Earlier this year I had the opportunity to participate in the 2019 TGO Challenge over in Scotland. But before I left out for the trip, Zpacks contacted me to see if I’d be interested in testing out a prototype of a new design of their sleeping bag. Of course I said YES!! But I wasn’t the first time I’ve tested gear out for Zpacks. Back in 2018 I tested out a prototype of the Vertice rain kilt while I was on my JMT thru-hike and in the Uinta Mountains of Utah as we filmed Highline. That rain kilt made it to production and has been a great option for those who don’t want to wear rain pains, but need more privacy than what the traditional DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabric) rain kilt provides.
When I received the 20 degree sleeping bag for the trip I visually inspected it. I noticed immediately they had introduced a new color, orange. The shade of orange resembles the same shade of orange that the University of Tennessee uses. It’s bright, but not too crazy like a fluorescent orange. Zpacks also told me they are introducing a Azure Blue and a Black. They still offer the Green, but no longer offer Slate Blue.
The next thing about the sleeping bag that captured my eye was the foot box. It looked enormous compared to the flat foot boxes on there older sleeping bags. And when I climbed in it I could definitely tell an obvious difference between the older models and this bag. The new design has more of a rectangular style foot box.
As I continued to research and talk with Zpacks about the sleeping bag I found out about the changes I couldn’t see. And they were big changes as well. They now use DownTek water resistant 950 fill power premium goose down. This is the same goose down that Ben Smith of Goosefeet Gear uses on all his custom down clothing.
Zpacks also fills each baffle with 30% more goose down. Between the extra down and vertical baffles. This helps keep the down from shifting and keeps it where you need it most and help keeps the loft of the down over time.
Now I used this bag on the TGO Challenge as I hiked from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland. Roughly 225 miles over a 14 night period. In addition to the TGO. I also used it in the Smokies a couple of times since. And every time I’ve used the sleeping bag it’s kept me very warm. So warm in fact that I haven’t even had to zip it up yet. I’ve just been using it in quilt mode. Even though we experienced a few night in Scotland that were in the mid to low 20s.
Another thing I noticed while using the sleeping bag was my feet weren’t getting cold like in my older Zpacks sleeping bags. I didn’t need my down socks or had to stuff my down jacket in the foot box just to give my feet extra warmth. It was so nice to have that extra room in the foot box as I flipped side to side as I slept at night.
So what are the specifications on this new design sleeping bag? Well, here you go:
MATERIALS, CONSTRUCTION & FEATURES
• The inner and outer shells are constructed from .59 oz/sqyd 7 denier Ventum Ripstop Nylon.
• There are 4 colors to choose from now. Azure Blue, Orange, Green and Black.
• DownTek 950 fill power premium goose down with a “C6” water repellent to help the down to stay dry 90% longer than untreated down.
• Each compartment is overstuffed with 30% more premium goose down than necessary.
• Vertical baffles keep the down from shifting to the sides. Which keeps the down in place. And they don’t use sewn through seams.
• NEW rectangular foot box has more room, and fits your feet more comfortably when your lying on your side, your stomach, or on your back.
• 3/4 Length Zipper extends to your calves.
• No draft tube is necessary since the zipper is located on the back (underneath you).
• Elastic cord is located around the opening of the bag. It can be cinched tight around your neck to help keep out drafts, or it can be pull the bag up around your ears.
• A flat clip located at the top of the zipper keeps the zipper securely closed.
• A Roll Top Dry Bag is included with the sleeping bag and adds .9 ounces (25.5 grams) to the total listed weight.
• All Zpacks gear has a two year limited warranty against defects in materials or workmanship.
This NEW design is a HUGE improvement to Zpacks line of Sleeping Bags and Quilts. Having more room in the foot box along with a better quality of goose down including more down in each compartment makes this design more comfortable all the way around.
I could move around in my bag without my feet pressing up against the outer walls of the sleeping bag and getting cold. This was my biggest complaint about the older design. In the older design bag there were many times I’d put my down jacket or other clothing in the foot box to give me a little more loft around my feet. I’d also wear my Goosefeet Gear down socks to help keep my feet warm.
But I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this New design sleeping bag that Zpacks has come out with. In my opinion it’s a game changer for them. I honestly feel like they can be competitive with other companies like Enlightened Equipment. And weighing in less than their old design, but still giving you a larger foot box and more down is a HUGE PLUS.
I really don’t have anything negative to say about the bag itself, but I would like to see Zpacks offer up more colors in the future. Having 4 colors is great especially since we use to only have 2 colors to choose from. But adding a few more would be a good idea in my opinion. Maybe add Burgundy, Gray and Yellow to the list of color options. I’d also like to see the Slate Blue be brought back. I really loved that color.
Here’s a link to my video experience/review. If you don’t already follow my YouTube channel be sure to subscribe and click the notification bell so you don’t miss out on any new content.
