Lessons Learned From My 2018 Thru-Hike Attempt
With the new year comes a new hiking season and it seems like a good time to reflect on some lessons learned during my failed thru-hike attempt last year, a hike that ended abruptly due to knee problems after just six short but amazing weeks.
NOBO, SOBO, or flip-flop. A flip-flop hike is not for everybody but it was the right decision for me and I plan on doing this again if I am able to make another thru-hike attempt this year. I started on April 15 at Rockfish Gap, VA, the southern entrance of Shenandoah National Park. Although the temperatures that first week were occasionally a bit brisk, things warmed up quickly as I progressed northward. I never had to deal with the heavy snow and subfreezing temperatures encountered by many of the early thru-hikers starting traditional NOBO treks in Georgia. Starting in Shenandoah National Park also allowed me to get my trail legs on a relatively tame but rewarding section of the trail and to ease into the physical challenges associated with a thru-hike. I initially wondered if finishing anywhere but Katahdin might be a bit anticlimactic but I quickly realized that, for me, it would not matter. My goal was (and still is) to hike the entire trail. The particular itinerary or sequence that I follow to accomplish that goal is largely irrelevant and the many advantages of a flip-flop hike (e.g., less crowded trails and shelters, starting with better weather and easier terrain, and knowing I am doing my small part to mitigate the environmental impacts of trail overcrowding) made the decision a relatively easy one.
Physical and mental preparation. Physical and mental preparation are important but, as my experience demonstrates, this will not always guarantee a successful hike. I have been hiking for more than 30 years, primarily on the Appalachian Trail, and felt both physically and mentally prepared for the rigors of a thru-hike. I understood the myriad challenges, knew what it felt like to walk in relentless rain for days at a stretch, to wake up cold, wet, and sore, facing a day filled with a seemingly endless series of repetitive and unrewarding climbs, to fight through maddening swarms of mosquitoes and biting flies, and to spend most hours of most days daydreaming about food. In the months leading up to my start date I hiked countless miles on local trails, followed an exercise routine targeting my back, quads, hamstrings, and calves, and did no less than five shakedown hikes in Shenandoah National Park with a full pack, ranging in duration from two to five days. I also read widely in the AT-related literature and gleaned what information I could from the experience of others. Frankly, I am not sure what I could have done differently in terms of my mental and physical preparation.
Gear and pack weight. I sought to keep my pack weight as low as possible, for comfort and, more importantly, to save wear and tear on my knees. I started with a base weight of just over 17 pounds and that weight turned out to be just about perfect. I did a lot of research into gear before buying anything and made some further adjustments as a result of my shakedown hikes (I discuss my final gear selections in an earlier Trek post here and in a video here). During my short-lived hike I only made one adjustment to my initial gear: When I reached Harpers Ferry, I swapped out my torso-length sleeping pad for a full-length inflatable pad. I simply could not get comfortable on the torso-length pad. My sleep was suffering and so I decided the slight weight penalty was worth it. As far as my big three and other major items, my Granite Gear Crown 2 pack, REI Quarter Dome 1 tent, Mountain Hardware Lamina Z bag, Katadyn BeFree water filter, MSR Pocket Rocket 2 stove, and Merrell Moab 2 boots all performed fantastically and for my next attempt I do not anticipate making any changes to these items. I was a bit disappointed with my Black Diamond Distance Z carbon fiber trekking poles. They are incredibly light and convenient and served me well until I hit mid-Pennsylvania, where both of them snapped within days of each other while navigating the notorious Pennsylvania rock fields. To their credit, Black Diamond customer service was absolutely fantastic and express shipped a replacement set of poles to my next town stop. But I will probably be looking for a new and more durable (and alas, heavier) set of poles for my next thru-hike attempt.
