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Backpacker Magazine – November 2008

Pack Man: The Appalachian Trail Guru

Thirty miles up the trail from Springer Mountain, Winton Porter shelters and feeds thru-hikers–and works tirelessly to slash their pack weight.

by: Jim Gorman, Photos by John Johnston

Winton Porter
Winton Porter
Packs outside Mountain Crossings
Packs outside Mountain Crossings
Porter shows Serafin how to drop 10 pounds
Porter shows Serafin how to drop 10 pounds
Socks drying outside Mountains Crossing
Socks drying outside Mountains Crossing
Porter's boot collection
Porter's boot collection

Porter has his own take. "We are backologists, shoeolgists, psychologists, and sociologists who happen to sell gear to solve the first two and by default have learned to deal with the last two," he says.

Which means that the 42-year-old Porter–a tall, loping Georgian prone to calling everyone "brothuh"–runs his business more like an extension of the AT community than a typical retail store. Making someone's day–by driving a replacement backpack 37 miles up the road to a thru-hiker stranded in Hiawassee or offering chiropractic massage free of charge–takes precedence over making a profit. Short on cash? Then clean the bathrooms or chop wood for half an hour and stay free. Got an emergency? Borrow the beat-up Toyota Previa van to get to town.

The Shakedown, an item-by-item inspection of a backpacker's possessions, is an extension of Porter's karma-meets-commerce approach. The typical Shakedown requires at least an hour and as many as four. "Spend that much time with a customer and you'd get reprimanded or fired at most stores," says Porter. "For us, it builds tremendous loyalty."

As a result, and despite its remote location, Mountain Crossings hums with activity. Prospective thru-hikers journey here from throughout the Southeast–on a recent visit, customers were up from as far away as Jacksonville, Florida–to receive the full Mountain Crossings treatment. Northbound 2008 thru-hiker Britt Mammenya wrote in the store's logbook, "I'm sad to leave, but thankful for the rest and advice."

Visitors also get a dose of AT and hiking history. Inside the former inn, a loosely curated collection of packs lines the walls–from a circa 1920 Adirondack basket to a wooden Trapper John to one of Gregory's first internal frames. Next to the credit-card machine leans an 11-pound metal hiking staff carried by a southbound thru-hiker (nicknamed Rebar, of course). Hundreds of worn and abused boots hang from every rough-hewn chestnut post and beam. Porter says it's the start of his Museum of Old Soles. "I'm shooting for 2,175 boots, one for every mile of the AT."

Porter purchased Mountain Crossings after rising through the executive ranks at Galyan's Trading Company in Atlanta. He wagered his entire 401(k) account as collateral to purchase Mountain Crossings, then tendered his resignation from corporate America on December 6, 2000 (a framed copy of the letter hangs by the case of frozen burritos). His wife, Margie, co-signed the contract from a hospital bed, where she was recuperating from delivering the couple's second daughter, Allison. "We gave birth twice in one week," quips Porter.

Eight years on, Porter finds himself in a spot any passionate backpacker would envy. He's regularly consulted on equipment design by major manufacturers like Salomon; he's co-producing (with Speer Hammocks) the Frog Sac, a summer-weight sleeping bag with arm holes; and his shop will likely appear in Robert Redford's film version of A Walk In The Woods. "Could I have made more money? Yup. Am I richer in other ways? Absolutely," says Porter.

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rather go up
Jan 14, 2012

hat, ltwgt gloves, lighter, headlight, hiking poles, cord for hanging stuff, duct tape - BTW Winton is a great guy providing a valuable service!

Sep 23, 2011 don't need two sets of baselayers.

Sep 23, 2011

Watch out for the shakedowns. They'll replace your $$$ gear with lighter cheap gear.

