Far be it from this writer to assume my opinion is worth listening to. But I have hiked the AT a couple of times, and I do have some gentle advice. After talking to hundreds of Katahdin aspirants over the years, I have learned what the fictional Springer Mtn. caretaker in my book, THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, realized: “the only certainly in his mind was the uncertainty of eventual outcomes.”
In other words, as you watch the traveling circus move north, good luck if you think you can keep an accurate scorecard.
So, for what it’s worth, here are a few nuggets of advice if you are considering taking the last great American adventure in 2019 or beyond:
- Before you take a first step, get serious about what is essential in your pack. Do you really need a hunting knife in a leather sheath? Do you need a bulky, multi-piece cookset? Is your pack one of those nine-pound super-padded numbers with so many surplus cubic inches that you can’t resist filling them with electronics and food that will take you days past your next resupply point? Remember the scene in the movie Wild where Reese Witherspoon puts on her pack for the first time and has trouble standing up? Don’t let that be you. Good grief, I met a man recently who was about to take his first steps on the Approach Trail with 160 pounds of gear including a one-liter bottle of vanilla extract.
- Stay hydrated. If you start your day with a liter and a half, that is the smartest weight you will carry. And you can reduce the weight quickly by drinking — even if you are not particularly thirsty. Do not wait to hit camp to rehydrate. Some of the worst trail days I have endured were due to not taking my own %$#@ advice and getting dehydrated.
- Take care of your feet. On the first day of your hike, promise me that you are wearing trail runners or boots that you have broken in with up-and-down trail-weight hiking. Otherwise, you are walking into unknown territory which may include grotesquely damaged feet. In THRU, my Captain Stupid character says this about his feet: “FEMA should be called in for this, plus the Air National Guard and a MASH unit of podiatrists and surgeons and EMTs. I cry when I look at what just two days have done. Blisters began on the Approach Trail to Springer. They demanded immediate attention, but I was so overwhelmed that instead of giving them first aid, I just kept slogging along and hoped for the best.” The Captain got help and survived, but his experience was not typical. Treat your feet better than any other part of yourself.
- Stay dry. A pack cover will not keep the contents of your pack dry if you hike through a blinding rain storm that switches on and off for a couple of days. Anything you really want to keep dry should be in ziplock bags which weigh practically nothing and can save your sanity.
- Leave No Trace. If you’re out there, you’ve heard the LNT pitch. If you are a human being, you leave urine and feces in your wake. Remember that nobody — at least nobody normal — wants to see any of that. Bury crap off-trail at least 200 feet away from water sources and camping areas. Also, pack out hand-wipes, uneaten food and general trash. I know most of you don’t need to hear this, but problems still exist.
- Give it time! If the first couple of days out there are the worst days of your entire life, don’t stop. Give it a couple of weeks. It will get better. You will finally reach a moment of joy that will transport you to levels of transcendence you never dreamed possible. Just be patient.
As I say, I have done the AT a couple of times and I’ve hiked all over the world. I am an ordinary guy with average physical gifts. If I could do it, so can you. Have fun!