7 Simple Things I Wish I’d Known Before My First Thru-Hike
The Appalachian Trail was my first thru-hike and my first substantial hike of any kind. I prepared myself for the undertaking as best I could—obsessive research, elaborate budget spreadsheets, shakedown hikes as often as I could manage them—the whole enchilada.
But thru-hiking is a singular activity. No amount of web surfing, training, or shiny new gear can fully prepare you for the experience. My backpacking naivete was on full display when I first struck out in the spring of 2018, and I suffered plenty of self-inflicted, completely avoidable setbacks due to my lack of experience. I also wasted a lot of time, money, and energy wringing my hands over aspects of the journey that turned out to be utter non-issues.
Here are seven things I wish I’d known before starting out on that first thru-hike.
1. It’s not that hard to find a place to camp each night.
The idea that I might not be able to find a place to lay my head at night struck fear in my heart leading up to my thru-hike and remained a persistent source of anxiety during my first week or two on trail.
While this has happened to me a few times and definitely isn’t fun, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t nearly as big a deal as I had imagined. If I’m left with no other choice but to press on after a planned camping opportunity falls through, I’m pretty much always able to find some untapped reserve of energy to get me through those last few miles. If darkness sneaks up on me in the meantime, all I have to do is switch on my headlamp.
In any case, occasions where I’ve come up high and dry in the campsite department have been mercifully rare. It turns out that the AT is a well-traveled trail and there are viable campsites literally everywhere, especially in the early miles through Georgia and North Carolina, so I really needn’t have worried.
This is generally the case even beyond the AT: I have yet to hike any backcountry trail that did not offer some form of viable camping at least once every few miles (in general—many trails will, of course, have a few longer sections where camping isn’t viable, but such areas are usually clearly defined).
Still, this unfounded fear led me to opt for a hammock instead of a tent, since the former doesn’t require clear or level ground, but I ended up regretting that choice. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Hammocks are NOT comfortable (for me).
I opted for a hammock mostly because I wanted maximum flexibility when it came time to set up camp for the evening—no need for an ideal campsite as long as I can find a couple of appropriately spaced trees, after all. Unfortunately, I didn’t anticipate how limiting hammocks are. You can’t sit up inside a hammock the way you can in a tent. You can’t read a book, stretch, change clothes, or have an adult sleepover.
Also, although it’s technically true that you can set up a hammock even on a steep, overgrown slope, I found that I preferred setting up at an established campsite with good footing and pretty much always had the opportunity to do so. Not only is this more comfortable, but it’s also a better leave no trace practice.
Plenty of people love hammocks, especially individuals who struggle with back pain. The Hennessy UltraLite I used on the AT was a first-rate hammock. It just wasn’t for me. Eventually, I switched over to a tent with a quality inflatable sleeping pad and I’ve never looked back since.
3. Hiking footwear isn’t all interchangeable.
I tested many types of hiking shoes before settling on a highly unconventional choice for my thru-hike, Altra Lone Peaks, which seemed to fit my feet perfectly. I got underway on the AT and everything was going great. But eventually, I decided to swap them out for a different brand because the trail town outfitter I was visiting didn’t carry Altras. I mean, Salomons are basically the same thing, right?
Unfortunately, I made the switch immediately before embarking upon the rock-strewn, sole-crushing hiking experience known as Pennsylvania, promptly developed plantar fasciitis in both feet, and spent the remainder of my hike in excruciating pain. Nothing against Salomon here: they’re great shoes, just not the right choice for my tootsies. The friendly footwear gurus at Outdoor 76 in Franklin, NC explained this to me best: if the shoe doesn’t fit, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad shoe, just that it’s not the right shoe for you.
The moral of the story? Don’t settle. Everyone’s feet are different, and it’s nontrivial to find those perfect Cinderella shoes that fit like they were made for you. Once you find them, never let them go (at least until the brand “updates” the model beyond all recognition, at which point you’ll be back to square one). If you need new shoes on trail and you can’t find your preferred model in stores, I repeat: don’t settle. If you must, call up your brand of choice and get a pair mailed to you.
