Conquering My First Solo Overnight
After deciding that I am, in fact, going to thru-hike the AT in 2023 (more on that coming soon), I realized that I would be doing it alone. Sure, I plan to start hiking northbound (“NOBO”) in mid-March, alongside hundreds of other NOBO hopefuls in a group affectionately known as “the bubble.” But at the end of the day, it will be my hike. Thus, I need the confidence to hike and camp alone. What better way to get that confidence than to go on a short practice hike?
I would take 3 days to hike the AT southbound (“SOBO”) from Culver’s Gap, New Jersey, to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania— approximately 27 miles. I planned to spend the first night at a tentsite on the trail and the second at the Mohican Outdoor Center, an Appalachian Mountain Club hut and campsite about a quarter-mile down a cross-trail. Since my parents live nearby, they served as my transportation to and from the trail, including in the event of an early bailout.
I had specific goals I wanted to accomplish on this hike. The biggest (and arguably most important) was to experience backpacking and camping solo. If I hated it, I would have to reconsider my 2023 plans. I also wanted to gauge my hiking pace on a flat trail with a full pack. I spent many years hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, so most of my hiking experience is on trails with significant elevation gain and with only my daypack. Other minor goals included determining an appropriate amount of food per day and sizing up my gear to see what works, what doesn’t work, and what I might want to tweak for a thru-hike.
At around 10:00 am, I set out for the AT with my parents and their two golden retrievers. We could not have asked for a nicer morning. It was about 60 degrees and sunny—very lucky for late October. After parking and finding the trailhead, we began our hike with a bang: we immediately crossed a major road and then tackled a steep uphill climb. Once we crested the hill and reached the ridge, we were rewarded with beautiful views of post-peak foliage.
We hiked together, chatting up some day hikers and bikers we met on the trail. The trail was fairly narrow, relatively flat, and covered in leaves. Though I was hiking slower than I was used to, my pack didn’t yet feel heavy and I was feeling energized and excited. After about 2.5 miles, my family and I decided to part ways. That moment felt a bit like a band-aid being ripped off—whatever security I had in hiking with familiar faces was gone. I reminded them of the plan, showed them on a map where I was planning to camp, and said my goodbyes.
I pressed forward for another 5 miles, hiking a total of 7.5 miles on Day 1. I stopped a few times for snacks along the way. Around the 4-mile mark, my pack started to feel heavy. To distract myself, I listened to a few podcast episodes I had downloaded to my phone. After 6 miles, I started to feel hot spots on my feet. I stopped to apply duct tape, but I didn’t have time to properly rest and care for my feet. Daylight was slipping by and I wanted to be at camp by dark.
I hiked as fast as I could, stopping once at a stream to fill up on water, and made it to camp just as the sun set. With very little light left, I quickly placed my tent and set up my camp stove to boil water for dinner (spiced couscous with freeze-dried vegetables, for the curious). But the hunger didn’t come. Figuring I was too nervous to settle and eat a full meal, I forced down a candy bar and told myself I would eat a big breakfast in the morning. I retired to bed promptly at hiker midnight: 7:00 pm.
I slept rather fitfully. Every time I drifted off, I jolted myself awake. I did not feel threatened by anything outside of my tent (after all, I had set my bear cannister containing my food and smelly items a proper distance away). My sleeping bag and pad were surprisingly comfortable. Still, I could not settle. Eventually I fell asleep, only to be woken up by something brushing against the outside of my tent. Whatever it was, it sounded small. Deciding that it was small enough that I could scare it off if necessary, I fell back asleep. After that, I slept until the morning.
I woke up to the sunrise. Here is where I say: I did it!! I spent the night solo in the woods. And I survived! And I actually felt okay!
Despite my promise to myself that I would eat a big breakfast, I couldn’t. Not only was I not hungry, but I felt repulsed by all of the food I did bring. Feeling anxious to get moving and get to the Mohican Outdoor Center by dark, I decided to pack up and eat a protein bar while I hiked.
The first mile of Day 2 was the best, and my fastest, mile on the trail. The trail was wide and flat and the air was calm and cool. I even came across a large white-tailed deer! As I hiked on to mile 2, I realized I made a mistake and hiked about 0.5 miles past my planned water stop. Since I still had about 2 liters of water in my pack, I decided it wasn’t worth turning back for water. Instead, I’d continue on and fill up at a lake 5 miles ahead.
Mile 2 is also where I first thought, “Why is the trail here?” The AT had been running concurrent with a local trail until the AT split off and curved to the left. I followed the AT and was immediately confronted with a wall that I had to climb straight down. My disbelief about this actually being the AT was suspended when I saw a handful of white blazes on the rocks. After easing myself down the wall and walking about 100 feet forward, the AT met up with the local trail again. Why the AT could not have followed the local trail the entire way, I may never know.
Though I had duct taped my feet at camp before I left, it didn’t take long for my hot spots to become fully-formed blisters. After 4 miles, I felt blisters and hot spots on all sides of my feet, and by mile 6, it was unbearable. I was taking more frequent and longer periods of rest, but it was too late. I was very low on duct tape and swapping my worn socks with a fresh pair from my pack was no use. Because of the pain, my pace had slowed down considerably. Though I was pretty sure I could have made it to the Mohican Outdoor Center—about 10 miles from camp—I wasn’t confident that I could then push the final 9 miles to Stroudsburg. Therefore, I decided that I was going to call the hike. I arranged for my parents to pick me up at the next road crossing, approximately 7 miles from my campsite, where I then went back to their house for a hot shower and foot bath.
In total, I hiked about 14 miles over the course of 2 days and spent one night solo in the woods. While I did not make it to Stroudsburg, I do not regret my decision to leave the trail early. In addition to learning that I am, in fact, capable of hiking and camping solo, I learned that I needed to address my footwear situation and plan ahead for blisters. Moreover, I accomplished my goals of gauging my hiking pace and the adequacy of my equipment and food choices. With these lessons learned, I plan to set out on a least one more shakedown hike before I embark on my thru-hike in March.
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