GSMNP (New Weather / Road Closure Protocols)

First and foremost I want to thank all of our Great Smoky Mountains National Park employees and volunteers for all of their hard work to keep all of our facilities, trails and roads open.

As someone who absolutely loves our Smokies, and sharing the gander and beauty that these mountains reveal. I spend days and at a time and sometimes weeks in the backcountry of the park. In 2017 I hiked over 2,200 miles in the park and completed 2- GSMNP 900-Milers. If I seen trails in bad shape or something that wasn’t right, I would alert employees and park officials so they could take care of the issues.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had an opportunity to communicate through email with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Management Assistant/Public Affairs Dana Soehn. I wanted to get a better understanding as to why the park was taking such an aggressive stance on road closures during bad weather. So at my request Dana sent me this email explaining why the park is closing roads so much now days. This is the email she sent me.

“Over the last year, our park staff has worked hard to develop protocols for road closures that best protect our visitors, park rangers, and emergency equipment operators. Our goal is to prevent people from traveling on a roadway that, based on forecasts and experience, we expect to become hazardous due to ice, snow, flooding, or falling trees. In order to meet this objective, our park rangers work hard to safely close roads before weather events occur so that we are not not placing visitors or emergency personnel in harm’s way during an active storm event. With our current ranger staffing levels, we are challenged to provide coverage across the parks’ 380 miles of roadways. Rangers perform safety sweeps along the roads to alert visitors to the closures. Depending on how widespread the weather event is expected to be, it can take several hours to safely effect a closure. We are trying to provide more timely notices to visitors by posting messages on our SmokiesRoadsNPS Twitter account about planned closures. Of course, sudden storms still pop up and our rangers respond as efficiently and safely as possible. With well-forecasted storms, we have an opportunity to implement closures in a manner that we feel is safer for all.

We understand that some would prefer that we only close roadways when conditions have left roads impassable. Unfortunately, this practice can unduly put our staff in hazardous situations when they are called to respond to wrecks and stranded motorists. Occasionally, we have implemented closures that became unnecessary when weather events did not materialize. We do work hard to reopen roadways efficiently, but this also takes time with our current staffing levels. We recognize that this is an inconvenience to our visitors and we work hard to balance the risks; however, our position is that we will always place safety first for our visitors and employees. We appreciate this opportunity to share our approach with you.”

I just want to thank Dana for sharing this information with us. It goes a long way to help clear things up and helps give us a little understanding to the parks new protocols. But I’ve also made a couple of suggestions that may help with a couple problems associated with the road closures. I feel there are a couple more things that the park could improve on that would definitely make these road closures less of an inconvenience.

So these 2 issues need to be addressed;

⚫Issue #1: If the park service closes roads or plans to close roads due to weather or a government shut down;
▪ List and post ALL roads and access points that are or will be closed on the website and the Smokies Roads Twitter page. Even the little side roads like Greenbrier, Cataloochie, Cosby Campground and Mt Sterling Road. Any access point to the park that is closed needs to be posted so the public will know.
‎▪ Notify those that have active & current backcountry permits that their access point will be closed via email or by phone. The park has the contact info for the permit holder. This needs to be a standard procedure in bad weather situations. The park service already sends emails to the permit holder advising them of approaching bad weather. Adding road closure information pertaining to the permit holders hike intenary needs to be apart of that system.


When camping in the backcountry, a backcountry permit is required. It costs $4 per person, per campsite/shelter. Currently the park service does not issue refunds on backcountry permits. They only offer to reschedule the permit, but no more than 30 days out. The average person typically can’t take additional days off from work within 30 days, especially week long trips. It’s like planning your vacation, making the reservations, traveling to there just to find out they are closed. Oh, and you don’t get a refund on top of that. They just offer to let you come back within 30 days…….. Who can take off additional time from work in the same month?…. There’s a better way…..

Here’s the a couple of suggested solutions to that issue:

⚫Issue #2: ◾If the park service closes roads due to a weather situation or government shut down, then the park service should offer;
▪ Option #1: Give a full refund to the backcountry permit holder. (It’s NOT the permit holders fault the roads are being closed. Therefore why should the permit holder pay the price and lose out)
‎▪ Option #2: Offer a credit in the backcountry permit holders name. The credit would be good towards future backcountry permits equal to the amount of the current permit. The credit can be good for the length of 6 months to 2 years.

These suggested solutions are small steps in improving the experience and the interactions the public will have with the park. As someone who loves the Smokies and appreciates the park service employees. To stand by and do or say nothing wouldn’t be good for our park or it’s visitors. There is always room for improvement and we can work together to fix things to improve the experience our park visitors have with our beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The level of concern the park has for the safety of it’s visitors and staff can’t be questioned. When you see a park employee or volunteer out, stop and say THANK YOU for all they do for our beautiful park and it’s visitors.

Posted in Great Smoky Moutains National Park, GSMNP, GSMNP 900-Miler, Hiking, National Parks, Winter Backpacking | 2 Comments

DiY Insulated Water Bottles (Winter Water Bottle Setup)

As an avid winter backpacker, I’ve delt with frozen water bottles way too many times to count. I’ve tried everything to prevent it. I’ve slept with the bottles in my sleeping bag, carried them in my jacket while hiking. Nothing really worked the way I was hoping it would.

