Gear list: West Virginia & Appalachians in May

In mid-May I am returning to The Mountain State to guide an intro-level 3-day backpacking course in Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, followed by a more advanced 5-day trip in Dolly Sods Wilderness. Rounding out the guide team will be Alan Dixon, Joseph “Stringbean” McConaughy, and Matthew Bright.

Seneca Creek and Dolly Sods are classic Appalachian environments: lush hardwood forests at lower elevations, thick guard spruce at the highest, occasional open meadows, rain and humidity, and seasonal ticks. My gear list for these locations is relevant to every other backcountry destination along the Appalachian corridor and throughout the Eastern woodlands.

Expected conditions

Gear selection should be driven primarily by:

  1. Your trip objective; and
  2. The environmental and route conditions.

For planning purposes, we assumed normal springtime conditions for this location. When an accurate short-term forecast becomes available, we will tweak our kits.

  • Temperatures. For the month of May, a nearby weather station at Canaan Valley (3200 feet) reports average high and low temperatures of 68 F and 42 F. The average elevation of our route is a little bit higher, so we’re expecting slightly cooler temperatures. Actual temperatures often swing +/- 10 degrees from these norms.
  • Precipitation. The same weather station reports 6.1 inches of rain in May.
  • Daylight. We’ll have ample daylight, since we’re just 6 weeks away from the longest day of the year. Civil twilight starts around 5:30 AM and ends at about 9 PM, giving us 14+ hours of daylight.
  • Footing. The trails are a mix of dirt and rock, and can become wet and muddy. Dolly Sods, in particular, has legendary boot-sucking mud in its peat bogs. In Seneca Creek, the trails are more likely to just become slick.
  • Vegetation. At the lower elevations, we’ll be shaded by a thick hardwood canopy. At high elevations, we’ll find guard spruce. The understory is not prohibitively dense. Both areas have open meadows with tall grasses and brush.
  • Navigational aids. Trails are not blazed, but they are primitively signed. Visibility is usually limited, except when in the meadows. The topography ranges from flat to moderately sloped, and has few distinct features.
  • Sun exposure. In Seneca Creek, the tree canopy blocks out most sunlight. The upper plateau in Dolly Sods has more open terrain, meaning more sun exposure on the occasional sunny day.
  • Water availability. Topographic maps depict regular and perennial streams and springs, except atop ridgelines.
  • Problematic wildlife. We found no reports of bear/human food conflicts. Rodents may be an issue at high-use campsites.
  • Biting insects. Peak tick season starts once warm spring temperatures finally arrive. After walking through tall grass, tick-checks would be wise; permethrin-treated clothing would be a good precaution. Mosquitoes will be out but manageable.
  • Remoteness. A road is never more than a few miles away, but this is a lightly inhabited area — cell service is spotty, and we’re several hours from the nearest medical facilities. These areas are popular with backpackers, but not as popular as destinations closer to the I-95 corridor like Shenandoah National Park.
  • Natural hazards. In heavy rains, Seneca Creek and Red Creek can swell. Wandering off-trail in Dolly Sods should be done cautiously — unexploded ordinances from WWII training exercises are still occasionally found here.
Seneca Creek

Backpacking gear list: West Virginia in May

The applicability of this gear list goes well beyond 3-day trips in Seneca Creek. It could be replicated successfully for any springtime trip in the southern Appalachians (e.g. Appalachian Trail, Smokies, Blue Ridge, Shenandoah, etc.), possibly with small tweaks to comply with local regulations or conditions.

Summary

Here’s a big picture look:

The weight and cumulative cost are both on the high side:

  • These should be physically easy trips for me, and intentionally I’m packing luxuries like sleeping clothes, a bridge hammock, and a decent camera. I wouldn’t be surprised if my pack weighs more when I leave the trailhead — if it’s rainy, I’m going to bring an 8-oz umbrella and 1.5-lb group tarp; and for role-modeling purposes I may keep my food in an Ursack.
  • Keep in mind that I get a lot of gear for free. If I had to pay for everything, I’d shop the sales and I’d seek out more economical substitutes.

Full list

To make this list more viewing-friendly, open it in new window.

If you like the look and organization of my gear list, consider using my 3-season gear list template.

Questions about my selections? Leave a comment.


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Posted in on February 14, 2020
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17 Comments

  1. Doug on May 8, 2019 at 11:56 am

    Role model?! Good job!

  2. Bart on May 9, 2019 at 10:23 am

    Just a comment Andrew.

    It’s GREAT to have someone with your experience who’s willing to even discuss gear.

    In listening to the other hiking superstars, I’ve gotten the impression that they’d rather go through a tax audit, than talk about the gear they use.

    Contrary to their belief…choosing the right gear is ACTUALLY important.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 16, 2019 at 8:58 am

      That’s an interesting observation, but I don’t follow other hiking superstars enough to say if I agree with you or not. The ones from my generation (e.g. Trauma and Cam) have had plenty to say, with books or website content. Maybe the newer Instagram stars and vloggers are different. What are they not saying that you wish they would?

  3. Bart on May 16, 2019 at 11:23 am

    It seems like every times Anish is asked about her gear, it’s like pulling teeth.

    Jennifer Pharr Davis specifically asks to NOT be asked about what gear she uses.

    Yes, Cam is great, and I’ve adopted many of his philosophies about gear.

    Andrew, it seems like if you were to change your YouTube channel to weekly lessons similar to Dixie of Homemade Wanderlust, or Darwin…sheesh, you’d have like 300,000 subscribers.
    If they can get 180,000 subscribers, then I KNOW you’d get double.

    You could also do stuff like shakedowns of people’s gear in your guided groups.

