Pre-Trail Life, Gear Thoughts, and Other Various Ramblings…
Let’s talk about pre-trail life for a minute. I mean really get down to the honest, gritty, details.
As in all of those late nights spent in front a screen researching gear. I’m sure my neighbor in this tiny apartment building enjoys hearing me exclaim phrases like, “Oh shit!”, “How the fuck…?” and “No fucking way!” when I see things like the full price of a pair of Gore-Tex hiking boots.
Or when you really want to go out with friends but need to save money and spend your free evening doing even more research or trip planning, you say things like, “Oh ya know…spending the evening watching YouTube videos about blisters and merino underwear.”
Or the time there was a great deal on a Nano-Puff jacket you couldn’t pass up but it is grey and makes you look like a space person.
Humor aside, preparing for a thru-hike can become pretty complicated and with only a few months before I embark I would like to share what I’ve learned in the months since I decided I would definitely attempt this insane journey. I hope this will help those who are just now beginning preparing and putting together a good gear set up.
Gear Thoughts So Far
#1: DO NOT LET PEOPLE PURCHASE GEAR FOR YOU WITHOUT YOUR APPROVAL.
Let me repeat this.
#1: DO NOT LET PEOPLE PURCHASE GEAR FOR YOU WITHOUT YOUR APPROVAL.
I’m repeating it because it took me two gear items to learn this lesson. My parents skeptically approve of my decision to thru-hike but cannot believe the cost of some of the gear, particularly the packs. In a very nice and well-meaning gesture they bought a second hand pack for me as a surprise and to show their support. The pack is great and only slightly worn but it is a an older model and weighs almost five pounds on its own. This occurred at the very beginning of my preparations and I wasn’t even aware of all the new, LIGHTER and durable options available. So now I have to decide whether to save money and the time researching and buying a new pack and bear the extra weight, or break my parents’ hearts and sell it and put money towards a new one to save a pound or two. This occurred again while I was looking for new hiking boots. My preference was to buy from R.E.I. so if they didn’t work out, getting a new pair wouldn’t be a hassle. Disregarding my decision my father ordered some boots for me through Ebay. Yet again, a very kind gesture and they were actually really awesome, but unfortunately they were too small and now I have to go through the process of (hopefully) selling them and starting the process over again.
#2: Spend the big bucks on your pack, shelter choice, and sleeping system.
I am going to be one of the VERY low budget hikers out on the trail next year but one thing I did my best to not compromise TOO MUCH on price vs. quality/weight was my tent and sleeping bag. (I will get around to updating my featured gear list…sometime…maybe…) I chose a medium priced tent and an expensive synthetic down sleeping bag. My tent weighs a bit more than I like but is an extremely quick set up and take down process, which I found out during my first shake down hike during what also happened to be the worst lightning storms in Virginia in years! FUN. I also highly recommend actually going to your nearest R.E.I. store and chatting with the sales associates and looking at and handling the product rather than ordering online for these big purchases
The other gear items you should consider splurging some federal reserve notes on are your clothing items, particularly footwear, under clothes, and winter layers. Remember in a bad situation you may have to throw your pack down and run, leaving you with your clothing as your only shelter.
One suggestion to save money is when you do find a product from a manufacturer you do like, scrounge through Ebay and Amazon for a slightly used and cheaper one. I have also had great results with Bearfoot’s Hiking Gear Flea Market on Facebook.
#3: Go with what makes YOU happy.
The beginning of this can be very over-whelming. The internet is full of suggestions from experienced hikers and new products. There is the hammock sleeper vs. the tent sleeper. The trail runners vs. boots. Hiking poles or no hiking poles. Carry this or don’t carry this. When it all comes together just remember it is YOUR weight to bear and YOUR journey to have.
Physical Preparation and Planning
Hiking a mountain is hard.
Hiking a mountain with a heavy pack is worse.
Hiking a mountain with a heavy pack in the rain while chaffing and battling blisters is THE worst.
And that is one of the reasons why mental preparation is just as important as the physical part. Expecting the worse and preparing for it is what will get you to the top. My personal physical preparations have been going to the gym for cardio and stair climbing (when I can), a couple of short shake down hikes, and hiking while hunting without a pack. I admit I could be doing more but really the only thing to prepare you for hiking and camping for weeks on end is actually doing it. I also don’t want to put too much stress on my body before even beginning. For now my goal is endurance followed by weight loss (as you can see I could bear to lose a few pounds.) A couple lessons I did learn from my shakedown were to stop for water at every opportunity, be as light as possible, and listen to your body. I ran out of water, carried too much, and refused to believe I was getting sick but pushed hard anyway. Also before attempting a shake down or section hike, compare your guide book to a “real” map (the Appalachian Trials Interactive one can be found here) and research any shelters you may be staying at or near. I got sick and had to get off the trail and luckily there was a farm road that intersected nearby where my dad picked me up, which is where I encountered my second bit of trail magic since the land owner was kind enough to let my dad drive through and then the old farm woman let my stinky self rest on her porch and play with her two year old grandchild.
I am lucky enough to already have access to a mountain to train on, my home. For those of you who do not and who were raised in the suburbs and cities I really applaud you for making this decision to thru-hike. Not only are you about to put your body through some rough times but you are also going to be in a completely new environment. Try and think of every step of preparation as one step closer to Katahdin (or Springer or wherever flip-floppers like myself will end up). And try and enjoy it!
The Less Talked about Aspects of Pre-Trail Life
#1. Yes, I’m a single young woman hiking alone. I have repeated this countless times but people still cannot get it through their heads this is actually a possible thing to attempt. I already have more outdoors experience than your average person, and the fact that I am a woman who hunts automatically makes me feel more masculine than most “men” my age who hardly venture out and spend way too much time playing video games.
#2. Forming new relationships becomes pointless. A future thru-hiker who is serious about preparing doesn’t have the extra time to commit and most potential partners probably aren’t interested in gear talk or hiking in the rain on purpose. I’ll just take the loneliness as part of the mental preparation aspect.
#3. However you will find out who your real friends are. They will be supportive and understanding and listen to you babble about the deal you got on that Nano-Puff jacket. Then laugh at you when you look like a bright silver space alien. These are probably friends that turned into family and they will be missing you while you’re away…don’t forget that. And they will be there when you return from the trail…whether you made it a week, a month, 1,000 miles, or the whole way.
#4. Leaving the family behind can be tough. I have a great relationship with my mom and I don’t know how I could do this without her support. Every day I will be thinking about my parents, grandparents, my pets, and the family farm, but I know this hike is something I have to at least try to do.
#5. You know the statistics. Roughly only 1 out of every 4 attempting thru-hikers make it. Deep down you know all this planning and hard work and money spent could be for nothing.
But let me take you to the positive side of this for a minute. Is finishing the trail within the constraints of weather and a year’s time the ONLY reason you’re hiking? To have that “official” thru-hiker title?
Or are you going for an adventure? To be part of a loving and growing community? To endure hardship and be rewarded with some of the best views on this planet? Katahdin doesn’t care about any official thru-hiker title, she only cares that you heard her call and answered. And you are.
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Very well written article, hope to meet you on the trail.