It’s hard to believe it has been almost a year since I began my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. This time last year, I was making final preparations to head down to Georgia. My gear was laid out an organized, I was obsessively reading weather reports and saying goodbye to friends and family for the five-month journey.
Now that it’s officially spring (though we just got six inches of snow here in Connecticut) hiking season is about to get truly under-way at Springer Mountain. Many have probably already left on the AT, but the third and fourth weekends in March tend to be the biggest crowds at Amicalola Falls, especially that April first start date.
I thought I would use this momentous occasion to crawl out from under the rock I’ve apparently been living under, if my blog activity is any indication, and share some of my thoughts about to take their first steps on the Appalachian Trail.
As my March 31 departure date grew closer, I read and reread blogs and articles about the clothes, gear and equipment I should bring, to see if there were any last minute substitutions or additions I needed to make.
This is not one of those articles. For one, I don’t believe in recommending specific pieces of gear, except in rare cases. I’ll suggest what kinds of gear to look into and maybe how many of each, but the specific brands and models are totally up to personal preference. Also, if you’ve planned to leave by the end of the month, or are even checking this from the trail, your decisions have already been made, hopefully with a lot more research and testing than this post can provide.
This is mostly going to be a set of advice for mindset and best practices while on the trail. The best way to get through the entire 2,200 miles is to prepare for it, and I don’t just mean having rain gear or a broken in set of shoes, but to be mentally ready for everything the trail is going to throw at you.
And, without further ado, here’s my advice for hiker getting ready to start the Appalachian Trail.
Hike your own hike
Lots of people hike the Appalachian Trail. There were over 3,000 people who attempted a thru-hike in 2017, and every one of them has their own ideas on what makes the best thru-hike. Listen to them, hear their suggestions, then either ignore them or carefully work their ideas into your own hiking strategy. Your thru-hike is your thru-hike. Don’t let the guy who survives off cold ramen and mashed potatoes tell you to stop cooking the delicious backcountry meals you prepare and don’t let the hiker with the sixty pound pack tell you you didn’t pack enough. If you’re comfortable and happy with the way you’re hiking, you’re doing it right. The only wrong way to hike the AT is to do it in a way that bothers the other hikers around you. So long as they’re not rude, take up a ton of room in shelters or leave trash everywhere, most hikers are pretty easy to get along with. Listen to other hiking philosophies and learn from them, but ultimately make your trail decisions for yourself.
This is especially important at the start of the trail. The AT is a marathon, not a sprint, and unless you’re Joe McConaughy or Karl Metzer, it’s certainly not a race. Setting a pretty mellow pace at the start and building that up once you get your “trail legs” is a good way to prevent burnout and unnecessary pain.
I thought of myself as a reasonably fit and experienced hiker, and started the trail with a 14 mile day. I felt fine that first day, but paid for it the next when my legs burned, shoulders ached. I ended up with a strained muscle that prevented me from making any serious progress for almost a week.
You’ll find your pace eventually. Start small and enjoy the first few days on the trail. Don’t wreck your experience because you were racing the trail.
Plan, but don’t schedule
I tried to plan out my first month or so of the trial. When I left, my guidebook was marked up with dates for zero days and mail drops weeks out.
That plan fell apart within a week.
Some days, you just want to take it slow and others can take a few extra miles. Trying to plan out the whole trail to the day doesn’t allow for the things that will inevitably slow down or speed up hiking. Having too rigid of a schedule also has the added side effect of the feeling of constantly playing catch up. When I couldn’t meet my first goal by the day I planned to, I felt awful. Not meeting what I felt was an easy goal was hard. It was the only time along the trail when I seriously considered that the trail wasn’t for me and wanted to stop.
Planning is not the same as scheduling. Looking a few days or a week out to plan where the next shower or real meal will come from is fine and necessary, but trying to set hard goals for the whole trail right at the outset is a good way to feel stressed out.
Expect to hate parts of it
Based purely on anecdotal evidence, one of the biggest reasons people leave the Appalachian Trail is because it wasn’t what they were expecting. They were probably expecting a beautiful hike through the woods, probably with some call to adventure or great personal revelation every other day. Unicorns may be involved. I don’t know.
The reality is, a lot of the trail is just kind of boring. As much as a person likes hiking, there’s only so long hiking for eight hours a day can be. Eventually, the novelty wears off and the monotony sets in.
Of course, the whole trail isn’t like this. There are definitely beautiful vistas, interesting sections of hiking and fun areas to get off trail. I went whole weeks just happy to be out there (looking at you, Shenandoah National Park). But between these places are long days slogging through rocks and rain.
These hard and boring days do not in any way take away from the trail. If the entire thing was nothing but easy jaunts to beautiful vistas, there wouldn’t be any challenge to the trail, nothing to make those mountaintops worth it. Embrace the difficult days, laugh at the rain, find a good podcast to get you through those long, boring sections (looking at you Pennsylvania).
Starting the trail with the mindset that it’s going to be one big fun vacation all the time is only going to make it harder.
Don’t be afraid to change
I know how it is. Months spent planning out every pound of gear. Meticulously weighing out meals by ounce and calorie. Reading pages and pages of online reviews to find the perfect kit.
And 100 miles into the trail, I’ve ditched the expensive hiking pants for a pair of running shorts. 300 miles in, I’ve traded in the boots for a pair of trail runners. 100 miles later, those shoes are gone for a new pair. By the end of the trail, my shirts, shoes, pants, sleeping bag and even my backpack were changed (the backpack twice).
Most people test their gear in walks around town, a few trips to nearby parks, maybe an overnight or two. Despite all this testing, nothing compares to hiking 20 miles a day, day in and day out, for months. No one can know when their gear will fail or how their shoes will feel after mile 10 on rocky terrain. Don’t get too attached to your gear at the start and make preparations to change if a piece doesn’t live up to expectations.
Don’t be stupid
This is probably the most important advice I can give. The Appalachian Trail is incredibly safe. You probably won’t have to deal with hermit psychopaths, rattlesnake bites or rampaging black bears. All the things people ask about before your start are mostly made up dangers.
The real dangers come when you aren’t paying attention. Injuries, dehydration, malnutrition and illness are really the most dangerous things out there. The good news is, all of them are easily avoided by not being stupid.
Don’t take too many unnecessary risks, obey posted signs and for God’s sake stay on the trail. Eat high-protein, calorie dense foods regularly, purify and drink water throughout the day and take a multivitamin. Keep your eyes and ears open. Listen to your body, it knows what it needs.
There are only a few written rules for hiking the Appalachian Trail, and a million unwritten ones. Most need to be figured out along the way. Honestly, that’s part of the fun and community of thru-hikers. Hopefully, this gives a few hikers some idea of what’s to come from someone who’s made all these mistakes before.
Have fun out there. Let me know how it is.