View Full Version : Early musings from the AT

05-17-2018, 16:17
I'm posting this from the Damascus, VA public library, where I've shuttled ahead for Trail Days. I'm sure other people will comment on Trail Days; this post is random musings about my experiences getting 360+ miles on my NoBo trek.

"Trudgery": That's my term for quite a bit of the southern AT, where the terrain requires your attention nearly every second. (If you swat at a gnat on your arm, you will trip on something.) This isn't fun hiking. I've already met four people hiking some or all of the AT again because their first trek was spent looking at their feet. There are plenty of things worth seeing, and worth stopping to see. In addition to the expected scenic vistas, I got to see a recent forest fire up close just days afterward coming into Hot Springs, NC. The firefighters used the AT as a firebreak.

Conditioning: It's better to be in good shape when you start the Trail. I thought I had prepared reasonably by being able to hike 15 miles with a 35 lb. pack -- on flat ground at sea level. I was wrong, as I ended up taking two days for the Approach Trail. You can get in shape on the AT, and I was stubborn enough to do so. It's not fun.

Georgia: It's not easy. The stairs at Amicalola Falls whipped my butt. The descent from Blood Mountain (highest point in Georgia) is awfully steep. That said, North Carolina is tougher.

Trekking Poles: It seems there are about as many styles of use as hikers. I figure poles used inefficiently are probably more helpful than deleterious to your AT hiking experience. I pole more aggressively than most, digging in to protect my knees going downhill and to support myself should I slip backward on uphill stretches; but I carry my poles on clear stretches with little slope. There have only been about a dozen places so far where I've needed to toss my poles forward and use three-points-of-contact climbing. However, there have been lots of places where there's room for your feet but not also for your poles. My biggest problem has been where a pole plants much (like a foot) deeper than expected; too often, that has led to me taking a tumble and bending my pole. I think aluminum poles are a much better idea than carbon for people who have this problem. I was hiking with a guy who would occasionally hike up his pack at the hips, flinging his pole tips around eye level. Conversation got difficult because I started following much further back where I couldn't hear him when he was facing forward.

Trail Magic: It happens, but not dependably. I went two weeks before I got my first soda handed to me on the trail. The best trail magic is a ride when you need one, which I've received a couple of times now. However, food alone can be outstanding in sufficient quality and quantity. I took a zero day because of awesome trail magic near the Fontana Hilton: eggs at 9:00, burgers later, cheesecake, and my last cold drink 7 hours after the start. Lots of opportunity to talk to other hikers as well, so the experience nourished both body and spirit.

Flexibility: It's good to be able to tolerate everyday aches and pains, because every day you'll have aches and pains. I stated on the Approach Trail on March 23, and my shoulders and hips have been sore every day since then. Add to that sore feet, sore ankles, sore knees, peeling sunburn, bug bites, scrapes from bushes along the trail, & c. and other annoyances. Learn to embrace the suck. I've actually managed to follow the (generally stupid) advice of abusive football coaches everywhere and, faced with a swollen ankle thanks to rock scrambles around Big Butt (actual name) to "walk it off". (Didn't really have an alternative, as I wasn't going to call for a helicopter extraction just for a boo-boo.)

It's also good to be able to deal with things changing fast. This includes weather, where I had a few flakes of snow my first day and temperatures in the high 70s a couple weeks later. I expected to need bug netting in June, but actually used it starting the first week of May. Changes to your body might come even faster, as I've taken up 12 inches on my hip belt (Granite Gear's "RE-FIT" system) in 6 weeks. This is scary fast weight loss. I wore my L.L. Bean Cresta hiking pants until they literally fell off me. In response to these body changes I've adopted 4 rules of consumption:

Drink when you're thirsty.
Drink when you're not thirsty.
Eat when you're hungry.
Eat when you're not hungry.

Ball Caps: They suck. I left my AT cap in a hiker box in Franklin, and replaced it with a boonie hat. The wide brim protects my ears and neck from sunburn. The brim also keeps bug mesh away from my head so they can't bite me through it.

