Plan, Prepare, and Practice
in no particular order
Practice Makes Perfect
My first consideration when preparing for the Appalachian Trail, seven years before I actually did it, was about experience. I had never hiked or backpacked or even camped really. There was a lot to learn and that meant getting prepared and getting out in the wilderness to learn how to use my gear. I needed experienced people to learn from, so I joined a hiking club called The Ramblers and met a lot of people who knew a lot more than I did about backpacking, sleeping, and eating in the wilderness. I went on many weekend trips with them in southern Arizona and western New Mexico. It rained on almost all of those trips, so I felt pretty prepared for rain when I started the AT.
Boy was I wrong! Nothing could have prepared me for that much rain. But I digress…
A lot of people think they need to be in great shape physically before starting the Appalachian Trail, but that’s not necessarily the case. The trail conditions you, no matter what shape you’re in when you start. But your chances of a successful thru-hike will improve if you aren’t struggling physically at the beginning. One of the best ways to get in good physical condition for hiking is by going hiking. Carry your pack, wear your shoes, and get out in the wilderness to walk over roots and climb over boulders. Then go out the next weekend and do the same thing.
I did day hikes with a fully loaded backpack even when I had no intention of camping. While I walked, I was taking a mental inventory of everything in my pack and how I could make it lighter. My first pack was an Osprey I found on sale at the local outfitter in Tucson. Great pack, but heavy! It weighed 7 pounds! A pack for the AT shouldn’t weigh more than 3 pounds, but it took experience and trial and error – and money – for me to figure that out.
There I go again, talking about gear. Gear is an important part of preparing for the Appalachian Trail, but preparing mentally is just as important. Even avid backpackers and campers can struggle mentally to keep going, to take that next step over that next rock or climb that next boulder. Even the most experienced might weep at the sight of yet another false summit. I was far from experienced.
My longest backpacking and camping trip before I hit the AT was four days and four nights in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, and I planned and completed those four nights and days on purpose. I read somewhere that if you could hike and camp four days and nights in a row, you could complete a successful thru-hike. I believed it, so I asked my friend Steve, a fellow Rambler, to plan a trip. It was just the two of us. The nights were below freezing. My shoes were wet from trekking in the snow and frozen hard as a rock each morning. I slept with my bladder of water inside my sleeping bag to keep it from freezing. But we did it, and we enjoyed it. Can’t say I loved it. Love of hiking and camping came later, on the AT.
Preparing physically, whether by hiking, running, weight lifting, yoga, whatever you like to do, can help to prepare you mentally. Just keep going. Most of the time, hiking on the AT really is what you will want to be doing that day. Hey, beats working, right?
Money. Another consideration. During a thru-hike, you most likely won’t be earning any unless your stocks are doing better than mine are currently. Fortunately, lodging along the AT for the entire 2200+ miles is free. If you want it to be. I met two Canadians in 2003 who I don’t think spent even one night in town. I heard they each finished their thru-hike spending less than $1000 each. It can be done. But not by me. I enjoy a night in town occasionally, to sleep in a bed, eat restaurant food including salads, and restock at a blindingly bright grocery store filled with temptations I couldn’t carry.
As you research town stops along the way, you’ll start to get an idea of how much money you might need to get you through your hike from start to finish. Your biggest expense will be food. You will eat a lot, even while you’re hiking! You will walk or hitchhike out of your way, off the trail, just to get a restaurant meal of fat, cheese, grease, carbs, protein, and quite possibly other things that you would never consider eating had you not just walked 20 miles with all of your belongings on your back. That said, you won’t spend much money on anything else if you purchased your gear and shoes before you started walking.
Plan to Eat!
There are two theories on resupplying food. The most popular is just to resupply along the way in town stops and buy enough to get you through to the next town stop. In my opinion, this is the least expensive and least troublesome way to resupply. I, however, didn’t figure that out until I’d completed about half the trail. I resupplied along the way and used resupply boxes I packed before I started – a lot of them – and got them weighed and paid postage, and then left them with a family member to mail to me along the way. The problem with this is I probably spent more money doing it this way and, well, plans change. I didn’t even use all the boxes.
I still had to buy certain items along the way. One advantage to having resupply boxes sent to post offices along the way is that if there are certain things you really like, or if someone wants to send you homemade goods, as my family did, then they can put them in the boxes. My sister sent me a dozen chocolate chip cookies, an entire pineapple upside down cake, and a loaf of sourdough bread in one box. Between me and two other thru-hikers, none of it made it past the post office porch.
Resupply boxes add another element of planning that, in my opinion, is unnecessary. Preparing for the Appalachian Trail doesn’t really require trips to Costco. There are plenty of opportunities to resupply and vary your diet along the way. Some things you will never get tired of and are easily found in every town along the way, like Hershey bars. They travel well in a backpack and no matter how many times they melt in that foil wrapper, they’ll still be good at the end the of a 20 mile trek.
Plan to Sleep
Hotels and some hostels are another expense you’re likely to be tempted with. An actual bed, a shower, and a place to dry out your stuff is a welcome change for most hikers. Most hostels are either work-for-stay or very cheap. Hotels can range from $30 a night to very expensive in larger towns if you want to go that route. This is where having a guidebook comes in really handy for planning. See my article The Lowdown on AT Guidebooks in a Nutshell for help selecting a guidebook. Town stops are important for several reasons, but you can decide how many of them you want to make and how much time you want to spend in town. Keep in mind, the more time in town, the more temptation to spend money.
I saved $3500 to get me through my hike and the next month after it since I wasn’t going back to work right away. I had plenty of town stops and luxuries, including beer and restaurant food, along the way, and still had money to get me through the month of September before going back to work as a teacher. Even though that was 13 years ago, I still think $3500 is more than most thru-hikers start out with.
It’s Time. You’re Ready. Do It.
One last comment on preparing for the Appalachian Trail. Learn from others. Check out www.trailjournals.com and learn from others. Read their accounts. Read your guidebooks. You can read more about guidebooks in my post Appalachian Trail Guidebooks Buy your gear and use it. Then get dropped off at Springer Mountain and hike your hike. It’ll be the greatest experience of your life.