This is the final posting of a 5-part series on a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.
At many points during my 4-day section hike of the AT I asked myself, “Would I do this again?” and each time the answer came back YES! Even during the low spots I still loved the experience. It is intoxicating how beautiful and removed it is out there! Would I do it again? Hell yes. Would I do some things differently, most definitely. There are also a few things I feel I got right and would repeat.
Here is my “newbie’s guide” to 10 Lessons I learned on the trail.
1. Mileage. There are two types of Appalachian Trail hikers, those out to simply enjoy a portion of the trail and through-hikers. This is not to say the through-hikers are not enjoying themselves; but they are–above all else–on a mission. Section hikers can easily get caught up in the through-hikers’ mentality and feel they need to pile on the miles. People set out on an adventure like this for different reasons, but just checking off the “bucket list” is not a good one. The Appalachian Trail is far too grand to hike the whole thing simply to say you did it.
If your goal from the start is to enjoy your trip, do not make daily mileage your primary goal. You must decide up front whether your trip is about the destination, or about the journey. I did not realize going in how much focusing on the destination could rob one’s enjoyment of the journey. Next time I would set more modest daily goals and when I found a magical spot, not rush away.
I compare it to the beach. Most of us have a favorite beach or beach town and we go there and enjoy our time for a day or weekend, etc. Imagine if we got there and someone said, “We don’t have time to enjoy this spot in Myrtle Beach because we have to start walking to Maine!
2. Food. This is an area which I think I got right and would likely repeat. There is a trade-off of calories, weight, and fuel. I packed a combination of foods that gave me a strong balanced diet, while remaining relatively lightweight. Sure a pre-packaged container of Ramen Noodles would be lighter, but when you’re burning 4,000 calories a day, eating a container of Ramen is like tossing a piece of paper onto a forest fire. It just burns instantly. I brought foods like lentils, brown rice, oatmeal, and whole wheat pasta. These foods gave me more calories, protein, and staying power. It was more like putting a log in the fireplace. All of them were dry items and thus still pretty lightweight. Even though these items cook for 30 minutes, the tradeoff of more fuel was worth it. I did pack some small fresh items for flavor and that too made a huge difference. These were things like a few scallions, a chili pepper, and a couple of cloves of garlic. As the hike wore on late in the day, I found myself eagerly anticipating the one time all day when we would just sit and relax, the evening meal.
3. Clothes. This is just a matter of experience. The simple fact is that you could put on a fresh clean set of clothes every hour and you’re still going to sweat and get dirty and smell bad. I brought a change of clothes for each day and that was clearly unnecessary. Another time I will bring fewer clothes and add a lightweight fleece!
4. Duplicates & Non-Necessities. Preparation is important and anticipating challenges is a good idea but the weight of that pack is critical. I had a headlamp and two small flashlights, AND a set of backup batteries! That was crazy. The headlamp and batteries would have sufficed. I brought three canisters of fuel and never finished the first one! Next time I would consider the fact that my hiking partner has backups of everything.
I had two huge tubes, one bug spray and another sun-screen. I never used either! The breeze in the mountains kept the bugs away and the canopy protected us from the sun. At the very least I would bring significantly smaller containers. Another good example is the first aid kit. It’s important to be prepared but I could have treated an entire village.
5. Lightweight Gear. On my dry run camping trip I slept on a lightweight thin sleep pad and was very uncomfortable. I switched to a self-inflating pad that while quite comfortable, was also 5 pounds. What I did not realize at the beginning of my trip was that 5 pounds on the trail is like 100 pounds in normal life! Another time I would sacrifice money over comfort and weight. That is, I would go to the camping store and drop $120 and get a sleep pad that was both lightweight AND comfortable.
6. Free Time: This is apt to sound crazy but you get no free time on the trail! You get up in the morning, make breakfast strike camp and hit the road. Then you hike all day and stop only for short breaks and a lunch break. Each day we got into camp just in time to make dinner and collapse into our tents. This sort of goes along with setting modest mileage goals, but it would have been nice to pull into camp at 4:00 and have time to sit and relax a bit.
