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Buck30 - Israel National Trail Journal - 2016

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Brian (Buck-30)
Begins: Oct 17, 2016
Direction: Southbound

Daily Summary
Date: Wed, Nov 30th, 2016
Start: USA
End: USA
Daily Distance: 0
Trip Distance: 638.0

Journal Stats
Entry Visits: 3,097
Journal Visits: 10,234
Guestbook Views: 82
Guestbook Entrys: 8

Last SPOT Location

INT Summary and Planning

Here's my INT write-up.

This will mostly be written for the American thru-hiker since that's what I
am and I probably struggled with things Israelis wouldn't struggle with and
vice versa.

OVERALL: Whatever you do, only hike this trail in the SPRING.

The trail is really 2 different parts. The northern 60% or 600k (the North)
and the southern 40% or 400k (the Negev). I really disliked the North.
Israel is a small country and while I knew it wouldn't be a wilderness hike
I was unprepared for how non-wilderness it would be. Practically the entire
North is over cultivated with farmland, agricultural trees, water projects,
roads and villages. Every single view you are looking at is civilization. I
get it, small country, security/economic issues, you use the land. You are
almost exclusively hiking on dirt roads, probably over 90% of the "trail"
in the North are dirt roads. It's very noisy. It's very hard to find a
place to camp that is quiet. Frequently it smelled terrible from manure in
farm fields. And there is trash everywhere. People in this country just
throw their trash on the ground or wedge it in rock crevices. And the worst
part is they don't bury their shit or toilet paper. At any moment on the
trail if you stopped and looked around you could spot a piece of trash. I
saw more trash in one day on the INT than I've seen in my combined all
other hikes I bet. Anytime you are looking for shade from the hot sun and
you find that lone shade tree. Guess what? Someone has taken an unburied
shit under it and left their toilet paper.

The guidebook has this amazing description of the North and I wouldn't say
it's untrue but it's like a lie from omission. It uses the word "trail"
when it's all dirt road. It doesn't really mention anything from the above.
Probably the only thing I truly enjoyed from the North were the caves,
ruins and all the ancient stuff. That and the occasional canyon or Reserve
but they seemed few and far between. Also, 2 days of beach walking along
the Mediterranean to Tel Aviv was great. It seemed like no matter where I
was I could hear noise or see over cultivated lands or smell the farm
fields.

However, this is partly why I say to hike in SPRING. Not that the above
would be changed but everything would be greener, the wildflowers would be
up, the birds might be migrating overhead and there will even be some
natural water here and there (although probably polluted/contaminated).
Does all of this offset my feelings? I don't know. All I know is I would
never hike anytime but SPRING.

On the flip side of the North, the Negev was absolutely amazing. Definitely
in the top 10 sections of trail I've ever hiked. It is much, much harder
than the North but oh so worth it. It's really rugged and beautiful. I
won't drone on cause you'll love it, go hike it.

All other hikers I met (mostly Israelis) said they liked the North better.
This was because the Negev is so much harder. I guess they'd rather have
boring trail but have more water, food, trail angels, etc. I'd much rather
put in the hard effort and enjoy a hike like the Negev.

The one issue with my Spring plan above is that you will want to start in
the South at Eilat and head north as the temperatures heat up in the Negev.
The Negev is much harder and you'll be dealing with the water issues and a
foreign country (although almost everyone speaks some English and most very
well). It's much easier to start in the North and by the time you get to
the Negev you'll be a pro. But you don't want to hike south in the spring,
it will be pretty hot by the time you get there.

WATER: See my previous entry on how to do the Negev without caching water.
It's easy.

Water in the North is OK. It was warm and humid enough for me that the
water seemed far apart even though it really wasn't. I had water at least
once a day and usually multiple times. Don't bother with bringing water
treatment as basically 99% of what you will be drinking are from faucets
and water fountains which sucks cause the water was always luke warm and
mediocre. Although maybe in the Spring you'll have more natural sources so
you might be able to drink some of that but there is so much agricultural
runoff and trash I'm not sure I'd want to drink anything natural, even
treated. Maybe a few sources, but I bet that's it.

