Baby Steps – My Initial Prep for the AT
After resolving to get moving on my AT plans last year, I found myself with tons to do to prepare! For starters, I’d mainly been a day hiker over the prior six or seven years. I owned some backpacking gear but also knew that hiking tech was continually improving. Here’s how I began my prep.
Soaking Up the Info
Initially, I wasn’t ready to start making ANY firm decisions. I just needed to figure out what decisions I’d have to make for the trip. In other words, I needed a framework of what the hike would involve. For me, that meant I needed a book (or a few) to get started. Now to clarify, please understand that I’m a tech-forward guy—I go online to get info all the time. But for an effort of this magnitude, I desired something I could hold in my hands, dog-ear, and mark up day after day.
As a supporting member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), I knew that they published a set of books for prospective ATers. After a quick perusal on their website, I ordered copies of these Appalachian Trail books:
- Thru-Hike Planner
- Thru-Hikers’ Companion
- Data Book
I found the AT Thru-Hike Planner to be just what I needed to get started. This planning book had useful sections on itinerary, gear, food, resupply, health, and safety. Additionally, the gear and food checklists in the back section gave me a great framework to start researching those areas more deeply. My only comment of caution is that some of the material is a bit dated. For example, I found five items on the gear list that I crossed out and wrote “cell phone” as my solution. I’m not packing a standalone compass!
Taking Inventory – and Asking the Key Question
Checklist in hand, I headed downstairs to brave the masses of stuff stored in my unfinished basement. I wanted to evaluate my current backpacking gear, but to do that I first had to find it. As a result, this did not happen all in one day, people.
Now don’t get me wrong—I love having a large storage basement in my house. But it also brings a curse: you have extra space so you save everything. Old stuff. Extra stuff. Stuff not used in 15 years. Stuff that your future grandkids might someday use, or at least laugh at. And worst of all, the presence of all of that stuff breeds strong inertia to weeding through it. Who wants to get rid of half of your basement treasures and leave so many empty shelves? Ultimately doesn’t it invalidate your years of stashing?
British scientist James Lovelock was quoted as saying “the inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful.” I have a hunch that ol’ James was staring blankly at endless piles of stuff from the bottom stair when he came up with that one. I mean, he’s 102 years old, he’s probably got an unbelievable accumulation!
Ultimately I asked a key question of each unearthed item: “Is this good enough / rugged enough / light enough to test out for the AT?” Some were easy calls. In other cases, I had to go online and do extensive research on the latest gear to decide.
The Initial Tally on My Core Gear
Eventually, I found the major checklist items (after locating my backpacking stove and cooking gear behind a spare toaster). Here’s the evaluation I ended up making:
- Pack – good enough. I owned an older but lightly used Deuter ACT Lite 65+10 pack.
- Boots – needed new. I loved my well-worn Oboz boots, but they had seen better days.
- Trekking Poles – didn’t own any. In all my years of hiking, I’d never used them! (But my knees would thank me on the AT.)
- Shelter – needed new. My REI tent performed great, but wouldn’t cut it as solo hike gear. Also, I wasn’t convinced that I’d carry a tent since some of the new hammocks looked like an appealing option to me.
- Sleeping gear – good enough. I had splurged fairly recently on an REI Magma 10 bag.
- Stove / cooking gear – good enough. I’d find out if it was compact and light enough.
Reflections on My Approach
More than a year later, I consider that this was the ideal set of first steps for me. Using this approach I quickly gained a much higher level of awareness of the factors I needed to consider. Also, my use of some existing gear eliminated part of the uncomfortable newness of the experience. Plus I could focus more time on closing the big item gaps. Most importantly, I wasn’t deciding that any of my gear was “final” as I’d scrutinize all of it on the trail through test hikes first.
As I hiked overnight sections of the AT locally this past year, I asked thru-hikers “What would you do differently?” Most commonly these AT’ers said, “I tried to go ultra-light from the start, and that was a mistake.” Ultimately I took those words to heart, and have filled out my trip gear and clothing prioritizing utility and comfort over weight. In upcoming blog posts, I’ll share some of the adjustments I’ve made over time.
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