Rain and Fog: My PCT Shakedown on the First 110 Miles of the AT

I think shakedown hikes are important to help us find things we need to improve about our gear or our physical preparedness, and hopefully we finish the shakedown feeling confident about whatever big hike we have coming up.  I’m pleased to report that this shakedown hike was a success – so much so that I really wanted to keep on walking north.  The AT really is a fun trail, and I can tell there’s a very interesting community around it.  I’m already plotting a fall section hike of the Smokies, and I imagine sooner or later I’ll do the rest of the AT.

In keeping with the shakedown theme, I’m going to roll out the blog format that I intend to use while posting from the PCT and you can tell me how I can make it better.  I’ll start out with a quick summary of the period covered, go into a bulleted list by-day break-down of miles walked and things I did captain’s log style.  I’ll finish by talking about what I learned about myself/people/the trail/whatever.


  • Days: 1-8 (26 Feb-4 Mar)
  • AT Miles – 0-109.6 (117.8 total miles including the 8.2-mile Springer Approach Trail)
    • Start at Amicalola State Park, GA
    • Finish at Winding Stair Gap, NC
  • Highlights of this section:
    • Sunset/Sunrise on Standing Indian Mountain
    • Bumping into world-famous Fresh Grounds and his Leapfrog Cafe
  • Themes for this section:
    • “For some fool reason, they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find.” – Grandma Gatewood, who was the first woman to thru-hike the AT.  She did it in 1957, ’60, and ’65
    • I prefer west coast hiking – it doesn’t rain as much!

Captains Log

Monday 26 Feb

  • Left Amicalola State Park visitor’s center at 11:00
  • Lunch on Springer Mountain – 2:30
    • Received first trail magic – chatted with a day hiker on top of Springer who gave me M&Ms and wished me well on my trip to Maine.  I never told him I was going all the way but decided to just roll with it since he seemed excited to be helping out a thru-hiker.  I am going to do the PCT after all – so that kinda counts, right?
  • Arrived Hawk Mountain Shelter – 6:30
    • Double decker shelter but for some reason everyone wanted to sleep in tents – I got the loft to myself.  They’ll probably be changing their minds about the shelters in a couple of days.
    • Heard two different Ranger School platoons hitting their objectives around dusk.  Really brought back memories:  that was me ten years ago.  The M240 machine guns didn’t sound too good for one of those platoons – weapons maintenance was lacking.  No-go for the weapons squad leader.  Hopefully he or she doesn’t have to recycle Mountain Phase.
  • 16.6 total miles, 4,136 total ascent

Tuesday 27 Feb

  • Left Hawk Mountain 7:20
  • Meet Cujo* about 2 miles short of Woody Gap, we walk together and shoot the shit rest of the day.  He’s been out of food for two days but is in a cheerful mood.  Says he’s grateful to have someone to walk and talk with, I guess I would be too if I was him.  When I first started talking to him I was thinking “wow this guy has no idea what he’s doing, how the hell is he going to make it to Maine?”  By the end of the day I was certain that he would go all the way.  Cujo doesn’t know how to quit, and soon enough he’ll learn how to be a backpacker.
  • Woody Gap – grilled cheese lunch – trail magic provided by Gadget, who hiked the AT in 2023.  Couldn’t see more than 30′ because of the fog.  This fog was persistent much of the first five days on trail.
  • Arrived Woods Hole Shelter 5:30
    • Shelter full – Guys in the shelter seemed polite but standoffish.  They probably didn’t want to make room for us.  Cujo and I pitch tents.
    • Very windy – I was worried about a limb falling, back was tight so I didn’t sleep well.
  • 20.12 total miles, 4,840 total ascent

*Cujo didn’t even have his name by this point but I’m using it anyway to add some anonymity.

I was walking in clouds much of the first 90 miles.