So I started brain storming on ways to prevent my water bottles from freezing or at least put off the inevitable. After quiet a few trial and errors, I believe I’ve come up with the simplest way to keep my water bottles from freezing or at least not freezing as fast.

I typically care 2- 20 oz Gatorade bottles. I prefer these cause of the wide mouth on the bottles. I can pour my Skratch Labs hydration supplements, BCAA’s or Whey Protein in them pretty easy. I use 1 bottle to mix in and the other bottle I keep pure water in for cooking or simply just to have some nice clean water to drink. I’ve used this 2 bottle system for several years now and I don’t see my beardedself changing anytime soon.

So when I started experimenting with how I could keep my water bottles from freezing. I needed an item that could work with and fit around these bottles. I tried a series of different things like collapsible koozies, Neoprene, styrofoam, and so on..

Finally it hit me one day to try the old school, thick foam koozies. After a few hikes to field test it. I finally found what I was looking for. It worked! But I felt like there was still room for improvement. The cap was completely exposed to the elements which made it the weakest link in my new system. When carrying the bottle up right, water would freeze against the inside of the cap. Therefore either preventing me from opening the cap or once opened there would be a thick frozen layer of ice blocking my access to the liquid water inside my bottle.

Then out of the blue it hit me like a slap across the bearded face. The solution was to take a third thick foam koozie, cut it down till about 1-1/2″ (bottom part). Take this piece and place it in the bottom of the side pocket of the backpack. Making sure to place it with the koozie in the upright position naturally creating a foam cup in the bottom of my side pocket.

Once it’s in place, I put the modified bottle in the side pocket, in the upside down position so the cap of the bottle sits in the cut down koozie in the side pocket. By doing this the bottle is now completely enclosed in the foam.

Now I’ve been testing out this latest version and I have to say it’s been working out very well. To be honest, much better than I originally thought.

If you’re wanting to give this method a shot, you’ll need;

·3- Old School Think Foam Koozies (per each water bottle)

·1- 20 oz Gatorade or Powerade Bottle

These can be picked up at almost any store or online. As for putting it all together, just follow the instructions in the video. It only takes a few minutes to get each bottle set up.

So give it a try and tell me how it works for you..

Posted in DiY Gear, Hiking, Ultralight Backpacking, Uncategorized, Winter Backpacking | 2 Comments

2018 Winter Gear & Clothing List

  1. I never hike in the Fall thru Spring without my Black Rock Down Beanie.

What’s your “Winter” Gear List?……… I’ve been asked this question more than I can count. Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t mind the questions. To be honest, I enjoy talking to people about the gear I carry and what they’re carrying. It’s the best way to learn what’s out there and how well it performs and lasts. Simple “word of mouth” holds more weight than high dollar advertising. 

Photo By: Dewey Slusher

People love to talk about their gear and to telling others about it. They are passionate about the brand’s and most are loyal customers. That’s why a lot of backpacking gear manufacturers put more stock in their customers and their ambassadors. The feedback they receive is awesome and the praise is absolutely priceless. 

Brooks Running Caldera Trail Runners

Having said all of that, there’s no secret that I’m a HUGE fan of Zpacks, Black Rock Gear & Goosefeet Gear. I’ve been using gear from all three companies for at least the last couple of years now. It’s gear I know and trust. 

Black Rock Gear Wooly Beanie

We’re talking about “Winter Backpacking” right?….. You’re one bad decision or gear failure from a life and death struggle while in the backcountry. You must know the gear you are using and trust that it won’t fail and put your life at risk. I know I can trust gear from Zpacks, Goosefeet Gear & Black Rock Gear. It’s been tested and proven. It’s the best fit for me and my cold weather, ultralight backpacking style. And to be open about my affiliation with these companies, I am an ambassador for Goosefeet Gear and Black Rock Gear.

Zpacks Nero Backpack on Mt LeConte, GSMNP

So back to the original question……… What’s my winter gear list?….. 

Here it is. I’ve hyper linked each item so you can see additional information like materials, weights and where you can purchase it at. 

#mybeardedself and my Goosefeet Gear down jacket. Photo By: Jeff Benefield of

2018 Winter Backpacking Gear List


   ◾Shelter System:

    ‎    ▪ Zpacks Camo Duplex Tent

        ▪ Zpacks Carbon Trekking Poles

        ▪ Zpacks Carbon Tent Stakes (2)

        ‎▪ Zpacks Titani… Tent Stakes (6)

   ◾Backpack & Other Gear:

   ‎     ▪ Zpacks Arc Haul Backpack

        ▪ Anker 10000 mAh Battery Pack

        ▪ GoPro Hero 5 Session (2)

        ‎▪ Vargo Outdoors Dig Tool

        ▪ Black Diamond Spot Headlamp


  ◾Base Layers:

  ‎     ‎▪ Injinji Toe Sock Liners

       ▪ Darn Tough Socks

       ▪ ExOfficio 9″ Boxerbriefs

       ▪ Tri-Blend T-shirt

       ‎▪ Outdoor Research PL400 Gloves

       ▪ Patagonia Capilene Mid & Therm.. Weight  Pants & Shirts

       ‎▪ Buff Wool


       ▪Patagonia Capilene Therm Hoody

      ▪ Columbia Silver Ridge Pants

      ‎▪ Black Rock Gear Wooly

      ▪Black Rock Gear Down Foldback Mittens

      ‎▪ Buff Fleece

Outer Layers:

