Kensington, Maryland, September 11, 2017 — Within the culture of the Appalachian Trail there are various camps with strong views on how the trail should be hiked. In some cases one way is as good as another. But advice from the ignorant and uninformed can be detrimental to both hikers and the trail itself.
Given the plethora of good and bad advice along with rumors and the need to get factual information to hikers quickly, a group of experts associated with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy created a Facebook page that would provide unbiased, rock-solid, informed advice, and accurate information to the AT community.
This is my latest addition, written in hopes of helping aspiring hikers improve their odds of successfully thru hiking a trail where between three of four or four of five thru hiking attempts fail in any given year.
IT’S SHAKEDOWN SEASON
In the beginning there is Georgia for NOBOs. Unfortunately, the relatively easy hills of Georgia are also the ending for far too many aspiring thru hikers. A few thoughts follow on what you could be doing now to improve your odds of success next season no matter how you’re planning to hike the AT.
If you’re planning to thru hike next season, the year prior can be an anxious and exciting time. You read the blogs and memoirs. You vicariously hitch rides with the class ahead of you by following hikers to see what you can learn from their experience. You obsess over gear. Above all, you plan, plan, plan.
The trail register is in the metal box on the side of the southern terminus monument.
Now that NOBO season is winding down, what’s left to do until it’s your turn to toe the starting line? You could obsess all the more, or you could get out in the woods and test your gear, work on organizing your pack, and learn if your boots cause blisters.
This guy is the definition of poorly prepared.
Experience suggests this is a good idea. Ridgerunners report poorly prepared hikers year after year. Many have never used their equipment in the field. A few show up with a pack full of gear still in it’s original packaging (yes they do). Nearly nine out of 10 report that they are on their first backcountry experience. Remember the joke, How to get to Carnegie Hall/Katahdin? “Practice, practice, practice.” Small wonder the drop out rate is so high.
Why let Springer be your first time in the primitive backcountry? Why let Georgia kick your butt? Fall is an ideal time for a few shakedown hikes. The weather is generally good. The humidity low. Fewer people are on the trails and the leaves are turning.
Most importantly you don’t have to hike on the AT. Any trail near where you live will do. In fact the idea for this blog was born while hiking the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in western Pennsylvania. There are great trails just about everywhere.
Resupplying at the Ingles supermarket in Hiawassee, GA.
The amount of free time you have doesn’t matter either. Since most thru hikers resupply every five days on average, practicing five-day hikes would seem to be ideal. But, if you are busy working hard to save up for your adventure and don’t have five days, even a few overnight trips can improve your skills and your odds.
Shakedown hikes allow you to experiment, answer questions, challenge your fears, and test the keys to your success. You also can challenge yourself in different scenarios including rain, cold, snow, strenuous terrain or any thing else you’re worried about. Most importantly, you have time to make corrections before it gets real down south where adjustments can be expensive.
Think about it. An overnighter in rainy weather is where you learn your rain gear doesn’t work right or your pack isn’t water tight or whether your footwear is going to generate blisters. It is far better making that discovery now rather than half way through Georgia at a time when the wrong mistake could send you home with smashed dreams.
Georgia mid-March 2015.
The weather record in Georgia is instructive. Three years ago, it snowed, rained and/or sleeted 18 of the first 20 days in March. The next year March was mild and sunny, but the weather in the Smokies was atrocious. Last year split the difference.
Staying organized help keep your gear from becoming mixed up with others or losing it along the trail.
Here are a few things practice hikes could tell you:
- Does your gear fit properly and work the way you want it to work?
- Are you in adequate physical condition?
- Do your boots/trail runners fit and grip the right way?
- Got the right socks?
- What clothing combos work best?
- Is your sleep system adequate and comfortable?
- How much food do you need to carry?
- What do you like to eat – and not like?
- What’s the ideal weight of your pack?
- How to organize your pack so that your gear fits; and you can find what you need when you need it. Hint: When you need rain gear, you’ll need it pronto.
- Develop a routine in camp that works for you. What do you habitually do first, second and third both in the evening and morning?
- Can you deal with bad weather? Plan to practice hike when it’s unpleasant – cold, rain and snow.
- Does your water treatment method work for you?
- Practice your Leave No Trace principles. Pooping properly is paramount. So is protecting your food from bears, raccoons, mice and other critters.
- Maybe more importantly, what didn’t you think of?
The choices are endless – old or hot meals, types of stoves, pots, hanging food or using a bar canister. Canisters are recommended for the southern half of the trail.
Bear damage in Shenandoah National Park 2017. The hiker did nothing wrong. Someone who came before him taught the bear a bad habit.
Knowing to use a plastic bag to get water from a nearly dry spring can be a life saver.
Hygiene – cleanliness, pooping properly and keeping wounds clean prevents disease.
Being in good physical condition helps on rugged terrain.
Wearing gaiters in the mud and rain helps keep footware and socks dry – preventing blisters.
For example, on this author’s shakedown, 160 miles over 13 days on the AT, I learned my boots were wrong, I like an air mattress more than a foam pad, my pack didn’t fit right, I wasn’t going to cook or for that matter even eat three full meals a day, and was packing a bunch of stuff I did not need. I also learned that I was in better shape than I thought, and my pack was properly and functionally organized. Good to know. Changes made.
Please follow Leave No Trace outdoor ethics and leave the trail pristine for those yet to come.
A successful thru hike requires a combination of will, mental and physical toughness, trail knowledge, gear, and luck. Some hikers prefer the school of hard knocks. On the other hand, why leave anything to chance if you don’t have to?
Good luck and good hiking. Sisu