I was a complete outdoors novice when I started preparing for my 2017 Appalachian Trail thru hike. I had never backpacked more than two consecutive days, and I didn’t own a single piece of the necessary gear. Much of the guidance I came across assumed a certain level of back country proficiency that I didn’t have.
To make matters even less approachable, internet hiking forums tend to be overtly judgmental, mistaking personal preference for hard fact. Answers to questions can register more as dick-measuring contests than actual advice. This domineering mentality, largely from men, persisted throughout my time on the AT. “How far did you hike today?” really meant “I bet you’re slower and less ambitious than me.”
A couple weeks before starting the AT, I was talking with an outfitter employee about the pros and cons of hiking books versus trail runners. I asked simple, common questions. He might as well have rolled his eyes when I said I planned to thru hike. He was helpful enough, with a clear underlying tone: You’ll never cut it, but it’s cute you want to try.
I became increasingly self-conscious to ask necessary, mundane questions (“So like….you filter the water…then you just…drink it? And it won’t taste like dirt?”). Without any experienced backpacker friends to practice alongside, I learned largely through trial and forehead-slapping error. The less said about my first night camping in the rain, the better.
Questions are good. They mean you’re engaging with something new. And you should never be made to feel small for seeking assistance.
So ask away!
Whether you’re a new hiker looking forward to some trails this spring, or you’re planning a long distance hike, I’d love to soften the learning curve by answering your questions. Hey, even if you have no desire to hike but you’ve always wondered why people carry trekking poles, you’re in the right place.
Anything is fair game. Trail etiquette, what to pack on a day hike, setting realistic distance goals, finding discounted gear, reducing wear on your body, solo hiking, bears, tips for hitchhiking, going to the bathroom outdoors, waging war against foot trauma, the ideal camp spoon, whatever. If I don’t have an answer, I’ll try my best to point you in the right direction.* Hopefully other readers will respectfully chime in, too.
I can offer personal advice from nearly six months living on trail, and anecdotal info from dozens of fellow outdoorsy folks. I’ve had the pleasure of assisting a couple prospective thru hikers. It’s such a treat passing knowledge forward to get more people outdoors. It feels right.
Ask questions, especially if you’re embarrassed the answers might be obvious. Especially especially if you feel compelled to test your boundaries.
Let’s chat in the comments below!
Please consider sharing this post with friends or family who may find it useful.
*Homemade Wanderlust is an awesome resource for hikers of any skill level. Dixie’s videos are chock full of practical, down to earth information and wisdom. I saw her in a crowded Subway in Damascus, VA after Trail Days. Everyone was starstruck. She’s such a badass.
22 thoughts on “Hiking Season Approaches, Ask Me Anything!”
Do you have good tips about keeping your feet in okay condition? When I did my grand canyon hike, I got a few blisters in between my toes, which like, okay i get it, my feet probably just needed to toughen up. But now I have callouses where those blisters were, and the callouses press up against my toes and get really uncomfortable when I wear boots all day, or even just walking around in sneakers.
Should I be doing bandages between my toes? Filling off the callouses? Just accepting my gnarly feet for who they are?
Also, how do I know if my boots are the right size?
Foot pain and deterioration is a constant hiking issue for me. Similar to you, my biggest physical ailment on the AT was a sharpened blister/callus on my left ring toe that caused all sorts of collateral damage. Have you heard of Injinji brand socks? They have individual toe slots to keep them cushioned separately. I tried them too late to have an effect, but lots of people swear by them. I recommend putting moleskin or athletic tape on the callus to reduce friction before you even set out, and pausing the hike to readjust as soon as the sore starts smarting. I tried EVERY brand of adhesive padding I could find, and 3M Nexcare tape stayed secure longest, even when wet.
There are so many opinions about shoe sizes. Really, whatever is most comfortable to you is all that matters. You’re toes shouldn’t bump into the front of the shoe, even on a descent. Many suggest going up a size to account for a bit of swelling on longer hikes. You can use a “marathon knot” (Google that for sure) to easily tighten a overly roomy shoe that otherwise contours well to your foot. Always try shoes on with the athletic insole you plan to use, ex. Superfeet or Sole if you have high arches. Other than that…I bugged many shoe employees for many hours, asking so so many questions. I hope this helps!
Thanks! I’ll definitely check those socks out. Otherwise, my toes are gonna start looking like that nasty pickled thing you kissed on in AK.
