TRIP DETAILS: Dolly Sods outside Elkins, W.Va., is located in the Monongahela National Forest. We arrived on Friday, Oct. 25, and hiked out on the morning of Monday, Oct. 28, camping under the stars for three nights. We took a 10-mile day hike on Saturday and an 11-mile hike on Sunday. We hiked in about 4 miles to camp, for a total weekend mileage of 29 miles. Not all hikers completed the full day hikes. Want to comment on the article? Email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


By Mark Neikirk

The Dolly Sods in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest is home to the worst trails I have ever walked. Miles upon miles of them are creek beds, through which water flows at a depth of six inches or more after a rain.

These are not pebbly smooth creek beds. Rather, they are rocky and uneven so that each step bends the foot and ankle at angles contrary to the previous step. What isn’t rocky is the muck that that seizes boots with powerful suction. It wouldn’t be all that taxing were it only a step or two. But it is endless such stepping, sapping body and mind. Maybe this place should be called the Dolly Sogs instead of the Dolly Sods.

On those rare occasions when the trail is neither wet nor muddy, it is difficult in others ways. Perhaps it is uphill. Or it terminates at a stream, flowing too fast and deep to cross. Or, in keeping with a Dolly Sods recurring theme, it is an unmarked maze that appears to go west or east or both when it actually goes north. Over and again, we arrived at some unmarked junction of trail-like spider legs requiring our best guess as to which path was The Path. Occasionally, cairns were stacked as guidance – acts of kindness by predecessors. The sheer number of vague junctions meant this kind of benevolence had its limits. Hikers would be building cairns until the cows came home and the cows would get lost before they came home. Would it kill the authorities to put trail blazes on the trees like a normal trail?

Having said all of this, I could not recommend the Dolly Sods more highly. The Appalachians are resplendent mountains, old and biodiverse, which means they are rich in living things unlike the stately but younger Rockies out West, where soil occurs in patches. The Appalachians wear a lush robe of soil that nourishes ferns and mushrooms and mosses and grasses and bushes and all manner of trees, deciduous and coniferous. Appalachian streams team with darters and chubs and shiners not to mention a world-class variety of salamanders and, of course, the regal brook trout, a native prince. 

The Smokies. The Red River Gorge. The Shenandoah Valley. The Blue Ridge. Each is a showcase of Appalachian beauty. But none is quite like the Dolly Sods, a sort of geological anomaly that time and its forces have left to us. Its high places are sods, a local word for the mountain meadows that might be called balds were they found elswhere. Here, the balds are vast, continous in some places along the mountains’ rounded ridges and spotted with wind-stunted trees, which look like oversized examples I of Bonsai. The sods are laden, too, with the likes of azaleas, mountain laurel, rhododendron and blueberry bushes alongside the fragile skeletons of long-stemmed wild flowers that, because it is October, have gone to seed so as to repopulate come spring. Off to the side of the high trails are bogs of floating sphagnum moss. And just to add to the otherworldliness of the place, the bogs host the insect-eating sundew plant, its leaves lined with sticky hairs full of a digestive enzyme that renders wayward bugs into fast food. The sundew plant is more typical elsewhere. Like Alaska. Or New Zealand. A botanist could make a career of cataloging the sods and explaining why this and not that.

The bald and bogs end in an instant, and the trail ducks into tall, dense groves of spruce and pines, an enchanted forest where hobbits scurry through the shadows. Somehow, those end abruptly, too, and a hardwood forest is upon you, its birches and maples young because the old growth trees were decimated decades ago by logging and fires ignited by that industry's negligence. "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact. Maybe everything that dies someday comes back." Spirngsteen's lyrics kept playing in my head as we passed through these forests. Now I know why. The hobbits put them there as a reminder: If we just stop killing the planet before we kill ourselves, it will come back ‒ as the Dolly Sods did.

Our high hikes were the Dolly Sods’ north trails on Saturday. Our low hikes were on its south trails on Sunday. A drizzle kept everything damp on Saturday. A deluge overnight added water to an already watery place on Sunday.

