Things I Wish I had Known Before I Started Section Hiking on the AT
When I started section hiking in August 2013, I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never backpacked before and I wasn’t prepared for the adventure that is the trail. I’d read a few books but that didn’t compare to my experiences on the trail and did little to bring me up to speed. These are the things I’ve learned over the past 3 years of section hiking that I’d tell my 2013 self, if I had the chance. These are the things I would find useful to know and the things that are true for me. They might not be the same for you; as always, your mileage may vary.
Rocks, logs, and bog boards are super slippery. Step flat when on potentially slippery terrain. The more of your body you have in contact with the ground, the harder it is to slide. It’s basic physics. When going downhill on steep and slippery terrain, try to lean slightly forward to keep your feet flat on the terrain, providing maximum surface area. If you lean backward, your weight is in your heels with less of your shoe in contact with the terrain which makes you more prone to slipping. And until you have practice assessing logs, bog boards, and rocks, slow down before stepping on them. Your momentum can make it more likely you’ll slip. While I’ve never been seriously injured, I’ve received many bruises and sore spots from slipping, sliding, and flat out falling. At least backpacks soften falls onto your back; my backpack has saved me from head injuries many times.
When going downhill, step intentionally. Take smaller steps and don’t let your weight fall heavily as you step. This can save your knees a lot of stress and strain. When I started out, I’d step fairly heavy as I was going downhill, just letting my weight and momentum carry me downhill. After a while of doing that, my knees began to have problems and I realized I needed to change my style. Once my body learned the habit, I was able to do it on autopilot.
Shelters rock (but so do tents). Sleeping in shelters is an option, but so is tenting. When I started out hiking, I relied mostly on shelters; this severely limited my day-to-day mileage options. Also, shelters aren’t always the best place to get a good night’s sleep, depending on your sleep style. Through experimentation, I’ve found that I sleep much deeper in a tent when compared with shelters. So while I often don’t want to set up and tear down my tent each day, it’s the best option for me, provided it’s good weather.
Hammocks can be chilly. Hammocks can have a lot of benefits but know they’re also a lot colder than tents. Should you decide to give hammock swinging a try, keep it in mind. Try it out near home before taking it to the trail. I’ve been surprised to find myself cold in 60-degree weather, in a sleeping bag that’s rated down to 40 degrees. If you tend to sleep cooler, this might not be the best option.
Your sleep system matters. It took me a number of section hikes to realize that unlike many people, I couldn’t make do with a closed-cell foam or 0.75 inch air mattress due to my back problems and joint injuries. On my last trip with the 0.75 inch mattress, I never hit REM sleep and by day 3, was completely exhausted, demoralized, and unable to finish my planned hike. I ended up with a 2.5-inch Thermarest Neoair Xlite, which I’ve been using for over 2 years and couldn’t be happier. My one word of warning: be sure to put down a ground cloth while sleeping in shelters. I’ve popped a hole in the Neoair when I wasn’t using a ground cloth and it’s nothing so much as a deflated balloon without air, which is distinctly uncomfortable. While you might not need a thicker sleeping pad, if you do, know that there are many options for sleeping pads and you’re a backpacker whether you use a a closed-cell foam mattress or a 2.5 inch air mattress.
Food is delicious but also weighs a lot. Go into town to resupply every 3-5 days; it doesn’t take that much time, provided the hitchhiking opportunities are reasonably successful. As a general rule starting out, don’t carry more than 4-5 days worth of food. It’s heavy and there’s no reason to carry that much food when towns are frequent. There are a few places where you’ll need a bit more food (such as the Smokys, Whites, 100 Mile Wilderness), but they’re the exception to the rule.
