Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. That is the old phrase or truism. It’s easy to say or nod your head along with, but preparing to hike the AT encompasses many things, from physical to mental to equipment, from the practical to the abstract, and it’s hard to prepare fully. This article attempts to outline some of specific issues that I have identified to affect me as an individual, how I managed to do that, and how I have prepared in advance in order to best tackle those issues head on.
One aspect of preparing for the Appalachian Trail is testing things before turning up on Day 1. By ‘things’ I mean both gear and your own individual feelings towards physical issues such as heat, humidity, cold, hunger, thirst and how you find carrying different weight loads and psychological issues such as loneliness, living life without bathing, not having a structured work week, etc.
For me personally a big issue that takes much of my attention is injury. I have undergone surgery on both my knees and am currently working through a torn rotator cuff so I am always thinking about how to best rehab or strengthen those areas beforehand, alleviate stress on those areas during the hike, what some worst-case scenarios might be and how to cope with the potential problems becoming reality.
Physically it helps to be in good shape before you start. You will enjoy the first weeks more (i.e. suffer less pain!) and be less likely to suffer injury or become disenchanted with the hike if you are able to hit the ground running, so to speak. If this is a weak area then start getting in shape sooner rather than later.
If you can test things out well before the hike itself then you will weed out unsuitable gear, gain confidence in your skills or gear items that make the cut and discover how you will handle certain situations in the field. Want to take a fancy GPS watch? Best take it out on the hills first and find out how it really works. Not sure how your body copes with a heatwave? Strap on a pack in August and pound out some miles. Personally I have hiked a reasonable amount in 90+ degree condition with no great water resources and have not been adversely affected so for me I don’t feel I need to take any special precautions for those conditions. Cold on the other hand is a different story…
Turning to gear first of all, I have been preparing for the AT for over a year now and was therefore able to turn the long cold winter of 2012/2013 to some advantage. I spent one memorable day outdoors in January in freezing temperatures (1c / 34f before windchill) with inadequate clothing. Not that this was deliberate but it soon proved that an Icebreaker Merino SS Tee, Arcteryx Delta zip-neck fleece and rain shell were not anywhere near sufficient – for me at least.
Lesson learnt early, and this winter will therefore see me able to test a more winter-proof clothing system. Not only did I accomplish some gear testing I also tested my own feelings towards cold weather (clue: not good) and am now able to design a system suitable for me rather than anybody else. Hopefully this will result in being able to stay on trail even if temperatures hit the -27c they did last year and I won’t have to hole out in town for several days to let the weather ease up as many hikers in spring 2013 were forced to.
I tested some Montane Sabretooth gloves last winter also. A top pick of TGO Magazine they seemed to offer the ‘do it all’ solution encompassing great dexterity, warmth and weight. For me at least they did not. They are a great urban winter glove where you only need to exist in freezing temperatures for a couple of hours maximum, perhaps while out shopping or outdoor ice skating, but they were too cool for ‘living in’ winter and not even a 100 weight fleece liner helped sufficiently. Another lesson learnt here.
Now I am testing a 4-layer system where the liner and mid-glove are both thin and flexible, offering adequate warmth in cool temperatures and then adding a light (74g the pair) winter mitt with 133g Primaloft One insulation before topping that off with eVent rain mitts. These four can be worn together if need be and pretty much all combinations of 2-3 of them are perfect for different conditions. All together they are pretty darn warm, though not -20c warm though which is why I will test these this coming winter to see whether the 74g mitts need to be upgraded to something thicker. Swapping the 110g Sabretooth single layer for two mid-layers weighing just 8g more in total has resulted in a system that is both much warmer and also more flexible. I can just send the insulated mitt back in summer and stick with the other three.
I’ve also been testing the Scarpa Spark unlined trail runner shoes for about 9 months now. They debuted widely to rave reviews and seemed to be a good candidate for a summer hiking shoe, for about the middle thousand miles, once winter has eased off and before the tough terrain of New Hampshire and Maine starts. I have been able to wear them when walking, playing sport and working out in the gym. Their lugs mean they are not always suitable for every one of those tasks but I wasn’t going to hold a lack of traction against them since I would know they were not designed for flat surfaces. But from session 1 to the current day they have not felt quite right on my feet. After about 20 minutes my right foot starts to get a bit numb. There is no chafing or hot spots, and various socks and lacing techniques has not changed that. They feel comfortable when I first wear them but they just don’t feel right after 20 minutes. I thought at first it could be their 6mm drop from heel to toe, hardly the minimal ‘barefoot’ drop that is so trendy right now but still a step up (or down) from a traditional shoe, but after 9 months of wearing them actively for at least two sessions a week I can’t give them a thumbs up. But this is why it is good to test things beforehand. I still have time to try further summer options.