 ‎     ▪ Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacket

      ▪ Zpacks Vertice Rain Pants

      ‎▪ Zpacks Vertice Rain Mittens

      ▪ Zpacks Fleece Hoody

      ▪ Zpacks Trucker Hat

      ▪ Goosefeet Gear Down Jacket

      ▪ Black Rock Gear Down Beanie

      ▪ Synthetic Mittens (By: Tim McCall)

◼ Sleep System:


       ▪ Thermarest Neo Air X Lite

      ‎ ▪ Zpacks 5° Sleeping Bag

       ▪ Goosefeet Gear Down Pants

       ▪ Goosefeet Gear Down Socks

       ▪ Goosefeet Gear Down Hood

◼ Footwear:

       ▪ Brooks Running Caldera’s

       ‎▪ Dirty Girl Gaiters


       ‎▪ Salomon X Ultra Mid 3 GTX Boots

       ▪ Zpacks Vertice Snow Gaiters

       ▪ Kahtoola Microspikes

So,…. What’s missing?

There are a few items that I didn’t list since I don’t carry them that often. Such as my Sawyer Mini water filter. I hardly ever filter my water, especially in the winter. I don’t like having to worry about my filter freezing and I’m very selective of where I get my water though.

Vargo titanium BOT

 Another thing is my cook kit (Vargo Outdoors Titanium BOT Spork and my Soto Micro Regulator Stove). I simply don’t cook that much… if at all. The most I do is usually boil some water for my coffee.  I do want to say though that my cook kit is lightweight and in my opinion the best gear out there, but it something that I just choose to to carry all the time.

Posted in Black Rock Gear, Goosefeet Gear, Hiking, Ultralight Backpacking, Winter Backpacking, Zpacks | 6 Comments

Florida Trail Ocala Section Hike (Dec 8-11, 2017)

Sunrise on the Florida Trail near Hidden Pond

Day 1: Fri. (Dec. 8, 2017) – ~19 miles to Stealth Camp Past Farles Lake

US 441 in downtown Lake City, FL

My beardedself, Chad Poindexter of Stick’s Blog and his son Matthew, Craig Smith and Ben Smith of Goosefeet Gear road down in Craig’s vehicle together the night before our hike. We stopped in Lake City and got a bite to eat then headed on down to Gainesville (Go Gators). We were supposed to camp near the trailhead at Rodman Dam. But since it was raining so hard, we all decided to stay at a Quality Inn for the night.

Quality Inn in Gainesville, FL

The next morning we stopped at a McDonald’s for a very early breakfast( 4:30 am). Then we drove an hour and 10 minutes to meet up with Will Wood of Following Red Beard, Matt Favero, Stephanie Hare, Drew and Triston from Zpacks and Steve Kiaser at the trailhead at Rodman Dam. The plan was to shuttle down to Clearwater Lake to begin our Florida Trail section hike. We planned to hike NOBO 70+ miles in 4 days.

Sign at Clearwater Lake on the

Florida Trail

We hit the trail around 7:30 with cloudy skies and rain in the forecast. There was a cold front that was scheduled to push through the next couple days that would bring near freezing temps to the central Florida area.

#mybeardedself on the

Florida Trail

By 1:pm it was sunny and 80 degrees. And to make it worse, the water sources were less than desirable. Yes, I did filter……. But I raned my water till we made it to our destination (19 miles later) for the night where there was a manual well pump. And man did we take full advantage of that.

The Florida Trail is marked with an ORANGE blaze.

After cameling up and topping off ALL of our water bottles we had dinner and set up camp near by next to a lake. Our campsite looked like a Zpacks tent city. Haha. Nearly every model was on display….

Our campsite “Zpacks City” for the night.

As day turned into night we all settled into our tents and hammocks and prepared to greet the rain and storm which was just on the horizon. As the wind slowly ushered the storm in, we enjoyed the breeze and prepared for what was to come.

Farles Lake on the Florida Trail

Day 2: Sat. (Dec. 9, 2017) – 15 Miles to a Hidden Pond

Matt Favero getting miles in on the

Florida Trail

The next morning I woke to a very wet and cold surprise. I had a small puddle of water in my tent and it was in the low 50s or upper 40s. The wind from the cold front had blown in rain through on of my doors that I left open. It got my sleeping pad and sleeping bag wet. I hung them up to dry once we made it to camp later. We were on the trail by 8:am as Matt and #mybeardedself hiked together for a couple of hours.

Juniper Springs, FL

We took our first brake when nearly everyone caught up with us. When we made it to Juniper Springs we took lunch at the campground store. I bought a sausage, egg & cheese biscuit, chicken sandwich which I heated up in the microwave. The warm meal tasted absolutely delicious. I also bought a Gatorade, chips and an ice cream. The temps didn’t get much warmer during the day so the ice cream made my just a little cooler.

Joe Valesko (owner of Zpacks), Matthew Poindexter (Stick’s son) & #mybeardedself showing the various stages of wear on our Zpacks Hats.

Joe, the owner of Zpacks joined us at Juniper Springs and continued our NOBO hike with us. At least for the rest of the day.
At 3:pm we made it to our campsite at Hidden Pond. It was a short 15 mile day. It was definitely a beautiful campsite surrounded by several little ponds and one big pond. And as the sun set, it got even more beautiful. All I can say in wow!

My Zpacks camo Duplex tent under a live oak tree at Hidden Pond.

