5 Keys to Preparing for My Thruhike
A recent trailjournal.com entry by someone starting their January 2016 NOBO describes hiking the Approach Trail with a hiker not entirely prepared for an AT thruhike. I’ll let the post speak for itself:
” had a large pak, gallon jug of water and 2 large trash bags full of supplies. I offered to help him carry one bag a ways so I grabbed the lightest one and headed on up. I had to keep switching hands the higher we went, I swear that 1 bag full of ramen noodles weighed 20 plus pounds. I finally told I have to put it down or I’ll hurt my own hike.”
Am I the only one who is more than slightly amazed by the number of people who have no qualms at starting a 2,000+ mile adventure with close-to-zero preparation or forethought for the ordeal? A popular axiom in my engineering days was the six ‘P’s’; “Pre-Planning-Prevents-Piss-Poor-Performance.” Preparation and proper planning for the trail, like an engineering project (or life), will significantly increase my chances of success.
WHY SHOULD I PREPARE FOR A THRUHIKE?
Statistically, about one in five of the people who start out on Springer will give up by Neel Gap, some thirty miles down the trail. Typically, a common reason for dropping out for those not suffering major injury was, “It wasn’t what I thought it would be.” Other than slogging a 40 pound pack, or more, up and down steep hills, through rain, sleet, snow, and bugs, sleeping on the ground in the cold (and heat!), eating tuna and noodles for days on end and stinking to high heaven while being surrounded by even bigger stinkers, what, exactly, did you expect?
I had a two-year plan to get prepared for my 2016 thruhike. My original plan focused on three areas; health, research and practice hikes, but as time (and research) went on, my list expanded to the following 5 Keys:
Long distance hiking is extremely physical – ‘ya think? The enjoyment and, possibly ultimate success, of your thruhike depends on how well you can handle the rigors of the Trail. Here are some areas I concentrated on:
- Weight – The ten, twenty, or thirty pounds on your waist still has to be carried by your legs and feet. I have to laugh at myself when I worry about whether I can carry the extra 3 ounces for an MSR Pocket Rocket over a homemade alcohol stove while I’m 20 pounds overweight. COME ON, MAN! Don’t use the AT to lose that weight. You will likely end up being among the some 20% that drop out in the first 30 miles.During my AT Section hike last May, I arrived at Springer Mountain shelter at about 3:00PM. Standing in the shelter was a man about forty years old who appeared to be pretty miserable as he watched the light rain move in. He complained that the pollen and altitude were agitating his asthma and his wife, who was already asleep in the shelter, was miserable after their hike up the Approach Trail. I guessed he was about fifty pounds overweight as he shared that they were teachers and planned to hike back to New York in time for school to start in the fall. The next morning, they were still trying to get motivated to hit the trail as I left. I didn’t see them again. Somehow, I doubt they made it to Neel’s Gap. It’s MUCH easier to get in shape beforehand. If you need to lose weight, then your AT hike begins today. Get with it. Besides, the beauty of the Appalachian Trail will be much easier to appreciate when you’re fleet(er) of foot.
- Cardio – A healthy cardiovascular system increases stamina and lung capacity and effectiveness. If you haven’t gotten a physical for a while, do so. I did a stress test and, with my doctor’s thumbs up, am confident in pushing my 60 year old butt over those mountains. As far as training goes, almost every day, I ride a stationary bike hard. Obviously, walking is a great form of cardio exercise and also helps get your joints limbered up.
- Flexibility – Limber legs can better withstand the rigors of rock scrambling, hiking up and down steep inclines and lessens the possibility of serious injury from a misplaced step. Daily stretching in the months leading up to and while you’re on the trail will be a great help.
- Mettle is Mental – Webster’s Dictionary defines mettle as, “strength of spirit : ability to continue despite difficulties.” I prefer the Google Dictionary definition, “A person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or to face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way.” To thruhike the Appalachian Trail, taking all it has to throw at you, and do so in a spirited and resilient way. That’s the ticket! The mental aspect should not be taken lightly.
2. Do Your Research
There are four great ways to get information:
- Ask – You can find knowledgeable hiking people at local hiking clubs, reputable outfitters, and online forums. During a day hike on the Ice Age Trail, an experienced hiker gave me some tips on climbing the steep moraines to maximize stamina and reduce leg strain. Another gave me some helpful tips on gear.