Get a recent guidebook and forgo the ATC guides. While some things don’t change year to year, many things do. Make sure you have an up-to-date guidebook, not last year’s model. And while the venerable ATC offers many excellent products, their guides don’t include what a thru hiker or section hiker needs – where and in what direction to go into town, what services are offered there, unique places to stop, hostels, cool side trails, etc. I missed out on the Cookie Lady in MA because, at the time, I had no idea it was a thing. I’d advise AWOL’s guide over the Thru-Hikers Companion; I’ve compared between the two and they have the same basic information, though AWOL has more up-to-date information and lists unofficial campsites and water sources. AWOL includes the trail elevation on the same page along with water, shelter, services, and towns. It’s also designed to have pages removed as you finish them or to send them along in front of you. They also offer a loose leaf, unbound version. For a section or thru hiker, it’s a better option.
You don’t need an abundance of maps. On the AT, I have never needed a map except for in the White Mountains. I have not brought a map for any other section; the guide I use has important map parts included. However, you know you and how well your sense of direction functions. You most likely don’t need to bring maps for every possible section of the trail. Seek to find a balance between packing for your fear and anxiety and being sensible and safe. Underneath the safe and sensible, definitely don’t leave home without some kind of guide or map system in place. At the very least, it’s really hard to figure out how to get into town for resupply and where hostels are without a guide; at the very worst, you could become a statistic.
Hitchhiking can be a game changer and a life-saver. It can also be spooky. Hitchhiking around the AT is different than hitching other places. There are techniques to help you get a better ride and stay safe. So long as you listen to your gut, hitchhiking near the AT isn’t as big a deal as you might think. Learn all you can about this option before you hit the trail; it can impact your plans.
Gear, shoes, and water treatment
Take those shoes out for a hike. The best way to figure out if your shoes work for you is to go hike in them. For my first four section hikes, I struggled to find footwear that fit me properly. Sizing varies widely by company and the narrowness of some footwear totally messed with me. I spent a three-day section hike (was supposed to be 7 days) feeling like my pinkie toes were going to be snapped off any second. However, I hadn’t experienced that problem until I took them out hiking on uneven surfaces. While everyone recommended boots for me due to my ankle instabilities, through experience I found they didn’t help me at all. For me, boots were heavier, slower to dry, harder to fit on narrow rock ledges, and I still would turn my ankles. In the end, I settled on trail runners and I’ve been happy with them so far. I’d also give myself the recommendation to avoid waterproof footwear; it means once it inevitably gets wet, it’ll just about never be dry again. I also figured out that changing into dry socks halfway through the day substantially improved my feets’ ability to be blister-free. Stubbs has more suggestions here.
Water is life. There are many affordable, lightweight water filters on the market. Do your research and pick one that works for you. I messed around with a number of different water treatment options because I wasn’t aware of the wide variety of things available. I tried the LifeStraw (way too cumbersome and I couldn’t drink freely), Aqua Mira (sometimes I want to drink water as soon as I get to the water source, not 40 minutes later), and then finally, happily, a Sawyer Squeeze. And be sure to test it out before you go hiking; when you’re thirsty and dirty and tired is not the time to pull out the directions and figure out what goes where.
More electrolytes means less muscle cramps. When it’s hot out, I sweat like it’s going out of style. No matter how much water I drink or Ramen I eat, I’ve found it difficult to keep up with my body’s need for sodium, potassium, and magnesium. When hiking up the south side of Moosilauke early July 2014, I was having muscle cramps in my calves the entire way up the mountain. Pick up one foot, it cramps; take a step, push the foot down to make the cramp release; repeat. After that, I tried Powerade powder because it’s lightweight and easy to find in stores; it helped but it didn’t have quite the impact I wanted. Some thru-hikers acquainted me with Nuun last year and I haven’t looked back. I’ve found that Nuun makes my water last longer because I’m not as thirsty because my body is getting enough electrolytes and able to hold onto the water I drink. This year, for hiking in extreme heat, I found this electrolyte salt to do wonders; I haven’t had issues with muscle cramping since I started using this. The racing tubes are tiny (maybe the size of 2 AAA batteries end-to-end) and hold 20 servings.
