6 Things You’ll Be Unprepared for at the Start of Your Hike
1. Even the introverts are incredibly social.
It will be a rare day when you pass a thru-hiker who doesn’t say hello on the trail. Even at the shelter, it’s like orientation week in college — everyone is just trying to make friends. As a person who needs alone time, I have surprised myself with how open I am to sharing a hotel room with two other people I’ve only known for 24 hours, especially when I don’t even know their real names.
2. You will be hurting, whether or not you have an injury.
I’ve been extremely lucky. I’ve seen multiple people slowed down or even quit because of injury in the short 16 days I’ve been hiking. From knees to ankles to falling and scraping up your face, pain is unavoidable out here. For me, I have lost feeling in both big toes, something I’m told is alpine toe, and that I’ll get feeling back about three months after I finish. It’s actually quite fascinating.
Recently, while coming into the NOC, I pulled my quad on a steep downhill, which isn’t going to stop me, but I look like a very old lady hunched over my trekking poles coming down the mountains. My feet hurt every morning until I get moving. I tweak my ankles every day. I pop vitamin I (ibuprofen) like it’s candy. My hands are covered in poison oak rashes. But it’s funny how it all seems to melt away when faced with the alternative — not hiking. And that just won’t be happening.
3. You will have to be patient or simply say no when the people back home want to come out and hike with you.
My dear friends Maya and Matt recently joined us for a 20-mile stretch and I learned a lot from that three-day experience. They came at the perfect time — False Alarm and I were feeling down after a few days of freezing cold, sore muscles, and broken-down showers. The moment they showed up, even though it was snowing sideways, it felt like the sun was shining again. We started hiking around 1 in the afternoon and we reached the shelter 6.7 miles away by 5:30. That day, so far, is the shortest amount we have walked since Feb. 22. But I didn’t mind because we had friends and fresh cookies.
That night was tough. It was our first single-digit sleep at a balmy 9 degrees and our companions did not have sleeping pads — a necessary item in winter to prevent heat loss through the ground. If there weren’t spaces in the shelter, they would have tried to sleep almost directly on snow and been at risk of hypothermia.
Hiking is an expensive hobby; our sleeping bags cost more than my mattress back home, but the equipment is necessary. Without it, in the perfect storm of conditions, lacking the proper gear can be dangerous, for everyone involved.
I would not trade that experience for anything. Having our friends out with us was a blast, and a welcome change of pace, literally and figuratively. However, it forced us to reevaluate a few plans later on.
When we start averaging 20 miles a day, slowing to six will feel like crawling. We really have to think about the ability and equipment of those who come out here, because, if we’re being honest, nobody can really hike like us right now except other thru-hikers, and nobody is happy with little sleep or being cold. It’s a blessing to have this ability, but it makes loved ones and well-wishers a tough choice, one that you have to make for yourself, and a choice I was unprepared for.
In the end, this hike is about your own journey. Support from others is a cornerstone of this experience, but each hiker has to decide how they want to include friends and family.
Luckily for us, we had a great experience with our friends and it wasn’t dangerous or necessary to share our winter gear, but if we had waited two days, it could have been a completely different story.
4. There aren’t as many women out here as I thought there would be… or should be.
Last night, I was the only woman in a shelter with ten men. Growing up surrounded by my brothers and their friends, I didn’t feel so out of place, but I could feel some punches pulled on “sensitive” jokes. Personally, I think I can crack jokes as dirty as the rest of them, but these guys don’t know that.
Even with the best of ratios, we’ve still been outnumbered. I’m happy to be out here, showing some of these men what women are capable of one mountain at a time, but when I pull into camp, I still feel slightly “other.”
I’ll never forget that within a week I was told that I wasn’t like other girls, that most women think hiking is just walking in the park and taking selfies. I, of course, was different, he said. Most guys out here are lovely, polite, and more than willing to take your advice and listen and treat you as an equal. But there are still those few who think it’s strange to see a woman outhiking them.
5. Your stench doesn’t go away. Ever.
Even when you wash your clothes. Even when you shower four times. Even when you baby wipe every day (which most stop doing when they realize it does absolutely squat). The smell seeps into your skin and just lives there. It’s lodged in the deepest fibers of your clothes. You cannot escape the sweaty, nasty, stale smell of hiking.
6. This journey is impossible to describe to those who aren’t out here.
Sure, you can tell all the funny stories and try to explain the feeling of being soaking wet for days, but it will never truly capture this time in your life. Everything is new. Every view feels incredibly earned with the pain, sweat, emotions, and boring camp duties. (You start to get ballsy with not filtering from certain water sources after a few days of endless squeezing). You’ll get sick of protein bars and pasta sides. You won’t mind sharing the shelter with a few mice friends after a huge climb. But nobody back home could fully understand the life you are currently leading, the incredible people you are meeting every day, or the changes you are experiencing in your mind and heart.
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