Lee Thompson
May 23, 2011

So the cold weather list omits any need of a warm hat or gloves...even basic polypro liners...right...and yet you mention the need of a frickin' mug?! What about a lighter or some source of spark production in order to light the stove? Come on...literary license is one thing but that's a pretty egregious omission. Backpacker, you need to update this information...some folks may actually use this, you know?

Monte McCraw
Nov 28, 2009

Geat source of information, and if small minds take offense to literary license and writers opinions, you know what they say, "small matters bother small minds".

Jan 22, 2009

Well, I dont have much credibility as far as hiking the AT, although I would love to. I live up north (MA) and hike on the AT in my area. And all this talk about Springer Mtn being the hardest part? I hear from MA on up to ME is the hardest. How many people back out going southbound starting in ME vs. starting off in GA? Just out of curiosity...

Maria de los Angeles Gonzalez
Jan 07, 2009

A question for Winton. I live in Mexico and like to go trekking nearby my home town. Is it possible that he provides a list of the minimum items needed for a three/five days treking? And maybe mention the most common things we should not include in the backpack and that we carry by error. Thanks a lot.

Pat Florence
Dec 19, 2008

I'll bet most anything that I've logged more miles hiking than Mr. Hayes. There are very few people I've read about or heard about who are more 'real' than me when it comes to hiking. I love Backpacker Magazine even when I sometimes criticize it. Mr. Hayes needs to lighten up. After all, he's arguing about whether or not this is the toughest section of the AT. By definition, that makes it 'arguably the toughest part' of the AT.

Dec 19, 2008

Its funny you make your comment on Back Packer website. I guess your not a real hiker either.

Todd Miller
Dec 19, 2008

Mr. Hayes obviously has some interest in 'fluffy literature' if he's made the effort to read the article.Contrary to his comment, 'real' hikers enjoy Backpacker Magazine. Keep up the good work.

Alex Park
Dec 16, 2008

How does one prepare for such a long trek? The physical endurance and mental capability needed for a trip like that could only be built up by taking the actual thru-hike. Of course it doesn't hurt to be in good physical standing when you embark, but where does one attain that kind of mental preparation? Interesting, I love hiking adventuring and exploring the wilderness hats of to you all, and to the spirit of adventure!

Jeff Gray
Dec 16, 2008

The first 3 days on the trail are a wake-up call for the uninitiated. There's tough stuff ahead, like Kelly's Knob or the first two miles of North Carolina, for sure. By the time a hiker gets to Walasi-Yi any mistakes he or she has made will have begun to compound themselves. Without Winton and his crew the number of folks who bail out after the first week would be even higher.

Jeff Gray

Jeff 'BP' Chow
Dec 14, 2008

Re: William Hayes - I believe this article is re-framing the idea of the "toughest section." Springer to Neels Gap (if that's what you meant to type) certainly isn't the toughest in elevation gain nor in treadway, yet the combination of early spring weather, fresh-on-the-trail thru-hikers, and drop-out rates make this the only section many hikers ever see. More hikers drop out here than anywhere else on the trail and in that sense it is the toughest section.
Frankly, I loved Mahoosuc Notch (famed "hardest mile") and even enjoyed skipping over the PA rocks yet my toughest miles were hiking SOBO on the flat ridgeline South of Waynesboro mid-December - due to loneliness. Toughness is more than physical exertion, it is a perception that is different for each person.
In response to the magazines credibility, many of the editors and writers have hiked large swaths of the trail. And if you question whether someone associated with BACKPACKER has hiked it, turn to page 48 - that's me, and that red line tracing 2175 GPS mapped miles is where I walked.

Jeff 'BP' Chow
BACKPACKER Magazine Map Correspondent
AT 2000-miler

William Hayes
Dec 12, 2008

You obviously know nothing about the Appalachian Trail if you think that the approach trail to springer mountain is arguably the toughest part of the trail. GO HIKE IT THEN WRITE ABOUT IT. most real hikers find Backpacker Magazine an amusing piece of fluffy literature that caters to euipment manufacturers


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