Without a doubt, the question I get asked the most both on and off the trails is "have you hiked the AT?" The answer is yes, but not all of it and nowehere near as much as I would have liked. I know that over time I'll get it all done and will continue to bite off sections of it as and when time permits, but I've always been envious of people that are able to thru-hike the AT. Even having done bits and pieces, part of me would like to go back and thru-hike the entire length just for fun.
I'm sure there are a lot of you reading this that feel the same way. So I got to thinking about what it would be like to actually do that and what the challenges and considerations might be - would they be mostly physical, mental or both?
I stumbled across an interesting new book called Appalachian Trials that was written by someone who successfully thru-hiked the AT in five months with zero prior backpacking experience. Unlike the plethora of books and websites offering information about logistics, gear, and endurance training, this book focuses on the most important and overlooked piece of equipment of all - the gear between one’s ears.
I was extremely happy to hear that the author of the book was willing to sit down with me for a Brian's Backpacking Blog interview about his new book, his overall experiences, things he would do differently, and advice for those of us thinking of following in his footsteps.
So now – here's Zach Davis, author of Appalachian Trials.
Zach, what is the hardest part of a 2,181 mile backpacking trip?
A common question I get from others usually is "how good of shape do I need to be to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail?" The answer to this question is undoubtedly "in amazing shape", however you don't need to go into the trail in amazing shape. When people think of backpacking from Georgia to Maine, they see an almost impossible physical challenge. The hardest part physically occurs only over the first few weeks. This is when your body is adapting to the rigors of daily full-day backpacking. Your joints are at high risk of injury. You will wake up and fall asleep sore. That's what happens when you strap thirty pounds to your back and start climbing mountains. That said, after this initial period, your body begins to adapt. Soreness will still happen, albeit far less frequently, but fatigue stops being so much of an issue.
At a certain point (approximately the 3-4 week mark) the trail's challenges shift from being physical to mental. Most hikers can get through the initial period because the excitement of living outdoors drowns out the pain. However, once your body adapts, a hiker's mind tends to lose strength. Most prepare themselves for the physical fight, and end up losing the mental battle and thus their own brain gets the best of them.
You recently wrote a book about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, called Appalachian Trials. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and your inspiration behind writing it and the early feedback?
To elaborate on the above point, most hikers go into the AT readying themselves for a physical challenge unlike no other. Additionally, they get intimidated with the logistics of living outdoors for a half year. "How many resupply boxes should I send? Where should I send them? What maps do I need to buy? What's the best sleeping bag?" These types of questions are typically what dominate hikers' minds before embarking on their thru-hike.
These are the sorts of questions I was asking before leaving, until I was put in touch with another successful thru-hiker, Ian Mangiardi (creator TheDustyCamel.org), who completely changed my approach to the trail. He was blunt. He told me that I'd have access to food every 3-5 days, I wouldn't ever need a maildrop, that the hiking eventually becomes easy, and that my concerns should focus on the mental aspect of living outside for a half year.
From that point forward, I spent ample time answering one simple yet important question: "why am I hiking the trail?" I knew there would come a point during my hike, when the trail began presenting these mental obstacles, where I would ask myself this very question. So, I created a series of lists focusing on giving compelling answers (I provide my lists in Appalachian Trials as well as templates for creating your own), carried them with me, and reviewed them whenever I felt my spirits starting to dip.
Additionally, I intentionally re-shifted how I would approach the challenging times on the trail. Instead of getting frustrated or trying to fight through these stretches, I viewed them as opportunities for personal growth.
These sorts of techniques what were occupied my time instead of the traditional AT research. I knew it was a gamble, but it was the only approach that made sense for me. Because I went into the trail with literally no backpacking experience- I learned how to pitch a tent only two days before leaving (I wish that were a joke) - I knew my unorthodox approach would either be a Hindenburg type failure or an eye-opening revelation about thru-hiking the AT.