Once the sun went down over the horizon so did the temps. It was time for everyone to pull out the down jackets and the BlackRock down beanies. The temps dropped to near freezing that night.

Sunset at Hidden Pond on the

Florida Trail.

Day 3: Sun. (Dec. 10, 2017) – 20 Miles to Stealth Camp begins the 88 Store

Sunrise at Hidden Pond on the

Florida Trail

Little frosty…..

The day began with everyone waking up in “Zpacks City” around 6:am and we were on trail by 7:am. We all woke up to a frosty central Florida. The temps were around 32° as we noticed a layer of frost on everything. A few of us were all wearing our Goosefeet down jackets and BlackRock down beanies.

Cold enough for the BlackRock Gear down beanie.

Me and Matt paired up and left camp at the same time. We pretty much hiked together rest of the day. We walked through many different eco systems. It seemed like every road crossing was a different eco system.

Getting a hitch back to the trail…. #trailmagic

But at one point Matt and mybeardedself took a wrong turn and hiked 1.5 miles down a sandy road. Matt flagged down a local hunter driving by who gave us a ride to the campground we were trying to go to. That’s where we waited on the others to show up to get water, but only Will and Stephanie came over to the campground for water. The others had already passed it up. So Matt and I got back on trail and started catching up to as many as we could.

We ended up catching up with Steve, Drew and Triston. Then we took about an break at Salt Springs Trail Intersection.

The trail sign at Sinking Springs intersection.

From there we were 7 miles from Store 88 (according to a handwriting on the trailsign) where we were going to camp. 2.25 hours later we were at the store. We made it just 15 minutes behind Ben, Craig, Chad and Matthew.

Pizza delivered to us at Store 88 on the Florida Trail

There we called in a pizza and had a few beers. It was more of a roadside bar than anything. But the people were friendly and welcomed us smelly hikers to hang out.
Afterwards we set up camp behind the store down along the trail and prepared our bearded selves for our last day on trail. We were all tired and our bellies were full. These were days hikers dream about.

When at camp, I like to blend in with nature. My Zpacks Camo Duplex tent and

trekking poles

Day 4: Mon. (Dec. 11, 2017) – ~15 Miles to Rodman Dam

Black bear tracks in the sand.

It was the last day and most of us were ready to hit the trail by 7:am. We had 15 miles to get back to the truck and the end of our 70 mile section hike. So a few of us got going while the others broke down their tents and loaded up.

It was a nice and cool (so cold my fingers for numb) start to our day. The sun was up with clear skies. But the temps were slow to warming up as did my fingers.

Spanish moss hanging in all of the trees.

It was a great section of trail, But the section closest to Rodman Dam was incredible. Huge live oak trees with so much spanish moss hanging in them they looked like curtains. It was absolutely breathe taking.
Once we made it through this section I looked up and we were at the trailhead. Done! I couldn’t believe it was already over. Even as I write this I am ready to go back and do more.

Chad Poindexter for Sticksblog checking out the scenery.

My Gear List:

Zpacks Arc Haul (Black on Black)

Zpacks Duplex Tent (Camo)

Zpacks 10° Sleeping Bag (Blue)

Zpacks Carbon Trekking Poles

Zpacks Tent Stakes

Zpacks Food Blast Bag

Zpacks Hat

Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacket (Blue)

Liteflex Silver Umbrella

Goosefeet Gear Down Jacket

Goosefeet Gear Down Socks

BlackRock Gear Down Beanie

BlackRock Gear Dryfit Beanie

Thermarest Neo Air Sleeping Pad

Mogix 10400 mAh Battery Pack

Patagonia Capilene Therm Hoody

Outdoor Research PL150 Gloves

GoPro Hero 5 Sessions

Wiley X Saints Sun Glasses

Brooks Running Caldera’s

Dirty Girl Gaiters

My “one of a kind” (Black on Black) gridstop

Arc Haul.


In summary I would highly recommend this section of the Florida Trail if you’re looking for a 70 ish mile section hike in Florida. With roughly 700 to 800 feet of elevation gain over the 70 mile stretch of trail.

We went through many different eco systems that provided a completely different look and trail conditions. It left me looking forward to what I was about to see as I continued my hike.

The eastern Ocala section of the Florida Trail is absolutely beautiful and a must see.

Posted in Black Rock Gear, Florida Trail, Goosefeet Gear, Hiking, Ultralight Backpacking, Zpacks | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Finally of Epic Proportions(A Great Smoky Mountains National Park Thru-Hike) Week 4 to Finish #fastestgsmnp900miler2

#mybeardedself pointing out a spot to Jeff Benefield of jbensblog 📷 Dewey Slusher

With the first three weeks going about as good as they could possible go with me coming straight off the couch. And with me slowly recovering from rolling my right ankle. I was ready to put those days behind me and focus on getting this hike done.

I was starting to see my mileage increase by week 4 and finally getting my trail legs back. Now that made me happy. I was able to do the miles that I had been doing prier to me getting Planter Fasciitis (PF). Now I still had the PF in my left foot, but leg wise I was able to do the miles I once had done.

The Feet

As for the PF, it hurt every single day. I took lots of ibuprofen to try to dull the pain a little bit and I soaked my feet in the cool mountain streams every chance I got. It was a routine I repeated daily. But when it would rain and the trail would fill with water, it worked as cold therapy which felt amazingly great. It was the only time my feet wouldn’t hurt. So I always looked forward to the days I had rain forecasted which was only about 4 days or so.

