Trail to Philmont – September 2020

After one false start and two 5-mile primer day hikes, our Philmont crew finally went on an extended backpacking trip.

We did a two-day hike in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in New Jersey. Friday night we stayed at campsites next to the Millbroad Road Trailhead. On Saturday, we hiked from the Millbrook Road trailhead to the Brink Road Shelter, camping in tents near the shelter (and it’s water source). On Sunday, we did the return trip back to Millbrook. We planned for the hike to be 10 miles each way; it turned out to be 12 miles.

As our first overnight training hike for Philmont, our goals were to test our gear and ourselves. We achieved (and exceeded) both goals, though at the cost of sore bodies on Sunday night.

Weight is everything: Intellectually, we knew this. We still brought too much stuff. My son’s pack, in particular, was overloaded. At 80 lbs, he should have been carrying 16 lbs, or 20% of his body weight. He was carrying more like 25-28 lbs.  Again, carrying too much weight is something I knew to look for and yet, when packing, we still ended up too heavy. It caused problems for NeutronLad on the trail, who already had challenges with fitting his pack thanks to his slim build. The weight made it even harder for him to get comfortable. For our next trip, NeturonLad and I will be ruthlessly reducing any excess weight from our packs.

Make sure your boots fit: We thought NeutronLad’s boots fit; they’d been ok during our earlier 5-mile day hikes. We were wrong; they were a little too small, causing his toes to jam up against the front of his boots. That, in turn, caused pain and blisters.

Sock liners are critical: Sock liners are thin silk or synthetic silk socks that you wear underneath your hiking socks. When you hike, your foot moves around inside your boot, usually getting sweaty in the process. Without sock liners, your skin rubs against your sock, which rubs against the boot – this causes blisters.

Sock liners, being between your foot and your sock, end up being the thing that’s rubbing against your sock. This greatly reduces the chance for blisters. While my feet – and particularly my toes – were sore, I don’t have any blisters. NeutronLad didn’t get any blisters on any of his usual hot spots; if his boots fit better, he probably wouldn’t had blisters at all.

The trail is always longer than you think: The map distance between Millbrook Road and Brink Road Shelter was around 10 miles. On the ground, based on our Apple Watch trackers, it was closer to 12 miles. Apple Watches aren’t perfect, so it’s possible they were off, but it certainly felt like 12 miles, and in any case, that’s the number that was in our head as we finally made it to camp.

The next hike should be shorter: This weekend’s hike was tough, no doubt about it. For the October hike, we’re doing two 5-mile treks, split up over two days. It’ll be a good end-of-season backpacking trip.

We ate well. We also ate heavy. Apples weigh a lot. Dried apples would be better. Peanut butter is good … but can we get it in a squeeze tube instead of a jar?

Hand-pumped water filters are great! We got to trail test my new Katadyn Hiker Microfilter, which worked great. It needs some depth of water (like a small stream-fed pool) to work, but it assumes you have that, it works quickly and easily. It advertising being able to fill a 1-liter bottle in a minute, and based on experience, I’d say that’s true. We still used purification tablets on our water – the hand-pump filters bacteria, but not viruses, and Philmont requires us to use the tablets – but the pump was definitely in the running as the MVP of the weekend.

Aeropress makes great coffee, but I should leave it at home: The Aeropress, a coffee press that makes awesome coffee, works great on the trail. It’s light, easy to clean, and worked great, but it’s not worth the space it takes up in my pack. I’d rather use instant coffee instead. It may not taste as good, but it’s lighter and takes up less space.

Hiking poles are critical: After this trip, my opinion of hiking poles has gone from “nice to have, I should get a pair someday” to “must-have”. They provide extra stability on a rocky trail (and we have lots of those in New Jersey and Pennsylvania) and help take the strain off your knees when going up and down hills.

Overall, it was a great trip. NeutronLad and I still have work to do with his pack and his boots. I want him to be comfortable on his next trek, so he can focus on the trail, his gear, and the experience, rather than the discomfort of sore shoulders and achy feet.  For my part, I’m finally settling into my pack and starting to understand what I need, and what’s nice to have.

Looking forward to our October trek, I’ll have new gear to test out:

  • Crocs: I’m bought a pair of Crocs’ classic cogs to serve as camp shoes and water-crossing shoes on backpacking trips. They’re light, easy to put on at night, and can be strapped to the outside of my pack. They aren’t as sturdy as my Keen sandals, but hopefully, they’ll work.
  • Sleeping bag: I bought a NEMO Forte 20 Sleeping Bag. It has a synthetic filler, instead of down (which made its price $200 instead of $400). The “20” in its name means it’s rated to 20 degrees F, which in turn means you can survive at 20 degrees in this bag, but you won’t be comfortable. It should be fine for Philmont, as overnight temperatures will be in the 30s. Around here, I have a fleece sleeping bag liner that I can bring that adds another 10 degrees worth of warm, so I should be good.
  • New stove: On our last trip, I brought my wife’s old isobutane stove. It worked great, but that kind of fuel isn’t recommended for Philmont because of the cold. Because of that, I bought an MSR Whisperlite stove, which uses white gasoline.

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A view of the fog-shrouded Delaware River, from the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey. Credit: Ken Newquist

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