Zpacks Sleeping Bag – NEW 2019 DESIGN – Gear Review
This past May, I had the opportunity to do my very first international hike. I was completely excited and honored to participate in the 40th annual running of The Great Outdoor Challenge aka TGO Challenge in Scotland. It’s a self-supported, Scottish west coast to east coast backpacking adventure taking you through some of the most remote parts of the Scottish backcountry. Challengers are not allowed to get any assistance such as motor vehicles once they begin the challenge. Camping in the backcountry is a large part of the experience, but if you plan your route out right you can stay in hostels, B&Bs or hotels along the way.
Speaking of routes. Each challenger designs his or hers own route. The route can consist of road walks, established trails and off trail crossing private properties. You can also hike as a team, but no more than 4 members per team. Also challengers have two weeks to complete the challenge and must check in with mission control (TGO Challenge coordinators) as the reach certain points along their routes. This is to insure the safety of all challengers.
This year I was apart of a four person team that involved some names you probably recognize from YouTube, Darwin and Bigfoot. If you don’t already follow these guys then you should. They have a wealth of knowledge and are a huge asset to the backpacking community. The Blackalachian also joined for a good part of the hike.
Our friends over at Zpacks and a couple of their guests were also there and we spent most of the time hiking together in some sort of fashion. Even though we were two groups of four, we all only camped together one night. We all had different hiking speeds and styles so it was a treat to get us all together in one location for any length of time.
Our hike began on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean in the coastal village of Mallaig. A small fishing port on the west coast of the Highlands of Scotland. We had typical Scottish weather for our start, cold and wet. But by the end of the first day that would change for a while.
The weather during the first week was unseasonably warm and dry. At times it felt like I was hiking out west like in Arizona or California. This type of weather definitely made hiking through the peat bogs a little easier. And our route coupled with the great weather gave us a lot of opportunities for great views.
As for our route, we began in Mallaig after we signed the official registry at the West Highland Hotel. We all dropped back down to the banks of the ocean, touched the water and began our journey east.
Our route then took us by Tarbet and along the banks of 310 m (1,017 ft) deep Loch Morar, the deepest Loch in Scotland. The first night a few of us stayed at the Oban Bothy while the others wild camped. Bothys are old abandoned houses that folks can camp in while they are out in the wilderness. Some are maintained while others are not.
The next day we all continued east through a valley as we followed the River Pean. This gave us an opportunity to stop at Glenpean Bothy for a break. We finished our day with a 13 mile road walk along Loch Arkaig and we made camp on a lot along the banks of the Loch. This was the only night that both groups would all be in the same place for camp.
The next day we continued east as we made our way through Achnacarry, Gairlochy and traveled along part of the Great Glen Way on our way towards Fort William. We took a break at Neptune’s Staircase, a series of locks that boats must travel through in order to get into Loch Lochy. Neptune’s Staircwase is located in Banavie which is just outside of Caol. We did our first resupply at a Co-op (a small grocery store chain) in Caol. They had everything we needed to continue our journey east.
We ended our day at the Ben Nevis Inn, located just outside of Fort William. It was more like a hostel type setting with a very nice restaurant and bar. Plus the inn was nestled at the foot of Ben Nevis, the tallest Munro (mountain) in the whole United Kingdom (1,345 metres (4,413 ft) above sea level. That would be on our agenda for the next morning.. Munros are mountains in Scotland with a height over 3,000 feet, and are listed on the Scottish Mountaineering Club official list of Munros.
The next morning we made our climb up Ben Nevis. It was cold, windy and still had plenty snow on top. What an epic summit! On top there was a small structure used to house personnel who would observe the weather on the mountain back in the day. Ben Nevis is a very popular mountain. Once an active volcano that collapsed in on itself. Nearly 125,000 walkers hike up to the summit every year.
After summiting Ben Nevis we continued our journey east through Allt Criche. Along our route were several concrete faced tunnels going back underneath the mountain. ADIT No9,10 and so on are carved in the concrete on the face of each tunnel. Each tunnel had a 24″ pipe coming out of them and the tunnel openings were gated off by iron rod gates. These tunnels were used for drainage and ventilation for a main mining shaft. There’s a gold mine near Fort William that these may or may not be connected to. Either way, very cool find.
Our route then took us through Fersit, along side Allt Cam, Loch Pattack and Loch Ericht. We took a break at the Snack Shack in Dalwhinnie. The food there was absolutely amazing. It was nice to sit down for a while and get a warm good meal.
After our break, it was time to push for a few more miles. We hiked along a river for a bit till we made it to Loch Cuaich. We were planning to camp there and had even set up our tents, but we began experiencing extreme wind gusts which were blowing the tents down. So a few of us decided to push on to a lower elevation just outside Kingussie.
The next morning we pushed on into Kingussie and had breakfast at a little coffee shop called the Sugar Bowl as we waited for the others to catch up. The food was amazing and the owners of the coffee shop were super friendly. While in town we also resupplied at the local Co-op.
Kingussie was the last town we would hit before entering the Cairngorms National Park. It would be one of the most remote areas we would be in during our whole trip. Both Matt Favero aka Details and myself stayed at the Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy. Recently restored it was by far the nicest Bothy we stay at while in Scotland. But the next morning we would make our push through the Cairngorms. The forecast was for weather to move in. So we weren’t sure what to expect.
