Trail Fails: From Zero to 2,185

One of the most common questions I was asked before and during my thru-hike was, “What made you decide to hike the Appalachian Trail?” And just as frequently, I did not have a good answer. My partner and I loved to hike and camp, which we naively figured were the only prerequisites to long-distance hiking. All of our pre-AT hiking trips were either day hikes or overnight—we had never camped for more than two consecutive nights without access to our car or civilization. Two nights in the woods is hardly roughing it, because you know the date and time that you will return to your home, bed, shower and food. It’s not so much a challenge as it is fun.

Ten years ago, we decided to go for a challenge. We attempted to hike the entire Knobstone Trail in southern Indiana with two friends. We thought we could hike the 58-mile trail in 4 or 5 days. We were embarrassingly unprepared in all ways. In celebration of our upcoming trip, the four of us stayed up late the night before, drinking and smoking cigarettes. We brought our “gear” in school backpacks. We wore cotton shirts and jeans. After a two-hour drive, we arrived in the afternoon and parked at the northernmost trailhead. The first ascent could only be described as the worst thing that ever happened. (At the very most, the elevation gain would have been 300 feet.) The map showed several water sources, so we each brought enough water for the first day. (It was the hot month of August.) We hiked about 5 miles until setting up camp. All of the supposed water sources that we should have passed that day were dry. While eating dinner in camp, we realized that we did not have enough water to continue. All of us left bottles out overnight in hopes that we would capture the rainwater. We obviously did not, because that is not a real way to fill a bottle. At most, we collected a sip between the four of us. The next morning we had to make a decision. Luckily the loop that we were on had a center segment heading back to the original trailhead. We were perfectly situated to bail on this trip. We hiked about 1.5 miles back to the car and drove one hour further south to Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom. Despite the total failure of that hike, it was AFTER that attempt that we thought, “wouldn’t it be cool to hike the whole Appalachian Trail?” We continued to hike short trails whenever we could for fun.

Seven years after the Knobstone fail, the notion of thru-hiking was further solidified by an overnight trip on the AT. Collin and I parked at the ATC headquarters in Harpers Ferry, WV. We bought a map and hiked north to the Ed Garvey Shelter in Maryland. The hike was about 7 miles each way. We were slightly better equipped this time with upgraded packs, a backpacking tent and no cotton. (We didn’t have hiking poles, our upgraded gear was too heavy and we had not broken in our boots.) The hike began as a leisurely stroll through the town’s historic sites and crossed the footbridge over the Potomac. The next segment went along the C&O Canal Towpath—a wide, flat trail parallel to the river. Following that was a steep ascent to Weverton Cliffs, which seemed intensely difficult, then up further to the shelter. (The total elevation gain was about 500 feet.) Although we arrived to camp completely exhausted, we were thrilled to have stepped foot on the Appalachian Trail for the first time. We wanted to thru-hike more than ever before. The gear accumulation began.

Two years after that, we began our thru-hike. We had every intention of getting in shape before heading to Georgia. Sadly, that training regimen was just added to the list of fails, because we did not follow through. We did do a few shakedown hikes with high miles and significant elevation changes, but none lasted more than two days. Like many other thru-hikers we met, our training was on the AT. Failure can be the best motivation, and the Appalachian Trail is just a long walk. If you’ve ever considered hiking the AT, you qualify. Start reading and get yourself some gear!

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