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  1. #1
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    Default Very New Beginners' Questions

    Hello all,

    I'm very inexperienced when it comes to hiking; for the most part, I run, bike, and swim for cardio. I go for a hike every now and then in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, sometimes getting as far afield as Shenandoah National Park, where the most strenuous hike I've done is Old Rag. I'm looking for any (and lots of) general advice that more experienced hikers can give me on how to prepare, over a long period of time, to thru-hike the AT. I'm 28 years old, in pretty decent all-around shape (I exercise regularly even if I don't hike much), have always loved hiking, and anticipate having sufficient savings sometime in the next two or three years, and sufficient flexibility with my job, to devote five-to-seven months to a thru-hike. Where and how should I start transitioning into hiking more; what level of hiking shape are most people who succeed in completing a thru-hike in when they start the trail? How often (how many days) do really experienced hikers, the sorts of folks who complete a thru-hike, go for a hike in a typical week? What kind of mileage are they putting away per week before starting the trail?

    Thanks for any and all advice, links, and help offered; happy trails to one and all!

  2. #2

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    Lots of people thru who have never hiked before setting foot on the AT for their attempt. Not that I recommend that. So my advice is, start hiking. Or rather backpacking. (I "hike" without a backpack in the nature preserve near my house. Backpacking entails overnight with all your equipment) Overnights preferably. As many and for as long as possible between now and when you plan to attempt thru hiking. In any and all kinds of weather. And if all you can do is short hikes during the week at least throw on a backpack. And get as much elevation into your hike as is feasible. Learn your equipment, what works and doesn't, what you like and don't.

    And enjoy!
    https://tinyurl.com/MyFDresults

    A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world. ~Paul Dudley White

  3. #3

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    Yep, start doing overnight backpacking trips. Your close enough to the AT to do weekend trips in various locations. The SNP is a good place to start, although it can be busy. South of the SNP is my favorite part of VA, as it's fairly rugged. Hiking Glasgow to Waynesboro is a good taste of what the more difficult parts of the AT are like. If you have vacation time and if you can take it as a bunch of 3 day weekends, that helps a lot in making the trips a bit less rushed. Once you get comfortable with the overnight trips, try a week long excursion. Having that experience makes a huge difference. You'll have your gear mostly dialed in and know how to use it. But most importantly, you'll know if backpacking and camping is something you enjoy. Or not.
    Follow slogoen on Instagram.

  4. #4

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    As for conditioning pre hike, just keep doing what your doing. If your in any kind of reasonable shape starting out it shouldn't take more then 10 days or so to get your "trail legs". Just in time for NC
    Follow slogoen on Instagram.

  5. #5

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    Physical condition is one of what I believe are three critical elements of successful long distance hiking. Certainly paying attention to physical conditioning is important but not necessarily the reason people get off the trail short of completion.

    In my view, emotional/mental conditioning is perhaps the most critical to prepare for. There will be many discouraging days on the trail after a week of rain, many nights alone in a tent, many weeks/months from home and the support of family, spouse, children, and friends. I hesitate to call this homesickness, but it probably falls into that category from a distance and something one has to be mentally prepared for.

    Compartmentalization of thoughts is something that is learned, this is how pilots remain cool under pressure of a flight problem for example. Learning how to push the "gee, at home I would be.....) train of thought into a compartment and close the door takes a little effort to learn, but once learned it can be a lesson that goes through life with you and in my view, necessary for a successful multi-month trek.

    Keeping morale high can be a heavy lift when things aren't going well, even more so if with a group that finds more to grouse about than they do being thankful for and enjoying. The only real training one can do is to get out into bad weather for a three or four day walk-about to "embrace the suck". Trying to stay warm, some semblance of dry, caring for gear, preparing hot food, tired past the ability to sleep, feeling a bit sorry for oneself as thoughts of home and all that encompasses ramp up lying in a tent. Home is warm, dry, safe, convenient with dry bathrooms, hot showers, selection of real fresh food, not wondering what the significant other is up to without you there, and hundreds of other thoughts become enveloping. Day after day after day of this can weigh heavily and will do more to create a mental barrier than physical limitations that can eventually become insurmountable and terminate the most well intentioned trek. Having some experiences in nasty wet and cold conditions will help take the edge off and gird the mind for these conditions. If nothing else, learning the value of short term goals and achievement, not thinking about the thousand miles remaining but laser focused on "I only have to reach the next camping area 6-miles ahead" goal cannot be learned from reading in my view, it is experiential. Being "in the moment" or mindfulness takes a bit of practice but the more experience one has in those moments the greater the chances are for a successful thru.

