I recently went on a four-day shakedown hike on the Appalachian Trail. The purpose was to test gear, understand what works and what doesn’t, and figure out which unnecessary items to leave at home. I’ve day hiked a lot and have done a few shorter backpacking trips, but over the years I’ve been switching out gear and doing everything I can to lighten the load on my back. Including food and 1L of water, total weight was 24 lbs., which is considered lightweight. Aside from fine tuning the items in my pack, there was a lot to learn mentally, emotionally, and nutritionally.
These are some personal observations that might be helpful when planning a section hike or a backpacking trip. They do not include basics of backpacking, such as not wearing cotton clothing, etc.
MENTAL, EMOTIONAL, MISCELLANY
- I never thought I’d be into listening to music out in the woods, but it turns out I am. This makes sense since I listen to music on my training hikes, but in the wilderness?! When hiking in the Smokies I’m usually on high alert for wildlife, so I don’t think I’d feel as comfortable with earbuds there. This also wouldn’t make sense for areas where mountain lions roam. However, on this particular trip, music helped me power through Georgia’s mountains on the AT. Must update the playlist!
- Seeing the first white blaze of the AT on Springer Mountain was an emotional moment, a sign that the dream is starting to become a reality, even through section hiking.
- I need sleep at night so I can function the next day. Shelters are great in the rain because gear doesn’t have to be set up and then taken down wet. However, there are a lot of snorers out there, and I haven’t found an earplug yet that will block out the sound of a chainsaw snore reverberating over shelter floorboards.
- Georgia never goes around the mountain, only up and over.
- The kindness and generosity of strangers is truly touching. A former thru hiker hiked up and over Blood Mountain one night in the worst weather to bring fresh fruit and candy to us before setting back out in the wind and rain. The shuttle driver at the end of my hike wouldn’t let me pay him because he said he enjoyed helping hikers out. Why are people so incredibly kind and generous to a bunch of vagabonds who decide to walk in the woods for a while? I will never understand this, but I am moved by it.
- Over the past few years, I’ve started to become more comfortable with not wearing makeup, but there is still insecurity about showing my untouched face. I have dark marks, circles under my eyes, the olive skin just looks so dull and brown some days, a myriad of imperfections I could nitpick all day long. It’s not easy to let go of these things when meeting new people and hoping they don’t see an ugly mess before them. Part of being outdoors is learning to fully embrace our natural selves in all our humanity. In daily life, we cover up the blemishes, cover up the smells, fix the hair just so, and endlessly worry about our appearance to others. In the woods, everyone stinks and looks just as they are. While it’s still hard for me, I am learning to let go here.
- I had to keep reminding myself that I could do this. As silly as it sounds, when you’re out there feeling tired, facing another big climb, sometimes a dip into the well of inner strength is required. Repeating a phrase that will get you up the next incline, or help ignore that throbbing blister, is a good way to keep your mind from going to a negative place.
- Negativity accomplishes nothing and is pointless in every way. It’s going to rain. Your body is going to ache in ways you never thought it could. Mud will get all over everything. Coldness will creep under your skin. Food will taste gross or not fill you up. Your hair will look like pelicans have been nesting there for years. Gear will fail. You will be tired beyond belief. But you know what?! The sun is going to come out again to warm up the earth and you. You will get to town and have a wonderfully filling meal. A shower will make you feel like a new person. The views will be spectacularly soul refreshing. You are living your best life without having to sit at a desk everyday. These memories will last forever. You will find inner strength you didn’t know you had. You will make new friends who understand this experience better than anyone else in your life can. You will reclaim your spirit and see God in new ways.
- If you want an extra dose of strength before setting out on a journey, read books by hikers you admire who’ve done these trails before. Jennifer Pharr Davis, Heather Anderson, Liz Thomas, Cheryl Strayed, Bill Bryson, David Miller, Gary Sizer, Ben Montgomery, Zach Davis…there are SO MANY. Knowing that others have been in the same place, experiencing the same range of emotions while powering through, can be inspiring and motivating.
