Lessons Learned, 600 Miles Into My Thru Hike

If I could give advice to someone preparing for a thru hike next year, what would I say? Here are a few quick lessons learned over the first 600 miles of my AT thru hike.

1. Prepare your body. This is rough.

Are you thinking of doing a thru hike next year? Great! Open up Google and type in “Exercises for strengthening ankles and knees”. Do all of those exercises every day until you get on trail. Thank me later.

I don’t care if you have fantastic cardio endurance, or lead an active lifestyle, or have gone on backpacking trips before. This trail will kick the shit out of you. This is 5x true if you are working a cubicle or sedentary job right now.

I saw so many people drop out at Neel’s Gap due to knee and ankle injuries. I saw the haunted look in their eyes as they realized a dream was over. That sucks. Even those still on trail right now are dealing with the pain of not properly preparing. Reindeer, Crusher and I all are experiencing ankle pain. We are fighting through it, but the hike would be much more pleasant without it.

Your tendons and ligaments need to be strengthened before you try to hike 2,189 miles. You may have dreamed of this hike for years, but dreaming doesn’t prepare your body. I guarantee if you start now, your ligaments can be in great shape in time for next year. If you don’t, you risk tendonitis, which can end a hike as quickly as falling and breaking an ankle.

Single leg mini squats are extremely effective at fixing any muscular imbalances you have, and can help you identify areas that need improvement. I encourage you to stop by your friendly neighborhood physical therapist. Many will give free consultations and can recommend what steps you can take next to strengthen key areas of your legs. It’s not hard, and it’s boring, but it’s something that must be done.

Physically preparing is not as much fun as researching and testing gear. But it doesn’t matter how light your pack is, if your body is unable to support even the lightest of ultralight packs. Get your priorities straight and figure out your physical health before the trail.

Oh, and one more thing – STRETCH! Hamstrings, quads, calves, glutes. Everything. Every day. Look up Kelly Starrett. Mobility is key.

2. Georgia will teach you what the word “humility” means.

Georgia was awful. The terrain was terrible, with giant rocks to climb over, and the ups and downs were extremely steep.  Unless you have significant backpacking experience, I encourage you to SLOW DOWN and stick to lower mileage days. Ease into the hike. Get used to your new life. Make friends with the other hikers.

Unless you have a strict time limit to finish the trail in under 5 months, please, slow down in Georgia. How many people do you hear about who didn’t finish the trail because of overuse injuries? (SO MANY!) And how many people do you hear about who didn’t finish the trail because winter came and they couldn’t get to Katahdin? (NONE!) The timing will work out, but if you injure yourself, it’s game over.

Don’t get overambitious. There is so much time to finish the trail. I’ve seen many hikers with ankle and knee issues brought on by overuse injuries. The trail evens out once you get into NC, and definitely gives you room to run once you get to VA. Plenty of time to do 20’s once you get a little further North.

3. Just because you start in April doesn’t mean you will dodge cold weather.

A few weeks before hitting the trail for my April 3rd start date, I bought a 10 degree bag to replace my 30 degree bag I was planning on bringing. I am SO HAPPY that I did.

There were nights up in the mountains that were in the 20’s. Many nights dipped below freezing. Temperature ratings on sleeping bags don’t indicate to what temp you will be comfortable. They indicate to what temp they will keep you ALIVE, if you are curled up in the fetal position in the bag.

It’s always easier to cool off than it is to heat up at night in April. Think of it as an insurance policy.

Oh, and don’t forget to sleep with your filter! If that sucker freezes, it becomes useless. Most hikers know this already, but hopefully at least one reader learns this here.

4. Go on shakedown trips to test your gear.

Don’t just show up at Springer with a backpack full of gear and try to wing it. This should be common sense but you’d be amazed at how many hikers don’t know how to use their stoves or set up their tents.

More than that, this will show you what gear you will actually need. My shakedown trip last summer on the PCT showed me that I don’t need a stove (I’m stoveless for my AT hike and loving it). It showed me what clothing system works for me. It showed me that carrying a liter of whiskey while ascending a mountain will make you question if sobriety really is the best option.

Things you read on WhiteBlaze sometimes don’t translate too well into the full experience of backpacking. Do yourself a favor and learn the easy lessons on shakedown trips. A thru hike is hard enough without adding more obstacles to your path.

5. You will be uncomfortable. You will be lonely. That’s exactly the point.

The trail has pushed me to my breaking point. I’ve been cold, lonely and scared. But I’ve also found strength in myself I didn’t know I had. I’ve found support and unconditional love from strangers supporting me as I hike. I’ve found deep friendships. I’ve found laughter in ridiculous situations as we’ve improvised our way through trial after trial out here in the wilderness.

