A ton of tips for the aspiring Appalachian Trail hiker
A close look at gear, technique and attitude
By Paul Comstock
A few months ago I was visiting some friends when a young relative of theirs asked me about hiking on the Appalachian Trail, something he and some of his friends were considering. I told him I'd e-mail him some internet links and a few tips. Before I knew what I was doing, I had written basically what follows, which we offer here for the aspiring AT hiker, or the curious.
If you have only a vague notion of what the AT is, I suggest you take a look at the website of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which supervises and monitors the trail:
My young acquaintance approached me because I am what's called (in AT lingo) a section hiker. That's a person who makes repeated visits to the AT to hike (usually adjacent) stretches of the trail, or sections. I have made repeated trips, walking 615 miles at the time I write this. By comparison, a person who hikes more or less nonstop until completing the entire AT (about 2,174 or so miles) is called a "thru-hiker."
I have found that one big advantage of hiking sections is that between hikes I have had plenty of time to reflect on what I could do to make the next hike less of a pain and more enjoyable than the last one. I have made many changes to my approach. The goal was to avoid past mistakes, to avoid carrying what I don't need and making sure what I do carry is the most effective for my purposes. The main points of that education are offered here, along with other observations.
I will list occasional links to other websites. The ATC site has a page dedicated to trail updates. It's worth frequent visits.
A great message board for AT enthusiasts is WhiteBlaze. It also contains many good articles written by hikers.
Another good site that focuses on gear and making your own gear is Thru-Hiker. It also contains good articles, and gear reviews.
What's the point?
"Hike your own hike" is a cliche often quoted by AT hikers. It basically means, I infer, to do whatever the heck you feel like doing within the confines of the law, local regulations and outdoor ethics. When you walk on the AT you'll meet plenty of other people. I have met or passed hundreds of day hikers. I have met people who parked their car and walked two miles to an AT shelter for an overnight trip. At a hostel along the trail, I once met a fellow who had a lot of nice hiking gear in his car. Five days later, on the way home, I stopped at the hostel again and the fellow was still there. If he'd walked 100 yards on the AT, I had no proof of it.
There is a group (in which I count myself) of many thousands whose AT agenda can be summed up in two words: Keep moving. Our goal is to get up early and walk as many miles as we can before stopping. And doing it daily. Depending on the circumstances, we might take frequent rest breaks, stop to gaze at some feature along the trail that attracts other tourists and even take a day off every so often. But those who don't dawdle will cover more miles (sometimes a lot more) than those who do.
A couple of times I have encountered what proved to be a group of hikers, with one slowpoke member bringing up the rear at a distance. At least one of these groups was openly and wildly irritated by its sluggish member.
How many miles a day is reasonable? It isn't practical to think you can consistently hike only 2 or 3 miles a day because most of the AT terrain is so hilly and rough you won't find good camping spots that close together. AT shelters, where you can sleep in an open wooden structure or pitch a tent, are usually no closer together than 7 or 8 miles. Someone trying to thru-hike might have trouble finishing unless they average 15 or 16 miles a day. I have met dozens of thru-hikers who said they were covering 20 miles a day. A few speed demons told me they were walking 30 miles a day and one fellow said he had gusts of 40 miles a day. Everything about the appearance of these faster people suggested they were telling the truth. They were young, skinny, fit and traveling light.
The AT is surrounded by hundreds of side trails. They often can be used as short cuts instead of walking a longer piece of the AT. The purists will tell you that if you plan to say you walked on the AT, stay on the AT.
Now the bad part
Most of what I will say here is minor, incidental stuff. What hiking the AT is really about -- above all else -- is climbing mountains. Up one side and down the other.
If the Appalachians don't meet your definition of mountains, you must at least concede they are big, monstrous hills. I am inclined to say that when the top of the rock-littered hill in front of you is 3,000 feet straight-up higher than the base where you stand, it ain't no hill. It's a mountain. Many times you will have to climb elevation totaling about 5,000 feet in a period of 2 or 3 days.
Many of the peaks are separated by distances that are slightly level, which in actuality means the hills there are more pedestrian. But there's another problem. Before I visited the AT, I envisioned a nice wide flat sort of grassy path that wound its way through the woods. There are spots like that. But much of the AT is like walking along a dried creek bed filled with rocks. The run-of-the-mill rocks range from a fraction of an inch to two feet in diameter. And there are millions more bigger than that. Not next to trail. On the trail. I don't know what the ratio of smooth and easy is to rocky and rough. But I do know it's possible in spots to walk all day and see very little smooth trail.
If you hike on the AT, particularly in the spring, you probably will have to endure enormous amounts of rain. I have hiked through 48 hours of straight rain. I have been on places on the trail that turned into small creeks, with the water almost up to my ankles.
