Advice for Hiking the AT with No Experience, From Someone Who Did
Hitting a long-distance hiking trail this season? Never backpacked a day in your life? Sounds a lot like me.
When I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016, the longest hike I’d ever done was a whopping six miles. I’d never camped in the backcountry. I’d never used my camp stove. I’d definitely never pooped in the woods! Needless to say, I started out with everything to learn and nothing to lose.
The fact that I was completely inexperienced beforehand didn’t stop me, nor should it stop you. I wanted to give any new and aspiring backpackers out there a few tidbits of advice that helped me to get to Katahdin, and will hopefully help you to be successful in whatever your hiking goals may be.
Make Small Goals
Thru-hiking is definitely a physical feat, but at the end of the day, it’s a mental game. Staying positive on such an arduous journey can be difficult.
When I started the Appalachian Trail, my initial goal was the Grayson Highlands (mainly because of ponies.) Saying I was hiking over 2,000 miles didn’t even really compute to me. 500 miles seemed a more reasonable mini-goal, and from there I figured I could go forward. Once on trail, however, I realized my actual mini-goal was more like Neel Gap, only 40 miles in.
Some days, my mini-goal was to get to the next shelter, and then there were even some days where the mini-goal was making it to the next rock or tree ten feet in front of me.
Eventually I made it to the Grayson Highlands, petted me some ponies, and then picked out a new mini-goal: McAfee Knob. After that, it was Harpers Ferry. (And so on and so forth.) Katahdin was a distant dream for most of the trip, and breaking the trail down into itty-bitty sections makes the task more manageable and more fun.
For the first week on the trail, I did not hike over 12 miles in a day. I did this intentionally.
You will see lots of people starting out trying to do 15+ miles right out the gate. Some of these people are seasoned hikers and backpackers, and their bodies are conditioned. However, some of these people will also get injuries over the next couple of months and have to drop off trail. Even people who were active in their normal lives (running and biking, for example) still got injuries that took them off trail.
Thru hiking is not a normal endeavor. It takes time for your body to adjust to such a high level of physical activity, day in and day out. The thru-hike is a long game.
You’re going to be out there for months. Big miles will come eventually, but if you’re new to hiking and backpacking, ease yourself into it.
Some Pain Is Normal
Keep in mind that some pain is inevitable and is a very real part of the hiking experience. I met a hiker named Mr. Fantastic in my first few days on trail that gave me some words of wisdom on hiker pain:
“Something will always be hurting,” he said. “The thru-hiker pain kinda moves around the body. One day it’ll be an achy knee, the next day it’ll move to your back. Then maybe for a few days it’ll be an ankle. Then it’ll rain and blisters will pop up. But something always hurts.”
I’ve never forgotten that, probably because it’s so true. Listen to your body, take care of yourself, and take advantage of zero days. As long as it’s not an actual injury, pain is something you will get used to. You will get stronger and you will get tougher.
Pay Attention to What Others Are Doing
The reason I chose the AT as my first backpacking trail was because I knew I had no idea what the heck I was doing. But, I also knew that it was a highly traveled and populated trail and that I would have an entire community of people to teach me how to do this thing correctly. I was absolutely 100% right.
So when you’re setting up camp or having a break, take advantage of the knowledge of those around you. Talk to them. Ask questions.
See how other people pack their backpacks or set up their camp. Let someone give your pack a shakedown. Ask people what their favorite pieces of gear are and why. Get someone to teach you how to use a compass or how to tie knots. Talk about your hiking struggles. You will undoubtedly get advice. Having someone walk you through things shouldn’t embarrass you—trust me when I say a lot of people don’t know what they’re doing.
But the fun part is that eventually, you will.
The task ahead is daunting, and maybe even a little bit crazy. But with a good plan and a positive frame of mind, you can have a successful thru-hike, even if you’ve never backpacked a day in your life.
This is an adventure you will never regret having under your belt, and you’ll be a part of the most beautiful community that spans the entire globe. Have fun out there, find whatever it is that you’re looking for, and remember to hike your own hike. Happy trails ☺
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