Thinking about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail–that 2,174-mile footpath between Springer Mountain, Georgia, and Maine’s Mt. Katahdin? Great! I highly recommend the journey, which was one of the most soul-satisfying, difficult, wonderful, uncomfortable, inspiring, tiring, exhilarating, challenging, and fun experiences of my life.
Me, I’m quite the anal planner, and I started my A.T. adventure well before passing the first white blaze by attempting to plan every day of it. Once I decided to fulfill my dream, I set out the pens and notebooks and books and calendar. I made lists and more lists and began scheduling to the max. I’d hike 15 miles this day and stay at that campsite or lean-to. I’d send a maildrop with pre-purchased food to such-n-such a town, where I’d arrive on a particular date.
Then one day, I tossed the whole thing.
Sure, planning is good practice even if you do scrap the whole kit and kaboodle before you ever put any of those best laid plans the test. After all, the process can teach you a lot about what you’re setting out to do and help avoid potential problems just by the knowledge and awareness you’ll gain.
At the same time, it’s almost impossible to plan for every situation, every whim, every factor that’s beyond your control, especially when you’re talking about roughly six months of backpacking through 14 states, 6 national parks, and 8 national forests and over more than 400 named peaks.
Most people who do try to stick to a schedule on the Appalachian Trail fail to do so or find it too confining and illogical within the first few weeks, if not the first few days. And many thru-hikers who pre-pack maildrops find they’re sick of certain foods in no time, and leave much of their maildrop contents in hiker donation boxes or, unfortunately, trash cans.
There are, however, certain things you can plan for and count on when setting out for an end-to-end Appalachian Trail hike (or even a really long section), regardless of which direction you hike, your experience level, or what Mother Nature and other forces lay in your path.
Plan to be flexible: A change in the weather? A sore foot that’s giving you grief that day? Whatever it may be–something physical that’s bugging you, someone you want to continue hiking with doesn’t want to go as far on a particular day, a stretch of trail more difficult than you’d expected–it’s okay to bend. Do fewer miles than you may have expected to cover or maybe no miles at all. Or, occasionally, hike a few more miles if you’re up to it.
Plan to be cold: Yes, you’ll get chilled, at least for short periods till you can retreat to your sleeping bag or put on those extra layers. As long as you’re prepared for it, though, and don’t leave out vital insulation because it happens to be warm while you’re packing and you’re trying to go ultra-light, you should be able to handle the cold just fine.
Plan to be hot: And plan to be that way for days at a time. Embrace the sweat dripping into your eyes and off the tip of your nose. Be one with your body odor and that of other thru-hikers who come anywhere near. Just don’t short yourself on water. Take a siesta during the hottest part of the day, and hike early and hike late. Take a bandanna bath or use a refreshing wet wipe when you get to where you’ll camp. Just think about how cold you’ve sometimes been and enjoy the heat!
Plan to be wet and dirty: There’s nothing like hiking in a downpour or sloshing through the mud for miles, and you’ll certainly do both on an A.T. thru-hike. So, keep a spare set of clothing deep in your pack in a big Zip-Loc baggie and/or a garbage bag or Sil-nylon stuff sack, so you know you’ll have something dry to put on when you’re finished hiking for the day. It’s comforting to know the dry and at least somewhat cleaner clothes are in there, not to mention a physical relief when it’s time to put them on.
Plan to have new aches and pains: It’s not just the feet. Maybe you’ll get some cool chafing from your backpack or clothing or even skin rubbing against skin for hours on end. Your back and your neck might ache, especially if you’re not used to carrying a full pack for eight or twelve hours a day and sleeping on hard, uneven ground or the planks of a shelter floor. And the knees–even with trekking poles, your knees will be put to the test. You’ll perfect the art of the “hiker hobble.”
Plan to be at least a little scared: Lightning, bears, boogie monsters, oh my! Rattlesnakes and copperheads that don’t let you know they’re there until you almost step on them. The occasional bit of terrain that gives you the willies. Or maybe that was just me?
Plan to be really tired: But it’s a good kind of tired. It’s an “I really lived today” tired. It’s a twenty-miles-on-my-feet-up-and-down-five-mountains-today kind of tired. But I loved it! And if you enjoy physically putting yourself to the test like I do, you’ll love it, too.
Plan to laugh: Even things that aren’t normally funny will probably be funny, like being filthy and soaked and smelling like a very rotten peach. There are lots of things to laugh at about life on the trail. So laugh and laugh often.
Plan to live for the moment: Be here, now, on the Appalachian Trail. Hiking a long-distance trail is a chance to slow down and suck the juice out of life.
Plan to be part of a great community: If you want to be alone, you can find the solitude. But the friendships are out there if you want them. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, whether you’re shy or outgoing or what your background is. The common experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail creates a bond that surpasses most differences that otherwise might make a difference off the trail.
And plan to be fulfilled: It just gets under your skin–the fresh air, the sheer physical exertion, the camaraderie with others who walk with packs on their backs. That 2,174-mile footpath, marked with 165,000 painted white blazes as it winds and climbs and descends its way from Georgia to Maine, has this way of grabbing hold of your psyche and your heart and not letting go.