Field test everything! The best way to know if your gear works is to test it out in the field. Go out for a few days before going out for weeks. Go out for a week before going out for months. And know that going out for a week or more is very different from hiking for 3-4 days. In 3-4 days, you don’t need to go into town, wash your clothes, or get food resupply. And while you can sprint a long weekend, that shit will wear your body out quick when done for more than a few days. Starting up slower and then accelerating slowly is the way to go (though I still heartily ignore my own advice and just try to start less fast).
Bodies & Bodily Functions
Body Glide is magic. Chaffing is real – real painful. The first night I ever spent on the trail, my ass was glowing from the chaffing it endured over the course of the day. The next morning, when it was a surprise 30 degrees, it helped keep me feeling warm and cozy. However, the payoff wasn’t really worth it. I ended up snagging some petroleum jelly from a gas station on the trail for that first hike, but something in stick form is much easier to deal with. Gold Bond also has a friction stick that can be found at most pharmacies (e.g. CVS or Walgreens).
Blisters make everything suck. It takes less time and pain to prevent blisters than to treat them. The first half a dozen AT trips I took, I mutilated my feet. My go-to strategy was to ignore them. Denial can be useful in many circumstances but it probably wasn’t the best tack in this situation. I’ve tried a lot of different things for my feet. I tried one pair of wool socks in both boots and running shoes (unpleasant results). I also tried sock liners (decent results) and using Body Glide on my feet in all the areas where I tend to develop hot spots (good results). I’ve found Body Glide and trail runners work the best for my feet; also, one of the pairs of socks I bring with me are thinner wool socks. If my feet start to swell and rub, the slightly thinner sock reduces friction and gives me some breathing room.
Peeing in the woods. So while many people on the AT can already stand to pee, some cannot. And the options I’ve heard listed for stand-to-pee devices (STPs) while hiking are minimal and often unsatisfactory. For your consideration: based on many people’s reports, the STPs that work well are the Fenis, Mr Fenis, and Pstyle. It is good to note the Fenis is shorter than the Mr Fenis, making it more difficult to avoid peeing on shoes or clothing. All three are made of silicone and can be boiled for 5 minutes to sanitize them.
Pooping in the woods. Don’t ignore the call of nature, no matter how dark or early it is. Earlier on in my section hiking, I didn’t really think about this until it happened. It sucks when it’s 5am and cold and your body wakes you up to tell you it needs to be let out. The last thing I wanted to do was get out of my sleeping bag to lumber the 500 yards to the privy (even when it’s not actually 500 yards, it totally feels like it). Also, figure out where your TP is before you go to sleep; should you wake up in desperate need, you don’t want to be pawing through your whole backpack. The trail to the privy inevitably gets exponentially longer the more you need it.
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For the love of God, and the S&R folks, please buy a map for the White Mountains. It is very easy to lose the trails up there, and while a guide book is great, if you wander off on the wrong trail, a guide book won’t get you back where you need to be. Spend the $6 on a nice tyvek one and avoid the $10,000 charge of a rescue. Also, some thru hikers almost died of hypothermia on Franconia Ridge in June this year. So please keep a close eye on the weather up here, too.
So back to the peeing conversation…have you tried GoGirl in the field? Recommendations?
I tried the “go girl” –EPIC FAIL! It was actually the first spd I tried, and turned me off the whole idea for a couple of years! The problem with that particular spd is that it very easily and quickly backs up mid-pee, and next thing you know, you have thoroughly made a mess of yourself and clothing and hands…
It is also short, as mentioned before, allowing for no margin of error.
I currently use and love the Pstyle. It is longer, yet still small. It is an open device, which means to backing up or overflowing. Also. It is so easy to clean. No partially closed areas which will create all sorts of opportunity for growth and general funk.
And one of the really great aspects of the Pstyle? — once you have fully emptied your bladder, simply use the device to gently apply a little pressure while pulling forward and away from body, and all drips and residual urine is neatly removed, without the additional need for tp or a pee cloth. This is surprisingly effective and sanitary,, both for your body and the environment. No TP or cloth to potentially introduce unwanted debris or bacteria to the body, and no need to carry around large amounts of TP trash, or carry a used p-rag everywhere.