The Appalachian Trail – What to Expect and How to Prepare…
How did I get this crazy idea?
In 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!
It 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!
My 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.
A 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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
As 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!
There 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.
Packing 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.
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.
I saved $3500 to get me through my Appalachian Trail 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.
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.