Wednesday 28 Feb

  • Left Woods Hole at 7:40, about 20 mins behind Cujo
  • Immediately climb Blood Mountain – felt very strong, flew up the hill.  Everyone talks about this being hard?
  • Blood Mountain totally socked in the clouds.  30′ visibility.
  • Run into Cujo, we get to Mountain Crossings in Neel Gap around 9:30.  Ate pizza, hung out with that big fat orange cat.  I push on alone shortly after Neel Gap, Cujo says he’ll catch me at Low Gap.
  • Shortly after Hogpen Gap I walk into a big storm.  Sky got dark, thunder and lightning, pissing rain, getting cold.  I ran the last three miles to Low Gap Shelter to warm up and get there early enough to snag shelter space.
  • Arrived Low Gap Shelter 3:30
    • Thought I could get there before the shelter got full – apparently everyone else had the same idea.  People were stacked in there tight.  Had to pitch a tent.  Fortunately, the terrain blocks the worst of the big windstorm.
    • Meet a cool dog named Cooper.  I meet his person and a friend she’s walking with but don’t remember their names.  There were probably ten people in that shelter, chatted with them a bit, don’t remember any of their names either.  Sorry!
  • 16.29 total miles, 4,058 total ascent

Thursday 29 Feb

  • Left Low Gap 6:20 – first one up except Cooper, who came over to say goodbye.  Cujo isn’t up yet but I don’t feel like waiting around, and I enjoy walking solo anyway.  As I was walking out of camp, I realized that we didn’t trade phone numbers, so I probably won’t hear from him again.  I’m planning on doing a big day and don’t think he’ll catch up before I get off trail.
  • Run into Grateful from Savannah about ten miles down the trail at Unicoi Gap.  We talked about Savannah a bit, as two people who live in the same city would typically do.
  • Lunch on Tray Mountain – meet some folks who are surprised that I caught up to them despite starting two days later.  They leave before me.
    • One of the guys up there was from Beaver, PA, maybe 40 mins from where I grew up.  We talk about chili dogs.  I tell him he needs to go to Jimmy’s in New Castle and that it’s way better than Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe.  These are the things you talk about when you meet someone else from the same shitty part of the rust belt as you.
  • I catch up to the lunch crowd an hour or two later – they name me “Rearview” because I’ve been walking fast/leaving everyone in my rearview mirror.  I decide to accept the name and start introducing myself to people using my new alias.
  • Arrived Dick’s Creek Gap 6:00
    • Run in to Grateful again -he’s slackpacking* back towards Unicoi because he thinks going SOBO on that stretch will be easier?  I don’t really agree with that assessment, but it’s a free country.
    • Stretch out, then my friend Joe shows up to give me a ride back to his place.
    • Muscles decide to stop working on the car ride to his place and I hobble around the rest of the night.  Ate A LOT of steak.  Thanks, Joe.
  • 27.2 total miles, 6,862 total ascent

*Slackpacking is when you have someone take your pack and drive it to a point further down the trail, then you walk without it for a bit.  I wouldn’t personally do it, but I understand the appeal.  Grateful was slackpacking and flip-flopped – he was generally going northbound (NOBO) along the AT, but walked SOBO on the stretch from Dick’s Creek Gap to Unicoi Gap because he thought SOBO would be an easier direction to walk.

Friday 1 Mar

Zero – freezing rain all day in the mountains.  I’m not walking in freezing rain if I don’t have to.  Today I eat Zaxby’s, stretch the legs, and stay warm and dry.  Found a book about the AT and flipped through it.

Grandma Gatewood would NOT be impressed with your 12 lb base weight.

Saturday 2 Mar

  • Left Dick’s Creek Gap 8:10
    • See Cujo in the hostel shuttle, glad he made it out before all the freezing rain hit.  He was heading back to Unicoi Gap where he left off.  Likely won’t see him again – Unicoi is like 17 trail miles away.
  • Meet Bugs a few miles up the trail – He’s also an Eagle Scout and has been to Philmont.  We discuss some shared experiences and grab lunch at Muskrat Creek Shelter with members of an Atlanta hiking club.  I found a pack cover a few miles back on the trail that belongs to one of those hikers – she was grateful to be reunited with the pack cover.
  • Arrived summit of Standing Indian around 5:00
    • Meet Shadow, Frizzle*, Sprawl, Jess, and two others already up there.
    • Turns out everyone else up there knows Bugs too.  Bugs decided to stay at the shelter for the night and we all agree that he made a mistake not camping at the summit with us.  Seems like everyone kinda knows everyone else out here – we spent some time swapping stories of other hikers we encountered, like Grateful from Savannah.
    • We enjoy an absolutely incredible subset over the blue ridge mountains looking towards Hiawassee.  Definitely a top ten all time sunset for me.
  • 18.74 total miles, 5,986 total ascent

*Frizzle also doesn’t have that trail name at this time, but I’m using it for anonymity

