Dream. Plan. Live.
By: Jim Rahtz
Despite the growing popularity of long distance backpacking, it is still a very select group that has completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail. The commitment required is immense. Not only does the hiker walk over 2,000 miles, they give up the comforts of home, family and friends for five months or more. They often also give up their jobs or even the potential of a job for that same period.
Those that have hiked all three of the trails are members of an even more exclusive club. The few that have completed this “Triple Crown” of hiking have covered nearly 7,000 miles and have a total hiking time of around a year and a half. This level of dedication to hiking is not possible for most. It is however, possible to experience the best of these trails and still have a life. That’s right, it is possible to be a thru-hiker without major disruption to your career or family. It’s even possible to hike the Triple Crown; just the Junior version.
The Junior version of hiking’s Triple Crown? You might be saying to yourself, “Where did he come up with that?”
I hadn’t been interested in taking a 2,000+ mile hike. Being in your late 50s with titanium in your foot can do that to you. However, I was still looking for adventure. Known as “the most beautiful long trail in the world,” the 486 mile Colorado Trail seemed to fill the bill. I had enjoyed shorter backpacking trips, loved the scenery of the Rockies and felt my life needed a new challenge. It was one of those “bucket list” kind of things. The hike itself turned into a great experience that I was glad to have undertaken. The trail was everything that I had hoped as I spent a month in an incredible mountain environment on a path often shared by both the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.
It was near the finish after a tough 22-mile day that I found myself sharing a campfire with several other thru-hikers. Gimpy, a guy in his 60s who had a long history of hiking, was talking about his other thru-hikes. At one point he asked me about hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). I replied that I didn’t have the time or a strong desire to hike the whole AT. I was however, thinking about hiking shorter “long trails” such as the John Muir Trail (JMT) through the Sierra Mountains of California. He suggested that after the JMT I should hike the Long Trail in Vermont. That way I would have hiked some of the best of the three foremost cross-country trails.
Not a bad thought. That’s when a plan was born for a new challenge. I could do the Triple Crown of Hiking, only the Junior Version! The Colorado Trail is considered by many to be the best part of the Continental Divide Trail. The John Muir Trail is an iconic hike that shares much of its length with the Pacific Crest Trail. And the Long Trail, which runs through Vermont and shares 100 miles with the AT, crosses the very spot that inspired the AT. Thru-hiking this Triple Crown would not only be epic, but achievable.
Over the next year I was fortunate enough to complete all three trails. For those with weeks, not months, available to hike; I recommend them highly. But which trail is the best? It all depends on what you are looking for.
Vermont’s “footpath in the wilderness” is the oldest long distance hiking trail in the country. The Long Trail was not only the inspiration for the AT, it shares 100 miles with its more famous cousin. If you are looking for an AT type experience, this southern portion is the trail for you. Expect plenty of shelters, convenient resupplies and lots of company. While parts of the trail fit the AT description of “walking through a green tunnel” there are also numerous big views. The trail runs the very spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains, crossing the bare peaks of Camels Hump and Mt Mansfield, along with several mountains with cleared ski slopes. One such spot is Stratton Mountain, where Benton McKaye conceived of the idea of the Appalachian Trail.
Once the AT and LT split though, the crowds are gone and hiking becomes significantly more challenging. There were many slopes where hiking involves climbing ladders or metal rungs drilled into rock walls. There were spots where I saw blazes and thought someone had to be kidding. It was on the LT that I realized that hiking could be an adrenaline sport. Oh, and the famous “Vermud” does exist. If just going backpacking is not enough of a challenge, the Long Trail is for you.
The newest and longest of the three trails, the Colorado Trail wanders through eight named mountain ranges, six wilderness areas and some of the most beautiful scenery in the Rocky Mountains. The CT shares approximately 235 Miles with the Continental Divide Trail and traverses open coniferous forests, aspen groves, high mesas and rugged alpine passes.
Designed to be accessible by horse (no ladders), the trail is well constructed and maintained. There are not shelters along the way so a tent is a necessity. With the average elevation over 10,000 feet, the trail spends extended stretches above tree line (with no spots to hang a hammock). Altitude is a significant consideration as snow can remain well into the summer months and afternoon thunderstorms are a real danger. Despite some rain and hail during my 29 days on the trail, the sun shined at least part of every day.
Don’t expect crowds on the CT. In the more remote sections I was more likely to see a marmot on the trail than another hiker. Convenient resupplies can be far apart. I typically hiked 70-100+ miles between town stops.
Beyond the aforementioned marmots, wildlife is prevalent on the trail. While hiking, smaller critters were abundant, plus the occasional deer, bighorn sheep and elk. Where else would you need to share the trail with two bull moose at 12,000 feet? There are also sightings of black bear near the trail.
The 210 mile John Muir Trail shares 170 miles with the Pacific Crest Trail and by most accounts is the most scenic section of the PCT. The path travels from Yosemite National Park to Kings Canyon National Park through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the top of Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. The scenery in the Sierras is just spectacular, earning the label of “The Range of Light” from John Muir.
The trail is full of iconic views such as Half Dome, Cathedral Peak, Evolution Valley and several high passes. Despite hiking during the 2015 drought, water was never an issue. Much of the trail appeared very dry, but enough melting snow was left to keep countless clear creeks flowing and abundant alpine lakes reasonably full. There is only one mountaintop view, but it’s outstanding. At 14,505 feet, the summit of Mt Whitney is the official endpoint of the JMT. On a clear day, the view goes on seemingly forever.
