From Rescuer To Rescued (PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) in First Responders)

View of Clingman’s Dome from Alum Cave Trail in GSMNP

The subject of PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) in the emergency service field is something I’ve felt like I’ve needed to write about for a while now, but never knew what exactly to say. And to be honest, I’ve actually been running from it like the plague. Why?… Because it hits a little too close to home for me. And well let’s face it. By writing about it requires me to possibly have to revisit some memories that are painful and horrifying.

Benny Braden: 1st Lieutenant, Rescue Diver, EMT, Swiftwater Rescue Instructor, Vehicle Extrication Instructor, Water Rescue Team Leader and more…. 📷: Roane Co. Rescue Squad in Harriman, TN[[[[[[[[[[[[
You see I was in the fire, emergency and rescue fields combined for a little over a decade. I’ve been a first responder, EMT, volunteer firefighter, rescue diver, swiftwater rescue instructor, water rescue team leader, vehicle extrication and EVOC instructor, first lieutenant and more.

If the alarm went off, I went. No matter where I was or what I was doing. One year I served over 2000 volunteer hours. That was on top of my normal day job. I sacrificed my time, my family’s time and my body. But little did I know then I was sacrificing my mental health too.

Some days we wouldn’t have many calls, but on other days it was nonstop. I will spare you of the details because I don’t want to put images in your head. But I will say I’ve see a person die nearly every way someone can. Those images stay with me day and night, 24 hours a day.

When I did that work I tried to block it out after the call. And initially it worked, but there comes a time that you see too much. So much that attempting to block it out no longer works. And back then we didn’t routinely practice debriefings. When the call was over, we would go home or go do the next call. It was never discussed of talked about.

I didn’t start noticing something was wrong till three years after I left the emergency services. I started battling depression that grew pretty severe. I was put on medication to help with the depression, but it still didn’t hit me that something was wrong. All the warning signs were there, but I wasn’t paying attention.

My Beautiful Bride Ashley’s first hike to LeConte Lodge in the GSMNP

After a couple failed marriages and relationships. Four years later I married my beautiful bride. She and her two beautiful daughters moved in. We began remodeling on our house. Adding more space for everyone. At the same time my brother passed away due to long term use of narcotics. And it wasn’t long then that we adopted my two nieces. Making my family of two (me and my son) into a family of seven.

It wasn’t till then that I became a monster. The high stresses of remodeling a house mixed with getting to know new people that were not only living with me, but also depending on me was overwhelming. It was triggering anxiety attacks. It seemed as if we were fighting all the time and it was getting worse by the day. Put all of that on top of the hidden wounds from the years of emergency service. It was then that I started experiencing the severe anxiety attacks.

After a few years of dealing with depression and anxiety attacks which made life an absolute living hell. I rediscovered hiking again. I use to hike a lot when I was younger, but slowly gravitated away from it. But this time I was backpacking. Loading everything on my back and going into the woods for days.

Sunset from the Cliff Tops on Mt LeConte. 📷 Dewey Slusher

I began to do longer hikes. Instead of being out for days, I was staying out longer. It was then that I began to notice something. I was starting to feel different afterwards. I was less stressed. I could handle the high stress without becoming a monster. The anxiety attacks and depression seemed to lessen. My beautiful bride began see the results which opened up opportunities for us to talk about what was going on.

The best way I can describe it is this way. It’s like I have a huge desk in my head and it’s a complete mess with piles of images of things I’ve seen and done. When I’m out on the trail it’s like I can pull one of the images out of the pile, pray about it, make some sense of it and then file it way where it belongs. This requires lots of pray and sometimes painfully revisiting those moments or events, but the end result is that I’m able to finally have peace from a memory that has haunted me for over a decade.

Sunrise from Max Patch, NC

Honestly, that is why I hike so much. It brings me peace and helps me come to terms with my past. It also gives me that one on one time with my Creator. I give God all the glory for revealing this to me and helping me slowly overcome this. Now my battle with PTS is far from over, but I now have a coping mechanism to help me deal with it. The down side to being gone so much is the loss of time with my beautiful bride and kids. But the time we now have together is quality time. More time is spent laughing, loving and enjoying each other’s company. Instead of everyone having to walk on egg shells, worried about setting me off and sending me into another anxiety attack.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will be ran monthly here on Plug-it In Hikes blog. I will have guest bloggers who were once or currently in the EMS, fire, rescue or law enforcement field sharing their story about their battle with PTS and how they are coping with it. My hope is that these posts will help someone who is also dealing with PTS. As you can see I refuse to call it PTSD. Let’s drop the D (disorder). No one wants to be labled with having a disorder. In the meantime keep my beardedself and the other future bloggers in your prayers.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” Isaiah 6:8 NIV

Benton MacKaye Trail – Georgia Section (2/28/2018-3/4/2018)

The planning…….

