The Schematics of Planning a Thru-Hike
19 Days until Springer Mountain
The decision to take on a thru-hike is an exciting one. An undertaking most only ever dream about. Many who do take the initial steps towards an attempt recognize quickly that the demands are not conducive to many lives and jobs. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity, but it was not without great effort and planning that I find myself in this place where such an exploit is possible. The broad strokes of preparing for a thru-hike are daunting enough; keeping focused, clear your calendar for six or seven months, save enough money, buy all of the gear you’ll need, and have yourself in formidable enough shape to have a shot at finishing. As I saw it, if I could cover these broad-stroke planning requirements, I would feel comfortable come hike day.
My plan to keep focused on the hike started with planning the hike in general. Few would argue that having concrete details of an event to set your sights on, vastly improves the chances of the event taking place. I read all that I could and watched YouTube videos until I couldn’t see straight. I registered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for a March 27th departure and made a reservation at the Lodge at Amicalola Falls. Now this is happening.
The next part of planning for most would be clearing your schedule for the necessary time needed to disappear into the mountains for half a year. My first conversations were with my wife, Alicia. She was of course aware of my intentions before I started scheduling dates and booking lodges, but the actual logistics of leaving for this period of time needed detailing. We made sure the bills, the dogs, the condo, the vehicles, all had been accounted for and the burden left on her in my absence would be minimized.
Recognizing my need to attempt this hike, she accepted the extra pains in the ass in stride, offering only her encouragement and excitement. Her support was contingent on the term that I find somewhere to stash my car for the time. After a somewhat short effort, I wasn’t feeling confident about my options for storage so I sold it. Driving in Chicago makes me depressed anyways. Easy decision.
After that, it was time to handle my egression from my serving job in Lincoln Park. Honestly, I just started talking about it around work. With coworkers, managers, and the owners. It was just a passive ten-month notice. Full transparency and plenty of time for them to work with. It won’t be that easy for everyone but with the incredible support of Alicia and the understanding of the best Italian restaurant in Chicago, my schedule started looking pretty open in 2022. Now how am I ever going to pay for this thing?
Saving for a thru-hike means different things to different people. While the popular idea is that it costs about $1,000 per month, others have been known to do it for way less and others opt to spend more on hotels, restaurant meals, and the like, putting their monthly number over a G. I’m planning to be in the faction of hikers that needs a restaurant and a shower once or twice a week. I’m new to backpacking, so to be realistic, there will probably be gear replacements needed along the way as more personal data about my preferences are collected.
With the additional expectation of the unexpected, I’ve budgeted for above the $1,000 mark by a small percentage. It’s important to me that this hike doesn’t take from savings, and I want to finish with no credit card debt. Pretty much, when I started saving last March, the hike would only include cash saved in that twelve months. After computing the amount needed for gear, the amount needed for monthly bills, and the amount needed for seven more months of bills while I’m away, my target number was intimidating. I wrote up a monthly saving budget, taking into consideration the expected busy months at the restaurant along with the expected lulls in the calendar as well. I factored in time off for vacations and Christmas and came up with rigid target numbers. Current bills first, then the monthly hike savings, all while keeping a few bucks with which to have fun and take vacations. Anything extra I would buy gear. I would buy the remainder of my gear list in January with money from my hike savings. The goal being the remainder of the gear list having been significantly minimized by then.
Hitting some of my lofty goals got tough at times. But ultimately I got pretty damn close. Without a clearly written plan, I wouldn’t have come close. Without my wife picking up most bar tabs and grocery trips, to hit my goals the last few months would’ve been a steady diet of instant ramen and captured pigeons from under the ‘L’ train.
There’s nothing like a good gear list video, blog, or Instagram picture, but I’m not an expert and wouldn’t want to misadvise anyone about something I myself am just learning about. Gear list suggestions are remarkably plentiful if you’re curious. When discussing AT gear requirements, suffice it to say that it’s more than you think, but less is better. Lighter is also better, and lighter is more expensive. I followed the REI recommendation list and cross-referenced it with videos and the incredible selections offered here at thetrek.co. I took things out on a couple different overnight hikes in Danville, Illinois and Fennville, Michigan, which taught me a lot. My tent is tiny and if any of my clothes shrink in the wash, they’re going in the trash. But ultimately I’m feeling prepared there.
The jury is out on whether or not I successfully got my body in fighting shape, ready to hike. I walk everywhere in Chicago, often just for the hell of it. I do the elliptical machine a fair amount and supplement with some light free weights. Before I leave I’ve got an appointment with a sports medicine spinal doctor to get me all aligned along with a massage therapist to spend an hour or two on my feet and legs. I’ve slept on the ground a few times in our living room and have my regimen of daily stretches memorized. Everything else I’m looking to develop on the trail. Heeding the advice of hiker “Tractor” who wisely told me to listen to my body and listen to the trail.
So there you have it. The majority of what occupied my mind over the course of the last year. I needed my impending hike to take center stage in my mind to keep focused, and that it did. Every decision became a hike decision.
Q: “Should we go out for dinner or stay in?” A: “Depends on if I hit my monthly savings goal.”
Q: “Should I watch this movie?”
A: “Yeah, but get off the couch and watch it from the elliptical machine.”
Q: “Work shoes are wearing out, buy new ones?”
A: “You won’t need them in a couple months, buy another pair of trail runners.”
For someone like me who gets distracted and off course, this is how I needed to plan and so far it has worked out.
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