The next morning as we got up on the plateau we were met with fierce winds and much colder temps. Our plan was to hit the 4 tallest peaks in the Cairngorms, but we could see rain in the distance and chose to take the bad weather route and make our way out of the mountains. But by the time we got back down to the valley the skies were clear and sunny…. go figure.. So we decided to go ahead and push our way in to Braemar and take and extra zero as we waited for the others to catch up.
Braemar was absolutely the most beautiful town we went in. The locals were very friendly and there were plenty of places to eat and grab a few souvenirs. The Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park in Braemar is the home of the oldest running of the Highlands Games. Even the Queen has been know to attend these games.
After the rest of the crew caught up and a few days of R&R in Braemar. We all continued our trek east to Ballater. Another town with opportunities to resupply and get local lodging. But before we made it to Ballater we had one more Munro to summit, Lochnagar. Ranking only 20th tallest Munro, Lochnagar stands at 1,155 meters (3,789′) above sea level.
Our route took us up the western side of the Munro which was steep and treacherous. As we approached the summit, a light rain and low cloud ceiling had moved in which made our visibility very limited. In fact there were several moments I couldn’t see the other guys who were less than 50 yards from me. But once we got to the summit it was time to celebrate. We had earned this one……
After a very brief celebration, we all began a quick descent off Lochnagar and continued our journey to Ballater. Once there we got a room at the Glenaden Hotel and resupplied at the local Co-op. The next morning was gonna be a gonna be a special treat as we would begin our next leg of our route on the DeeSide Way.
The next morning, before leaving town. I purchased a couple pastries to have for breakfast and to carry with me to eat later that day. But these just weren’t any pastries. There were made by Chalmers Bakery which has a Coat of Arms displayed at the business. This means the monarch (Queen Elizabeth II) grants the business to supply the Royal Household with goods or services. This also entitles the business to display the Royal Arms on their packaging and stationery by way of advertising. In short, Chalmers Brakery makes pastries for the Queen and the Royal Family. Now that’s cool!…….. While I was in the shop I also met Pamela Chalmer, the owner of the bakery.
If that wasn’t cool enough we left the beautiful little town of Ballater via the DeeSide Way. It’s a “Rails To Trail” path which runs around 41 miles from Ballater to Aberdeen. We would find ourselves hiking the full length of this trail for the next couple of days. But this day was gonna end on a very wet note. Before we could make it to Banchory. It began to rain very heavily. It would be the only time we would hike in heavy rain though.
Banchory was a nice town with plenty of options for lodging and resupplying. The locals were friendly and inviting. A few of us stayed at a The Stag. A small hostel positioned above a bar much like the Glenaden Hotel that we stayed at in Ballater. We were looking forward to the next morning. It was going to be a little dryer and it would be our last day on trail. But I had no idea what this next section had in store for me. In fact it would change everything for me for the next couple of months.
The next morning we all got back on the DeeSide Way and headed east. Early on that day everything was good. It was just another day on trail. But as we approached the little town of Peterculter I began getting a cramping sensation in my left tibialis anterior muscle. I simply thought I was dehydrated and needed to drink something. We still had eight miles to go to the coast and our final destination.
So after a short break we pushed on. I noticed immediately that something wasn’t right. It hurt with intense pain with every step I made. So I backed way off my speed and limped the rest of the way. The guys noticed something was up and hung back to finish the walk with me so we could all finish together. I can’t even begin to tell you what that meant to me. Details, Bigfoot and Darwin made the decision that they were not gonna finish this epic hike without me and we’re there when it mattered most. Now that is true character.
But after those eight painful miles we all made it to the Lighthouse Girdle Ness. We all walked down to the banks of the North Sea and took our pictures and videos. What a feeling of accomplishment. This felt so different than any other thru-hike. I just walked coast to coast across Scotland, completing my first TGO Challenge and my first ever international hike. Oh, and to add to that I just completed the DeeSide Way as well. Wow!!! Even in immense pain, I was filled with so much joy.
Now since the other guys wouldn’t get there till the next day. We went into Aberdeen and got a hotel room for the night and rejoined the others at the light house the next day for the official group photo and make our way to Montrose to sign the official completion registry. It was great seeing some of the other challengers that we met along the way there and knowing they had a successful completion too. And hanging out for the banquet and hearing all the stories was certainly a treat.
I’d like to thank all the folks who put this amazing event on. From the veters and mission control to all the other volunteers. It was nice knowing if something went wrong, they had my back. So thank you!!!!!! I’ll certainly be back to participate in another challenge again someday.
What an incredible hike.
LET’S BE TOURISTS
Getting to tour all the villages, towns and cities along the way was as much fun as the hike itself. We traveled my plane, trains, buses and automobiles on this trip. Seen amazing sights and architecture. Scotland is stunningly beautiful from coast to coast. Every town and city had something to offer. I made sure to eat local foods like Haggis and drink local beers. We made stops at Dunnottar Castle, The National Wallace Monument, Stirling Castle and more. Every location was filled with beauty and tons on history.