    Another reason people frequently quit a thru hike prior to the end is finances. How will bills (loans, credit cards, rent, automobile storage) be paid. Who tends to pets, getting mail, and other seemingly minuscule issues that cannot go 5 - 6 months on their own. Is the thru hike reasonably financed so one does not become one of the many cardboard sign beggars in New England intersections when hiker boxes are empty and funds are exhausted. Sitting pretty arriving at Springer with a few thousand dollars in the bank quickly evaporates when there is 400 miles remaining and the money has gone. This facet of long distance hiking should be figured out perhaps before physical conditioning start.

    Being reasonably well funded for a trek lasting about a month longer than ones estimated time, having some experience with bad weather conditions that can leave one wet for days on end, and compartmentalization of distracting thoughts will buoy mental health by reducing the collective emotional weight of these issues.

    In my view, everyone that has made a commitment to a long distance trek has had to clear these hurdles at some level to complete the goal. This is part of the value in taking on such challenges, making one stronger as a person, and one of the few things that will stay with you for decades following the event.

    Good luck!

  6. #6
    Garlic
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    Default

    One tip I like to give newcomers is to work up to a 100-mile trip in time off work. It will teach you a lot about food and fitness for a sustained hike.

    I started doing that on the Colorado Trail back in the 1980s, when the CT was still mostly a dream, and I learned a lot over several sections. My first 100 mile trip I planned on ten days and carried something like thirty pounds of food. It took seven days and I was dumping food wherever I could. Twenty years later, I could hike 100 miles in an easy four days, with less than ten pounds of food. That's a valuable metric to have for planning.

  7. #7

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    Seems to me you are already better prepared than most who start a thru hike. The ancient Greeks said: "Know Thyself". So my advice to you is; know your hiker self. For example, are you a southbounder (big bubbles, party crowds) person? or a northbounder (lone wolf) person? Or maybe a flip-flopper (the more mature crowds) person? Are you a ground dweller (tent, tarp) or you prefer to sleep in a hammock? Do you like to hike in boots? trail runners? or maybe sandals? You must cook, or you can go cold (save money, time, weight)? Finally, check out Dixie's YouTube channel "homemade Wanderlust". My favorite youtuber when it comes to hiking and gear advice.

  8. #8

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    Everyone is 100% unique in their growth of hiking. Best advice i can personally give is get out there and go on hikes. Start with 10-15 miles a day, keep you pack <30lbs and always have a solid plan B option.
    Trail Miles: 4,317.5 - AT Trips: 72
    AT Map 1: 2193.1 Complete 2013-2021
    AT Map 2: 270.2
    Sheltowee Trace Map: 148.0
    BMT Map: 57.7
    Pinhoti Trail Map: 31.5

  9. #9
    Some days, it's not worth chewing through the restraints.
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    Default

    Sounds like all good advice, and I second it. I started with short one-nighters with my father, and hiked the Long Trail with him over a three year span of one- and two-night hikes. Once you have your own style down pat, then adding time - whether it's a week, a month, or 6 months - is really just a matter of logistics and attitude.

  10. #10
    Registered User SAWNIE's Avatar
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    Default

    This is a wonderfully composed and informative answering a simple overall request for information. Thank you, Traveler.

  11. #11
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    Default

    If I was to add anything, it would be to do your practice trips in the worst weather - most overnight/ weekend trips get cancelled if the forecast is crappy - you do not have that luxury with distance hiking

  12. #12
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    Lightbulb First things first

    I hate to ask this question, but you haven't mentioned something that's very critical: have you ever camped out overnight? I don't mean backpacking (which is actually Step 3), I mean just driving to a camping spot in your car, bringing as much gear as you wish, and then spending the night at a camp site, using a sleeping bag (or quilt) and a tent (or hammock). Also cooking your meals with a camp stove, and keeping up with basic cleanliness using fairly basic facilities. For some people, just camping out in nature, with all its strange sounds and less than optimal sleeping conditions, is not something they enjoy. Hiking in nature is fine; but sleeping in it, not so much. Similarly, some people find the relative difficulty and monotony of camp meals, or the use of primitive hygiene methods, to be more than they would like.
    If you find you can put up with (1) hours of hiking in relatively boring terrain AND (2) the difficulties of living with only that you can carry on your back, then you can continue to some test backpacking. As others have noted, you should start slow, with short overnights going overnight for a few days to traveling for 100 miles with a backpack. You may find yourself singing, "Val-de-reeeeh, val-de-raaaaah, val-de-reeeeh, val-de-rah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha"; or you might find you just don't can't handle long backpacks. At the very least, you'll get a good idea on items you must have and those you can do without.

    Follow-up to my reference of "Val-de-reeeh", for those unfamiliar with what these typical backpackers sing as they drag themselves for 15 miles through mud and muck:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqHMZxxmqVk
    Last edited by GoldenBear; 12-12-2020 at 13:43.