We hiked in four miles, getting lost – or in Patio Boy parlance, “misplaced” – once within the first mile. Jim Ankenbauer’s GPS and Bill Ankenbauer’s trail app saved us, guiding us through a bushwhack back to the trail. We took a lesson right out of the Yogi Berra playbook: When you come to a fork in the road, take it. Which is to say, we were often uncertain whether we had chosen correctly. But by 4-ish, we were at camp, setting up tents, cooking dinner and building a blazing fire.

The next morning, we were awakened by the sound of Boy Scouts, who had camped beside us and, in their 14-year-old minds, were certain that all communication must be yelled. God is good, and the Scouts were gone by 7:30 a.m. We set out on day hike around 10 a.m. with a ten mile route. It was uneventful and pleasant as we covered the high trails with relative ease and enjoyed expansive, oddball landscape that is Dolly Sods. Sunday was another story. We headed downhill on a trail wide enough for child (maybe the hobbits blazed it) and wet enough for a fish. Undergrown and overgrowth required ducking and dodging. The trail eventually came to Red Creek, which could have been crossed hopscotch-style a day earlier but this day was too high for that. Two among us, Jim Ankenbauer and Mark McGinnis, had had enough and returned to camp to kick back. I, along with Bill Ankenbauer, Bob Pauly, Brandon Zembrodt, and the Johns (Curtin and Hennessey) pressed on. For this crossing, we took our boots off to remove our socks, then put our boots back on to protect our feet against the stones while preserving the idea (at least) of dry socks. Gingerly, we crossed the knee-deep rapids to the safety of the other shore, were we took time to dump the water out our boots, put our dry socks back on, sip of bourbon to celebrate, and then hike on. Dry socks immediately become wet socks as the residual water in our boots was soaked up by the socks. For future crossings, we just walked on across with less ceremony and precaution.

The rest of the hike included all manner of trail misery: Up. Down.  An infinity of rocks. Muck followed by muck. Trickles of water that gathered depth and flowed into completely submerged trails, including the last incline which was – there’s no other way to describe it – a creek. The sun was setting and within an hour it would be pitch black with a new moon. If this creek was not the trail, we were in deep trouble. It was the trail, which was good but still sort of depressing.

But here’s the thing. I’ve long wanted to reflect on backcountry gear in one of these essays and this trip may have provided the best opportunity to do so. I once told my sister, Marsha Seamans, who was an avid runner at the time, “Sis, there’s no bad weather. Only bad clothing.” She ran the New York City Marathon in a cold and windy rain and came home with this report: “Brother, you are wrong. There is bad weather.”

Well, we had some bad weather. Light rain. Heavy rain. Wind. Cold. Freezing cold. The whole shebang. Our last day, Monday, the sun took command as we hiked out and the Dolly Sods was glorious again. But on the other days, our clothing and all of our gear was tested. Some of it failed. Some of it performed very well. Let us consider the results.

Water bottles: What could go wrong with a water bottle, right? Well, Bill Ankebauer’s tried and true Nalgene “soft bottle” exploded like a popped balloon as I pumped purified water into it. We were left with our largest water container useless for the rest of the trip. Did no one at Nalgene think to account for water displacing air during this process?

Boots: Merrell, you might want to read this, assuming you wish to make your customers happy. John Hennessey and John Curtin are both fond of your brand and others of us used to be. Merrell’s are comfy and affordable. They also leak. Hennessey’s have a metal tag on them that reads, “DRY.” They were only dry after he put Ziplock baggies over his socks. Is this what Merrell had in mind? Maybe on the 2020 model, spend less on the DRY taggie thing and more on an internal water barrier that works. John Curtin’s didn’t leak but the rubber bumper did tear apart on the Dolly Sods’ rocks, which are brutal.

My Zamberlans (“Made in Italy since 1929” and I’m a sucker for anything made there, beginning with bicycles and cars) were perfectly dry, as were most everyone else’s footwear. Bill Ankenbauer loves his Salomons. I think that’s an Ankebauer thing. In any case, they were watertight. On these trails, however, a watertight boot also was watertight from the inside, so once we got them wet on stream crossings, with water coming over the top, they stayed wet. Best boots for the Dolly Sods? A pair Orvis wading boots that take the water in and let it out through little screen-covered holes just above the foot bed.