As the entire trail is within either National Parks or wilderness areas, the wildlife sightings were incredible. Deer were plentiful through the lower elevations and seemingly oblivious to hikers. Most impressive to me were the close encounters with predators. I stumbled within feet of coyote and even a bobcat there. Multiple encounters with bear left no doubt as to why bear-resistant canisters are required.
Like the CT, the JMT has high elevations and big climbs. The hike crosses 11 passes before the big climb up Mt Whitney. However, also like the CT the JMT is well constructed with switchbacks when prudent. It’s a good thing due to the need to carry a tent and the extra weight of the bear canister.
Beyond the topography, the JMT provides some additional challenges. Resupplies go from easy to non-existent as you travel from north to south. The last relatively convenient resupply option is at Muir Trail Ranch, halfway through the 220-mile hike. (Yes, I know the trail is 210 miles, but you still have to get off Mt Whitney.) Stuffing enough calories into my bear canister to supply 110 miles of hiking was interesting to say the least. It involved some tough choices as well as standing on the lid before it would close.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with the JMT is just scoring a permit. If you want to start in Yosemite, plan on faxing in an application 24 weeks before your planned start date. By the end of the day, you will find out if you were successful. You probably were not. Apparently, there is such demand that over 97% of all applications are denied. One hiker I met on the trail had been denied 22 times before she received a permit to start at Happy Isles Trailhead.
The National Park Service is in a difficult position. They have a legal duty to protect the wilderness from overuse and want to provide access to a true wilderness for those that do receive a permit. Based on my hike, the existing quota system seemed to result in a quality experience. While I was not always alone, the trail was not crowded and I always found a good spot to camp. That does not makes getting the permit any easier, however. You’ll need to plan ahead, yet be very flexible.
How did I do it? After multiple unsuccessful attempts to secure a permit from the starting point (Happy Isles), I changed my approach; literally. Scoring a permit from Tuolumne Meadows, I arrived at the park early and used the free bus service that runs throughout the park to day hike the 20 mile section I would have otherwise missed. On the plus side, I was able to hike that section backwards, exchanging a 6,000 foot climb for a 6,000 foot drop. It certainly wasn’t the perfect way to do it, but I’d rather have walked the entire trail “imperfectly” than not do it at all.
So, just because you can’t, or don’t want to, spend half a year hiking doesn’t mean you can’t be a thru-hiker. There are viable options to have a life changing experience without abandoning the life you already have. America’s three foremost cross-country trails have shorter options that are achievable, yet still epic. Fair warning though. Once you pick one and hike it, your bucket list may get longer. Perhaps you’ll even hike the Triple Crown; just the Junior Version.
Cincinnati native Jim Rahtz is an outdoor author and photographer whose work has won multiple awards from the Outdoor Writers of Ohio. His newest book, Backpacking’s Triple Crown: The Junior Version is available at Roads Rivers and Trails as well as through Amazon.com
In less than a week, yours truly, Goatman, will step back onto the Appalachian Trail to finish the last 969 miles of a thru-hike that began in 2013 with a 1200+ mile trek. The time for planning, prepping, training, and ruminating is over. And good riddance.
I know this may come as no surprise to many of you that know me, but you may as well stamp “Type B Personality” on my forehead. Making lists upon lists, worrying about details, lusting after improvement: not my style. Luckily for me, the AT isn’t an expedition. Nor is it a race, or a chore, or a job. And that’s what makes it so great. The AT is an adventure. Look that up in the dictionary.
Having read the other installments of the Return of the SLOBO series, you may think I really have everything together. Surely, a man conceited enough to presume to tell you how go on a very personal, very emotional adventure should himself be a shining example of the Fully Prepared Backpacker. Welcome to reality: I have no idea what is coming. Having hiked long-distance before, I know only one thing to be true: the trail teaches what needs knowing and nothing but putting feet to dirt is going to help you in the end.
Disconcerting? For some, I suppose. We are raised with the idea in mind that knowledge is inherently important to a task. I would argue that wisdom trumps knowledge a majority of the time. Knowing that you have 17.8 miles until you camp for the night and that water is 5.2 into the hike tells you very little about how your day is going to go. The elevation charts in the guide books are convenient fantasies and often misleading. It never rains for days on paper.
Am I saying to throw the guidebook off a cliff, sell your bag to a bear, and head off into the Great Unknown with only your cunning and sturdy stick to keep you safe? Or course not (okay, sometimes I get in a mood and say exactly that, but don’t listen to me all of the time. It’s bad for you.) I still stand by everything I said in the early articles concerning physical and mental training, buying gear that keeps your safe, happy, and moving, etc. All good ideas. Unfortunately, they are only that. Ideas. So you read the articles with good intentions in your heart, but now it’s go time and you didn’t hike as much as you wanted before setting out, your legs aren’t in the best shape they could be, you took some last minute things and now your pack is heavier than you wanted, and your mind is scattered and racing worrying about all of the “What Ifs”. Now what? Do you cancel your plans? Do you say, “Maybe next year”? Do you justify an existence in which your dreams are not manifested into reality?
You hit the trail. And you hike. And you get stronger and smarter and more wise everyday. Suddenly, you’re hiking the AT and you’ve done a week and you’re still scared, more tired than you’ve ever been, and still not so sure you’re ready for all of this. And then you hike for another week and realize that you are as strong as you want to be, that exhaustion is uplifting if related to a purpose, and that no one is ready for this! And then you hike for another week.
Excuses make terrible hiking partners.
