Cold weather hiking can be tough. While at home in New Hampshire, we do plenty of winter hiking in the White Mountains. Even at low temps (single digits), we will still see plenty of other hikers out in the mountains – snow shoeing or ice climbing. It can be cold, uncomfortable and generally challenging. BUT, come dark, we are sitting in our living room sipping hot chocolate or in the hot tub sipping a fine beer and reflecting on our day in the winter wonderland.
An actual winter thru-hike presents many challenges that make day hiking (particularly in the winter) seem simple. Retiring to a shelter, or a tent, is a much, much colder finish to the day – especially being cold and wet during the day without the ability to dry out clothes at night. Wind, storms, deep snow over a ‘trail’, heavier gear, etc…make up some of the other challenges.
When we heard about Jabba, The Real Hiking Viking, doing the AT this winter, we thought it would be great to catch up with him and learn about some of the challenges and rewards of his hike:
What’s your hiking background?
I started hiking the AT in 2013 as a member of Warrior Hike‘s inaugural class and hadn’t really done any major hiking prior to that – aside from a couple weekend-long trips. Nothing over 20 miles ever. After the AT, I tackled the CDT the following year in 2014. Then in 2015, I did over half of the Florida Trail (Pensacola to Gainesville), the Arizona Trail, over half of the PCT (which was a failed and poorly timed flip flop due to the fires in Washington), over half the Sierra High Route, the Wonderland Trail, the Loyalsock Trail, and then I started my winter SOBO hike of the AT in December. Much more hiking to come in 2016.
How did you get your trail name?
My trail name is Jabba and I got that name because of my gluttonous ways with food on trail. The Real Hiking Viking is my blog name. I came up with that name after my first thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, on account of my warrior background with the Marine Corps, and because hiking rhymes with Viking.
How much of the time are your feet wet from sweat or just plain water/snow soaking through?
100% of the time unless I am in my sleeping bag – but solely due to sweat. I treat my leather boots with Snow Seal every couple of towns to help waterproof them, and they also have a Gore-tex liner in them. Then I wear a three layer sock system; a liner sock, a neoprene sock (which traps in all my sweat as to not wet-out the boot), and then a thick wool sock to help insulate even more. Keeping moisture from the boot itself is absolutely vital to keeping my toes from getting frostbite and to keep the boot from freezing overnight when my feet are not in them.
Have you been using the Shelters? Any critters come in to keep you company (friends who have been out on AT winter section hikes have mentioned skunks coming in and licking their sweaty, salty mouths at night!)?
I have been using shelters almost exclusively, save one night in the Bigelows, where I cowboy camped in the cave at Safford Notch. I have only had mice bother me a couple times but they haven’t really been pests. Besides seeing a couple moose, birds here and there, squirrels, and tons of animal tracks on trail in the snow, I haven’t been encountering hardly any wildlife.
How difficult have the long nights been? How many hours per day are you hiking in the dark?
I welcome the sleep I get at night of course. Trudging all day through the cold, wet snow is exhausting. I generally hike between 2-4 hours in the dark every day. Sometimes longer depending on the goal I set for myself. If I only hiked during day light, I feel like I would never get anywhere. And I am definitely trying like hell to get south.
Many feel that the biggest challenge of a long thru-hike is the mental challenge. Is it an even bigger challenge in the winter?
The mental challenge is constant. CONSTANT. There is no such thing as relaxed out here so far. Every day is a mission. Every mile is a mission. Constantly soaked in sweat, sub-freezing or sub-zero temps, dangerous footing, exposed above treeline, wind chill, frozen water sources, snow, lots of snow, ice, dealing with rocks, as well as a heavier pack due to more layers and winter-specific gear….you don’t succeed out here without a level of mental toughness that exceeds what your typical summer thru-hike would require.
When you’re hiking, do you dream of a frosty mug of beer, or a steaming mug of cocoa?
Strangely enough I still dream of Coca Cola, not beer. Sometimes hot cocoa, but damn, Coca Cola just hits the spot. I’d punch a human in the face in public for a can of ice cold coke. Quote me on that shit.
You seem like a pretty social guy, what made you decide to hike the AT during the winter when there are the fewest hikers on the trail?
