A year after the Appalachian Trail: Advice for new hikers

It’s hard to believe it has been almost a year since I began my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. This time last year, I was making final preparations to head down to Georgia. My gear was laid out an organized, I was obsessively reading weather reports and saying goodbye to friends and family for the five-month journey.

Now that it’s officially spring (though we just got six inches of snow here in Connecticut) hiking season is about to get truly under-way at Springer Mountain. Many have probably already left on the AT, but the third and fourth weekends in March tend to be the biggest crowds at Amicalola Falls, especially that April first start date.

I thought I would use this momentous occasion to crawl out from under the rock I’ve apparently been living under, if my blog activity is any indication, and share some of my thoughts about to take their first steps on the Appalachian Trail.

As my March 31 departure date grew closer, I read and reread blogs and articles about the clothes, gear and equipment I should bring, to see if there were any last minute substitutions or additions I needed to make.

This is not one of those articles. For one, I don’t believe in recommending specific pieces of gear, except in rare cases.  I’ll suggest what kinds of gear to look into and maybe how many of each, but the specific brands and models are totally up to personal preference. Also, if you’ve planned to leave by the end of the month, or are even checking this from the trail, your decisions have already been made, hopefully with a lot more research and testing than this post can provide.

This is mostly going to be a set of advice for mindset and best practices while on the trail. The best way to get through the entire 2,200 miles is to prepare for it, and I don’t just mean having rain gear or a broken in set of shoes, but to be mentally ready for everything the trail is going to throw at you.

And, without further ado, here’s my advice for hiker getting ready to start the Appalachian Trail.

Hike your own hike

Lots of people hike the Appalachian Trail. There were over 3,000 people who attempted a thru-hike in 2017, and every one of them has their own ideas on what makes the best thru-hike. Listen to them, hear their suggestions, then either ignore them or carefully work their ideas into your own hiking strategy. Your thru-hike is your thru-hike. Don’t let the guy who survives off cold ramen and mashed potatoes tell you to stop cooking the delicious backcountry meals you prepare and don’t let the hiker with the sixty pound pack tell you you didn’t pack enough. If you’re comfortable and happy with the way you’re hiking, you’re doing it right. The only wrong way to hike the AT is to do it in a way that bothers the other hikers around you. So long as they’re not rude, take up a ton of room in shelters or leave trash everywhere, most hikers are pretty easy to get along with. Listen to other hiking philosophies and learn from them, but ultimately make your trail decisions for yourself.

Pace yourself

This is especially important at the start of the trail. The AT is a marathon, not a sprint, and unless you’re Joe McConaughy or Karl Metzer, it’s certainly not a race. Setting a pretty mellow pace at the start and building that up once you get your “trail legs” is a good way to prevent burnout and unnecessary pain.
I thought of myself as a reasonably fit and experienced hiker, and started the trail with a 14 mile day. I felt fine that first day, but paid for it the next when my legs burned, shoulders ached. I ended up with a strained muscle that prevented me from making any serious progress for almost a week.
You’ll find your pace eventually. Start small and enjoy the first few days on the trail. Don’t wreck your experience because you were racing the trail.

Plan, but don’t schedule

I tried to plan out my first month or so of the trial. When I left, my guidebook was marked up with dates for zero days and mail drops weeks out.
That plan fell apart within a week.
Some days, you just want to take it slow and others can take a few extra miles. Trying to plan out the whole trail to the day doesn’t allow for the things that will inevitably slow down or speed up hiking. Having too rigid of a schedule also has the added side effect of the feeling of constantly playing catch up. When I couldn’t meet my first goal by the day I planned to, I felt awful. Not meeting what I felt was an easy goal was hard. It was the only time along the trail when I seriously considered that the trail wasn’t for me and wanted to stop.
Planning is not the same as scheduling. Looking a few days or a week out to plan where the next shower or real meal will come from is fine and necessary, but trying to set hard goals for the whole trail right at the outset is a good way to feel stressed out.