- Read – I started with The Complete Walker IV by Colin Fletcher and Chip Rawlins. When I first looked at this book, I wondered how useful a book copyrighted in 2002 would be considering the pace of advancements in backpacking gear seemingly rival the microchip. Consider it the physician’s desk reference for backpacking. It has lots of practical advice and some great anecdotal advice.There are also many good travelogues about hiking the AT. This is a good way to learn about the AT lifestyle and obstacles to be overcome. A few which I have
read more than once are AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller; Appalachian Trials – A Psychological and Emotional to Thruhiking the Appalachian Trail (I think this book might be available on this website); Walking With Spring by Earl Shaffer; and Skywalker – Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Walker.
Two historical books I’ve particularly enjoyed are, The Appalachian Trail Reader by David Emblidge, Ed; and Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart.
- Videos – I found a YouTube video that helped me with the correct motion for ascending and descending hills to relieve stress on my knees and quads. There are a plethora of video logs that demonstrate and review equipment as well as document AT thruhikes. I purchased two DVD’s from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website; 2000 Miles to Maine: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail and Appalachian Impressions: Hiking the Appalachian Trail. These are entertaining and informative and I’ve watched them many times. My family has threatened to boycott, so I typically watch them when no one else is home.
- Forums – One forum that’s been invaluable to me is whiteblaze. Another where I’ve gotten some good advice on lightweight backpacking is backpackinglight. One word of caution, though. There are seemingly as many ‘right’ ways of doing things as there are forum members. Before I reigned myself in, I was on track to have a wind jacket, rain jacket, fleece jacket, down jacket, tarp, hammock, down sleeping bag, down quilt, propane stove, alcohol stove, Nesbit stove, wood stove, titanium pot, Teflon coated aluminum pot, dehydrator, plus a goal of a pack base weight under of 12 pounds. Then, I remembered Earl Shaffer and Grandma Gatewood who hiked in denim jeans and often slept on the ground without tent or shelter. Earl hiked in military boots with sand in them to toughen up his feet(!) – “an old Indian trick” said he – and grandma Gatewood hiked in canvas tennis shoes. I am such a wimp!
3. Practice, Practice, Practice
The absent-minded maestro was racing up New York’s Seventh Avenue to a rehearsal, when a stranger stopped him. “Pardon me,” he said, “can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Yes,” answered the maestro breathlessly. “Practice!”
It’s always a good idea to hike ten miles, set up your sleep system, and cook a meal once or twice before you’re on a six month 2,000 mile journey.
My trial hikes consisted of 3 phases:
- Day Hikes – I started with a day hike with my local hiking and camping Meetup Group. This went a long way to convince me I needed to lose weight and improve my cardio system. Hiking in a beautiful Wisconsin forest reinforced my desire to get out there. Thanks, Sung!
- Short-Term Backpacking Trips – This gave me an opportunity to test my equipment as well as my legs. Hiking with experienced hikers on these trips gave me a chance to watch what equipment they use and how they use it. It also encouraged me to pay attention to weight BEFORE I get to Springer Mountain. Thanks, Jake!
- AT Trial Run – In May of last year, I hiked the AT from Springer Mountain to Neel Gap plus the Amicalola Falls Approach Trail. From this, I learned I can actually hike the AT. I had no idea how the AT compared to my hiking trails back in Wisconsin. In my research, I heard a lot of horror stories about the trail’s toughness. I also heard that, if you can hike Springer to Neel Gap, you can do the whole thing. I’ll believe that in Maine, but at least I have the confidence to try.
4. Begin with the end in mind
In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey’s second habit suggests “begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.” This is certainly good advice for preparing for an AT thruhike and this is why my daily destination is Katahdin. Continually, I have to ask myself, “Does this get me closer or farther from Katahdin?” Will that double cheeseburger with fries get me closer to Katahdin? Unlikely. Will focusing more on the pounds around my waist than the grams on my back get me closer to Katahdin? Yes! Does working out and stretching get me closer to Katahdin? Absolutely!
Expect Embrace Setbacks
The story goes that when Walter S. Mallory extended sympathy to Thomas Edison on his numerous failed results in developing a nickel-iron battery, Edison retorted, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
Slide all the way down that muddy hill on my keester? Why, man, I simply found an additional method of descent! If I try hard enough, I’m confident I’ll find many more ‘graceful’ ways to descend mountains in the next 2,000 miles. HA!!