I don’t know the best way to phrase this, but…  leave yourself open to the experience. The experience of being cold, lonely and scared is new for me. My life before the trail was often a bit white-washed, as if someone had trimmed the peaks and the valleys from each day. The trail has brought a vivid color back to each day, both in good and bad ways. The reality is that you can’t have the highs without the lows out here.

I see many on the trail who cling so hard to home that they forget to experience the trail. Many have Verizon, so each night they are calling home, or texting, or browsing Facebook. If I had my face buried in my phone 20 times per day, like some of these hikers, I know I wouldn’t have found the beauty and friendships I have while out on the trail. The trail will change you in ways you never could predict, if you allow yourself to be open to the experience.

As always, you are free to hike your own hike, but it’s something to consider. Why try to escape the experience of being out on the trail? You’re achieving a dream, right now. So go live it! The news of Donald Trump can wait until you get back home.

Just some thoughts for a lazy day in Pearisburg. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comments, especially if you are a thru hiker.


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Comments 15

  • Tinkerbell : May 26th

    Great advice man! Keep on keeping on. I hope all future thru-hikers will read this and take note, ESPECIALLY the slowing down in Georgia part.

  • Slack Packhiker : May 26th

    Excellent! Succinct and right on.

  • Pat : May 26th

    very good so true

  • C.C. Hikes : May 26th

    Well said!

  • Sandy : May 26th

    I started reading your posts 2 months ago as a friend and I were starting our hike on the AT. We are 70 and 72, overweight and out of shape. Our goal is to walk 5 miles in each state for a total of 70 miles. We have done 7 states starting in WV, MD and PA on a long mild weekend in Feb/March. The last of April we went to Springer Mountain and did GA, NC, TN and VA. I think we were in Hot Springs the same weekend you were there. I am taking my thru hike through your posts. I enjoy your writing especially when I read about the same places we have been. Who knows maybe we will see you in Maine.

    • Tim - zookeeper : May 31st

      Did you need super glue to fix a shoe at Springer Mountain in April. I helped someone and forgot their names. They too were doing 5 miles in each state.

  • Brenda : May 27th

    Great post, Great advice!! Isn’t it a good thing we can and do “study” written words and learn things–But isn’t it a wonderful amazing thing that we learn so many more things when we experience something in real life!! I am so so enjoying your hike. Be safe and hike on!!!

  • Jenn : May 31st

    Thank you! I’m planning a hike (hopefully a thru-huke) in 2021 with my then 18 and 14 year olds. This is excellent preparation advice. Thank you. Maybe by then I’ll be physically ready.

  • Paul Boulay : May 31st

    Great post. So you’re traveling without a stove! Great idea to replace it with Whiskey!
    But what are s few typical menus when stove less? I’m curious.

  • Josh : May 31st

    I actually did learn something from #3 (despite feeling like an ass for not using common sense) so mission accomplished! Great piece of insightful and passionate observation. Good luck on the AT!

  • Noah Gordon : Jun 2nd

    As I’m gearing up 2 years in advance for my 2018 AT hike, your blog was as enlightening as it was reassuring.

    Thankfully I was planning on training a year in advance of my hike but hadn’t considered what areas I needed to focus on and strengthen until reading your blog.

    I have been neglecting to do shakedown trips since I’m still getting all my gear together. Thank you for reminding me of how important those trial runs are.

    I wish you nothing but the best on your continuing journey.

    Happy trails!

  • Karen : Jun 2nd

    Thanks man, as I mentally and slowly physically prepare for the section hiking, the thru hike will have to wait for retirement. I already am starting with daily back pain unrelated to hiking but I’m using my inner desire to hike the AT to overcome the daily grind and pains. Thank you for the strengthening reminder. Retired athletes like myself still “think” we can do what we used to but sadly at almost 50 , the body shows me differently. I will keep on keeping on and know my hiking dreams will come true. One step at a time. Thanks again!

  • Jim : Jun 2nd

    2015 thru hiker. flip flopped in July. Great advice. Include stretching and massage. Does wonders for your muscles and tendons. Just remember what you are going thru is prep for the really hard parts. Good luck and watch the water. Got shut down after 1500 miles by giardia. Chief Pretty Feet

  • Pete Smokestack Buak : Jun 6th

    Well said. As a Georgia trail maintainer, Trail Ambassador, GATC Trail Information manager I try to convince thrus to take it easy at the start. On my long hikes or “walk abouts”, shelter to shelter works in Georgia. Past Standing Indian my boby lets me know it is time to kick it up a knotch.


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