Hike Preparation

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“Hiking – The Early Years”

(“Planning the Hike and Hiking the Plan” – A Survival Guide for the Type “A” Hiker”)

So, how did we begin the long process of preparing for this adventure?

 Since Georgia and I are both detail-oriented people and rarely run headlong into any endeavor without doing our homework, we of course subscribed to a number of magazines and periodicals. Of all the magazines we receive and read, Backpacker Magazine is the one that we most highly recommend to any backpacker; be they novice or veteran. There is a wealth of reliable and valuable information contained within its pages each month, though they do tend to glamorize life on the trail at times. If you were to carry all the things you would need to prepare the gourmet meals that they often describe, you would not be able to carry anything else. Somehow, carrying bottles of vintage white Zinfandel to have with a dinner of Brie and shrimp cocktail just doesn’t make sense or represent the true experience of trail life. We also joined the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the ATC and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Conference. Through their newsletters and magazines we were able to keep up to date on trail conditions, hiking tips, trail work opportunities and other day hikes in our area and they tend to contain a wealth of information regarding both local and national trail topics. Having digested and analyzed all this information, it was time to go get gear.

 Purchasing the correct gear was a daunting task, at best. There are so many choices and, for us, going to a trail outfitters invoked the same kind of excitement and potential for impulse buying as going to Home Depot or the local music or bookstore. Keep in mind, that the first equipment you buy will not be the gear you ultimately end up using on the AT; unless, of course you are one of those people who make the last minute decision to do a thru-hike and purchase gear a week before they hit the trail. These tend to be the same folks who shed most of this equipment at the Walasi-Yi Outdoor Center, shortly after starting their hike and buy the gear they would have purchased in the first place had they done some research. With technology changing so fast and with newer, lighter and tougher materials coming out virtually every month, we knew going in that we probably would not have our final gear until just months before our thru-hike. If you visit the link for “GEAR LIST”, on the “ABOUT”, page you can see what we are currently using. Hopefully this list will help you in deciding what you want to use. That way you will not have to take out a home equity loan in order to run through all the available options before finally settling on the equipment best suited for you.

 Our initial experience was similar to most, I am sure, in that our first packs did nothing more than point out what we should look for in our next packs. Having a long torso, short legs and a marginally bad back, it was impossible for me to find a frameless pack that actually fit me and felt comfortable when filled with trail representative weight. A quick note, never buy a backpack from a store that is not prepared to fill the pack with 30-45 pounds of weight so you can see what it feels like when it’s full. There is nothing worse than shelling out $195.00 - $295.00 on a pack that feels great in the store but the first time you hit the trail, and it’s full of gear, you are wiped you out in the first 10 miles. No amount of aspirin will compensate for an ill-fitting pack.

 I actually started with a throwback to my Boy Scout days; an external aluminum frame pack. It felt good, had all kinds of cool places to hang stuff on the frame and had lots of pockets that made things more accessible than most of the internal frame packs I looked at. I hate having to unpack half my pack to get to that one elusive item that I need, so pockets and places to hang stuff on the outside was the way to go. Only problem: after 2-3 hikes the frame developed loud, annoying squeaks at all the flexible joints, which, I am sure is why there was never any wildlife within 2 miles of where we were hiking. It also really wasn’t large enough for more than 3-4 days worth of supplies without having to hang half my gear on the outside of the pack and frame. Georgia, on the other hand, chose an internal frame pack that, though it handled everything she would need for a week, weighed more empty than mine did fully packed. Obviously, both of our next packs would eliminate these problems; or so we thought. I actually am only on my second pack in three years; a ULA P-1 pack that will hold 35 lbs. of gear and weighs only 2 lbs. empty. Georgia decided to try one more large internal frame pack before getting herself a pack like mine; though hers is the updated P-2. As of November of 2005, we have ordered two new ULA Catalyst packs which replaces both the P-1 and P-2 designs. After having done a number of shorter 3-4 day hikes with these P-Series packs, our backs felt great and we never even came close to running out of food or other supplies. We highly recommend these packs to everyone. We also finally came to the realization that we didn’t need such large packs because we could simply leave the trail more often to restock our packs and save our backs. I think every novice backpacker’s fear is that they will starve to death if they don’t pack a week’s worth of food and other supplies. Except for some extreme wilderness sections of the AT in Vermont and Maine, 4 days-worth of supplies has always gotten us to a place where we could restock.