What did you bring that you didn’t need? What do you wish you had brought, but had to go without, or pick up along the way?
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Hey Caitrin! I started with this huge plastic bear-proof canister for my food, a super clunky safety blanket because I was self conscious about not knowing how to hang a food bag at night. I ditched it at the hostel after arriving in Atlanta, didn’t even make it to the trail. I wish I had budgeted more money for an ultra lightweight puffy jacket, rather than the bulky one I started with. I upgraded clothing several items for higher end, compressible versions. I should have bit the bullet and just bought the nice stuff from the start.
I know you’ve been running in a lot recently. What’s your most cherished piece of gear?
I love my garmen watch for keeping track of pace and mileage. Did you use any electronics to keep track of your mileage? Or did you just use pen and paper?
Those Garmin watches are so nice. I definitely considered one but didn’t have the budget. I used a book called The AT Guide, compiled by a well known thru hiker and updated each year. It lists the mileage of nearly every relevant waypoint along the whole trail. Things like water sources, shelters, road crossings to get into town, elevation change, pretty much everything a hiker needs to know. So for example, if I started the morning at a shelter at mile mark 1034.2 in the book, and finished my day at the base of mountain listed at mile mark 1050.5, I know I hiked around 16 miles that day.
I’d love to know what was the general sentiment on hiking the AT from women who thru-hiked solo. How often did you cross paths with women going solo? Did they share any stories with you about being apprehensive about going it alone? Can you recommend any great blogs or videos by lady hikers? Thanks Jake, trek on!
I’m SUPER EXCITED to say that in the next week or two, a solo female hiker will be posting on this blog about her experience on the AT. Such an important topic, best heard from the source.
Most of the female hikers I came across started solo. Anecdotally, the gender breakdown was about 70% men, 30% women (if not less). Realistically, if you’re hiking northbound during the prime season as I did, you spend as much or as little alone time as you want. Many people organically form into hiking groups (Trail Families), women should just be aware that most of their company will be men. I certainly knew a couple ladies who respectfully kept to themselves most of the time. I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but when I asked women if they felt safe out there, the answer was overwhelmingly yes. Of course there are some things like hitchhiking that women were maybe less likely to do without a partner, understandably so.
Recommendation-wise, definitely check out Homemade Wanderlust videos (link at the bottom of my post). I think you’ll dig her tone. Carrot Quinn is a totally badass queer hiker. Her website is packed with content, and I hear her book Thru Hiking Will Break Your Heart is phenomenal. For a vital perspective on male toxicity in the hiking community, read this: https://www.autostraddle.com/the-pacific-crest-trail-has-a-toxic-masculinity-problem-why-i-got-off-trail-after-454-miles-instead-of-walking-all-the-way-to-canada-408954/
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Awesome, thanks Jake! I’ll definitely be back to check out the guest blog post, great idea!
As someone who has always romanticized thru hiking, but has never so much as camped out for more than a night or two, this blog is really inspiring.
Are there any excercises you did to prepare for your trip? Or did you just jump right in?!
Thank you for the question, Patrick! About a year before the AT, I started going on short day hikes once a week, only 5ish miles. I was living in the Bay Area at the time, so I was also spoiled with amazing trail options close to home. I know that’s not a luxury everyone has. But it really was as simple as 5 miles this week, 6 miles next week, etc. When I was swamped in divorce legalities, at my highest stress point, I started taking terrain into account, pushing myself towards more elevation change. When I committed to the AT (about 5 months out), 9 miles was my furthest hike and it walloped me. As with any sport, the muscles build over time. I was shocked how many other AT hikers similarly jumped into the deep end with little to no backpacking experience.
As far as actual exercises go, I stretch before setting out and do some yoga when I finish. I focus on my lower back, hips, shoulders, neck, and knees–the places where my body most supports the pack weight.
Jake! I love this post so much and it’s really amazing that you’re trying to demystify the incredibly complex world of gear and tips! I leave for my first long trek at the end of this months. I bought hiking poles because over and over I heard that hiking over the Pyrenees is tough any way you cut it but even tougher without poles. But I will be honest, I haven’t tried using them yet. What are your tips? Should I be walking with them in the neighborhood to test them out? Should I wear gloves (I hear they can rub your hands)? Thanks Jake!