Rain is your friend. The alternative, drought, is much worse. A hiker needs lots of water. Almost all of it will come from streams and springs along the trail. During a drought, these dry up by the dozen. In recent years, drought has been a recurring problem. Some years are worse than others. 2007 was really bad; I read that Georgia (the southern end of the AT) was completely dry by fall, along with most of Tennessee. Most thru-hikers start in Georgia, northbound, around March. That's what I'd do. Spring is almost always wetter than summer. I'd rather get rained on all the time than face another drought. New England, where the northbounders would be in early fall, doesn't seem to have so many drought problems by comparison. Soundbound thru-hikers generally leave Maine in the early summer, which means they are arriving in Virginia just in time for the driest months of the year.
What to wear
The rain mentioned earlier must be considered in all of your AT preparations. All you carry and all you do must be tailored toward enduring rain. Particularly your clothes.
Almost all AT hikers wear clothes that are 100 percent synthetic, with fabrics that are mostly polyester, but sometimes rayon and nylon. The reason is that synthetic fabric dries pretty quickly and cotton dries very, very slowly. When it doesn't rain, I sweat like crazy. There have been many times when my shirt was totally soaked from sweat. Another reason for quick-drying clothes.
For summer, I usually carry a pair of pants with detachable legs, a second pair with the legs removed and left at home or just shorts, two T shirts, one buttonup shirt and a long-sleeve fleece pullover. I also have one pair of polyester underpants. And that's all I carry. (I'd buy a second pair of the underpants, but I can't find another pair.) One could substitute the fleece with a flight flannel shirt (since you'd be wearing it during a cold night when in theory you would be out of the rain) or a very light windbreaker. Somebody starting off in Georgia in March would want more clothes, like a hat, some kind of jacket with probably a hood and perhaps long underwear. (Btw, when I'm in my sleeping bag, my clothes sack doubles as a pillow.)
When it comes to rain protection, I have tried everything -- rain jacket, rain suit, umbrella and a poncho. The only thing that really kept me and my pack dry was the poncho. I have one made of sil (silicone impregnated) nylon. There's a trick to using a poncho. Because it's just a big rectangle, when you have it on there will be two corners hanging down in front of you, and two corners hanging down behind you. They all are made with some kind of loops on the corners. Tie two short pieces of cord on the corners that hang in back. When you have the poncho on, you pull the loose ends of the cords to the front and tie them at your waist. This will tighten the poncho under your butt behind you, and will securely cover your pack. One will sweat a little under a poncho, but the other stuff I tried made me sweat a lot worse and got me a lot wetter to boot. I tried a couple of pack covers, designed to keep the pack dry. They did not keep my pack dry during a heavy rain.
Sil nylon, btw, is nearly as waterproof as a plastic sheet. It's treated ripstop nylon, which is very light. Untreated ripstop (or any other nylon) is not waterproof.
I carry a small umbrella in case I have to visit the outhouse at night during the rain. I have tried hiking under one but my pack got soaked. A rain suit might be OK in the cold spring in Georgia or in the mountains of Maine and New Hampshire. Otherwise, I wouldn't even consider one.
Because of all the rain and flooded areas and huge puddles, I stopped wearing boots or leather shoes. I wear all-synthetic running shoes. Some companies make them just for hiking, with a lot of vents to let them breathe. I don't get mine at Wal-Mart, I buy them at stores for runners. Cost $80 or so. Same deal as before, synthetic will dry out partially or completely and leather stays wet and heavy. I have asked many hikers using leather boots if their feet stay dry. They all said no, with one exception. This guy put on sandals and wandered off to visit the outhouse, so I checked his boots to see if he was right. It had been raining, and he lied. His boots were wet inside.
It's an old wives tale that boots will protect your ankles by giving them extra support ... the only time I hurt my ankle on the AT, I was wearing boots.
I use only thin nylon socks. Cheap ones I do buy at Wal-Mart. I have tried different kinds of thick socks, even synthetic, but when they get soaked they are impossible to dry, short of visiting a laundromat. I wear two pairs on each foot. This reduces friction, which creates blisters. Three pairs per foot might work better. I went from using white socks to black because black will dry quicker in the sun.
Each morning, I put medical adhesive tape on the spots that are likely to blister -- my big toes, heels and the balls of the feet. Then I put Body Glide or Vaseline on those spots. Then I put on my socks and shoes. This has greatly reduced blister problems for me, and I have had some very nasty blisters on the AT. They really suck. You don't want them. If you are hiking and feel a spot on a foot feeling excessively warm, stop immediately. It's a blister getting started. Cover it with first aid tape.
Here is a sil nylon poncho (mine doesn't have the extension):