Sunday 3 Mar

  • Left Standing Indian 8:20 – late start but sunrise was awesome too!
  • Grab lunch at a scenic overlook by Ridgepole Mountain – Shadow and Frizzle catch up and eat with me.  Tuna in oil and tortillas – a lunchtime staple for me on trail.  I generally prefer a Ritz cracker, but the tortillas are easier to pack.
  • Bugs catches up to the three of us, we start walking.  Decide that we’ll have second lunch at the tower on Albert Mountain.  This was my idea – I had planned my entire day around a nice lunch on Albert Mountain.  I didn’t really have to twist anyone’s arm though, second lunch is always a popular idea, especially a second lunch from a scenic overlook.
  • The climb to the top of Albert was a bitch.  I think we can see the Smokies from up here.  Second lunch – more tuna and tortillas, plus peanut butter.  Not at the same time.  Run into Cooper and his people again.  I seem to keep bumping into the same few people.  I guess people are going to fall into relatively consistent patterns of walking and over time you’ll keep seeing people who walk the same daily miles as you.
  • On the walk to camp, we discuss Frizzle’s trail name, or rather lack thereof.  Shadow remarks that she’s been driving the bus the last two days – as in she’s been out front and the three of us bringing up the rear.  We start thinking of famous bus drivers from pop culture.  We discuss the 1994 movie Speed with Keanu Reeves, but can’t think of any of the character’s names.  I bring up Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus, and that’s the name that sticks.
  • Get to Long Branch Shelter around 3:30 – very chill day.
    • What a great shelter – built in 2012 and we easily fit 7 in there.  They even stained the wood and came back recently to sand out the graffiti!  We eat dinner, I get a nice fire going.  Punishment and Gale join us.  Great last night for me.
  • 15.21 total miles, 2,133 total ascent

Monday 4 Mar

  • Left Long Branch at 8:00.
  • Fresh Grounds is at Rock Gap doing trail magic.  Eat the best blueberry pancakes I’ve ever had, fried taters were top notch too – plenty of grease, yet crispy, and tossed in Lowry’s seasoned salt.  Soft on the inside.  Perfect breakfast potatoes.  Everyone seemed to know Fresh Grounds, this is like meeting the damn President.  What a guy.  You should go follow his social media and donate so he can keep on feeding hungry hikers.  IG: @freshgroundleapfrogcafe
  • Get to Winding Stair Gap at 11:00 and say ciao to Shadow, Bugs, and Frizzle.  Back to Savannah.  Sad to be getting off the trail, but I’d still rather do the PCT (sorry AT folks – I like your trail too, but there’s something about the West Coast!)
  • 7.3 total miles, 1,038 total ascent

Breakfast at Fresh Ground’s Leapfrog Cafe.

What did I learn?

Intro to Thru Hikers

I had a whole thing written here about my thoughts on what motivates long-distance thru hikers.  I’ve decided to copy all of that over to a google doc and sit on it for a while.  This hike was my introduction to thru-hiking and I don’t know if I can really make an assessment on thru-hikers just yet, but I did get some strong first impressions:


Lots of people tell thru-hikers “I’d love to do that with you, but…”  “I wish I could, but…” etc.  I think the difference between those who wish they could and those who do is that the doers are more comfortable with risk and uncertainty.  Nobody who was on the AT with me was perfectly prepared or managed to find a totally convenient time to hike the trail.  They just decided to make some sacrifices, assume a little risk, and do something that they felt they needed to do.  Most of the folks that I met on the trail are the kind of folks who just make shit happen; they’re not the kind of folks who let shit happen.  Not to say that you should just drop everything and go hiking for a few months, there are some legitimately good excuses for why a thru-hike might not be practical for you at the moment.  Just make a solid plan to make it practical as soon as possible, then execute.

Experience and Preparedness

There were A LOT of people who had no idea what they were doing.  I truthfully did not meet many people who had more backpacking experience than me.  I met tons of folks who had only spent a few weekends backpacking, and a few who had never been backpacking at all.  So on the one hand, don’t feel like you need to be an experienced backpacker to thru-hike.  On the other hand – it’s probably a good idea to at least go backpacking one time before you start a thru-hike.  Lots of folks realize they don’t like backpacking in the first few days of the AT and quit, I’ve heard anywhere from 10% to 25%.  Imagine quitting your job, pausing your life, and telling everyone you know that you’re going to hike the AT just to quit your hike 40 miles in?  Not ideal.