SAFETY: This isn't an issue at all. I never even remotely felt unsafe.
Israel's borders are very secure and everything seemed safe as could be.
Maybe don't go if they are fighting a war but otherwise I felt no issues.
There are a lot of 20 year old soldiers toting around big guns but you get
used to it and they are always nice and speak good English.

RESUPPLY: There is plenty in the North and enough in the Negev that you
won't have to carry a ton. See my commentary below regarding resupply in
the guidebook though. I found it confusing.

NAVIGATION: This is mostly easy. You should have the guidebook, see more on
that below. The trail is mostly exceptionally well marked. There's just one
issue which resulted in me off the trail a fair bit! (But never far off).
Basically the country is covered with "trails" although these are mostly
dirt roads which they call trails. There are many thousands of kilometers
of them. They are all color coded. Usually red, green, black or blue. It's
a white strip, the color stripe and then a white stripe. Then there is the
INT specific marker which is orange, blue and white. The way it works is
that if the section isn't color coded then it just has an INT stripe. This
is probably only 10% of the trail. The other 90% is where the INT is on top
of a color coded trail. The way this typically works is that the colored
trail has the majority of the markers and then every so often there is also
an INT marker. Sometimes they are side by side, sometimes they are
separate. The confusing part is that probably half the time at a junction
there is only the colored trail stripe and no INT stripe and then the INT
stripe is a minute or two away. So let's say you are walking a green trail.
You are seeing green markers and also INT markers. Then you get to a
junction with a red trail. You see a red trail going left and a green trail
going straight. You keep going straight and then a couple minutes later
realize you haven't seen an INT marker in a bit and realize you are off
track because at the red/green junction you needed to turn left. But there
was no INT marker. If you had turned left then maybe a few hundred meters
down you would see an INT marker. Now, it's not always like this but it was
like this a lot of times and no matter how much I paid attention to the
guidebook or maps I still found myself missing junctions on a daily basis.
Or sometimes there was an INT marker to turn and I just missed it. There
are so many. In the north there are literally over 100 turns/junctions a
day so you are bound to miss one or more. In the Negev there are far fewer
junctions and twists and turns so that helps a lot. Also, in the Negev
especially there are a lot of technical canyon sections where you want to
go an exact way and the trail is exceptionally well marked in these
instances.

ANIMALS: I saw lots of gazelle, Ibex and camels. Loved them all. Never saw
a snake or scorpion. The flies were bad at times in the Negev. Didn't have
any mosquitoes or other annoying bugs. The wild boars were curious some
nights in the north and I could hear the jackals a lot of nights. No issues
though. I didn't see one of the few leopards left or the striped hyenas!

TRANSPORTATION: Most people will fly into Tel Aviv. Israel has a great bus
system that goes everywhere and is cheap. Google maps will get you where
you need to go.

TRAIL ANGELS: There is a huge list of trail angels in villages all along
the trail. Almost everyone I met used them extensively. I did not. Everyone
seemed to love the trail angels. Personally I would much prefer to camp out
in the peace and quiet. Especially in the North when the day always seemed
chaotic or loud. I would desperately try and find a quiet camp spot and
enjoyed that immensely. Also, it was too much work for me. The list isn't
mapped so I would have to read the list to figure out where the village is
on my map (which isn't that easy when you don't recognize any of the
names), see if I would end up near that village at the end of the day and
then start trading calls or text messages. This all seemed like a pain.
Plus you would probably have to stop early a lot and then you miss the cool
temperature part of the end of the day or push really hard to get
somewhere. Just wasn't my thing although everyone else used them
extensively. (NOTE: Noam's Google map mentioned below now includes trail
angels on a map making planning much easier).

