Achieving the 20 mile day…

Breaking through the 20 mile day

After two months on the trail I was able to break through the mental and physical challenge of achieving a 20 mile day.  This achievement represents both a physical and mental accomplishment.  Hiking from 7:30 am to 8:30 pm in one day, with breaks for snacking and rehydrating is what it took to walk from Pinefield Hut, mile marker 895.8, to Bearfence Mountain Hut, mile marker 916.4.  Physically I was prepared for the hike after two months on the trail.  It was the psychological limitations that were holding me back up to this point.  I tended to think too much about the distance to be covered, and my slower hiking speed.  The 20 mile hike just seemed to be a quest too far.

Encouragement from friends

The weather on June 16th started out warm and humid. Later in the morning it started to rain. This lowered the temperature significantly, which the hiking conditions. A group of us stopped at the Hightop Hut, mile marker 904.0, at midday to get a break from the downpour and have some lunch.  Among the folks that were stopped at the Hightop Hut were two people that psyched me up for the challenge.  They were ‘Leap Frog’ and ‘Extra Mile’.  While taking cover from the storm, we were contemplating what would be the next course of action.  The choices were call it a day and stay at the Hightop Hut, or forge on for a 20 mile hike.  ‘Leap Frog’ used some very simple logic.  She said that today was a wash, literally.  Our feet were already wet, so why not just extend the hiking day in the cooler weather and just continue hiking in the rain.  Then you can recover the next day with a shorter hike.  This sure beat wasting the rest of the day sitting in a shelter, so I decided to follow the man back out on the trail.

Focus and persistence

When it rains on the trail one must be careful not to get too chilled by the weatherboard conditions.  Hiking with my rain jacket on generated enough heat to keep me comfortably warm. The sound and feel of the rain drops provided the extra touch, like a white noise, that just allowed me to focus on hiking.  Step by step I continued my journey towards my destination, as there were no other shelters located between Hightop Hut and Bearfence Mountain Hut.  In the Shenandoah National Park there are concrete posts that appear at certain spots along the trail.  These sign posts have information stamped on metal bands that tell the hiker when they have arrived at a junction where a side trail will take you to a significant spot, or announce the distance to the next shelter or trail milestone.   It seemed like a long time between sign posts, but eventually I came upon the sign post announcing the side trail for the South River Picnic Area, mile marker 910.5.  The realization that I was within six miles of achieving my first 20 mile day added the additional encouragement and confidence that I needed to achieve my goal.  When I reached Bearfence Mountain Hut, I had a sense of relief and accomplishment.  There was only one other person in the shelter, so all I had to do was unroll my sleeping pad and sleeping bag, change into dry clothes, andi call it a night.


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Comments 2

  • Christopher Smith : Sep 10th

    Hi Tom,

    I am planning a thru-hike of the AT in 2020, intending to fly over from the UK to do it. I was wondering if you think averaging 20 miles a day is a reasonable target.

    I am 50 years old but I recently completed a two week hike in the UK where I averaged 21-22 miles a day and never really felt like I was reaching my limits. I have also completed day hikes in the past of 40+ miles.

    Many people seem to take 6-7 months to do the AT but I really cannot spare more than 4.5 due to work committments, and would rather complete it in less than 4. Am I being unrealistic? I don’t have a feel for what the terrain is like on the AT so I cannot easily judge what a reasonable pace is at this point. Any advice you can give would be much appreciated.

    • Thomas Rainer : Sep 10th

      Hi Christopher,

      I’m glad to hear that you have done 20+ mile days. Conditioning is a big component to achieving good daily mileage. The other pieces are traveling light, staying healthy by eating right and drinking plenty of water, and keeping your head in the game. I know one person that started the trail in April and finished in early September. They even took some time off trail to visit with some friends along the way. That said, you can achieve your goal by having a plan and then being flexible to adapt to what the trail offers you.

      The terrain has a lot of elevation changes, some parts more than others. If you will be going from Georgia to Maine you will encounter a lot of elevation changes right up front, which helps to condition you for the rest of the trail.

      My advice is to minimize what you bring. It is easier to acquire something that you need once you are on the trail than it is to shed weight out of your pack easily. The lighter you can go the better. There are plenty of places to resupply along the trail as well. Make sure you have some dry sacks to keep your sleeping bag and a change of clothes dry. I used a Sawyer Squeeze filter and it performed like a champ. Trekking poles helped me a lot. I purchased Guthook’s trail guide for my smart phone after I got on the trail. Guthook has the trail map and pinpoints where you are on the trail by using GPS.

      I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions.

      Tom (Trail Name ‘Half-Full’)


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