How to Take a Zero Day in the Woods

We all know that thru hikers need to take time off in town for chores – laundry, resupply, stocking up on calories, charging up electronics – but what about a whole day off in the woods? Who does that? Why do that? Why would you want to spend a day on the AT not cranking out the miles?

I’ll be honest – on my thru hike I didn’t take a zero day in the woods, but I did take a lot of neros- or nearly zero days. I spent plenty of long afternoons and even a few mornings enjoying free time away from town. If I had it all to do over again, I would definitely take a zero in the woods. So whether you hike a couple of miles and then stop, or take a whole day off, or spend a lazy morning and afternoon somewhere and then hike five miles out in the evening, read on for tips and ideas for free time away from town.

Why take a zero in the woods?

  1. The woods are mysterious and magical and there are things you’ll see and notice staying put in one place that you might miss when hiking past quickly.
  2. If you are tired of the people around you in your current hiker bubble, taking a day off will allow you to change out the human scenery. Let the current group blow past you while you stay put and enjoy refreshing new faces tonight!
  3. A zero in the woods is free. If you are low on funds but have enough food, you can rest your body while saving your money.
  4. A day off from calculating anything, estimating anything, making plans for anything – it’s a much-needed mental break.  People away from the trail think every day on your thru is carefree, but in reality you’re constantly thinking – where is the next water source? How long until dark? How much food is left? Where will I camp tonight? Tomorrow? The next day? Am I going fast enough to complete this thing in time? Can I stay injury-free? A zero in the woods gives your mind a total rest.
  5. Swimming.  Swimming.  Swimming.  Or just wading.  It’s hot in the summer and the gorgeous waterways of the AT are calling your name.

How do you take a zero in the woods?

Appalachian Trail zero day

Step 1: Choose a location with awesome zero day amenities. You’ll want plenty of camping room and a great water source or swimming hole. Shade and tall trees are nice as well. There are hundreds of great places for a zero- just make sure if you’re spending the night that you’re in a place that allows camping.  The trick is to allow yourself to make this decision last-minute – you’ll know when your perfect zero day spot appears.  Check your food and if you have enough, let yourself stop.  Let yourself savor this beautiful location you’ve just discovered.

Step 2:  Decide what to do. Consider your mood to help you decide. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Lay on your sleeping pad in the shade and just stare at the trees and listen to the birdsong.
  • Give yourself a really good foot massage, or if you’re in a group start a massage circle.
  • Wash items – in a ziplock far away from water sources. 
  • Swim or soak.  Do it downstream from where people generally collect their water.
  • Take some very long naps. 
  • Revisit your trip so far.  Highlight everything you want to remember.  Catch up on your journal.
  • Organize your stuff. Sew or repair gear that needs a little TLC.
  • Read the entire shelter log and leave an ultra-long entry.
  • Write a letter to a loved one you miss or someone you’d like to thank.
  • Go through all your food and stop carrying that pack of ramen you’ve had since Georgia. If you haven’t eaten it by now, you’re never going to eat it.  Fix it for lunch or give it away.
  • Consider leaving your technology off.  Netflix can wait.  I mean why are you in the woods if you’re just gonna binge an entire season of OINTB?

Step 3: Decide if you want to be solo or social.

If you want to be alone on your day off don’t broadcast your zero plans.  You might even want to stealth zero away from more popular camping areas. 

If you want company, then tell your friends. Maybe someone else will think it’s a great idea too!

Don’t host a party in the woods, please: Just like a party at a house, it’s easy to lose control of how many people are there and what they’re doing. No one seems to take responsibility for cleaning up afterward and the place ends up trashed. I saw this with my own eyes last year in Virginia in June at Harper’s Creek Shelter, an awesome spot for a zero. A couple of women were finishing their flip flop thru and I guess they’d spread the word that there would be a celebration. People decorated with streamers and balloons. Someone hiked in a boatload of alcohol. People partied loudly, easily heard far away at the tenting sites way down the hill, for two days and two nights. And then left the trash behind. Gross. Not to mention the disturbance to the many other hikers who were not part of the party who had to listen to the carrying on into the wee hours.

I wasn’t part of this crazy hiker party last year, I was simply a distant observer. I don’t know if the two women celebrating were there the whole time or only the first day. I don’t know what the people who abandoned all the trash thought was going to happen with it. But they must have known they were doing a bad thing.

Take a pledge now not to leave any site in the woods looking like a fraternity house basement.  It’s irresponsible. Clean up after yourself. Leave no trace.

Treat your zero day in the woods as a beautiful opportunity to reflect on your hike before it’s completely over. It’s a great time to press an internal re-set button—  to reconnect with the reason you’re out here in the first place. Soak in the towering trees. Drink from the clear streams (filter first, of course.) Be still and watch the wildlife. Be in awe of this incredible opportunity to travel on foot for thousands of miles. Be in awe of your body that is carrying you on this journey.

Take a moment to take a breath, take a break and revel in the amazingness of your thru hike.

Tall trees on the Appalachian Trail

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