During my 43 day hike I didn’t get a single blister, but my feet had to build up since I hadn’t hiked in months. In the beginning I used KT Tape and Mole Skin as a preventive measure. But after about two weeks I was actually able to phase out the Mole Skin and eventually the KT Tape. By week four (4) I was tape free.

I wore a single pair of Brooks Running Caldera’s. I chose to wear a size bigger (size 11 1/2) to compensate for the feet swelling. It was a decision that I mistakingly did not make during my 1st map back during the winter. And this time it would be my saving grace. My feet had plenty of room and were much more comfy than back during the winter when I chose to wear my Brooks Running Cascadia 9’s in size 11. And in case you were wondering, I didnt get a single blister with the Cascadia 9’s back during the winter, but my feet didn’t have as much room then either. By the end of this map, my Caldera’s would have over 1000 miles on them with plenty of life an tred left in them.

The Food I Ate

Zpacks Food Blast Bag

I found #mybeardedself not eating as much as I had thought I would. I also ended up eating more trail mix with peanut M&M’s than I did anything else. But the truth is I simply wasnt that hungry on the trail. But when I would come into town to do laundry and stay overnight with friends, I would eat pizza or burgers and have a beer or chocolate milk. And let’s not forget coffee. But I also would store bananas, apples, almonds and almond butter along with canned chicken in my truck (which I had access to every other day or so. I was also taking vitamins and drinking electrolyte mixes, whey protein shakes and BCAA’s which helped with my daily recovery.

Anthony’s Pizza 📷 By Dewey Slusher

So where were my favorite places to eat? If I was on the North Carolina side I absolutely had to eat at Anthony’s Pizza in Bryson City. I would always get a 14″ pizza, Alfredo base, grilled chicken, broccoli and bacon. My friend Renè Williams got me hooked on it. Every time I was near there and able to, I was going to Anthony’s.

Three Jimmy’s burger & YeeHaw Brewing Eighty 📷 By Dewey Slusher

Now as for the Tennessee side, it has to be Three Jimmy’s in Gatlinburg. Jeremy from YeeHaw Brewing took me there during my last week on the trail. He bought me a burger and fries which was served up with a nice cold YeeHaw Eighty beer. Jeremy interviewed me for their blog and we also talked about me becoming an ambassador for YeeHaw. But from that point on I ate at Three Jimmy’s for the next few days till I finished on that Saturday. And it was there where I had my celebration meal and a celebratory beer which was a YeeHaw Eighty (my favorite).

Yeehaw Eighty

The Gear I Used
· Zpacks (technical support)

Zpacks Nero Backpack on top of Mt LeConte, GSMNP

Nero Backpack

Duplex Tent (Camo)

Trekking Poles

30° Sleeping Bag

Vertice Rain Jacket

Vertice Rain Pants

Food Blast Bag

Tent Stakes

Trucker Hat

Stuff Sacks & Dry Bags

On this map I used a new backpack that I had never used before. I chose to go with a Zpacks Nero Backpack which is a frameless backpack made of the same Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) as my Zpacks Arc Blast and Zero packs were made of. This pack worked perfect. It weighed a mere 10.9 oz and carried comfortably whether I was backpacking or just doing a long day hike. I carried on average 13 lbs in it. My base weight (not including food or water) was around 4 lbs. I honestly love this pack, but after my hike was over I discovered it was rubbing the garmats such as my t-shirts, my Goosefeet Gear down jacket, my Zpacks Vertice rain jacket and my Patagonia capilene thermal weight hoody severly. It had rubbed Vertice abrasion marks into the fabric over the kidneys areas and the upper back. It was the webbing sewn in place for the hipbelt attachment points that was doing the rubbing. When Zpacks sent me this pack it came with a foam cushion pad strapped to the back of the pack. It was held in place with shock cord. I didn’t like this option so I removed it immediately. At the time I had no idea that this was going to be a bad decision and nor did Zpacks. The pad was in place to provide comfort and stability to the pack. After I made the discovery, I contacted Zpacks and made them aware of the problem. They advised me that they would be looking into possibly trying to redesign that better. I’m still using this awesome pack, but this time I’m using it with the foam pad that came with it. #neveraltergear #ultralightbackpacking #teamzpacks #zpacks

· Goosefeet Gear (sponsor)

Goosefeet Gear Down Jacket 📷 By Jeff Benefield

Down Jacket

Down Pants

Down Socks

My Goosefeet Gear down jacket worked perfectly. It was provided to me as part of my sponsorship by Goosefeet Gear. This jacket was perfect for what I needed it for. I sent Ben Smith (owner) my measurements and my specs I chose. When completed, it weighed only 7 oz and was made with 3.5 oz down fill with 900 Fill power of Drytech down. The outer shell was made of Royal Blue 20d and the inner liner was Balck 10d. Once again, being lightweight, warm and durable were my main criteria. Ben met all of those. I also paid Ben to make me a pair of down paints as well. They met the same specs as my jacket except I had them made with an outer shell of Black 20d and an inner liner of 10d. I also used my down socks as well on the cooler nights at camp or at the shelter.

