MOUNT ROGERS, Va. — It was the dinner hour and, as with any other traveling vacation, we began to set our sights on where to stop for dinner and spend the night.
But this trip wasn’t like other vacations. There were no lighted signs telling us what’s at the next exit, or even how far the next stop would be. We were hiking along a mountain ridge at Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in southwestern Virginia, enveloped by a cool mist from the clouds blowing east as we hiked west toward Rhododendron Gap — 5,500 feet above sea level.
The thought of sea level sounded really good as we trudged over rocks and roots looking for an area sheltered from the wind and mist to make a fire to cook our dinner of silver turtles, pitch our tent and bed down for the night as comfortably as we could.
At sea level there are beaches that are easy to walk, restaurants where fresh, hot food is prepared and brought to you at a table, and hotels with nice, comfortable beds.
But that was not our chosen vacation. We were backpacking on America’s most famous footpath, the 2,100-mile-long Appalachian Trail. Though we would cover just 1 percent of that path on our five-day journey, this type of vacation is still a rugged and challenging option for those wanting to try a different kind of getaway — one that includes a physical fitness program in God’s own gym.
Besides the rocks and the mist and the clouds, in the Mount Rogers area, we were in the company of wild ponies who roam the mountain ridges and eat brush and saplings, providing nice, grassy meadows on which hikers can set up camp. It’s mostly good, but we learned too late that such open ridge tops are largely devoid of burnable firewood. So we settled for a freeze-dried meal over our miniature camp stove.
Overnight backpacking is not a physically relaxing vacation. It involves hiking miles across rough terrain, carrying one’s tent, bedding, food, water and other needs in a 25- or 30-pound backpack.
But in a very real way, it can be more relaxing than the typical sea-level vacation. There are no crowds, other than the occasional small groups of hikers and campers you come across along the trail, no modern distractions, other than the ultralight gear you carry with you, and lots of time to relax, think and be inspired by Mother Nature’s beauty.
Nights sleeping on a thin air mattress in a slippery sleeping bag are not as comfortable as the hotel beds, but waking to the sunshine, fresh air, singing birds and freedom of being miles from any human habitation makes one instantly forget any overnight discomfort.
The sense of solitude, safety, freedom and renewal that comes with the overnight hiking and camping experience is well worth the preparation.
Each day, we pushed ourselves to go farther, except for day four, a rest day. We found plenty of springs from which we filtered fresh, clean water for our use. We soaked in the beauty of the barely disturbed forest, marveled at the mountaintop overlooks and shared time with the wild ponies — who wanted us to break the trail rules and share our food.
We returned from our five-day and four-night excursion in late July — one day and night longer than a similar hiking trip in April — happier and healthier than we left. The only disappointment of the whole trip — other than not finding suitable firewood that first night — was having to return to the regular bustle of day-to-day life.
We don’t anticipate we’ll ever take the time and effort to hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, nor do we feel the urge to. But taking a few days a couple of times a year to explore a short section of this wooded isolation in the middle of our busy world does wonders for body cleansing, spiritual renewal and mental refreshment.
If you feel the need for such things, go take a hike.
How to prepare
In any vacation, planning is key. But with a multiple-day, overnight backpacking trip, planning and preparation is crucial. You can’t run to the grocery store for supplies you may have forgotten (like matches) when you are a two-day hike from civilization.
Have an idea for how many days and nights you want to be on the trail and how far you want to hike, and plan accordingly. Local sporting goods stores and the internet are full of choices from which to study and select lightweight but durable things you’ll need, including:
n backpack for each hiker
n sleeping bag
n cookstove and fuel
n waterproof matches and/or a lighter
n hiking boots and comfortable hiking clothes
n meals (the freeze-dried meals available today are healthy and delicious)
n healthy energy snacks
n water filtration and storage system (yes, you’ll need to filter water even from clear mountain springs)
n hiking poles (optional)
n toiletries (plan to leave no trace)
n trail guides
There is plenty more to learn, but don’t be intimidated. Many people have done this and are willing to offer advice. Start on the internet with www.appalachiantrail.com for your planning.
Is it expensive?
Getting the gear you need for multiday and night backpacking trips is not cheap, but it shouldn’t be a deal breaker. The cost is comparable to any other week long vacation at a beach or resort. The difference is, other than food, you can reuse all the things you buy for future hiking trips, making each subsequent trip a much cheaper vacation than the first.
Kelly Merritt is the editor of the Daily Mail Opinion Page. Melissa Remington is the rector of St. Christopher Episcopal Church.