Good boots require the right socks and, in my opinion, pretreated feet: first, some Vaseline and then some Gold Bond foot power. Less friction, less risk of blisters. Regarding socks, I used to think the thicker the better. More cushion. I’ve found that thin, durable socks are an improvement. The boot should provide the cushion. Heavy socks hold moisture, which in turn increases the risk of blisters. SmartWool has made a lot fans and should. Balega is my brand of choice. Tough. Thin. Failsafe.

Sleeping bags: Bob, Brandon and I each had a sleeping bag rated to 15 degrees, which means, in theory, that if the temperature dipped to 15 degrees we would be marginally comfortable. But if it stayed in the 20s overnight, as I did, we would be toasty. Brandon’s older, reliable Kelty was up to the task. Bob’s new REI bag wasn’t nor was my Hyke & Byke bag. H&B’s bags well-made, no frills bags sold directly to customers and with great customer service (I’ll likely return this bag). The brand’s zero degree bag is warm. The 15-degree bag, not such much.

Pillows: I’d no sooner bragged to Bill Ankenbauer, who was setting his tent up next to mine, about my super comfy Sea to Summit blow-up pillow than, come bedtime, it popped with none of the Hindenburg drama of Bill’s Nalgene bottle but popped all the same, an undiscoverable pinhole seeping air. Every hour or so, I woke up, inflated it again and went back to sleep for another hour. The sombitch cost something like $60. I used gift cards and REI points because I didn’t want to shell out actual cash for such a luxury. And my oh my, it was a luxury. Until it popped. Bill has a good old, non-inflatable pillow with some foam inside. It worked fine.

Sleeping pads: Few things have advanced as much as the sleeping pad. When I started camping, tents came without floors. The pad was the ground or a small tarp. A few people had air mattresses that weighed a ton and took the lungs of Roger Bannister to inflate. Every now and then, someone borrowed a flimsy mattress from the beach and pool toys in the family garage. Those didn’t work.

Along came Thermarest and upped the game. Some of us still use one. Most of us, me included, have gone to modern, lightweight air mattresses that have thermal insulation inside to keep the ground’s chill off the body. These, like inflatable pillows, are great until they get a little hole. There are endless tiny threats in a tent to anything inflatable. Zippers. Sharp pebbles. Pine needles. I had to retire a very comfortable Nemo Tensor for exactly that reason. I now have a Big Agnes Q-Core, which I like well enough but it squeaks more when you move than the Nemo did. Wake up in the night at a group campsite now and you’ll hear all the restless sleepers, tossing and turning on their air mattresses and squeaking like an unoiled door hinge. Throw in the snoring and the gaseous purrs of male posteriors and just you try to get back to sleep. This is why the eventual book about the Patio Boys will be called “Ambien and Air Mattresses.” The combination assures a good night’s sleep.

The worst thing about air mattresses is blowing them up, and the R&D folks at in the camping industry are working on that. John Hennessey has a little battery operated pump. He swears by it. I’m skeptical about one more thing that requires batteries. Bill Ankenbauer bought a new inflator that connects to his pad's valve. Above the connection, the device is just a nylon sack. You open it, it fills with air, you roll the top closed and it forces air in the pad. Seemed like a lot of trouble. It takes 40 breaths to blow up a pad. It’s tiring but over soon, adds no weight and may even burn a few calories.

There’s always the cot. Steve Haughey, who was not with us on this hike, has quite a contraption. Carbon fiber makes it lightweight but assembly is akin to Christmas Eve assembly of your children’s toys, which, in case you’ve forgotten ain’t fun. It’s complex and you are ready for bed. But let it be said: Haughey sleeps better than any of us, suspended a few inches off the ground in a cocoon of comfort. The damn thing probably has a sleep number setting.