I also want to be clear too. With Goosefeet Gear, BlackRock Gear as with Zpacks and most of the other companies that sponsored me or assisted me. I was a long time customer before I was ever sponsored by them.
· BlackRock Gear (sponsor)

Down Beanie

Foldback Down Mittens

I used my BlackRock Gear down beanie a lot. There were many nights and morning that I absolutely depended on my down beanie to keep my head warm. It was like having a down sleeping bag for my head. And the great thing about this beanie was that it was SUPER lightweight (weighing less than 1 oz), it was compact so that I could just stuff it into my pocket when I didn’t need it and it was made to fit my head (which is a medium-short). I also used my Foldback Mittens a few times to keep my hands warm, but still have access to fingers when I needed to take a photo with my smartphone or check my downloaded park map.

· Brooks Running (not a sponsor)

Calderas Trail Runner

I used my Brooks Running Caldera’s on this hike every single day. They provided great support, soft sole, great traction, breathability and lightweight. I ended up keeping them in for 80 % of my stream crossing which were over 80 crossings. When I got them wet, they would dry out quickly. I wore them several days in heavy rains well. Each time the shoe dried quickly and didn’t do any damage to my feet.

I absolutely fell in love with these shoes which I wear as my everyday shoes (the same pair I hiked in). It has well over 1200 miles on them and counting. Since my hike I also have purchased several pairs of the Caldera’s. It is definitely my go to show now.
· Darn Tough (not a sponsor)

I used a single pair of light cushioned Darn Tough socks. They worked great for me. Last year I completely switched to Darn Tough’s and I haven’t looked back since. Occationally I wear a pair of Injinji toe sock liners to help If my toes start getting hateful with each other. Also, I didn’t get the first blister on this hike or any other hike I’ve been on since I started using Darn Tough’s.

· Patagonia (not a sponsor)

Capilene Thermal Weight Hoody

Capilene Thermal Weight Beanie

I have to be honest here. This is one of my favorite pieces of gear. I picked it up from BackCountry last year and I absolutely love this thing. It weighs only 7 oz and is super warm. I only wish it had a kangaroo pocket then it would be perfect.

· Outdoor Research (not a sponsor)

PL150 Gloves

I used these gloves about 30% of my hike. It honestly didn’t get that cold where I needed anything on my hands, but maybe an hour or so during the morning. And it wasn’t to the point that I needed my BlackRock Gear Foldback Mittens other than at night when I was in camp. But they worked great and did what they were supposed to do.

· Vargo Outdoors (sponsor)

700 ml Titanium BOT pot

Titanium Spork

Titanium Dig Tool

Vargo Outdoors sent me a 700 ml titanium BOT, a titanium Spork and a titanium Dig Tool. They all worked great. I really enjoyed the BOT (weighing 4 oz) a lot more than my old Snow Peak 700 ml titanium pot. I also love that the BOT has a sealable lid so if I need to carry water in it I can. The Dig Tool (weighing under 1 oz) did it’s job. It made digging my “cat holes” easy.

· Katadyn (not a sponsor)

BeFree Water Filter

Now this item gave me problems. I loved the weight (only 2 oz) and the flow rate on this item when it worked, but it didn’t work well for me. I used it maybe 5 time (max) and it clogged up on me twice. And I only filtered clear water so I’m not sure what the issue was. It was a good thing I usually don’t filter water cause this filter was very unreliable for me. I would not recommend this item. I’ll be going back to my Sawyer Squeeze which weighs 3 oz.

· Therm-a-rest

Neo Air X-Lite

I’ve used this sleeping pad for the last couple of years. Its worked very well for me, providing enough comfort to get a great nights rest and the regular size only weighs 12 oz.

I use this pad every single time I go into the backcountry.
· Sea To Summit (not a sponsor)

Aeros Lightweight Air Pillow

I actually used this same pillow for well over a year now. And after using several different types in the past several years I would have to say I like this one the most.

Weighing in at only 2 oz, this pillow is soft and very comfortable.

· Black Diamond (not a sponsor)

2017 Spot Headlamp

This is by far my favorite version of this headlamp by Black Diamond. At 300 lumens, easy to operate and weighing at 3 oz, it’s perfect for what I do. I actually own several of these headlamps. I like them that much.

· Mogix (not a sponsor)

▪ This battery pack is rated at 10,000 mAh and weighs in at 6 oz. I can charge my LG G5 2 times and my GoPro Hero 5 Session 4 times.

Now this pack has a few years of use on it so I’m currently looking to upgrade to an Anker 10,000 mAh soon.
· GoPro (not a sponsor)

Hero 5 Session

I used this camera to document my hike. I shot video everyday while I was on trail. It was lightweight and easy to use.

Memorable Moments

#mybeardedself and my “Beautiful Bride” Ashley

Hiking with my friends and spending Thanksgiving hiking Brushy Mt with my buddy Dewey Slusher will be something I’ll never forget. But the most memorable moment will be hiking with my beautiful bride Ashley the day before I finished which was our anniversary. We hiked 10.3 miles that day and it was Ashley’s biggest mileage day. We were tired afterwards, but she wasn’t too tired to surprise me the next day when she and our friend Dana Parish hiked in 3.5 miles to meet us so they could hike that last few miles with us. That meant the world to me.

Areas Completed

☑ Deep Creek

☑ Cataloochie

☑ Hazel Creek

☑ Balsam Mt

☑ Smokemont

☑ Twentymile

☑ Cases Cove

☑ Cosby

☑ Big Creek

☑ Elkmont

☑ Tremont

☑ Greenbrier

☑ Sugerlands

The first ever “Glow Tunnel”

GSMNP 900-Miler Club

So in summary, I hiked all the open trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the fastest known time….. again. I finished my 2nd map around 9:30 PM at the Old Sugarlands Trailhead at Newfound Gap Rd under the “Glow Tunnel” on Nov. 25, 2017. The hikers wrapped their trekking poles with battery operated Christmas lights. It was an amazing sight. My ending mileage and time was 924.3 miles in 43 days.

