The Appalachian Trail – What to Expect and How to Prepare

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The infamous 2000 mile marker has probably moved due to rerouting of the AT since 2003, but hitting this milestone is a huge accomplishment for every thru hiker. Lucky for us this road doesn’t have much traffic!

By Mary Lyons

How did I get this crazy idea?

Appalachian Trail 2In 1996 I met an author who would change my life and never even know it. His name is David Brill, and he is a freelance writer for men’s magazines. He spoke to a writer’s group I was in about his thru hike of the Appalachian Trail in the 1970’s because he had just written a book about it 20 years later. The title of the book is As Far as the Eye Can See and it includes excerpts from his journal as well as his thoughts looking back on his experience.

The day he came to speak to my writer’s group about this book, I had the worst hangover. I had never hiked a day in my life and I had never even heard of the Appalachian Trail, even though I grew up in Kentucky only three hours away. I had decided that if “this guy” wasn’t interesting, I was going to leave and go back to bed. David Brill spoke for about 5 minutes before I realized the magnitude of what he had accomplished, and I was hooked. My hangover was gone. I had to do this.

I bought his book for a whopping ten dollars, got him to sign it, and when everyone else left, he and I were left. He took time to answer my questions. He also asked me if I preferred bourbon or whiskey. I wreaked of alcohol, but no longer felt my hangover. I was excited! I had a goal!

Appalachian Trail 3It was seven years later, in 2003, before I actually completed my thru hike. I never even set foot on a trail until 2000, and never carried a backpack until 2001! But I never lost sight of my goal, and on March 25, 2003, I began a journey that would instill an insatiable wanderlust in me that I still haven’t satisfied. On September 3rd, I summited Katahdin in Maine. This day is more important to me than my birthday, especially now that I’m over (cough, cough), uhh, let’s say 40 and leave it at that.

I had a lot to learn before hiking 2,172 miles with what would eventually be whittled down to a 20-pound pack. Here’s what I did to get ready, including some mistakes I made. My dog, Oscar, even got in the action, although he was not exactly an outdoorsman. He made sure to sample the beef jerky though.

Let’s Get Started!

Appalachian Trail 10My first consideration when preparing for the Appalachian Trail was about experience. I had never hiked or backpacked or even camped really. There was a lot to learn and that meant getting prepared and getting out in the wilderness to learn how to use my gear. I joined a hiking club and met a lot of people who knew a lot more than I did about backpacking, sleeping, and eating in the wilderness. I went on many weekend trips with them in southern Arizona and western New Mexico. It rained on almost all of those trips, and my friend Steve said I was cursed. Here we were in the Southern Arizona desert, and it rained every damn time I went on a camping trip with The Ramblers, and never when I didn’t. I felt pretty prepared for rain when I started the AT.

Boy, was I wrong! Nothing could have prepared me for that much rain! 2003 is still the wettest year on record for an AT hike. Lucky me. My big toes looked like white prunes for three months. But that’s not what this post is about! If you’re planning a long-distance hike, or just curious how to prepare for one, read on.

Prepare Physically

Appalachian Trail 9A lot of people think they need to be in great shape physically before starting the Appalachian Trail, but that’s not necessarily the case. The trail conditions you, no matter what shape you’re in when you start. But your chances of a successful thru-hike will improve if you aren’t struggling physically at the beginning. One of the best ways to get in good physical condition for hiking is by going hiking. Surprise! Carry your pack, wear your shoes, and get out in the wilderness to walk over roots and climb over boulders. Then go out the next weekend and do the same thing.

Practice

Appalachian Trail 7I did day hikes with a fully loaded backpack even when I had no intention of camping. As I walked, I took a mental inventory of everything in my pack and how I could make it lighter. My first pack was an Osprey I found on sale at the local outfitter in Tucson. Great pack, but heavy! It weighed 7 pounds! A pack for the AT shouldn’t weigh more than 3 pounds, but it took experience and trial and error – and money – for me to figure that out.

Prepare Mentally

There I go, talking about gear. I love gear. Gear is an important part of preparing for the Appalachian Trail, but preparing mentally is just as important. Even avid backpackers and campers can struggle mentally to keep going, to take that next step over that next rock or climb that next boulder. Even the most experienced might weep at the sight of yet another false summit. I was far from experienced, so I expected some mentally tough days, and I was right.

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My longest backpacking and camping trip before I hit the AT was four days and four nights in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico (yes, it rained!), and I planned and completed those four nights and days on purpose. I read somewhere that if you could hike and camp four days and nights in a row, you could complete a successful thru-hike. My friend Steve, a fellow Rambler, and I planned a trip. He said he expected it would rain since I was going. He was right. It was just the two of us. The nights were below freezing. My shoes were wet from trekking in the snow (and rain!) and frozen hard as a rock every morning. I slept with my bladder of water inside my sleeping bag to keep it from freezing. Can’t say I loved hiking and camping on this trip. Love of hiking and camping came later, on the AT.

