Thru-Hike or Shakedown Hike?

Thru-hike starts.

Let me tell you about my first attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, which became a shakedown hike.

The day was cool, air crisp with clouds in the sky. Light rain was predicted throughout the day to help usher in spring. I awoke feeling refreshed and ready. Breakfast was served by the windows overlooking Amicalola State Park. Nope, too romantic for a beginning.

Once upon a time, there was this man named Chris. He had a dream to hike the Appalachian Trail. No, this is not a fairy tale.

(Sing to tune of “The Beverly Hillbillies”) Let me tell you a story bout a man named Chris. Retired Army vet walking the Appalachian Trail. Yeah, that’s not going to work either.

My father and I loaded into his truck and headed out to Amicalola Falls State Park. The ride was smooth and peaceful. We talked about hiking and camping. Dad was remembering when he was younger hiking in the White Mountains. We checked into the Lodge at the State Park and ate dinner together. The sunset was peaceful and serene.

Dad left early to head back home and work…leaving me alone (insert ominous sound). I slept in. I made my way down to the stone arch and registered my thru hike. The Park Rangers weighed my backpack and stated, “On the heavier end of the spectrum but doable,” (hear self-righteous laugh). Forty-two pounds!!! OMG!!!  Within a quarter of a mile, the trail started to climb and climb steeply. My backpack started to show how much it really weighed. (Cue suspenseful music.) The rocks felt like I was walking barefoot. The roots were tripping me any chance they got. Okay, got to stop here. Starting to feel like a horror movie.

For real now, off I go!

No sh*t there I was, walking through the stone arch with 42 pounds of gear, food, and water on my back heading to Mt Katahdin. Yeah, that is more like it. It was about eight o’clock in the morning. The Approach Trail was closed due to damage from a storm that had passed through a few weeks prior. The East Ridge Trail was the path to Springer Mountain from the Welcome Center.

And off I went. It did not take long before I realized that this adventure was going to challenge me every step of the way. The weather was in the 50s and nice for the strenuous first day. Some scattered rain was predicted throughout the day. I had my raincoat and micro-fleece ready just in case. The sweating started within the first 500 feet and continued as long as I walked. The scenery was starting to show some beginnings of life. Mostly ground coverings. There were some flowers, of which I do not know their names, they were pretty and stood out among the brown leaves and sticks.

East Ridge Trail on my thru-hike

East Ridge Trail leading up to Springer Mountain to start my thru-hike. Lots of rocks. Will they ever stop?

Really? This many rocks?

Let’s talk about this trail. First, why are there so many rocks and roots? Just because it is in the mountains, does it need to have so many? It is maintained by trail organizations, right? And it is a well-worn path, too. Everyone that has hiked any distance of the AT talks about the rocks and roots. This was a rude awaking for me. Second, why does it have to go up all the time? Oh, yeah, right. It is in the mountains. But surely there is a downhill side of this mountain. Right? Seriously, what goes up must come down, except age, and I am 50. What was I thinking when I said I wanted to hike the A.T. for my 50th birthday? So yes, the trail caught me off guard is an understatement. The training WALKS I did were on paved trails. They had some inclines and declines. But nothing that simulated the A.T. Oh yea, there were no rocks or roots either. I can admit that the walking that I did with my pack did help me get use to wearing the weight on my back.

Thru-hike becoming shakedown hike?

Ok, so I continued my hike. Getting into a groove for a little bit and saying this is not so bad. Then I would have to stop, put on/take off my raincoat or micro-fleece, and lose all momentum and groove that I had. I stopped to eat lunch and really did not have an appetite but ate anyway. It was then the thought came to me about changing lunch options. I stopped to filter water for the first time ever. Thank goodness the instructions were on the bag. Pretty simple process actually.

Wow, that worked out well for me. That water was probably the best tasting water ever. I made it to the Springer Mountain summit about eight hours after starting. The view was spectacular. The rest was well needed. I sat down, ate something, and contemplated. Do I continue or go back? Hmmm, eight hours walk back, stop at Springer Mountain shelter, or go to the next shelter? I planned to do 12 miles the first day, so let’s go to the Stover Creek shelter. Little easier trek to the shelter. “I can do this!” went through my head.

Stover Creek shelter

Stover Creek shelter where I spent the first night of my thru-hike/shakedown hike of AT. Photo via Steve Gallagher.

Do I continue with this thru-hike?

Stover Creek shelter was a welcome sight. Other hikers had started a fire, another welcome. First things first, find a spot to set up tent. Tent set up was simple as I had practiced many times. Next, cook dinner. Alfredo noodles with chicken. While that was simmering, I went and filtered more water while there was still some sunlight. I sat and talked with the other hikers while I ate. Interesting stories and origins kept the mood light and hid all of us hiding our aches and pains.