Here in the southeastern United States we are blessed with so many outstanding trails and trail systems. Some are just a few miles to a couple hundred miles long and others are a little over 1100 miles long. With trails and trail systems like the Art Loeb, Fiery Gizzard, Foothills, Sheltowee Trace, Cumberland, Florida, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Benton McKaye just to name a few. And you can’t forget the grand daddy of them all, the Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus is in Georgia.

Me and my good friend Will “Red Beard” Wood from Zpacks had been planning to thru-hike the 286 mile long Benton McKaye Trail (BMT) for a few months now. And in the end, we settled on a late February/early March hike. We felt like that would be a great time of year to do the hike. So we decided to start on 2/28 and go North Bound (NOBO).

Back in December I picked each of us up a BMT guide book from a local outfitter and started planning my daily mileages and food drops.

Our initial plan was to do the 286 miles long hike in 18 days. We had also decided to do just 2 food drops, one in Reliance at Hiawassee Whitewater Co. aka Flip Flop Burgers and then at Fontana Village. We also planned to stay at each place.

But I also chose to drop two days worth of food at the bear bin at Smokemont Campground. I checked with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) Backcountry office if it was ok.. and it was. I also went on ahead and reserved our campsites in GSMNP. They don’t have a thru-hiker permit for the BMT like they do for the Appalachian Trail (AT). So you need to reserve your campsites in advance, but not more than 30 days out. That’s the earliest you can reserve them.

The Gear..

When selecting my gear, I wanted to try some things that I hadn’t tried before since it was just a 286 mile long hike. I also was using this hike as a “shakedown” hike for the 220 mile John Muir Trail (JMT) that I’ll be doing in July with my buddy Chad “Stick” Poindexter of Stick’s Blog. I was also using this hike to prep for the 272 mile Long Trail in Vermont in June with my buddies Matt Favero and Will Wood from Zpacks.

I got my Zpacks “black on black” grid stop Arc Haul Backpack out. It’s a one of a kind pack that my buddy Will used for a year or so. It had about 300 to 500 miles on it when I got it. I stitched up a couple of rips in the back mesh pocket. I’ve since put 72 miles on it from our Florida Trail hike back in December. This was going to be a true real test for this pack though. How would it hold up, carry and would it keep my stuff dry.

I decided to NOT bring my umbrella on this trip and instead rely souly on my Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacketand Pants. It was going to be a big risk especially since they were forecasting heavy rain the first two days. I also chose NOT to bring a pack towel… Those decisions would come back to haunt me later..

Here is a run down of the gear I started out with for this hike.

What’s in my Zpacks Arc Haul Backpack?….

·Zpacks carbon fiber trekking poles
·Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacket & Pants
·Zpacks Duplex Tent camo (2018)
·Zpacks titanium & CF tent Stakes
·Zpacks Vertice Tall Gaiters
·Zpacks 5°F Sleeping bag (2018)
·Zpacks Challenger Rain Mittens
·Zpacks Dry Bags & Stuff Sacks
·Zpacks DCF Multi-Pack (black)
·Thermarest Neo Air Sleeping Pad
·Sea To Summit Air Pillow
·Goosefeet Gear 8d Down Socks
·Goosefeet Gear 8d Down Hood
·Goosefeet Gear 8d Down Hand Muff
·Goosefeet Gear Down Jacket
·Black Rock Gear Skully Beanie
·Black Rock Gear Down Beanie
·Black Rock Gear Foldback Mittens
·Homemade synthetic mittens
·Patagonia Thermal Bottoms
·Outdoor Research PL 400 Gloves
·Vargo 450 ml titanium mug
·Ultra Pod
·GoPro Hero 5 Session
·Anker 13,000 mAh battery pack
·Darn Tough 1/4 Socks
·Exfficio 9″ Give & Go Boxer Briefs

What I wore hiking…

·Zpacks Trucker Hat
·Zpacks T-Shirt
·Columbia Silver Ridge Pants
·Columbia Silver Ridge Button Shirt
·Exfficio 9″ Give and Go Boxer Breifs
·Injinj Toe Sock Liners
·Darn Tough No Show Socks
·Brooks Caldera Trail Runners
·Patagonia Thermal Hoody

The Hike….

