Jen and I are 57 days away from the start of our attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. On March 22nd we will depart Amicalola Falls Lodge and hike the 8.8-mile approach trail that leads to the start of the Appalachian Trail. There are other, less taxing, alternatives leading to the trailhead, but we wanted to hike up, up, up the path, including a staircase of 604 steps, that parallels Georgia’s tallest waterfall. We are planning to hike almost 2200 miles, what are 9 more?
This decision, along with a myriad of others, is all part of the planning process. Many individuals replying on online forums and groups say the only way to plan for a thru-hike is to do a thru-hike—just start walking. While I am sure there is some truth in this, I am equally confident that a large portion of the 75% of hikers, who planned to traverse the length of the trail and failed, followed that advice.
Therefore, I present the clichéd quote:
Listed below are some of the ways we are planning for success. As per our usual M.O., Jen is tenaciously organizing and making plans and connections while I look for tattoos to celebrate our imminent victory. I also provide levity and the spirit of “by the seat our our pants” adventuring to the planning process. We make a great team.
Our method of preparing for the AT mirrors our research to move to Costa Rica. We read everything on the subject we could get our hands on: blogs, forums, and books, we made connections with people who already did what we were considering doing, and we came up with worst-case scenarios for most conceivable hardships so that culture shock would be minimized. All of these things made our 3.5 years in Costa Rica some of the best years of our lives and hopefully they will prove to be just as helpful on the trail. So, here is how we are preparing to kick the AT’s ass, instead of it kicking ours.
Embrace the Suck
No Pain, No Rain, No Maine
These two sayings are repeated over and over by those who have written about completing a thru-hike. I have the feeing after we earn our trail-legs (get used to hiking long miles everyday) the mental aspect will be our main opponent in the game to reach the summit of Katahdin.
Five years ago I don’t think we would have been quite as willing to “embrace the suck” as we are today. However, after leaving careers that allowed a very comfortable living, for life in Costa Rica (where things were much more basic) and changing our mindset to one of “less is best,” I think we are ready. Jen and I have become comfortable with being uncomfortable, and that is one of the keys to winning the mental game.
We have studied the only book (that I am aware of) on mental preparation needed to successfully complete a thru-hike—Appalachian Trials—and plan to put that information into practice.
Also, I like this thought process from Warren Doyle’s free ebook. Having hiked 36,000 miles on the AT he has some great tips (and a few opinions):
Some thoughts to have in your head:
- Upon reaching the top of a mountain: ‘Gee, I’m here already?!’
- Upon reaching your campsite: ‘Golly, that was a short day.’
- Upon reaching town: ‘Great, I didn’t have to rush to get to the post office before it closes.’
- Upon starting your hike: ‘It’s going to hurt and be hard, but I’m still going to enjoy it.’
- After your first week on the Trail: ‘Gosh, this isn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be.’
- During your sixth straight day of rain: ‘At least the springs aren’t dry any more.’
- During your third week of drought: ‘Good I don’t have to put on wet socks in the morning.’
- During the second straight week of mosquitoes and/or black flies: ‘At least they aren’t wasps or yellow jackets.’
- And when you are exhausted, bored, lonely, dehydrated, hungry, hyperventilated, or have the runs (hopefully not all at once!): ‘Hah! Who cares? This is the song of the Trail!’
Like many things in life, attitude matters.
One last thought on being mentally prepared; Jen and I have forged an incredible relationship over 22 years of marriage and have worked daily side by side for most of each day for the past 4-years. We are used to being with each other. We balance each other out. We like each other and know how to give what the other one needs. This bond will be crucial to our success.
We began researching and acquiring gear over a year ago. Having this amount of time has allowed us to wait until the items we wanted were on sale. It has also given us ample time to field test our new equipment and make adjustments.
Gear is probably one of the least important factors for success and hikers spend an inordinate amount of time learning about fabrics and materials, attributes, and weight, weight, weight. I admit I am sucked into that vortex as well … it’s a whole lot of fun.
We have our final starting gear and have tested it and feel great about it. Jen just made a video about what she is taking.
I will film an overview of mine as well … sometime. While I am sure we will make adjustments on the trail I feel confident in our selections.
Here are some resources we used in researching our gear:
For YouTube videos featuring light and ultra-light pack set-ups we watched the following hikers. We particularly enjoyed those that showed a pre-hike list as well as a post-hike list and the tweaks made during the trip.
We are geared up and ready to hike.
We are preparing for the various logistical hoops in a couple of different ways:
To get to the trail we will take a Greyhound bus from central Wisconsin to Chattanooga, Tennessee. In our new simplified life we have chosen experiences over stuff and have more time than money, ergo a 19-hour bus ride instead of a 3 hour flight—let the comfortable with being uncomfortable begin. In Tennessee our friends Mark and Lynette will pick us up and drive us to Amicalola Lodge where we will relax and fatten up for 2 nights. We will hook up with the approach trail here. Doing it this way will take some of the logistical work out of getting to Springer Mountain, the AT’s southern terminus.
We have friend meet-ups planned for Franklin, NC, Gatlinburg, TN, and Hot Springs, NC. We also have to plan a bit around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park has a few requirements that necessitate planning. A permit is required and must be printed prior to entering; we can only spend 8 days in the park on a thru-hiker’s pass, and must sleep at shelters. With all this in mind we are roughly planning out our hiking days for this first section. Our goal is to simply meet our friends within 3 days of the day we have targeted.
We will use 2 tools to help us plan mileage, where we will sleep and resupply. Both resources provide information on distances, elevation, trail information, and trail-town data. First is the thru-hiker perennial favorite, AWOL’s The AT Guide. Secondly, we will use a relatively new smartphone app called Guthook. One of the great things about the latter is that it is community based. Users can leave real time comments about trail conditions, water sources, shelter crowding, or anything that might be helpful to others.
We are fortunate to have Jen’s mom, Mary, to be in a position to help if we should need a shipment of something (like new shoes) and ability to receive packages should we need to send something home. A BIG advance “thank you” to Mary.
Any situation outside of what I have mentioned here will have to be dealt with as we come to it. For instance, we have no idea how we are getting from the northern terminus, Mount Katahdin in Maine (virtually in the middle of nowhere), back to Wisconsin.
Last in our efforts to plan for this epic adventure is being physically fit enough to tackle it. Going back to that advise often given, “Only hiking the trail can train you for hiking the trail,” I can understand the point. There is no way to condition yourself to hike 15-20 miles a day, 8-10 hours a day, day after day, except to do just that. Well, we want to give ourselves the best shot so we do want to show up relatively in shape.
This would have been no problem if we had stayed in Costa Rica for 6 more months. We lived high in the mountains of the Central Valley and could walk out our front door (in year around 60-80 degree weather no less) and hike an elevation range of 3,000 feet to around 5,500 feet. It mirrored the AT nicely. Jen and I were hiking between 6-8 miles each day. But our lease was up and we had a choice to make, we chose to return to the US to finish buying our gear and completing our preparations for the long hike.
We signed up with a gym. We walk on a treadmill. It sucks. But, Wisconsin weather is (normally) not conducive to outdoor pursuits. The owner of the gym is open to us using the treadmill with our loaded backpacks on; so, we’ve got that going for us. Jen has also suffered a mild form of Morton’s Neuroma under her toes in one foot, and has been taking it easy and working out primarily on the recumbent bike as it has healed (it is much better now).
We will let the trail train us. We have loosely mapped out our first few weeks and are planning low miles until our bodies morph into hiking machines.
So, there you have it, many of the ways we are preparing for 6 months of hiking. I think if we fail it will not be from lack of planning.