The videos for the TGO Challenge Series are at these links:
To update everyone about the pain I had in my left leg. It ended up being shin splints. I feel there were several elements that contributed to this. 1st- I took my insole out of my left Brooks Caldera due to it floating and bunching up in the shoe when I would cross a stream. 2nd – the DeeSide Way is a very flat and hard surface. And 3rd- I was pushing as hard as I could go without actually running. Those three things combined contributed to my shin splints.
Now since I’ve been back home I’ve made a big change in my footwear, switching to the Altra TIMP 1.5. I’ll go into that detail in another blog post. Ive also started treating my shin splints with some Astym Therapy at my physical therapist Cora Physical Therapy. So far we’ve made great progress and feel I’ll be back to hiking by late July.
I’m starting out this series with the oldest piece of gear that I have…. the ZpacksDuplex tent. In fact I’ve owned 3 of them. I still have my first one that I bought in 2015 that has over 3,000 miles and over 200 nights. It’s still going strong with no rips, tears or holes. In fact I still use it a lot. I also had a 2018 version that I sold to a friend and a 2019 version that I took on my recent TGO Challenge in Scotland.
In 2015 I was getting back into backpacking. Until then my pack weight was on average 45 lbs per hike. All of my gear choices were NOT on the light side, but I began watching a lot of YouTube and found guys like Will “Redbeard” Wood and Chad “Stick” Poindexter. They were at the forefront of the ultralight backpacking gear phenomenon. Or at least they were on my radar then. That’s when I learned about Zpacks. A upcoming ultralight backpacking gear company based out of Melbourne Florida.
I began my research on them and began buying their gear. By 2016 nearly 95% of my gear was made by Zpacks. Tent, sleeping bag, backpack, dry bags and stuff sacks, rain gear and more. I began using this gear in every condition I could think of; sunny, rainy, windy, summer, winter, blizzard like conditions and even in tropical storms. I wanted to know if gear this light could actually hold up. And I wanted to gear I could depend on.
But the gear that took the most pounding by the elements was the Duplex tent. Now what attracted me to the Duplex was the ease of set up and break down, the weight and the amount of room it provides. I also love the adjustability it has. I could set it up higher or lower depending on the conditions present and the desired pitch.
The standard Duplex is made from .51 oz/sqyd Dyneema Composite Fabric other wiser known as DCF. It has a high strength to weight ratio, chemical free & PFC free, waterproof, stretch free, taped seams and easily repaired.
The standard Duplex weights in at 19. 4 ozs (550 grams). With walls and doors built out of the .51 ozs/sqyd for the standard, the .67 oz/sqyd for the camouflage and the .74 ozs/sqrd is used for the Spruce Green models. All floors are made from the 1.0 ozs/sqyd DCF. It’s more puncture resistant and can handle the abuse.
•Vestibule space: 20.75″ (53 cm) depth on each side
•Length: 100″ (254 cm)
•Peak height: 48″ (122 cm)
•Floor width: 45″ (114 cm)
•Floor length: 7.5 feet (2.3 meters)
•Zipper entry height: 36″ (91 cm)
•7″ diameter by 13″ tall (18 cm x 33 cm) / 520 cubic inches (8.5L)
THE LIKES & DISLIKES
LET’S START WITH THE DISLIKES
To be honest there’s a lot of things that I love about this tent, but only two things that I don’t. So let’s talk about the “DISLIKES” first.
For starts I guess my first dislike is the same criticism that everyone else has with a single wall tent….. the condensation. You simply can’t get away from it if you’re using a single wall tent like the Duplex. But the levels of condensation will vary depending on the location, temperature and weather conditions you’re camping in. I typically try to camp under trees, away from balds or meadows, away from streams and I leave two of the four doors open at night so I get a little cross breeze action. Doing all these things can help lessen the amount of condensation inside the tent. Sometimes eliminating it all together.
The other thing I don’t like about this tent is the length. Even with the tent being 100″ (254 cm) and me being 5’9″ (175.26 cm). Once I climb into my sleeping bag the top of the foot box sometimes rubs the end on the Duplex. Now this doesn’t happen all the time, but as I toss and turn in my sleep, I sometimes slide towards on end or the other. Now to be fair, this probably isn’t the tents fault. I use the Thermarest Neo Air and Uberlight. These two sleeping pads are known to slide around a bit…… especially the new Uberlite. But it would be nice if there was just a little more room on each end.
Now you can pitch the Duplex a little higher which can raise the end wall of the tent some. But that also narrows your width some too.
But that’s it. The only two things that I don’t like about the Duplex.
Now there are certainly more likes than dislikes with this tent. After all I have own 3 different versions of the Duplex. Here’s what all I like about the Duplex.
•Lightweight: My camo Duplex weighs in at 20.4 ozs (578.44 grams). Having a two person tent that weighs this little has its huge advantages.
•Material: The DCF Material is easy to repair in the field. Having this ability can save a backpacking trip from becoming a nightmare.
•Waterproof: The DCF is naturally waterproof so you don’t ever have to worry about the material went out like you do with Silnylon.
•Easy To Setup: The Duplex sets up easier than any other tent I’ve ever owned. I can set it up and break it down within a minute. That’s pretty good in situations where you’re have to set up or break down in the rain.
