9 Things A Former Thru Hiker Wishes She Had Known Before Hitting The Trail
For the new crop of potential northbound thru hikers, there are but three or four months before the 2014 season is in full swing. In other words, three or four months that will fly by as you scramble to prepare yourself for the most epic, most fun, most difficult and most life changing experience in your own personal history. By now you have probably read so many books, clicked through so many forums and watched so many videos that you can barely stand the thought of even just one more ‘how to’. I’ve been there and felt that so I don’t want this to be that way. I simply wish to tell you, as a successful thru hiker of the 2013 season, what I would go back and tell myself if I were suddenly back in your shoes, waiting for my departure day at Springer Mountain.
1) You Will Never Be Fully Prepared!
And that is 100% okay. There is nothing in life that prepares you for the terror of getting caught on a bald mountain in a thunderstorm, or the sadness of the first time you part ways with another hiker who has become an amazing friend and you may never see again, or the inexpressible gratitude of ambling down the trail on a wet, freezing day and finding someone cooking up hotdogs, soup, coffee and hot chocolate. But the good news is…
2) You’re Totally Doing It Right!
There is no wrong way to prepare for a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail just as there is no wrong way to actually hike the AT. I had a year and a half of college left to use as prep time but one of my close trial friends decided to thru hike ten days before he left for the trail and we both made it.
3) Start Later
Every season is different but my start on March 3rd had me walking through a lot of snow. Sure, I will probably never see a winter wonderland wilderness of Narnia proportions here in the southeast anytime soon, but living in it is the true meaning of second degree fun (when something is only fun after its over as opposed first degree fun when something is actually fun). Even if you’re worried about time, starting April will give you plenty of it and you will probably catch the fall color in Maine as well.
4) Keep It Light But Comfortable
There is a happy place on the pack weight scale that many hikers take a while to find. The lighter the better until you’re sacrificing comfort when at camp. You will be happy to have a couple more ounces packed into a sleeping pad or sleeping bag if it is the difference between a good nights sleep or not, but keep in mind that minimalism is still key.
5) Wear Trail Runners
It’s a new trail fad and it has every right to be. First off, your feet can bend and operate as they are meant to and thus possibly avoid Achilles tendonitis. That is the over use of the Achilles tendon and is very prevalent on the trail. Secondly, when your feet get wet (because Goretex will not save you on the AT, know that) trail runners dry a lot faster than boots do. Also, they are much cheaper and you will go through a few whatever you chose to wear.
6) Ditch The Under Garments
Yes, it’s “weird” (Welcome to the AT) but they’re one of the worst sources of chaffing. You’ll be in spandex/compression shorts or have the built in underwear by no time so just jump the gun on it and start out that way. This is (hiker) trashy but your entire life will sink to this level in a month so don’t spend that time suffering.
7) Listen To More Music
It will help keep you positive in the present as you hike and afterwards the music you listened to will become a time machine back to exact moments on the trail. You may not know the place or even the state but the song will bring back a perfectly rendered memory. And whatever you do, do not leave without a readily accessible mp3 of the song The Blood of Cu Chulainn by Mychael Danna on your person. This song is better known as the theme song of the movie Boondock Saints and no matter how boring or miserable your day is, put this song on and the feeling of living in an epic motion picture will inspire you enough to finish out the day.
8) Slow Down
Everyone tells you to do this but you won’t do it. There is a phenomenon among hikers that occurs somewhere between North Carolina and Virginia. They’re still adolescents in their hiking life and act like it. When they find out they can do twenty mile days, they do them for a month straight and consequently the crowd is thinner at the end. Sure, you’re proud of yourself for being a badass on repeat but it only hurts you in the long run. Even your young, strapping body is getting worn down by it and when you’re in the 100 Mile Wilderness wishing the trail wasn’t almost over, you will also be wishing you had savored it back then. So just go in knowing this is going to happen and try to stop it if you can.
9) READ THIS BOOK!
This is the only important thing on this list and thankfully it is also the only thing I did before I left for my own hike. If you ignore everything else I have said but read this book, then I will be so happy and have full confidence in you having an amazing and successful thru hike.
If you are still in need of a routine to help prepare yourself or are just simply interested in what I did, here is my chosen way of preparation:
First, read and as much information as possible on the topic of thru hiking the Appalachian Trail until you freak out about being able to physically handle all that you’re reading about (such as my very nifty pre-AT companion ebook!!). Second, physically train your body with the help of trail running and day hikes carrying a fully loaded pack until you freak out about your lack of practice and whether or not you could actually do anything with all the crap in your backpack once you got out there. Third, go on several short, practice hikes until you are comfortable with your gear and then begin the arduous process of teaching yourself not to freak out anymore.
lead image: blmiers2
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I thru hiked in 2014 and agree with all points….
Slow Down….I wish I would have stopped to enjoy more in the first 700 miles instead of pushing myself until I was miserable. I did not stop to look at anything…..I had never backpacked before, so I just followed along with the herd early on and kept going. It was a pace that was not good for me in those early days….I started 3/21/2014….in Daleville, VA I met the person that i would finish my hike with and it was a godsend…I was surprised when we got to McAfee Knob and he said ‘oh it is early we can hang out here for a while’…apprehensive but i hung out and we night hiked to our next camping spot….I realized then that it was much more than a Death March to do miles!…..enjoy, enjoy the people, the scenery, the fact that you don’t have to be anywhere at any particular time….you have your shelter and food on your back all you need is water and you can be happy anywhere.
One caveat….we enjoyed enough and were tired enough that we slowed down to the point that we would not make it to Katahdin by the deadline…..so we flip flopped….it was a sad day for me…I cried as we left the summit and headed south after seeing NOBOS finishing, as that was where I wanted to finish my hike ( it is, also, a bit of a challenge using a NOBO book going south )….BUT it turned out to be really fun. We got to see everyone we met early on in our hike as we were hiking south….reunion!
I guess I add that because it was an important part of my hike, but also to say…be flexible…do I wish I would have finished going completely northbound?.. yes….do I regret flip flopping?…not for a minute, it is what worked for me….and seeing sooo many faces from the beginning of the hike was definitely worth it.
Lighten your load…..as you go along you figure out what you need and don’t need and the farther you go, the less you need….we ditched stuff all the way.
Hope all of these words/thought are helpful….I know when I was preparing I read everything I could from previous thru hikers….
Music was my go to when I was spent….alot of thru hiking is mind, so having something to take my mind away was great, the battery charger was worth carrying for that purpose alone….
All I can say for anyone planning a thru hike is don’t overthink it and enjoy