Expect to hate parts of it

Based purely on anecdotal evidence, one of the biggest reasons people leave the Appalachian Trail is because it wasn’t what they were expecting. They were probably expecting a beautiful hike through the woods, probably with some call to adventure or great personal revelation every other day. Unicorns may be involved. I don’t know.
The reality is, a lot of the trail is just kind of boring. As much as a person likes hiking, there’s only so long hiking for eight hours a day can be. Eventually, the novelty wears off and the monotony sets in.
Of course, the whole trail isn’t like this. There are definitely beautiful vistas, interesting sections of hiking and fun areas to get off trail. I went whole weeks just happy to be out there (looking at you, Shenandoah National Park). But between these places are long days slogging through rocks and rain.
These hard and boring days do not in any way take away from the trail. If the entire thing was nothing but easy jaunts to beautiful vistas, there wouldn’t be any challenge to the trail, nothing to make those mountaintops worth it. Embrace the difficult days, laugh at the rain, find a good podcast to get you through those long, boring sections (looking at you Pennsylvania).
Starting the trail with the mindset that it’s going to be one big fun vacation all the time is only going to make it harder.

Don’t be afraid to change

I know how it is. Months spent planning out every pound of gear. Meticulously weighing out meals by  ounce and calorie. Reading pages and pages of online reviews to find the perfect kit.
And 100 miles into the trail, I’ve ditched the expensive hiking pants for a pair of running shorts. 300 miles in, I’ve traded in the boots for a pair of trail runners. 100 miles later, those shoes are gone for a new pair. By the end of the trail, my shirts, shoes, pants, sleeping bag and even my backpack were changed (the backpack twice).
Most people test their gear in walks around town, a few trips to nearby parks, maybe an overnight or two. Despite all this testing, nothing compares to hiking 20 miles a day, day in and day out, for months. No one can know when their gear will fail or how their shoes will feel after mile 10 on rocky terrain. Don’t get too attached to your gear at the start and make preparations to change if a piece doesn’t live up to expectations.

Don’t be stupid

This is probably the most important advice I can give. The Appalachian Trail is incredibly safe. You probably won’t have to deal with hermit psychopaths, rattlesnake bites or rampaging black bears. All the things people ask about before your start are mostly made up dangers.
The real dangers come when you aren’t paying attention. Injuries, dehydration, malnutrition and illness are really the most dangerous things out there. The good news is, all of them are easily avoided by not being stupid.
Don’t take too many unnecessary risks, obey posted signs and for God’s sake stay on the trail. Eat high-protein, calorie dense foods regularly, purify and drink water throughout the day and take a multivitamin. Keep your eyes and ears open. Listen to your body, it knows what it needs.

 

There are only a few written rules for hiking the Appalachian Trail, and a million unwritten ones. Most need to be figured out along the way. Honestly, that’s part of the fun and community of thru-hikers. Hopefully, this gives a few hikers some idea of what’s to come from someone who’s made all these mistakes before.

Have fun out there. Let me know how it is.

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270 miles on the Appalachian Trail: Far over misty mountains cold

After two zero days at Karen’s I was ready to get back on the trail. I stayed the night of April 19 at the Fontana Dam shelter, called the Fontana Hilton, then headed off the next day into the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Smokies can be seen across the reservoir from the shelter. They’re some of the most difficult terrain on the Appalachian Trail and are home to its highest peak, Clingman’s Dome, at 6,667 feet. For almost 70 miles, hikers trek through the temperate rain forest from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap, starting the section of trail that bounces back and forth across the North Carolina and Tennessee border.

For most of the time I spent at Fontana, it wasn’t even possible to see the tops of the first few peaks. They were constantly wreathed in fog and mist.

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Right from the trailhead into the national park, the trail took a steep 2,000 foot climb. It set2the pace for the park. While there wasn’t as much elevation change at once again, the whole length of the park is like a sawblade in profile, constantly rising to peaks and dropping into gaps.