Since Will and I had decided to go NOBO. He met me at the trails northern terminus at Big Creek in GSMNP to drop his vehicle off. We loaded all the gear up in my truck and headed south to Springer Mt. But on our way we made a quick stop at Smokemont to drop my food box off and in Franklin to pick up some stove fuel Will was needing.

We finally made it to Springer around 4 PM where Will’s dad and brother was waiting on us. His dad was going to take my truck to his house instead of leaving it on top of the mountain unattended.

Will and I had talked it over and had decided to stay at the Springer Mt Shelter that night and get a fresh start the next morning. When we got to the shelter there were two AT thru-hikers there. So we spent the evening getting to know them and shared a few beers we packed in.

Day 1 / Feb. 28, 2018
Mile 0 (Georgia Monsoon)

When I woke up and heard the rain hitting the metal roof of the Springer Mountain shelter, I knew then it was going to be a wet day. I just didn’t realize how bad that was actually going to be. We only had 14.8 miles to do that day, but it was going to be done in heavy rain and it didn’t let up. Lunch and breaks were out of the question. There wasn’t a dry place to be found. I had also rolled my left ankle about 4 different times through out the day. By the final 2 hours of hiking that day, I was getting leg cramps bad. I had only drank 60 ozs of water. I hadn’t used any of my Skratch Labs hydration supplements yet….. Which I know would have completely prevented that. I contributed the leg cramps to me being on a new medication for my Type 2 Diabetes that I was diagnosed with just the day before I got on the trail. But after 6 hours of hiking in the heaviest rain imaginable, we finally made to to our campsite which was at the Toccoa Bridge.

We were both soaked to the bone. Our rain suits had wetted out, which I was very surprised. But mine did have a lot of miles on it. It had worked perfectly in the many rains storms in the Smokies I was in during my #fastestgsmnp900miler2 hike. But what I didn’t realize is that after a while, you need to reapply the DWR coating on the fabric….. I’ll not make that mistake twice.

We set up our tents as quickly as we could, being mindful not to set up too close to the river. With all the rain we had gotten, we were certain it would be rising out of its banks by morning.

With all cloths and gear piled up in the corner, I crawled into my dry slepping bag and went to sleep without eating. I was both physically and mentally exhausted.

I woke up during the night to the sound of heavy rain hitting the DCF material of my tent. I was thirsty and wanted to get a drink of water, but I realized I had drunk all of my water earlier. So I grabbed my Vargo Outdoors Titanium mug and a couple of YeeHaw Brewing cans that I had brought with me and sat them under the corner on my tent to collect the rain water. I collected enough to fill up 80 ozs of water which I drank half of it. Then went back to sleep.

Day 2 / Mar. 01
Mile 14.8 (The Nero)

That morning we woke to a very saturated forest and a very sore ankle. The river we had camped next to had risen 2′ overnight. And where our tents were set up was now a pond, but the rain had temporarily stopped. The air was very moist. The condensation on the inside of our tents was bad. Everything inside the tent was wet from the day before or very damp from the condensation.

The weather forecast for the next few days was going to be sunny and cold. But we still had more rain to come today. So we decided to hike to the next road crossing and hitch into either Blue Ridge or Blairsville, get a motel room and start drying all of our gear. I was slow getting going due to my ankle, But finally got up to speed…. somewhat..

We packed up and headed out. The road was still 3.7 miles from us so we hiked with a determination to beat the rain, but as we got to road, the rain started up again. We quickly set our tents up to temporarily get out of the rain till it died down enough so we could try to hitch into town.

About 30 minutes later a nice man and woman stopped and picked us up and took us to Blairsville. It felt so good knowing we were about to be able to get all dried off soon. They dropped Will and my beardedself off at the Best Western Hotel where we split the cost of the room. With the thru-hiker discount the room only cost $68. With the cost split, it was only $34 each person. That’s just a hair more than what you would pay at a hostel.

Once there I immediately began to try to line us up a ride back to the trail. So I announced it on my social media. Later that night one of my Instagram followers Kris Stancil responded and said he would be glad to take us back to the trail…… That was an answered prayer.

While in town we went and had us a burger and a couple of beers at Copeland’s. The burger was absolutely delicious. I also had a couple of Yuenglings with my meal. Beer always goes great with a great burger. I also went to the grocery store to pick up a few Zip Lock baggies as extra insurance for some of my gear. I also got online and ordered another umbrella from Zpacks and had them ship it to our first resupply location in Reliance. I chose to just order another one vs having my beautiful bride mail mine to me.

