Category Archives: New Hiker Advice
When I read of new hikers who are coming to grips of the realities of the trail for the first time I think about how we have a tendency to build things up. Put things on a pedestal.
I once heard a story from Baltimore Jack. Of rain that lasted for forever. Grown men would wake up hearing the same sounds that had put them to sleep. The constant drumming of rain on the tin roof. It brought them to tears when they looked outside and saw the grey clouds and constant water cascading from the skies. He said it was one of the wettest springs on the AT – and he saw more people break from the rain than he’d ever seen before. People just gave up and went home.
I can understand that. I sympathize – there are few things worse then getting up for the fourth or fifth day in a row, putting on wet and cold socks with the utmost trepidation. “If I pull them on slowly, they’ll warm up a little more than if I pull them on quick and shock my feet.” Hearing the squelch of water as you shove your feet into your shoes. Packing your things up haphazardly – it doesn’t really matter anymore, everything is at least damp already. The rain jacket has as much moisture in it on the inside as it does the outside, why bother putting it on. You’ve stopped trying to avoid the puddles and small lakes that form on the AT because the whole trail has turned into a river.
You think you’ll never be dry again. I know how it feels. I’ve been there.
It’s odd because looking back now I recognize the same feelings of despair in that scenario of rain that I had with depression. Trapped. Drowning. Overwhelmed. Too tired to care anymore. How do you keep going when it’s like that.
I think some people are just built a little differently. No matter how depressed they get, how awful the situation gets they keep going. I’ve heard some call it “dogged determination.” People have called me stubborn. It’s been described as a coping mechanism, or protective trait. Some call it strength or mettle. But whatever you want to call it – these people just keep going.
They don’t lie down and die, and they don’t seem to ever quit. And when they do quit it’s because they are literally so run down, so ragged that they just don’t have the energy anymore.
I once read a psychology theory that postulated we can all endure only so much. Our capacity for suffering, for the negatives in our life are like a glass for water. It’s only so large. The more things we have going against us, the more water fills that glass. We can only handle so much before it all spills over. You can make your glass bigger by doing positive things, having good friends to share the load or have coping strategies. But there is always a finite amount you can take. Eventually you reach that.
The people who broke down and cried on the 5th day of rain had just reached their limit. Their glass was full. That was all.
What’s the take away from all of this? I’m not really sure honestly- lord knows I rambled on in this post, but I wonder if there really is an answer. On one hand, we’ve gout our dreams, and we want to pursue and accomplish them. But we should always be realistic of the moment, of the adversity facing us. So what should we do? I don’t know. It’s something you’ll have to make up your mind about yourself. I follow this simple advice.
Don’t ever quit until you’ve been completely and fully miserable for 48 hours. Then give it another 24 hours of staying someplace with a TV and Ac/Heat. If you’re still miserable – then you can quit. Because it’s not something you can fix with pizza, Chinese food and beer. And if you can’t fix it with those things, you may be well and truly screwed.
One of the biggest things that new hikers on the Appalachian Trail are worried about is their trail names. A trail name is how you identify yourself to other hikers – it’s a pseudonym that will follow you around forever and have stories attached to it. So naturally, everyone wants a cool name and some are tempted to give themselves one.
I say this out of love – don’t give yourself a trail name. It’s not who YOU are on the trail, it’s who you THINK you’re going to be on the trail. Those are two very different people. In fact, they are such wildly different people that you’ll sometimes wonder who that other person is.
I can think of a handful of people who have given themselves trail names before they got on the trail who actually embodied their trail names, and that had more to do with who they were as a person than anything.
Plus, you want a great story to go along with your trail name right? You don’t want to have to give the answer “oh, well it sounded cool so I picked it.” No! You want an awesome story, like Talker has!
Talker’s name relates back to his hike, and the person who he is. Imagine if he’d chosen a name before hand, like “Strider”. It wouldn’t have reflected the man who he was – a sleep talking, hilarious young man.
My name relates back to my first hike and the spices I was carrying in a novel way. Little Spoon’s relates back to his off-hand comment about how he “sometimes like to be the little spoon in bed”. Chuckles got hers because you could hear her laugh for miles, and she was always laughing. Snakebite got bit by that snake and Fire Eater went after the bacon in the fire. It’s who they were, are.
I know you’re anxious about trail names. I know you want something cool. Don’t take the easy way out – wait for it. It’ll be awesome. If you do get one you’re not comfortable with, you don’t have to take it. You can say “no, I’m not okay with that name” if it’s something that disturbs you or puts you off – that’s fine.
But artifically creating a name for yourself, when you don’t know who you’re going to be? I would advise against it. Especially not Strider. Because every time I meet a “Strider” I make it my goal in life to rename them.
Strider became Slider this year. Strider became Hatchet. Strider became Slowpoke. Strider became Nap Time.