The first day was hot and muggy, but clear. That did not last for the remainder of my time in the park. Every other day had at least some rain at some point during the day, and some days were just a constant downpour.

The park also requires that hikers stay in shelters along the trail instead of making campsites. The shelters are much larger than most on the AT, and better maintained, but when everyone needs to stay in them, overcrowding is still an issue. Tenting is allowed if the shelters are full, but in the constant rain, I tried my best to be at the shelters early for a spot. My first night at Mollies Ridge shelter, I did have to pitch my tent, and found out the gussets holding the tie-down lines to my tent leak at the seams. I had nice little puddles at my head and feet the next morning.

Shelters themselves are not perfect, even when there is a spot available. There is no privacy, just one open space shared by a dozen people. If someone snores, everyone knows it. There tend to be mice.

The shelters in the Smokies are also unique in that they have two floors. Actually, more like two shelves just wide enough to roll out a sleeping bag on and with low enough ceilings that sitting up quickly is a hazard.

Getting out in the middle of the night can also be a hassle. I experienced this one night when nature called and I had to work my way out of the bottom shelf head first without waking my sleeping partner. I’m just happy it wasn’t raining. For once the sky was clear and the stars were incredible.

Despite the weather, hiking the Smokies was an incredible experience. It was like walking through something out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The forest seemed old, and not exactly happy for the intrusion.

The thin brown ribbon of trail ran through the trees, as if they were politely but begrudgingly stepping aside to let it pass, and waiting go take their place again. It was impossible to see more than a few yards in any direction. Trees stood so close together on the sides of the trail, their boughs laced together above it and trail twisted and turned so much it cuts off each hiker entirely.

The only sounds were the creak of branches in the wind, the constant drumbeat of raindrops and a hiker’s own wet footsteps. Leaving the trail was almost impossible, from the crowding of standing trees to the mass of fallen timber crowding the underbrush. Even then, getting lost is almost a certainty in the maze of branches.

Everything was covered in green moss and lichen. The rain saturated the colors, bringing out the vibrant greens and deepening the blacks and browns of the trunks and dirt.

Even the smell was different. The sharp odor of pine resin mixed with fresh rain and clean, wet earth was pulled in with each breath.

At times, the forest broke. The peaks of the mountains were often covered with grassy balds. Scraggly trees and bushes stood in fields of tufts of grass, browned and flattened by wind. In the few periods of clear weather, the view from these was spectacular.

On Trac and I stopped for lunch at a place called Rocky Bald, just before the rain rolled in.

The only time this sense of seclusion was broken was at the top of Clingman’s Dome. A paved path lead down to a parking lot, and the brief pleasant weather on April 22 brought hundreds of tourists to the viewing tower at the peak. I remember hearing the noise of a crowd just before getting clear of the trees and feeling kind of confused. It was the most people I’d seen in one place since starting the trail, and they were all CLEAN.

The view tower at the top of Clingman’s Dome offered 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains.

I wonder if these people really experienced the park on their day trip. Did they smell the trees and feel the isolation of hiking through the forest? Did they have to fight to get over that last peak and feel the elation of one more small victory over the trail? Or, were they ticking off a box on their list, just taking a picture to prove they’ve been somewhere?

A few sodden days of hiking later brought me to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a place I’d been told I had to see since starting my preparations. A trail angel known as Tippy-Toes picked up me, Q2, Gumby and the newly named Daze Inn just before Newfound Gap, rescuing us from the pouring rain.

Gatlinburg is a strange town. It’s almost like the area of Orlando just outside Disney World. Gift shops, restaurants, little tourist traps, but no Disney World. Ripley’s Believe It or Not has a strong presence in the town, with a museum, mini golf course and an aquarium of all things.

Our group, plus about ten others, crammed into a rented vacation cabin which promptly turned into our best impression of Animal House. Clothes and gear were hung everywhere to dry and people walked around in towels and rain gear waiting for laundry or a spot in the hot tub. My main priority, after a hot shower, was re-downloading my Spotify library, which had disappeared after updating my phone software at Karen’s.

