Could I Handle Hiking the AT? A Hike-By-Hike Discovery
I’ve noted in earlier blog posts that my plan for an AT thru-hike in 2022 arose during the pandemic spring of 2020. But my thru-hike aspirations were trapped in the body of a veteran day hiker. Yes, I’d done a couple of overnights with my son about seven years earlier—but let’s face it—I was a backpacking rookie. Wet behind the ears. A noob. To see if I could hack the Appalachian Trail I needed to test my 2013-era core gear by striking out on some solo overnight trips. I would aim to discover the micro-challenges of multi-day backpacking.
Guidelines for My “Get ready for the AT” Hikes
Outside of my weekday work commitments, much of the entire 2021 calendar was available. I set the following guidelines for my solo practice hikes:
- Start with single-night hikes. As a backpacking noob, even one night seemed daunting at first!
- Experience all of the months when I’d plan to be thru-hiking. For me, this was April to October.
- Hike sections of the AT whenever possible. Though I’d hiked almost all of the AT in New Hampshire, lots of unfamiliar miles were nearby to me in Massachusetts and Vermont. This would prove to be more fruitful than I would have ever dreamed.
- Carry all of your thru-hike gear on each trip. This is obvious, so why should I have to state it? Because it’s oh so tempting to not take that long underwear in that 90- degree weather in July! Pack it if it’s on the gear list!
- Set dates in advance, and go regardless of weather. I believe this is the most challenging rule for a day hiker. However, I found it to be an absolute must for testing my gear and my preparedness in all weather conditions!
- Crank up the distance and difficulty with successive hikes. The early focus would be on my overnight experience. I’d push myself physically after getting comfortable with the basics.
- Learn stuff, take notes, and make improvements! So that I wouldn’t forget any details, I’d type nightly notes into my cellphone.
What were the results?
The framework above spurred me to take overnight backpacking trips just about every other weekend. By the time September came, I had completed seven one or two-day overnights and experienced a wide range of trail variables:
- Temperatures ranging from a low of 38F to a scorching humid 98F
- Weather varying across the spectrum from clear/dry to unsettled to constant downpour
- Altitudes from 600 feet to 4400 feet
- Wind speeds from total calm to “how many trees are going to topple in this wind?”
- Terrain that ran from calming conifer-filled ridgelines to ultra-steep rock scrambles
- Bugs that went from semi-brutal to brutal, and damn – they never really left, did they?
As you will find out, I made numerous mistakes and adjustments. (Just like a real thru-hike!) But most importantly I hiked in the varied conditions that would prove critical to testing myself and my gear. I also should note that I really lucked out on the “regardless of weather” rule by not scheduling hikes on Memorial Day or 4th of July weekend. In 2021 the East Coast was besieged by high-intensity storms on both holiday weekends. I met numerous thru-hikers who drifted into a PTSD-like state when discussing the cold, heavy rain, and high winds they battled on those days.
Retrospectively I feel that I followed these guidelines very closely. Because of this, I built up high confidence in my gear choices and my on-trail routine by early September. At that point, I would confidently be able to tackle a week-long shakedown hike – but more about that later! Let’s begin at the beginning so I can share what I experienced and learned in my seven practice hikes.
The Plan for My First Solo Overnight
So I’d planned a mid-April trip in Western Massachusetts for solo overnight number one. Number one of the 2021 practice hikes? Yes, but it was far more significant than that. Try solo overnight number one of my life – and I was in my fifties. I had hiked solo in New England, in the Pacific Northwest, even in the Scottish highlands – but never solo overnight. All of my backpacking to date had been done with others. I had even purchased a hammock in 2020 but had only set it up in the woods twice – both times in complete daylight.
Picturing yourself alone as darkness falls in distant, unfamiliar woods can conjure some really crazy thoughts. (Teenage exposure to Friday the 13th movies and my extensive library of Stephen King books probably didn’t help!) Regardless I knew I needed to press on past the anxiety to be AT-ready. I found a tame portion of the AT where I could go either eight or sixteen miles, stay the night at a shelter and backtrack the next day. My anticipation continued to rise mightily.
And … The Plan Falls Apart
I never took that overnight hike in April. Are you thinking that I chickened out? Visions of wild animal attacks or an axe-wielding Jason kept me inside? No—nothing of the sort, actually.
Just two days prior to the planned date, during a morning run, I felt a sharp pain at the back of my leg above my ankle. I hobbled home and grabbed some ice. I knew I couldn’t hike on Saturday morning. Maybe it would heal quickly so I could hike the following week?
It’d be a lot worse than that. For three weeks I’d be limping around my house with ice bags and NSAIDs to just get myself back to walking without a limp. I had to completely stop my daily running and exercise. My frustration mounted. Hoisting a 30-pound pack would be truly difficult the next time I’d attempt it. That attempt would come in May, but that’s a story for next time…
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