Someone that expects setbacks could be called negative. Eeyore could always find the dark cloud around the silver lining. A popular saying on the trail is, “Embrace the brutality.” This is actually good advice because it internalizes the reality that the trail will, at times, be brutal and yet brutality can be overcome. If you embrace setbacks (brutality), you are more likely to take them in stride, overcome them and, by golly, possibly enjoy your hike. Your three Appalachian Trials lists will come in handy here, as well.
It remains to be seen whether my preparation will result in a successful thruhike, but I believe it will increase my chances for success. Follow my blog and we can find out together!
Put your plan in motion today and I hope to see you on the Trail.
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Still laughing over feeling the need to acquire tons of gear after inspired online reading. Still, I ordered every book recommended that I don’t already have, haha.
Super informative column, nicely presented. Hope to see you on the trail!
Love to follow you on the trail and best of luck. I’m only into day hikes as for now and love every minute. I”m in the middle of getting my girls thru college and then i’m sure the AT will call me even harder. Loved the article and look forward to more.
Great post. I recently came across a post in a FB group from a person who just decided to hike the trail this spring, has never hiked before, is intending to do 25 – 30 mile days, thinks she can forage for food along the way because she is good at identifying mushrooms and is open to eating rattlesnake, but needs some advice. For starters, if I were to even consider responding, I’d advise her to read this article! I’m also from Wisconsin–did a shakedown hike in the Kettle Moraine south unit of the Ice Age Trail last August when it was in the high 80s. See you on the trail!
Great post. I have laughed at myself many times as I agonized over plus or minus a pound (or a few ounces – “can I actually do without a second pair or underwear?” kind of thinking) for my gear list while being about 15 pounds overweight.
The day after Christmas, I started on a serious (but reasonable and healthy) diet and have dropped about 4 pounds so far – that leaves me about 11 to go over the next 7 weeks which is a reasonable dieting goal. Honestly, I think that the preoccupation with grams is ridiculous in a nation where the majority of people, including a lot of those who attempt thru hikes, are, well, “generously padded” to say the least. You can always shed extra and unnecessary gear in a hiker box. The reality is that the extra 20, 30, or 40 pounds of body fat can’t be sent home from Neel’s Gap. And, contrary to some magical thinking I’ve read, a 30 or 50 pound weight loss is not going to miraculously happen in the first week on the tail.
My guess is that obesity has more to do with dropping out than a second pair of underwear or using a canister stove rather than a supercat stove despite the canister stove being up to a half pound more in weight. I have no doubt that the rate of injury increases dramatically with increased BMIs into the overweight and obese zones.
Bottomline – the bathroom scale might be a whole lot more important that the postal scale for anyone who is overweight.
Very good read and usefull informations! Greetings from europe and see you on the trail!
Great read! Hope you go far & I hope to see you out there!
I plan on beginning my hike on about April 1st this year. I have dropped 30 pounds since last May and am sure that will help me out doing my hike. I can still stand to drop some more….I am working at doing so. Even with lesser body weight, believe me, pack weight still makes a huge difference. Every minus in weight is a plus, but not at the expense of not having necessary equipment. Good luck out there to all of us. i have been doing some preliminary hikes from 6 to twelve miles or so in the hills close to my home, but no overnighter yet. I can see into the future. Shocking times for some of us about the reality of experiencing being outside in all kinds of weather and being more tired than we have been in forever. The best of luck to you.
Great article! I had the same idea you did, though more of a 5 year plan because I’m waiting for my daughter to graduate high school, so we can go together. We are currently working on the day hikes and getting used to carrying weight over 10-15 miles at a time. Additionally, we’re both a bit overweight and had the same thoughts you did, why carry extra weight on my body? I’m just hoping my daughter doesn’t change her mind by then. Maybe we’ll run into each other on one of my practice legs! Good luck to you
Our Southern Highlanders is still in print. Found it in a bookstore in Ashville.
I’m starting my thru hike this year as well. Great and timely advice. I’m starting in Harper’s Ferry on April 9, weather depending, and doing the flip flop thing.
I think that your weight advice is spot on. I have 13 lbs left to get to my goal weight. Sure I could loose 1.5 lbs from my pack going to a 1 person tent vs 2. But I would better served by looseing that weight from my gut.
Your so right about gear. A mid 70 year old AT graduate hiker friend told me that hiking gear is very personal. Like HYOH. Gear your own gear I say.