My Thru Hike Plan: Go With The Flow

In my previous post, I review the moment I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, adopting an ultralight philosophy for gear, and how much my friends rock! Check it out. 

For big picture stuff, plans get in the way

Most of us have heard the quote by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”.  This saying always comes to mind when I am considering a big idea or adventure.

A little background on me: Throughout my 30s, I started and grew a technology services company that ended up being fairly successful. What started out as a web design company ran out of my parents basement, turned into a close partnership with Google and over 35 employees.

I could have never planned for that from the start.  All I knew is I had taught myself how to build websites and people were giving me a little bit of money for my efforts.  It turns out, people who need websites often need email.  That’s how I found Google’s G Suite.  It was called Google Apps back then, and it was free, so it was very easy to set my customers up at a very low cost.  As I did this more and more, I realized I could probably focus my business strictly on the Google stuff, and forget about the web design.  So that’s what I did, and it worked.  I followed my nose and it lead me down the right path.

On the other side of the coin, many of our customers came to expect a plan when they hired us.  We not only provided detailed timelines, but also a manager to oversee all aspects of the project.  And in most cases, we followed the plan to a large degree, and would always finish out projects as scheduled.  Plans can work exactly as written, especially when you have control of all or most of the moving parts.

So when I say I am hitting the trail with no plan, please understand I am not being naive.

A little more about my business

Since I brought it up, here is a little bit more information about my previous business, which I sold in 2013.  Google produced a video about me and my buddy, Mike, who not only started a similar business, but has also shared a tent with me too many times to count!

Back to the trail. Embrace the chaos.

I’ve been on enough short hiking trips to know what to expect in the woods.  Short term goals are easy to achieve.  Find water. Hike to the next shelter before dark. Easy enough.  But the longer you’re out there, the more nature throws at you and you have to adapt.  Your 5 day plan to hike 50 miles was interrupted by a rain storm. An item you had to double back for because you forgot it in camp. Or any other of 1,000 plausible reasons when you are hiking in the woods. It could even be something as innocent as finding a nice spot for you to nap in a hammock.  But by the end of day 5, you’re only 40 miles in and calling a friend for a ride to your car parked 10 miles further up the trail.

Now expand this 5 day trip out to a 150 day trip and imagine how many times your best laid plans will be shredded by the reality of the moment.  I don’t want to waste the brain power modifying a schedule at the end of every day or week because something wonderful, or terrible got in the way.  Or the depressing feeling when you don’t hit a goal you set for yourself.

Short term goals are your friend

The exception to my “no plan plan” will be daily distance or point of interest goals.  I want to make it to the next shelter, or the one beyond it. I look at my guide, plan my daily mileage, my stops along the way, and set out.  If I make it, great.  If I don’t make it as far, or I go further, who cares?  I didn’t have any plans beyond today so nothing was screwed up.  As long as I make it to Katahdin, none of the tiny details in the middle matter.

One thing I will need to plan for, even if I hate to admit it, is food.  But even there, the plan is rough.  I will buy enough food at each resupply to get me to the next one, by my best estimation.  Along the way I will learn what my body craves and needs while I am out there.  In time I will adapt to what is available near the trail, and listen to my body when it says it is time to switch things up.  Enough with the oatmeal!

That’s why, for me, trying to anticipate what I am going to want to eat a month or even a week down the trail seems fruitless.  There is no way to plan for what my body is going to want and crave until I get out there and do it.

Thru hiking has similarities to running a business

At least I am going in with this mentality.  When I was the boss, I would set giant long term goals and then break it down to smaller steps. This allowed me and my teams to make regular progress on our long term goals, without a specific timeline.  When one task was done, we would move onto the next.  In between all these small tasks, chaos would present itself in many ways, and I would spend a lot of days putting out fires that in many cases, I couldn’t possibly anticipate.  Each day you do your best to put out all the fires, while making whatever progress possible towards your greater goal.

Often as the weekend was approaching and we had finished all time sensitive work for the week, an employee would mention something about working on Saturday or Sunday – something I was very much against as a whole.  My team worked hard enough all week, the weekend should be theirs.  My response to an employee talking about work over the weekend was often “the work will still be there on Monday, and the next day, and the day after that”.  The trail isn’t going anywhere, either.

Who knows what is going to happen, who I am going to meet, and how long it is going to take me to take the long walk?  I don’t. If I did, I think that would ruin the fun of it.  Embracing the chaos has served me well in the past, and will continue to do so on the trail.

Prepared without a plan

As you will see in my next post, my lack of a schedule does not mean I am going into this thru hike unprepared.  I have put a great deal of energy and effort into picking out the right gear for my hike.  I believe carrying less will lead to a more enjoyable adventure, and increase my chances of walking the entire trail.

In the meantime, please let me know if you have any questions or opinions about my approach.

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Comments 4

  • Zach : Feb 24th

    You’ve got the right mentality, my friend!

    • Jim McNelis : Feb 24th

      Thanks, Zach! I’m reading your book to help prepare for the emotional rollercoaster.

  • Karyn : Feb 25th

    Hi Jim!
    Your plan sounds exactly like my plan except it’s sounds like you have or will have better equipment.

    I enjoyed your blog (finally someone who isn’t stressing about the hike 🙂 and will keep an eye open for more posts.

    Happy Hiking!

  • Karen : Feb 25th

    Like your non-plan. Hike on!


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