I’ve done a lot of camping and hiking over the years, but never a multi-day backpacking trip. So, with my son, Max, heading off to college at the end of summer, I figured a three-day, father-and-son trek along a section of Vermont’s Long Trail, which stretches 272 miles from the Massachusetts border all the way to Canada, would be the perfect way to get my feet wet.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew the learning curve would be much steeper than the terrain we would face. A month before the trip, I purchased a copy of the invaluable Long Trail Guide, published by the Green Mountain Club and containing detailed descriptions of each section of trail along with useful maps, tips, side trail info, parking-area locations, and much more. Additionally, I scoured the internet and social media for advice (many thanks to the ENE Facebook followers who chimed in), as well as the staff at my local REI store. My parents were a big help, too, as they have for years backpacked in Baxter State Park. In fact, they loaned us their vintage exterior-frame packs, along with some leftover freeze-dried food, for the trip.
Yet despite my research (yes, I could have done a better job), Max and I were well short of being prepared. But that’s part of the fun, right?
On a steamy, late-July morning, my wife dropped us off at the trailhead in Bennington. Her photo shows what appears to be a pair of confident hikers ready to hit the trail, but inside I was having second thoughts. Almost as soon as Max and I entered the woods, the trail sloped steeply upward, and it was immediately clear that our packs were far too heavy. Within minutes my shirt was soaked through with sweat and I was gasping for breath. My thighs burned. Making matters worse was the humidity and 85-degree air temperature. Thank God we had brought plenty of water and were hiking through thick, deciduous woods that blocked the sun.
I chalked up my discomfort to the heat and not being in the best of shape, and that I would soon get used to carrying all that weight. Besides, the flatter sections allowed us to make fairly good time.
Each time we stopped to rest, we were passed by Appalachian Trail through-hikers, whose relatively light, compact packs and stalwart pace left us feeling both envious and foolish. The section of the Long Trail we were hiking is shared by the AT system, so it sees use by both LT and AT through-hikers. Chatting with some of these remarkable people along the way proved incredibly helpful, and all were far too polite to comment on our enormous, outdated, and clearly overstuffed packs.
By 3:00 we had reached the Goddard shelter, where we had originally planned to spend the first night. My goal was to hike 10 miles per day—a modest pace that would give us plenty of time to set up camp and prepare dinner. But Max was having none of it. Learning that the next shelter was just four miles further down the trail, he convinced me to press on. It was the longest four miles I’ve ever hiked.
I staggered up to the Kid Gore shelter just before dusk. Max, who had forged ahead and claimed a flat spot for our tent next to a small stream, was waiting for me. We hastily set up our tent and a hammock, fired up our new MSR PocketRocket stove (the best thing we bought), and boiled some water for our first freeze-dried dinner. It proved surprisingly tasty and filling!
Great, but we had brought double the amount of these meals than we needed, not to mention freeze-dried eggs, beans, tuna, peanut butter, jerky, trail mix, and assorted energy bars (what were we thinking?). When it was time to load all this food into our new bear-proof canister, we found that it only held half our provisions. Fortunately, the shelter had a set of steel lockers chained to a tree for food storage, so we didn’t have to deal with hanging our remaining items from a tree limb.
As we soon learned from a fellow hiker, the bulky, critter-proof, hard-sided keg we had bought was overkill. He explained that a lightweight, puncture-proof Ursack was preferred by through-hikers if the communal steel boxes were unavailable. Lesson learned, but that still left us with the canister and all that food to lug around for the rest of our trip. I figured plenty of hikers would be happy to take some of it off our hands; however, all of them had planned their meals well in advance and didn’t want any extra weight. We couldn’t dump the food in the woods or leave it at the shelter, so we were stuck with it like a proverbial albatross around our necks—or backs, as it were.
That night, we both slept fitfully, despite being exhausted. The hammock, which had seemed to Max like such a grand idea, turned out to be uncomfortable to sleep in and left him vulnerable to mosquitoes, so he crawled into the tent around midnight.
The next morning, we packed up our gear and food, downed a freeze-dried breakfast, refilled our water bottles at the stream with our new filter (not the kind used by through-hikers of course), and willed our sore legs down the trail. I knew we wouldn’t be able to cover another 14 miles, but we somehow managed 12. Now that we had reached elevation, most of the trail followed ridgelines and remained fairly level. Still, any sections that required climbing proved painfully slow and strenuous. I wondered how long it took AT through-hikers to acclimate to covering 20 miles per day, for months on end.
As I had feared, the humid air that had settled over the Green Mountains eventually spawned thunderstorms, and we were overtaken by one just before reaching our campsite on Stratton Pond. As Max and I hunkered in the woods, soaked and waiting for the downpour to end, we looked at each other and wondered if this was supposed to be fun.
The Stratton Pond campsite turned out to be beautiful, and we arrived in plenty of time to set up camp and relax before dinner. Although this tenting area was in the process of being upgraded, it nevertheless featured a new moldering toilet and a large steel box for food storage, as well as access to a small bathing area on the pond. We slept better, as well, only occasionally disturbed by the calling of loons and barred owls.
The humidity had lessened somewhat by the next morning, and we took our time packing up and hitting the trail. Instead of continuing along the LT-AT, we elected to take the Lye Brook Trail to Manchester and the end of our hike. This less-traveled trail is narrower and more overgrown, and early on we found ourselves at a loss when it vanished altogether amid a tangle of meadow grass and bogwater created by a beaver pond. We almost turned back, but then I spied a sign marking the entrance to the Lye Brook Wilderness Area on the other side of a small stream. We got back on track, and followed the trail through a mix of pine stands, bogs, raspberry bushes, and more of the same mixed-deciduous forest we had plodded through the previous two days.
By this point, our cumbersome, ill-fitting packs—like evil trolls that would latch themselves to our backs each morning and demand to be carried—were causing severe discomfort to our shoulders and waists. I was also increasingly concerned by a sharp pain in my left knee, which grew worse as the day progressed, particularly on downhill stretches. I prayed it would hold together.
Around noon, we noticed that the trail began to follow the course of an overgrown roadbed, perhaps one used for logging or quarrying in the area. It descended gradually over the course of the last three miles or so, leading along the edge of a steep ravine covered by hemlock forest. Soon, we began to encounter day hikers headed to scenic Lye Brook Falls, and knew we were nearing the trailhead. The sound of motor vehicles grew louder, and at 3:30 we emerged at the Lye Brook parking area, where we gratefully shed our packs for good.
I won’t lie: It had been a grueling hike, and we were glad to be done. However, in retrospect, I realize it would have been more enjoyable if we hadn’t handicapped ourselves. At the very least, the experience proved part adventure, part education, and I have immense respect for the long-distance hikers who dedicate weeks and even months to the trail.
Max and I aren’t sure when or if we will attempt another multiday backpacking trip. But if I do, we will be sure to remember the following: