~ Mark Twain
As we document our journey to and through the Appalachian Trail, I am cognizant that our thoughts, strategies, desires, and fears will change as we experience the different phases of thru-hiking. So, it is odd typing words that undoubtedly will change throughout and by the end of our journey.
That being said, it is important to acknowledge what we are fearing at the outset so we can master our fear, or at a minimum resist the fear and be courageous.
Here they are, His and Her fears of hiking for 6 months, through 14 states, and almost 2200 mikes—the AT Conservancy has spoken and 2189.8 is the official 2017 distance for a thru-hike.
HIS Appalachian Trail Fears
Fear of Failure
Prospective thru-hikers fail to complete the journey of 2189 miles at a high rate and for many reasons. Only around 25-30% of hikers attempting the entire trail will achieve their goal; twenty percent of NOBO’ers (hiker going south to north) won’t even make it out of Georgia.
These statistics, along with second guessing my ability to handle the mental challenge, fuel my first fear. I don’t know what would be worse, having to get off the trail shortly after starting, or leaving just shy of finishing. Both would be disappointing, but the latter, I think, would be crushing.
There are many reasons why hikers must leave the trail, several of which we will not have to worry about.
A large percent of potential AT thru-hikers are young and are using the trail as a Gap Year adventure either between high school and college or college and deployment into the work force. For this group the main concern is having enough money. Being young they might not have the skills to manage a tight budget—spending too much in town on partying and other money-sucking purchases. Blowing through their money would force them to get off the trail. Jen and I know how to enjoy ourselves and still make our money stretch. We have saved up a healthy budget for this adventure and will not have to worry about that.
Gap Year youngins as well as older hikers may also have time commitments. Maybe a leave of absence from work for the trail forces a hiker to exit because she must go back to work. Or maybe it’s the start of the fall semester of college and the hike is taking longer than expected. Once again, this is not a concern for Jen and I. We are very flexible in our timing and have no other place to be.
Other reasons people get off the trail are family emergencies, boredom and loneliness. There is nothing we can do about family emergencies except to get off the trail with the hopes that we can return. As far as boredom and loneliness we will have each other as well as hikers we will meet along the way. I am under no illusion that part of the trail’s difficulty is the tediousness of hiking 15-20 miles … every … single … freak’in … day. Helpful in this last point has been the book APPALACHIAN TRIALS since it focuses on the mental game of long distance hiking.
So, if all these things are cool, why fear failure? Well because of my next two fears: injury and bugs.
Fear of Injury
How often do you trip and fall in every day life? Probably not too often, but it is easy to do, especially when one is fatigued or walking on treacherous terrain. Imagine always being exhausted and hiking mountainous inclines and declines in rain and mud and on rocky paths … for 8 or 10 hours a day. How often do you think you would fall?
OK, lets say you don’t fall and break something, what about over use injuries? Knee problems, muscle strains, ankle pains, foot problems? Any one of these things could take us off the trail for a day or a week or, if serious enough, end our hike.
And if one of us is injured badly enough to end the hike, does it end the hike for both? Hike ending injury and the decisions made surrounding ending a hike this way are a fear. My guess (maybe naive) is if we do not finish the trail it will be due to injury.
Fear of Bugs
Next up on the fear factor is bugs. This is another fear that is emboldened because it could take us off the trail, for good.
We have just returned to the US from spending 4 years in one of the most bio-diverse countries on the planet—Costa Rica. And by bio-diverse I mean buggie. We spent time with tarantulas, scorpions, and more ants than one could possibly imagine. While we may not be great with bugs, we have learned to live with them.
The bugs I fear though, are those you can’t see. The bugs that hang out at over crowded, unsanitary shelters; the bugs that the mice inhabiting these same shelters carry, the bugs carried by ticks (deer and others); the bugs that can be caught by taking just one sip of untreated water.
These bugs cause disease and dis-ease and can really put a hamper, if not the kibosh, on a thru-hike. We are taking precautions for many of these but the fear is still there. For our water we will filter it using the Sawyer Squeeze. We plan on sleeping in a tent most nights, and we are having our clothes treated with permethrin that will help kill off any ticks climbing on our clothes.
Still, there is the fear of malady, of contracting something that will take us off the trail … or make us use the bathroom every 5 minutes.
Fear of Running out of Water
A working body needs water. And boy will we be working everyday—and sweating. From our research (books, YouTube, and forums) it seems lack of water is less of an issue in the southern states in the spring. More concerning is summer in New Jersey, New York, etc.
The ideal source of our daily water is at a spring font. Next would be a stream close to the source, then a creek, river, lake, and lastly, muddy standing water.
When none of these are present or when one of them is dried up at a location we were depending on, we could get ourselves into trouble.
The flipside is to be too cautious and carry too much water. Pack weight is important and water is heavy at 2.2 pounds per liter. For most of the hike we would like to carry 2 liters or less.
One of the great things about the AT is that hikers are rarely more than a day or 2 hike from a town. So, while there is a fear of not being able to find a source, in an emergency we could get off trail.
Fear of Weather
Weather can change drastically in very short periods on the trail. From thunderstorms to bone-chilling temperatures there are many things to be fearful of regarding weather.
We will be prepared to weather all weather situations, but the lightening storms that can arise quickly give me the most cause for concern. Mainly, because if you get caught in one you have just the thin piece of fabric of your tent to protect you from wind, rain, and lightening bolts.
We have been watching the hilarious videos of the 2013 thru-hikers Hitched Hiked. On one of the episodes they had just set up the tent when a storm hit. The flash of lightening as seen from inside the tent followed by a quick cannon boom was unnerving. I am not sure how I will master this fear, but I will need to.
HER Appalachian Trail fears
Hi, this is Jen. Even though I talk big and act brave, I am really fearful of quite a few things going wrong on our AT thru-hike. Here’s an honest account of my fears:
MY FEARS = GREG’S FEARS (see above) + …
There are black bears on the AT, and they are most common in GA, the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks and parts of PA and NJ. The good news is there are only black bears, no grizzlies. While attacks on humans by black bears are rare, they can act aggressively if startled or if a Momma bear perceives you as coming between her and her cubs. PREVENTION: We will talk loudly, try not to startle them, wave our trekking poles above our heads to make ourselves look bigger. We are not to run away, but back away slowly while facing the bear. I’m also bringing a mini-911 air horn , if nothing else works, that should startle them away. [I had ordered a can of bear spray – but the thing is HUGE and heavy, and there’s no way I’m carrying it – I’d have put it in my pack, and wouldn’t be able to get to it in time anyway.]
Here’s a picture I took of a black bear while on my 2011 hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire:
I know Greg mentioned this, but I wanted to say that this is probably my worst fear. Though I am good at many coordinated activities (piano playing, sports), I am also quite good at being a klutz. Like – stubbing my toe or running into a wall. I used to think this was a kind of endearing thing (er, at least Greg told me so). But it’s not so funny now, when faced with a real possibility of tripping and falling in situations that could end my career as a thru-hiker. PREVENTION: My eyes will be glued to the ground at all times, even at the risk of missing some scenery. However, I might also run into a tree branch this way…
Snakes by themselves (i.e., in a zoo, behind glass) don’t really scare me. We’ve even seen some on our hikes in Costa Rica. But the thought of hiking over rocks and accidentally startling one into sinking its teeth into my foot? Yep – totally scary. PREVENTION: Have Greg walk in front of me. [Note: this will work for morning cobwebs also.]
An example of a Rattle Snake (poisonous!):
Will I freeze to death or get hypothermia? We are starting March 22nd, but with being in the mountains and some higher elevations – we will probably for sure get some cold temps and snow (not every day, but it could happen). PREVENTION: To sleep in, I’m bringing fleece Cuddl Dud leggings and top and thermal socks. I’ll have a 10° sleeping quilt (Greg’s is 20° but I sleep colder than him) + an extra 15° of warmth with a sleeping bag liner + other clothes I can put on (fleece jacket, puffy jacket, beanie hat, buff, gloves, etc.). Also, we can always boil water and put in our water bottles, and use as a heating pad inside our sleeping quilts. EMERGENCY PREVENTION: This is what the Starbucks Via coffee is for – emergency warm up situations, or if I’m having a really bad day and need a hot boost of caffeine – otherwise we are giving up our morning cup of joe to reserve stove fuel and time in the morning.
We will plan on sleeping in our tent almost every night on the trail. However, there will be instances that we may consider sleeping in a shelter, like when we arrive at shelter site in a rain storm. A shelter is basically a 3-walled structure with a floor – so offers some protection from the elements, but does have one open side. A few negative things about a shelter: they can get totally packed with people (there is a “limit” posted at each shelter, but when the weather is bad this tends to be disregarded), people tend to snore and move around a lot at night (preventing a good nights sleep), it can be colder than a tent with one side open to the elements, and MICE. Mice tend to “haunt” shelters at night. They know where there are people, there is food (even though we all hang our food bags outside away from where we sleep) – they run around looking for food, nibbling at anyone’s backpack if it even so slightly smells of some left over food. So – yeah. I can barely even IMAGINE waking up to a mouse running over my face. UGH. PREVENTION: don’t sleep in shelters, sleep in our tent!
Here’s a picture of a shelter:
Am I physically prepared? Will I ever be physically prepared? The answer is NO. I can only try and do the best I can to be as physically prepared as possible before we start. PREVENTION: we have joined a gym (it’s winter here in Wisconsin) which has a variety of machines, weights and classes.
Lymes disease is real, and there are areas on the AT that are prevalent with ticks and mosquitoes and black flies. PREVENTION: We’ll sending out our clothes to have them commercially treated with pemetherin, which will repel mosquitoes, ticks, flies, houseflies, sandflies, ants, chiggers, midges and fleas. The clothes will be good for 70 washings. Also we both have mosquito net/hats that cover our whole heads, and have Off with Deet (but we hear from past hikers this really has very little effect). NOTE: There are also various viruses one can become infected with, as well as the worst feared water born disease: Giardia (which will totally put you out of business and off the trail for good).
WILL I EVER SLEEP AT NIGHT?
Really, this is a fear of mine. 1 – it’s not that comfortable anyway, though I will have a sleeping pad (air mattress) and a pseudo pillow (my clothes dry bag); 2 – Greg might snore, and there’s nowhere for me to kick him out to; and 3 – if I hear movement outside during the night, I will be paranoid and think it’s a bear each time. PREVENTION: At least for numbers 2 and 3: wear ear-plugs.
Not being able to plan my life out for 6 months will be hard for me, as I am a planner. We’ll have the 2017 AWOL Guidebook (“The A.T. Guide”) (will receive in January) and the Guthook App to help us know what is coming up and when we should aim to resupply for food, but that’s it – we’ll only really be able to plan out the next 3-4 days at most, and even then we may be thrown off course. PREVENTION: Suck it up, Jen! I’ll have just learn to go with the flow.
I know Greg mentioned weather above, but I have a couple of specific weather concerns I want to mention:
STRUCK BY LIGHTENING.
Not something one would normally think of, right? As it turns out there is a high percent chance of this happening on the AT. The Appalachian Trail is mostly on a mountain ridge, and goes up and down switching from low to high elevations (think = a never ending rollercoaster). If it is raining and starts lightening when we are at the top of a mountain, above tree line with no coverage, well – this is just not a good situation to be in. PREVENTION: Listen to fellow hikers when talking about weather, and try to plan accordingly so we are not in this situation.
TENT SET UP IN STORM.
Basically I am scared about setting up our tent in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. I mean – I know it will happen, and I know we’ll have to deal with it, and I know we will survive. But it will be miserable. I guess this isn’t as much a fear as it is something I’m really not looking forward to at all. PREVENTION: Suck it up, Jen! Also, we can try to be prepared with weather storms coming up, and plan accordingly (get to tent site ahead of storm or stay in a shelter).
In conclusion – all fears aside, we are ready to hike this AT and give it our 100% best effort! We cannot control everything (family emergencies, injuries, sicknesses), but we can focus on what we can control. We are both 100% invested in this venture. We will not quit the trail because we are lonely, depressed, sore or tired of walking a bazillion miles every day. We are very determined mentally to do this. Bring it on!
PS – I was going to add SPIDERS, but you know, I really feel like I’ve pretty much conquered this fear – thank you, Costa Rican tarantulas and scorpions! As far as I know, there are no tarantulas on the AT, and that’s pretty much my only spider fear these days. Although I hear there’s some pretty raunchy ones that like to hang out in the privy’s and shelters, so I’ll get back to you on this…
Happy Trails! — Greg & Jen