I Hate Mornings, But I’m Always On Trail by 5 A.M.—Here’s Why
I am not a morning person.
I like to sleep in and am a consummate snooze button enthusiast. So when I tell you that I intentionally hit the trail before five a.m. nearly every morning on my AT thru-hike, I want you to appreciate the full gravity of that statement.
The truth is, I actually didn’t get on the early wake-up schedule right away. I was the last person out of camp most mornings during my earliest weeks on trail, preferring to sleep in and let my body wake me up when it was good and ready.
But then I met my boyfriend on trail, a pathological morning person who began dragging me unhappily from my warm tent each day to discover the wonders of the early morning start.
I must admit that waking up to a blaring alarm clock at 3:30 a.m., an ungodly time if there ever was one, inspired some unkind thoughts toward my dear partner at the time. (“It would be worth dumping this MFer just to get another ten minutes’ sleep,” etc. etc.).
But eventually, I realized that starting before the sun was dramatically improving the quality of my hike. I embraced the practice with open arms after that and have never looked back since.
So why do I do it?
1. To beat the heat.
Whether I’m slogging through crushing summer heat and 98% humidity on the Appalachian Trail or sweating away precious water in the blistering PCT desert, I HATE overheating. I’m a sweat monster to begin with. When the mercury rises in summer, it’s a miracle I don’t just sweat out all the water in my body and shrivel up completely.
Not only is hiking through the heat uncomfortable to the last degree, but it can be dangerous too. This summer has seen record-breaking heatwaves across the country, and a woman died this summer on the PCT in southern California due to heat-related illness.
By getting on trail before the sun rises, I can get five or six good hours of hiking in during the relatively cool morning hours. There have been times when I’ve put in a 20-mile day and put up my tent before noon. I once started at 2 a.m. on an especially hot day and had my 20 in before 10.
Disadvantage: If you stop early in the day and you can’t find a densely-treed spot to set up, you may have to move your tent around throughout the day to keep it in shade, which is annoying. Sometimes I throw my sleeping bag over the top of the tent to make my own shade instead.
2. So I can take my time.
I like to hike around 20 miles most days, and that takes time. Enough time that I sometimes feel pressured to keep cranking and pass up opportunities to stop and smell the roses. This is especially true in late fall, winter, and early spring, when the daylight hours are already limited.
But if I start hiking by five a.m., I know I’ll have plenty of time to hike my 20 miles and get to camp with light to spare. Even if I encounter unexpected obstacles and complications that slow me down. If I want to explore a side trail, take a long lunch at a viewpoint, or catch a trailside nap, I know I can afford the stoppage time.
An early start also comes in handy on days when I go to town to resupply. Hitching to town, doing all my chores, eating, digesting, and getting back to trail is typically a time-consuming experience, but if I start early enough I can do all that and still put in 20 miles as usual. Budgeting enough time to run errands and hike helps me avoid the town vortex. I’m that much less likely to fall into the well-maybe-I’ll-just-get-a-room-for-the-night-and-hike-out-tomorrow-morning trap.
3. So I can have my pick of campsites.
Not many people start hiking as early as I do. On the flip-side, not many people stop hiking as early as I do, either. By the time most thru-hikers start thinking about looking for a campsite for the night, I’ve already set up my tent, had a nap, eaten some snacks, done yoga, and started making dinner. Lying on my back on my foam pad with my legs propped against the nearest tree, several snacks at the ready, while other hikers trudge by with miles to go before they can stop, admittedly makes me feel deliciously, annoyingly smug.
Pre-dawn starts mean that I rarely come up high and dry when looking for a campsite. In fact, since no one else has yet made camp by the time I stop, I often get dibs on the flattest, quietest, shadiest, furthest-from-the-privy-est campsite available.
4. Because I don’t mind night hiking.
In fact, I actually enjoy hiking in the early, pre-dawn hours. I wouldn’t like night hiking all the time, but it’s enjoyable for an hour or so each day. It’s a unique experience that’s magical in its own way.
Hiking past sunset and into the night can make me feel anxious. What if I can’t find a place to pitch my tent in the darkness? It can be challenging to tell whether a campsite is rocky, trashy, or overgrown with poison ivy with nothing but the narrow beam of a headlamp, and keeping track of tent stakes and other possessions is a nightmare in the dark. Besides, on a crowded trail like the AT, it’s all too likely that you’ll roll up to find the shelter full and the tent pads all occupied.
In contrast, starting before dawn and hiking into the sunrise is exhilarating. Knowing that I have the whole day ahead of me lets me relax and enjoy the experience. Catching a quiet mountain sunrise when few other hikers are out and about is a special experience, and one that I’ve been blessed with countless times thanks to my five a.m. starts.
READ NEXT – 12 Reasons You’ll Love (and Hate) Night Hiking.
5. Because afternoon is not a good time in the high mountains.
I’ve already mentioned beating the heat as one of my primary motivators for starting early. But there are other conditions to consider as well. High mountain passes can hold snow throughout the year. It’s best to traverse snow fields early in the day before the sun’s warmth softens them up. It’s much more pleasant (not to mention safer and more efficient) to crunch your way across firm, mostly frozen snow than to posthole through a wet, slushy mess. That’s why many PCT hikers in the Sierra start in the wee hours—so they can get up and over the pass before the afternoon heat.
Also, high mountain regions tend to experience afternoon thunderstorms in summer. Being above treeline during thunder and lightning obviously isn’t great. Best to get up and over early.
6. For solitude.
I don’t mind seeing other hikers on the trail. It gets lonely out there and it’s nice to share the experience with like-minded folks. Still, I’ll admit I like a little peace and quiet when I’m hiking too. Crowded trails can be stressful, and waiting in line to have my picture taken at a popular viewpoint is not my idea of a wonderful nature experience.
Starting early gives me a few hours’ headstart on the crowds. That way I can have popular summits to myself for a while and enjoy some solitude before the throngs of people, before the day hikers blaring music on mini Bluetooth speakers, before the mountain bikers and the little yappy dogs and all the other trail users who are perfectly entitled to be out there but who irritate me nonetheless.
Do I always start hiking at five a.m. when I’m backpacking? No! And I certainly don’t make a habit of it when I’m in the civilized world either. If I’m feeling indulgent or if I’m just out for a short, leisurely section hike, I’ll happily sleep in to my heart’s content. But if I’m on a thru-hike with hundreds or thousands of miles to go before I can let off the gas, or even if I’m on a short hike where I know to expect heat, thunderstorms, and/or big crowds, getting up early is well worth it.
Hiker midnight for me is seven p.m. As long as I’m in bed by seven (and this is usually achievable since I get to camp so early most days), I can still get an easy eight hours of sleep and wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 3:30, ready for the day’s adventure.
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