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From Coach to Trail (A Great Smoky Mountains National Park Thru-Hike) Start to Week 3 #fastestgsmnp900miler2

1509798922414As most of you know by now, I’m thru-hiking the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. And I’m attempting to set a new fastest time.

Not the Feet!

Back during mid summer, I ended up getting Planters Fasciitis in my left foot. I wanted it to heal up before my hike so I got everyone on board. I was being treated by my doctor Dr. Mike Rothwell at Well-Key Urgent Care, Dr. Alan Lensgraf at West Knox Chiropractic Group, Ryan at Tennessee Sports Medicine Group and my massage therapist Laura McClain. All out of the Knoxville, Tennessee area. Even with all of the professionals on board, it still didn’t heal in time for the start date of my hike. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

1508370116377Leading up to my thru-hike I only did 2 hikes that were no more than about 10 miles each. So I wasn’t sure how my foot was going to do once I started doing 20s each day. I simply just trusted in God that His will would be done out of this hike.

Mission Partners & The Mission..

When doing a hike like this, it requires financial support along with support from friends and family. You need support for shuttles, possibly lodging if you’re not staying in the park and gear. For me I was able to save up enough money throughout this spring and summer to financially take care of my bills at home, but I needed the extra financial support for my hike.

That’s where the sponsorships came into play. But I prefer to call them “Mission Partners”. Because not every company gave the same support. They were made up of companies and private donations. But they all contributed to help me complete my mission and I am forever grateful to them.

So what is the Mission?……. My mission is simple. Thru-Hike the Smokies in the fastest time that I can, be a positive roll model and share the beauty of God’s creation and let His love shine through me.

Here is a list of the Mission Partners for my hike;

Tennessee Beard Co.
Vargo Outdoors
Salazon Chocolate Co.
Black Rock Gear
Goosefeet Gear
Well-Key Urgent Care
West Knox Chiropractic Group
Tristar Adventures
Bradford Beans

Special Assistance & Technical Support By:
Skratch Labs
YeeHaw Brewing

  The Hike Inn
▪ Laurel Park Inn, Maggie Valley, NC

Friends & Family

I also want to thank all of my family and friends who are helping me with shuttles, trail magic, lodging, support, and prayer. I appreciate it more than you know. It’s impossible to do what I’m doing without support. And to have that from the people that most to me is beyond awesome.

I’ve also gotten some support from my church family at Ridge Church in Oak Ridge, TN as well.

The Hike


First sunrise on trail. Day 1. Photo by Dewey Slusher

I began my #fastestgsmnp900miler2 thru-hike on October 14th of this year around 3:am. The first hike was up Alan Cave Trail to Mt LeConte to catch a sunrise. What an awesome way to start this hike.

The first week I decided to do lower miles between 13 and 18. I felt like doing lower miles would give my feet a chance to get use to the work load, seeing that I basically went from the couch to the trail.


100 mile mark celebration… Justin’s Almond Butter & Jelly

While hiking down upper Deep Creek Trail during the first week I rolled my right ankle. It would continue to give me problems for the next week or two. Overall everything is going as expected and planned. On day #6 I passed the 100 mile mark, day #12 I passed 200, day #16 I passed 300 and on day #21 I passed the 400 mile marker. So I’m well on my way to finishing Thanksgiving weekend, the 25th to be exact. I’ll be finishing at the same location as last time, Old Sugerlands Trailhead at Newfound Gap Rd.

It’s the beginning of week number 4 now and the leaves are in their prime. The Smokies are laced with their reds, oranges, and yellow colors. It’s an incredibly beautiful time to be hiking the park. Some colors are so bright that they nearly look neon. And even though the upper elevations got their first snow last week, it didn’t effect the colors on most of the hardwood trees.

The Real Reason I’m Out Here


Hiking up a very wet and foggy Forney Ridge Trail in my Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacket

But being out here is more about reconnecting with God, myself and nature. It’s very peaceful out here. It allows me to think clearly and put everything in its rightful place in my brain.

It’s almost like my brain has a huge desk in it which was covered up with images from the past. Just piled up in a chaotic fashion that need to be filed away properly. Images from my over a decade of service as an volunteer member of a Rescue Squad and Fire Department where I fulfilled roles as EMT, Vehicle Extrication, Rescue Diver, Swiftwater Rescue and more.. It’s kind of funny. I was always calm under high stress situations when I was doing rescue. And now I can’t handle high stress situations. I have to get out of it as quickly as possible. It’s almost like a panic attack, but more extreme. Some say it’s PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from my time in the emergency field. I’m not sure, but I do know that high stress triggers it. And it’s not good when it does.


Little Cataloochie Baptist Church

So….. What do I do when I’m out on the trail? Well I pray a lot, hum tunes of worship music (cause I can’t sing my way out of a bucket), talk to God a lot and simply plan the next few days ahead on my hike. I also take in the beauty around me. I’m surrounded by His creation that He made for me to see and enjoy. I also take a few photos and shoot a little video to preserve those moments and memories.

