Once upon a time, in a shelter far, far, away...
Long post; you've been warned.
So, some folks are nearing the final stretch of their AT Thru preparations. You already know more than you give yourselves credit, but I understand the mix of excitement and uncertainty. Best advise anybody can give you is to just walk. Everything else will sort itself out along the way. I, for one, get very envious this time of year.
Avoid injury. That is your most important goal. I thought I would share an experience that some of the longer term members of HF have already heard about, but some of you newer members may not have heard it. It bears repeating as it almost ended my hike in 08'. Rain Man asked for more of the story in another thread and I didn't want to hijack.
I'd have to dig my guide book out to know which shelter I was at, but the place doesn't matter quite as much as the events. However, I can tell you that the shortest route we could find on any of our maps was approximately 25 miles from anything and that anything was a Ranger Station.
I should have known it would be a bad night, the day was filled with ominous warnings. The scariest of which was when I was walking along a narrow section of trail where both sides sloped away fairly dramatically. I was enjoying the moment and cruising along when I was, in an instant, falling through the air. I must have caught a root with my boot or something, but over the edge I went. I clawed and grabbed at anything that went past me, but was sliding downhill on my back and head-first. I managed to grab a passing limb about the same time I crashed into a reasonably think bunch of branches. It slowed me down enough that I was able to get a firm grasp of the limb I had caught. I dragged myself back up to the trail at the same time one of my hiking buddies came along. I was a little rattled, but safe. The rest of the day was full of small problems, one after another.
I decided I wouldn't push my luck and stopped at the next shelter instead of pushing on and stealthing. I wanted a good fire to chase off the chill of the near disastrous fall and a shelter made a good spot for such a fire. We knew there were only a handful of hikers in our area and odds were very good that the shelter would be fairly empty. Combine that with the fact that it was one of the larger shelters in the Smokies, I decided to just set-up my hammock in the shelter and not be bothered with my tarp.
The shelters in the Smokies, in particular, are very easy to hang a hammock within. This one had two sleeping decks, one above and one below. The lower one extended a couple of feet farther into the open area of the shelter. I hung my hammock with the foot-end tied to a 'rafter' at the front of the shelter and my head end attached to a roof beam at the rear of the shelter. The result was a hammock that was basically suspended about 6' in the air, with my head and shoulders above the lower sleeping deck. Hard to explain and I'm a lousy artist, so you'll just have to imagine.
Some friends showed-up and we all headed out on firewood duty. I was anxious to get a fire going and didn't exactly do a good job of making sure my hang was a safe one. Especially considering the precarious nature of the hang in the first place. It was a glorious night of tales and stories around the campfire. Our friends had some good spirits that were shared by all. A couple of young overnighters showed-up and were thrilled by all the stories told by a group of thrus. It was a good night.
Eventually, we all retired for the evening. I crawled into my hammock and fell asleep quickly. The next thing I remember is falling. You know those dreams where you are falling to your death only to awake at the last moment? Well, I thought that's what I was experiencing. But, I didn't "wake-up". I was already awake and really falling. The foot-end of my hammock was falling, while the head-end acted as a pivot point. I'm a back sleeper. The hammock fell and pivoted until I was slammed, back first, into the corner edge of the lower sleeping deck.
I was in my Warbonnet ElDorado, which had a zipper (not full length) along the side much like the Blackbirds of today. However, it had only a single zipper tab. Said tab is near your head when fully closed. Now, these few nano-seconds seemed like minutes as I was falling. In fact, I remember looking at my watch. Isn't that strange? I'm falling in an unknown fashion and I want to know what time it is. It was 12:31 a.m. I'll never be able to forget the time...of all things. When I hit the deck a mighty howl came out of me. Nest can tell you about it. It would be later described by the other hikers in the shelter as one of the most blood curdling sounds they've ever heard. This was when the legend of Cannibal was really born on the AT. Word spread quickly of my animal-like scream. I was asked to repeat the sound in almost every town I went through for the next month by people that had heard about it. I've never been able to repeat it.