So wait for your name. Have adventures. Do silly things. Carry silly things. You’ll get an awesome name. Promise.
When it comes to gear, long distance backpackers will talk for hours upon hours. We love all aspects of gear, and love seeing what others are carrying and why. It’s important for us, because we use it everyday.
So now that everyone has taken all the extra stuff out of their pack, lets put some things in that they’ll want for various reasons.
- Extra zip-lock bags. You can never have enough of these (especially the larger ones) and they weigh nothing. Use them for food storage, waterproofing electronics and maps, putting books or clothes into – even a pillow or waterproof booties over your socks when you’ve got wet shoes. There are few things zip-lock doesn’t solve.
- Make sure your headlamp has a red or green light on it. You don’t want to be “that guy/girl” in the shelter at night waking everyone up to go pee. Plus, red lights are a much lower power and draw less battery, making your headlamp last longer. It’s much easier to read with that red light at night without disturbing EVERYONE ELSE. If you don’t have a red light on your already purchased headlamp, some colored cellophane and a pair of binder clips can work. There are also very low cost red light only lights that are sold as clip ons, or aftermarket cheap lenses that snap one. But seriously – don’t be “that person” in the shelter.
- Watches are a controversial thing out on the trail, but I find they come in handy. There will be a few times when you’ll want to get up early to see a sunrise, or you have to leave in order to get to a post office before closing. Sure you could turn your phone on to check – but why waste that batter power? Snag yourself a cheap waterproof watch. Get a kids one if you can – they are always more colorful and fun.
- Pen or pencil. In fact bring two. There are some shelter logs where the pens are dead or have wandered off, and you’ll want to leave an entry. Shelter logs are one of the best things about the AT – you get to hear from people you’ve never met and you’ll learn to love them from their entries. The pen is also helpful if you want to leave a note along the trail for someone behind you – you’re going into town and are staying at XYZ hotel. So use an old guidebook page that you’ve already walked over, write a note on that, put it in a zip-lock (you ARE carrying extras right?) if it’s raining and head to town.
- Needle and thread. Or needle and dental floss. I prefer the later, but it’s up to you. You’ll need to sew something back together guaranteed, whether it’s your pants that blew out in the knee, the shirt that got ripped from a low hanging branch, or an attempt to make your shoes go just a few more miles to town before they die a terrible terrible death. Needle and thread will help.
- A good eating utensil. This is one of these things that for some reason people decide that they have to have “ultralight” which baffles me. This is a piece of equipment that you’ll use everyday, takes a lot of abuse and is pretty important. Get a metal one and don’t look back. The number of plastic/lexan ones I saw broken out on the trail was staggering. I think the $15 I spent in Delaware Water Gap getting a titanium spoon/fork was the best purchase ever.
- Multiple USB outlet plug. There is nothing worse than jockeying for outlets because everyone has their stuff plugged in. If you’re part of the growing number of hikers with more than one thing to charge, get yourself a plug that has more than one socket to it. If you have two things to charge in town (phone and say, steripen) then get a dual plug wall charger. Get a small square one if possible, so you’ll be able to fit it in anywhere. Long cords also help – the weight is negligible.
- Sunscreen for the first two weeks. You never would think you’d burn in early April, but you will. The leaves aren’t out on the trees yet, but you’re hiking enough that you’ll be in short sleeves. and you’re exposed. You. Will. Burn. So bring along a small sunscreen and use it. If you ignore this warning, be prepared to buy the smallest thing of aloe that have (usually 8-12 ozs). Which sounds like a better use of weight?
- You don’t need a big knife or a multitool. Seriously, when are you going to use that screwdriver? All you need is one blade. I got by with a 2 inch blade that cost me $3. Plastic handle. Simple.
- Bring an extra lighter or a small book of matches and keep them dry. When it rains and you spring a leak and your lighter gets wet, there is nothing worse than trying to dry that flint out. Or sometimes your lighter will walk away. It happens. Bring a backup.
- I like athletic tape over duct tape when it comes to wounds/first aid. Peeling duct tape off your body is pretty terrible – athletic tape flexes better and I find it doesn’t rub badly when wet. A little athletic tape (the cloth kind) is cheap and light. Consider it for blisters.
- Bug headnet. Mail it ahead to yourself for PA. You’ll want it there, and by the time you get to a place that sells them in PA, they’ll be sold out
- Bring the camp shoes. You’re probably on the fence about them because you’ve heard so many different things… But the truth is you’ll want them the first day it rains. Why? Because your shoes/boot will be soaked and you want to put dry socks on. But then.. you’ve got to go to the bathroom at 3am. Shove your clean fresh dry socks into wet shoes? NO. Camp shoes! Worth the weight!