The Photos


The Giant Popular Tree on Caldwell Fork Trail

A few people have asked me why I’m up posting so many black and white photoson my #fastestgsmnp900miler2 thru-hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. No I’m not doing the black and white photo challenge. No I wasn’t inspired by the black and white challenge. I decided to post most of the pictures on this hike in black and white back in the spring when I made up my mind I was going to do this hike again. Black and white photos to me takes me back in time. They simplify what’s in the photo. I’m not distracted by the color so I can pay attention to the details of the image.


Kephart Shelter on Kephart Prong

I decided to do black and white because it takes me back to the day that Horace Kephart roamed these Smoky Mountains and called them home. It takes me back to do what I would think it would look like if I was there at the time and someone took a picture of captures the true essence of the Smokies. It also reminds me of the gander that Ansel Adams captured Yosemite.

The Progress..

So far I’ve completed the following areas of the park;

☑ Deep Creek
☑ Cataloochie
☑ Hazel Creek
☑ Balsam Mt
☑ Smokemont
◻ Twentymile
◻ Cases Cove
◻ Cosby
◻ Big Creek
◻ Elkmont
◻ Tremont
◻ Greenbrier
◻ Sugerlands

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Art Loeb Trail (Mar. 25-26, 2017)

PicShop-977C13423A983C88CB53E21D92E01703.pngThe Art Loeb Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina has been on my list since last October when I attended a “Mens Gospel Campout” that my good friend Jeremy Puskas aka “Brother Bones” of Bonefire Gear hosts every fall. I had planned on doing the Art Loeb back during the winter. But once my #gsmnp900miler turned into my #fastestgsmnp900miler then that all changed.


The following weekend after I finished my record setting  #fastestgsmnp900miler hike, I had an opportunity to thru hike the Art Loeb Trail with my good friend Tim McCall aka “Titanium Pyro” and his wife Lori. The trail is 30.1 miles long with 17,000 feet of elevation change and crosses 4- 6000 footers.


We decided to hike it SOBO, so we began at the northern terminus located at the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp. The first 6.2 miles is an absolute butt kicker. Yes, I just said it “butt kicker”. This trail is no joke. The rugged and poorly marked trail demands your absolute attention or you’ll hurt yourself or get lost.
We were less than 2 miles in, while attempting to get some water from a stream, I slipped and fell square on my butt getting partially wet. No worries, I didnt get any brain damage. But some how I did manage to hurt my right shoulder, which bothered me for the rest of the day.
Around 1:pm we made it to Shining Rock. A huge out crop of white quartz that glistens like snow in the sunshine. Shining Rock is about 3 stories tall and about 50 yards long piece of white quartz. We climbed to the top of it where we took lunch and had an amazing view. It’s moments like that is what makes hiking all the tough miles worth it.
After lunch we topped off our bottles at the spring near Shining Rock Gap. The spring is located on the left side if the trail. Then we made our way towards the balds.

 Now if you like the Roan Highlands or Mount Rogers and the Grayson Highlands then you will absolutely love the Art Loeb Trail. It crosses Tennent Mt and Black Balsam Knob. Two Rocky balds that provide 360° views. The highest point on the trail is at the summit of Black Balsam Knob which sits at 6295′. One of the most magnificent sunrises I’ve ever seen was from right there last October during the Mens Gospel Campout. Tim and I had climbed up Black Balsam early the one morning and caught the sun rising above the fog which was still sitting on the valley floor. (I’ll add a picture of it).
After a few pictures, Tim, Lori and #mybeardedself headed down the mountain, crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and began making our way towards Pilot mountain.
We got to Deep Gap Shelter where we took a break, topped off our water bottles and got out our head lamps. It was night hiking from that point on. We had to make it to and across Pilot Mt and get down to Gloucester Gap where we were planning to camp. After crossing Pilot Mt and getting to the gap there wasn’t anywhere to set up, but next to the trail within 20 feet of the road. Definitely not my ideal camping location, but beggers can’t be choosy.

The Art Loeb Trail 

After getting a great nights sleep I woke up to the sound of rain hitting the cuben fiber of my camo Zpacks Duplex tent. We got everything packed up and I mentally prepared #mybeardedself to be wet and cold for the rest of our hike. We got started that morning around 8:am in a very steady rain. It didn’t stop till we were roughly 3 miles down the trail. The trail took us by Cedar Rock which is a large granite rock face and one very cool location. Other than Cedar Rock there wasn’t much to look at in this section of trail. Its pretty much a green tunnel. But as I was finishing the last 2 miles of the trail the sun came out. It definitely picked up my spirit and my step. I was ready to wrap this hike up and put this trail in the record books.

#mybeardedself with my good friend Tim McCall. 📷: Lori McCall

The Art Loeb Trail is one of the toughest trails I’ve ever done, but it was one of the most majestic. It is listed as a “Most Difficult” trail and they mean it (for at least the northern half).
Now something to keep in mind if you plan to hike this trail, is you’re required to use a bear canister from where the trail crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway – north. That’s why we started at the northern terminus and headed south to get across the Blue Ridge Parkway before we made camp which was almost the halfway point. Beside your trail map, another great reference to check out as you plan your hike is the website . It’s pretty detailed and has a little history lesson on the Art Loeb as well.
I’d like to thank Tim and Lori McCall for guiding me through the maze of trails and for helping me make this hike happen. They are truly amazing friends and I thank God for putting them in my life.

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