5 Lessons From My First Week On Trail
As I drifted off to sleep during my first night on trail, I was so tired from the approach trail that I assumed my cousin would have to shake me awake in the morning.
I was very wrong.
Sleeping on trail was not quite how I expected it would be. In fact, there was a lot of learning to be had during my first stint in the woods.
Here are just some of the lessons I learned during the first week of my NOBO thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
1. Nighttime in the woods can be unnerving.
First and foremost, sleeping outside was rough the first week.
Before I set out on my thru-hike I had only camped in the woods once. I knew there would be a learning curve to camping on the AT. But one of my reasons to do this hike was to get out of my comfort zone, so camping is a must.
After a week of hiking under my belt, I feel that my sleep system was mostly dialed. What disrupts my sleep the most is the noise.
I have diagnosed myself with IBF (irrational bear fear). In short, any noise I hear after nightfall is a bear. At least, that’s how my brain processes it.
In the daylight, I know these things aren’t actually bears. But that little part of our brain that kept our ape ancestors from becoming prey is not the best at telling the difference between wind and bears when it’s dark.
Another camper walking to the privy?
Nope, it’s a bear.
Wind knocks some leaves around?
That’s a bear.
A mouse runs across my ground cloth?
Owls hooting in the trees?
Believe it or not, flying bears.
Anytime I hear noise at night, my body shakes awake so I can fend off the onslaught of imaginary predators. Then I have to spend time convincing my internal alarm system we are not under siege.
That said, I’ve developed a few means of putting my mind at ease.
Camping at popular sites
There is a feeling of safety in numbers. It’s also easier to convince myself that noises are coming from other campers and not an ursine marauder.
Knowing the facts
I know the odds of a bear attack are incredibly low. From as much as I’ve heard and researched, they really just want your food. I’m told if you practice good etiquette about cooking and storing your food away from your campsite, there shouldn’t be a reason for a bear to come near you. They just want the piñatas full of Clif bars that people keep leaving for them.
I was told ear plugs were good at blocking out snoring but they’ve proven effective at canceling most noise. I was initially hesitant about turning my hearing off at night in case of emergency, but I find they strike the right balance between hearing everything and hearing nothing.
2. A one-person tent doesn’t mean one comfortable person.
I was so enamored with my Durston X-Mid 1 during my shakedown hikes. Great weight. Incredibly clever use of space. There is just one issue that I couldn’t grasp until I spent consecutive five nights in it.
I’m too big for a one person tent.
As mentioned in previous posts, I’m 6′ 1″ and currently 230 lbs. I just fit in my current tent. Throw in a quilt and a sleeping bag that also just fit and it gets a little claustrophobic. Not to mention that because I’m overfilling the interior of the tent, stuff starts touching the walls and gets wet off of condensation.
These are all issues that I could have planned around. The tent itself is great. If I had thought ahead I would have gotten a two person Durston tent. Alas, I did not have the foresight and I’m told the tents are out of stock.
I visited an outfitter (Trailful) in Hiawassee and picked up the new Nemo Hornet Osmo. It certainly shot a hole in my first month budget but the additional space is already proving to be worth the expense.
3. Meeting New People Takes Energy
I get hit with post-hike brain fog (what I call “poo-brain”) whenever I get into camp. I think my brain knows that camp means we don’t have to worry about tripping on roots anymore and it puts itself into energy conservation mode.
This makes it easy to fall asleep but not so easy to hold up a conversation. It seems every night that folks gather around a picnic table to cook and chat about their day and then there is me on a log trying to remember which end of the spoon goes in the peanut butter.
What’s nice is that most people are friendly and understanding out here. Even though I feel like I’m responding in grunts and incomplete sentences, it seems to be enough.
This is all to say that if you know me from the trail and I seem aloof after 1pm, it’s not you. I just used all my brain juice staying upright for the first 4-6 hours that day.
4. You don’t have to carry water at all times.
If there are enough water sources throughout your day, you don’t need to carry water. Most days I see what FarOut (my map app) lists for water sources and check the comments on the app to make sure any listed water sources aren’t currently dry.
If there are several good sources, I don’t bother carrying water with me. That’s extra weight you don’t want to haul up hills if you don’t have to. When I get to a water source I’ll drink my fill and hike to the next source on the trail.
Of course, there are stretches that will require water carries. I’m just pleased with how little I’ve encountered dry sections.
5. I really really really love hiking.
The nights are slowly getting better for me but the days…oh the days. Once I get packed up and moving, I remember why I dreamed of this trip.
Drinking (filtered) water right out of a stream.
Observing the changes in foliage as you ascend and descend peaks.
Stopping to catch your breath and seeing the mountain you summited yesterday.
Looking ahead at the mountains to come.
Catching up with other hikers at a watering hole.
Setting up your tent immediately when you get to camp while you still have the energy to do it.
The list goes on.
When you compare the pros and cons, the cons barely amount to anything. I’ll endure any number of fictional bears and soggy socks to wake up out here everyday.
Thank you for taking the time to read this! I hope you found it interesting or got at least a chuckle out of it. Remember that you don’t need fancy gear or thousand mile trails to enjoy the outdoors. Any trail is a good excuse to get outside.
Take a hike!
David “Good Soup”
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