Tents: Bill wasn’t so lucky in this department. He has 15-year-old Sierra Designs, two-man tent that he recently sent back to the company so the seams could be retaped. That was kind of them but they rendered it porous in the process. It’s hard enough to sleep in a ripping wind and rain, but even harder when there is a drip, drip, drip from the tent roof onto your nose. Other tents stood up to the test. Eureka. Marmot. Big Agnes is a brand well-represented among the Patio Boys and an innovator in weight-saving construction without sacrificing security in foul weather. Some tents leaked around the edges or around the vestibule. That was a reminder to everyone to set up carefully. Stake tightly. No ground cloth should show outside the fly as it will only collect water.

Stoves: We have had a lot of different stoves over the years but the two most common today are Jet Boils and MSR Pocket Rockets. Don’t Google pocket rocket unless you add the word “stove” unless you want to learn about sexual activities you probably don’t practice.
Mostly, our stoves worked well although someone really needs to invent a better system than the ubiquitous propane tank. You just never know how much is left. If you buy a new one, you’ll go home with some left which you hate to discard but know it is unwise to take what’s left on the next trip. And yes, I know about the float test. I did that. It’s not that great.
So listen up stove people: Make a better mousetrap. You can do it.

Water purifiers: You gotta have water. You don’t gotta get giardia. And trust me. You don’t want it. It’s sort of like colonoscopy prep only it lasts longer. In the back country, you must purify your water.
A water plant operator who biked cross-country told me he did so with a small bottle of Clorox and an eyedropper. Skeptical? Me, too. I’m fond of iodine pills if the streams are more or less clear and don’t need the grit removed. But most of my fellow hikers don’t like the pills’ aftertaste. So water pumps are de riguer. Brandon has an old MSR Miniworks with a pump handle on top and a ceramic filter. It was primo in its day. Fast. Easy to clean in the field.
Here’s his description of its current performance: “As John Curtin said, ‘Put that Old Bessy away and see what this thing can do,’ referring to Jim’s $350 MSR Guardian. The Miniworks was slow and had to be cleaned every half liter or so. It was still did the job, but it’s no match or the Guardian.” It was the Guardian that blew out Bill’s Nalgene. That’s real power!

Footnote, because they sort of are, another option is the Steripen, which uses UV light to purify the water. It’s kind of cool and some people trust it. But there’s a lot of procedure involved. And it needs batteries. Techies geek out on the Steripen. Me? Not a fan.

Camp chairs: Speaking of the wisdom of John Curtin – Silver Pops, our wise and senior member – let’s talk about Helinox chairs. What a great invention. Now everyone has them. Some of us are on our second one, buying the Helinox Zero which, at one pound, is half the weight of the original. Pounds matter when you are carrying everything on your back.
But here’s the thing: The chair’s beanpole legs sink into the ground and when you go to get up and a leg is stuck in the ground the whole chair disassembles itself from beneath you and you end up sprattled on the ground. The Ankenbauer brothers have taken to bringing couch coasters to set under the legs. Works. But inelegant.

Silver Pops has a better idea: “We should design a ‘Patio Boys Flex-Spreader’ that will balance camp chairs in the event of wet soils or soils that do not meet the 98% compaction requirement for new camp sites or campers in excess of 215 pounds. I’m at 214 so I am no longer included in the Clydesdale weight category. See Flux Capacitor from Doc Brown in detail below (he included a drawing from the archives of Back to the Future). The chairs would basically offer the same options as Doc’s Flux Capacitor. Larger cascading O-rings.”

I don’t know what larger cascading O-rings are but if they work, I’ll be the first to order Patio Boys Flex-Spreader. Get in line, people. These are going to sale! Maybe we can finally start paying Mark McGinnis for maintaining our website. Or me for writing these fantastic stories. Or Silver Pops for his wisdom.

Tarps: As much as I hate the idea of a tarp, I love the reality of one. I hate them because tarps are bulky and heavy. I love them because rare is the trip with no rain. And when it rains, a tarp is invaluable. Our trips have a social component. If we have eight or so people, as we did on this trip, we want to see each other. Talk to each other. Share bourbon and snacks. Interact. We could each go into our tents and talk through the thin walls of the nylon while lying down – but that’s not the same as circling the Helinoxes under the tarp, the rhythm of the rain soothing us as it plays its paradiddle on the protective plastic roof above us.

