How To

Experts Explain How to Prepare to Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail

Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail | ActionHub

The Great Smoky Mountains, which are a sub-range of the Appalachian Mountains.

There are varying reasons for spending six months on the Appalachian Trail (AT) covered in dirt, sharing backcountry shelters with stinky brethren and pesky mice.

Sure, it seems like borderline insanity would be the main culprit, to forgo modern conveniences as simple as running water for such a spell. But one would be hard-pressed to convince any past or aspiring thru-hiker that’s the case.

It’s the promise of adventure in a mundane, modern world and the yearning to connect with nature by simply waking among it. Ask any AT hiker, though, and they’ll round off a dozen more rationales.

“There was a dissatisfaction with where my life was at that point,” said Zach Davis, 2011 thru-hiker and author of Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail. “My work required me to spend about 60 hours per week, give or take, behind the screen of my laptop. I was craving adventure and needed a change of pace in my life. I knew deep down [hiking the AT] was right for me.”

There were days when rationalizing being on the trail was tough for Davis, though, as it is for virtually every hiker at some point on the AT. After all, while hiking he endured West Nile virus and lost the opportunity at a dream job—all in the same week.

“There will come a day when you’re walking through freezing rain, you’ve fallen a few times, you’re cold and miserable and ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’” he said. “It’s guaranteed that you’re going to encounter trying times.”

Of the nearly 2,000 people who attempt a thru-hike each year, with most starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia in March or April and ending at Mount Katahdin in Maine, only one in four are successful, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).

While hiking the trail seems a long way off now, with statistics like that, it’s best to use the months between now and the start date in spring to institute proper preparation—every bit counts.

Davis didn’t succumb to his own set of trying times because of careful planning. He put most of his focus on readying his mind for the trek, which he attributed to giving him an edge on other hikers who had years of backpacking experience and were perhaps in better shape than he was.

Before starting the trail, the aspiring thru-hiker asked himself a simple question, “Why am I doing this?”

He wrote the answer on paper, then continued his self reflection by jotting a list of attributes and qualities he wanted to have after finishing, as well as what negative set of emotions he might feel if he didn’t finish.

“I really encourage hikers to get emotional about these reasons,” Davis said. “I strongly encourage hikers to tap into their current state of emotions to explain why they are hiking the trail.”

Zach Davis, after reaching Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Zach Davis, after reaching Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Davis kept that piece of paper with him throughout the entire journey, and when he felt down or discouraged, he simply needed to glance at it to remember his purpose for being there.

Laurie Potteiger, 1987 thru-hiker and ATC information services manager, also stressed the importance of preparing for the AT mentally.

“The psychology of it is more important than the physical. It’s really having that commitment [to] the goal,” she said. “The level of determination is more important than anything else.”

But Potteiger cautioned that ignoring physical preparedness isn’t something she would recommend.

“You don’t have to be an athlete to start,” she said. “But the more you can be in shape […] your chances of succeeding and wanting to stick with it can be greater.”

Physical preparation is an obvious precursor to undertaking the AT, though it may be one that’s often underestimated. Expecting to gain one’s “trail legs” on the first few weeks hiking the trail without any prior training can often not only end in failure, but injury, Potteiger said.

Filling the void during the winter leading up to a thru-hike by implementing an exercise routine is a proactive idea, one highly recommended by Potteiger. She suggested a physical routine while donning the exact backpack hikers will be wearing on the trail, first with no weight and gradually adding pounds.

“Start with a combination of aerobic conditioning and primarily [focus on] your leg muscles,” she said. “Get as close to backpacking on mountainous terrain as you can.”

With a proper amount of training, the first few weeks won’t be as hard and will make the transition from normal life to trail living much easier.

Sometimes making trail life easier means the months leading up to the hike while planning can be a bit hectic. It certainly was for Louisiana hikers Coltin and Lindsay Calloway.

Coltin hit the trail with his wife, then girlfriend, Lindsay and dog Chaser in 2012, while filming the experience for his documentary, The Climb to Katahdin. The duo spent the months leading up to their April 1 start date scurrying to cook and prep meals to feed them for six months.

“Seven months beforehand we had three dehydrators running all the time,” Coltin said. “It’s time consuming and takes a lot of effort, but it’s worth it in the end.”

The norm on the trail is resupplying by purchasing food at towns scattered near the AT, or sending store-bought meals ahead to a Post Office. The Calloways took a different approach by dehydrating every meal from scratch they would need along the trail, with a plan of having someone back home mail the packages.

In total, 325 packages full of home-cooked chicken and wild game, as well as an assortment of fruits, nuts, and vegetables kept the hikers satisfied throughout their entire journey—with a few boxes to spare.

“It enables variation and confidence knowing you are going to have [food] in the future,” Coltin said.

He said those wanting to prepare their own food should start now, as the clock is against them—they didn’t stop dehydrating food until a day or two before leaving for Georgia.

All in all, preparing meals themselves and from scratch made trail life less stressful—an advantage any thru-hiker can take comfort in after a long day.

Instead of worrying about what the next town had to offer for dinner, or if a store had vegetarian options for Lindsay, the duo focused energy on other factors, because good food was always a certainty.

In most cases, the only certainty on the AT is that the urge to quit will never be far away.

And while it’s likely impossible to eliminate that urge, prepping months before the trail can perhaps help to subdue those feelings long enough to see the positives while spending six months surrounded by trees.

Hiking the AT is the undertaking of a lifetime, so prepare as such.

Main image courtesy of putmanphoto/iStock, secondary image courtesy of Zach Davis

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