Day 3 / Mar. 02
Mile 18.5 (Back To The Trail)

Will and my beardedself woke up with breakfast on our minds, so we got dressed and headed over to the Country Cafe’ for some home cooked breakfast. It was a cute little mom and pop restaurant. The food was delicious and it was great being able to have a cup of coffee too.

Afterwards we headed back to the hotel to get all of our gear packed up. We had it scattered all over the room drying it out. Kris was set to pick us up at 11:30 so we wanted to make sure we would be ready to go when he got there.

Like clock work, Kris showed up and picked us up. He offered to take us out to lunch, but we were still stuffed from the late breakfast we ate. We deeply appreciate Kris’s generosity and his willingness to help a couple of hikers out. It was really great getting to know him a little. Kris saved the day.

Once back on trail, we were glad it was sunny and cooler. It was a long day but we finally made it to Tipton Mt where we set up camp for the night. We had barely missed the sunset, but we could still see some beautiful colors in the clear sky above. But it was just dark enough that we needed our head lamps to set our tents up. It felt good to be back on the trail again…… and dry.

Day 4 / Mar. 03
Mile 31.2 (Toast & Jammz)

We woke up to a very frosty world. The temps had dropped to the mid 20s during the night, but we had miles to do and a restaurant along the way that had some warm food waiting on us. So we got packed up and got on trail pretty quick. A hiker will always be motivated by food…

We made it down to the Shallowford Rd which started our first road walk of this hike. After crossing the Shallowford iron bridge, the Iron Bridge Store & Cafe’ was right across the road. We couldn’t resist the urge to drop our packs at the door and go in and order a good warm meal. I had 2 bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, a salad with grilled chicken and coffee. I’m surprised I didnt order a milk. For whatever reason I always crave milk when I’m on the trail.

As bad as we hated to, we got back on the road and headed north. The power poles had blazes on them so we knew we were headed in the right direction. After about a 3 mile road walk, we were back on the trail.

We were excited to reach camp because our friends Eric and Jessica aka Toast and Jammz were going to meet up and camp with us. So we hiked as fast as we could. I was still banged up from the first day. I rolled my ankle on some wet rocks on the first day and my ankle had been very sore ever since. In fact, it was steadily getting worse. But I simply was trying to go slow and steady so I wouldn’t damage it any worse. My average speed was just over 2 mph.

Later I finally made it to camp where Toast greeted me with a nice cold beer and Jammz had a big hug for me. Jammz is pregnant and the baby aka Jelly Belly is due in around 5 weeks. That night we sat around the fire telling stories, laughing, making future hiking plans and simply enjoying each other’s company. This is what great hiking trips are made of.

Before we knew it, it was time for bed. It had been a long day. After we all made our way to our tents for the night, I laid in mine as I was editing photos and working on this blog post. My eyes would get heavy and I’d close them for a few minutes. As I did so, a bright light was shining in my face. I thought either someone wanted something or a ranger was checking on us. I opened my eyes and seen it was neither. It was a meteor shooting through the sky then breaking into many pieces. The whole forest was lit up. A few seconds later I heard a few loud booms from the meteor as it entered the atmosphere.

Now that was cool!!!!!!

Day 5 / Mar 04
Mile 47 (Trail Magic)

That morning when everyone woke up I asked them if they had seen or heard the meteor, but they all said no. So with excitement, I told them about what I had seen.

What made that so much cooler is when Toast and Jammz came and hiked with me in the Smokies last fall during my #fastestgsmnp900miler2 hike. We camped in the front yard of Ben King, one of the owners of Bryson City Outdoors. There was a major meteor shower that night so we all stayed up to watch it. As we were All sitting there watching the meteor shower. All of a sudden we seen a bright flash in the sky. It was like a camera flash. Then it flashed again, then dimmed. It pulsed bright and dimmed once again. Then it began to move in a short circular pattern, all while pulsing bright to dim. Then began to move to the side then angled off and faded out. We all just sat there and looked at each other afterwards not saying a word for a moment, knowing we all just seen something that none of us could explain.