Mark McGinnis had a habit of bringing the tarp, much to the appreciation of the rest of us. Unfortunately, Bob, who bequeaths our trail names, dubbed Mark as Tarp Boy, one of the more demeaning trail names. Mark has long been shopping for a new one and now he may have it. Seems he’s a grandfather now (many of us are – the Patio Boys are no spring chickens). So with regard for this new role in life and respect for his past role, we are trying to make Pop Tarp stick. We’ll see if it does.

Pop Tarp didn’t have to bring the tarp this hike. John Curtin brought one, a 10 X 12 plastic-and-grommet number from Home Depot that felt like a load, though in reality it probably weighed no more than three pounds or so. But three pounds or so is like bringing a second tent. Jim Ankenbauer had a lightweight, backpacker’s tarp. It, of course, was grossly more expensive than John’s. What’s money when you are saving weight and staying dry? The answer is: Who’s carrying the weight. John carried his in. I carried it out. Let’s spend some money.

Fire: Well, not actual fire. But some way to start one: matches, a lighter or some modern version of flint and steel, which outdoors retailers sell. See the UST StrikeForce Fire Starter. Sounds like something a Navy SEAL would use, doesn’t it? I’m partial to the Bic, but they don’t do well if they get wet or clogged. Also, don’t put too much faith in the piezo electric igniter’s that come standard on many camp stoves. Those were invented a couple of centuries ago by Ben Franklin. His worked because he tied a sting from a kite to it and flew the kite during an electrical storm. The lighting traveled down the string to the igniter and, presto!, Ben’s JetBoil lit right up. Try it. But without that added equipment, and a good storm, the piezo electric igniter is about as reliable as a Fox News reporter. Every now and then? Yes. Without fail? No.

Old gear: Ah, familiar gear! It’s all about the love and occasionally about functionality.
Bob, our ostensible leader, is a champion of this ethic. His tent is old. His backpack is older. His white hiking pants with the ripped and dangling rear pocket and the billowing, ballooning legs are something the disco Bee Gees might have worn if they were backpackers. And you know the Cro-Magnon man in the Geico commercials? He used Bob’s stove to invent fire. Bob’s evening meals are one of the few he’s purchased new in the last ten years and I’m not sure about those. His oldest piece of gear is a bear bell. He acquired in in 1986 for a trip to Glacier National Park and, given that a bear has not attacked him to date, he considers it as effective as the day he bought it. So, pistol packers, leave them at home. Buy a tiny little bell the size of a squirrel’s nuts, clip it to your pack and walk into grizzly country with every confidence that you will not be dinner. Bob Pauly stakes his life on it. As that line when in Jesus Christ Superstar goes, “What more evidence do we need?” Of course, the subsequent couplet mentions bleeding.

I say all his with a high degree of admiration for Bob, who has his priorities straight. Backpacking can be all about the gear. It shouldn’t be. In any recreational activity there are people with the latest thing, be it golf clubs or fishing rods or cycling shoes or running watches. They never shut up. They just want to talk gadgetry. You know, sort of like I’m doing in this story. But really, a little of that goes a long way – which I why I pledge right here and now to write under 5,000 words. Not a word over. Promise.

Jim Ankenbaur’s oldest thing is a Tilley hat. A Tilley is meant to be bought and worn for years. You can register them. Get yours repaired if damaged. Replaced if lost. A Tilley is timeless. Other gear that comes along may actually be outdated and, by some standards, obsolete and inferior to newer generations of equipment. Proustian perhaps, but we bring these things out remembrances of trips past. Here’s Brandon on his Komperdell trekking poles, the oldest items in his gear inventory: “I have another set of poles that I recently purchased. They are lighter and have a more robust locking system. But the Komperdell poles have been with me on every trip I’ve been on. It doesn’t seem right leaving them back at home. I can’t count how times they’ve saved me from taking a spill or slowing me on downhill decent.”

We all have gear like that. I have a knife my late father gave me. It isn’t modern. It isn’t lightweight. Bill Ankenbauer brings an old Leatherman. It’s a pocketsize toolbox but compared to a pocketknife it is a heavy thing. All I can say is that when you need it, you need it – and I’m always glad someone brought one. In the Tetons earlier this year, our camp stove failed. Eric Krosnes fixed it using a Leatherman. No Leatherman, no cooking stove. That simple.