Thankfully, it turned out pretty well. Not only did I finish the trail, I was able to keep a smile on my face when others were struggling, even after I contracted West Nile Virus (from which I still battle the symptoms today).
Upon finishing the trail, I wanted to read other books that confronted the psychological component of the Trail. There were none. To me, that was insane. There are a plethora of how-to books regarding the AT, and NONE OF THEM DEAL WITH THE MOST CHALLENGING PART OF ASPECT OF THE TRAIL (sorry for the caps, but that was how strongly I felt about it). So, I wrote the book myself.
Appalachian Trials is the first Appalachian Trail book to tackle the psychological and emotional part of the AT. The feedback thus far has been amazing. The book has been out for only a few weeks and I've been bombarded with e-mails from aspiring hikers thanking me, saying they now feel better prepared and that they have much clearer expectations for the AT. Their feedback makes me feel good- to make a difference in someone's life, no matter how big or small.
What would you have done differently?
I would have moved slower through the Whites and Southern Maine. I somehow convinced myself that once I reached The Whites, I was on the home stretch. Roughly translated, I could push myself for the remainder of the hike because I had an ocean of “zeros” (days off) waiting for me on the other end of the trail. This failed me for two reasons:
- This is the most beautiful section of the trail, hands down. The views from above ridge-line in The Whites and southern Maine are nothing short of breathtaking. You’ll bust your ass for an hour, look up, and all of a sudden are sitting on top of the world with 360 degree views of untouched, tree covered landscape carved out only by dark blue lakes. This section really is the climax of the trail. By pushing myself, I was constantly battling exhaustion, and not fully capable of being present during this unparalleled portion.
- The three hundred mile stretch starting at the Whites extending into mid-Maine is tough as shit (pardon my French). AT hikers go into this with an inflated hiking ego (for good reason, we’ve already covered 1,700 miles at this point). Unfortunately ego isn’t enough. The climbs are unlike anything we’ve seen to this point. They are steeper, extend much further, and are a lot more technical. Because of this, you’re using a completely different set of muscles. This results in getting worn down much faster than we’re accustomed to. By the time I had made it to the beginning of the 100-mile Wilderness, my legs were jello. I was pushing myself to my limit almost every day, and because of this, the next daywas always much more of a challenge. Although the common wisdom is to “slow down in The Whites”, I never received advice on why. I learned this the hard way.
What was your most memorable part of your AT thru-hike looking back?
Although there were many individual moments that I look back on with great admiration (canoeing in the Shenandoah River, night hiking under a bright full-moon, tenting on numerous mountain sides), the thing I will miss most about the AT is the freedom. There are no schedules. There is no regimen. You wake up without aid of an alarm. You walk when you want to walk. Eat when you want to eat. Break when you want to break. Sleep when you want to sleep. It’s complete freedom and liberating beyond belief. Although I try to live this as much as possible in my post-AT life, no person can really be as free as they are on the AT.
Would you do it all over again?
This could be interpreted two different ways. If you mean, will I ever go on a half year backpacking trip again, the answer is no. I did it mostly to test myself, to try something new, and to gain a new perspective. I’m happy with the outcome. With that said, a half year backpacking trip isn’t easy. I wouldn’t prove anything to myself by hiking the AT again. I would, however, do other long backpacking trips, just not six months. I’m actually considering hiking El Camino de Santiago in the next year or two. That sounds more my speed.
If the question means, knowing what I know now about the AT, would I still have gone back and originally hiked it, then my answer is a 150% absolute yes. I am a better person for my experience. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. The memories I have from my time on the trail are something that I will cherish until my death.
What was the biggest thing you learned or gained from Hiking the AT?
Life is short. Too many people live for some invisible promise of a better future when they retire. This premise is flawed. By the time many people have enough money stored away for retirement, they’re too old to actually enjoy it. A retiree vacation involves driving to many of the spots I was hiking through, taking 30 minutes to snap pictures while wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, getting back into the car, and driving to the local Italian restaurant. That’s not a bad day, but that’s not something that I’ll look back with pride sitting in my rocking chair in before dying days. Do whatever it takes to fulfill your life. That’s the only way to live.
