during this time frame who were mumbling about everything in their pack now being completely soaked.  But for me, I learned that my Montbell Versalite rain jacket and pants are outstanding – I stayed bone dry.  However, I neglected to bring gaiters so my socks and shoes got really, really soaked.  Sticking your feet in really cold wet socks and then really cold wet shoes is incredibly miserable.  So, add rain gaiters to my equipment list (despite the added weight and pack volume).  I also learned that setting up and taking down a tent in the rain is not that bad – just relax about it and it turns out okay.  My tent, a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2, kept me and my gear completely dry.

Stove

Is there anything in backpacking that generates more passion than asking someone what kind of stove they favor?  Alcohol enthusiasts consistently get, in my opinion, the brightest gleam in their eyes as they wax eloquent about the advantages of the alcohol stove.  I went with the Jetboil system – decidedly unsexy, heavier and bulkier than alcohol or pocket rockets.  But, I love the jetboil system for its simplicity and the speed with which it deliveres hot water.  I hope the gleam in my eyes is not too distracting.  Full disclosure – for many, many years I used a Svea 123 white gas stove.  But, all good things must eventually come to an end, right?

Backpack

I reluctantly gave up on using “The Beast” – my ultrareliable Gregory Whitney – at 8 lbs EMPTY, I just couldn’t stick with it even though it gave me 10 years of outstanding service on the trail.  I bought the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 4400 Southwest.  At 2.5 lbs I instantly dropped 5.5 lbs which, of course, I immediately squandered on carrying all those extra days of food.  The WT was my first extended trip with it and I had a lot of concerns – would it be comfortable, how would it do in the rain, would it be rugged enough to handle a lot of weight, at 40 lbs fully loaded on Day 1, far beyond the ultralight maximum.  The result?  I loved the pack – comfortable, rugged and up to the Pacific Northwest weather.  Full disclosure compels me to admit that I did use a pack liner and a pack cover but the bottom line is that everything in the pack stayed bone dry through 3 straight days of unrelenting rain.  My one small beef about the pack – the 3 external Dyneema fiber pockets have a total of 1 small weep hole and the pockets cannot be sealed.  So, after a day in the rain, especially without using an external pack cover, the pockets actually accumulate water in the bottom!  This is not cool.

Sleeping Bag

I went light here as well, purchasing a Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag, rated at 32F and coming in at 1 lb 3 oz.  Temps on the WT for my hike got down at night into the mid to upper 30s due to the time of the year and the altitude (some camps are at more than 5000 ft altitude).  The bag worked very well although I did have to wear more clothes to bed than I normally do, even in cold weather.  It weighs hardly anything and in a compression sack looks ridiculously small.  All positive attributes.

Summary

Overall, the WT is a great field test for the AT.  Beyond that, it is, of course, an incredible hike with terrain including temperate rain forests, subalpine forests, alpine meadows, tundra and snow fields.  All with superb views of Mt. Rainier (when it is not raining, of course).

With my major equipment choices now made and field tested under fairly rigorous conditions, I am looking forward to the start of my AT thru hike in 2017.

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