New stuff: Every trip, someone has something new. Gadgets are part of the fun. I now bring a little metal telescoping tube that looks like a car antenna. You put one end near the coals of a fire and the other in your mouth and blow. Flames come to life. It’s a miracle worker for getting a slow fire blazing. We call it a Clinton. Figure it out. And yes, it might more properly be called a Monica, but hasn’t she been through enough? Bill, on the other hand, deserves the ridicule. He lowered the bar on presidential conduct. Look where that got us.
McGinnis brought a new bladder this trip. Not inside his body, though at our ages we might all want that. You know, one that doesn’t have to be emptied every 30 minutes and one that delivers a stream that makes you feel as vigorous as a race horse. This kind of bladder simply rests inside your pack. Its hose exits the pack, comes over your shoulder and clips to a strap so it is at the ready to deliver hydration on demand. McGinnis reports: “New this trip was a replacement two-liter CamelBak Crux Water Reservoir. It features a bite valve with a leak-proof on/off lever. It replaced a three-liter CamelBak reservoir that had a leaky, non-locking bite valve. I never filled the old one up to 3L, so I went with the 2L.”
Bourbon: Speaking of hydration, the Patio Boys are from Kentucky. Need I say more? Our question, when it comes to bourbon, isn’t whether but which. Woodford Reserve is a popular choice. John Hennessy brought Wild Turkey this trip and I brought its distillery brother, Russell 10-year reserve (so smooth). Bob is fond of Kentucky Tavern, a solid brand from the bottom shelf. Years ago, there was always some Van Winkle among us. We’re priced out of that. There’s a 1968 bottle at our local liquor store for just under $7,000.
Quality is one thing. Quantity another. Like water, bourbon adds considerable weight. I brought nine ounces this trip and shared. Others brought more and, I’ll not name names, still ran out. Doesn’t necessarily mean they should bring more on the next trip ‒ if you get my drift.

Also a factor in this is the taste some have for bourbon and Coke. You can start to see why some packs weigh a lot. Bourbon neat is my advice, though if a hailstorm happens by, have one on the rocks.

A rule of thumb: Jim Ankenbauer has the trail name The Guru because he went to seminary years ago and sort of has an aura about him but also because he’s an unrepentant Gear Hound. He is the guru of gear. “They see me coming,” he said, smiling and talking about camping stores that sell the latest thing. He was the first to have a JetBoil, a Helinox, a Steripen, a sub one-pound tent. The list goes on. He’s a one-man testing lab for the latest thing. Here’s what guides him regarding which gear makes the cut: “I try to draw that fine line between ultralight and comfort. I am always changing and trying different types of equipment to suit my needs. My pack weight is around 26-34 lbs.” Pay attention, kids!
Reading material: Regrettably, I had no reading material this trip because I intended to bring my Kindle Paperwhite but could not find it at the last minute. The Kindle is, by my lights, the perfect camp “book.” You can load the Sunday Times, a couple of biographies, a novel or two. It has light built-in so you can read in the tent without a flashlight. If you forget your reading glasses, you can size up the font. The battery lasts a week. It is nearly weightless.

Weightless is not a word you would use to describe James Clavell’s Shōgun, which is over 1,000 pages of small print. John Hennessey brought a copy along because he was headed to Japan a week later for business and wanted a deep dive into the country’s culture and history. When packing a book, I prefer Shakespeare or Dante. Richard III might be thin and light in the pack, but it’s heavy reading.

Lighter yet is a suggestion from Brandon: a pocket Constitution. They weigh less than a Gideon’s New Testament and might come in handy around the campfire during the next politics and policy debate. A word of caution, however: The Federalist Papers would be a handy supplement as would be any of historian Gordon Wood’s works or maybe scholar Bernard Bailyn’s (editor) collection: The Debate on the Constitution Part 1 and 2. See what I mean – a Kindle is the best option.
What else? Nothing. I promised under 5,000 words and I’m at 4,982. The end.