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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
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          POST #1:  GEAR REVIEW           
"One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his greater surprises,
is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”
- Henry Ford

Brass sign at southern terminus of the AT, Springer Mountain, Georgia (4-30-05)

 Cody on the Trail with me in GA on Day 4. Gosh, there weren't even leaves on the trees then! (5-3-05)

I surprised myself several times on this adventure run, accomplishing athletic feats, especially in New Hampshire and Maine, that made me fearful, things I wasn't sure I could do, like going down steep, exposed rock ledges and slabs, climbing up vertical walls of rock with tiny hand- and foot-holds, and crossing waist- and chest-high raging creeks and rivers.

Not only do I have a new respect for the Appalachian Trail and those who walk or run its entire length, I also have the feeling of pride and accomplishment that I did it, too.

Even though I really wanted to finish the AT, I didn't know if I could do it. That was part of the allure, the challenge. And I had no clue just how difficult some of it would be before I began!

It's interesting now to re-read Prep #5 from February where I assessed my training for the trek and gave myself decent odds for finishing. By Prep #16 I was a little less confident, as the time drew closer to start.

If I'd known more about the Whites and the Mahoosucs at the time, I might not have even started my adventure for fear I wouldn't be able to finish. Sometimes ignorance is bliss!

I never thought about quitting. There were several days when I wanted to be DONE, but that's different. I was as motivated to finish this journey as anyone who's ever done the AT. Only some sort of emergency would have prevented it.


This is the easiest post entry to write, so I'll begin here. Hopefully it will be of some use to other folks who want to travel "light" on the AT, whether running or speed-hiking.

I wrote in more detail about the gear I was planning to use in Prep #10. They are mostly items I was familiar using in ultras. I used most of them on the Trail with great success. A few others, like gaiters, I really didn't need.

These are the gear items I found most useful and why:


Ultra-light back-packers would need a lighter, more roomy pack than this one, but I found it nearly perfect for my situation. Most importantly, it fit me well. Others I tried on didn't feel good. The weight didn't concern me because the pack held what I needed to carry for up to 15 hours on the Trail, the longest I was out there.

The H.A.W.G. comes with a 100-oz. bladder, which didn't fail me. I used it daily. There is also room for a second 70- or 100-oz. bladder. On hot summer days I sometimes carried two. That weighed me down a lot and made running difficult, but at least I didn't run out of water when I had two bladders. (More on hydration in Post #2.)

The pack is not waterproof and I was unable to find an extra-small pack cover along the way. After a short while on the Trail I learned to keep my spare clothes, light, cell phone, camera and other vulnerable items in plastic zipper-locked bags so they'd stay dry when it rained or I fell in a creek or bog.

I'm extremely pleased with the durability of this pack. The only tear after four months on the Trail is to the back netting. That's my fault for scraping it crawling under and over boulders in the Mahoosuc Notch. I was able to adequately patch it with needle and thread so it lasted the rest of the trek. Otherwise, this thing is nearly indestructible.

[Note from 2008: it's still in great shape after the Colorado Trail and other long runs in 2006 and 2007.]


Yeah, Montrail is one of my two sponsors but I requested a discount from them because I'd worn about two dozen pairs of their shoes before this adventure run and I wasn't even considering another brand.

I was delighted to find so many backpackers wearing the Hardrocks, too! More than half the thru-hikers I saw who made it all or most of the way were wearing trail shoes - not hiking boots - by New England, despite the rocks. Those who were wearing trail shoes in Maine were grateful to have footwear that dried out faster than hiking boots (Maine is very WET).

I quickly discovered the Hardrocks were better for me on the AT than the Vitesse. I went through about sixteen pairs of Vitesse and only one pair of Hardrocks before this trek. But the Hardrocks have a more aggressive sole that helped me grip rocks and mud better than the Vitesse. They were also very comfortable.

I wore out four pairs of Hardrocks and have many miles on another pair of Hardrocks and one pair of Highlines (same sole) - that's six pairs of shoes for about 2,200 miles. AT rocks eat up soles! The uppers were fine, even though my shoes were wet a lot and always dirty. They'd probably last longer on smoother trails like the PCT.

We had to cut slits in the last three pairs of the Hardrocks when one of my little toes started to hurt from an infected toenail. Even with cuts in the uppers, the shoes lasted just fine and didn't tear further. The only problem was getting more grit and little pebbles in that side when I went through water.