After dinner and chatting, I retired to my tent. Changed into sleep clothes and snuggled into my sleeping bag. As I lay there, I sent a message via my satellite tracker/messenger to my wife stating I was OK and going to sleep. Sleep did not creep in as I wanted. What did creep in was thoughts about trail, equipment, and how I was not prepared for this endeavor. I did try to tell myself about a learning curve, “you can do it!” (in Rob Schneider voice from “The Waterboy”), and “you did 24 years in the Army, now man up.” I also heard most of my Rigger First Sergeants say, “Suck it up and drive on Airborne, Hooah!!” It did not work.

Now it’s a shakedown hike.

I sent a message to my wife and father that this was not going to work out. My father lived four hours away and I gave him the location of a parking area six miles away from my location where we could meet. I was then able to sleep, restless but sleep. When I woke up the next morning, breakdown was simple even with the aches and pains. I made my breakfast and started my trek home. That six miles was moderate, not sure if it was due to knowing I was getting off the trail or not. My father made it to the pickup point after we realized that Google maps and Apple maps have some subtle differences. I stayed the night at my parents then went home the next day.

“I’ll be back” (said in Terminator voice)

I was a little down on myself because I got off the trail so early. So, I went into a full-time research mode. I did more gear research. More meals research. Evaluated my current gear for replacements or omitting altogether. I read books, lots of books. Those that know me, know I DON’T read books that don’t have pictures in them. All the books gave me so much more information, tips, tricks, expectations, and how-to than the videos I watched prior to my attempt. This made me feel better and the ole saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” rang true. I will try again. Realistic shakedown hikes are in order and losing weight from my pack.

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Comments 11

  • Dana Downing : Nov 25th

    1987: I attempted a thru hike and failed spectacularly. 1988: I attacked the biggest problem: physical fitnness. By the end of the year, I was in the best shape of my life. 1989: I was phyiscally AND mentally prepared. (I started without a stove because hot food was too much of a luxury and carrying a cooking kit was needless extra weight. After Damascus, I broke down and allowed myself the luxury. Uncooked oatmeal, for example, is less enjoyable cooked. Who knew.)

    Reply
    • Chris : Nov 26th

      Dana,
      Thank you for encouragement. I too can do this. My thoughts on stove is really for cold mornings to warm the insides while sitting. Hopefully it last long enough till body warms up from hiking.
      Chris

      Reply
  • Moab Girl : Nov 26th

    First, Congratulations for getting out there! Second, get out there some more! Meetup has some great groups online for hiking and backpacking. Have fun and get your trail legs moving. You’ve got this!

    Reply
    • Chris : Nov 27th

      MOAB Girl,
      Thanks for encouragement. I have been back out a few times since then. Learned even more about myself and equipment. Again, thanks.
      Chris

      Reply
  • Lydia : Nov 26th

    At least you gave it a shot. But I’m just curious what do you mean by the word Shakedown?

    Reply
    • Chris : Nov 27th

      Lydia,
      What I mean by shakedown is to use my gear in real trail situations. It helped me figure out what I need to keep, change, or omit.
      Chris

      Reply
  • Daniel : Nov 27th

    I’m confused by what you mean by shakedown…

    Shakedown usually means extortion… I came in here expecting to hear about how people were charging crazy prices for a shuttle ride, or stealing your supplies and trying to sell them back to you, or something…

    Reply
    • Chris : Nov 27th

      Daniel,
      Hahaha. No on the buy-back program or high shuttle fares on this hike. Yes, shuttle fares do seem to be high. Thank goodness my Dad was able to get me.
      Chris

      Reply
  • Chris : Nov 27th

    Lydia,
    What I mean by shakedown is to use my gear in real trail situations. It helped me figure out what I need to keep, change, or omit.
    Chris

    Reply
  • Karen : Nov 28th

    Hey Chris!
    Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I enjoyed reading it. I’m a hiker too and I’m 57. I tend to walk a little slower now than I did in my 20’s and 30’s but still love getting out there. When I haven’t hiked in a while, I always give myself a little extra time at the beginning and only plan for about 5-8 miles for the first few days. And if I’m tired take a zero. And there’s nothing wrong with doing a shakedown, in fact I highly recommend it. I hope you’ll give the AT another go and enjoy the amazing journey out there. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  • Omoo : Nov 28th

    It sounded like you were doing fine. Yeah, slightly heavy pack, but not a deal breaker. Why did you quit? Doubts in the beginning are normal. Get back on that horse!

    Reply

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