In the end, trails are for hiking, not analyzing. I cannot wait to shut my silly mouth, strap up, and go. The next time you hear from me, I’ll have some good stories for you, I’m sure, and I’ll be sharing some here if I can.
See you out there.
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―from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
Oh! The dreaded gear installment!
One would think that, after hiking thousands of miles, working at an outfitter, and keeping up with innovations in the backpacking industry, old Goatman would just be waiting to tell you everything he knows about the gear you should take on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. The problem is this: I am not you. I’m not packing for you, I’m not resupplying with you, I’m not throwing your bag on my back, and I’m not hiking a single mile of the trail for you.
The gear I use is simply that: it’s what I use while on the trail. I could type up a spreadsheet with weight and cost and every other variable listed out, post it here, and be done with this article, but all you would know is what I take on a hike and not what you, dear reader, should take on a hike. Again, I am not you. I don’t have your feet, I don’t worry about your fears, and I happen to be as strong as one donkey and one mule combined in man form, thus rendering the weight concerns of your average human meaningless to me.
You may be asking yourself: “Well, Goatman, what exactly are you going to talk about in this article besides being a mutant-hybrid pack creature?” Good question. Let’s get to the meat of it. Despite current fashion or gear trends, the gear you take on the AT should do the following things for you: keep you safe, keep you happy, and keep you moving.
Gear Should Keep You Safe
Seems pretty simple. I don’t wear a rain shell when the skies are blue just to look cool. I wear it when it is raining to keep dry and warm. I might wear it above treeline to keep the sun and wind off, but otherwise, it is sitting in my pack, waiting for the weather to turn nasty. I don’t put it in a bounce box just because it looks like a nice couple of days ahead. It is not useless weight just because I carry it as much as I wear it; it is still serving its function as a piece of bad weather gear when tucked away.
Try and check the weather predictions along the entire AT for a six month period. Nonsense, right? You don’t pack for the perfect days. You pack with the hard days in mind and you pack to lessen the effect that hard days will have on you, whenever they come.
This can be extended to almost anything in your bag: a headlamp is only useful in the dark, but get caught without one on an overcast night when you get stuck out late on the bogs and see if you don’t wish you had one.
Before leaving something at home, ask yourself, “Am I sacrificing safety by not having this with me?” If you are fine with the risk imposed, then by all means, get it out of your pack. There are things that work as a safety blanket more than they work as functional gear. You will learn the difference on the trail if not before.
Something we tend to emphasize that bears repeating: do not set foot on your thru-hike with gear that you have never hiked with before. Think you need a 7 inch bear hunting knife for safety? Well, take it out on a weekend trip and see how many times you actually need it. Guess what? People have hiked the AT with less useful things and made it every step of the way. Were they being stubborn? Undoubtedly. Could they have lightened their load? Of course. Did it matter in the end? Not one bit. No one is standing at the terminus, counting all of the calories you wasted carrying extra stuff. There’s no thru-hiker report card being filled out. Either you make it or you don’t. If the things in your bag helped you make it, then they were useful whatever they were.
Let’s step back for a moment: What do I mean by safety? Safety on a thru-hike for me means successfully hiking from town to town and eventually reaching the terminus without grievous injury to yourself or anyone around you. This does not entail carting around a 3 lb. first aid kit that you don’t even know how to utilize to its full extent. This does not mean bringing a gun. This does mean, however, choosing socks and footwear that do not cause blistering, loss of toenails, or nerve damage to your feet. It means having appropriate layers of clothing to deal with the rapidly changing temperatures on a long distance hike. It means having shelter from the elements when you get caught out in them. It means having a sleep system that allows you to truly rest at night and regain your strength for the next day. It means carrying enough calories to see you through to the next resupply and/or buffet. And it means having water purification so you don’t poop yourself off the trail.
Gear Should Keep You Happy
I realize that happiness is relative. I’m not worried about whether or not you define yourself as happy every step of the AT. You won’t. You will experience the entire gamut of emotions on the trail, including simultaneous emotional combinations that you didn’t even know that you had in you (i.e. “I’m sad that I’m out of peanut butter, which I hate as of now, but I’m hungry, which makes me angry, but my pack is a pound lighter and that makes me happy.”)
The point I want to make is that if you’re not going to be happy at times, it shouldn’t be because of your gear.
If you’re going to be sad, angry, or frustrated, it should be because of some existential longing within your soul or some jerk you met, not because your pack doesn’t fit correctly (because you bought it off the internet without thought to torso size or load capacity.) I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I can fit a pack to your back with precision. There are few problems with gear that can’t be fixed. Remember that hike you’re going to do with all of your gear before you head out on the AT? That would be the time to figure out what hurts and why. And to fix it.
Happiness isn’t just decided by physical means, however. Everything can fit great, your pack can be light and comfortable, and your head can still be a mess. Sometimes, you just need your lucky rocketship underwear. What I mean by this is: don’t skimp on your luxury item, whatever that may be. I hiked the length of Maine with a 600+ page copy of my favorite book. It probably weighed upwards of a pound (I don’t want to know.)
Why? Well, the short answer is that I’m an avid reader and collector of books. It is part of who I am and, without this aspect of my life, I feel less connected to myself and what I’m doing on this Earth. I don’t like reading; I love reading. My vision of hell is a waiting room with nothing to read. And my vision of heaven? To be in the woods, miles away from civilization, with a book in my hand as the sun goes down. It is as simple as that. I made the decision to carry the extra weight so that, in the rare moments that I wasn’t hiking, eating, or sleeping, I could wind down and do a bit of what makes me happy no matter where I am. And I brought this particular favorite book as a symbolic boon for my hike.
