Appalachian Trail Happiness: Thru-hike FAQs – Part 1
One of the things that has happened since I start about blogging about my experience on the trail has been receiving information requests about thru-hiking. I can answer most, but only having successfully completed 1000 miles before my knees gave out I certainly don’t have all the answers. There are also far more experienced folks out there who can answer questions but I realize they are not always accessible.
Given all of that I’m happy to answer questions for folks and have made a couple of new friends along the way. So today, I figured I’d lay out some of those questions and answers, as well as some web resources on the topic, I also recently did a post on gear lists to handle those questions. If you have any additional questions drop them in the comments or send them along to Happinesskane@aol.com. I’m happy to answer anything I can, the best I can and as always have a happy day my friends ~ Rev Kane
Here we go:
Did you carry a sleeping bag or hammock and if a hammock did you use a pad? How often did you sleep outside of shelters in general?
Tent vs. Hammock. I have both. I like both. Weight wise, they are about the same at like 2lbs total but I’ve become a total hammock guy. I hate sleeping on the ground, out of nearly 90 nights on the trail, 4 in shelters, got no sleep on those nights. I did buy a larger fly for the hammock so that I had extra dry space to hang out, change etc… in the rain but hammock all the way. The real question is do you also carry a pad for the occasional shelter night, I did early on, but later I stopped because I was never going to sleep in a shelter again no matter the conditions. One major upsides to tenting however is that you have more privacy in a tent. You can wake up change all of your clothes etc…without getting out of the tent, that is much harder to accomplish in a hammock, although I didn’t really have any issues.
Did you use a pad in your hammock?
You have to insulate your hammock or you will get cold butt syndrome. I like to be comfortable. I started out with a layered set up as follows: Mylar sheets (sun reflector material), cheap blue foam roll-up, 1.5 in Thermarest pad and a zero degree bag. The first night on the trail it dropped to 18 degrees and I sweat my ass off. I soon adjusted to using the blue foam on the bottom, Mylar next, no Thermarest and a 15 degree bag, that worked really well until things started to warm up, by late spring I was using the Mylar, blue foam, a sheet and my 32 degree bag as a top quilt. Oh, I almost always sleep in just my boxers and sleep socks unless it’s really cold.
The mylar you can get in rolls at home depot, I carried 3 sheets. I cut one to about a five feet sheet trimmed like a mummy bag to lay on top of the blue foam pad. I also cut 2 three-foot sections, one I wrapped around my foot box and one I laid horizontally under my shoulders so that when I rolled over on my side my shoulders didn’t get cold being against the side of the hammock. The last two pads are total comfort, luxury items but they weigh nothing and make the nights more comfortable.
How many miles a day did you average per day?
I averaged over the full 90 days 10.8 miles per day, but that included a lot of slack packing after my injury and some really short days due to my injury. Early on in the spring, in GA, I was averaging between 8 and 10 miles a day. There’s no reason to hurry, I barely averaged 2.0 mph early on, later on in flatter territory I was doing 2.4 to 2.6 mph. Had moments and days of nearly 3 mph but they were rare and lots of climbs early on where we were between 1 and 1.5 mph. Later on in places like VA once you’ve gotten into way better shape, dropped a lot of pack weight, carrying less food, have much longer daylight hours and are on flatter ground you can do some really big days 20+ miles not out of the question in Northern VA (Shenandoah), West Virginia and Maryland.
As a woman, I am planning to hike with a buddy but did you encounter any safety issues that a woman hiking might have some issues with?
No safety issues, especially in the spring you’ll be in the bubble, we all look out for each other, if anyone gets a hard time from anyone, everyone gets on them about it. I checked in with a couple of friends, young women who started out solo. They said they didn’t feel unsafe, particularly because starting out in the bubble in the spring they pretty quickly found people to hike with.
It will be different for everyone, it’s really safe out there, shit happens but it’s rare.
Are you carrying a gun, knife, machete, bear spray, etc….?
The most frequent thing I got asked was about whether I was carrying a gun and how big of a knife I’d be carrying. No gun, no need and illegal in many areas on the trail. I carried a 1/4 inch long folding knife that I used for the following: pick my nails, cut a couple of pieces of string, open some food packages in town and to cut pieces of cheese while eating. The knife was more than sufficient and you could get by with just a razor blade, but my little fold up knife was nearly as light and easier and safer to carry.
What about cell coverage?
As for cell service my first response would be I hope you have Verizon. People who had Verizon as their carrier seemed to have the most consistent cell connection on the trail. I have Sprint and it did ok, most nights I either had minimal data or minimal phone so I could shoot out a message to let folks know I was alive. Some nights I had great reception on one or both and could post to my blog from the trail or make phone calls. It will be spotty, early on in Georgia and NC I did well, there were spots in the Smokies were I was very limited a night or two with nothing. The thing I did note was that during almost every single day there were points with good service, the advantage of going up and down mountains, each day you’ll be on some peak near a town and be able to get some type of a connection.