•Durability: Even though the DCF material feels delicate, it can withstand a little abuse. I’ve had my Duplex in extremely high winds, hail storms with falling limbs and debris, I’ve had hickory nuts fall on it and still no damage. But I will also say that I do my very best to not expose it to that kind of stuff if I can help it.
I’ll summarize this article by saying this. I’ve never once regretted purchasing any of my Duplex tents. They have out performed and exceeded my expectations. For me personally I absolutely love the camouflage version. It gives a little more privacy and blends in with the environment really well. And that is a huge plus in my book.
So if you’re consider the Zpacks Duplex, I honestly don’t think you’ll be disappointed… And you back will absolutely love you for it…
Beginning next weekend I’m super excited to announce that I’ll be starting a new series of blog posts called “My Favorite Gear (Likes & Dislikes). I’m making this new series to show everyone my favorite gear and what I like, what I dislike and what I would change to make the gear better for me.
I’ve posted several gear lists before but never really talked about individual pieces of gear in detail. So why not… Every piece of gear I use has been field tested for a minimum of 230 miles. Some of the gear I’ll be reviewing has over 2,000 miles on them. Now that’s a gear test. Some of the gear is prototypes that never made it to production while other prototypes did. I also plan on giving first looks at new gear just now being released on the market.
So be watching for this new series. I believe all you gear heads will certainly be interested in this. Each blog post will contain URL links which will take you to where you can get the gear. Each post will also be accompanied with a video linked to my YouTube channel.
My goal for this series is to give you an up close look at the gear and share with you my experience with that gear.
If you have any comments or suggestions, please feel to send me a message or comment.
I’ve always been interested in my ancestry and heritage. I remember back in my early 20s driving around to graveyards throughout East Tennessee collecting data from tombstones and reading tons of genealogy books and court records. I eventually was able to trace my family history back to the Revolutionary War and find links to Scotland as well.
Many Scottish and Irish immigrants settled in the mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. They chose these Appalachian Mountains cause it reminded them of the Highlands and Cairngorm Mountains they left behind. But the lush green valleys of Tennessee also reminded them of their eastern Scottish farms with the gentle rolling hills and its many streams.
This past summer I had the opportunity to be a hike in Scotland. The Great Outdoor (TGO) Challenge. It’s a self-supported Scottish coast to coast backpacking adventure. Challengers are required to hike from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland, all on foot with no assistance from motorizedvehicles and are required to complete it in under two weeks.
This was an exciting opportunity since my ancestors came from Scotland. I would be walking on the same ground that they once did. I was also excited to see all the old settlements and castles that lace the countryside. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew I’d be seeing historical sites that would predate the 1200 AD. The things I would discover along way would reinforce everything I had learned about my ancestors and how they lived.
As I began my hike across the Scottish countryside. I walked along many settlements, properties and castles. The one thing I noticed immediately was they all built their fences/walls out of stone. You can find a lot of old settlements in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park like this as well. Settlers would build these walls/fences along their property boundaries out of stone they found on the property. Built identically, walls/fences in both Scotland and Tennessee mirror each other as if they were built by the same people.
Another striking similarity was how they lived. Both the Scottish and the Tennessee setters we’re farmers. Raising sheep, goats, chickens and cattle they could provide their own milk, eggs, meat and materials for making clothing. They also worked gardens which would provide the vegetables as well. Nothing went to waist. They found ways to be efficient with what they had. And those same ways and traditions were passed on to their child and grandchildren who immigrated to the Smokies and East Tennessee.
So my trip to Scotland was not only a walk across a beautiful country. It was also a walk to discover the land my ancestors left behind. I am grateful to have been able to walk the same soil they once walked, drink the same water they once drank and see the same views of their beautiful Highlands and Cairngorms Mountains they once looked at.
I recently made a post on my social media about my struggle with PTS (Post Traumatic Stress). In the post I was essentially describing my “bad” days. The days that the weight of the world feels like it’s on my shoulders and I either want to just crawl into a bed and never to reappear till the next season or that I feel like a walking nuclear bomb.
But in the last year I’ve been able to somewhat control my triggers by “cutting them off at the pass” or avoiding things or people that I know will make it worse. Sometimes I can feel the stress building like in a tea pot. For me that’s a huge improvement. I use to not be able to feel that till it was too late. So I honestly feel progress is being made.
A friend of mine Michelle Keller-Adrianse recently made a comment on my social media. She also struggles with PTS and shared how she approaches life. She wrote “one day, one step, one breath and one prayer at a time” Her comment was simple, but it has stuck with me ever since. Could this be a great tool to help me stay focused on the progress? Or help me focus on the “here and now”? It definitely got me thinking.
I’m always trying to figure out ways of becoming a better husband and father, but sometimes it feels like I’ve run out of ideas. You see when I first began experiencing the symptoms of PTS I had no earthly idea what I was dealing with. I just thought I was either pissed, no longer in love, hating my life, feeling down and very agitated. I didn’t realize the monster that was about to reek havoc on not only my life, but my wife and children’s too. I was about to do damage that would take years to undo.
