Appalachian Trail Part 1: Questions Answered

I don’t have a super large social media following, but the folks who are connected are pretty doggone engaged. For this I am wildly grateful! Thank you!

Today I reached out on Instagram and Facebook to see if any of my followers had any lingering questions about my experience on the Appalachian Trail. I received some amazing questions that, along with other recent inquiries, will be addressed below (many will be paraphrased and/or consolidated into one question).

Here are the questions I’m responding to:

  • Is the Appalachian Trail one long clear trail, or is it easy to get lost on it?
  • Is there an official register of everybody walking the trail?
  • What type of training is necessary/how long does it take for your body to acclimate to (or get used to) walking the trail’s tough miles?
  • Should this endeavor be reserved for fit and/or “veteran” hikers?
  • What’s your strategy for doing this hike? Are you doing it in chunks?
  • How far out do you have this adventure mapped and planned? Is it by sections or do you have the summer planned out to the day?
  • How are you staying motivated when you are tired?
  • Do you wear headphones? If so, what type of music do you listen to?
  • Why and how do you wear sneakers at least a size larger than your foot size?
  • Any hiking shoe guidance for folks with narrow feet?
  • Would the AT be safe for a female traveling alone?
  • Would you recommend traveling with a friend?
  • Can shelter rodents on the trail be avoided if you sleep in a tent?
  • Can you comment on using a tent on a stormy night?
  • How would you compare the AT other hikes?
  • When are you planning to finish?
  • Are you writing another book?

Alright, folks! Let’s get started!

Q: Is the Appalachian Trail one long clear trail, or is it easy to get lost on it? The Appalachian Trail is a single-track, 2190+ mile nature trail that spans from Springer Mountain, GA to Mt. Katahdin, ME. So far it’s been extremely well marked with white blazes on trees, rocks, and signs, and I’m told it’s the same for the duration. If that’s the case, it’ll be nearly impossible to get lost! Yay!

Q: Is there an official register of everybody walking the trail? Great question! As far as I can tell, no. The numbers of official registrants are noted here and categorized by start dates, but there are plenty of hikers who don’t register, too. For context, I started on March 14th and I’m hiker # 1297.

Q: What type of training is necessary/how long does it take for your body to acclimate to walking the trail’s tough miles? I’m a big fan of preparing in advance for the physical and mental asks of the trail. This means I spent a lot of “spare” time beforehand walking around my hometown wearing a backpack filled to the approximate weight I’d be lugging on the trail. In my case, this equated to about 10-15 miles/day about 4x/week with 35 lbs. on my back. I’ve met very few people, old and young alike, who did any sort of training for the AT whatsoever. And yet they are rocking and rolling just fine. The trail will definitely get anyone in good hiking shape over time – the trick is to be patient and allow the body to ween into gradually becoming more and more durable. This, however, will look different for everyone.

For example, last year I walked A TON around my (then) hometown of Spokane, WA, and didn’t let a little snow or time of day get in the way of my training, obviously. To me, every step mattered.

Q: Should this endeavor be reserved for fit and/or “veteran” hikers? My quick answer is, HELL NO! No matter one’s level of fitness or backpacking know-how, the trail (and the hikers around you) will teach you everything you need to know to be successful. Of course, a little previous context is probably a good idea, but there are folks from all walks of life, all body types, all activity levels, and all experience levels out there doing there same thing. The way I see it, thru-hikers are out there to look after each other and lift each other up. I believe this mindset is more common than not.

Circa 1995 or so, back when I thought a big pack was better, cotton socks were awesome, and goatees were sexy. We must fail to succeed!

Q: What’s your strategy for doing this hike? Are you doing it in chunks? Bottom line is this – I want to make this thru-hiking thing a lifestyle, and not be something I do once in a while after putting “real” life on hold. The luxury of having my own consulting business is I’m able to work a schedule of my own design. My goal is to work a bit then walk a bit, work a bit then walk a bit, and repeat this cycle indefinitely. For now this is a ~2-3 plan – work for approximately 2 weeks, then walk for approximately 3 weeks. So far, it’s going well. Come July, however, I have some on-site work commitments that will require me to put a flag in the sand for an extended period of time. Odds are I will make it to NY by July, then return in the Fall to finish the trail. But here’s the deal – I don’t care if I finish. I only care that I am walking. So if I manage to keep this sort of work/life balance I’ll be thrilled.