TRAIL INFORMATION:

My friend Noam in Tel Aviv shared the following links with me:

1) This is where to always get the latest GPS file.

osmexport.azurewebsites.net/osm2gpx?relationId=282071&combineWays=1

2) Here is a link on where to download topo maps for your phone. This is
Noam's blog and he's created a special file that takes these great Israel
OSM maps and makes a corridor for the INT and you basically just drop that
file on your phone and then you have topo maps for the entire INT corridor.
These are the best topo maps available for the trail. There are
instructions in the link too. All free of course.

https://pct14.blogspot.co.il/2016/05/israel-national-trail-offline-maps.html

3) Here is a link to a Google map Noam made which shows the trail and then
layers on top: water points, resupply points and trail angels. It's really,
really nice to see it in a map format and makes it much easier while
planning and hiking versus the guidebook. It's a work in progress and he
keeps updating it and adding more information.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1WcMYJjvdVUT-hW4FNwLvaiCXJu4&usp=sharing

4) And then there is the guidebook. Oh, the guidebook. Overall, I'd say
it's essential to have for hiking and I liked many things about it.
However, I had several criticisms which I noted throughout my journal and
nearing the end of my hike I received an unsolicited email from the
guidebook author that was downright nasty, condescending and unwarranted. I
didn't respond not wanting to ruin my hike. I felt bad for a while but
later on a friend from a European country who is coming over to hike the
INT said she had spoken to several past hikers and they either had similar
criticism of the guidebook or issues with the author so I don't think it's
me. Anyway, here are my thoughts:

The INT guidebook is really good in certain places and very vague in
others. It's nice there is an English language version and although
pricey at $ 64, I get that with limited audience and all. I actually think
all thru-hiking guidebooks should be that expensive. There's a lot of work
that goes into it.

The upside of this one is that the trail directions are really good. It
does a good job of turn by turn and telling you what color trail markers to
follow. The maps are high-ish level (50k I think) and I couldn't navigate
the insane twists and turns out here with them, but they've been a good
reference for where to find a quiet camp spot and villages and stuff like
that. The trails are also color coded on the maps which is really a great
feature. I used this the most. Just glancing to know what color trail I
should be on made navigation a lot simpler while hiking. Also, there is a
lot of good historical information which is really nice. You walk by a lot
of old caves and ruins, etc. and having some background information on them
made them a lot more enjoyable.

My biggest complaint is the resupply info and just general vagueness for
that and water. It's written like I'm from here and have already hiked the
trail. Sometimes it mentions a village and that it has a grocery and
sometimes it mentions a village and doesn't say anything else and begs the
question, what is there? It might mention a cafe or it might not. I rarely
had a good idea what was in a village or where things were in the village.
It has also missed a lot of gas stations and small stores that I've passed
very close to or on trail (these are now on Noam's Google map mentioned
above). Lastly, there is no easy way to quickly figure out resupply. No list of
towns with services, no plotting on a map, rarely even a note in the
section header.
I literally had to read every section and underline where it mentions a
resupply. Not easy and not efficient. A good example of this would be on
Day 6. The end of the section is the village of Migdal and the guidebook
says "arrive at the entry road to Migdal....B&B in Migdal". This is really
uninformative. Migdal is probably a kilometer off trail, is there a grocery
there? A cafe? I'll never know. Turns out someone told me that if I walked
a 1/2K further down the main road I would hit a shopping plaza and there
was a huge grocery (best on the entire trail) and several cafes. It was
right next to the Sea of Galilee. The guidebook didn't even mention this.
This ended up being a great day off and the plaza was a really key piece of
info. I have many examples just like this.

The water is better as it at least mentions it in the section header, but
it can be vague at times as to exactly where the water is or what it is.
Considering how dry it is out here, getting water correct is really
important and I had a number of issues based on the guidebooks vagueness.
For example, one day in the north it mentioned water at Alon Hagalil. I
have no idea what that is and it doesn't say other that it sounds like a
winery. When I got there it was a winery that was closed and there was no
obvious water. Fortunately I had carried water from a gas station as it was
only a few K's earlier, but this could have been a big issue. I could have
gone in and poked around but the guidebook should really mention what the
water is (water fountain, spigot, business, etc). Upon further research now
it appears that Alon Hagalil is a small village about 1k off the trail. How
on earth am I supposed to know that from what was written in the guidebook?
Why not say, get water from the village of Alon Hagalil 1k west of the INT.
The village is shown on the map but I shouldn't have to look at a map and
guess where there might be water. Also, in the north I came across a fair
number of water fountains or spigots which were not mentioned in the
guidebook. I hated carrying a bunch of water only to come across a
permanent water fountain not mentioned. Also, a couple times I showed up
for water at a nature reserve visitor center after the center was closed
and couldn't get water. The guidebook should mention if the water is
accessible all day or only when the visitor center is open. Sometimes it
does mention this, sometimes it doesn't.