Food storage system. During my shakedown hikes, I experimented with all of the main food storage options: traditional bear bag hang, an Ursack, and a bear canister (the Bear Vault BV450). I decided to go with a traditional bear bag after finding the Ursack a bit too cumbersome and the bear canister too bulky, heavy, and hard to pack around. Although I did not enjoy having to hang my bag every night, particularly if it was raining (which it often was) or if I got to camp late when it was already dark, I will still probably go with the traditional bear bag again for my next attempt simply because of the weight and the packing convenience. I say probably because I am still considering using a bear canister for certain stretches of the trail where there seems to be an increasing number of problematic bear-human encounters.
Mail drops. I used a hybrid resupply strategy that involved both mail drops and on the fly resupply at local stores. My plan called for about two to three mail drops per month with the rest of my resupply obtained along the trail. This worked just fine for the short six weeks I was on trail. But next time I plan to do fewer mail drops and rely more heavily on resupply options along the trail. Resupply strategies are always a matter of personal choice. For me, I found I much preferred the freedom and flexibility of resupplying along the way and not being locked in to predetermined town stops and subject to the often unpredictable hours of the post offices in the small towns along the trail.
Daily mileage. This is where I began to make some bad decisions that ultimately resulted in the premature end of my hike. Before starting my hike, I worked up a very conservative hiking strategy that involved doing extremely low miles for the first four to five weeks of my hike and only very gradually working up to my target average of 15 miles per day. I hoped that this, along with starting on the relatively tame section of trail of Shenandoah National Park, would give my body time to adapt to life on the trail. This initially worked very well. For the first couple of weeks those low-mileage days resulted in some of the most pleasant and relaxed hiking I have ever experienced. The leisurely hiking (seven to nine miles a day the first two weeks) allowed me to sleep in and enjoy the warmth of my sleeping bag on those early and very cold mornings, to take extended breaks at beautiful views, to explore interesting side trails, and to enjoy long, unexpected trailside conversations with the many interesting people I came across each day. I also spent spent some of my considerable free time learning my way around social media (blogging, vlogging, Instagramming, etc.) which was useful and fun since I was experimenting with these tools and platforms for the very first time. The days were easy, the hiking was fun, and I was truly enjoying all that Shenandoah National Park had to offer: great trails, beautiful views, bears, cheeseburgers and, of course, the mind-blowing blackberry milkshakes. Because of my slow pace and short days, much of my time each day was spent resting and recovering and during this early period I experienced none, and I mean zero, of the usual soreness or stiffness that usually afflicts the first days of a long-distance hike. There were challenges in those early days (extreme cold, constant rain, mud, hard climbs, and a relentless barrage of pointless ups and downs, or PUDS) but these were not a surprise and I was ready for them. Two weeks into my thru-hike I was feeling absolutely great. But while I was well prepared for anything the trail could throw at me, I was not as well prepared for what turned out to be the biggest challenge of all: my own impatience.
Since I was feeling so good after just two weeks I began upping my daily mileage faster than originally planned. In the third and fourth weeks, when I had planned to average just ten to 12 miles a day, I started doing 12-15 miles a day and the occasional 16- and 17-mile day. It was still relatively easy terrain so I was not too concerned about pushing the miles a bit. I began to notice a slight twinge in my left knee but I kept going, figuring it would work itself out. I developed a twice-a-day stretching plan but for whatever reason did not stick with that for more than a few days. I reached Boiling Springs, PA, and picked up a resupply box that, in retrospect, had far more supplies than I needed. But I packed it all up and limped out of town carrying a load that was far too heavy. By the time I hiked down into Duncannon, PA, my knee had gone from a state of quiet protest to one of open rebellion. I left Duncannon and two days later took a zero day alongside the trail to rest the knee and to stay out of a raging thunderstorm. Then, in another questionable decision, I did a 16-mile day followed by an 18-mile day. At around this time, I also began hitting the notorious Pennsylvania rocks that put added stress on my knee (it was also during this stretch that I snapped both my trekking poles). Thanks to a well-timed visit by family members, I was able to take several zero days in Jim Thorpe, PA, and this period of rest did wonders for my knee. Or so I thought. Walking unencumbered on paved streets and sidewalks is much different than hiking with a full pack on the uneven terrain of the AT, and within hours of getting back on trail my knee issue re-emerged. I covered just 12 miles in the next two days before I limped into the emergency room in Palmerton, PA, where I was advised to get off the trail. I caught an Uber to Stroudsburg, PA, where I holed up in a hotel for a week before calling it quits after the knee showed only minimal improvement. In retrospect, I am convinced that I could have avoided this disappointing end to my thru-hike attempt if I had followed my original, conservative plan for my daily mileage goals, stuck with a daily stretching routine, and not stubbornly insisted on hiking through the knee pain when it first manifested.
