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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

A long-distance hiker's backpack presents a Rorschach test of sorts, the contents revealing clues to its owner's basic personality. Cautious types cram in oversize first-aid kits, emergency whistles, and Mace. The impetuous will carry a solar charger but no lighter. Control freaks schedule every meal and organize everything in color-coded sacks. What then to make of the 62-year-old thru-hiker carrying 125 Viagra pills? Or the hiker known as "Minnesota Smith" who packed nine rolls of toilet paper? Or the guy who pulls out a snorkel mask and flippers?

Porter makes no judgments. He's seen it all while dissecting the innards of thousands of packs during Shakedowns. Serafin's backpack presents no surprises to Porter–but provides plenty of opportunities to save weight and bulk.

"You want to ask yourself, What does each piece of clothing do for me? Does it insulate? Does it stop wind? Does it stop rain?" he says. "Nylon zip-off pants don't do any of those three. If you wear a pair of nylon running shorts over lightweight long underwear, now you have pants that weigh 3.5 ounces instead of two to four times as much."

As Porter painstakingly analyzes every item Serafin carried–from ibuprofen to the pack itself–he sets aside discards in a growing pile. Around the main salesroom floor, the wet and rank contents of three other backpacks are similarly stacked, like so many yard sales, as staffers Adam Heath and Felicity Keddie go through the same process. Each Shakedown session typically nets 12.5 pounds in weight saved. But some yield far more.

Porter still chuckles about "Ranger Rick," who staggered in under an 89-pound pack several springs ago. "It took two of us to carry the damn thing. He had three pounds of coffee and three pounds of creamer and sugar in there. We got him down to 34 pounds. He made it all the way to Katahdin," says Porter.

A pound here and a pound there, and before you know it you're up to four tons, which is the weight of discarded equipment Mountain Crossings ships back home for thru-hikers every year. Porter's pretty certain that UPS uses the Mountain Crossings route to haze new drivers. Another 1,000 pounds in food ends up dumped in the hostel's "hiker box."

Over near the dressing room, Porter kills more ounces with Serafin. He reaches for a synthetic-fill jacket from one of her piles. "If I swap in a MontBell Thermawrap jacket and you wear it with a midweight underwear top, you now have a 10-ounce jacket system instead of a 16.5-ounce jacket." Serafin balks. "If you want to integrate it, great. If not, you won't hurt my feelings," says Porter.

The ounce-saving advice notwithstanding, Porter is no ultralight purist. "Going light with the wrong skill set could get you killed. We sell safety and comfort," he says. "Lightweight is a byproduct of what we do." By the Mountain Crossings method, the ideal load is 30 to 35 pounds, including food and water, for early spring conditions, or 25 to 30 pounds for summer, all stuffed into a 3,800-cubic-inch pack. To get there, Porter has developed a studied process based on distinct systems–clothing, cooking, water, sleeping, footwear, first aid and personal (books, maps, and journals)–each driven down to as low a weight as a customer's budget and experience level allows (see "The Mountain Crossings Method" at right).

Serafin lingers at Mountain Crossings an extra day, waiting out bad weather and mulling Porter's advice. In the end, she buys the MontBell jacket, trusting in Porter that her new layering system of synthetic T-shirt, midweight underwear, insulating layer, and rain shell, when worn in combination, will get her through the subfreezing nights that lie ahead in the Smoky Mountains. When she shoves off, her base load weighs 21 pounds, lighter by 10 pounds than when she arrived. "That's a good diet program," she says. At last report, Serafin had made it through most of Virginia before flip-flopping to the Maine section of the AT to escape the summer heat. The odds are good that Porter will receive yet another testament to the power of his advice. "That's what we get back," he says, pointing to the sprawling collection of inscribed photos pinned to every available surface in the store. In the pictures, men and women pose with beaming smiles and arms upraised atop a rock pile on a distant peak in Maine. "I'm helping people with their dreams."

Jim Gorman won't tell us what his Shakedown revealed.

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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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