The more I hike, the more I realize I’m not an expert. I’m much more aware than I was 2000 miles ago just how much I have to learn. That said, time to give some unsolicited advice to aspiring thru-hikers. It's worth what you pay for it, I suppose, and above all, the HYOH principle applies - Hike your own hike!
1) Embrace reality. It sounds really awesome to be standing on top of Katahdin, a bottle of champagne in hand, celebrating the fact that you’ve walked there from Georgia. It’s significantly harder to actually walk there from Georgia. You will have mountaintop experiences. But the experience of the trail, like the trail itself, is basically a collection of PUDs. The trail is totally worth it. But it’s demanding. It’s never easy, despite the rumors you’ll hear about the mid-Atlantic. It’s awful at times. Do you really want to get out of your sleeping bag and walk through shin-high mud all day – for the fourth day in a row? Perhaps a better question is – are you prepared to do it if that’s what it takes to make it to Katahdin?
2) Avoid “I will” statements. I hate pre-trail posts. They always strike me as highly presumptuous. For example “On March second, I will start my AT Thru-hike. Over the course of four months, I will walk over 2000 miles through 14 states. I will blog every Tuesday evening. I will be receiving food drops in Hiawassee, the NOC, Hot Springs, Erwin, Hampton, [insert a whole bunch of monotonous towns in VA, at which point the audience starts tuning out]… and Monson. I will spend two weeks fighting the heinous rocks in PA, cruise through the Mid-atlantic, and end on Katadhin, in less than 5 months.” Listen, you can prepare all you want, but nothing prepares you for the trail like the trail does. These ambitious, presumptuous people? They probably quit around Franklin NC, when they discover that the best laid plans get derailed by an all day, cold rain. They also don’t know that they’ll hate the PA rocks. Some people don’t mind them at all. Let the trail be the trail.
3) Lighten your load. I don’t say this to be an ultralight gear weenie (I happen to find those people insufferable), but to keep yourself from injury. Hauling 40 pounds up a mountain is the quickest way to get blisters, joint problems, or back problems. Plus, you’re more likely to fall and break something. Not everybody should be carrying a 10-pound pack, but get rid of that stupid solar charger for your phone. Some people lighten up on the trail, but it’s really hard to switch out one of the “big heavies” (pack, bag, sleeping pad, shelter), since you get so dang attached to the thing after just a few weeks. Make smart choices before you hit the trail.
4) Pick your moments. The trail is too vast to do and see everything. You could spend 7 months on the trail and still not take all the blue-blazes or stay at all the “must-stay” hostels. Many hikers, however, have the opposite problem. They’re so focused on hiking and making miles that they walk past incredible things and experiences without so much as a second glance. To find a happy medium, it’s important to know what’s important to you. Don’t skip the Kincora hostel (yes, the other one is nicer, but it doesn’t have Bob Peoples), but you can probably skip that quarter-mile blue blaze to the top of Brushy Sassafras Low Gap Mountain. Like peeing off of fire towers? Then skip High Point State Park (you can’t climb the monument anyway), but don’t skip the Shuckstack. Don’t skip the things that sound cool, and don’t feel obligated to do everything. It’s your hike, after all.
5) Don’t live at home. I met entirely too many people on the trail who were more interested in blogging about their adventure than actually having their adventure. Similarly, there are some people who checked their phones daily (or more!) to make sure they weren’t missing any important text messages, emails, etc. Their bodies were hiking the trail, but they were allowing themselves to be consumed by their home lives. Keep in contact with the people who matter most to you. But at the same time, allow yourself to have a backwoods experience – and allow others the same.
6) Don’t feel entitled. I fell prey to this one all too often. Listen, we get it. You’re a thru-hiker, which means you intend to hike the whole trail. And after being told “you’re so amazing; I could never do that!” about a thousand times by non-hikers, you start to think that you are amazing. This kind of entitlement leads to hikers skipping out of hostels (both fee and donation-driven) without paying, or getting angry when a restaurant declines to allow dirty, smelly hikers into its dining area for fear of grossing out their regular customers. Just bathe in a stream first… or put on sunscreen! The overwhelming of services that hikers need are very hiker-friendly. Count your blessings and remember that many of the hiker services we depend on are a result of wonderful people’s generosity.
7) Know thyself. There are a lot of people who hike in groups, or hike with iPods, simply to keep their brains occupied. It’s almost like they’re afraid of being alone with themselves. How are we distracted or bored when enjoying a 2000-mile walk through God’s creation? Admittedly, there are certainly boring parts (although often in these circumstances, the beauty is just more subtle), But those boring parts gives us time to reflect. We reflect on what this hike means, how it’s changing us, who we really are, our dreams and goals, and God’s graciousness to us in all of this. Try doing that with an iPod, or while debating gear minutiae with Gandalf and Nomad.
8) Expect to open up. Share a shelter with some other dirty, smelly, bearded freak for a couple nights. Spend an hour rigging up a tarp to keep snow from blowing in the shelter, and sit in your sleeping bags eating Snickers and GORP. You get to talking, and an hour later you’re sharing how after raising three kids, you still had really never done anything for yourself, and hiking the AT was something that you want to do for your own personal development. Or how you fear that even though you’re headed to grad school after the trail, you really aren’t sure whether that’s the path you want to take. And on the flip side, the trail will teach you to listen, to genuinely try to understand the path that the other person is walking. You may disagree, but the first instinct is to understand before you criticize. Expect it. Embrace it.
9) Keep a journal. I didn’t keep one until Hot Springs (mile 273), and I wish I had started at the get-go. My journal discusses what I hiked that day, my thoughts/feelings, anything notable that happened, and people I met along the way. In theory, at least. One day’s entry, in its entirety, was “I HATE WINTER”. On a related note, don’t take so many mountaintop view pictures; Standing Indian Mountain looks exactly like Tray Mountain, which looks pretty similar to The Priest, foliage conditions notwithstanding. Instead, take pictures of those funny orange salamanders, those funny orange-clad hikers, and trail angels handing out oranges. You love looking back on those. And, unlike me, keep taking pictures after the first month.
10) Develop traditions. Traditions give us something to look forward to and ground us in our days. Every evening, upon settling into the shelter, I would announce that this was the best time of the day – dry sock time! I won’t tell you what I did at fire towers, just in case my mom reads this, but suffice it to say I was careful never to drop my pack downwind of the tower before I climbed it.