It’s been a while since I’ve touched this blog and I plan to outline a number of changes that have taken place since then in the coming weeks. My last published post covered some equipment testing I did to prepare for a three-day 36 mile Appalachian Trail Section hike from the bottom of the southern side of Mt. Race to Kent CT. The trip did not go as planned for a number of reasons which I outline below. This draft has been sitting in WordPress since last summer and I have certainly learned a lot since then. It should be fairly clear from the following post that I was struggling to process what happened on that trip but I am planning to rehike the first two days of this trip in June to prove that I have come a long way since then. Enjoy!
So it’s been 3 weeks since Mike and I did our much-anticipated 3 day section hike of the Appalachian Trail. To say that I have spent a lot of time researching and thinking about this would be an understatement of epic proportions. I’m pretty sure my wife and just about everyone I know had gotten sick of me talking about equipment, techniques, and food. I felt very prepared and was super excited to hit the trail and in many ways I was. My gear was carefully selected to minimize weight and maximize function to the point that everything worked together to create an interdependent system capable of dealing with just about anything the trail could throw at me. I had poured over a wide variety of theories and accounts regarding hiking techniques and ways of solving trail problems both common and uncommon. I asked people who had hiked the AT for advice and information regarding the section we were going to hike. I even drove up to scout out the terminus of our hike and spent extra time examining maps to make sure I understood where our campsites would be and what each day would be like. I got a few things wrong on this hike but preparing in these areas was pretty good. Here are a few things I wish I knew before we hiked.
Get a guidebook early on and study it well:
I had a long list of things to get before our hike started and the guidebook was certainly on it. I choose to make it a low priority purchase shortly before the hike and my hiking partner ended up getting the copy we used shortly before our trip. I thought I had us pretty well covered because of all the time I had spent studying various maps and estimating the mileage. I was wrong. A few hours into our hike Mike looked a bit closer at the book and realized that our first day was not going to be 10.5 miles but instead would be 13.5 miles. This may not sound like much but the steepest climbs of our trip were all on that first day and we were carrying more weight during that first day because of our food and the fact that we were both carrying more water than we needed. I give Mike a lot of credit for keeping cool for the next few hours as we hiked through a difficult descent and my knee began to ache with each step. By half way through my downhill speed slowed considerably and we still had many miles to cover. We did not want to get to our campsite after dark because we would have to navigate a steep 300 foot half mile descent lit only by headlamps. We did our best to speed over the flats but those are few and far between and as one through hiker told us, “Nobody hikes the AT for the flats.” My uphill pace was not particularly fast either which brings me to the next thing I wish I knew before we hiked.
Prepare your body for the rigors of the trail:
I trained for this hike. I hiked often with Edgar on my back which ended up being very close to my estimated final pack weight. We did a bunch of 1-2 mile hikes of varying difficulty with several 3- 4 mile hikes. There were plenty of hills but all of the hiking I did with significant weight on my back and trekking poles in my hands. This is probably what got me through the 36 miles we did those three days but I have learned that getting through a hike like this isn’t enough. My knee took 2 weeks to feel mostly normal again and that was after my first chiropractic adjustment. Most of my 5 blisters were passable after a week and a half but this Friday(6/10) was the first day I could walk with the back strap on my Chacos on my heel without a blister bandage and it still isn’t entirely healed. My one foot didn’t stop swelling daily until after 2 weeks. I thought I had prepared my body by hiking and swimming laps but I clearly did not. I was carrying weight on my body that I could have lost if I put my mind to it. I could have anticipated that hiking 5 miles couldn’t prepare us for the sort of issues that hiking 10 miles might present. I could have sought chiropractic care before our hike to address some of the issues my body has accumulated over a lifetime of living with severe bunions. I knew in the back of my mind that these were things I could have done but I chose to focus on my gear and my research. I made it through and I enjoyed the shared experience of taking on such a difficult challenge but I would have enjoyed it even more if I was in less pain both during and after. I felt strong in muscle and spirit but the blisters and knee pain were mostly preventable and turned a 3 day hike into 2.5 days of pain and a 3 week recovery. Speaking of recovery.
Getting good sleep on the trail doesn’t just happen:
My “backyard” camping test run was useful in many ways but it had a few key flaws. In my test I slept in the tent alone and on the trail Mike and I shared that little tent. It is a lot warmer in my tent with two people and the vestibule doesn’t seem very big with two packs zipped inside. I had my pack in the tent during my test and unsurprisingly had no problem getting up in the middle of the night to pee but this was a lot harder with both our packs blocking the door in the vestibule and a sleeping Mike where I had previously put my shoes on to get out. I also went to sleep late on a cold night after a relatively short hike having slept the previous night in my bed. On the trail I needed to go to sleep early on a warm night sore after a long day hiking having slept the previous night on my son’s cheap twin mattress. I loved my bag and it kept me warm and I slept well during the test but on the trail it was a straight jacket and I could not get comfortable. I have never had to try to get sleep with my hips, shoulders and knee being so sore so the only comfortable positions were next to impossible to get into in a mummy bag zipped up. The last night I woke up shivering on my back with the bag upside down with the hood under my chin and the bag half unzipped. I apparently toss and turn more when I’m sore. Needless to say I returned my sleeping bag and purchased one with more room but this does not address the other reason I did not sleep well on the trail. I am a night owl (it’s 12:30 AM as I write this) and I am generally up until midnight or later. Most hikers looking to cover miles get up early and go to bed early to maximize how many hours of usable daylight they have. Getting up at 6 and hitting the trail by 7 could be considered sleeping in by some and going to bed before 9 is a must if you are going to get up at that hour and still get enough sleep to allow your body to recover. Both nights I had a hell of a time getting to sleep because my body just couldn’t comprehend sleeping that early. Combine that with general discomfort and you have a recipe for some serious insomnia. I’m sure there are times in my life when I’ve needed sleep more than on this trip but I can’t think of any. My body was screaming for rest and recovery and all my accumulated habits and pain could say was, “F YOU BODY!”
I write this to help put my thoughts regarding this trip in order but also in the hopes that you may read it and not make some of the same boneheaded choices I made when trying to plan a backpacking trip. I hope it has been helpful because after all what’s the point of making stupid mistakes if you don’t publish them for all your friends, family, and half the internet to see!