I did manage to get a few things right when preparing for my 2014 AT thru-hike. Some were gear choices, others were strategies or techniques. This post was written back in May 2014 but not published until now as I didn’t feel I was well-placed to offer anyone else tips on what to do before starting off on Day 1.
Start in April (NOBO). Seriously, what’s up with these Feb/March start dates? Unless you like a crowd and sub-zero weather, or believe you need 7 months to complete the trail, leave in April. In my first month I hiked within sight of another person maybe for 10 miles out of 250. Days hiking alone for 8-9 hours were commonplace.
Keep your pack weight down. the difference between carrying a base weight of around 20 pounds versus 35+ pounds is enormous. Injuries, enjoyment, risk of hike failure… Many things stem from pack weight. If I had been carrying over 35lb I think my body would have broken down completely in the first few weeks. Unless you have trained and experienced a heavy pack weight over a long term period of time (not 2 weekend training hikes) you must focus on reducing weight. If you know where to cut pounds and are prevented by the cost of doing so, try flipping it around and instead consider the cost of stopping early. Or consider how much more it will cost and how much less choice you’ll have if you do need to change that piece gear on trail, or send it home unwanted.
Take a hat. Now, I love my Black Rock Gear down beanie and rate it as one of my most essential pieces of gear. It’s function-for-weight-and-space was top notch. But most people had a hat of some sort and they all loved theirs too. As someone who ‘hikes hot’ I only needed to wear it once while actually hiking on a cold day, and down doesn’t want to be out in the rain, but it’s use at night (bear in mind my Zpacks sleeping bag is hoodless btw) and on cold mornings at camp was nothing short of essential. I would not have slept at all well in April and early May without it. And it weighed less than an ounce and scrunched up to the size of a tangerine. Others wore wool or fleece, hats with flaps, beanies, thin, thick, you name it. Just bring a hat.
Start with sunscreen. I carried and used it from day 1 and still got burned! Improve on my situation by carrying SPF50 not 30 and making sure to use it on the top of your ears and the back of your neck and top of your shoulders. You will be burned by the sun because the trees have no leaves in April and even early May. By mid May I only used it 2 or 3 times a week even though it was hot and sunny, because the tree coverage did a good job. In April any sunny spell will feel just nice, not too hot, but you will burn – much to the surprise of many hikers I met. You only need 1oz or 50g as you can resupply at any town. And consider finding a reliable bottle that dispenses sun cream well and refilling it each time rather than actually carrying each new bottle you buy. That way you know how the bottle behaves and if you are forced to buy a full size bottle at a gas station one day it doesn’t matter other than wasting money.
Camp shoes are nice – I used Mizuno Universe 5. Super lightweight (166 g the pair!); full foot covering, protective grippy sole. Very comfortable for short distances around town and camp and they weighed z% less than the Crocs I saw everywhere. They also pack up into a space less than 1 Croc shoe. I probably got 4-5 people a week ask about them. Only downside was the grippy bits on the sole can abrade low-denier materials so keep them off your sleeping bag.
Carry a few spare ziplocks. I don’t think many people do this but I made sure to carry at least 1 spare of each type I was already using so I had about 6 or 7 different bags n me at any one time! From tiny 2″x1″ bags for day-use pills up to gallon slide locks, any bag in use already would eventually rip or it’s seal would fail. So I liked having a handful of backups which cost less than an ounce total.
Use a tent, not a tarp. If you only do your research and shopping in stores then you won’t go wrong here but if you dig deeper you will find lots of reviews and blogged experiences of sexy adventures by highly accomplished hikers, especially in America’s centre and west (eg on the PCT) using these things called tarps. They are floorless tents really, though also not usually offering full height walls either, which are super light and pack up super small. Experienced tarpers will proclaim how they offer all the shelter you ever need. Ignore them. This is the wet, windy and muddy AT and if you don’t already use a tarp now is not the time to start. Bring a tent or a hammock.
Buy the Guthook AT app. Available on iPhone or Android, it tells you where you are on the trail, and where the water sources, shelter, privies, road crossing, campsites and such like are. Invaluable, just don’t check it every 5 minutes in the final hour each day when you can’t believe you still haven’t reached that spot you expected to reach ages ago.
Read Appalachian Trials by Zach Davis. It covers many of the mental and emotional aspects of a long thru-hike and is invaluable in your preparation. (Tip 2: make that list, even if it’s just kept on your phone. You’ll see what I mean.)