Speaking of quitting, it’s not one’s level of experience or fitness that determines whether a thru-hiker will quit in my opinion, though experience and fitness certainly don’t hurt.  What keeps people going is the ability to keep a positive attitude no matter what is going on.  A lot of folks that I met are the type of folks who can find something to be grateful for in damn near any situation.  Getting rained on?  Be grateful that there is rain to nourish the forest.  Out of food?  Be grateful that your body is strong enough to go a few days without food and that you get an opportunity to train your mental toughness.  Feet hurt?  The journey you’re on wouldn’t be worth doing if you didn’t encounter some difficulty along the way.  It’s not usually easy to be grateful for a situation that seems outwardly bad.  Fortunately, gratitude is a muscle that can be strengthened with practice just like any other.  Maybe a thru-hike is where you will learn to practice gratitude.


Most hikers are cool, but there are definitely some weirdos and generally disagreeable people out there.  Fortunately, you can get away from anyone you don’t like by walking faster than them (or slower).

Practical Issues

The Gear

  • Swapped out my closed cell foam sleeping pad for a Thermarest NeoAir XLITE NXT at Mountain Crossings – I side sleep when my back is tight and the foam pad sucks for that.  I initially switched to foam because I was tired of popping holes in my inflatable pads, but after a few nights on the foamy I was ready to switch back.
  • Decide to get a quilt now that I’m going with an inflatable – ordered an Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20 degree with the draft collars.  Shave a pound+ of base weight.  The inflatable pad provides much better insulation than the foam.
  • I’ll swap one of my 1.5L Smart Water bottles for a 1.5L Nalgene – nice to have something to measure water with, and now I can buy stickers of places I pass through.
  • My Patagonia pants aren’t built for thick bois with thick thighs – why can’t I find a nice loose pair of pants?  Does anyone have recommendations for a good pair of pants I can use to keep the sun off my legs in the desert?
  • It’s really nice having a warm, clean pair of camp/sleep pants – felt like it was worth the weight on this trip.  Will probably keep those for the first part of the PCT.
  • I don’t think I really need camp shoes – put on clean socks, loosen the laces.  Put a ziploc bag over the dry socks if my shoes are wet.
  • I think I actually want to carry my 1 lb helinox chair on the PCT – especially now that I can’t use my sleeping pad as a chair.  What’s the point of having big ole legs if you don’t use em to carry a little extra weight?
  • A small camera tripod is a must for self-portraits and low-light – I regretted not having one on this trip.

The Body

  • Soleus hurt (innermost calf muscle).  Some pain in my Achilles after the 27-mile day.  Not really cause for concern, just something to exercise.
  • Low-grade pain in one of the muscles in my left arch that usually doesn’t start till I have between 10-15 miles in.  This has been a recurring issue for the past few months.
  • There’s a somewhat painful boney protrusion at the base of my left pinky toe, also more of an off-and on pain.

I booked a virtual appointment with Dr. Morgan Brosnihan of Blaze Physio (IG: @blazephysio).  She’s done the PCT herself and has built a practice around helping out thru hikers.  According to her I have fairly flat feet and poor ankle mobility, and that’s what’s likely causing what appears to be a taylor’s bunion on my pinky toe and the pain in my arch.  I also point my toes out a bit when I walk which could be contributing to the problem.  She sent me some exercises and stretches to do every other day until I start my PCT thru-hike and recommended that I take it easy my first few days on the PCT.  I don’t like to take it easy, so this will be difficult.  The good news is that I should be able to manage both of these issues.  I’m also keeping my daily miles below 5 this entire month – I had a pretty intense train up and there’s nothing I can really do at this point to improve my fitness other than working on the foot stuff.

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Comments 4

  • Carole Hall : Mar 8th

    Hi, Rearview. I enjoyed your story. Your writing is entertaining. Thanks.

  • H Ro : Mar 9th

    Nice write up. Enjoyed it with my cup of coffee this morning. Favorite – “gratitude is a muscle that can be strengthened with practice just like any other.”

  • Pcs : Mar 9th

    Nice post…best to you on the PCT

  • Rob P : Mar 9th

    Appreciate your perspective. Like you, I did a PCT shakedown on the AT (3 Feb – 16 Feb) from Springer to Fontana Lake and have similar thoughts. Best of luck on your thru hike and hope to cross paths with you.


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