While these are the biggest and most important lessons learned on my hike, I discovered a few other things that I will be keeping in mind as I plan my next attempt. In no particular order:
Audiobooks and music. Before my hike I purchased a subscription to Audible and downloaded several titles to my smartphone. I also prepared several music playlists via Spotify. For the first couple of weeks I hiked with no audiobooks or music at all, being content to enjoy the sounds of nature that surrounded me. Eventually, I did start listening to music during particularly long climbs or painfully boring stretches of trail. But I never came to enjoy listening to audiobooks while hiking. With music, you can turn your attention on and off when encountering obstacles or other interesting things along the trail. Audiobooks, on the other hand, usually require your full attention lest you miss a key point or a key plot development. I found myself having to constantly “rewind” them after discovering I had missed something important in the story.
Social media and electronics. This was a revelation to me. I was far from social media savvy before my hike but I quickly discovered that I loved being able to share my hike with folks by writing blog posts, posting on Instagram, and making videos. This was particularly true in those first days when I was doing low miles and had lots of time to mess around and learn how to do it all. I have also enjoyed having my posts, photos, and videos as a permanent record of my hike that I can look back on. If you do decide to be active on social media, definitely bring an extra charger (or two). You will use up your phone’s battery quicker than you expect, particularly in cold weather.
Food. The two most important things I discovered food-wise are 1) I can eat tortillas filled with pepperoni, cheese, and mustard every day and be happy and 2) I cannot eat oatmeal every day and be happy.
Finances. Budget more than you think you will need. Treating yourself to an outrageously good meal or luxuriating in your own private hotel room when you hit town is truly a great and wondrous thing.
Be flexible. Planning is a necessary part of a thru-hike, particularly when it comes to questions of food, water, and shelter. But don’t let your schedule dominate your hike. Be open to fun detours, blue blazing, unplanned zero days, or spending a little extra time at that great view, that tranquil pond, or that mesmerizing waterfall.
I hope some of these observations are useful to those of you planning to thru-hike this year and maybe I’ll see you out on the trail.
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Your plan was solid but your knee was not. I suspect you would have had the knee problem sooner or later. Better in PA than the 100 mile woods or getting to Maine and finding out you can’t summit Mt. Kathadin. For what it’s worth my plan is similar to yours but I plan to sobo maybe in 2019. No worries, you’ll finish it.
Some familiar pics from my 6 day hike from Pen Mar to Duncannon in May 2018, Thanks! My knees started to gave out after the descent from Hawk Rock into Duncannon as well, fortunately it was the planned end of my hike. Took a month to recover. Good luck getting back out there.
Stretched a tendon in my right knee on Katahdin in ’16. PT and Glucosamine Chondroitin helped a lot. Did ME, NH, and VT in’17. MA,CT, NY, NJ and stopped at Wind Gap, PA last year. Headed back in June to Charlie Mike. I feel your pain. You are very correct about a slower pace. HYOH. Good luck.
Vince AKA The Dude, SOBO, ’16-’19
Thank you Double H for sharing your lessons learned. I’ll be starting my own flip flop hike soon and will definitely benefit from your insights.
Best wishes on your future hikes…