Back to our thru-hike.. We all got packed up and headed out to the car. Toast drove us into Blue Ridge and we grabbed a bite at The Fry Shop. It was delicious! It’s located in the downtown area of Blue Ridge where all the shops and restaurants are. Afterwards we walked around checking out the shops and went to the grocery story to grab a few items we were needing for the trail. Toast and Jammz also treated us to some trail magic. They bought us a few beers and gave us a ride to the trail head so we wouldn’t have to do all of the road walk. (We ended up skipping an 8 mile section, taking us around Cherry Log and Blue Ridge. It wasn’t all road walk as we once believed. I am actually planning to come back in the fall and redo all of the BMT). Toast, Will and my beardedself shared a couple of beers before we got back on trail. We said our goodbyes and entered the woods once again. I’m very thankful for friends like Toast and Jammz. They are good people and I can’t wait till Jelly Belly gets here.

Once back on trail, both Will and my beardedself weren’t feeling this whole hiking thing. So we made it 5 miles and set up camp at Hatley Gap which had a excellent campsite. We enjoyed a good campfire (which I was able to start with my new firestarter that my friends Scott and Beth White got me for my birthday) and great conversation till it was time for bed.

Day 6 / Mar. 05
Mile 61 (Easier Day)

We had a few tough climbs that morning, but nothing too difficult. Once on top of the ridge we pretty much just cruised along. There’s nothing better than a good ridge walk. I was still nursing my foot, but it felt like it was slowly getting better as the day went along. My goal was to just be easy with it and make it last through this hike.

We made it to the intersection where the northern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail connects with the BMT. It’s really very remote and just seemed odd to have a major trailhead there. No thrills, views or epic finish point……. But it was pretty awesome to see the terminus. I plan to thru hike it in the next few years.

I really enjoyed the South Fork Trail. It has the same feel as the Smokies. The Cohutta Wilderness is a pretty rugged and remote section of forest. Definitely a beautiful area. The intersection with Jacks River Trail was a little confusing. It took us a minute or two and a little back tracking, but we finally figured it out. After a long day of hiking, we made it to Spanish Gap and the Hemp Top Trail intersection.

I noticed that I would get a second wind at the end of the day to where I would want to push for more mileage. Which my speed was slow and steady due to my ankle injury from the first day and I took less breaks. By the end of the day I still had enough energy to keep pushing for more. Will was really the opposite of me. He was much faster and took longer breaks (waiting on me), but by the end of the day he was ready to camp.

Tomorrow morning we’ll be back in Tennessee.

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.

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..

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 
Jbensblog.com

2018 Winter Backpacking Gear List

◼Gear:

   ◾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

◼Clothing:

  ◾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

 ◾Mid-Layers:

       ▪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:

   ◾Gear:

       ▪ 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

       ‎or

       ‎▪ 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.

Bradford Beans coffee and my 
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.

Fastest GSMNP 900-Miler (Winter 2017)

 

Smoky Mountains National Park Gatlinburg entrance sign

I never in my life imagined I would ever attempt something so bold and so challenging that I’d be pushing #mybeardedself to the edge, both physically and mentally. And to attempt to do this record breaking feat during the hashest months of the year was even more insain. But to most people’s surprise, it didn’t start out as a record breaking hike. I just simply wanted to hike all the trails. How I came to this decision though was a whole nother story.

The view from the Cliff Tops on Mt LeConte. (The smoke in the bottom left is the early stages of the Chimney Top 2 fire.)

Thankgiving weekend of 2016, (the same weekend of the Chimney Top II fire) me and a close friend of mine Chad “Stick” Poindexter of Stick’s Blog did a short backpacking trip with our kids in tow from Newfound Gap to Mt LeConte. I remember sitting at the Cliff Tops watching the sunset and watching Chimney Top burn below us. It was the first time in my life that I had been to Mt LeConte and I was in total awe! But while I sat there the thought came to me to take a break from section hiking the AT and focus on hiking all the trails in the Smokies instead. I initially figured it would take me a year. I had no idea how many miles of trails there was or how hard they would be. It was a decision though that felt right. Like it was exactly where I was supposed to be and I couldn’t have been more right. I went home and immediately discussed it with my beautiful bride Ashley, who was completely on board and supportive of the idea. I then began doing my research and planning logistics. I picked up the book “Day Hikers Guide To All The Trails In The Smoky Mountains” by Elizabeth L. Etnier. It became the main reference book of my whole hike. It had the trails already marked and planned out with mileages listed and elevation gains. It was mainly geared towards day hikers, but I simply combined several hikes and made some tweaks to fit my backpacking style. I also used the “Hiking Trails of the Smokies”, but only as a general reference.