This is what it looks like when 15 hikers invade a cabin.

As fun as it was, and it was, I wanted to get back on the trail ASAP. Most of the others spent another night in the house, but I hiked on that afternoon.

I have a confession, though. I skipped the 1.6 miles from Tippy’s pickup spot to where he dropped us off at Newfound Gap. Oh, well. I’ll make it up somewhere along the line.
By this point, I think I finally started to get my trail legs. On April 25, I managed to push for almost 20 miles, which helped get me to Hot Springs, North Carolina two days faster than planned.

It seemed like everything changed when I left the Smokies. The weather turned from cold and rainy to hot, humid and sunny. The forest was once again wide open deciduous forest, not closed in conifers. People too, not just hikers, were more common. Road crossings and people just walking the trail were a sight for sore eyes.

April 27 took me over a peak called Max Patch, a bald that was cleared for cattle grazing. It threatened to rain all morning and the stormclouds over the mountains made for a dramatic picture.

I also had my first trail magic since the start of the Smokies at a forest service roads crossing. A couple was picking up their so from a 200 mile trek and decided to help out some other hikers as well. They provided us with some snacks and Cherry Coke from the back of their mini-van. I don’t usually drink soda, and really don’t like cherry flavor, but that Cherry Coke was one of the most refreshing things I’ve ever had.

The next day, I hiked from the small and mouse-infested shelter at Walnut Mountain into Hot Springs.

A one-horse trail town, Hot Springs made a name for itself as a resort town sprung up around the water feature for which it was named.

A true trail town, Hot Springs has these AT markers all down it’s main street to guide hikers.

I’m staying at the Sunnybank Inn. The building was built in the 1840’s and has been an hotel since the 1890’s. I showered in a clawfoot tub that was a hundred years old. Elmer, the proprietor, makes an amazing vegetarian breakfast for guests.

I would have taken a photo of the outside too, but the building is surrounded by huge hedges that are probably as old as it is.

Hot Springs is such a trail town. There’s several hostels and hotels and a great place called the Hiker Ridge Ministry. The good folks there treated the hikers to a “feed” of pulled pork. The name of the event made me feel a bit like a zoo animal, but it was strangely appropriate.

Freddy and the rest of the volunteers provide hikers with food and a place to rest and recharge, all for free. Seriously great folks.

I only stayed Friday night and into the afternoon on Saturday, but my cousin Karen provided another awesome peice of trail magic by reserving me a spot at the hot springs themselves. So, Karen, thanks for the hour soak in the hot tub, I really enjoyed it.

The water for the tubs is pulled straight from a natural hot spring.

I’m heading out soon, for my next big push forward on the trail. The Virginia border is only about 200 miles away, so hopefully soon I’ll be able to check off two, yes two, more states off my list.

166 miles on the Appalachian Trail: It’s about “dam” time

We interrupt your irregularly scheduled program to bring you an important announcement:
This week’s posts are brought to you by the incredible hospitality of my cousin, Karen, and her fiance, Wayne, who drove all day to West Nowhere, North Carolina to pick up my dirty, smelly, hiker ass and bring me to their wonderful home for a shower, laundry and delicious food. I am writing this better rested, better fed and cleaner than I’ve been in almost three weeks.
Thank you both so much.
Now, back to the show.

April 18

We last left our hapless hiker hero (me) in Franklin, North Carolina. Since then, I’ve hiked a little less than 60 miles to Fontana Dam over a bunch of pointless ups and downs, been to a few neat places and met some interesting people along the way.

The miles after Winding Stair Gap, the exit from Franklin, had some of the best views of the Appalachian Trail so far. Siler Bald, Wayah Bald and Rocky Bald were all very impressive. Siler and Rocky were both on short side trails away from the AT, but they were well worth the extra .4 miles each. I would suggest dropping packs at the trailhead, though. Just grab a water bottle and stick a snack and camera in your pocket to make life easier.

siler bald
Siler Bald is considered by many to be one of the best views on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina.