So when my friend commented with the quote the other day it got m thinking again. It was a fresh look at an old problem. Sort of like looking at the same problem, but from a different angle. This has allowed me to try a new approach to my “bad days”. Now to be honest I’ve used this approach before or at least one similar to it. But this time it’s just slightly different.
The “one breath” element wasn’t something new. We’ve all heard the saying “step back and take a deep breath” right? But for what ever reason I had forgotten about this simple “tried and true” method of gathering yourself and calming down. Now to be honest I can’t tell you that this will be my “silver bullet”. I haven’t had a “bad day” since I wrote that social media post, but I can tell you it certainly gives me hope. And HOPE and FAITH is what keeps me going. HOPE for days I no longer have to struggle with the signs and symptoms of PTS. And FAITH in God that He is gonna take care of me until I be symptom free. That He will not leave me or forsaken me.
I wanted to share this with you. I honestly feel like this could help others as it’s helped me.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
The Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) runs from Springer Mt Georgia to the Baxter Creek Trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That’s nearly 290 miles of trail and some road sections.
In 2018 me and my friend Will “”Redbeard” Wood attempted to through hike the BMT, but after both of us became injured we made the decision to call it. We bailed out at the halfway point. It was the single toughest decision I’ve had to make in a long time. But I had been dealing with my injuries since day 1 and I struggled with every step.
But when I got off trail I vowed to return and do the trail in it’s entirety. That would mean redo over 146 miles again. But my goal wasn’t just to hike the trail, I wanted to thru-hike it. There’s something very fulfilling about thru-hiking a trail. Knowing you hiked every step in a single trip.
Plus I get the added benefit of walking off some of my “mental junk”. Stress and all the mental baggage we carry with us throughout life. Not releasing this or decompressing can lead up to unhealthy levels of “mental junk”. Long distance hiking allows me to cope with my PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) and allows me to get rid of my mental junk and function without becoming a monster at home.
Mapping & Planning
Last time I attempted to thru-hike the BMT I was using the green guide book. It was good, but at times hard to figure out which direction to go at certain trail intersections which aren’t marked very well.
So this time I not only used that guide book, but I also used the new BMT Guthook App. It was spot on and very easy to use. The data seemed to be very accurate and detailed. And honestly it was what I used on trail. I used the guide book as part of my planning phase. I would highly recommend both to be used in that manner.
Southern Terminus of the Benton MacKaye Trail on Springer Mountain,
I began my thru-hike on a soggy Sunday morning. My good friend Dewey Slusher gave me a ride down to Springer so I wouldn’t have to leave my truck unattended there. We arrived and took a few photos and I was on my way.
The Georgia section in general was in great shape. There were very few blow downs and the trail was generally well marked, but it could use a little better blazing near intersections.
Toccoa River Suspension Bridge is located 15.1 miles from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, GA
Brawley Mountain Fire Tower locates 33.5 miles from the southern terminus.
Shallowford Rd iron bridge located 38 miles from the southern terminus.
Point of interest in near the Shallowford Rd Iron Bridge is the Iron Bridge Cafe. Located right across the road from the bridge, it offered fresh cooked meals with a southern flair along with snacks, ice cream and soft drinks. There’s also restrooms, water and electrical outlets at this location to use on your visit. Also as I was in the Cohutta Wildlife Management Area, I met another thru-hiker “U-Turn”. He thru-hiked the Pinhoti Trail and then proceeded NOBO on to the Smokies. But while I’m the Cohuttas, I was treated to some trail magic that a friend had left for me. Perfect timing too. I was pushing for miles and was mentally and physicallyspent.
Indian Rock Shelter is located 52.4 miles from the southern terminus. It is the only shelter in the Georgia section of the BMT.
Immediately crossing the Tennessee border you’re greeted with a steep climb with no switchbacks as you make your way up Big Frog Mountain. And to be honest, in my opinion I thought this was the toughest climb I did on the whole trail. But on the way down the mountainI was treated to some trail magic which came at a great time to lift my spirits.
Getting to Thunder Rock Campground makes it all worth it. It’s a great place to either camp or take a break and off load some trash. I spent 10 years on the Ocoee River teaching SwiftwaterRescue for the Tennessee Association of Rescue Squads. It’s where we taught our level 1 class. In that class we taught law enforcement, firefighters, ems and rescue personnel how to effectively and safelyperform rescues in fast moving waters like ones experienced is flooding conditions.
The Little Frog Wilderness is pretty awesome too. Once again knowing you are about to enter the community of Reliance. It’s a great place to send a resupply shipment to and to take a zero. I stayed at Hiwassee Whitewater Co otherwise known as Flip Flop Burgers. They have amazing food, great atmosphere to relax in as well as a bunk house and shower house. Owners Bryan and Michele really make their guest feel right at home.
As you continue your hike north you get to hike along the Hiwassee River. We also taught a level 2 Swiftwater Rescue class on the Hiwassee. And being on the river banks really brought back some great memories.
The North Carolinasection seemed to be a little more remote. I really enjoyed the CiticoWilderness. It was very thick and rugged which reminded me of some of my favorite places in the Smokies. But North Carolina also had some places that were truly epic and a must see.