Alum Cave Trail

Now, as a backpacker I wanted to backpack as much of the Smokies as I could. This would help me trim more “Total Miles” out of my hike. Liz’s book had the overall “Total Miles” listed at 1050 if you followed her book to the T. But I thought if I backpacked as much of it as I could, then I could possibly trim around 100 miles off that number.
My adventure started at the Alum Cave trailhead at 3:am on Dec 31, 2016. I hiked up the mountain with a group of hikers to see the last sunrise of 2016. When we got to the lodge the wind was blowing pretty hard and the temp was hovering around 9° degrees. A handfull of hikers turned back due to the conditions being so extreme. But a smaller number of us pushed forward towards Myrtle Point (the best spot to see a sunrise on LeConte). My plan was to start with a hike to LeConte and to finish my 900 Miler with a hike to LeConte as well, since that was where I made my decision to do my #gsmnp900miler. And as far as I’m concerned I couldn’t have planned that out any better if I had tried. I also wanted to learn as much as I could about the history and the trails and there was no better way to do that than to involve some of my “Hike The Smokies” friends that I had met on Facebook. After all it was their posts and pictures that influenced my decision to do my #gsmnp900miler. Plus most of them I had never met face to face before, so this was a perfect opportunity to do so. And as time went on not only did I get to hike with some of them, but several helped me out with shuttles and lodging.

My camo Zpacks Duplex tent with a layer of ice at campsite #19 on Anthony Creek Trail

The first month (January) I worked 3 days a week at the business I’ve owned since 2002 (Plug-it In Electrical Service, Inc) and hiked the other 4 days. This worked well for what I was doing at the time. I was pushing out about 50 miles per week. I wasn’t getting in any kind of hurry at that time. I did all of the Cades Cove area and part of the Twentymile, Cosby and Elkmont areas during that time. It was during this month too that I experienced the coldest temp of 6° degrees. I was camped out at CS#17 on Little Bottoms Trail in about 4″ of snow. This is why I absolutely love winter backpacking. Everything was frozen and laced in white. It’s the perfect setting for beautiful pictures. I’m glad I had my Black Rock down beanie with me. It is incredibly effective at keeping my head warm in these extreme temps. Plus it’s perfect weather for a good #icebeard. I absolutely love have my beard completely covered and full of ice and snow. There’s just something about it that feels good to me. It also reminds me to not get complacent and how extreme the conditions are that I’m in. Things can go very wrong very fast in these conditions. A life and death struggle is just one bad decision away.
Around the 3rd week of January I decided instead of taking a year to do all the trails. I thought I could get them done by the end of May. This would free up my summer to do family stuff. But a week later I got curious as to what was the fastest time the 900 Miler had ever been done so I contacted the GSMNP 900-Miler Club to find out. They told me the current fastest time was 4 months and 12 days and the record was held by Sharon Spezia. I immediately thought to my bearded self that this was in my time frame. Maybe this would be a good challenge for me and I might be able to break it….. So that’s exactly what I did. That’s when #fastestgsmnp900miler was born. This was the hashtag that I would identify my hike with.

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6° Degrees in Little Bottoms Trail. My Black Rock Gear down beanie kept my head nice and warm.

In early February I began hiking with a determination to break a record in big fashion. I began doing bigger miles and started making preparations to start hiking full time. I still had a job or two to wrap up then I was good to go. My focus was strong and I wasn’t going to be distracted easily. On the 4th of February I turned 44 years old. You guessed it. I was out hiking that day. I did hike #17 and stayed at Derrick Knob Shelter that night. I couldn’t have imagined doing anything else on my birthday this year. It simply seemed perfect. And even though I was getting older I wasn’t feeling it in the least bit. In my eyes I was just getting started.
As February got rolling, so did I. The weather was unseasonably warm and I was going to take full advantage of it. Because I knew we would probably get a good snow in March. I was just hoping to get done before it hit. I was starting to push out some much bigger mileage. Doing 20+ miles was becoming easier by the day. And with the Tennessee side about wrapped up, my focus was about to be set on the North Carolina side.
Now I only camped in the backcountry a total of 19 nights (15 in my Zpacks Duplex tent and 4 in shelters). Which left me with day hiking the rest of it. Instead of driving home which was 1 to 3 hours away (depending on where I was in the park). I would drive to a store nearby and sleep in my truck. This allowed me to save gas and to resupply if I needed to or simply get some fresh foods for the night like milk, fruits and veggies. I always made a point to purchase my dinner and breakfast from the store where I was staying at. I felt like it was the least I could do for them not kicking me out of their parking lot. Haha
Once March got here I was steaming along and not looking back.