There are lighter, more weather resistant, more practical items that I could have brought to keep me busy when not moving, but that was not the point. Carrying this book made me happy, so I carried it. Don’t let other people dictate what keeps you smiling. That doesn’t work. You won’t look at any AT pack list that includes Giant Pretentious Modernist Novel, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring one.
Gear Should Keep You Moving
Being safe and happy isn’t what hiking is all about. If these were your only goals, you might as well stay at home. Hiking isn’t always safe. Being in the woods can be dangerous and there are certainly a lot of things you can do to minimize the risk, but at the end of the day a bit of the Fear is part of the experience of hiking. As for happiness, I don’t think I need to repeat that this is a conditional state that you will move in and out of on the trail just as you do at home or any other place that you happen to be.
What hiking is all about is movement.
There is a saying on the trail: “It’s not about the miles, it’s about the smiles.”
However, in the paraphrased words of SLOBO extraordinaire the Bartender (’13): “That’s bull, man. If it were all about the smiles, I’d be back in Monson, drinking beer and hanging out. It’s gotta be about the miles if you want to finish.”
You’re not a hiker when you’re sitting around town. You’re not a hiker before or after your trip. You are only a hiker when you’re on the trail, making miles, and putting another footstep towards your goal. The gear you take with you should help with your progress, not hinder it.
This is where your pack weight comes in. It’s trendy these days to try to go as “ultralight” as possible. There’s good reason for this: the less weight in your pack, the less strain on your body, the more miles you can potentially do on the same amount of calories. Makes sense, right? Yes, it does, unless you are going so “ultralight” that you are sacrificing your safety or your happiness (see above.) There is a balance to be met, just as in all things.
So the point is to keep moving. No one knows what keeps you moving better than yourself, but there are a few universals. If you are injured, you will have to stop and rest. Your gear should not be the cause of injury (once again: shakedown hike! Please, for the love of all that is good in this world, shakedown hike!) If you don’t have the gear to move through and survive inclement weather, you will have to hole up in town. If you underestimate the amount of calories to pack out, you will find yourself tired, grumpy, and disoriented on the trail. A light pack isn’t going to help with any of these. So, yes, please, think about the weight of your pack and make sure that it isn’t weighing you down unnecessarily, but cutting weight just to cut weight is foolish if you are sacrificing your safety or happiness.
This is also the point where the longevity of your gear comes into play. Going into town is both fun and necessary at times, but going into a town you weren’t planning on going into in order to find a replacement for malfunctioning gear is a huge waste of time and energy. I realize that hikers are all about frugality, but there comes a point when it is more cost-effective to buy quality than to settle for something less that you will have to replace (possibly multiple times.) Case in point: I thought paying over $10 for a titanium long spoon was crazy when I could buy a cheap plastic spork that weighed less for a couple of bucks. And then I broke my plastic spork eating noodles. And then I broke my second plastic spork eating mashed potatoes and now I’m eating my dinner with filthy, burnt fingers for days before I can replace it with the spoon I originally snubbed as being too expensive.
There are definitely things that you can go cheap on, but when it comes to gear that is keeping you on the trail, you’ll find that spending the extra dough to get gear that is proven to last and warrantied against damage will save you a lot of time, effort, and money in the long run. The spork is a silly example in that I didn’t need it to keep moving. Had I skimped on my footwear and socks, however, I would have been limping back into town. Had I skimped on my backpack, I could have found myself at war with what should have been my dearest asset, whether that meant the straps rubbing me raw or the pack becoming nonfunctional.
Again, the goal is to keep moving. Keep this in mind when gathering your gear. Keep an eye on weight. Too heavy and you’ll be huffing and puffing every step. Too light and you might be sacrificing safety and happiness.
No one can pack for you. There are hundreds of example pack lists available on the internet. Look at them, learn from them, but in the end, you will come up with your own system that works for you. In all of my years of hiking, I have never come upon another hiker that is carrying the exact set up as I am. Why is that? Am I wrong? Is she wrong? How about that guy over there?
Find what works for you. Test it. Make sure it does what you need it to and that it will last. If you need advice, we at RRT are always here to help. In the end, no one else is going to hoist your pack and hit the trail for you.
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If you’ve met us you probably already know: we are all AT obsessed! The AT is part of the origin story at RRT, but is also what continues to make us who we are. We have been fortunate to continually have a staff that shares our passion for the trail and have completed portions or the trail in entirely. This is the quintessential match made in heaven. RRT owners have supported the ATC with personal memberships since 2007. RRT has been a supporting partner as a retailer since opening in 2010, contributing through the sales of ATC merchandise.
Indirect to the ATC, our biggest contribution has been our assistance, education, and passion that we have passed on for others to both enjoy and appreciate the trail. Spreading the word and growing the trail community to both use the trail and give back to it has been a surrounding message. Every year, RRT is able to help people chase their dreams on the AT. Through presentations and events, we help grow the imagination and confidence of the next generation of AT hikers.
In 2015, RRT wanted to bring as many of those people together, so they hosted their first ATC fundraiser. With giveaways, games, a photo booth, and local favorite 50 West Brewery, RRT raised an additional $500 to contribute to the ATC. We hope to continue to grow the AT community, and although we are in Milford, Ohio, we will continue our work as AT trail angels from afar.