Because the head-end of my hammock remained attached to its anchor, I was crammed into the bottom portion of my hammock with extreme pain in my back. I could not straighten my legs under my own weight and pain. With the zipper being at the top of the hammock, far out of reach, I was in a bad place. Luckily, I was with others who came to help; after they determined I had not been attacked by space aliens or something. My hammock was unzipped and I collapsed out of the opening, scared that I had broken my spine and still wouldn't be able to move my legs. I tried to stand and felt myself move. The pain was intense, but I was moving. While everyone was still in shock over what had just happened and having been awakened by such a terrible sound, all I could concern myself with (this is the moment I knew I had a hammock problem) was what happened to my hammock? A fellow hanger who was waiting for warmer weather to hang, went to my hammock to see what had happened. He came back to me and said my hammock was fine, but that the board I was attached to had come out of the wall. "Board? What board?", I asked.
In my hurry to go find firewood and the excitement of others gathering, I had assumed the item I was tying to was as solid as the rest of the shelter. In actuality, it was only a 3.5' length of 2x6 that was placed in a way that disguised its true attachment. It 'looked' solid! However, all that was securing it in place were 2 16 penny nails. I must have moved and caused the nails to finally release after supporting my weight for a few hours.
The rest of the story is just amusing, mostly. Knowing I wasn't going anywhere that night, we decided we'd figure out my options in the morning when heads were a little clearer. With help from my hiking buddy and to the amazement of the other hikers, I set my hammock back up outside of the blue shelter tarp, under the overhang and climbed back in. They couldn't believe I would dare get back into what they viewed as a death trap. I couldn't imagine sleeping on the shelter's decks with my back already in terrible pain. I chewed Vitamin I like candy for a while and finally faded off to sleep. There were sounds later from the woods that freaked everybody in the shelter out. As I laid there in my hammock outside the protective boundary of the blue tarp that hung in front of the shelter, I could hear them talking inside about what a scary sound it was. I finally yelled, "Try sleeping out here on this side of the tarp!" We all laughed and everybody knows that's how to keep the Boogieman away; laughter!
Next morning, we plotted a course and the overnighters carried my pack for me to the next shelter, while I covered the roughly 5 miles over the next 7 hours. A fire was waiting for me at the next shelter as well as my pack. My hiking buddy had built the fire and already had my hammock set for me. The next day, with pack, I went about 17 miles to the last shelter in the Smokies and made Standing Bear Farm the next morning.
I suffered for a couple of weeks with pain. I don't mind pain that much, but the sting of stupidity stayed with me for months. All it would have taken is an extra minute of inspecting my hang to avoid the entire event. I'm still very grateful to the other hikers that were there that night. It could have been very, very bad if I was alone. I'm also grateful that I was able to continue on my journey. It was early in the hike, but I learned the greatest lesson of my journey that night. Never assume anything involved with your hang. Assumptions can do much more than make an ass of you, they can hurt you very badly as well. I can promise you one thing for sure about your Thru, you will want to find corners to cut. Exhaustion, cold, hot, etc. will make you just want to do what you have to do to sleep. Do not be tempted by the short-cuts. Blue-blazing, yellow-blazing, aqua-blazing...all those short-cuts are fine if you so desire, but when it comes to taking short-cuts with your set-up, don't take them.
The first mistake you are likely to make is to leave your boots outside of your tarp on a cold and rainy night. Frozen boots on your feet (once you get them on your feet) are miserable. I can just about promise you'll only do it once. That's your freebie, everybody gets one. After that, the little mistakes you make can carry very heavy consequences. Use your brains and a little caution and you can help avoid disaster. The life of a Thru is a grand and amazing life, enjoy it while you can. Do anything and everything to avoid having to leave that life due to injury. We like to have fun around here and hammocks are truly a blast. But, sometimes we forget that our hobby carries risk and that risk can be significant. I still remember that lesson and a couple others that the AT taught me about hammocking. Even so, I still make the occasional assumption about a hang. What I'm trying to tell you is that no matter how hammock-smart you think you are, it only takes one thing, big or small, to put yourself at risk. I won't tell you to sleep on the ground or anything like that, just don't overlook things about your hangs. Your hammock will take good care of you if you give it the things it needs.
Do well, think better, and enjoy your time out there. You've all got a bunch of folks pulling for you here at HF and elsewhere. Make us proud!
Cannibal...the almost crippled.