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Preparing physically, whether by hiking, running, weight lifting, yoga, whatever you like to do, can help to prepare you mentally. Just keep going. Most of the time, hiking on the AT really is what you will want to do that day. Hey, beats working, right?

Plan Financially

Money. A huge consideration. During a thru-hike, you most likely won’t be earning any unless your stocks are doing better than mine were. Fortunately, lodging along the AT for the entire 2100+ miles is free if you want it to be. I met two Canadians in 2003 who I don’t think spent even one night in town. They each finished their thru-hike spending less than $1000 each. It can be done, but not by me. I enjoy a night in town occasionally, to sleep in a bed, eat restaurant food, and restock at a blindingly bright grocery store filled with temptations I couldn’t carry and people who smelled like soap, which I did not.

Appalachian Trail 8As you research town stops along the way, you’ll start to get an idea of how much money you might need to get you through your hike from start to finish. Your biggest expense will be food. You will eat a lot, even while you’re hiking! You will walk or hitchhike out of your way, off the trail, just to get a restaurant meal of fat, cheese, grease, carbs, protein, and quite possibly other things that you would never consider eating if you had not just walked 20 miles with all of your belongings on your back. That said, you won’t spend much money on anything else if you purchased your gear and shoes before you started walking.

Plan to Eat!

Appalachian Trail 5There are two theories on resupplying food. The most popular is just to resupply along the way in town stops and buy enough to get you through to the next town stop. In my opinion, this is the least expensive and least troublesome way to resupply. I, however, didn’t figure that out until I’d completed about half the trail. I resupplied along the way, but I also used resupply boxes I packed before I started – a lot of them – and got them weighed and paid postage, and then left them with my sister to mail to me along the way. The problem with this is I probably spent more money doing it this way and, well, plans change. I didn’t even use all the boxes.

Appalachian Trail 5Packing these boxes after a trip to Costco was an adventure in itself. I had a small kitchen and no dining room table, so these boxes were everywhere. I came home one day to find a couple of them on the floor and the beef jerky packages torn open! Guess who worked really hard to knock those boxes off the counter? Yeah, my little 20-pound Oscar! He was fat and happy on the sofa when I got home, and I found beef jerky all over the apartment for the next two weeks. He’d hidden it away for later! Lesson learned. Keep your resupply boxes in a room with a door that closes! I had to forgive him though. He stayed with my sister (another sister) during my trek, and had to be neutered at age 13 while I was out having the time of my life.

Even with resupply boxes, I still had to buy certain items along the way. One advantage to having resupply boxes sent to post offices along the way is that if there are certain things you really like, or if someone wants to send you homemade goods, as my family did, then they can put them in the boxes. My sister sent me two dozen chocolate chip cookies, an entire pineapple upside down cake, and a loaf of sourdough bread in one box. Between me and two other thru-hikers, none of it made it past the post office porch.

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Resupply boxes add another element of planning that, in my opinion, is unnecessary. There are plenty of opportunities to resupply and vary your diet along the way. Some things you will never get tired of are easily found in towns, like Hershey bars. They travel well in a backpack and no matter how many times they melt in that foil wrapper, they’ll still be good at the end the of a 20-mile day.

Plan to Sleep

Hotels and some hostels are another expense you’re likely to be tempted with. An actual bed, a shower, and a place to dry out your stuff is a welcome change for most hikers. Most hostels are either work-for-stay or very cheap. Hotels can range from $30 a night to very expensive in larger towns if you want to go that route. This is where having a guidebook comes in really handy for planning. I have another post about AT Guidebooks. Town stops are important for several reasons, but you can decide how many of them you want to make and how much time you want to spend in town. Keep in mind, the more time in town, the more temptation to spend money, and eat two pints of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting. I don’t recommend that.

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I saved $3500 to get me through my hike and the next month after it since I wasn’t going back to work right away. I had plenty of town stops and luxuries, including beer and restaurant food, along the way, and still had money to get me through the month of September before going back to work as a teacher. Even though that was 13 years ago, I still think $3500 is more than most thru-hikers start out with.

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It’s Time. You’re Ready. Do It.

One last comment on preparing for the Appalachian Trail. Learn from others. Check out www.trailjournals.com and learn from others. Read their accounts. Read your guidebooks. You can read more about guidebooks in my post Appalachian Trail Guidebooks. Buy your gear and use it, especially in the rain. Then get dropped off at Springer Mountain and hike your hike. It’ll be the greatest experience of your life.