READ NEXT – The Best Trail Runners for Thru-Hiking in 2021.
4. There’s a right way to use trekking poles.
…And it doesn’t involve white-knuckling the handles while prodding the trail halfheartedly with the tips. You need to slip your hand up through the strap from underneath so that when you press down, the strap bears much of the pressure. This will save you from wasting pointless energy clenching the handles and will allow the poles to swing more freely to match your gait. (You’ll still grip the handle, just not as tightly).
Also, adjust your poles as you go! In theory, they should be just long enough that your elbow creates a 90-degree angle when you’re holding it. Since the trail surface is inherently unlevel, you’ll need to lengthen your poles on the downhill and shorten them on the climbs to maintain that angle. Although constantly re-adjusting the pole length can be a pain, it will save your knees on the downhill and give you extra power on the uphill, provided you’re planting the poles firmly and really pushing down to propel yourself forward.
I felt a lot stronger as a hiker after someone finally taught me the way of the trekking pole. Also, using the poles this way gives me a great tricep workout and has helped to partially mitigate the brawny-legged, noodle-armed T-rex body type I was slowly nurturing over the course of my AT thru.
5. Fresh produce is life.
Anticipating my first-ever thru-hike, I pictured myself craving junk food and powering down obscene quantities of pizza, ice cream, and burgers every time I stopped in town to resupply. And this is the case for many thru-hikers, but my reality was different. Although I definitely craved calorie-rich foods, and yes, indulged in an abnormally large quantity of ice cream, what I wanted most when I got to town was fruit and vegetables—basically the only food groups I couldn’t really take with me into the backcountry.
I always aimed to eat at least one big salad or vegetable dish while in town and packed out apples for almost every day of the trek. The extra weight was worth it to me, and though it wasn’t nearly enough to meet my nutritional needs, that small emissary from the produce aisle did make me feel better.
6. Be frugal early on so you can spend freely toward the end.
When I started my thru-hike, I was in love with the idea of eschewing creature comforts and living as one with nature for a few months. Sleeping outside was still a novelty, and town food was a luxury I could easily do without. But as the miles added up, the heat of summer set in, and I transformed (as all hikers eventually do) into basically just a sentient stomach with eyes and legs, civilized life started to look awfully tempting.
As I moved north on the AT, the town vortex became steadily harder to resist even as the cost of food and lodging tended to increase moving toward New England. By the time I reached Maine, I was ready to whip out my credit card like a throwing star at the mere mention of a hostel or an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Had I understood all this before beginning my hike, I would have made more of an effort to scrimp and save in the early days so that I would have more money to spend on much-needed comforts toward the end.
7. Start out slow.
At the beginning of my hike, I was so anxious to prove myself a “real thru-hiker” that I found myself pushing big miles too early. While I was lucky enough to avoid serious injury in those early days, I suspect that I set myself up for persistent aches and pains that made subsequent miles less enjoyable than they should have been.
A wise fellow hiker told me that it takes a total of 600 miles to really develop trail legs: 300 to develop your muscles, and 300 more for your joints to get with the program. I doubt this is a scientific statement and can’t say that I contributed much to the empirical study of how long it takes to get trail legs, but looking back on my partner’s and my experiences, it felt right.
A good rule of thumb is to start out with eight to ten miles per day for your first few weeks. Thru-hiking isn’t quite like any other activity and can be a shock to the body even if you start out fairly fit—though you’ll probably be able to step up your miles sooner and with greater ease if you train extensively beforehand.
After warming up, you can tackle bigger miles if it suits you, though it’s definitely not necessary to push huge miles to complete your hike on a reasonable timeline. I met a hiker at Baxter Peak who never did more than 24 miles in a day but still completed the AT in four months by keeping a steady, 20-mile-a-day pace and not taking too many zeroes.
Featured image: Graphic design by Stephanie Ausfresser.
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