My campsite at Whigg Meadows was amazing! A grassy bald that offered up a beautiful sunset made for a great ending to my day. And the next morning I was treated to so trail magic at Mud Gap.
The Topaco Lodge is another must stop location. My buddy Sean Kamp met me and treated me to a pizza and beer at the lodge. It was absolutely amazing. The next day I pushed on to the Fontana Village Resort which was anothergreat place to mail a resupply to.
Entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was like going home. It was entering familiarterritory. An area I knew like the back of my hand. Also knowing I was going to be hiking on Lakeshore Trail meant that my elevation change was going to be minor compared to what it had been. It was a great opportunity to put in some big miles without killing myself or my feet. After just 1.5 days I was in Bryon City taking a zero and spending sometime with my friends and sponsorsBryson City Outdoors. Definitely a great place to resupply at and replace any gear that might become damaged along your thru-hike.
Also while in Bryson City I spent some time at Horace Kephart‘s grave. It’s because of his efforts and others like him that we have the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The land was protected and set aside for generations to come.
Other locations to checkout while in Bryson City is the Smoky MountainScenic Railroad, Anthony’s Pizza, Everett’s and the Relax Inn.
Once back on trail I kicked it into high gear and finished the Smokies in 2.25 days. I stayed at Smokemont Campground and at campsite 38 on top of Mount Sterling. The old fire tower gave me a 360 degree view and provided the perfect viewing point for the sunset the last evening and sunrise the last morning on trail.
With only 6 miles to finish my 289.7 mile thru-hike. I woke up early and proceeded down Baxter Creek Trail. While make my descent I ran into a couple of the Smokies Park Rangers Will and Nick. They were out checking trail conditions and picking up trash some irresponsible hikers had left behind. I certainlyappreciate the Rangers and all they do for the park.
once at the bottom my friend Dana Parish met me with coffee and doughnuts!!!! She really loves me and understands what a bearded thru-hiker wants after a long hike…… FOOD!!!
But as much as I was excited to be done, I wasn’tquitefinished……. Yes I finished my thru-hike of the Benton MacKaye Trail, but I had one more thing to do…..
A couple of days after Ifinished my thru-hike, I came back to the trailhead and picked up my friend Chris Smith aka U-Turn. The thru-hiker I met in Georgia. I gave hime a ride to Knoxville where he was able to rent a car and go back home to Florida. I really enjoyed my time with him and glad I was able to help him out the same way as Kristen and Clint from Vegas was able to help me out last year.
After completing my thru-hike of the BMT. I wanted to share my thoughts on this trail. Let you know what I liked and didn’t like about the trail. So here goes…….
Overall, I absolutely love this trail. It was tough and challenging, but then again I was doing low to mid twenties most days. I chose to go north bound simply because with me living about 1.5 hours from the northern terminus, it was sort of like I was hiking home. But this also created a few small issues for me. Number 1, the BMT has very few switchbacks. Therefore the trail usually goes straight up and then straight down the mountains. A lot of these are very steep which gave me very sore ankles. My feet, ankles, knees and achilles were extremely tender and sore the first few days.
I also was not too keen on the road walks, but sometimesthat’s a necessary evil. Only problem spot I ran into was when I got on Boardtown Rd after the Indian Rock shelter in Georgia. I had a few dogs that were a bit aggressive…… as in a pit bull was literally nudging me with his muzzle on my calves to keep me moving down the road. Of courseI didn’t give him any attention and just kept walking……
But I also liked the fact that I live roughly 1.5 to 2 hours from the entire trail. This allowed me to come home a couple of times to take zeros since I was moving so fast and was ahead of schedule.
If I could offer up any suggestions to make this trip any better. I would recommend more blazing at intersections. Some intersections were a little confusing and if it wasn’t for my Guthook App Iprobablywould’ve made a wrong turn. So either more blazing or better signs at intersections (kind of the way the Smokies are).
Last but not least, I really appreciated the communicationbetween me and the Benton MacKaye Trail Association. Anytime I ran into issues or seen areas on the trail that needed immediateattention. They were responsive and got it taken care of. Receiving this kind of response showed me the dedication they have to keeping the trail maintained and free of obstacles so hikers could have the best possibleexperience while hiking the trail. They also did follow ups insuring me those problems were being taken care of. Honestly that impressed me a lot. And made me proud to be a member of the BMT Association. You can become a member too. Here’s how.
You can also stay connected with the BMT Association through theirsocial media.
It’s no secret that the John Muir Trail in California is one of the most scenic trails in the US. It runs 211 miles from Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states to Happy Isles in the Yosemite National Park. It’s so popular that sometimes it’s a challenge to even get a permit for it. Many try each year, but come up empty handed. So when me and my buddy Chad “Stick” Poindexter over at Stick’s Blog started talking about attempting a thru-hike of the JMT I was beyond stoked, but understood the challenge of getting the permits.
During the planning stage of our hike I was pretty busy hiking other trails. So Stick took the lead on all the planning and he did a phenomenal job. He also did an article on his blog about the process of abstaining the permits. Here’s a link to the article, JMT Summer 2018 Permits & Plans.