- I didn’t need the extra pair of waterproof gaiters “just in case.” The small gaiters I had worked great over my trail runners and were fine, even in wet weather.
- Merino wool is an awesome fabric with magical powers that will keep you both cool and warm at the same time. I wore merino socks, leggings, shirt, and hat.
- Bringing the Patagonia Nanopuff jacket was a smart move over a down puffy due to all the rain and humidity. I think my down jacket would have gotten wet and been a sopping cold mess.
- Backpacking in trail runners is not the same as day hiking in trail runners. The extra weight really does make a difference and I need wider, more cushioned shoes.
- I brought 5 pairs of socks, which is considered totally excessive by backpacking standards, but I used every single pair and will do this again. Two pairs of merino liner socks, two pairs of Darn Tough hiker socks, one pair of waterproof socks for rainy days.
- Need to purchase a merino wool t-shirt for summer hiking.
- Need to get a lightweight shirt I can keep clean and wear on town days so I don’t smell as bad.
- While hiking, it will seem like you can’t make up your mind about how warm or cold you are. You will shed layers like it’s 90 degrees in winter. You will add layers like it’s the arctic in July. You will do this all day long.
- My hands were freezing at some point every single day and the pair of gloves I brought ended up getting wet and being useless. Shell mitts kept me dry, but not warm, even when used with gloves, without gloves, and with wool socks on my hands. I tried everything and my hands froze. Next time I’m bringing the shell mitts, a pair of merino liner gloves, and a pair of warm mittens for camp that will remain in my pack until camp. Also, in winter, Hand Warmers will be a staple in my kit from now on.
- Not a piece of clothing, but having an umbrella in the rain and wind made the bad weather tolerable and kept me protected from the elements. I lashed it to my pack with bungees so I could still use trekking poles. It was worth every bit of the 7 oz it weighs.
- The things you think you’ll want to eat on the trail when planning your meals at home, will actually not be things you want to eat on the trail.
- I don’t drink caffeine, so I never made coffee in the morning, but having a cup of tea at night was the perfect end to each day.
- Pre-packaged freeze dried and dehydrated meals are expensive and not all of them taste good. Before I head out on my next trip, I plan to dehydrate a bunch of meals at home (chili, spaghetti, fruit, veggies to add to ramen) to save money and weight.
- Tortillas are really heavy. They weigh a ton, but they have 26 carbs each and work a lot better than bread. My lunch was a packet of buffalo chicken on a tortilla, and while this worked for a few days, I can see it getting old really fast. Jury is out on whether I’ll go the tortilla route next time.
- If you cook in your pot, you will need to clean the pot, and the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is wash dishes or drink swill. Rehydrating in Ziploc freezer bags worked really well thanks to a homemade coozy made from an old windshield protector.
- Must bring more fruit snacks!!! I craved these like crazy and hadn’t brought any with me. Gummy bears are great too, but fruit snacks, mmmm.
- I could barely stomach breakfast. I’d lost my appetite a bit, so eating in the morning was the hardest thing even though I knew I needed to start with some energy. Peanut butter crackers ended up being palatable, but I was pretty jealous of the guy eating warm ramen for breakfast.
- I don’t know how to use a compass yet, and I know this is shameful. I’m planning to learn. I need to learn. Get on it already!
- Guthook app was amazing! I could see how far I had to go to the next water source or shelter, elevation profiles, photos of viewpoints. Really incredible resource to have handy.
- AWOL’s Appalachian Trail Guide is my preferred guide over the smaller Data Book. I ordered the loose leaf version and kept the page for each day in a Ziploc in my pocket. When planning miles or where to camp each night, this is the easiest way to see what lies ahead.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this hike, as with most hikes where I go solo, is to not let fear get in the way of doing the things your heart wants to do. There will always be reasons not to go. The timing will never be perfect. And for some of us, the butterflies will beat their wings relentlessly every time we decide to set out on our own.
Fear might always be present, but it should never be the loudest voice in the room.