Q: How far out do you have this adventure mapped and planned? Is it by sections or do you have the summer planned out to the day? I’m not a huge planner, but this trail requires an occasional food resupply which demands a certain about of logistical preparation. I need to make sure I make it to a resupply box pickup point (or a grocery store) every 5 days or so. So I’m not winging it as I often do otherwise. But I also don’t want to lock myself into a schedule that’s so tight I am sweating it. I’m keeping things loose and smart, am always aware of what’s in my pack and what’s ahead, and giving myself permission to do whatever I need to do stay dry, safe, and well-fed. Any strategies/plans I make will only be for the upcoming 3-week section.

Crude map of what’s to come!

Q: How are you staying motivated when you are tired? This may sound crazy, but if I stay properly fueled, I don’t really get tired or unmotivated on the trail. I walk, get to camp and do all the chores it requires (set up the tent, change clothes, make dinner, prep breakfast, filter water, brush my teeth), then I’m in bed by hiker midnight (about 30 minutes after the sun sets). When I walked 3259 miles across America, I never suffered from a lack of motivation. Sometimes I was happy, sometimes not. Sometimes I was energized, sometimes not. But generally speaking, I go with the flow and can find contentment in whatever I am doing. Maybe this is one of my superpowers?

This is AT Thru-Hiker Steve Milsaps. I met him when I was walking through TN in 2018. He said the AT is all about the people walking it. If that’s the case, how could one ever get bored!?

Q: Do you wear headphones? If so, what type of music do you listen to? I do not ever wear headphones. I don’t even have any on the trail. So no music, and no podcasts. This has always been my jam, though. I’ve never liked interrupting the sound of my feet hitting the ground or the rustle of wind. At home, music and podcasts are a HUGE part of my life. On the trail, neither are, and are not missed at all.

If I did listen to music…this band would be on loop.

Q: Why and how do you wear sneakers at least a size larger than your foot size? Throughout my life as a runner, and now as a long-distance walker/hiker, I’ve always worn shoes a little bigger than my measured foot size. The reason is simple – feet swell when they work hard. And swollen feet have a tendency to endure friction issues, pressurize toenails (to the point of them turning black and falling off), and may just generally hurt due to constriction. No thank you. Anyone who has been on their feet all day knows this is true. You get home from a long day and the first thing you want to do is kick off your shoes. The shoes felt good in the morning, sure, but now the dogs need to breathe. I wear a larger shoe to avoid this from ever happening. And frankly, going up in size is never an issue if the shoe fits me well in the heel and midfoot. That extra space off the toe is really no biggie at all. I’m not talking about wearing sloppy shoes! This is about about affording space for the feet to swell without getting crushed by the shoe walls. TWO NOTES: 1) The difference between US shoe sizes is barely 1/3 of an inch (for both men and women), and that extra bit IS NOT going to make you trip! And 2) Your feet elongate as you get older, so the size that worked for you a few years back may not be the best choice any longer.

These are my feet after 10 days and 180ish miles. Taking up way more space in a shoe than usual.

Q: Any hiking shoe guidance for folks with narrow feet? I know running shoes, not proper hiking shoes. But I also know that most of the thru-hikers I’ve met are rocking trail running shoes and not hiking boots (me too). Whatever your preference, you need to get professionally fit. I suggest you start with your local independent running shop (or outdoor store) and let one of their fitters analyze the needs and nuances of your feet. Odds are you’ll walk away with useful knowledge and a couple quality shoe recommendations. FYI: Many running shoes come in narrow and extra narrow (B and 2A for men, 2A and 4A for women). They may be harder to find, but they are out there! So, start with a proper fitting and see where it takes you (SIDE NOTE: Don’t forget to include an insole, too, to replace your shoe’s preexisting worthless sockliner…you won’t be sorry!).

Go get professionally fit by a foot/shoe/gait expert! It’ll help tons!

Q: Would the AT be safe for a female traveling alone? I am not going to try and whitemansplain an answer to this question. Instead, I’ll share a couple quick facts – 1) My 2 mentors when I was preparing for and walking across the US were both 30-something females who had previously walked solo across America. 2) Many of the hikers I’ve met on the AT are solo and female-identifying. Along the way, all hikers link up with various other hikers to create a “tramily” (trail-family) who become their thru-hike community. I believe there’s safety in this togetherness, but of course there’s always a risk involved in vulnerability (not unlike life, in general).