For more information on the ATC please visit the link below:
Read the first article in the Return of the SLOBO series, 799 Zero Days Later
“Whatcha wanna do today? Go on a hike? I know this great trail.”
We would joke like this in the morning as I filtered water from a stream and Jubilee broke down our tent.
And sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was a painful reminder that there was nothing else to do, that we had no choice but to hike. We lived on the Appalachian Trail. Hiking was not only our sole mode of transportation, but also our entertainment, our defining sense of purpose, and the task at hand. You either hike or you go home. This is what makes long distance hiking so difficult. Not the sore feet, empty belly, cold rain, or looks of derision while stinking up a laundry mat. It remains true to my experience that the easiest way to lose the joy in something is day in, day out repetition of said thing. Anything can be exciting when new.
It is a hard lesson to learn: perseverance and happiness do not walk hand in hand. You don’t wake up and hike another 20 miles because it makes you happy that day. You wake up and hike because that is what you set out to do and there is happiness in following through with your dreams. Thinking that thru-hiking is months of endless fun is like thinking that working at an amusement park is fun. Trust me: it’s not. You get to see a lot of people having fun, yes, but you are there after the rides close, dealing with the reality behind the illusion.
A heavy start to a blog, I must admit, and not usually my style, but the time has come to get down to it. Mental preparation for the Appalachian Trail is anything but frivolous and it begins the second you decide to take on the trail. In the spirit of the thing, we’ll start heavy and lighten the load as we go. So let’s look at what you can do to strengthen your resolve before you even put shoe to dirt.
So you’re going to hike over 2,000 miles on foot through the oldest mountains on Earth, experience iconic towns, beautiful mountain summits, rivers and lakes galore, live with everything you need on your back, and make lasting relationships with people from across the world. Excited? Oh yeah, you’re excited! You are going to do it and its going to be the trip of a lifetime. So tell people! Tell your friends and family, tell your co-workers, tell people on the street. Tell them when you’re going and why you’re going. Talk it up. Make people associate you with your hike.
You’re not just talking because you’re excited and love talking about backpacking; you are turning on the social pressure machine. Thinking about going home after a couple of hard days on the trail? It will happen, but are you ready to explain to everyone back home that you are a quitter and that your will is weak? Sounds like a lot of fun, right?
We are social animals, for better or worse. Many people spend their entire lives worrying about what society thinks of their actions and appearance. For some of us, this is a nuisance of which we would gladly be rid. In this case, however, the best thing to do is to make sure to use it to your advantage. Don’t want your older sister making fun of you for quitting the AT? Then don’t go hiking with quitting on your mind. I believe that we are what we do, not what we plan to do or have done in the past, and the only one that can act in the present is you, now.
But boy can people gossiping about your business put a fire under you. It’s up to you whether you let the fire burn you up or you turn it into rocket boots.
Physical Training is Mental Training
So you’ve told people that you’re going on the trail and you’re hitting the local parks with a pack on your back to strengthen up your legs for the mountains. What can you be doing mentally to train while you are training physically? The good news is that you’re already doing it. Your mind and your body do not work as separate entities. If you got out of bed early to put in some miles before work or spent your Saturday with your pack on, outside and moving, you are participating in mental training. Every time you could be sitting at home, staring at a screen and giggling as you eat cheese-o’s, and decide instead to hit the trail with a pack on to put in some miles, you are winning the mental challenge game.
Now we start to combine methods: Your friend invites you to a BBQ in the afternoon. You tell him that you’re going to be hiking to prep for the AT. He sends you a picture of steaks, cold beer, and an empty hammock. You send him a picture of Katahdin. Then you skip the BBQ and hike even farther than you were planning originally. So now your friend knows what you are doing, sees that you are serious enough to skip out a good time, and talks about why you aren’t there with others. Meanwhile, you put in the miles that you need to put in, pushing yourself both physically and mentally.
The toughest day on the AT for many people comes when leaving town and going back into the hills after a relaxing zero day, back away from all-you-can-eat buffets, air conditioning, and clean beds. Practice choosing the trail over convenient distractions. You’re going to be doing it a lot and you might as well practice.
You are the Mountain
Your friends all know about your trip, your family is excited and anxious for you, you’re as fit as you’re going to get and the date of your departure is coming up fast. You even think you know the first few shelters you’re going to stay at and your gear is all laid out, ready to go.
You’ve been busy. Now is the time to learn to be un-busy. Some would even called it bored. It’s an uneasy truth, but true nonetheless. Hiking everyday can be boring. You are going to be alone a lot. I say this having hiked with a partner. Yes, there’s conversation and camaraderie at times during the day, but not all of the day. Not even most of the day. Most of the day, you are staring at your ever moving feet, completely in your own head.
There are modern “cures” for this: You can listen to music. You can listen to audio books, podcasts, or recordings of cats falling off of things and meowing. You can do all of this and still be bored. Call me a Luddite, but I believe that entertainment technology is but a band-aid on a wound that will never close if you keep messing with it.
Music can take you out of your head, yes. It is good at that. But isn’t it better to be comfortable where your mind dwells without the need for distraction?
Spend time in your mind before leaving for the AT. The best way I know of is meditation. You don’t need incense and chimes. You don’t need an esoteric mantra or expensive cushion. You don’t need to prescribe to anything in particular at all. All you need to do is sit down for 20 or 30 minutes with a straight spine, breath slowly and methodically, and let your mind settle. And don’t move, no matter what you do. Boredom is what we call the transitional phase between activity and non-activity. If you’re interacting with outside stimuli all day and suddenly give your mind nothing to grab onto, it will panic and tell you that you are bored, that you need something other than what you have. Meditating is a good way to let your mind know that it doesn’t need anything outside of itself.