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33 thoughts on “The Appalachian Trail – What to Expect and How to Prepare

  • June 3, 2017 at 6:50 am
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    The Appalachian trail is freaking exciting! A bit challenging for some but. I am down for it! Gotta do this soon! Thanks for sharing! Cheers!

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  • June 3, 2017 at 3:33 am
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    I’ve traveled through this area many times when I was driving a semi truck cross country, however I never had the opportunity to stop or go hiking to take in the beauty. It looks like you had a wonderful trip.

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    • June 3, 2017 at 2:26 pm
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      Bonnie, when I was a teenager, I dreamed of being a truck driver and rolling across the country to see the United States. My family didn’t travel much. My much older distant cousin was a truck driver and he would park his truck at my grandma’s house and let us sit in it with him. I loved it and thought it was cool that it had a bed and fridge in it! Eventually I lost interest in that, but not in traveling. I found other ways to satisfy my wanderlust, like walking a lot apparently. I hope you can get back to the AT and experience it on foot one day soon.

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  • May 31, 2017 at 7:39 am
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    Ahhh I am so jealous!! I have been preparing not the Appalachian but the PCT over a year and I didn’t get enough money to do it 🙁 but at least I already have my gear so maybe next year. The plan in everything is similar at yours, food, sleep, etc… really good post 😉

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    • June 1, 2017 at 3:19 pm
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      Fabio, money was definitely a big concern for me. It took me three years to save up enough money to not only complete the trail, but in order to afford to NOT get paid for six months. Keep at it and think about what you can sacrifice now to save money for later. The PCT awaits!

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  • May 31, 2017 at 5:53 am
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    Wow! From never hiked to Appalachian Trail is a great achievement. Thanks for detailing everything out. I have also never hiked but I am planning to start off slow , with the easiest trails 🙂

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    • May 31, 2017 at 7:21 am
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      Yes, I knew before I started I needed to get out into the wilderness and learn a few things. The things I learned from other backpackers and campers were invaluable, but the AT taught me a lot too! But to this day, I still can’t build a fire. Guess I’ll keep that on my bucket list!

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    • June 1, 2017 at 3:22 pm
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      Neha, I ended up with quite a bit of hiking and camping experience before I started, but nothing can really prepare you mentally for day-after-day of hiking for 5 months. I also started out slow, with overnight or weekend trips and short distances while I got to know my pack and my gear better.

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    • June 1, 2017 at 3:31 pm
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      Thanks, Joan! Eating anything I wanted and losing 30 pounds was definitely a perk, but I gained 20 of it back within a year! And I was NOT eating anything I wanted. LOL!

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  • May 31, 2017 at 4:12 am
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    I would love to do this hike someday. I had epic hike up through the Gila Wilderness once. My truck had a flat tire on the east side of the Galliaros. We figured on a three day trip to Power’s Cabin so we figured why not hike back to Tucson. We bushwhacked down into the San Pedro Valley and ended up on a ranch outside of Reddington. There was, no kidding, a phone booth in the middle of a field. We made a collect call and got a ride back to town.

    Kudos to you for completing 2000 miles. That is an amazing trip. We got evaced on our second day.

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    • May 31, 2017 at 7:39 am
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      Jenn and Ed, I have a house in Tucson. Not sure if you’re from there or not. I spend my summers in Tucson, although am moving back there in a few months. When I lived there year round, I made a few trips to the Gila Wilderness to prepare for the AT, and oddly enough, I learned a lot about camping in the rain there. It rained every time! I’ve also hiked in Reddington Pass, but didn’t come across a phone booth. I did come across about 20 nude hikers though! LOL! I’d rather find a phone booth!

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  • May 31, 2017 at 1:11 am
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    This is amazing! You are amazing! Your preparation and determination are inspiring. I love the eat anything you need and want because it’s part of the trek.

    And what a comprehensive, easy read. I think you just won over a few to likewise do this at least once in their lifetime. You’ve passed on the inspiration! 🙂

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    • June 11, 2017 at 5:15 pm
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      Thank you, Joan! Eating anything I wanted has to be the single most enjoyable thing about this trek. And finding a place that serves beer right on the trail. That happened quite a bit in New York and Pennsylvania. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it and I hope it inspires!

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  • May 30, 2017 at 8:38 pm
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    You remind me a lot of Cheryl Strayed, or the woman who trekked the Pacific Crest Trail and the inspiration for Reese Witherspoon’s movie, Wild. I haven’t heard about Appalachian Trail before and I’m not sure how it can be compared with the Pacific Crest, but wow girl, you are awesome. I am not even sure if I can do a similar adventure such as this in this lifetime. You did it! You are such an inspiration.

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    • June 11, 2017 at 5:13 pm
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      I read Wild and can definitely appreciate Strayed’s efforts. I do think she was wildly unprepared and a bit foolish at times, but her reasons for doing the PCT were very different than mine. I hadn’t experienced any emotional trauma and wasn’t looking to change my life. I just wanted to know if I could do it. Now I know. I think anyone can do it if they put their mind to it.