Q: Would you recommend traveling the AT with a friend? Sure! But know that you’re about to spend A LOT of time with them! Also, you may be traveling at different paces, have different adventure philosophies, different physical needs, etc. So maybe sort these things out a bit with a few practice outings before going BIG on the AT.

Q: Can shelter rodents on the trail be avoided if you sleep in a tent? So far, I can confidently say yes. BUT…years ago I did a short backpack trip on the AT (Grayson Highlands) and a mouse chewed a hole in my tent to get at my bag of trail mix. Admittedly, I asked for a problem when I left food in the tent (this is an absolute no-no). My point, however, is this – how we interact with nature will often dictate how it interacts with us. Keep food out of tents. Keep snacks out of tents. Keep wrappers and trash and other interestingly smelling things out of tents. You’ll decrease the likelihood of rodents (and other creatures) from visiting you in your nylon hideaway.

As I played with the mini horses, mice chewed a hole in my Big Agnes. Harumpf.

Q: Can you comment on using a tent on a stormy night? Your tent is a crucial part of your gear. And just like any gear you’re lugging on the trail, you need to develop a certain mastery of it before deploying it for a thru-hike. And by “mastery of it” I mean 2 things: 1) You need to fully understand what it is, what it’s for, and why you have it, and 2) You need to know how, top to bottom, how to use it properly. When these things are true, rain is an uncomfortable inconvenience, but your knowledge, trust, and expertise around your gear will ensure you’re always a step ahead of the challenge. On the 3 rainy days I’ve experienced on the AT, I’ve witnessed plenty of tents being set up in ways that guaranteed a wet night. There’s a correct way to set up every tent – and the sooner you have these details totally dialed, the more confident and comfortable you’ll be in the next torrential downpour.

I repeatedly set up my Zpacks Duplex in the town commons until I could do it with my eyes closed.

Q: How would you compare the AT other hikes? There’s a reason why runners often hold races of the same distance in different regards. There’s usually a difficulty factor at play that deems one marathon or hundred-miler more challenging than the next. So comparing such events, though their lengths are exactly the same, is moot. Same goes with the AT, in my opinion. So far it’s been its own animal, and also way harder than I expected and way more technical. Comparing it to another hike wouldn’t make much sense, I think. But I will say this – if difficulty is what’s keeping you from saying yes to a thing, cut that shit out. Difficult things are where great times and amazing memories come from. If life is always easy, how will we ever grow? Go big, y’all. Step boldly, trembling even, into the fear. Live life on fire.

Just because I ran 1 hundred-miler doesn’t mean I could run any hundred-miler.

Q: When are you planning to finish? I alluded to this in a previous answer, but the quick answer to this questions is, who knows? I have a loose plan to be finished by the end go the year, but I’m not gonna break my back to make this happen. I’m trying to create a lifestyle that balances walking and working, and still leaves time for plenty of socializing with friends. If I end up making it to Maine this year it will likely happen in the early part of Fall. Yay! If that doesn’t work out, NBD. It’s about the doing not the done. I can confidently say I’ve embodied an utter disregard for the finish line. Maybe when it gets closer I’ll give more of a damn.

Last time I was hell-bent on reaching the finish line, I ended up on my ass on a couch with a jacked up ankle and way, way too many snacks. F that.

Q: Are you writing another book? Ha! I am always writing books. So, yes! As for a book about my time on the AT, we shall see. I am not a fan of embarking on an adventure with a die-hard plan to write about it. I believe it asks too much of my attention and potentially makes normal interactions less genuine. If the journey strikes me in the writing place, then sure, I’ll see where that creativity takes me. But until then, my current projects are two-fold: 1) A short novel based on a short story I wrote, and 2) Blogging and writing more articles for Running Insight Magazine.

My newest book. HMU if you’d like a copy. You can also find it here.

As I was in the middle of writing this post, my mom asked this next question on Facebook:

Question From My Mom: Are your muscles feeling better after having a few days to relax? Hell yeah, mom! I’ve been off there trail for 5 days and am rearing to get my butt back out there!

My parents, Laura and Jim

Thanks to you all for asking such great questions! Please reach out if you ever are curious about more AT-related topics. I am at your service and will do everything I can to fill in the blanks! 🙂

Peace!

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