It’s unfortunate that a lot of hikers probably don’t take the time to seek out these views. I almost skipped Siler Bald because of the daunting approach trail. Almost a quarter mile straight up a hillside did not seem like my idea of fun, especially with a full pack. It was worth it though. That’s why we’re on the trail, after all; to see things off the beaten track.

wayahbald
The entire trail leading up to Wayah Bald was burned by forest fires, but the view over the charred branches is still spectacular.

This section of North Carolina was also beset by wildfires in the last year. A volunteer ridge-runner from the Nantahala Hiking Club who went by “Selu,” said there were more than 20 forest fires in the area. The fire tower that once stood at the top of Wayah Bald had burned down, leaving only the stone foundation. I thought it was ironic a fire tower, especially one commemorating a guy named “Byrne,” caught fire. The devastation made for somber hiking. There wasn’t anything green, just the charred trunks of trees and mountain laurel. I will say, though, it made the views from the top of Wayah spectacular, as there wasn’t any vegetation to obscure the panorama.

wayahtower
Seriously? “Byrne” fire tower burned down? You can’t make this stuff up.

After a certain, point, though, all fire damage stopped. It was like a line was drawn separating late winter from spring, and I hiked across it. One ridge was brown and dead and the next was covered in green buds, wildflowers and vegetation. It was nice to look at, but my allergies didn’t really appreciate the view. Bugs, too, started to become a nuisance. I had to break out my bug spray for the first time since starting the trip.

On April 15, I got a brief rest in civilization at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The NOC is the jumping-off point for many hiking and river trips through the Nantahala National Forest. Myself and a few other hikers I’ve fallen in step with stopped here for a long lunch. I don’t think anything tastes better than a bacon cheeseburger and a beer after a week of Clif bars and Knorr Pasta Sides. Some of my group, “On-Trac,” “Q2,” “Gumby,” and “Neckers” decided to stay the night at the NOC, while a hiker named Ty (no trail name yet) and I hiked on to Sassafrass Gap shelter. I think that was the fourth or fifth “sassafrass” shelter I passed…

noc
The NOC seems like a great place to start a weekend on the river.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that shelter was straight uphill another seven miles. After hiking five miles that morning and not leaving the NOC until about 3 pm, it was a bit of a trudge. Thankfully, the shelter was one of the nicer ones I’ve seen and Ty trucked a six pack of IPA up from the NOC, so it was a good night.

It was at Sassafrass that I met one of the more colorful personalities I’d seen yet on the trail, a lawyer from rural Tennessee out for the weekend. He had some “controversial” opinions about the state of the nation and another hiker’s home country of South Africa. While he was entertaining to listen to and very polite, I couldn’t help but cringe at some of his views. It takes all kinds to hike the AT, I guess.

A fifteen mile day of hiking later brought me to Cable Gap shelter, just a short seven miles from Fontana Dam, where I planned to meet Karen. It was my longest day yet, but I felt surprisingly good about it. I purchased a new knee brace at the NOC which was helping the IT band pain I’d had and my multitude of blisters seemed to be healing.

The campsite was crowded with people planning on staying and resupplying at the dam, the last spot to do so before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From there it was another three to five days to Gatlinburg, TN.

Fontana itself is a pretty incredible place. It’s the largest concrete dam east of the Mississippi and is truly a marvel of engineering. It was built in only three years in the 40’s and supplied the energy needed to power fighter plane factories in WWII. It had a great little visitor center that I wandered around in while waiting for Karen and Wayne.

fontana dam
Built to power a fighter plane factory in WWII, Fontana Dam is the largest concrete dam east of the Mississippi River.

It had that great art-deco retro-futuristic look that a lot of national parks and monuments have that seems both nostalgic and hopeful for the future at the same time. They need to update their information plaques on the AT, though. It looks like the data is from about ten or fifteen years ago.

fontana at
For those wondering, the Appalachian Trail is now measured at about 2,200 miles (like the name of this blog!) and almost 300 people hike the whole trail each year, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

The hiker accommodations themselves are luxurious. The “Fontana Hilton” shelter has two floors, a solar powered charging station, fire pit and a showerhouse just up the trail. I passed those by to shower at the dam, but they were out of order. Sorry for stinking up your car, Karen and Wayne, I really tried.