One question has come up because I am possibly connecting with two high schools for a kindness initiative – they want to be able to Skype with me while on the trail, and track my progress by GPS. The GPS isn’t a problem. I have a Go Spot device for that, but I was wondering about using a solar charger?
The solar charger is a near waste of time, some people tied them to their packs and walked with them. Early in the spring they’ll do alright before the leaves come out but once the green tunnel forms their shit most of the time. A lot of people carried a battery charger, I didn’t carry either and basically except for sending my one message each night, reserving rooms in town and checking the weather, I didn’t use my phone much and always made it into town with a functioning phone. That said, I think the charger is a good idea, it does give you a little bit more freedom and particularly if you are going to Skype from time to time will make that possible. You can always balance out the 12 ounces, you’ll be carrying at least 3 pounds of crap you don’t need, happens to everyone.
What did you eat? What did you cook with?
I’m a big fan of Mountain House, except for the pasta primavera, occasionally when being lazy I will actually fire up a bag of beef stroganoff at home. So I used them and BackPack Pantry meals, etc…for my dinners. I have a hard time choking down breakfast when I first wake up and that fluctuated from cliff bars, granola bars, Belvita breakfast bars, mini-chocolate donuts, basically anything I could get excited enough about to eat. Lunch for me was a lot of pepperoni and cheese on tortillas, peanut butter tortillas, summer sausage and cheese. I carried a lot of Parmesan cheese as it lasted well and worked well with the pepperoni. I rarely cooked for either breakfast or lunch.
I’m lazy where food is concerned and don’t want to deal with a lot of clean up. The tradeoff of course is less interesting food. Lots of folks cook top ramen, pasta, knorr pasta sides, etc… and doctor the hell out of them. Definitely more variety and very tasty but also more fuss and cleanup.
I will say, a Jet Boil and Mountain House made for quick easy dinners, especially early in the spring when it’s cold, rainy and getting dark early it was nice to be able to have quick, efficient food. The meals will taste way better on the trail, it’s a concept I call momentary food, under certain conditions things are amazingly good. Think 2AM drunk food in college, tail-gaiting food, camping food, etc….
What did you do for water?
I carried a 32 oz Nalgene and a 30 oz Gatorade bottle originally, in the warmer and drier times I added a 20 oz Gatorade into the mix. I also have a 44 oz collapsible water bottle. Never needed the collapsible on the trail (ok, 1 day in PA in July) but used it at night in camp. Never ran out of water. I treated with Aqua Mira drops although I did start carrying a sawyer mini so I could drink cold water from streams. Using drops you have to wait 20 minutes so the water would get warm. If you cut your filter or a sawyer mini inline with your bladder you’re golden, I’d carry pills or drops for back up but it’s not critical to have a backup, especially in the spring. I would have a backup in the hotter months. You can dial in how much you want to carry each day depending on water sources but they were very plentiful in the spring.
What about drop boxes?
I’ve really become ambiguous about drop boxes and part of that was that I wasn’t worried about how much I was spending. Drop boxes can definitely save you money and it’s nice to get something from home. My problem was that I set the boxes up before I had been on the trail obviously and I really both overloaded them and sent things I wouldn’t use so more than I would like went into hiker boxes. Another reason to do shakedown hikes and really dial in what you will and won’t eat. Unfortunately I didn’t have that chance due to my mother becoming ill and me having to be with her for a couple of months before I left for the trail.
If I were to do it all over again, I certainly would do some drop boxes, not a lot and I’d really do minimal amounts of food, and focus on basics and really hard to find stuff. Now for people on special diets, vegans, people with allergies drop boxes are probably way more important and maybe some of those folks will chime in, in the comment section.
A note about friends sending boxes, ask them to give you a heads up, they don’t understand that you don’t check every location for boxes unless you know one is coming. It also would help to give them suggested lists and locations. At Fontana I got two surprise boxes from friends as well as a box I had set up. Basically I got about 12 days of food delivered to me there, not a problem, lots of my friends were happy to help lighten the boxes, especially of the cookies. It just would have been nicer to have spread things out a bit more.
Oh and for drop boxes use hostels and outfitters when possible, the post office as little as possible, the reason is availability, it will be very difficult to determine in advance when you’ll hit town and it really, really sucks to hit town on Saturday at 12:15 when the post office closed at noon and won’t be open til Monday and sucks even more when you haul ass to get into town before noon only to find out the info you had was wrong and the post office is no longer open on Saturdays at all.
What about using a bounce box?