Downtown Gatlinburg on a very early and rainy morning.

Everything was going good and I was on schedule to finish on the 19th of March. But I was on my way home to visit for a night when the motor in my truck blew up. This wasn’t what I needed then. I was in Pigeon Forge and I was 1 hour from my house. I was able to drive it home, but the next day I had to pick up a rental car for my beautiful bride to use while I used her vehicle. I got my truck scheduled for a new motor while I was back in the woods. That was a close call. It could’ve ended this hike. I’m glad we had the money set aside for such emergencies. Having an emergency fund saved our butts that time for sure.
As most of you know I am a follower of Christ. I’ve not been shy or affraid to share that with people. And as I hike I talk to God a lot. It’s great one on one time with the one who made you and everything around you. But it was on Hike-38 that I truly realized He was still listening to me. I was hiking Balsam Mt trail and Palmer Creek trail but I had to go down Balsam Mt road to catch Spruce Mt trial. On the map it looked like it was 2 to 3 miles down the road. I met a park employee on a tractor at the Palmer Cr trailhead and asked him how far it was to Spruce Mt. He told me 5 to 6 miles. I immediately felt a sense of panic. That was mileage I didnt plan for. So I immediately began to run up the graveled road. After what seemed like forever I come around one last turn and I asked God “Please let the trailhead be here”. And as i came around the turn there it was. I immediately began crying tears of joy and thanking God. The trailhead was roughly about 2.5 to 3 miles from the Palmer Cr trailhead. Right where I initially thought it was.

The Appalachian Trail at Bote Mt Trail

In the final 8 days I pulled my biggest mileage day at 35 miles. Honestly I wasn’t sure if I could do it but I did. It was Hike-40 and I was trying to beat the snow that was forecasted. Remember me saying earlier about the big snow I expected in March? This was it……. or at least I thought it was. The next morning at the shelter I was surprised to see on 4″ of snow. That was good news for me. That meant I could still get some big miles in that day. I was only expecting to get 10 to 15 due to the high snow fall forecasted. That’s why I pushed for the 35 miles the day before. But this also meant I would be pushing my finish date up 1 day to the 18th instead of the 19th. As the days were winding down and the amount of noise my hike was making in the HTS hiking community, I realized I needed someone who could let the park service know what was about to happen so they could prepare for the extra traffic. Plus they needed to organize the celebration at the finish. That’s when I thought of my good friend Teri Samples. She told me not to worry and that she would take care of it. And she did and then some. Not only did she notify the park service but also all of our local tv channels and new papers. The celebration at the finish was bigger than I had ever heard of or could’ve imagined. But more on that a little later.

Clingman’s Dome in early March

On March 18th 2017 I woke up ready to finish my 900-Miler. It was hike (Hike-47). Nearly all of my closest friends joined me. I could not have imagined finishing this #fastestgsmnp900miler hike any other way. The trail was the wettest I had ever hiked in, but we were not complaining. It was good to be able to have my friends with me. We started out at Trillium Gap trailhead that morning at 6:30. It had been raining all night and was still raining. Grotto Falls was absolutely incredible. The water flow was more than it was the first time I’d seen it. As we made our way up to the top of Trillium the water and snow on the trail was unbelievable. So with completely wet feet we were welcomed into the lodge by my friend Phillip Clarkson to dry off and to have a cup of hot chocolate.

After warming up for about 30 to 40 minutes we all loaded up and started down the mountain on Rainbow Falls trail. At the trailhead at the bottom of the mountain a reporter from WBIR met me and interviewed me really quickly. We were already 30ish minutes behind schedule. There were also a couple there that greeted me and wished me well. But we quickly got back to hiking and headed down the Old Sugarlands trail. The last trail of this hike. I was almost done…….. and I was ready. My right quad was cramping real bad, which made it very painful to walk on yet alone to hike. It had given me some problems earlier that week too.

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Sharon Spezia and #mytiredbeardedself about 1/4 mile before I completed my #fastestgsmnp900miler hike.

But at about 200 yards from the finish was the moment I’ll never forget. As I was climbing up a short hill I looked up to see no one other than Sharon Spezia. She had hiked in to have this moment with me. With smiles on our faces, we immediately gave each other a hug as she congratulated me. It was such an incredible moment. I had been wanting to talk to her ever since I decided to break her record. But never was able to get in touch with her. The crazy side to this story was we actually met on trail. It was Hike-19 on the Little Greenbier trail. We crossed pathes that day, but I didn’t realize it until I was about a 1/4 mile down the mountain (she was going up). So ever since then I was hoping to see her before I finished. And I finally did.

