The Waiting on Spring Series: What You Should Know for the First Few Days
The Waiting on Spring Series is a three-part series preparing aspiring thru-hikers for their 2,185 mile journey along the Appalachian Trail. This is part 2. Be sure to check out part 1 (Losses and Gains of Thru Hiking the Appalachian Trail) and part 3 (The Final Check List) as well.
I remember that first night. I had gotten what I didn’t even know was a late start at the approach trail and I came sliding into Stover Creek Shelter on the snow and ice just before dusk turned to night. Tents and hammocks were already littering the space around the shelter but I checked to see if there was room inside anyway.
There was one place left, a drafty spot in the back corner everyone else had picked over. I sheepishly took the spot and laid out my pad and sleeping bag, noticing that I was the only girl in a shelter full of guys. I ate a Clif Bar for dinner due to lack of cooking time and being very unsure of my backwoods culinary skills. I struggled to hang my food bag on the metal and wire contraptions outside of most Georgia shelters until a ridge runner saw me baffled by the mechanics and came over to help.
The night before, I had lain awake most the night thinking of how it would be many, many months before I returned to my bed. This night I laid awake as well, shivering from the cold, shifting positions on the ridged wooden shelter platform and thinking of how I would be doing this for many, many months.
Starting a thru hike for those who have never done long distance hiking is a bit like the first day of school.
You want to make a good impression and feel competent among your peers, but mostly you want to feel confident in yourself and your own abilities. Here are some small things that will help you settle into trail life a little quicker.
1) You ARE a Thru Hiker
If you are backpacking on the AT in Georgia in late February, March or early April, you will be asked if you are a thru hiker. If you intend to hike all the way to Maine, then say YES! I noticed on my hike last year that many, myself included, were shy about it in the beginning so we would say things like “I am hoping to be” or “That’s the plan”. Don’t even do yourself the disservice of second guessing your abilities. You may not be a 2,000 miler (yet) but if you’re out there with the intention of reaching Katahdin then you are currently thru hiking!
2) What Approach Trail?
This is another topic of conversation in the beginning; whether or not you did the Approach Trail. It seems like a big deal at first because it is almost an entire extra day on the trail for most people. Some people get a big head about the extra credit but don’t let that get in the way of making friends. Soon enough the glory of the eight extra miles will fade away. By the time you are a week or two into the hike, the approach trail won’t matter any more. Being from Georgia, I choose to do it because I’ve done it before and I know I really love that hike. Also, depending on inclement weather, sticking to paved roads that get sanded or salted may be a much more enjoyable experience for whoever drops you off. The day I started, the pot-holed roads to Big Stamp Gap would have been too icy and treacherous for my mom’s city car.
3) Offer Advice Only When it’s Needed
Everyone out there is trying to form their own habits and get into the flow of their own hike. It’s a new adventure for everyone and people come at it with different levels of experience. Keep this in mind when you see someone doing something differently than you. If they are struggling a lot, ask if they need help. But don’t go rushing into it with all of your solutions to their problems according to what works for you. Being a girl, I got a LOT of unnecessary advice from people who assumed I was incapable because I was little and alone. It was obnoxious and some times belittling. Despite looking incompetent in the beginning, I summated Katahdin six months later and did it with a pair of sisters even smaller than me. That goes to show you that brawn isn’t needed to make it all the way.
4) Don’t Push Yourself
In the begging you will meet so many people and they all move a different paces. Don’t force your body into a pace it isn’t ready for just to keep up with a cool new friend. There are so, so many cool new friends that will happen on the trail! Right out of the gate isn’t the time to push yourself too far too fast. Save that for when you have three days to make it fifty miles to Dalton, Massachusetts for a 4th of July hiker feed and you are dead set on also staying at Upper Goose Pond Cabin and visiting the Cookie Lady. That’s when it’s worth kicking into high gear and seeing what your body can do for you!
5) Accept Trail Magic
No one in the real world wants to give you things just because they think you are doing a cool thing with your life. No one wants to back you up on your dreams even though you are a complete stranger. The first time you hit trail magic, it may be a bit confusing. I had a hard time with the concepts of “free” and “for me”. You will get used to the big and open hearts along the trail and your stomach will eventually win out over your manners but it might take a second.
6) Mouse Bagging
When I started hiking in 2013 it was still very much so winter and the bears knew it. Even in heavily bear-populated areas, none were to be found. I have seen plenty of bears in my day and like to not see them when there is only a thin polyester shirt between us, so winter hiking appeals to me. Unfortunately, it comes with mice. As soon as Spring came they must have found other food sources because they weren’t a problem but in the cold months they know they can count on hikers. So before you find yourself cursing the little guys, go ahead and commit to bear bagging for the mice any time you are near shelter. Don’t forget to clear the trash and extra snacks out of your zipper packets. They will find your forgotten Snickers Bar, they will nibble on it, you will eat it anyway and you will live to tell the story of it.
Also see a post on this very blog by Evans Prater on the subject “What You Should Know”. The more opinions you get the more well rounded your knowledge will become!
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