Bounce boxes get annoying and expensive, you saved money on the original stuff but once you’ve shipped them 3 times you may as well have bought them in town. The exception of course is for medicines and similar stuff. I knew people who bounced, blood pressure cups, diabetes testers and birth control pills up the trail. One of these folks also had their bounce box get lost for three weeks, there are risks with everything.
What did you wear and how did you care for your feet? Blisters are a problem for me. I’ve developed this system of wearing Injini toe socks which reduce the friction. I do this whole clean regimen at night to be sure my feet are clean, dry and powdered. That seems to work best for me.
Plan sounds great, I wore my old hiking boots through the Smokies, mostly because they were super comfortable and on their last legs. I went to Merrell Moabs with the green Super Feet insoles after that and I loved them, got about 500 miles out of each pair before they start to wear out and cause a little heal pain, but they were great. On really soupy days I put bread bags over my socks and into the shoes, Merrell’s get soaked and the bags kept my feet dry without much overheating since those days were cold. Your foot care regime will save your feet! In the summer months I didn’t do the bread bags, I just let my feet get wet, the Merrell’s held up fine.
Rain Gear/Umbrella. So I’m trying to reduce some weight and am thinking I might keep my gaiters, rain pants and rain jacket even though I’ve heard a lot of people scrap them. I’ve also heard some people carry an umbrella, but I can’t imagine doing that in the woods with a pack. As for my gear, I have the rain cover for pack plus the old trash bag liner inside my pack as well as ultralight stuff sacks for my clothes and sleeping bag. Anything I should be considering beyond this?
Never understood the umbrella thing. I sprang big money for a really good, really light rain jacket from Outdoor Research, I also used a rain skirt, super light, way better than rain pants in my opinion, I talked about it in more detail in my gear list post. Here’s the one I used, worked great except for one day when a 40 mph wind suddenly went 180 degrees on me. I hate pack covers, they never fit, you get a puddle in the bottom which inevitably you dump down your ass at some point. I did the trash compactor liner in my bag, worked really well, only a time or do did my pack get soaked through and usually we were heading for town that day or the next so I got things dried out. You’ve got sacks for your sleeping bag and anything that really can’t get wet, that’s enough.
Bear bag or no bear bag? I have an Ursack bear bag but it’s cumbersome and heavy.
Absolutely carry a bear bag, I used a cuban fiber bag from zpack, it was light and worked great. There is one small section that requires a bear canister if you camp in it. But everyone holds up at the edge the night before and pushes through the 12 miles to the other side so they don’t have to carry one. It’s Justus Mountain area in GA if I remember correctly.
I like the cuban fiber because it’s a bitch to cut open and slippery but it’s personal preference I saw lots of variety in food bag choice on the trail. Also, I highly recommend before you hit the trail you learn how to do a PCT style bear hang, super easy once you get the hang of the one not and unbeatable by bears, I also used slick Dynema chord with the set up as it’s said squirrels and raccoons can’t grip it and hang on, so far that’s been true for me. It’s also super light and really strong and untangles fairly easily.
Trekking poles, yes or no?
For me, absolutely YES. I’m a terrible descender and trekking poles make that so much easier. I first starting using poles on a Himalayan Everest Base Camp Trek and I will no longer hike without them. Particularly for someone with bad knees they reduce some of the wear and tear on my knees. Besides, one of my trekking poles is actually a transdimensional being named Bob who has come to our world to explore and to do so took the form of a trekking pole, so how could I leave home without him?
I tend to do overkill on the gear first aid and first aid kit. Any thoughts?
Just bring a whistle 🙂 Honestly I’m the same way and I sent most of it home fast. Some bandages, antibiotic cream, gauze, tape, although duct tape will double for med tape. You’ll be in towns every 3-5 days, there are a ton of people on the trail with you in the spring. So in my opinion you can go way minimal on the kit, in the spring you’ll rarely be on your own enough to need a good kit.
Other FAQ sections from the web, I did not edit for overlap, sorry in advance but it’s good to get other perspectives.
It is worth mentioning that AWOL’s book, AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, has a lot of good information in it. I would also suggest going through 2015 trail journals, you’ll get both a sense of what it’s like on the trail and get some questions answered while you’re reading. The links below are stacked in what I feel are order of usefulness.
The first place you should always go is White Blaze, Whiteblaze.net has a forum section that really has a lot of great information.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has a pretty good AT FAQ section
A really nice FAQ from the Appalachian Mountain Club about hiking the White Mountains on the AT.
Frequently asked questions about thru-hiking, from Appalachian Trials very general stuff although the piece on cost is pretty good
A nice combination of bigger and more detailed questions from a Cathy Bell.
Very basic FAQ section from the Appalachian Mountain Club