My Appalachian Trail – Dialing In The Gear with a Shakedown Hike


Hiking gear is just one piece to a thru-hike puzzle, but if not taken seriously, can be the catalyst to ending what might’ve been a successful trek. Gear too heavy, unnecessary gear, wrong clothing for the weather, cook systems that take too long to prep food or ill-fitting shoes and backpacks can make you miserable and spell disaster and doom your thru-hike attempt long before you even take that first step. I learned this lesson the easy way, by reading books like a Baby Boomer and watching YouTube like a Millennial. My research bordered on a sickness. To call it an obsession would be an understatement, but it was one of the pieces to the puzzle that I felt I had any sizeable degree of control over and I wasn’t going to let it become my Achilles heel.


My Appalachian Trail – By The Numbers

I had one goal… go “light.” “Ultra-light” would be difficult, but somewhere in between seemed reachable. Ultra-light hikers are so minimalistic, they knowingly deprive themselves of comforts they’ve already learned to do without. I wasn’t there yet. Christmas helped fill some of my pressing needs gear-wise, and by a few weeks into the New Year, I’d finished my shopping. I now had everything I needed (I hoped, and I’d soon find out).


I enlisted my good friend, Robin Phillips and his brother Paul to join me on my first shakedown hike, a section hike of the Florida Trail. They’d both successfully thru-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail 40 years earlier and Paul had completed the entire Pacific Crest Trail after that. They still section hike once or twice a year with their families so they’re both experienced, proven hikers and would make great mentors to help turn my fantasy into a reality.

Robin had suggested the 72-mile long section of the Ocala National Forest. We’d planned it as a five-day hike, ambitious for a newbie like myself but with no mountains to summit, it seemed doable. Because Paul is a physician it had to be planned months in advance. It was early fall when we picked mid-February assuming the weather would be nice and cool and the bugs wouldn’t be a problem (neither of which would pan out as our reality).

In an effort to reduce my living expenses and plan for a five-month hiatus from work, my wife and I had decided to put our home of 21 years up for sale. The plan was to pay off debt and downsize to a townhome. Our current mortgage was paid off but we still had a sizeable line of credit that needed to be dealt with along with a few credit cards. The home sold in record time, it never even made it to an MLS listing, we simply put a sign in the yard, held two open houses, and it sold for the asking price. It was late December and the closing was set for February 20th, the day before I was scheduled to leave for my shakedown hike… oops.

Within a few weeks, we’d negotiated the purchase of a townhome clear across town. That closing was also scheduled for February 20th. Because my work schedule had me out-of-town for most of January and February, my wife jumped into hyperdrive using her organizational and packing skills and rented three storage units, making several dozen trips herself to migrate all our boxed-up belongings out of the home. We’d solicited some very close and Saintly friends to help with the heavy stuff and by the closing date, it was done. We were out of the home of our dreams and into an empty townhome. I left for my five-day shakedown hike the next day leaving my wife in tears in a new townhome with all our furniture still in storage. Did I mention I’m apparently the biggest a-hole of a husband in the history of husbandry?

I picked up Robin and Paul the next morning at 7:30 am and drove to Ocala to meet up with another photographer friend, John Jernigan. John had offered to keep my car and provide drop-off and pick-up service for us. We made it to the Clearwater Lake trailhead on the southern edge of the Ocala National Forest about 11 am and were on our way. John took a photo of the three of us to provide the authorities with a poster-worthy image once we went missing. He had his doubts about our chances of making it.

Day one went well. We made it from Clearwater Lake to Alexander Springs, about 12 miles. It was hot, very hot, like low 90’s hot, sunny, and for about five or six of those 12 miles we were walking through a controlled burn. The Forestry Service was burning the scrub on both sides of the trail and occasionally we literally had active flames just a few yards from our ankles. Much of the burn had occurred days earlier so everything was black and smelled bad but still smoldering. That made the rain that followed a welcome sight. We never even stopped to put on any rain gear, we just allowed it to wash the burnt smell off ourselves and cool things down.

When we checked into the Alexander Springs campground late that afternoon, we were informed that a large section of the Florida Trail was closed at Juniper Springs, about 15 miles north of us. Seemed a bear trampled a woman’s tent and scratched her leg, nothing serious, but anytime a bear gets aggressive they close the trail until the bear can be put down or relocated. The suggested detour would have us walking about 40 miles out of our way along highways that border the park. We certainly didn’t want to do that so we elected to continue hiking about nine or ten miles northward the next day and camp at Buck Lake, then return the way we came, turning our five-day, 72-mile hike into a four-day 45-mile hike. After all, the goal wasn’t as much to cover miles as it was to use and get familiar with my gear. We’d be cutting the trip short by a day but still had enough time to meet my shakedown goals.

Day two was a shorter hike but not by much. We arrived at Buck Lake and the place was empty, giving us the illusion it would be a great night and we’d be tenting on grass, on level ground, within a few yards of a hand pump providing fresh water and a huge (albeit gator-filled) lake to cool off in, and a night of peace and quiet. We couldn’t have been more wrong…


Kevin Newsome
Kevin Newsome
KEVIN is a past president of three professional photography organizations, and earned the designation of Certified Master Photographer with the Professional Photographers of America. He is a published author, and an accomplished speaker/instructor at state and national professional photography conventions and schools throughout the US and Canada. Full-time professional photographers, Kaye and Kevin Newsome, are well known for providing high quality photography for Tampa’s families, children, high school seniors, executives, and providing corporate event and convention coverage throughout the US. Kaye earned an Associate of Science degree in photography from the Art Institute of Ft Lauderdale, and also serves as the Executive Director for the Florida Professional Photographers, Inc. She was the very first photographer in the state of Florida to be accepted into the National organization, Special Kids Photographers of America, certifying her talent and abilities in photographing children with special needs. Together, they photographed over 800 weddings before redirecting their documentary style and journalistic talents toward corporate events, award banquets, and conventions around the country. They earned enough trust and respect from their brides and grooms, that they quickly created a children and family portrait business. In time, that evolved into a very successful high school senior portrait business. The digital age brought a huge demand for their talents in the executive headshot business. And since the very beginning, they’ve met the demand for foreign passport photos (measured in millimeters) and copy and restoration of old photos. Over time, their talents were honed in each of these genres, and today, their studio is capable and qualified to provide photographic services in a host of areas for both the consumer and corporate markets.

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