There is a surprising amount of planning involved when leaving everything behind and living in the woods for months on end. You’re shocked, I know. This could just be my personality and natural tendencies bursting through walls like the Kool-aid man, but believe me when I tell you ANYONE can thru-hike. There are three major areas to prep: gear, physical, mental. Think of them as the Holy Trinity or the Hylian triforce of thru-hiking.
Researching, acquiring, and testing gear for a thru-hike is probably the most difficult and time-consuming part of thru-hike preparation. There is a multitude of things to consider with each piece of equipment like price, weight, function, quality, and more. You can easily spend hundreds of dollars on a piece of equipment only to find a $10 option later on that works much better and vice versa.
I spent hours reading and researching prior to spending even more hours in REI talking with associates and trying out different pieces of gear in person. Gear is important because it’s all you have with you in the woods to keep you comfortable, warm, hydrated, fed, and ALIVE. A hiker must weigh their options literally to make sure they aren’t carrying too much weight. Nothing ends a hike faster than an overly heavy pack!
When I had everything purchased, my base weight (all gear with no food/water/fuel) was 27 pounds, which I decided was WAY too heavy. I began my whittling process to drop extra weight, which may seem obsessive to an observer. I’ve dropped things from my pack entirely, swapped some gear out to a lighter option, and then got a little creative/crazy.
I cut the handle off my toothbrush, pulled the tube out of toilet paper, removed wrappers and stuff sacks, cut straps down…I even used a seam ripper to pull every tag off my equipment which added up to a surprising half-pound! I’ve since dropped to just under 20.5 pounds and am much happier with that number. The weight will change again, for the better, when winter is over, and I can send some of my thermal gear home. You can see my final gear list in my What’s in My Pack post.
It’s not a secret that being physically fit will help when hiking. Don’t let poor fitness detour you from trying, though! The trail has been completed by old, young, skinny, obese, blind, and amputees of all kinds (not the head…that part is important)!
My personal physical prep includes treadmill walking multiple miles with a 15 percent incline (it doesn’t go any higher), lifting weights, and running. The sad reality is nothing I do will truly prepare me due to my geographical location. Hiking a piece of the trail or a similar trail is by far the best way to train. The Midwest is frustratingly flat and devoid of hiking trails, which inhibits my ability to do this. Pre-trained or not, everyone finds their trail legs while on the trail, but having access to the trail prior is a serious benefit.
I’ve also begun wearing my fully loaded pack at work. I walk the length of our building going up and down each staircase I come across. The building is actually pretty long, and it has five staircases in close proximity, so this isn’t the worst thing. I do this now to get used to the weight ahead of time, so it doesn’t demoralize me while hiking later. People are definitely curious about the weird IT guy walking around with a giant backpack.
Mental prep is often considered the most important. You can be a triathlete with the fanciest and most expensive gear around, but if you don’t have the mental grit and willpower to climb the next mountain you’re still done hiking. I think mental strain ends more thru-hikes than anything else. The mental anguish of chronic pain coupled with thoughts of warm food and a comfy bed at home gnawing at your brain while you hike for the fourth straight day in the rain will test even the strongest resolve.
The Appalachian Trail isn’t for everyone, and I’d go so far as to say it isn’t even for most people. Creature comforts of our modern day have disconnected people so far from nature that even a weekend of real camping (no RVs, cars, propane stoves, inflatable mattresses, cell phones, etc.) would cause most individuals to curl into the fetal position and rock slowly back and forth. To hike the Appalachian Trail, you actually have to want to do so.
Why? Probably the question most asked of any thru-hiker is “Why?” Why would you want to do this? You can reply with something stereotypical or cheesy, but the answer to your own “Why?” better be a damn good one! Your “Why” is what will carry you from Springer to Katahdin, and if it’s not a good answer, you probably won’t make it. Your why is your grit and your drive, and without it, your desire to keep hiking is nonexistent.
There are a lot of great answers and some common ones are:
- I want to challenge myself
- I want to disconnect and get back in nature
- I want to find myself
- I want alone time to think about life/future plans
- I want personal time with God
- I want to spend time with other like-minded individuals
- I want a great story to tell my grandkids
I’ve heard negative feedback about my trip asking how I could be so irresponsible to quit my job and hike for six months. How could I leave all my responsibilities behind and disappear? These types of people infuriate me for a lot of reasons.
First, there is no one singular way to live your life. Just because my path doesn’t line up with yours doesn’t mean either of us is wrong. The life sandwich between birth and death is open to interpretation. Second, my responsibilities are my own, and they are a reflection of what I bring into my life. I purposefully don’t buy things, so I don’t have to take care of them. My home and car are simple, so I don’t have to waste precious time and money taking care of them. Stuff ≠ happiness! Finally, there is my job. Like everyone else, I’ve spent my entire working life aiming at retirement. With tact, I hope to hit that goal around 40-45, and then I’m done. I won’t have to work again out of necessity. I can continue working because I WANT to. You have your whole life to work in a cubical farm, but I assure you there is so much more to it than that. Most importantly, naysayers don’t understand their own why. They maybe haven’t meditated themselves on the question or haven’t found an answer good enough to pull themselves out of the mud and change things.
I strongly urge everyone to take a chance once in awhile and live your life. If you quit your job today, your employer would replace you tomorrow or at the least within just a few short weeks! Let that notion sink in for a minute and let me ask you WHY do you devote so much of your life to a place that can toss you aside so easily?