The boots I will start with, Ecco Biom Hike boots, were the result of trying on at least 20 pairs of boots in every gear shop I could find in London and purchasing (and returning) several other pairs that seemed promising in the shop. I even had some new Salomon’s shipped from Germany since they were not yet available in the UK and had to pay £15 to return them when they shredded my feet in one evening at home! I then wore the Eccos on several day hikes without getting a single hotspot or having my feet feel ‘tired’ or ‘bruised’ in any way. I actually think that the size I have is a smidge on the small side and I wouldn’t be surprised to find them becoming cramped after a time on the AT – people report their foot size grows by 1, even 2, full sizes when hiking the AT, but you can only start out with the right boots on Day 1 and just play it by ear from there. If I need to swap them for something else or just a bigger size then so be it. At least I have confidence in my footwear on Day 1 which is great.
I only intend to start the AT with 3-4 days of prepared food. The trail runs right by the famous Mountain Crossings outfitter after about 3 days of hiking and most hikers resupply and swap disliked gear there. There’s a crazy stat of how many tonnes of gear they have shipped home for hikers. Anyway, in 150 days of hiking I only intend to pre-select 3-4 days so it’s not that important. But there’s time enough for ramen noodles and random Snickers bar tortillas so I might as well start with something that is good, that I like and know how it works.
Just yesterday I received several freeze-dried meals (what a friend recently described as “astronaut food”) from UK company Fuizion Foods which have taken care of the weekend’s meals. Dinner last night was the Coq Au Vin and Chicken Chasseur. All four dinner bags weighed about 130g (ranging from 127g-132g) with the bag itself being 20g of that (so if you repackage the food into 2g ziplocs and keep one original bag safe you save 18g per meal). The calorie content for these were in the 520-570 range. They do some pasta-based dinners with calorie contents in the 650-700 range but I knew what these are like already so I was keen to try something new.
You just pull the bag apart at the top (nothing to tear off and lose) and add 310ml of boiling water, stir, close the bag and leave for about 10 minutes (the exact time varied slightly between each meal). You would definitely need a pot cozy or something because 12 minutes uninsulated in cold weather would leave your dinner pretty cool by the time it was ready. The bags are a thin shiny metal material on both sides which would do a good job of reflecting heat. It is easily punctured however with metal fork tines so use only spoons near them! After rehydrating the meals were excellent, full of flavour (both have ingredients including around 15% wine which really came through) with plenty of chunks of decent chicken and were reasonably filling. Not the largest portions ever so I imagine a hungry hiker would want to supplement it in some way.
I have purchased and have been testing many smaller pieces of gear in the last year. Stuff sacks, thermometer/compass combos, socks, shorts, chamois cream and anti-chafe gels, sunscreen, Permethrin, DEET products, a Buff, antihistamines (I like ones you can break in half for a smaller dose), summer baselayers, beanies, blister preventatives and treatments, foam pads, antiseptic creams, a Stick-Pic, carabiners, laundry detergents, drinking vessels, dehydrated food, ear plugs and shades, gaiters (until I lost the winner), rain mitts, foot creams, protein shakes (I love Carnation Breakfast Essentials but they are hard to get here in the UK), headphones, hand sanitisers, trousers, underwear aplenty (the jury is still out), wind jackets, pee bottles (yep), even different ziploc bags. The list goes on.
Don’t leave the dozens of smaller items until the last few months because you are more concerned with more important items or the sheer amount of work will become overwhelming and you might find your purchases are rushed, constrained by availability or you cannot get the best prices.
Another reason to be ahead of the game is, if you are in that fortunate position, you can ‘let’ your friends and family buy you desired gear for your birthday or Christmas. Obviously it needs to be gear you know you will definitely use based on your research and testing. This helps them be part of your adventure and gives them a tangible – and photographable! – connection to your success.
Be aware that individual products come and go, they get upgraded (not always in a way that suits you) and they go out of stock at just the wrong time. I had to wait 4 months to get the tent I wanted. Understand what KIND of product you need first and foremost, and only then identify a shortlist of the current products that fill that niche. Next year it will likely be a different set of contenders.
Be aware that manufacturers and retailers have two distinct seasons – Spring/Summer (abbreviated as SS) and Autumn/Winter (AW). SS kicks in at the end of February or beginning of March and lasts until the last week or August or first week of September. At those season fringes you will find the best price reductions in gear they don’t want to stock any more, though they might not have the items or sizes you want of course). During a given season you may find only a few best-selling items from the other season in store so don’t leave it until March to hunt for your down jacket because they will be awash in t-shirts then!
The bottom line is: test often and test early, especially if the issue relates to weather conditions. Try and test gear – and yourself – in the heat of summer and the depths of winter. Try and live with your gear in your daily life where that is possible – you don’t need to be in a tent to pee in a bottle or use a Shewee, I’m just sayin’.
Understand what makes YOU effective, safe and comfortable. Don’t be afraid to spend time, money and weight on your particular fears or desires. If you feel the cold then go ahead and carry warmer gear then the next hiker might. If you hate the idea of not bathing for weeks on end, carry plenty of wet wipes and don’t worry if someone online said two a day was the ‘maximum you need’. Knowing ahead of time that your key concerns are well addressed will lead you to look forward to the hike with confidence and excitement, not worry and foreboding, unconsciously ready to give up at the first hurdle.