I’ve Been On The Trail For 20 Days: Here Are The Things No One Told Me Before I Started

We scour the internet looking for every backpacking tip, gear list, training plan, and advice we can find. We get our gear together, weigh it, take some things out, and weigh it again. We pack our resupply boxes and ship the first one out. We think we are ready for the Appalachian Trail, but the truth is that there will still be things that catch us off guard. To help out the next generation of thru-hikers, here’s my list of things no one told me before starting the trail.

Your appetite may change your first week.

This was fairly common among the hikers I spoke with and it affected me as well. I had packed 3,000+ calories of food for every day, but I could only force myself to eat about 1,000 of those calories. This happened my whole first week. You’d think the opposite would be true and that I would be starving, but no. I was frustrated because I knew I needed to eat, but I just couldn’t. If this happens to you, try taking a zero day, getting some good food, and hydrating up. You need time to adjust and fine-tune your trail diet. It won’t be long before your appetite changes and the hiker hunger sets in.

Bring some kind of electrolytes on the trail.

As it turned out, part of my diet problem was a hydration problem. I didn’t pack any propel packets, Pedialyte packets, Nuuns, or anything to keep the water I drank from flushing right out of me. My first week I was drinking 1-1.5 gallons of water a day because I didn’t have any electrolytes or salts in my body to retain it. Once I got some for the trail, it was a game-changer. I went from barely making it up hills to being heavyweight champion of the mountain. Long story short, pack electrolytes.

Rain gear only stops drizzles, not downpours.

It was my second day in the Smokies when I experienced my first rain on the trail. It started off as a drizzle and I stayed high and dry with my raincoat and gaiters on. Unfortunately, that drizzle soon turned into a monsoon and there was nothing I could do. My “waterproof” coat was saturated, the trail turned into a flowing creek that filled my shoes, and my shorts had just as well have been swim trunks. My advice for this would be dress down for the storms. The less you wear in a downpour is less you have to dry out later.

Bears are not the biggest threat on the trail.

Don’t get me wrong, bears can kill you if they want to, but typically they really just don’t want to. As long as you store your food correctly and don’t get between a mama and her cubs for that epic IG picture then you probably won’t need that mini fire extinguisher of bear mace.

With this being said, snakes and ticks are the real threats on the trail. As you hike you need to keep your eyes on the trail to make sure you don’t accidentally step on a copper head or rattlesnake (especially in sunny areas where they like to lay). If you see one, stop and wait for them to cross the trail or walk a good distance around them.

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Ticks are the animals that scare me more than bears out here. They sit in the leaves and grass, waiting to climb onto and bite into an animal or hiker. You may not even know you’ve got one of these parasites on you for days, and even once you’ve pulled them off, you could get Lyme disease or a red meat allergy (in the case of the new Lone Star tick). To avoid these suckers, hike in pants, use bug spray with DEET, check for ticks often, and shower with shampoo every chance you get.

Most hostels only take cash or Venmo.

You may not plan on staying in hostels, but after a few 18 mile days I promise you’ll reconsider. Are they great? Not really. Do they smell like weed? Normally yes. Is a shower and a bunk for $35 a good deal? No, but after a week-long section, a hostel can seem like heaven on earth. Make sure when you get to town you have plenty of cash for the hostels and shuttles. Don’t use paper money in stores or restaurants, save it for the cash-only spots.

There are mice in the shelters, lots of them.

Shelters are awesome, especially when it’s raining, but there is one problem with them (and it’s not other people snoring). The shelters have mice. If you hang all your food and trash up, they won’t chew through your pack, but they may still run across your feet or head during the night. My advice is to pop in some earplugs, pull a beanie over your eyes, and pretend they aren’t there. Out of sight, out of mind.

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Comments 13

  • Gerald Hopkins : Jun 3rd

    These are really great tips he is sharing. It is all important stuff but most blogs don’t mention them. Thank you!

  • pearwood : Jun 3rd

    Thanks. The constant wet is why I will be packing wool and wearing trail shoes instead of boots.

  • GroundHog : Jun 3rd

    Now if we could just get the trail snakes to eat the shelter mice….

    • Goat Head : Jun 3rd

      They do. Snakes also hang around the shelters for the mice.

  • Misty : Jun 3rd

    So appreciative of your essential article. Most are padded with meaningless padding with the point buried somewhere.

  • TaffyUK : Jun 3rd

    Never used electrolytes.

    BUT I like two bags of small peanuts early morning, with my coffee, seriouse it tastes nice.

    Plus eat other food that has electrolytes properties.

  • thetentman : Jun 3rd

    Good list and good luck.

    And if you hike in a group, you are only as fast as the slowest hiker.

  • Tennessee : Jun 3rd

    Permethrin fir clothing is the best preventive for ticks I know of. One spray lasts up to 6 weeks. Have never had ticks when using Permethrin except on exposed skin.

    • Walkabout John : Jun 4th

      I sprayed nothing on my clothing for ten days in Virginia. It worked! No Ticks at all! Walkabout John

  • Dan Stokes : Jun 4th

    Joe Ragland, I admire your courage and determination. Please note that I am a Lazy Boy hiker; somewhat akin to a Monday morning quarterback. If you should opt for the PCT, CDT or other major hike I would suggest, if possible, a few weekend or one week forays into that environment. From I have read the last forty years, it is that NOTHING totally prepares one to thru hike thousands of miles short of actually doing it. I wish you the best and STAY SAFE.

    • Kim Hansen : Jun 5th

      I loved living your journey with you. Take me back twenty years ago I’d be right there with you! I lived and played a lot out doors and the long trek seems so inviting ??. Be safe and keep sharing ?. Thank you?!

  • Paul Lee : Jun 5th

    How did your backpack weigh? I really enjoy reading about your adventures.

  • David : Jan 15th

    For me, non-waterproof trail shoes are the best. All shoes will get soaked. Trail shoes dry faster. They are also cheaper to replace. Shelter mice are ubiquitous, even when you tent near a shelter. Anything in your pack that smells will attract them. Ear plugs allow you to more easily escape inside your head. When you hike through the south you will stay wet more than dry.


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