Everyone is different and I don’t mean to speak for anyone but myself. Meditation works for me, but there are other ways to slow down and let your mind get comfortable being alone for a while. Only you know what works for you and what doesn’t. But whatever method you find, make sure to stick with it, especially when it becomes inconvenient and difficult. The more inconvenient and difficult the better, to tell you the truth.
Are you ready to be ready?
Overwhelmed? Sorry about that. Talking about mental preparation for a thru-hike isn’t the most light hearted topic and I refuse to sugar coat things. You’re going to be tired, hungry, and ready to go home. What you do next is what will decide how your hike goes. I want to disabuse you of the notion that the AT involves months of skipping through the woods with a flower in your hand, singing Kumbaya, and smiling every step.
You only do that on Tuesdays.
Seriously though, there are days when your spirits are higher than the mountains and love is the law of the land. These are the days that will keep you going. And they are more numerous than I can emphasize. But no one needs to prepare for being happy and free. That will come naturally.
However, if you get good at navigating in the darkness, you won’t miss the light so much. So be tough on yourself, but be hopeful. Be optimistic while practicing your bad days and you’ll realize that the difference between a bad day and a good day has little to do with everything else and a lot to do with you, yourself, here and now.
I could tell you to look for the silver lining around every storm cloud, but cliches are of little help when the rain starts falling so instead I’ll leave you with this thought:
The only clouds inside your mind are the ones you put there.
Read the first article in the Return of the SLOBO series, 799 Zero Days Later
“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least…sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldy engagements.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walking
When people ask me “What was it like hiking the Appalachian Trail?”, I normally space out for a few minutes, stare into the ever-deepening hole of my memory and watch as fleeting images pass of those free days in the hills, drinking fresh spring water, laughing with new friends around a rustic shelter at night, and sitting on a mountain summit, spirit emboldened, knowing that the day would bring only more beauty.
And then my brain kicks sentiment out on its butt and I recall the reality of chronically sore knees, swollen feet, cracked toenails, ravenous hunger, blood, sweat, mud, rain, rain, rain, and waking up in my own filth once again, knowing that the day would bring only more pain.
When I come out of my trance, if the person is still there, I answer with a smile and something like, “Well, I got really good at walking.”
It sounds snarky, but it’s true. When you start out to do a long distance hike, no matter what trail you are setting out on or how much past experience you have, your mind cannot help but to romanticize the prospect of spending all day, everyday trekking through the woods. It just sounds so peaceful, doesn’t it? As if blue birds should be greeting you every morning upon waking with a song and a pancake breakfast. On the other hand, when you are deep into it, caught up in making miles and pushing yourself to your limit, you might forget to stop and take in the view or to appreciate a gang of frogs burping out a back country symphony as you’re trying to sleep. There is, as in all things, a balance to be struck and despite hardship and despite joy, at the end of every day, there is one thing that is always true on a hike: You get really good at walking.
Walking all day, over rocks and roots, up and down mountains, through streams and over fields, is not a simple as it sounds. Unless you already live in a rugged area, most of us don’t spend our days staring at our feet, watching every step, and varying our gait to match the lay of the land, avoiding slippery roots and sharp rock edges. Most of us walk on nice even floors, convenient sidewalks, and maybe even nicely groomed trails in the local park and never have to think about where our feet are going to land. You can count your steps-per-day in the city, but this will not translate to steps on the AT. Not really. Not without a pack on your back, sweat in your eyes, sore feet, exhausted muscles, and no prospect of a clean bed for days.
I learned this the hard way. In late 2012, knowing that I was to leave for the trail in 6 months, I began to train (without actually researching what training I should be doing.) So I started trail-running, climbing steps, doing squats and push-ups, and tried to walk everywhere I went. I went on shake-down hikes and made sure that my bag fit properly and that I had everything I needed (and more, it turned out.) When the time came to fly to Maine, I was feeling better than I had in years. I had lost some weight, gained some muscle, and saw my endurance more than double. When people noticed, I always told them, with pride in my voice, that I was training for the AT.
Skip to June and see me at Thoreau Springs, just having climbed to the tableland of Mt. Katahdin, only a short 4 miles in, with over a mile left to the summit and 5 more back to camp after that, sitting on a rock, waiting for my legs to start working again, hoping that they would come around before the lightning storms rolled in. As a south-bounder, you don’t technically start the AT until you reach the summit of Katahdin. I was beat and I was still on the approach hike.
Had I not trained hard enough? No doubt that I hadn’t. Did I know what I was getting myself into? Of course not. Was my body ready for the test of climbing mountains everyday? No. Not yet. Then came the most important moment on the trail for me: I snacked, I rested, I hydrated, and I got to my feet and I walked (slowly) the last mile to the summit. My lovely partner, Jubilee, was there waiting for me, having passed me up at some point. We took our customary summit photos, looked off into the wilderness below that was to be our new home, and started hiking back to camp before the weather turned. This would be the first of many of these moments – moments where I felt drained, out of my element, and daunted by the task ahead. Call it stubbornness or call it willpower, but there is something inside that does not listen to the aching of our bodies and ignores the cries of our emotions. This is what we must train, I have decided.