 We can not stress strongly enough the need to prepare for thru-hiking the A.T. Considering that the vast majority of people who start out on this adventure and do not finish for a myriad of reasons, it has always amazed me how many people set out to conquer the A.T. with little or no training or understanding of what they are getting into. We actually went to a seminar at a local trail store to listen to one of its employees talk about his experience at completing the A.T. We thought, “Wow, we should get some great insight from this guy on what to expect.” What we heard was that he did little, if any, training, did no real planning and made more mistakes than you could shake a stick at. His only saving grace was that he was relatively young and had no deadline to meet in completing the trail. He actually sounded proud of the fact that he had such a difficult time but still pulled it off.

 Well, Georgia and I don’t have a “whatever” gene in our bodies, so going off on a whim like he did is just not our style. We spent innumerable hours researching as many aspects of the hike as we could and making our plans accordingly while still leaving some flexibility for those things we knew we just would not be able to plan for. We may be considered anally retentive, or OCD, but we like to know things like there may be snow in Georgia in March, where the shelters are, where the mail drops are, where we can get off the trail to re-stock and take a shower and the fact that when we hit New England, our mileage each day would be markedly less than on the rest of the hike. For the truly adventurous, knowing these things ahead of time is of no real consequence. But, at our ages, we knew this adventure was going to be tough enough all on its own without going into it unprepared.

 We also began our “training” 5 years before our actual A.T. hike start date. To some, that will probably sound ridiculous. But with the demands on our time from our jobs, involvement at church and our other personal interests, we knew our free weekends to hike and camp would be very limited. So we figured that if we started getting ready far enough in advance, we would have enough experience under our belts to give us the level of confidence we needed to tackle the A.T. If your weekends find you always looking for something to do, you probably don’t have to start getting ready as early as we did. But if not, don’t wait until a couple of months before you leave for Springer, GA to get ready. We are glad we did so much preliminary backpacking because we learned a lot about our gear, our own physical and psychological strengths and weaknesses and gained an overall sense of peace about what we could and could not accomplish.

 Now we needed trail names; that unique way of communicating with other hikers without telling them your real name. It’s a funny thing about this AT tradition, in that you spend days on end possibly never seeing another human being and when you finally drag yourself into camp, where a host of other hikers are bedding down for the night, you share your tales of the day’s journey and never use the persons’ real name. I think I should put together a phone book that uses hikers’ trail names with their addresses and phone numbers so if you ever want to communicate with them at some point in the future, you simply go to say, “Moose Man”, Cleveland, Ohio to find his number.

 Your name should represent who you are, where you come from or that nickname that you always wanted but that no one ever labeled you with. As Christians, and being involved in our local church, we decided that our names should somehow reflect that fact. So, we decided on “The Prophet” for my wife and “The Preacher” for myself. You can actually find those names in earlier trail logs on the AT in Maryland, southern parts of Pennsylvania and in Northern Virginia to Harpers Ferry. But after a couple of years, I decided that since my preaching skills were not at a level that would justify the name (I still can’t stretch the God into a three-syllable word) that I should change my name. So now next to “The Prophet” you will find the name “Spirit Walker” in the trail logs. Since I later found out that there was already a “Spiritwalker”, as of November of 2005, I have changed my trail name, yet again to “Windtalker” and this is the one I am sticking with. I always thought, and still do, that a truly unique trail name would be something like Bob Smith or Fred Jones but, hey, that’s just me. Georgia also decided to change hers. Seems that “The Prophet” invoked a level of soulful fear in those on the trail that thought they would be subjected to some type of evangelical browbeating if they spent a night in a shelter with us. So now she has acquired the moniker of “Mom”, which is what many of the State metrologists who she works with through her position with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, all lovingly call her anyway.

 So now we were ready to start our real training; actual hikes along many of the trails within a couple of hours of our home. To read about these early hikes, go to the “Hike Gallery” and simply click on one of the trails listed for the details of that hike and photos of the sites along that particular trail.

 Have fun!


“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.”

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