Thanks for reaching out, Gina! I can’t recall seeing many hikers using gloves with their poles, but listen to your body and respond if you’re feeling sore. It’s always smart idea to test gear before putting it to use in the wild, though you may not feel the benefits on flat-ish neighborhood terrain aside from a general boost in speed. They really kick into effect when climbing or descending elevation, allowing you take weight off your back and knees. Over the course of many long days, their impact reduction cannot be overstated. And once you get your rhythm down, it’s like having two extra appendages for increased mobility around obstacles, through mud, over rocks, whatever comes your way. I can’t count the number of times my poles have saved me from a bad fall.
One last tip: for maximum support, adjust the height so your elbows rest at a 90 degree angle.
Did any of your gear break or malfunction on your hike? Any words of advice for contingency planning?
Thanks for commenting, Jaclyn. One of my super expensive Black Diamond Z-Distance trekking poles snapped less than a 1/3 of the way in, causing my worst fall and ankle twist on trail. Man oh man that hurt. My ankle was swollen to the size of a baseball for weeks. This was far earlier than I was expecting to replace them, if at all. A friend had the same thing happen. Contingency planning while backpacking boils down to this: bring duct tape haha. Comes in handy a lot. You can tape it around your trekking pole to save space, and tear pieces off as necessary. I had a phone battery charger, a small bottle of emergency water purifying tablets if my filter broke, and some extra batteries for my headlamp. Even that was more than many other thru hikers carried. Always keep your sleeping gear and a pair of clothes dry. If you’re going to be hiking solo, definitely notify a couple people ahead of time where you’re heading and when you plan to be back.
Do any specific contingencies pop to mind?
Hey Jake! Long time no see! I’m preparing for a weeklong trip to Glacier National Park in September (airbnb style and just planning day hikes, no camping/backpacking) when I stumbled across HomemadeWanderlust’s videos and I went down a rabbit hole over the last 48 hours. Suffice to say I now have a new dream and I’ve decided I want to thru hike the AT either starting 2020 or 2021. How did you financially plan for your thru hike? Any good outfitters you recommend in Chicago? What did you do about health insurance? Thanks! 🙂
China! I literally screamed when I read this. YES. YES. YES. A thru hike is the most life-affirming, monumental gift you can give yourself. I’m so excited for you. Please know: IT. IS. SO. DOABLE!
I went from knowing nothing about the AT to starting in about 5 months, so I didn’t really have time to plan financially. Life circumstances told me to go for it, even though it was a really rough financial decision. I stalked Black Friday and year end clearance sales, put expenses on credit cards, took a loan from a close friend (which I prioritized paying back ASAP), and finished with only $200 in my bank account. I lived with my parents for a bit afterwards to recoup funds. Some gracious friends helped me buy gear items as well (divorce taught me how rich I was in loving friendships). I recommend researching big ticket items sooner than later (ex. tent, pack, sleeping bag, puffy jacket), so that you can jump on a sale when you see it. Uncle Dan’s is a great local option in Chicago. There’s an REI in town, and you should check out their discount site (https://www.rei.com/rei-garage). Backcountry.com often has good deals.
To give a quick money breakdown: Expect to spend $1000-$1500k on gear if you’re starting from scratch like me, and plan another $500 for gear replacements or upgrades on the trail. How much you spend executing the hike is largely dependent on your choices. How much time you spend in town, in bars, restaurants, on side trips, staying in hotels vs hostels, etc. I’ve read you should estimate about $2/mile for a thru hike. That comes to $4400 for the AT, which feels about right and isn’t crazy when you consider it’s a 6ish month trip and you’re experiencing a huge swath of the country. You could do it for way more, or way less money, depending. If possible, save a cushion of money to settle back into normal life afterwards (a challenging transition). I had a very basic health insurance plan through National General. It covered very little outside of urgent care visits, but it wasn’t state-dependent like some plans.
Enjoy Glacier National Park! That’s a part of the state I still haven’t visited, I may head there this fall as well after my tour directing season ends.
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Yea…how bout those good friends helping out along the way. Man I am so enjoying your writings and you sound so happy. Congrats. Bo
I still wear fleece pullover you helped me buy in Killington, VT. I’m sure some of the calories from McDonalds meals
you sponsored are in me somewhere, too. Your support meant as much then as now. Thank you!
I don’t have a question–yet–but I’m learning a lot just from reading the questions and your replies. I really enjoy your blog! You are a talented writer.
Wow, thank you for the kind words! Your 500 mile hiking goal is so exciting. I haven’t done any hiking on the PCT (yet!). I’m happy you’re finding this information helpful, definitely reach back out if any questions pop to mind.