You’ll hear this “secret” spoken of in any reliable AT prep article, but it bears repeating: there is no true way to prepare for hiking everyday except for hiking everyday. For most of us, this is not easy to accomplish in our modern lives. However, the truth of the statement stands. This time around, I’m taking this advice to heart. And it won’t be easy, but neither is hiking the AT.
As I write this, I once again have 6 months until I leave for the trail to complete the final leg that I failed to hike the first time around: Shenandoah Nat’l Park, VA to Springer Mountain, GA. The time has come once again to get these bones ready for a long ramble. And I’m going to do it by hiking. I believe that one cannot truly learn by any method but doing, especially in the realm of the physical. This past weekend, I strapped on my pack, loaded in more weight than I will be carrying on the AT, headed out into the snow and frigid winds, and climbed some ridges at Red River Gorge. Not many, but it was a start. I felt the old, familiar pains and groans and with it came a sense of peace. It was like my body welcomed back the burden of the pack and my legs started to strengthen just bit at the mere hint of going back out on the trail.
So as I finish the last 900 odd miles of the AT, my goal is to hike 100 miles a week after the first few reconditioning weeks. For now, at home, I will start even slower to build up to this goal. I will hike, with my pack at or above trail weight, 30 miles per week, whether it be over a couple of long days or a series of short hikes, on top of the squats and exercises that are my routine. When this becomes easy, I will add miles. And so on. At some point this summer, I will take 5 days and head off into the mountains to see the state of my legs.
From here on out, when I have the opportunity and the time, instead of settling for anything less, I will have my pack on and I will be moving. Let this be a warning to my friends: if you want to see me on my days off for the next few months, you might want to check out the local trails.
The time has come to get really good at walking again.
Call me Goatman. In 2013, I flew to Maine with a friend and a backpack to attempt a southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
We walked for 4 months through the mountains and across rivers, hitchhiked into town for food, slept in the woods most nights, and were beholden to no schedule but our own. When we got to Virginia, we were told that Shenandoah National Park was closed due to a government shutdown and that hikers found within the park were to be fined hundreds of dollars and escorted out. We didn’t have hundreds of dollars. In fact, we barely had any money left at all. So we came home. Got jobs. Got soft. Became norms again.
It’s 2016 and time for the Goat to return to the hills.
And I want you along for the journey this time. The whole journey. And that journey doesn’t start when my bag is all packed up and I see my first white blaze on a tree in the distance. The journey starts now.
This blog series, Return of the SLOBO*, will be an inside look at how I, a thru-hike hopeful turned LASHer (Long A$$ Section Hiker) gears up and prepares for three more months on the AT. Each section of the blog series will have a unique focus, ending with actual trip reports from the trail as I hike it.
When I flew to Maine to begin this journey, I was green to backpacking. I had been out for a few nights here and there, but had never spent a significant time in the wilderness unsupported by modern convenience. I loved hiking, but who doesn’t love hiking when you have a warm bed waiting for you at the end of a couple of days roughing it?
This time will be different. I have done my homework. I have lived the life and have been anointed with the sweaty sword of destiny and dubbed Hiker Trash Extraordinaire, Knight of the Dirt. For the past two years, I have also been working at Roads, Rivers and Trails, studying gear innovations, talking to other long distance hikers from all over, and even helping hopeful AT thru-hikers prepare for their time on the trail. I’ve come a long way, you could say, on the trail and off.
In this blog, I will talk about training. I will talk about gear. I will talk about hopes and fears, food and sweat and feet and mud. Overall, I will talk about backpacking and the joy of hoofing it over hundreds of miles with everything you need on your back.
The series will be broken down into sections. Links to other articles in the series will be added at the bottom of the articles as they are written.
So please, join me as it all goes down and do feel free to comment below with any questions, concerns, or rambling diatribes on how I’m “going the wrong way.”
*An explanation of the term SLOBO: short for “slow south-bounder”. Even in the backwoods of Maine, one may not be able to avoid being categorized. My hiking partner, Jubilee, and I were known for three things at the start of our journey: “heavy” (40+ lb.) packs, sleeping until after sunrise (which was around 5 AM that far north in the summer), and taking afternoon swim breaks when we came to a beautiful lake. Such a lackadaisical attitude towards pushing miles was apparently frowned upon by other more Type A hikers. Fortunately for us, we found fellow souls on the same pace that shared a similar philosophy concerning long distance hiking (a shout out to Phoenix, Blue Tick, Ado, and the Bartender. SLOBOs for life!) As it were, our packs got lighter, our legs got stronger, and we started to catch up to a lot of the hikers that had left us behind in Maine. I’m not sure who coined the term, but invariably we began to hear, “I never thought I’d see you SLOBOs again.” The name stuck, even when we started passing people who had burned out early. At this point, we’ve taken it as a name for our hiking tribe and proclaim it boldly, with honor.
RETURN OF THE SLOBO Next Article
A Thru-hikers Review
By: Bryan Wolf
The book was amazing! Most conversations begin or end with the book and how the movie did based off those expectations. For my enjoyment, but also the sake of a fair review I decided to look at the movie independently. It seems only fair to separate the two, after all, in today’s day in age is any movie as good as the book? What book isn’t tainted by corporate sponsorship, time crunching edits, or acting short falls? The poor Dartmouth Co-op was overtaken by big money and replaced with a box store competitor.
So yes, the book was amazing, but I put that aside and instead ask that you watch it with only the eyes of an outdoor enthusiast. Was the trail represented, the trail experience, or the trail culture? Luckily for the AT, much of what makes the trail so spectacular was not represented. A movie that showcased the trails true magic on the big screen could mean an increase in hikers that the conservancy would struggle to handle. So here are some things the movie did wrong and some things they did right.