Side note: I encountered many retirees on the AT. These were 60+ year old guys and ladies who were keeping up with all the youngsters and enjoying themselves every bit, if not more, along the way. I tip my hat to these folks because I sincerely doubt I will be physically capable of a 2,200 mile backpacking trip when I reach their age. If you’re as badass as these individuals, disregard the above paragraph. You are a better person than me!
What was your favorite gear item you took?
For purely novel purposes, my Innate Mentor Storage Sacs. Not only do they work really well, but they’re the only sacs on the trail with an air compression valve (at least that I saw). When releasing excess air from your sac, it pretty closely resembles the sound of flatulence (there’s really no other way to describe it). When putting your food or clothes away at the end of the night, and other hikers hear this sound, it’s makes for an excellent conversation starter.
In terms of practicality, I know this isn’t exactly a popular outdoors answer, but my iPhone. It was just so damn versatile. It was my camera, my journal, and my mp3 player. Off the trail, when other hikers are fighting over the one computer at the hostel, I can send e-mails to friends and family without getting off the couch. It’s essentially the electronic version of a multi-tool. All of the pictures from my AT video slide-show were taken with my iPhone.
What gear item did you end up needing the most?
Aside from the backpack itself, my Eureka Casper 15 degree bag. There were a few pretty damn cold days in the beginning of the trail. One night it got down to 14 degrees. I dubbed my sleeping bag the “anti-hypothermia zone”. Waking up to pee in the middle of the night and getting out of my sleeping bag to do this was one of the hardest things I did the entire trail.
There were some who had only a 30 degree bag. I think that’s pushing it. I’m glad that I had the extra warmth. With that said, the bag is a little on the heavier side. I exchanged it out for a lighter Deuter bag starting in mid-May and got my Casper back before going into the Whites.
What gear item did you end up not needing at all?
Gaiters. Although a lot of people used them a lot, the feedback was mixed. I sent mine home within the first week. They seem to do a better job at keeping pebbles out of shoes/boots than in keeping your foot dry. If anything, it doesn’t allow heat to escape, causing more perspiration (which I already do in Costco size portions) . A moist foot is a breeding ground for blisters. For me, it’s not worth carrying the extra weight (although they’re pretty light), it’s easier to take the 12 seconds required to take your shoe off or just wait it out until your next break point.
Otherwise, most of the items in my first aid kit never ended up getting used. Although I wouldn’t recommend not carrying a first aid kit, I would suggest to not go overboard in what you bring. If an injury is severe, get off the trail. A Band-Aid isn’t going to do much.
Did you use postal drops and if so how did you arrange all of that?
I did. Most of the packages were sent from my parents, although I purchased most of the contents inside them before leaving. I also gave my friends Chris and Jeff some money before leaving as a fund to send me anything that I might need along the way. From there, I just scouted out a post office or hostel 150 miles or so ahead of where I was to have the box sent to and texted them the next time I had service. A lot of people have a strict maildrop itinerary setup before they leave. For me, this would have been more of a headache than anything else.
Having to stop in to a town when you still have enough supplies to get to the next is a bit frustrating and conflicts with my favorite aspect of the trail, not having any schedule. To any aspiring thru-hikers reading this- don't stress maildrops. It's unnecessary. If there's a post office, a grocery store is not far off. Oftentimes, the grocery store is easier to get to than the PO. Don't add hassle to a lifestyle that doesn't require it.
Zach Davis is an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, founder of the Good Badger, author of Appalachian Trials, and technology blogger at Tech Cocktail. He drinks crappy beer, good wine, green tea, and black coffee. He is currently in pursuit of his lifelong goal: escaping the confines of society.
Stay tuned for a chance to win a signed copy of Appalachian Trials via Brian's Backpacking Blog...