Early Season Backpack Trip: The Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts

I’d been threatening an early season backpacking trip for years. It’s a great time to hit the trail: there are no bugs, the leaves aren’t out to block your view and you usually have the path to yourself. For some reason I never pulled it off. Until now. On Patriots Day weekend last month, I hiked a 30 mile section of the Appalachian Trail with a couple of friends. We started in Vermont about 4 miles from the Massachusetts border, and headed south to Dalton, Massachusetts.

April is a tricky month for any outdoor endeavor in New England. It can be wet, nasty, cold and even snowy. We lucked out weather-wise in a big way. The forecast was so perfect I didn’t even pack a rain jacket. Here’s what it was like the entire time:

Appalachian Trail section hike Massachusetts

Looking northwest from Mt. Greylock at Williamstown, MA

Before we could hike, we had to get to the trail. That involved getting up at 1:30 a.m. and driving four hours to Dalton where we met Dave Ackerman. We left our car at the end point of the hike and Dave shuttled us to County Road in southernmost Vermont where we would start. I found Dave on a shuttle list maintained by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. If you’re planning a hike anywhere on the AT you can find shuttles from Georgia to Maine on this list.

After a 30 minute drive, Dave courageously drove his Honda Civic down the sketchy County Road to get us to its intersection with the AT. I would have been pleased to get within a mile or two but he plunked us down right on the trail.


The obligatory pre-hike yard sale scene where gear is split up between expedition members.

The weather was crisp and cool as we trudged off. My new ultralight Hyperlite 3400 Windrider pack weighed about 28 pounds, and that was with a 6-pack of beer I had snuck aboard for the first night. Without that silly luxury it would have weighed in at about 23 pounds. More about the pack later.

Starting out at about 2,200 feet of elevation, we skirted a ridge that offered excellent views of the Taconic Ridge to the west in New York. The forest was just the kind of open, airy type I love. The hiking was fast, smooth yet relaxed. I could not have hoped for better conditions.

About 4 miles in we crossed into Massachusetts and started the descent to Route 2 in North Adams. We followed the exquisite Sherman Brook through Clarksburg State Forest  most of the way. This was a cold, clear brook that looked like it should be loaded with trout.

After crossing Route 2, the AT was road-bound for a mile or so before we started heading up the northern flank of Mt. Greylock. While Greylock is nowhere near as tall as Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, it is similar in that it has broad shoulders that command the view from all directions. The ridge line the AT traverses over the mountain is a good 7 or 8 miles long with spectacular views. We slogged up three miles of steep switchbacks before we found the excellent Wilbur Clearing Shelter. My buddy Jim was a bit tired:

Wilbur Clearing Shelter. Massachusetts AT section hike.

First hike of the season.

When I produced the 6-pack of Funky Bow So Folkin’ Hoppy IPA, Jim’s energy level improved noticeably. The three of us quickly polished off the beer, ridding me of almost 5 pounds of unnecessary weight. We enjoyed a great night at the shelter entertaining a young lawyer from Boston whose backpacking gear ranged from a 40 year old tent to brand new blue jeans. He even brought a huge hardcover book that must have weighed 5 pounds. Beer was a much wiser choice.

Day 2 dawned clear as a bell and it was time to head up and over the summit of Greylock. Because of the stellar weather, we began to see a lot more folks out for day hikes up the mountain. We came by the legendary Thunderbolt Ski Trail I had read about. It looked way too steep and narrow for my limited alpine skills.

Thunderbolt Ski Trail, Mt. Greylock. Massachusetts AT section hike.

Thunderbolt Ski Trail, Mt. Greylock.

The mercury was pushing 75 degrees yet there were icy patches in the shady spots. The summit was a little anticlimactic because of the paved road and buildings. Although the monument on top was interesting:

Massachusetts AT section hike.

War Memorial Monument, Mt. Greylock.

We quickly moved away from the summit and traversed the ridge of the mountain before beginning the descent down its southern side. We came upon the Mark Noepel Shelter, our destination for the night. This was the finest shelter I’ve ever stayed in with bunks for 4 and a loft that could probably sleep 6 more. We had it to ourselves.

Day 3 was once again absolutely stellar. We had 13 miles to cover from Mark Noepel Shelter to the car in Dalton. If anything, it was going to be a bit warm for a long hike. The descent down into Chesire was one of the finest pieces of trail I’ve ever been on. The footing was smooth so I could actually take a full stride without worrying about tripping on a root or rock. We cruised through some pavement in Chesire, checked out the Big Cheese Monument (not big and not impressive) before heading up the final ascent of the trip on North Mountain. Near the top we passed The Cobbles, a spectacular rock outcropping that gave awesome views of Mt. Greylock and Chesire Reservoir. The remaining 7 miles went by in a flash and soon we were back at the car, ready for the long drive home. I left with the feeling that I could not have picked a better 30 mile section for an early season backpack trip.

The Gear

Hyperlite 3400 Windrider Pack

My brand new Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider pack was a revelation. I’ve always thought packs were overbuilt, over-designed and crammed with too many bells and whistles that just meant unnecessary weight. The Windrider is the answer to my dreams. It’s definitely no frills but that does not mean comfort is sacrificed. It’s made from 100% waterproof, supertough Dyneema Composite Fabrics (formerly known as Cuben Fiber) so you don’t need a pack cover in case it rains. It has a simple foam back panel with lightweight, removable aluminum stays. The shoulder straps and hip belt are simple yet comfortable, with closed cell foam for padding. The hip belt has two small weatherproof pockets perfect for a camera, phone or GPS. Three mesh outside pockets hold water bottles, maps and other gear you want close at hand. The top features a roll-top closure just like a dry bag. Thoughtfully designed compression straps keep your load stable. And best of all, it weighs only two pounds. So scrap your heavy pack and get one of these! Check it out at the Hyperlite web site.

Sea to Summit X-Pot

More awesomeness, especially if you’re looking to save space and keep weight down. Generously sized at 1.4 liters, the X-Pot is built with silicone sidewalls so it collapses down into a thin disk when you need to throw it in your pack. The hard-anodized aluminum base lets you boil water or heat up meals. The clear lid has a built-in strainer for pasta night. It weighs only 9 ounces. It’s not cheap, but if you’re a serious backpacker, it’s a must-have. Learn more.

Sea to Summit Insulated Comfort Light Sleeping Pad

Okay, here’s where I get to be a little critical. First, the positives: it’s lightweight at 20 ounces and packs down tiny to about 9″ x 4.5″, a little bigger than a Nalgene bottle. The negative: it’s just not that comfortable. If you’re a back or stomach sleeper it’s adequate. As a side sleeper, I found it to be pretty unforgiving. Maybe over the course of a longer trip I’d get used to it, but over two nights I was wishing for my heavier but more comfortable Therm-a-Rest. Another plus is you can inflate it very quickly with just a few puffs of breath. See it here.

Good-To-Go Gourmet Dehydrated Meals

We splurged for this trip by picking up some Good-to-Go dehydrated backpacking meals. Pricey at $11.50 per night per person, I felt they were worth the expense for a two-night trip. Anything longer would have had us preparing our own dinners. I had the Herbed Mushroom Risotto and Classic Marinara with Penne. They were by far the best dehydrated meals I’ve ever had, especially the Marinara. All their meals are vegetarian, so in a quest for protein and calories we supplemented by adding some canned chicken. See all of their offerings.