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Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is an adventure undertaken for as many reasons as there are hikers. Whether it becomes a life-enhancing experience or merely a miserable folly depends largely on preparation and expectation.
Though life in the woods may seem to be simple and carefree, a long-distance hike requires attention to many issues, from information gathering and logistics to physical and mental conditioning.
An aspiring Appalachian Trail thru-hiker would do well to read as much as possible about backpacking in general, and about the AT in particular. Books and websites about the AT proliferate, as each year’s group of hikers includes several who want to share their experience in print or online.
As for on-trail logistics, some of the best references are the Appalachian Trail Conservancy trail maps, Bob McCaw’s “Thru-hiker’s Handbook,” and ALDHA’s “Thru-Hikers’ Companion.” These resources provide mileage, shelter locations, and town information, as well as suggestions for travel to and from the termini in Maine and Georgia.
In planning your hike, estimate your daily mileage, then check the data to figure which shelter you may reach each day and how many days’ supplies you’ll need to carry between towns. Remember that elevation changes can slow you down, so allow extra time for climbing mountains.
Choose your equipment wisely; carry as little as possible, and make those items you do carry as light as possible. In deciding what to take, it is said you should make three piles: things that are necessary, things that would be handy to have, and things it would be nice to have. Then pack only the first pile.
You’re going on a long hike, not trying to recreate your living room in the woods. The first pile should at least include a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, water containers, cooking equipment, first aid supplies, and warm, dry clothing. There are those who would argue that not even all of these are necessities. Find your own comfort level through research and experimentation.
Decide what kind of food to take and how to resupply. Some people take MREs, which are heavy, or commercially freeze-dried meals, which are expensive. Others dehydrate their own foods or make do with ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, or Lipton noodles. Look for a high calorie to weight ratio. Also, as much variety as possible is important, as you will get tired of eating the same thing all the time. It is possible to shop for food supplies nearly every week along the trail. Even so, mosthikers mail supplies to themselves in care of General Delivery at the post office in trail towns.
Water is an essential element of a hike, and though we’d like to believe the streams we encounter are pure, it is impossible to know for sure just by looking. They could harbor illness-causing organisms, including the hike-stopping Giardia lamblia. Make an effort to obtain safe water by using a mechanical filter, a chemical purifier, or by boiling.
Beyond the logistics of the hike, much attention is often given to physical conditioning. This is important, of course. Do lots of hiking to accustom your feet to your boots. Wear your pack, and gradually increase the amount of weight you carry.
Go on practice hikes of two or three days. But when it comes down to it, the only way to prepare your body to hike ten hours a day, carrying forty or more pounds up and down mountains, is to do it.
More important is mental conditioning. The body adapts quickly, and after a couple of months the hike becomes psychological. You will hurt. You will smell bad. You will be hot, cold, wet, hungry, and bored. You’ll want to quit.
The hardest part of completing a thru-hike is knowing you don’t have to. No one is making you hike day after day. You can go home anytime. The trick is to keep that far-away goal in the back of your mind while focusing only on the immediate day’s hike. Don’t think of hiking 2,000 miles; the Appalachian Trail is just a series of week-long hikes. From one town to the next. Rest. One day at a time. Just this next climb.
Prepare all you can, then let go of any expectations. Don’t insist that the trail conform to your wishes, but be open to the lessons it has for you. Don’t be bound to others’ ideas of how to hike the trail; learn to hike your own hike. It is true that completing a thru-hike is a challenge. Several thousand begin the trek each year; only about 20 percent of those finish the entire trail. With proper preparation, you can become a successful Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.
Nancy Shepherd is the author of “My Own Hike: A Woman’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail.” As an accomplished thru-hiker she also maintains her own site right here.
She also recently published “Where The Mountains Meet The Sea: Backpacking The International Appalachian Trail.” Check it our right here!
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