My next day on the trail takes me into the Smokies, almost straight up to about 5,000 feet of elevation and zig-zagging across the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee. Even though I’m enjoying my “vacation” from the trail, I can’t wait to start the next length of the 2,200!

Sunrise over Bear Mountain

I couldn’t think of a better way to end my senior year at University of Connecticut than a backpacking trip.

Almost immediately after graduation, my friend Kyle and I drove up to the northwest corner of the state and set out on a three-day backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail from the Route 7 parking lot, up Bear Mountain and finishing at the Undermountain Trail parking lot. It’s not the most strenuous hike in the state, and at about 26 miles, not the longest we could have done in the time, but we weren’t looking for too much of a challenge, just a good hike to shake off the school year.

The trip got off to a slow start, but despite leaving almost an hour and a half later than anticipated, we still finished the first seven-mile day in three hours. There was still plenty of time to set up camp, relax and eat dinner at the Limestone Spring campsite. A few good draughts from the entirely essential flask of Knob Creek bourbon later, and we were both asleep in the shelter for the night.

The next day’s hike took us over Lion’s Head and to the base of Bear Mountain at the Brassie Brook campsite. Along the way we met an older thru-hiker named Flip and his dog. Flip had been on the trail since March, but was considering packing it in in Salisbury. He said the cost of staying in places that offered a hot shower and a place to charge electronics was just too much and the trail was only getting more difficult. We found out later from a mother and son pair who shared the shelter with us that night, Holly and Ben, that Flip had decided to continue his journey, but was convinced the trail he was following led North, not back towards Springer Mountain, which he left two months ago. I suppose his trail name was well-earned.

katahdin sign
Flip still has a ways to go, even if he’s heading in the right direction.

We arrived at Brassie Brook at the early hour of 1:30 p.m. I’m known to be a pretty fast hiker, and though Kyle said he was thankful for the brisk pace, he still took a solid four hour nap after the nine hours we hiked since 9 a.m. that morning. We shared a nice dinner with Holly and Ben and had a close run-in with one of the namesakes of Bear Mountain before bed.

Kyle and I decided that day that, since we finished our previous days so early, we would try something a bit more adventurous for the next day. Rising quietly at 3 a.m., so as not to wake Holly and Ben, we stowed our gear and hit the trail in the pitch dark.

We had a mile and a half ahead of us to the peak of Bear Mountain, and we were raising the sunrise.

The trail up Bear is fairly steep, and mostly made of rock, so the scramble was a bit daunting in the light of our headlamps, but, like the rest of the trip, we made good time and were at the top by 4 a.m., with plenty of time to cook a quick breakfast and settle in for the show.

sunrise
Just about 4 a.m. It was just light enough to climb up the stone tower at the peak of Bear Mountain without a flashlight.

It was silent on the peak in the gray pre-dawn, except for the whistling of the wind over the ridges. Countless stars gradually faded as the first tinges of red and blue shown over the horizon. We were awake before the birds, whose morning chorus began at about 4:30.  A blue mist hung over the river valley and clung to the sides of the peaks in the distance.

When the sun finally broke the horizon, a great red fireball in the sky, the entire world lit up below it. The mute colors of the trees brightened to their early spring hues. We sat and watched it crawl up, awed and proud to have made it here and been the first in the state to see this new day.

lookout
Thanks, Kyle, for the suitably epic picture.

There are precious few places in this small state of Connecticut that can honestly be called anything resembling wilderness, but sitting atop Bear Mountain, writing with the light of the sunrise, it truly felt like I was alone in the world.

If someone were to ask, “Was it worth it to wake up at 3 a.m. and hike up a mountain just to watch a sunrise?” I can say, without hesitation, that the answer is “yes.”