Everything I Did to Prepare For a 2,000-Mile Hike
Once I learned about the possibility of hiking a long trail, there were a few steps I took to getting to Day 1 of my hike:
- Research and purchasing gear
- Physical conditioning
- Mental preparation
- Logistics: saving money and moving
Research and purchasing gear
I was lucky enough to have stumbled upon AT-specific hiking resources early in my general backcountry camping research process. Dixie of Homemade Wanderlust is something of a celebrity in the long-distance hiking world, with a triple crown (AT, CDT, and PCT) under her belt, and her first backpacking experience being a solo hike of the entire Appalachian Trail. She has a six-hour long video of everything you need to know about thru-hiking the AT. The availability of AT-specific hiking information, particularly on the Appalachian Trail subreddit, cannot be understated. Finding the appropriate gear for this trip was fairly straightforward. I found that passively scrolling r/AppalachianTrail led to most of my gear decisions, such as the choice of a 20-degree quilt for my sleep system and a trekking pole tent for my shelter. Although my starting base weight (appx 20 lb) isn’t low enough to be considered ultralight, I stumbled upon r/Ultralight early in my process as well, which helped me be thoughtful about the weight I will be carrying and to get creative ideas for reducing my pack weight. I had to laugh at the fact that every time I encounter someone’s AT gear list online, I find that we have so much of the same stuff. The optimal gear for this trek has been collectively refined by the community over time.
At the time I started considering a thru hike, I was running about 20-24 miles per week spread over 5 days a week. I think this is a decent baseline physical fitness to start, especially considering that many hikers go from couch potato to thru hiker without doing any specific physical conditioning before setting out. This is a fine strategy if you can be disciplined about starting slow and not pushing it, which will put you at a greatly increased risk for injury. Unfortunately, due to human nature, a lot of folks struggle to listen to their bodies and maintain a low daily mileage (6-8 miles/day) during their first couple of weeks. If other people are hiking longer, they feel social pressure to tag along. Additionally, inclement weather may push someone to seek a stopping point further down the trail, whether to descend from a higher elevation point or to stop at one of the many three-sided shelters along the AT. I felt that doing some conditioning would be helpful for me since I find soreness to be pretty discouraging, and I wanted the ability to push my mileage to escape weather early in the game.
My physical conditioning process was hampered by a minor injury. I have been dealing with chronic one-sided heel pain for over a year, and have been through physical therapy to manage the injury. At the worst, I would have pain up to a 7/10, but after interventions like physical therapy, stretching, and myofascial release, I never find myself above a 3/10. I felt that the most important aspect of my physical conditioning was not building strength and endurance, but was doing work that would aggravate my injury and developing good habits like stretching to keep the pain in check. After a break from running to ease the pain in my heel, I began building my mileage back up in February 2023. I never got back up to running 20-24 miles/week, mainly because I switched my focus to rucking around 6 miles/day on the flat with my pack as often as I could (usually 3 days a week) and climbing stairs with my pack. I found that with all of this exercise, I would sometimes get heel pain up to about a 3/10, but when I was diligent in stretching and massaging my foot, I would be pain-free the next day. I’m interested to see how I feel on the first days of my trip after thoughtfully conditioning, and will be heavily focused on maintaining my recovery routine of stretching and massaging while I’m on trail.
It is said that the AT is 20% physical and 80% mental. That is, once you build up your physical strength and endurance, the hiking becomes less of a physical challenge and more monotonous. The average time to complete an AT thru hike is 5-7 months. Doing nothing but hiking all day can be a struggle, especially being out in the elements. The AT is a particularly rainy trail compared to other long trails like the PCT and CDT. Some hikers will experience nonstop rain for as long as two weeks at a time, which can be incredibly demoralizing. Although nothing in “real life” can compare in magnitude to this mental challenge, I did my best to go outside in poor conditions whenever I could. I would go for a run in the rain or I would walk 3 miles to work on icy sidewalks or in slushy snow. This helped me get into the “keep going” mindset and realize that at some point, I would be warm and dry and fine. I also liked how this made my normal life feel like an adventure, and I want to bring that mentality back with me when I re-enter society, to find adventure wherever I am in the moment. I think this is a cool way to reframe suboptimal situations like shitty weather.
Logistics: saving money and moving
Lucky for me, saving money for this trek was pretty straightforward. Prior to getting my most recent job, I had been making very little money and had the appropriate living arrangements to match: housing shared with roommates. I didn’t move after getting a higher paying job. Minimizing my biggest monthly expense, rent, while earning a higher salary made it very straightforward to save. I’m lucky that I was on the job market at the height of the excitement around the Covid vaccine, with skills applicable for a job in biotech, while living in the #1 global hub of the biotech industry, Boston. When I first started my job, I splurged on luxuries like twice monthly massages and expensive vacations that had been unthinkable on my previous income. It was easy to cut back on this and other luxuries like frequently eating out when I knew I wanted to focus on saving as much as I could for my hike.
Since I was renting before starting my hike, it was clear that I should find a subletter for my room and cut this expense while out on my hike. I am subletting my room for the duration of my lease extending into August. I got a storage unit for my stuff that’s $95/month and I got everything moved in. I had never packed up my stuff for long-term storage before. When I’ve moved long distances, I’ve gotten rid of my stuff, and other moves that were local could be done without meticulous packing. I would say that the hardest part of my trip prep was moving all of my crap. I’m happy to report it’s done and I hope to never do anything like it again!
My aunt graciously agreed to keep my car and drive it occasionally while I’m away, and I found other friends who kept an eye on some of my other special belongings. I will send my Apple watch and Airpods to my dad as hand-me-downs, as the battery capacity on the Apple watch is impractical for this hike and I’m not interested in that level of fitness tracking granularity while I’m on this trip. I didn’t want to worry about another electronic device to charge, so I’m using cheap corded headphones during my hike.
After all of that, I’m ready to hit the trail!
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