I’d say “fewest” is an over estimation. There is literally no one else thru-hiking at this time – at least given my start date and direction. I have run into a handful of day hikers, but no one over-nighting. and no one outside of the White Mountains which has a high concentration of winter hikers given the mountains’ popularity and easy access. I really just liked the idea of the challenge. I am definitely a very social person. But, I enjoy a good challenge even more. The solitude found in the wilderness is second to none. This is an extremely unique way of experiencing the AT. Especially considering that it is by far the most popular long distance trail in the US. What an opportunity.
Your photos are pretty stellar, what camera are you using out on the trail?
Fujifilm X-T1 with a Fujinon Lens XF18-135mmF3.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
Has it been a challenge to keep batteries for your camera and smart phone alive in the cold?
I carry a spare camera battery. However, the battery for this particular camera does not get affected too much by the cold at all and thus, I’ve had no problems with that. A smart phone is greatly affected by the cold temperatures and I keep that close to my body as to not burn through the battery too much. I also carry a battery pack (Anker 16,000mah) to keep that charged on trail.
Is your hiking time dictated by the hours of sunlight or by a certain “daily mileage” goal?
Never dictated by the hours of sunlight, only by each day’s specific mileage goal – whether its to a shelter or to a road crossing to hitch into town.
What is your sleep setup like?
-Thermarest Z-Lite (will ditch this at some point as I go south and temps get warmer)
-Thermarest NeoAir X-Lite (on top of foam pad)
-Big Agnes Bellyache 17 (down mummy)
-Enlightened Equipment Prodigy 30 (synthetic quilt for over my down bag to trap moisture and condensation as to protect my down. Will ditch this at some point as I go south and temps get warmer)
How has the AT in winter compared to your expectations? What parts are “as expected” and what parts are unexpected?
I was prepared for the worst mentally, and while it has been considerably difficult when compared to summer hiking standards, I think I expected things to be much, much worse. I don’t think I could have predicted how soaking wet (from sweat and condensation) I would get every day and night. Never a moment of not being soaking wet throughout the day. Never. I think I am fortunate that it has been a mild winter, but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been difficult. I’ve experienced intense winds, whiteout conditions on mountain tops, extreme cold temperatures, clothes freezing to my body, frozen water, frozen food, sliding down icy slabs of rock, just about everything you can imagine so far. Every day is something new.
Do you hike much outside of long distance trails?
Literally almost never, aside from when I lived on the big island of Hawaii between the AT and CDT. I did a lot of day hiking when I was there. Other than that, pretty much nothing, other than long distance stuff. I crave those long distance challenges and the unique way of experiencing the land. Its an amazing way to live life. I plan to do it until my body fails me. Which should be about the time I turn 120 years young.
What is the best book that you have read lately (or current favorite podcast)?
I don’t know how to read, only picture and pop-up books. I don’t do podcasts. I sometimes listen to music, mainly The Kingston Trio (JK, but only about the Kingston Trio).
What is your favorite way to relax?
College football on a couch. I’ll take a motel bed and no football, doing absolutely nothing as a consolation relaxation activity.
Favorite Trail Town (any trail)?
I’m partial to the Continental Divide Trail. Many trail towns on that hike were awesome. Silver City, Lake City, Salida, Breckenridge, Grand Lake… to name a few. Those towns were all awesome.
Favorite restaurant or bar on the trail (any trail)?
Any restaurant where I can walk out of it regretting my decisions and feeling like I need my stomach pumped (speaking strictly about food) is number one in my book. That book being a picture book of course. I don’t drink too much while I’m on my hikes. Doesn’t fit the budget really. Plus, I like being on top of my game mentally and spiritually…over indulging on the booze-end of things doesn’t help me hike out of town feeling relaxed and refreshed.
Tell us a little about yourself… Work, where you live, etc..
My job is hiking. I live wherever my backpack is. Prior to hiking, I served 4 years in the Marine Corps Infantry followed by a few years of college at Bucknell University. I worked at Vargo Titanium and Appalachian Outdoors (outdoor retail store in State College, PA) before getting into long distance hiking – that was pretty much my segue into this life.
(Thanks to John for catching the typos in an earlier version of this post)