One reason I had very few blister problems (and only in the first few weeks) was wearing my shoes a half size larger than normal. I wear larger shoes in 50- and 100-milers because my feet swell some during the race.

I used the same logic on the AT: even though my longest run was "only" 35 miles, I assumed that running and hiking three times my normal weekly mileage for several months would cause my feet to stay a bit swollen. Some days they were swollen; most of the time they weren't. But the shoes were always comfy.


My second secret weapon in the blister war was toe-socks. I used six pairs of Injinji's khaki-colored socks the whole way with nary a blister on any of my separated toes (only on the side of my foot and one big toe where I had callouses) and nary a hole in my socks.

When I first started using toe-socks several years ago, they wore out fast. They are expensive, so I complained and received more socks. They wore out fast, too. Then I read on the ultra running listserve about using regular thin running socks OVER the toe socks to make them last longer. I tried it in training and it seemed to work.

I'm here to tell you this system was GREAT for me. I used some inexpensive Coolmax ankle socks (about $1.50/pair) from Wal-Mart over the Tetra-Tsoks every day. I got used to them and never noticed that my feet were too hot. The cheap socks saved the expensive toe-socks and may have also helped prevent blisters.

If you have problems with blisters and haven't used Injinji's socks, try a pair. I got mine last December when the company had a special "sale" (buy four or five and get one free). After the first month on the Trail, I never needed to use any anti-blister products, even lubricants.


When I did have some problems with blisters under calluses the first three or four weeks on the Trail, I used these thin bandages successfully. They are about $1.00 per bandage and come in three sizes. The sticky part is very, very thin. The part that goes over the hot spot or blister is two thin layers with air between, which pillows the sore spot.

The bandages worked great while they were on. Keeping them on was a problem because they'd stick to my socks and peel off when I removed my socks. I used Hydropel around the edges to keep them from sticking, but by the end of the day the lubricant would be worn off and the bandages would usually come off anyway, either when I took my socks off or when I was in the shower.

Bottom line: Blist-O-Ban bandages work great but are expensive because you have to keep re-applying them. This wouldn't be a huge problem in an ultra, but if you need them for thirty days, they get expensive.

This is a photo from north GA on Day 4 (5-3-05):


These were my secret weapon against ankle sprains. I simply could not have done the AT without them.

Some folks will say I have further weakened my already-trashed ankles by depending on ankle supports, but using them was the only way I could have ever finished the Trail. Now that I'm done, I'll resume my efforts to strengthen my ankles and be less dependent on the supports.

I started using these supports after ruptured tendon surgery in one ankle almost four years ago. My orthopedist in Montana recommended them for rough trail running. I felt so comfortable in the one for my repaired ankle that I purchased another for the better ankle. My current orthopedist in Roanoke wrote a prescription for new ones before I embarked on the Trail. They require some machine-stitching now, but are still in great shape after 2,200 miles.

If you have problems with ankle sprains, try them. You may be able to find them in a local medical supply store. I couldn't, but a local store ordered them for me. Or do a search on the internet for "ASO ankle supports" and several medical supply places will come up. You can see pictures of them and read how they work.

You don't need a prescription to buy them. I used my insurance because it does cover them - cheaper than surgery, after all!


I used old telescoping REI poles that I've had for several years. There are several good brands of poles if you need new ones. Most thru-hikers used poles, although some did not. They are more important for balancing when carrying a large pack than a small one - or if you're as clumsy and "unbalanced" as me! 

(No snickers, please, from those of you who always knew I was unbalanced!)

I used just one pole the first 60% of the trek. When I had to start fording more creeks and balancing on bog boards from New Jersey to the end, I started using two poles more often. Two were crucial in Maine, especially when I had to ford flooded streams.

I was able to toss them up or down the trail when I was scaling rock ledges and "verticals" everywhere except two places: in Mahoosuc Notch I had to telescope them and put them in my pack. Otherwise, they'd have disappeared down a crevice. And I didn't bother with them on Katahdin because other hikers said they'd be pretty useless there.

Otherwise, one or two poles can come in mighty handy for various things besides balancing on rocks and bog boards and through deep streams. They are great for flicking branches off the Trail, getting cobwebs before they get you, and defending yourself from any potential predators (fortunately, I didn't need them for that).


This 4-megapixel camera is lightweight and fits into a small, inexpensive padded case with a belt loop. I wore it on my pack's waist belt; I kept it in front so it was handy to use. The camera survived several dunkings on Day 141, safe in a little plastic sandwich bag!

