Across the state of North Carolina, hikers, bikers and paddlers are gearing up to travel to Elkin for the Gathering of the Friends of the Mountains-To-Sea Trail as the FMST celebrates 40 years on March 24. Although the celebration will extend throughout the Yadkin Valley from the wine and brewery tours, Downtown Elkin Walking Tour and Art Hike, to the Moonshine and Still Hikes on Stone Mountain and many other activities, it is the trail itself that will bring more than 300 travelers to town.
Many locals travel the MST regularly whether they realize it or not. Several trails lay together through the Elkin Municipal Park where families often stroll on days of fine weather. Hiking the trail does not need to be the months-long excursion of a professional like Jennifer Pharr Davis, who will deliver the keynote address during the FMST annual meeting.
“People may think they can’t take off three months to go hike the trail, but you can take off two hours,” stated Betsy Brown, outreach manager for the FMST.
Even for a short walk there are some basic needs that every traveler on the MST should know. “Bringing the proper equipment will add greatly to your enjoyment, your safety, and the enjoyment and safety of the group,” professed Danny Bernstein, guide for the Carolina Mountain Club and author of “Forests, Alligators, Battlefields: My Journey through the National Parks of the South.”
According to hike leader for the N.C. High Peaks Trail Association Jake Blood, the most important thing to consider is “foot ware! I’m amazed when I go out on the trail sometimes. I’ve seen people hiking in heels or sandals. They don’t think about how far they are going. What you put on your feet is how you are getting there,” however far that may be.
Local hiker and member of the Elkin Valley Trails Association Bob Hillyer noted different kinds of shoes or boots are appropriate for different kinds of terrain with tennis shoes working well for flat sections like Elkin Park, however a boot with a “hard sole and light upper part,” is best for a hike on a trail that changes like the MST. “All boots are made for the average person,” cautioned Hillyer. “You probably don’t have average feet.” According to Hillyer, boots can be laced differently in order to accommodate the best fit.
Hillyer warned, “count on getting blisters,” if planning to do any serious hiking, reminding people to carry light weight sandals with them to give their feet an occasional break, especially long-distance hikers.
Socks also can contribute to blistering which is why Gathering sponsor Farm to Feet, headquartered in Mount Airy, has designed a special line of hiking socks in honor of the different types of terrain on the MST with a portion of the proceeds going to the completion and maintenance of the trail. More information on these socks can be found at farmtofeet.com.
Also on the shortest of hikes travelers must consider the weather. “Dress in layers,” cautioned Bernstein. “Your first layer should be a short-sleeve T-shirt even if it seems cool in the morning. Your second layer should be a long-sleeve shirt.” These should be synthetic, not cotton, so as to wick away sweat. Hikes of any distance also should include a warm hiking sweater and rain jacket.
Just as with shoes, terrain should be considered when choosing what to wear on a hike. Although shorts make for better mobility, pants protect better. For long hikes, pants that convert into shorts are ideal.
Although items like a map, compass, flashlight and food may be needed for hikes of more than an hour, other practical items should be carried on all hikes. Insect repellent, sunscreen, sunglasses, a first aid kit and a sun hat should be carried in spite of the weather, terrain or distance. Bags should always be carried in order to take away any trash and leave the trail in better condition. All of these items should be carried in a pack. “Don’t carry anything in your hands,” stated Bernstein. Even wallets, keys and cell phones should be in a pack.
Water should always be carried whether traveling the trail for a few minutes, a few hours or a few days, however this will significantly add to the weight of the pack. “The amount of water to carry depends on the trail and the season you hike,” explained Hillyer. “On the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, hikers will pass many water sources each day. A quick water purifying system means carrying less water and less weight.”
The weight of a pack is almost as important as what a hiker wears on their feet. “Almost every hiker starts out with too much weight. While hiking the first couple of days, you will constantly be thinking, ‘What can I dump to make this pack lighter?’” warned Hillyer.
“Many times weight becomes an obsession. Putting on your pack and cinching down the straps, then cutting off the excess straps might seem extreme, but it saves a few ounces. So does cutting off the tags on your clothes or cutting your toothbrush in half. The biggest weight tends to be water and food. Part of any long distance journey is learning just how little stuff you actually need.”
This becomes more of a problem for those who are on the trail for an extended period of time or who travel with children, although Davis doesn’t feel that kids add much in the way of weight but plenty in the way of experience. “You carry more in your first aid kit and child specific medicines. I also carry a tarp and extra clothes,” noted Davis. “The one thing you always have to consider is diapers and carrying them out. Their needs are minimal. They need you.”
Those traveling the trail by means other than on foot also have unique needs. In addition to items carried for hiking, equipment needs must be considered such as a basic repair kit for bikers and a life jacket for paddlers.
Although packing for a hike may seem daunting, getting prepared is as simple as walking. “If [a person] can walk for miles, they can hike,” stated Bernstein.
“Go do a couple mile stroll. Go to a county park. Walk a bit further than you’re used to then add a little bit more challenge,” said Blood. “Find the hike that lets you get out a bit more but doesn’t leave you stranded if it turns out a bit more than you expected.”
“One thing that I’ve found is people tend to overestimate their own capabilities, especially for new hikers,” cautioned Blood. “Take your time. When you’re on an out-and-back and you start feeling it, it’s time to turn around and come back. When you’re with a group, go at the speed you’re comfortable with. Don’t feel like you have to stay with the front of the group and don’t feel like you have to get to the end before turning back. Make sure you’re comfortable with the trail.”
In a group hike, there is always a sweep. “A sweep is an experienced hiker who stays in the back to make sure no one gets left behind,” explained Bernstein. This allows even inexperienced hikers to take advantage of the education received by trail guides. Most hikers agreed that even on a group hike, people can turn back before they get to the end with an experienced member of the group usually volunteering to turn back with them.
“It’s not always about the destination,” asserted Bernstein. “Everybody’s out there to be with folks. Hearing what others have to say.”
Hiking the MST is really about the overall experience. It’s preparing well so that they physical requirements do not distract from the joy of the environment and the encounters. It’s learning about the state of North Carolina and the differences within and throughout the people, many of whom will be coming to visit Elkin March 24-25 at the Gathering of the FMST.
For more information on the Gathering, including how to become a member of the Friends of the Mountains-to Sea Trail, go to mountainstoseatrail.org/the-friends.
Beanie Taylor can be reached at 336-258-4058 or on Twitter @TBeanieTaylor.