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  • May 30, 2017 at 6:24 pm
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    Preparation is key and you nailed it! I would love to do this one day and I will be taking your advice. Great post

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    • June 11, 2017 at 5:10 pm
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      Thank you, Kevin. It is such a great experience. It definitely changed my perspective on a lot of things and just fueled my wanderlust.

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  • May 30, 2017 at 4:54 pm
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    Thanks, Emily! I hope you found it helpful. I think being prepared helps to prevent panic. I’m planning to write a post about the gear I carried and used, as well as gear used by other hikers, so stay tuned for that!

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  • May 30, 2017 at 4:45 pm
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    wow, congratulations on such an achievement. The first I heard of the AT was reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’ and I have wanted to do it ever since, time and money is my only constraint! Hopefully i’ll get there one day! This guide is really helpful though and i’ll be sure to use it if I ever get to hike the AT!

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  • May 30, 2017 at 3:51 pm
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    I have never heard of the Appalachian Trail but it sounds like an enormous achievement. There is so much planning involved with eating, where to eat and sleeping, where to stay etc… I had to double check on Google the length of the trail, it’s huge, 2200 miles! I was considering the Camino de Santiago which is 500 miles in length, making the Appalachian Trail 4 times the length, wow!

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    • June 1, 2017 at 3:36 pm
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      Only By Land, I did the Camino in 2006. I did the most popular trail across the north of Spain. It’s really busy and sometimes it felt like a race to get to the next alburge to get a bed. It was also an amazing experience and a cheap way to see parts of Spain. Other routes might be less populated and a bit more challenging terrain-wise. Also, you don’t need to carry any food on the Camino, or gear. There is nowhere to camp along the way if you do the most popular route. Some of the southern routes might provide camping opportunities and a more relaxed pace. But it’s so doable and is such a great experience.

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  • May 30, 2017 at 3:43 pm
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    The Appalachian trail looks adventurous trip. Very detailed tips for people interested in treks. Good you enjoyed the hike.

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  • May 30, 2017 at 1:22 pm
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    It is one of the treks I have in mind for the next 10 years or so! Thanks for all the tips and inspiration!

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  • May 30, 2017 at 12:33 pm
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    Looks like you have had a great hike. I totally agree with you that you need to right equipment and also to use it otherwise hiking can be a rotten and painful affair. Thanks for the tip about the guide I will definitely read this if I am heading this way

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  • May 30, 2017 at 7:30 am
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    What an amazing accomplishment. I not sure if I would be able to continue if I showed up at the start and the sign said my destination was 2108.5 miles away. These are all great tips that someone preparing may not consider, but could ruin an attempt at such a daunting task.

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    • May 30, 2017 at 4:38 pm
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      Thank you, Kevan. It seemed like an incredibly daunting task when I started, but I also felt prepared in regards to gear and physical stamina. It’s much harder mentally than physically, but I met so many people along the way who pushed me forward.

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  • May 30, 2017 at 5:33 am
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    I’m so glad you trained and downsized your pack. What an incredible experience! This is really awe-inspiring that you were able to manage it!

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    • May 30, 2017 at 4:39 pm
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      Yes, Marcie, downsizing was the single best thing I did! I couldn’t quite manage a tarp instead of a tent, but getting below the 20 pound mark made 12 hours a day of walking so much more manageable.

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  • May 30, 2017 at 3:20 am
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    My husband and I love to hike, but this would be extreme. We typically hike 14ers that can be done in a day or two max. The Appalachian Trail is a whole new level. Very impressed by your accomplishment!

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    • May 30, 2017 at 4:41 pm
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      Thank you, Melissa! It is the accomplishment that I am most proud of in my life. And it was fun eating anything I wanted for five months!

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  • May 30, 2017 at 3:14 am
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    This looks like a massive challenge but your post has knocked off one concern for anyone, planning! This is a really comprehensive guide. It sounds as if you prepared yourself really well for the experience: proper preparation prevents poor performance! So good to see you triumph here.

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  • May 30, 2017 at 12:25 am
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    The Appalachian trail looks challenging and at the same time exciting too. Great tips for preparing for the trek. All sensible and practical. Preparation takes the pain out of the actual experience and leaves one to enjoy the pleasures to the hilt.

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    • May 30, 2017 at 4:47 pm
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      That is so true, Sandy. I think being prepared prevents panic! Preparing mentally was definitely the hardest part. And I had a little separation anxiety from my dog, but he was spoiled rotten by my sister. I knew he was in good hands. I was able to relax and enjoy the ride, especially camping in the evenings. That was so much fun and we laughed all the time. Maybe we were delirious. lol

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