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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Putting it all together

After months of collecting gear, I’m finally putting it all together for the first time. I’ve tested each item out individually, but now it’s time for the final organization and weigh-in before hitting the trail.

My ULA Equipment Circuit pack has a recommended maximum weight of 35 pounds, so I’m doing my best to stay under that. After a few days on the trail, my dwindling food stores should definitely have me below 30 pounds.

The base weight comes out to about 20 pounds. To start, I’m carrying about 11 pounds of food. Two liters of water adds another four pounds, bringing my total to almost exactly 35 pounds.

My LighterPack breakdown shows the names and weights of just about everything in my pack. There might be a few small things missing, but they don’t add up to much. The pack weight does not include food and water weight. As I hike, those will drop and be replenished and I wanted this list to show my constant base weight.

I would consider my set-up “semi-ultralight.” I did my best to find the lightest equipment in each category, like the SixMoon Designs tent and Thermarest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad. However, I wasn’t about to sacrifice comfort or utility for the sake of a few extra ounces or additional hundreds of dollars in expense. I’ve also allowed for a few extra ounces for what die-hard ultralight hikers might consider luxuries. There’s a Leatherman Skeletool in my pack instead of a more simple blade and a plastic cup to make collecting water easier. There’s also a few extra shirts, socks and underwear in there, because as grungy as I’m going to be, it’s nice to have something semi-clean to change into for the next day.

My Circuit pack is totally stuffed, reaching its 35 pound recommended max weight, when fully loaded with food and water.

With only a few days before I hit the trail, everything is starting to come together nicely. At this point, I feel like I’m about as prepared as the gear can make me. No more last minute trips to REI for me.

I leave for Georgia on Tuesday, so all that’s left to do is throw the bag in the truck and go.

Score big at the REI Garage Sale

Not only am I an avid backpacker, I am also a notorious cheapskate. Seriously, Uncle Scrooge has nothing on me. Unfortunately, backpacking is a pretty expensive discipline, with much of the equipment costing more than a hundred dollars. That’s why I’m always looking out for a way to spend the least amount of money for the highest quality gear.

This makes REI Garage Sale season one of my favorite times of the year.

REI is a great store for many reasons. The selection, prices and free classes are all good, but one thing that really sets it apart is it apart is the return policy. If an item was purchased within a year, it can almost always be returned.

But wait, what is done with all the returned goods that can’t go back on the shelves? They all get put into the REI Garage Sale and are sold at huge discounts.

My local store in Milford, CT had its first sale on New Year’s Eve. I scored pretty well, so I’m going to show you the new additions to my kit as well as share some tips for finding the mother-lode at your own local Garage Sale.

How to Shop

While the Garage Sale has no set catalog, its all the stuff that was returned in the last year, there are a few simple strategies that allow you to make the most of the event.

First, get there early. It’s no Black Friday, but if you dangle cheap gear in front of an outdoor junkie, they’re gonna line up for it. My dad and I showed up about a half hour before opening and we were still around the corner of the building from the entrance. Make sure you arrive with plenty of time to spare, or all the best stuff will be picked over.

Know what you are looking for. Even though there won’t be a list of what’s on sale, it is still broken up into departments and supply is limited. If a sleeping bag is the highest priority item on the gear list, go there first to have the best chance of getting a good one.

Next, grab a bag. I made the mistake of going straight over to the sleeping pads and not grabbing a shopping bag on my way. It may seem simple, but wandering around the store carrying a sleeping pad, rain pants, thermal underwear and a pair of gloves makes it hard to pick up more stuff.

Once you find something you like, read the tag. REI marks all of the products sold in the sale with a tag that says when it was returned and why. Sometimes, this can stop you from wasting your time on things that just aren’t worth getting. I almost grabbed a GoPro that I thought was on sale for the incredible price of $70, when I saw the tag that said it froze up during use.

Try out everything before you buy it. The Garage Sale has a “no returns” policy, so you’re stuck with whatever is bought. Trying everything on is the only way to ensure the fit and use of everything. I thought I found an awesome deal on a pair of SmartWool thermals, but when I went to try them on, they were stretched out and had a few threadbare spots and patches. I guess someone really took advantage of the return policy.

Lastly, and this is the most important, don’t be a dick. Everyone is there for the same reason. Yeah, there may only be one super-cheap pair of ski goggles on that table, but that’s no reason to shove that nice little old lady out of the way for them. I already said this isn’t Black Friday. Even if you don’t find exactly what you need, the odds are the savings made up for it.

What I Found

My trip to the Garage Sale on New Year’s Eve was very successful. I came out with about $150 worth of stuff worth about twice that. I went in hoping and praying for one thing that would make the whole exercise worth it, a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad, which normally retails for around $160.

And, guess what? I found one.

xlite

It was definitely used, the curry yellow pad had a few dark stains on it, but testing it out showed that it inflated fine and held the air. I wasn’t planning on getting this thing through 2,200 miles without a bit of dirt anyway. No issues were listed on the card and it was available for a staggering $80.83! Mine!

stain
You can see the slight discoloration on the pad, but otherwise it is in perfect shape.

I plan on doing a full write up about this pad at a later time. Stay tuned, if you’re interested!

etip

I also found a pair of gloves I was looking for, the North Face eTip gloves. They were returned because they weren’t warm enough, but as an active hiking glove or something to wear around camp, I think they’ll be ok for a month or two. And for $23.83, I couldn’t pass them up.

pants

Lastly, I picked up a pair of REI Talusphere rain pants. I wasn’t sure about these when I first picked them up. They seemed more like rain-resistant soft shells and I had to check with a staff member to verify they were waterproof. But, I liked that they were nice and light and I think I’ll be ok with a $33.83 expenditure if they don’t turn out exactly right. During the next good rainstorm, I’ll take them for a spin.

Overall, the REI Garage Sale was a huge success for me. I picked up a lot of the supplies I needed at a great price.

What awesome gear deals have you found? What are your tips for scoring cheap equipment?