How to survive the first few days on the Appalachian Trail
Great works are performed not by strength but perseverance ~ Samuel Johnson
Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Thirty-two miles, that’s it, thirty-two miles.
One of the things my friend Second Star used to do at camp at night was pull out her guide and take a look at where she was “supposed” to be that day. You see she’d taken AWOL’s guide (a really necessary part of doing the AT), and had planned out every night all the way to Maine. So we’d pull out the guide and see where she was supposed to be and then laugh at her naivete. She wasn’t alone. I remember before I hiked the AT in 2015 being amazed that people only averaged around 10 miles a day. My thought went something like this, in the spring you have 10 hours of daylight every day. If you only hike two miles an hour and six hours per day you’ll do 12 miles a day in the beginning. By June, you’ll have 14 hours per day of daylight, walk 8 miles a day at 2 miles an hour and you’ll cover 16 miles a day. Sounds easy right and makes that 10 mile per day average seem utterly ridiculous. The reality sets in.
Although I had not done a long-distance unsupported hike before, I had done a supported 22 days in the high passes of the Himalayas. So 3000 foot mountains in Georgia, piece of cake right? Oh, so, so wrong. You see there are a lot of things you’re not thinking about before your first thru-hike attempt. First, you are certainly carrying too much weight. My first day on the AT I was humping a 42 pound pack once I was full up on food and water. After I left Mountain Crossings (32 miles in) I was carrying about 36 pounds, that would transition to 32 pounds a few weeks later, and 28 pounds once I was able to go to my lightest sleeping bag.
The second issue you’re facing is that you’re nervous as hell. In the first few weeks on the trail you are nervous as shit. You feel like everyone else knows more than you do. I know I felt like an utter newbie on the trail and then a couple of nights in when I set down in my hammock I did a complete backflip and landed on my ass infront of the entire campsite. What I would find out as the weeks went on were a couple of things. First, a lot of other newbies felt exactly the same way I did and a couple of them even thought I was this super experienced hiker and we all had a good laugh. Second, there really are some super professional hikers on the trail. Some hikers I got to know were doing the AT for their second or third time and by that I mean completers. Some were hiking the AT for their fourth or fifth time, so they were super experienced. Some were triple crowners (had completed the AT, PCT and CDT) others had done at least the PCT. So the nerves you’re experiencing add to the stress, tire you out and generally make things harder. Also you are still learning, in the beginning setting up and taking down camp takes far longer than it should. You’re not completely organized yet, you have too much shit and so finding your stove, the food you want etc…takes a little bit too long. The good news of course is that all of that gets better as you move forward.
The third issue is the weather. For me it rained, sleeted or snowed 12 of my first 14 days. You will be wet, you will be cold and hell you might be dealing with ice and snow in the early days. Walking wet is uncomfortable, hell let’s be honest, it sucks. But you get used to it.
The fourth issue is that you are not in hiking shape yet. I’m sure some people, a very small number, hit the AT in great hiking shape. However the most of us are not ready to walk 3-5 days, take a break rinse and repeat without being beat up and sore. You get there, but most of us just aren’t there in the first few days.
The final issue is that the hills of Georgia suck. Yes, they are only 3000 foot mountains, but they are wet, cold, rocky, muddy and full of roots, hell, some are just giant rock piles. You slip a lot, you trip, you twist your ankle and you fall. I did a full on cartoon wipeout, both feet in the air right on my back. Then like a flipped over turtle I had to try and get up and that I’m thankful no one video taped it. The hills of Georgia are also steep, short, but steep and like I said earlier you’re not in great hiking shape yet.
So given all of that, the 8 miles a day I was averaging in Georgia left me leaving camp at first light, and entering camp just before dark. It also left me exhausted but also thrilled. As hard as those first days were they were awesome, I was happy and free. The first time I walked into camp and someone yelled, “hey Rev” I was elated and felt like I was home.
So how do you make those first 32 miles?
How do you make those first 32 miles on the Appalachian Trail. It’s said that 30% of the people quit at the end of those 32 miles. But how do you even get through those first 32 miles given the issues I listed above.
First, you have to take the advice that Zach Davis puts forth in his book Appalachian Trials. You have to remember that the majority of the people that quit the trail do so for psychological not physical reasons. So you have to keep your head in the game. You have to remember why you decided to the hike the trail in the first place. You have to remember and truly come to believe that the smiles are more important than the miles. You have to focus on enjoying yourself and not get hung up on your schedule or where you are supposed to be. This is possibly a once in a lifetime adventure, treat it that way, every single day on the trail can be amazing if you look at it that way.
Another strategy is to change the way you journal. I came up with this prior to my hike and that is to journal using three questions each day. What was the most beautiful thing I saw today? What did I learn today? What made me happy today? The beauty of this is that no matter how hard the day might of been for you, you keep your mind focused on the positive. Each day you spend your time looking for beautiful things, things you’ve learned and what made you happy. I know this technique got me through my hardest early days.
You also have to focus on what you can change. You can’t change the weather or the mountains. But you can address the rest. So get rid of some of that weight and then once you do, get rid of some more, you’ll be so happy you did. One place where I carried too much was redundancy. I have absolutely no idea why I was carrying two lighters when I had a self-lighting stove. Get rid of shit you don’t absolutely need!
Prepare and set your expectations appropriately. Don’t expect to do more than 8 miles a day and if you do 6 but you had a good day, so be it. If you have time before your hike, get into better shape, that means more time on trails with a full pack on your back. If you can’t, hit the gym as hard as you possibly can. And get your head around that you will be cold and wet but that it will get better.
Finally my friends, you can do it, I believe in you! Other people believe in you, if it’s getting rough reach out, call them, email me or talk to your fellow hikers, you’re all going through the same thing. If not, it’s likely a super hiker who has ton of useful information or maybe a spare sleeve of cookies. And remember as always, to have a happy day my friends. ~ Rev Kane
Other Appalachian Trail Hiking Information