WRONG: Any hiker nut can point out the simple mistakes. Ask any of us to watch the filming of a backpacking scene, buy us lunch, and we’d be more than happy to coach the actors. Why do they constantly hike with their hipbelts unbuckled? Why are Bryson’s load lifters limp for the first half of the movie? Why did they bring trekking poles but not once did they use them? Why were they still wearing 3 flannels in what would of been June? Why was Bryson always clean shaven? These are not amateur hiking mistakes, they are a poor attention to details that will make the AT faithfuls laugh at the movie for the wrong reasons.
RIGHT: While nothing in the movie is spot on, I’m proud of Hollywood for even getting close. On the AT you are constantly surrounded by strange people, some with attitudes that don’t mesh well. The solution, hike faster, or hike slower. Keeping yourself in good company is a real thing and their judgmental gear junkie friend isn’t all that far fetched. I’d say Mary Ellen was the exception, not the rule, for sure not the best the AT has to offer, but true none the less.
WRONG: What cliff did they fall off? What grand rock wall did they look up from on the AT? The AT has enough risk and “danger” that it doesn’t need Hollywood exaggeration like that of 1,000 foot drop offs. Nor does it need black bears that look like steroid raged grizzly bears. It looks like they shot mostly in the Appalachians, but most green screen or CGI shots are over the top.
RIGHT: The trail was mostly miserable. That was the most accurate part of the movie. When Bryson and Katz are cursing at each other and each deep in their own misery they stumble upon gorgeous overviews of the Smoky Mountains or of McAfee Knob and an overwhelming sense of purpose and satisfaction sweep over them. This is life on the trail 100%.
WRONG: As I noted up top, trail culture was not represented. They somehow made no friends, had or knew no trail names, never had trail magic, met a trail angel, or stayed in a hostel.
RIGHT: Trail etiquette was fun to watch and had some wrongs and rights. I loved how all passing hikers would say hi and have polite interactions. Even the group of young scouts motoring up the mountain each had a different canned response. It is one of the unique things about hiking culture that is completely absent in daily life. People stop and say hello, and have a genuine concern for one another. While the overly preppy hikers asking to help the old men across the stream (an easy crossing by all standards) was overkill, the camaraderie was nice.
WRONG: For a fat man that didn’t lose any weight, Katz sure didn’t talk about food enough. A hikers’ daily life consists of only a few things, walking, getting water, and eating sum up the most of it. Your conversations on the AT consist of even less things, mostly that of food and gear. In that way the movie was yet again terribly inaccurate to the experience.
RIGHT: The movie was funny, enjoy it for what it is. It’s not the book, and it’s not a documentary. If you want a real trail experience that doesn’t need to sell tickets to the mass population try watching a movie like “Appalachian Impressions” of “Flip Flop Flippin’.” If you want some comic relief with stunning views of the Appalachians, then this is it.
Have you seen the movie, if so, what are your wrongs and rights? Add them here.
Mt. Rogers Loop – Virginia
Trip report by Kayla “Clover” McKinney.
Date: Mid-May 2015
Conditions: Warm, sunny, breezy, mid-70sF during day, mid-50’s at night, some rain at night.
Trip Length: 3 days, 2 nights
Mileage: 18.1 miles
Highlights: Wild ponies, tallest point in Virginia, beautiful mountain vistas, Appalachian Trail, rhododendron forests.
Distance from Cincinnati: ~6 hours by vehicle
Directions: I-81 S, exit 45 in Marion, head south on VA 16, passing by the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area Visitor Center in 6.1 miles. Continue for another 11.2 miles to Troutdale, then turn right onto VA 603. The Trail Head parking is identified by a small brown sign on the right 5.7 miles down (pictured below.) This sign is easy to miss, so watch your odometer.
Description: The beauty of southern Virginia cannot be easily summarized in words and on this hike, you get not only that, but views into the ridges of North Carolina as well. This hike begins with almost immediate elevation gain as you follow the Mt. Rogers Trail up to the ridge line where it meets up with the AT. Keep trucking! It will be worth it, believe me. As you crest the ridge, the world below opens up and the rest of the hike is stunning view after stunning view of the sparsely populated, rolling landscape. Summit Mt. Rogers and you’ve reached Virginia’s highest point at 5,729 feet. You will run into groups of wild ponies along the trail. Please do not feed the horses, but they are very friendly and will pose for pictures. Stay the night at the Thomas Knob Shelter about 8 miles in for an amazing sunset or keep hiking and camp at any of the great campsites off the trail further on. As you hike, your view will be the legendary Grayson Highlands before dropping down from the ridge, down through the Fairwood Valley, and finally looping back to your car.
The trails: Parking Lot -> Mt. Rogers trail -> Appalachian Trail -> Side Trail to Mt. Rogers Summit -> Appalachian Trail -> Pine Mountain Trail -> Lewis Fork Trail -> Mt. Rogers Trail Parking Lot.
Water: Water was somewhat scarce on this trip. I packed in about 3.5L of water: a 2.5L reservoir and a 1L Nalgene water bottle. There is a stream off the Lewis Fork Trail, approximately 1.5 miles off the Mt. Rogers Trail in case of emergencies. The next water source is at the Thomas Knobb Shelter, 7.6 miles from the Trail Head, and the location of the first night. There is also a small stream approximately 10 miles from the Trail Head along the Appalachian Trail.