Hiking Partners: It's helpful to find someone with a compatible pace. I spent about 10 days with a father & son pair. The son was trying to take care of his dad, who was awfully sedentary in retirement. The dad was hiking with whiskey and cigars, and the pace was as slow as 4 miles a day. I've had a couple other hiking partners since then, and they both wanted me to lead. Apparently I'm better at that than I thought.

Stubbornness: An excellent quality to have, which will get you through when everything else fails. I spent my most miserable day on the AT hiking just 6 miles up from Mollie's Ridge in GSMNP, with steep climbs in 4 inches of mud during driving rain. (I only fell once that day, but slid downhill on my butt two body lengths.) The next day I needed to take a zero in my tent just using my body heat to dry out soaked garments one at a time. The day after that I got back on the trail and convinced another hiker who'd experienced the same ridiculous climb to reconsider his choice to quit.

Out of time now. Will post later if time permits.

05-18-2018, 15:08
Clothing: Expect to need changes here in the Spring. I got a lot of good use out of a synthetic vest for the first month on the Trail: it kept me warm in drizzles, and also allowed air to circulate under my arms. But I've sent that home and gotten a short-sleeved T-shirt and mosquito netting in exchange.

Temperature: You're going to have to figure out what you need to stay comfortable. I've been warm at night in a 32.4 bag with temperatures in the teens. Rather than cinch the hood up (which leads to dampness from condensation all around the tight opening) I wore my vest over fleece base garments, and sometimes my puffy jacket over everything. That extra insulation stuffed up the opening into the sleeping bag without causing a condensation problem. Meanwhile other hikers around me have been cold with 10 bags.

Weight: You will carry too much. The free pack shakedown at Mountain Crossings identified only 4-5 ounces of things I could do without, and still I sent home over 6 pounds of stuff in the next month. (For instance, I was warm enough not to need a second shirt at the start of the trek. And the weather warmed up fast so I got rid of my fleece sleeping clothes right after finishing the Smokies.) Changes to your body will make you awkward. As I was losing weight around my middle I was gaining dense muscle in my legs, meaning my center of gravity dropped. With the same pack weight I ended up with a top-heavy load. One day after picking up a resupply box right before hitting the trail, this top-heavy load caused me to do a face plant when I tripped. As you lose body weight you'll want to carry less, and carry it lower in your pack. And you'll still be clumsy as a consequence of fast changes in your shape.

Gear: You're going to end up changing some things even if you're sure you're not carrying unnecessary equipment. I started with a Primus OmniLite Ti stove, which worked well with Coleman fuel. With generic white gas I bought in Georgia the stove clogged up, and wouldn't stay clean even after I went through all the necessary maintenance steps. So I switched to the only name brand (Optimus) canister fuel stove I could find in Franklin, NC, and sent the fancy Primus stove home.

Through decisions that were mostly about weight and price I ended up with equipment that's slow to use. The Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 2 is a nice tent (light and on sale at 55% off) but you pay for it in setup and breakdown time. It's got 3 conjoined poles, 14 clips, at least 11 stakes, and 3 strips of velcro. The combo of Evernew not-so-flexible bladder and Sawyer Squeeze filter works OK for clean water, but is slow both to fill and filter. And my initial stove was also slow to deploy though economical on fuel. Learn from my mistakes and consider speed of use when making gear decisions.

Food: Hard for me to regulate. I burnt through all my snacks in the first couple of days in Georgia, as I was insufficiently motivated to cook. But cooking, at least at night when the weather is cold, helps greatly to ensure a warm night's sleep. I'm still having a hard time shopping for sufficient, but not excessive, amounts of food. I also end up carrying too much water because I sweat, and drink, plentifully. But I've mostly settled on a big hot meal at the end of every day, with a hot breakfast when it's cold. Other food is uncooked.

Out of time again. I hope these reflections on my AT journey are helpful.