  4. Kevin O’Leary on May 17, 2019 at 3:24 pm

    Hi Andrew, I’ve been following your adventures for years. I live in Pasadena, CA and hike the Sierras as often as I can. Just read the article in the SF Chronicle about your Yosemite High Route, which is now on my bucket list!!
    I agree with Bart in that I wish you would put out a vlog, ala Dixie. As your time is valuable and weekly might not be an option perhaps monthly? I’m not one that makes knee jerk reactions regarding my gear, however as I’ve gotten older I have made the move to UL backpacking. With your wealth of experience and knowledge in this area I’m certain you’re sharing it would be appreciated by all of your followers. Hope to see you on a trail someday.
    Kevin

  5. Bart on May 18, 2019 at 11:11 am

    Maybe throw in sit down chat-sessions with Anish, Stringbean, Cam, Lint, Billygoat, etc.
    That’d be super interesting.

    It seems like that new awareness by the public would make your guided trips explode.

  6. Bob S. on May 22, 2019 at 12:26 am

    I live in deer tick infested area where 50% of ticks carry Lyme so I added a tick removal tool to my basic first aid kit. It’s way easier than trying to tweezer them off.

  7. Cathy on February 15, 2020 at 5:18 pm

    I live in New England and do most of my trips there with my husband. I’m interesting in moving from a tent to a hammock for all the reasons you have given, having had far too many nights on extremely hard ground on the LT, AT, and similar trails. A couple of years ago we cut a weekend trip short because we could not find a spot for our tent at the location we had planned to spend the last night, so we bailed and drove home (roadhead was not far away). But getting hubby to switch to a hammock too will double the costs and probably get some resistance.

    In this article, you are using a hammock yourself on a guided trip. Do you require all the participants on this trip to also use hammocks, rather than tents or tarps? Or do you find that the hammock people and ground people can readily find compromise sites in Eastern forests?

    • Andrew Skurka on February 15, 2020 at 6:58 pm

      We don’t require that clients on the WV trips use hammocks. We encourage it, and we have four systems available for demo, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen even a 50/50 split between hammock and ground sleepers — most client still sleep on the ground.

      My experience with campsites back East is that it’s very location-dependent. Where we run our trips, good ground sites are actually commonplace. But along sections of the Appalachian Trail, especially where it stays atop a narrow rolling ridge, camps can be hard to come by, especially one that could accommodate a dozen people.

  8. Dave P on February 18, 2020 at 11:56 am

    You list Hind running shorts, 6-in inseam. Then you list gaiters and say to “Wear over pants to create tick seal.” Shorts – pants?

    • Andrew Skurka on February 18, 2020 at 12:08 pm

      You’ll notice that I have pants, too, under “Clothing – Element Protection.”

      What’s difficult to make clear in an online gear list is that there are usually a few last-minute modifications based on the forecast or on recent trail reports. For example, last year I didn’t even take shorts, because the forecasted high temp was never more than 40 degrees. And if we were to encounter lots of ticks during our first session, I’d probably drop the shorts for the second outing and just wear my pants the whole time.

      But three months out, you assume average conditions plus/minus, so that you’re generally prepared for what you get but so that you can also tailor your kit last-minute without having to make an emergency trip to the gear store.

  9. Mike G. on February 18, 2020 at 12:40 pm

    Thanks for the updated Gear Lists Andrew…always interested to see what you’re bringing where.

    I noticed that you don’t pack a bandana or towel or something similar to dry wet items. What do you do with your pots and mug specifically after you’ve eaten out of them and washed them? Even if it’s a clean meal and there’s no food residue leftover, I find mine are always wet enough that I don’t want to pack them away without drying.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 18, 2020 at 1:18 pm

      My pot came with a mesh nylon stuff sack, and it will absorb a little bit of water when I wipe out the pot for a final time. I will also let the pot air dry some.

  10. Dave on May 27, 2020 at 9:15 pm

    How do you check for bear-human issues in WV backcountry, eg, Dolly Sods, Cranberry, etc? We are looking at a trip in the Cranberry in June and am wondering about the level of food protection needed there.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 2, 2020 at 4:28 pm

      Read trip reports, call the local ranger district (ask about bear/human conflicts, not how you should store your food), ask a question on a hiking forum.

      I’d offer you specific info, but I have not been to either of those locations.

      • Rick Richardson on June 21, 2020 at 9:37 am

        I’ve hiked in the Cranberry Wilderness and Dolly Sods numerous times beginning in 1974. It’s definitely worth noting that the Cranberry Wilderness is a Bear Preserve as well, and the NFS campsites have hi-tech bear proof garbage disposal systems with extensive cautionary notes. Dolly Sods is a higher elevation with no such concerns. High winds and sudden temperature drops ARE a concern, even in May. Enjoy!
        Rick

        • Dave on June 22, 2020 at 9:28 am

          Thanks for the replies, folks. FYI about bears in the Cranberry on June 18-19, 2020…
          – Richwood Ranger Station is the POC. The person there said no *reported* human-bear interactions “in the seven or so years I’ve been here.”
          – We saw one black bear on western end of Big Beechy Trail #207. It was crossing Beechy Run creek 100 yards upstream from the confluence with Middle Fork of Williams River. We camped nearby and had no issues. Used a bear cannister.
          – No bear scat on the Big Beechy Trail #207.
          – 4-6 scat piles right on the trail of gray, tubular, hair-filled turds. Sure looked like mountain lion scat even if FS says no cats in the Cranberry.
          – Jfyi, plenty of down trees across the trail (ie, I counted 55 serious step-overs incl. six downed trees that obliterated the trail and required considerable diversion).

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