This camera is no longer made but similar Coolpix cameras are available in stores and on-line. Ours was reasonably priced at $179.00 at Sam's Club.

Although I didn't have time to learn how to use all the functions properly before beginning the trek, I got enough good photos to earn the praise of several readers.

I also used Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0 software to organize and tweak the pictures. I've learned even fewer of the capabilities of this excellent software, just enough to do a bit of editing like cropping and lightening dark photos.

When I have more time in the coming weeks I will prepare photos for the "more photos" link above; I only had time to do training photos. Once we were on the road and Trail it was tough to get the journaling done every night, let alone edit all the photos.


All last winter and spring Jim and I debated and researched what communication devices to use on the Trail.

Several kinds of two-way radios didn't work well on trails locally so we returned them all. Satellite phones were too costly. We finally decided to try using just our cell phones. We have service with Verizon because that company had the most coverage nationally when we got the phones in December, 2003.

Lo and behold, the cell phones worked pretty well!

Even though Verizon sometimes drives us crazy (e.g., have you ever seen their billing statements??), what I heard from other thru-hikers with phones indicated that those with Verizon service seemed to do better than those using other companies.

I'd often have five bars (great service) on mountain tops. Jim's service was less reliable down in the valleys where he usually was located, but the majority of the time we were able to contact one another when it really mattered. The least coverage we had was in northern New England (Vermont, New Hampshire, and especially Maine).

Our emergency contact was my sister in Philadelphia. If Jim and I couldn't reach each other and it was very important we talk, the plan was to call Nancy. If our cell phone(s) didn't work, we were to use a pay phone to call her. She'd try to contact the other person and relay the message. We did this only once, fairly early on.


Most days I carried at least my Marmot Precip jacket, if not my pants.

Even in the summer mountain weather is unpredictable. I learned that the hard way once when I had to wait for Jim about an hour in a thunderstorm and I didn't have my jacket. I was pretty cold by the time he got there, and had to pace back and forth to keep warm. It was in the middle of summer in one of the mid-Atlantic states without real mountains.

I seldom wore the jacket, even on 50-degree mornings. I was usually warm enough if I kept running or hiking. If I put it on first thing, I'd usually have to remove it in a few minutes because I'd heat up fast - I almost always had a hill to climb right out of the truck (starting at roads usually meant starting at a low point each day).

But when I needed it, I really needed it - like the first chilly rainy day in Georgia, or on Mt. Madison in the sleet and high wind. I kept the jacket in a gallon-size plastic bag to keep it dry if the pack and contents got wet.

I didn't carry my Precip pants (or gloves or fleece hat) nearly as often. I had them with me in the spring in the first four states, where the elevations were higher and weather more unpredictable, and in the last two states as the weather got cooler in the fall and the mountains were higher again.

The Precip jacket and pants keep the rain and wind out but I really sweat inside them. I managed to not rip either one on rocks. On a few cooler days when I thought I'd have to slide down rock slabs in NH and ME, I wore less expensive REI zip-leg pants instead of the $99.00 Precip pants.


Lighting systems are always a topic of interest to ultra runners. Jim and I have quite a collection.

For this trek, I relied on three lights but needed them only three times when I started or finished in the dark.

Every day I carried a tiny (size of a quarter) Photon micro-light in one of my front packs. It was my emergency back-up. I never used it. It got wet a few times before I realized I should keep it in a plastic bag, but it still works. You can get these now for less than $10.00 and they light up the trail amazingly well. I even used one for the first hour at VT100 in July.

In NH and ME, I also carried a Streamlight hand-held 7-LED flashlight most days, just in case I was out after dark. I kept it in a plastic bag to keep it dry.

I used a Photon Fusion 6-LED headlamp only on Day 125 in the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah Mountain Range in New Hampshire because I knew I'd be finishing after dark. I wear the strap around my waist instead of my head because it doesn't bounce as much and it casts more light on the Trail since it's closer to the ground. I used the headlamp in combination with the Streamlight flashlight that day.

The Streamlight was brighter, so from then on I carried the Streamlight and not the Fusion. It was fine by itself the ninety minutes Jim and I were out after dark on Day 127 on rough trail coming off Old Speck.


If you have questions about other gear I used, or wonder why I didn't use such-and-such, please let me know and I'll address it.

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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© 2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil