Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Advice for Appalachian Trail Thru Hikers...

To hike, put one foot in front of the other, propelling yourself forward at a steady, workmanlike pace. After repeating this action thousands of times, you will theoretically begin to experience "fun". -The Onion 

It was a year ago this month I started my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Funny thing about that night on top of Springer Mountain was that at the time I had no goal of completing the trail in one shot. My story is a bit unusual but that doesn't matter right now. In the end I completed the entire trail and experienced something very few people ever will. So this post will be to help anyone who is thinking about a thru-hike and to offer some advice to make the most out of your time on trail.

Ok number one, YOU CAN DO IT!! I don't care what shape you're in, how old you are, what tent you use or how you treat your water. The only thing that will get you to Katahdin is what is between those ears of yours. The most important piece of gear you carry with you is your mental attitude. So many factors you deal with on the trail are completely out of your control. The weather, trail conditions, but only YOU have control over your attitude. On my hike I can honestly say that I enjoyed every single day I was out there. Rain, the heat, hiker hunger, and pain were all hiccups in the grand scheme of things. The people I surrounded myself with were all like minded individuals and we had a blast every single day we were hiking together. Just remember, a bad day on trail is still better than going to work and leading a boring 9-5 life.
"ENJOY IT!!" That is what every former thru-hiker would say to me after a brief chat and a few words of encouragement. Now it's obvious why they all ended our brief encounters in the same goodbye. Because we all wish that we were back in your shoes walking past the whit blazes and having the time of your life. The trail can be an unforgiving mother sometimes, but we are all out there by our own accord. If you're not enjoying yourself anymore do this, take a break for a couple days. If the trail calls you back, fix your head and keep walking. If you don't have the will to keep going, GO HOME! The trail is going nowhere and it will be there in the future if you need it.

Hike Your Own Hike- Ok you're gonna hear it a million times and probably already have. But think about it and live it. You are hiking for whatever personal reason and you should make it the best experience for yourself that you can. Take zero days, do 30 mile days, blue blaze, eat at every buffet you can find, sleep until 10am, in the end you will realize that if you were having fun all of the time you made the right choices. And feel free to ignore anyone judging you and your style of hiking or saying you aren't a "real" thru-hiker. You will run into purists and naysayers alike, but it's best to ignore negativity. You will know in the end if you were a "real" thru-hiker or not when you see your last white blaze.
So with all of this I haven't given you anything you can do now. If you're really interested in a thru-hike I strongly recommend reading Zach Davis's book "Appalachian Trials". The information is honest and worth it's weight in snickers bars in retrospect. In fact after you finish that, read it again and read as much as you can about the trail. Be it online or in print. It will only fuel your fire to complete the trail and motivate you. Some good ones are "Becoming Odyssa"by Jennifer Pharr Davis, "Hike Your Own Hike" by Francis Tapon. There are many more but these are good ones to start with.

Trail Tips

1. Hike as much as you can before you go. But there's no need to "train". All your training will come on trail. There is no way to physically prepare to carry your life on your back for 6 months. It will come, get your head right and your body will follow.

2. Take pictures of the PEOPLE you encounter, not just the places. Yes those sunset pictures are beautiful, and one just may land on the cover of National Geographic. But they all run together after awhile. But that trail angel who picked you up and gave you a bag of M&M's on the way to town will bring back happy thoughts when you look back on them.
Banjo and I signed in #431 & #432 at Katahdin Stream Campground
3. Do accept all trail magic, but don't be greedy. Leave some for the hikers behind you. It's not right to walk up to an empty cooler and find out later that all 12 coca-colas were drank by the 4 hikers in front of you. A little good karma can go along way on the trail. And remember to "pay it forward". You'll know what that means later.
Trail magic somewhere in Massachusetts
4. Be very gracious to anyone who gives you a hitch. Thinking about the smell that a small group of hikers can emanate after 4 days in the heat of summer could make a toilet puke. Ask the driver if they mind cracking the windows a bit, it's safer for everyone. I always sat on my rain jacket as to not permeate any of my hiker stink into their clean car. You are lucky that they were gracious enough to slow down and pick your tired, unshaven, and malnourished self, show some respect. A sincere thank you may just score you an assured right back the opposite way later.
Mark and Monica took us in and treated us like family. It's kindness like this that keeps you going.
5. You are a steward for the trail at all times. Don't act like a jerk in towns or on trail for that matter. It only takes one embittered local in a town for them to start turning their noses up at you. One trashed hotel room, rowdy night at the bar, one disrespected business owner and you have ruined it for thousands of hikers behind you. Respect the rules of the places you stay and be courteous to everyone you meet. More than once I saw this translate into free places to stay and free meals from complete strangers!!
Applehouse Donuts in Linden, Virginia. Just go, trust me.

In review, keep a positive mental attitude, have fun, hike your won hike and ENJOY IT!!! Oh and a little bit of luck helps while you're out there. 

Lagniappe- So a few extra pointers, you should defenitely join the Appalachian Trail Conservancy the year you plan on hiking. It may be (monetarily) the very least you can do to support the trail. The ATC and the trail for that matter is probably the greatest volunteer based project in the history of history. That does not mean that the paperwork loaded world we live in does not apply to the AT as well. Land owners need to be contacted, trail crews assembled and supplied, and conservation efforts need to be voiced and spread in a professional format. Think of it as paying your utility bill while you're on the trail.
Please for goodness sake buy AWOL's guide not only for the direction you are headed (northbound or southbound) but the most current edition as well. Hostels close, trails are redirected and restaurants shut down. You don't want to get to that pizza joint you've been drooling over in your mind, only to realize it closed a year ago. The information in his books is about 98% accurate and an invaluable tool for you along the trail. It's your bible for the next 6 months, make sure it's safe. I would buy the unbound edition and carry only what you need for the next few days, the rest of the guide can stay tucked away or large chunks of it can be bounced ahead. Trust me on this one, everyone who doesn't start with this guide, has one by the end.

The friends I made along the trail will be life long friends. Trade facebook info, phone numbers, emails, whatever. Now this is where I should take some of my own advice but keep in contact with them! It's hard for me to stay in contact with even my closest of friends but I can try to improve. Banjo, 2/3, Peter Pan, Xango how's it going guys!!??!?!

All this advice and no talk of gear? Strange coming from a bipolar gear junkie huh? I'm just not gonna approach that subject here. I've talked about it before and there are thousands of other posts about his topic. Do your research and make your own choices. Just make sure you use all of your gear before you go and know how it all works. A rain storm is 100% unforgiving when it comes to knowledge of your gear and how to use it properly. 

Please feel free to contact me with any questions. I am glad to help out with any part of your journey. From planning to gear to transportation. Seriously, ask me anything. I'll help in any way I can. Post whatever you want in the comments section or send me an email. 

Georgia-->Maine 2012


Anonymous said...

Thank you!!!

Ray Champagne said...

Followup: just shared this with my boys 7 and 12 of my dream. If all is good we will be GA2ME in 2020.

Anonymous said...

I truly enjoyed your blog on the AT! Thanks for all the great advice! Hope to hike more of it soon!

Ellie Baughman said...

Thanks for a wonderful article.. post... It's some of the best advice I have read yet!
Hummingbird Ellie