- Extra candy. Seriously. You’ll want it. Chocolate. Hard candy. Bring the sugar! Put it in your morning coffee if you drink that, your complete breakfast powder or your protein shake. It’ll help with the flavor.
Fun things. I can’t stress this one enough. You’re going out on an adventure and you should enjoy yourself. By that I mean you want to have good memories, and you want to be a good memory to others.
What do I mean by that exactly?
The people you’ll remember far longer than others are the ones that stand out. Carry interesting and fun things – things that aren’t necessarily useful. I can still remember each and every person who carried silly things.
Things I’ve seen on the trail include: Kites. Pinatas. Wiffle ball bats (with returning wiffle ball). Foam swords. Real swords. Crazy hats. Water guns. Flasks of alcohol. Whole bottles of alcohol. Musical instruments. Plastic figures and toys (dinosaurs, alligators, birds, bears). A platoon of Green Army Men. Bricks. 2 pound mushroom paper-weights. Etch-a-sketches. Crayons. Paints. Chalk.
I could go on and on with this list. But bring fun things. Bring something that makes you stand out in the crowd. Don’t afraid to be a little crazy. You’re out in the woods already!
And don’t forget your sense of adventure!
I think I’ve done a fairly good job this hiking off season of NOT getting embroiled in guerrilla internet warfare. I haven’t been getting into peoples faces about things like choosing trail names before they start, obsession over pack-weight when they shouldn’t be, upset with people over constant advertising. I’ve certainly discussed these things with a few close friends – but I’ve been…. restrained.
This is not one of those restrained posts. If you have delicate sensibilities… perhaps you should move on.
This all starts with the blog.appalachiantrials.com blog that Badger runs and his 3 lists.
- “I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail because…”
- “When I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail I will…”
- “If I give up on the Appalachian Trail I will…”
A useful way to diagram out your reasoning, especially because expressing why you’re going out to do a long distance hike can be problematic for many. I know that 2 years after starting my first thruhike I STILL have problems with the “why I started doing this” bit when talking to people.
I have no problem with the first list, “I’m doing this because”. The second… I take a slight issue with. Why you ask? Because let’s face it – like all other plans you have on the trail, this one might not bear any resemblance to the reality you’ll find out there. Plans change – sometimes immensely.
When people go out on a long hike like this, they discover things about themselves, sometimes things they never knew or only suspected. Sometimes they validate what they already knew and reinforce it. As Rob Bird once told me “People are out here every year, looking for themselves or someone else – some people find it in 20 miles, others don’t ever find it on this path but have to go to another one. But they always discover the important things they never knew existed.” So what does that mean about your list of things you’ll discover about yourself when you finish?
Maybe it’s time to toss that list and instead of planning on finding or achieving the growth you “Think” you need – open yourself to actual growth that is spontaneous instead of planned. That’s just a thought and suggestion from someone who HAD a list like that and then lost it along the way – and was much happier and experienced FAR more growth when it was natural.
Again – just my opinion.
But here comes the nity-gritty – the part I worry about and almost take offense to when I read the final list: “If I give up on the AT without finishing”
All of the lists I’ve read have pretty much the same gist. Major topics in those lists include
- Being disapointed in themselves
- Thinking of themselves as a failure for not finishing
- Regret not finishing
- Not be someone worth respect from others
- Never follow through on things
- Become unattractive to others
- Not be someone my friends/family/significant other can be proud of
If most of these were on your list (or are in your head) please I’d ask you to do the following.
Remove your head from your ass and wake up and smell the coffee.Seriously.
There are a few things on this list that are real, and worth noting as being things that can or will happen. When you get off the trail, you will be depressed about it. Not “if” but when. For those who have read my previous posts, they know that I came back from this years hike and was in a spiraling depression – and I FINISHED this year. in 2012 when I made it 1600+ miles and got off I was also depressed. Common link between? Getting off the trail – not whether or not I finished!
What else is true on this list? Regret – you’re going to regret things no matter if you finish or not. You’ll regret skipping 5 miles that one day (I still do) or you’ll regret not finishing. You’ll regret not hiking with certain people more, and hiking with certain people less. REGRET IS CONSTANT – but is NOT a defining characteristic of the trail.
I could regret being with the girl I was for 3 months and giving her EVERYTHING about my trail experience, including changing my hike for her – but I DON’T because it was still Awesome to be with her – despite everything that happened later.
So for the rest – we have to talk.
All this talk of letting other people down, not being worthy of respect or love from others is baloney. You set out to do something that most of them don’t understand at all. They love you for you – not for something you’re doing. If they didn’t love you for you, they wouldn’t be interested in what you’re doing in the first place. So stop that. Stop that right now. If you have to get off the trail for whatever reason, they aren’t going to love you any less – in fact most of them still get to brag about you “my sister/brother/son/wife hiked over 300 miles on the AT! Isn’t that awesome!”. They are NOT going to go out and say “Oh well he/she/it tried but couldn’t do it because they were terrible at it.” So stop it. Now.