  13. #13
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    Default

    It sounds like you have confidence. But for a person that doesn't, it would not hurt to hike "X" miles in your area i.e. neighborhood, then pitch you tent or hang your hammock in your back yard. You can resume your hike the next morning giving you a two day "outing." This gives you a safe bailout option. It would not hurt to practice your bear bagging skills either. For bonus points pick cold rainy weather to do this in. Build up your pack weight slowly to avoid injury. This gives a person an idea of where their conditioning is and a small glimpse of how they may react to adverse weather, etc.

  14. #14
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    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by GoldenBear View Post
    You may find yourself singing, "Val-de-reeeeh, val-de-raaaaah, val-de-reeeeh, val-de-rah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha"....
    WOW what a blast from the past! That made me laugh out loud (although I may not be laughing after a while -- because now I have an earworm that will last for days!)
    fortis fortuna adjuvat

  15. #15
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    Default

    I think Traveler is on target. I see 6 things are needed, physical ability, mental resilience, time, money, knowledge, and experience. But the thing is you don't need all of them. Everyone brings a different balance of assets. You make up for deficits in one area with resources from the others. However (as Traveler said) the exception is mental resilience. If your heart isn't in it, nothing else matters. But I doubt there is any way to find out other than doing it.

  16. #16

    Default

    Yes! George is giving you good advice as is everyone else. Those shorts that are comfortable on a sunny day may not be so comfortable after 5 hours in the rain. Take advantage of the time you have with those short trips recommended above.

    1 additional training point: Even if your cardio and strength is there, many thru hikers' feet take a beating. I thur hiked with a guy that was a marathoner--never saw him again after week 2 b/c he figured out how take care of his feet.
    How to train for this? Pretty hard until you work up to week long backpacking trips. How to start? Take some of those long weekend trips to rocky areas and hike with full backpack (even if not camping) full days...dry and wet. There are some in VA but you might as well head to the AT north of the Susquehenna River to train the soft tissue of your feet.

  17. #17

    Default

    Start out small and build skills and knowledge. The success rate of newbies trying to thru hike is vanishingly small... not to mention the sadness and pain involved.

  18. #18

    Default

    lots of good replies here.
    I'll just add something specific - expect to need a shoe 1/2 to one size larger than normal and wear LINERS.
    I hadn't backpacked in about 30 years when I did my first LASH this past fall (352 miles NOBO from Springer). I had ZERO problems with my feet. And I'm 'old' and was carrying 25-30lbs most of the time. The right shoes, well-tested and 1/2 size larger, plus those wonderful CoolMax liners paired with a good-quality merino wool hiker, I believe were a couple of my most important gear decisions. (I don't use the Injinji toe sock liners, but a lot of hikers swear by them. I've never had problems between my toes, I find regular liners work fine for me.)
    I saw other section hikers on trail wearing new/poor footwear, the wrong socks, dealing with blisters, toes jamming into the front of shoe on downhills, etc.

  19. #19
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    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by danil411 View Post
    . . . Even if your cardio and strength is there, many thru hikers' feet take a beating. . .
    Wow, lots of good solid advice and suggestions. I'm rather stunned the first comment to address feet was so far down the thread. Foot issues are hugely variable depending on the person and the choices they make. BUT, many people have pretty serious foot issues, many that end their hikes early because of feet, and almost all of us have to learn how to take care of our particular feet. And one of the most overlooked aspects of physical training for backpacking, is physical training of the feet. Two central foot issues, skin issues and tendon strength issues, both of which require longer miles with a load to strengthen for, and, this is probably why so many people have so many foot issues early in their thru-hikes.

    Our feet are pretty much skin, bone and tendons. Unlike cardio that takes weeks to develop and muscles that take months to develop, tendons take years to develop strength. And, walking or running 15 miles in a day is not the same stress load on your feet as carrying a pack for the same distance. . . different stride and different loading on a different time scale.

    For tendon strength, I'm a big fan of keeping a 20 lb bag of rice next to my backpack and trying to do a ten+ mile hike at least weekly with at least my bag of rice in my backpack.

    Surprisingly to me, strong tendons in ones feet reduces foot blister issues for many people. And, for me, blisters are never a problem until I pass the 10 mile mark and am also carrying a backpack. So both load and distance are required to stress my foot skin as needed to toughen them up and reduce blister issues once I'm on the trail.

    Good luck on your adventures, and never let concern over your fitness level or skill level detour you from getting out and backpacking. Just adjust your length, isolation, acceptable weather conditions, etc. to accommodate your skills and fitness.

    Have fun!
    I'm not lost. I'm exploring.

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