Getting there was almost as much fun as the hike itself. Stick and I decided to make the nearly 2000 mile drive out there. But this gave us some flexibility and allowed us to do a little sightseeing along the way. We caught a sunrise at the Hoover Dam, went to the Badwater Basin the lowest point in the northern hemisphere. It’s located in Death Valley National Park, we spent the night in Mammoth Lakes and Onion Valley Campground so we could acclimate a bit. We were able to park the car in Lone Pine for a fee and we shared a shuttle with a family from Canada up to Horseshoe Meadow where we spent our final night before we officially began our hike.
The Thru-Hike Begins
We began our thru-hike on July 4th 2018 around 7:30 AM PST at the Cottonwoods Lakes Trailhead at Horseshoe Meadows campground. After only hiking 100 yards and trying to shoot introductory video. I could tell I was already getting short of breath. My East Tennessee lungs weren’t use to the 10,000′ elevation yet.
The trail was like nothing I had ever hiked before. I was captivated by all the beauty around me…… well minus Stick of course.. The rugged granite mountains, the clear blue lakes full of golden trout and the tall redwoods were absolutely amazing. I kept thinking this must be what heaven is like… or at least I hope so.
The weather was great. It was in the mid 50s at night and 70s during the day. We had mostly sunny weather the whole time with the daily obligatory passing thunderstorm. The thunderstorms we pretty fierce though. Lots of cloud to ground lightning and lots of pea size hail. Usually I would set my Zpacks Camo Duplex up when it would start raining. I would eat a little snack then take a short nap. Once the storm passed, I’d pack up and push for a few more miles. This was my daily routine that I’d sometimes repeat several times a day. Lightning is a real danger on the JMT.
Special Locations on the JMT
There are locations along the JMT that are more special than other. Locations that make you not ever want to leave them. I came across a few of those on my thru-hike. They were so beautiful and so majestic that I was in complete amazement that those place existed. Here are the locations along the John Muir Trail that were the most beautiful places in my opinion.
I shot video every single day of my thru-hike. I wanted to capture every thing I could. After all this was my “dream hike”.
I used my GoPro Hero 5 Session to shoot video and my iPhon 8 Plus to shoot stills. The GoPro stability wasn’t great and I destroyed my iPhone just after MTR. So in the end it turned out ok, but next time I go I’ll be using my new Hero 7 and iPhone XS Max.
Here is the link to the JMT NOBO Series on my YouTube channel.
Ramsey Cascades Trail is located just minutes from downtown Gatlinburg, in the Greenbrier area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) on the Tennessee side. This trail has five major things going for it.
(1.) It’s considered the “quieter” side of the Smokies. With it being off the beaten path, most tourists are unaware of its existence. Therefore making this hidden gem less crowded. You still have the day hikers and tourists, but not as bad as Cade’s Cove or Newfound Gap.
(2.) Ramsey Cascades Trail is only 4 miles in length, but plan to hike 8 miles (in and back out). And with an elevation gain of 2,200′, it’s a slight steady climb. The last 3 miles the trail becomes more rugged, but still considered as a moderately difficult hike.
(3.) Ramsey Cascades Trail is home to some of the largest Tulip Popular Trees in the Park. Measured as the largest Tulip Popular trees on the Tennessee side of the Smokies. These majestic trees tower over the surrounding hardwoods. You will find these trees around 3 miles into your hike.
(4.) Ramsey Cascades Trail has a couple unique footlog bridges that make for a beautiful and natural way to cross the stream without looking out of place. These footlog bridges are designed and hand built by park employees. The logs used to make these bridges are recovered from naturally downed trees due to storms or high winds.
(5.) Ramsey Cascades Trail has a destination like no other. Once you get to the end of the 4 mile long trail, you’ll get to one of the most beautiful waterfalls/cascades in the park, Ramsey Cascades. At around 100′ high, Ramsey Cascades is also the tallest waterfall in the park.
Things you should know
When planning your trip, give yourself plenty of time to hike in and hike back out. It takes the typical hiker 5 to 7 hours to hike in and back out to your car. Obviously weather and trail conditions can effect this timing.
Expect to see other hikers. Even though Ramsey Cascades Trail is “off the beaten path”. You will more than likely see day hikers and some tourists. During Spring and Autumn expect to see more people due to the wildflowers and fall colors.
Be sure to wear sturdy footwear and dress appropriately. Weather conditions can change on a moments notice in the Smokies. You can check for weather conditions on the GSMNP Weather website. Current weather forecasts for the park are available by phone at(865) 436-1200 extension 630.
Also check with the GSMNP Temporary Road Closures website during wintery weather since the park does close both main and secondary roads in the park if snow is forecasted. You you can also call (865) 436-1200 to receive updated road conditions and temporary closures.
•Do not attempt to climb to the top of the falls. Several people have been killed trying to do so.
•Pets and bicycles are prohibited on the trail.
•Pets are not allowed on this trail.The only two trails in the park that allow pets are theGatlinburg Trailnear the Sugarlands Visitor Center and theOconaluftee River Trailnear the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Learn more aboutpet restrictionsin the park.