Friday, September 14, 2012

Advise to Thru hikers in the Making

In hindsight I should have taken a more laid back approach to tackling the Appalachian Trail. Most of my planning and research was nearly useless. Of course all the planning kept my mind occupied leading up to the trip so it wasn't completely wasted.

I wasted money on food drops.
I had thoughts, some of them good, on ways to save money buying bulk and adding variety by planning ahead. However, I had no idea what food items I would get sick of a week in (almonds), a month in (Clif Bars), or items I would always eat everyday and continue to enjoy (Clif Mojo, Quaker Oatmeal Cookies). I ran into nutritional issues early on and lost 20 lbs in the first 40 days, and I wasn't over-wright. I wasn't eating all the bars I had on hand, breakfast wasn't big enough, everything was processed.
I added to my diet by getting the food drops and then going to a grocery store and buying all the things to fill in the gaps - which was most everything! So I wasn't saving time by having a food drop and going to a market in the same town.
I now have about 200 extra bars here at the house that I didn't need, not including the ones Cara has eaten while I've been gone, given away, or got lost in the mail (yeah that happens)! I hiked faster and shipped myself less by HALF from what I planned for - I was 2 boxes ahead by the time I reached the end of the Smokey's.
Never hike with more than 4 or 5 days of food, that is the 'break-even' limit, any more and it will slow you down or make you carry less food than you should be consuming. I had big plans to carry 7+ days of food and it was a huge mistake, the AT is almost always 2 days between places to get food, doing 4 or 5 days is just to relieve the pressure of going into a town that often.

Staying in the woods for more than a week isn't fun.
Between the lack of showers, prepared food, and just the same routine of setting up and breaking down camp more than 5 days became wearing. So really my hike consisted of many long-weekend hiking trips, between 3 and 6 days on the Trail before (preferably) getting a hotel room. Save enough money for this! I'm glad I didn't have to worry or spend time in hostels. Hostels are, for the most part, horrendous and a waste of time and money; full of the party crowd, fleas, sickness, snoring hikers, mice, unwashed sheets over dirty mattresses, and mooching disrespectful hikers. So basically all the drawbacks of sleeping in a shelter - except you're paying for it though you usually have access to a shower. There are exceptions, of the ones I stayed at I would recommend Hemlock Hollow in TN, and Woods Hole in VA. I would never go to Uncle Johnny's, Standing Bear, or Kincora seeing and hearing the state of those three made me very wary of any hostel going forward.
There is great pleasure to be had to having a private room, or as the case was in Damascus, an entire private house!
I did share a room at the Allenberry in Boiling Springs, PA with Daffy Duck and the Sterling Inn in Caratunk, ME with Dirty Girl. I made the right call both times, I was a good judge of character in both those situations and it did really help with the cost of the room.

I sent most of my gear home
Things like the Osprey Exos 58 breaking couldn't be helped, I would've gotten the same pack again had it been in stock, it wasn't so I switched to the Osprey Talon 44. The MSR Hubbahubba tent leaked a bit and was on the heavy side, so I changed first to a tarp tent (1lb), then eventually added a hammock (1lb) under that tarp. Of course I switched out my sleeping bag for a lighter one in warmer weather, and clothing too. Mostly I just sent stuff home! If I wasn't using something, or I could make due without it, or even better I could dual use something (my hiking poles in the tarp tent) I would unload it quickly! I got my base-weight 7 to 10 pounds lighter than when I started when I thought I HAD to have everything in my pack! At the end it was 16 or 17 lbs.
The gear list all hikers should have:
- Backpack
- Shelter
- Sleeping bag/ground pad
- cooking set (unless you go cold)
- Water purification
And that's it. Everything else should be food, first aid, comfort items, and what you're wearing.

Setting dates is a mistake
To tell someone that you will meet them at this place at this time is a burden you shouldn't bear! I did this the first time to meet Flip at Fontana Dam ten days after I started, that was a doable goal, however I shouldn't have pushed myself at the beginning like that. I shouldn't have assumed that I wouldn't have had to slow down or take days off that early in the trip because of overused feet and knees. I made it there by that deadline, but I paid the consequences by spending most of those nights in the woods, with sore knees and shin splints, and the days pushing to get there.
My next deadline was to meet WoodTeeth in Damascus. I did not make that date, I had to skip ahead a few miles and made myself sick pushing to get there. I did some good sized days and felt great, then I hit a wall and I still had days of big miles to do. If you are planning on 15 mile days and start doing 20s you need to eat equivalently more! It took me a long time to finally figure that one out. That was the last time I made a deadline for myself in that direction, the rest of the time I made it the opposite way, so I had to slow down to meet with Surplus in July.
You might get sick. You might wake up one day and want to do little miles. You might want to be able to stop and have a long lunch and a swim in a creek. Setting plausibly realistic goals can ruin portions of your hike! Just take it easy and let your friends come to you, they are in cars, and the AT crosses roads everyday.

Have enough money
There were quite a few hikers that couldn't stay in town at all unless it was a donation-hostel so they could not donate and stay for free. If you only have enough for food on the hike then wait another year and save double that. The immediate gratification of hiking will make the trip painful. Also being a constant moocher gives the rest of us hikers a bad name. There is a difference between accepting a ride or accepting Trail Magic or raiding a Hiker Box because it's there and relying on using other people because you are unprepared. You know what you're getting into, you know how much money you should have before starting. Don't expect people to do things for you just because you're hiking a Trail, you're not that special.

Take a Blue Blaze
Sometimes the planners of the AT got it wrong. Sometimes the best views are off the official Trail. This is more a matter of opinion, but I was in no way a purist. The picture below is the North Mountain Trail in Northern PA, it was a mile of awesome views, rock scrambles (like I thought PA was going to be), blue-berry laden bushes, and a sense of un-used trail giving me a sense of adventure. I asked hikers what the AT was like on the portion paralleling this, and it was flat, easy, and had very little rocks (like most of PA - don't believe the lies!!)
I had great side adventures on blue blazes, sometimes making better time, sometimes getting lost and turned around, seeing sights I never would've seen and giving me memories unique to any other AT hikers, 'cause they didn't see what I did!

I probably heard all of this advise before I began the hike. As is in evidence, I ignored it and thought I knew better. So heed this, or don't, you will figure out what works best for you. Enjoying the journey is the only thing the trip is about; a point I occasionally lost sight of, as all of us do, I think, even in life!