The one thing you seem to constantly do on the trail is completely empty and repack your pack. This is mostly because you use everything in it each time you camp. Having an extra chunk of time to get organized would have been welcome.
7. Shelters: We used tents and another time I would get used to the shelters and use those. Looking back, the argument was that the tents afforded a slice of privacy, and sealed you off from what was out there. Each night I would drag my pack into the tent and create what I now realize was my field version of the comfort zone. Thing is, setting up that tent after walking all day was a chore I could have lived without.
The argument against the shelters was that it was exposed, you would find yourself sleeping next to a stranger, and there were mice running around. In retrospect this was just one more expansion of the comfort zone. Sure it would have been uncomfortable the first night but clearly people get used to it and prefer it. The next time I will plan to use the shelters as much as possible.
8. My hiking Partner: This is definitely something I did right and would repeat. Lisa was the perfect hiking partner! Our fitness and experience was equally matched and more importantly our temperaments complimented each other. Whether we were getting up and ready in the morning (we were both quiet and not particularly talkative while packing up in the morning) or hiking for hours together during the day we got along incredibly well.
Lisa is hiking a full month and after the week with me she would go on for 3 more by herself. As I write this she is still out there! I have received a few messages from her and she is doing really well, having learned the lessons listed here and put them to immediate use. It was a bit sad when, after a night off, I returned her to the trail and said goodbye.
I mentioned in an earlier post that we had met two cousins, a man and a woman who had a mutual love of backpacking and had, over the years hiked the entire AT together. Each had their own family but each had recognized the value of a good hiking partner. I will definitely return with Lisa to do more sections of the trail.
9. Support: I am very fortunate to have the time and the means to do this sort of adventure. This is not critical but in my opinion makes all the difference. My son Andrew had accumulated most of the gear I used and he not only lent it to me but taught me how to use it. That alone, as I write on Father’s Day, was a great experience!
What Andrew did not have I borrowed from my friend and companion-to-my-mom, Joe McGonagle. A few years ago at the age of 68, with the trail name “J-Walker”, Joe hiked from Georgia to North Carolina before a knee injury forced him to end his through-hike. Joe shared his advice, guidebooks and maps, his water filtration system, and numerous little items I would not have thought to bring.
My neighbor Miriam found a recipe for homemade granola bars that used wheat germ, oatmeal, dried fruit, almonds, honey, and coconut. They were amazing and special and a great source of energy.
Many of my friends, co-workers, and family followed along with my practice hikes, preparations, and planning. They have been reading my blog postings and offered warm and loving support. None of them more than my wife Alice. She was initially just happy she didn’t have to do this with me; but, as it got closer to the trip she became my biggest cheerleader and has been marketing my blog to everyone she talks to. She really has made it possible for me to pursue activities like this and for that I am very grateful.
10. The Unknown is the Boundary of the Comfort Zone: Through many discussions with Lisa and many actual examples on the trail, I learned that often what puts something outside our comfort zone is the unknown. The difference between lying awake in the tent the first night hearing every leaf rustle and sleeping like a baby on the third night was really a reduction in “the unknown”. This is what defines our comfort zone.
I came to see the comfort zone as a balloon which we have to blow up to expand. When we return to normal life the air goes out and the balloon goes back down, but not quite to the size it was before. Each time you blow it up it stretches a little bigger than it was before. For this reason, a friend of mine pushes himself outside his comfort zone at least once a year. I think this sort of personal challenge can only make us better.
I came to see the concept of “the bucket list” as a list of things that have been far enough outside one’s comfort zone that they have not gotten to them. I have been thrilled to hear a few friends inspired by my doing this trip to go off and pursue their own bucket list items. You have to pursue those challenges, the bucket list does not come to you.
This summer I will return to passionate blogging about food; and since my return I have already purchased a new bicycle–a road bike which goes faster than any man-powered vehicle I’ve ever seen– from which I will see many “bloggable” sights.
But I will also continue hiking for I have come to love what I see and learn on the trail.