My hike was just a few minutes from being complete. Sharon and my closest friends went ahead to become a part of the “hiker tunnel” as I hung back to have the last couple of minutes to gather my thoughts and to prepare mentally for what was about to happen. I was just moments from being a 900 miler.

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The largest 900-Miler celebration thanks to my friends Terry Samples and Mike Poppen. Photo by: Dana Parish

I could feel the anticipation inside me as I started walking towards the hiker tunnel. I had never seen that many people at a 900 Miler celebration before.

The moment I waited 944 miles for, a kiss and a hug from my beautiful bride Ashley. Photo by: Brittney Corker of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

The tunnel looked like it was about 60′ long or more. As I got closer I could see Sharon at the entrance. She greeted me once again and told me to “go finish this”. I could hear everyone clapping and cheering as I entered the tunnel. I immediately thanked God for this opportunity, getting me to here and gave Him the glory. As i continued to walk through the tunnel, I seen so many faces. Some I knew and some I didn’t. People reached in to give me “high five”. And some just patted me on the back and shoulder. When I got towards the end of the tunnel. I knew I was getting closer to the one I wanted to see most, my beautiful bride. She had told me by phone that she would be waiting for me at the end of the tunnel. So that was all I was thinking about. And as I exited the tunnel I looked up and there she was. It was eveything I could do to keep from crying. I was so happy to see her beautiful face. She met me with a big kiss and warm embrace. It felt so good to have her in my arms again. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed her till then. I had been keeping my bearded self occupied with details of the trail so I wouldn’t think about it.

After I was done catching up with my family. I did a couple of interviews with WBIR and the Knoxville News Sentinel. I also go to spend some more time with Sharon Spezia who also introduced me to Jennie Whited. Jennie was the first female to do 5 maps (900 milers). I had so many people that came up to me to congratulate and talk to me. Some I knew and some I didn’t. But either way I appreciate all of them taking the time out of their busy day just to come be there for me. I believe that’s the part that overwhelms me the most. It’s very humbling when I think about that.

But as I sat there it slowly started sinking in. I just finished my 900 Miler. And I did it in the fastest time EVER… Wow! Maybe what I did was a big thing after all. Before I was having a hard time understanding why everyone was making a big deal out of my hike. But now I was starting to understand it. God just helped this ordinary man do something extraordinary. I couldn’t have possibly done this without His help and strength. I leaned on Him for His guidance, understanding and strength each day. I give Him all the glory for this hike. For God was my ultimate trail guide.

Most of my close friends and family having a “Victory Meal” at Smoky Mountain Brewery in Gatlingurg. Photo by: Chad “Stick” Poindexter of Stick’s Blog
My “Victory Meal” consisted of an Ol’ Smoky burger, fries and a Mountain Lite Beer at Smoky Mountain Brewery in Gatlinburg.

Afterwards, you guessed it. We all went to Smoky Mountain Brewery for an Ol’ Smoky burger and a beer. It is my absolute favorite place to go after a hike. It was great being able to sit down and have a big meal and a beer with my closest friends. These guys just came from Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina  and Mississippi just to hike with me. What amazing friends I have. I’m such a blessed man to have friends like them. I thank God for each and every one of them.

#mybeardedself and my good friend and fellow TeamZpacks member Chad “Stick” Poindexter. I have no idea what we were doing there…… Photo by: Stick’s Blog

If you would like to see what it was like on that last hike, then go check out the video and write up at Stick’s Blog. Chad captured that moment perfectly and I am forever grateful for it.

What’s Next?

A lot of people have asked me what’s my next adventure. Well I’ve decided that in the Fall (2017) I’m going to do it again, BUT EVEN FASTER. I’m shooting to do it in just 45 days total. Which would break my own record of 78 days. I believe I can do it and I’m looking forward to the opportunity. If I’m able to complete it then that will also make me a 2 time 900 Miler in 1 year. Which would tie me with 7 time 900 Miler Sharon Spezia who also has done 2 maps in 1 year. It would be an honor to share that record with her.
In the last hike I used the hashtags #fastestgsmnp900miler and #gsmnp900miler to identify with that hike. This way people could search anything they need to find out about that hike using that hashtag. This time I’ll be using the hashtags #fastestgsmnp900milerx2 and #fastestgsmnp900miler . It should be an extraordinary journey. And I’m looking forward to what God will show me on this hike. After all He is my “Ultimate Trail Guide”.

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