Never following through on things is another bit I hate to hear – sometimes there are circumstances FAR beyond your control that come into play on your hike. I told the story about Damselfly recently, and how she stubbornly decided to finish despite seriously injuring herself. That injury is a hike ender for 99% of people. Things like money get in the way – family issues or even just simple time. Things beyond your control happen – and for all you control freaks out there, you’re going to have a hard time dealing with this. Learning to let things go might be your biggest lesson on this hike. So stop worrying about how not finishing a hike like this means that you are never going to follow through on things. That’s crap.
I’ve read two different ones now that say “I’ll become unattractive to others.” This is a female thing it seems (sampling size = 2, so don’t kill me feminists) and it’s positively untrue. Ladies out there – you’re going to get on trail and be the hottest commodity besides Snickers bars. Hiker women are the sexiest things on the planet in my mind. Single Girl Hiker agrees with me I think. She tells me Hiker Men are the sexiest things out there too. Why are you attractive though? Not because there are so few of you – it’s because you’re willing to take chances, be yourself and commit to things. I’m talking about not waffling – knowing what you want and taking it. To me at least, there is nothing more unattractive then the inevitable dance of “where do you want to go for dinner.” You know what you want! Go take it! It happens all the time on the trail. Plus you know, you’re hot! So stop thinking you’re unattractive. Patently untrue.
The biggest thing is that people are disappointed in themselves. I can understand that, and it is something that will happen. But it’s also something that I’ve come to see as not being “real”. What do I mean by that? I mean that you went out and tried – you can be disappointed that you didn’t finish, but it’s not the defining characteristic of your hike.
Your defining characteristic is that you went out there in the first place.
You can run around and around on not finishing, not having gotten what you wanted out of it but that’s all a load of malarkey when you come back to the simple fact: you went out there and did SOMETHING.
And that fact is greater than 99% of people you will ever meet.
You went and followed a dream you had – it may not have succeeded, but you DID do it, even if it was just for a little while.
That is something majority of people will never do – can never do. It sets you apart.
The statistics show that only about 20% will finish a thru-hike. I think that number is lower myself. But of the 3000 or so that will start, they are all following a dream of some kind. That dream is what is important. Not finishing, not doing X or Y or Z on your list. The dream you have to go out and hike a long distance trail is what is important. So stop making lists. Instead be open to your hike and what it can bring to you. Not what you bring to it.
I love you all.
For hikers, our packs our the center of our lives. We carry every single thing we have in our packs, and how much you like your pack can make your hike a wonderful thing or a terrible time.
I was talking with a very good friend of mine who is on her way to the Philippines in two weeks, and she asked my advice on her pack choice. She could either take her older external frame pack, a massive 80 Liter item, or a smaller internal frame 70L. She’s not really doing much backpacking, it’s more for base camp haul in/haul out – but she’s still worrying about it quite a bit.
So we talked about it – hikers can talk for hours about their gear. My biggest piece of advice when it comes to packs is to put all your stuff in it, and see how it carries the load – in other words you do the opposite of what comes naturally, which is buy the bag first and fill it up.
I hiked with a Granite Gear Blaze 60L pack in 2013 for over 2,000 miles. By the end of the trail, the back plate had broken completely once, was shattering a second time, it had a hole in the main compartment and water bottle web was completely gone. But it got me to the end, and I still use it today.
This pack took me all the way to the end. It never let me down completely ever. I didn’t always treat it as well as I should have, and it didn’t always treat me well either, but it was good. It shared my adventures and came with me everywhere.
Something my friend said though made me think.
I use the same logic when picking a mate. I see how they fit in my life and how they carry their load.
True statement. Finding someone to share your life with, and picking a backpack out are similar things if you think about it!
- Packs carry your life when hiking long distances. Your mate carries your heart. Both are capable of damaging you if they fail in their duties.
- Packs can be flawed of have a defect, just like your mate. When your pack breaks, you try and fix it – always carry your needle and thread, duct tape. Make-up sex and long conversations are the equivalent I think in relationships.
- Packs can come with guarantees, showing how much the company is willing to stand behind their product. Your mate can come with a guarantee too – in the form of a life-long commitment to you – either via marriage, another social contract or just a promise.
- You get to pick your pack, the same way you get to pick your mate – out of hundreds of other options. Some feel good, others don’t and you never really know if you’ve made the right choice until a hundred miles in.
In the end though, people out preform packs in one major area – they can grow and change. They may get worn out with you, but they don’t get thrown away – not really. Not the good ones.
But then I don’t throw out any of my packs either – I’ve sent a few off in Viking funerals, but I’ve never tossed one.
I have too much respect for my pack – broken or not