Lastly, it assumes that you will never drink a natural source. I get that
the natural water here is mostly contaminated, but it would be nice to at
least know what might be available. I can treat my water or like one night
I picked up some really bad water from the Ein Ivka springs cause I was
thirsty and I could use that water to cook since it gets boiled. On that
note, it would be nice if the SPNI (Israel's park service) piped a few of
these springs. There is so little natural water and when there is, within 2
inches of it flowing it's been absolutely destroyed by cows and trash. It
would be really easy to pipe it at the source and allow for INT hikers to
actually drink something from the ground.

TIME: I did the trail in 38 days which included about a week of sightseeing
(day in Tel Aviv, 3 days in Jerusalem, 2 days in Arad (Dead Sea/Masada) and
2 days in Mitzpe Ramon. I didn't really take any other days off but did
spend several hours in many villages. So about 30 days of hiking for 660
miles or about 22 miles per day average. This felt like a solid amount of
walking but nothing crazy. The daylight hours were really short or I could
have gone further each day, energy wasn't really a problem. Make sure you
do take the time for sightseeing, the trail goes by most of the great stuff
in Israel but definitely take a few days off in Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

ALTERNATES: The trail does a ton of twists and turns. By all means take
some shortcuts. A lot of the crazy trail direction seems to be to take to
you to an old cave or ruin but there are so many of these that sometimes it
doesn't seem necessary to go several kilometers out of the way to see an
old cave or pile of rocks. Some of these are really cool, you just need to
make a judgement call as to what you want to see. The maps make taking
shortcuts really easy, there are so many color coded trails and dirt roads.
Just one warning, there are a TON of fences in Israel. Sometimes a shortcut
gets you stuck at a fence. And these are not simple barb wire fences like
in the US. Most of these can't be climbed. I got stuck at one near a quarry
and couldn't get out without major backtracking and had to walk through the
working quarry which obviously isn't a good thing.

CAMPING: This was one of the most annoying aspects of the entire trail. In
the North I had to use my superpowers to find a quiet place to camp, it was
not easy at all. I would try and camp low, behind a ridge or in a canyon if
possible. I usually picked well and had a lot of quiet nights but it was an
effort. The guidebook is written by Days and assumes you will camp at the
end of a day which is 99% of the time a place which is vehicle accessible
and noisy. I never camped at one of these places. Then there is a huge
issue in the south. Essentially, it's not legal to camp in a Nature Reserve
and most of the Negev is a nature reserve. Instead they have these "night
camps" which are just out of the reserve or in the Reserve and the one
place you are allowed to camp. These are almost always vehicle accessible
and many times by a paved road. Sometimes there is a group of 100 school
kids camping there (seriously) or jeeps playing loud music or just staying
up late when as a thru-hiker you want to go to sleep early. The Negev is
one of the most beautiful deserts in the world. Why would I want to camp
with a bunch of loud people when instead I could sleep out in peace under
the millions of stars. This would be a highlight for me. The reason I've
seen for these restrictions is so the animals don't get bothered. I don't
really buy this. The Negev is huge. Just don't camp by water ever. I camped
illegally in a lot of reserves. Sorry, I know I shouldn't say this but I'm
being honest. If I had to camp in the night camps I wouldn't have even
bothered hiking the trail. It would have completely ruined the Negev for
me. I literally just found a patch of bare dirt or sand and went to sleep
on it. I never made a fire, camped by water or left trash. I did zero
damage to anything and I'm sure the animals were just fine. Whatever the
reason I was willing to risk the fine and really enjoy my hike. I don't
like breaking rules but I felt I was having no impact whatsoever on the
land by camping on a tiny bare piece of dirt in a wash.

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Israel National Trail

The 620 mile Israel National Trail stretches from the waters of the Red Sea to the Israel-Lebanon frontier that offers a chance to discover Israel's people, history and culture on the country's less-traveled paths. Learn more: www.israeltrail.net

 

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