05-18-2018, 15:39
Helpful? Yeah some good comments like ball caps, however my initial impression is you might want to slow it down and embrace less suck. Take some zeros before you end up being forced to, not push so hard when the going is tougher. Some of us manage to pack too much, resulting in extreme comfort and happiness. Some of us go slowly enough that they are never sore, tired, injured or otherwise uncomfortable even when under trained and overloaded.
Having said how it can be, its truly a good thing that the amount of available "suck" does not get understated, the trail is different for everyone and those who dont have some grit and a realistic expectation of the potential for "suck" will likely end up disillusioned.

05-18-2018, 18:27
I loved what you describe as trudgery... although, I absolutely agree about watching your footing, and actually stopping to view the scenery. I ended up stumbling a few times trying to do both at once. I just preferred to look at any new terrain as challenging and a nice change of pace.

It's fairly amazing how much weight you can lose, despite eating massive amounts of food. I got some great pre-hike advice from this forum about eating well in the evening to help with sleep and warmth, it's good that you've caught onto that early in your hike.

My friend ended up with the same tent issues. He upgraded his tent in Franklin, after getting tent envy watching me put mine up within a minute or so.

The wide brimmed hat also serves well in the rain.

Probably the best thing I learned on the trail was from a fellow hiker. I was whining about something and he absolutely refused to acknowledge my complaint. He just remained amazingly positive. I tried to take that with me for the rest of my time on the trail.

Stop falling!

05-19-2018, 10:17
Helpful? Yeah some good comments like ball caps, however my initial impression is you might want to slow it down and embrace less suck. Take some zeros before you end up being forced to, not push so hard when the going is tougher.
I've taken a bunch of zeroes, and wish I could have taken a few more for bad weather. I'm going slowly already. Our longest day was 15 miles, and we did much less the next day from being tired. There are more hours of daylight than I have stamina to hike unless the terrain is uncommonly flat. So right now it's an exercise in what part of the day to use for hiking. In Virginia I expect afternoon siestas during the heat to be viable, but not quite yet. A big part of the suck for me is heat. This month my role on the Trail has seemed to be to take water at stream temperature and squeeze it out at sweat temperature with added salt to attract the gnats. I'm really good at that role!

Odd Man Out
05-19-2018, 10:30
I've spent much of my life trying to convice people to wear hats with a full brim, without much luck. I guess I'm not the a fashion icon. Now if I could just get Meghan Markle to wear one...

If you are cold, wear a hat. If it is sunny, wear a hat. If there are bugs, wear a hat. If it is rainy, wear a hat...

05-19-2018, 10:53
Old = slow: I think this is pretty much a given. I use my poles to absorb downhill impact to spare my knees. I've only got a certain amount of cartilage there, and I want to keep it all. In my youth I could be a bit sore from downhill impacts without trekking poles and recover overnight. At my present age I need to keep my knees constantly bent to avoid joint wear, and my thigh muscles complain greatly most days after AT descents. I'm getting faster, and I'll probably be fast enough to complete my through-hike. But I'll still be slow compared to younger hikers.

Leg length: If you've got a 34" inseam much of the Trail will seem easier for you than it does for me with my 29". There are lots of steps on the trail, most of them put in place with logs and convenient rock slabs. The trail steps are often such that I've got to jump up/down rather than actually step. There's a reason building codes limit the dimensions of stairs, but the AT wasn't built to these codes.

Getting by: You can change your gear endlessly on the Trail, and I've seen a couple hikers take that route with multiple backpacks, bags, mattresses, and tents in just 6-7 weeks. At a certain point you have to get comfortable with what you've got and realize that most of the big changes are going to be in you rather than your equipment. I've changed my stove because the old one wasn't working well. I didn't change my mattress when my hips were sore from side sleeping, but just added a square of blue foam from a hiker box for extra padding. I don't plan to change my tent, either; I'm a bit faster at setup and breakdown from repeated practice, and if it's not raining it's not a big deal. There are probably better choices for everything I'm carrying, but on the other hand everything I'm carrying is good enough to get me up the Trail.

05-19-2018, 10:55
Kentucky derby...wear a gate