10 Things I Would Do Differently For My Appalachian Trail Thru Hike
By: Preston “Gandolphin” Kahn
Hello my name is Preston Kahn and if you haven’t been into the shop in the last month or so you may not know that I am one of the newest members to join the Roads Rivers and Trails (RRT) team. Last October I started to think about what I was going to do post graduation after I finished my degree from THE Miami University of Ohio. This was when I started my research of the Appalachian Trail and what it was going to take to make this DREAM a reality. When I learned that two of the owners from RRT, Bryan and Joe, were going to speak about their own Southbound thru hike experience from 2006 at the Cincinnati Nature Center, I jumped at the opportunity to go listen. I knew that if I was actually going to follow through on completing the Appalachian Trail, I needed to surround myself with people who did complete it because it’s one thing to read all of the blogs and another thing to talk to people who have done the damn thing. So I started driving back from Oxford to RRT to start acquiring knowledge and my gear. Ice Man (Bryan) was an incredible resource to have, as well as my now co-worker Will Babb (Leapfrog), to prepare me to embark on this adventure of a lifetime. When I was asked to write this, I jumped at the opportunity because as I come up on a month since I stepped off Springer Mountain in Georgia, there is some wisdom I would like to pass onto the next class of AT thru hikers.
You Aren’t Camping You Are Long Distance Backpacking
I would say the one biggest piece of advice I would pass along to a person planning to hike the AT is that you aren’t camping, you are long distance backpacking. One of the sacrifices you are going to have to make when doing this beast of a trail is giving up some of the comforts of your everyday life and some of the comforts you may have grown accustomed to when you are going out for a fun weekend trip. Nice things that make you feel good have a weight attached to them and when you start compounding those nice things, you start to have a pack that is far too heavy. I don’t have the exact statistic in front of me but there is a well known fact out on the trail that the heavier your pack, the less likely you are to complete the whole thing. My backpack was probably a generous 35 pounds and looking back on it I would’ve probably tried to go even lighter. Now this is by no means saying you need to do it ultra light because that is when your gear cost can become higher, but starting over I would’ve begun my trip with a few things remaining at home.
(This is 9 pounds of things I sent home within 6 days of being on the trail)
2. Trail Runners Over Boots, No Question
This is a huge piece of advice that I did not take for the first 900 miles of my own journey. Now this is not meant to be a knock on my Salomon X-Ultra Mid in the slightest. I got my boots from RRT and got more out of them than I ever could’ve imagined. In fact after I’m done writing this blog, I might have to send an email to Salomon – maybe my testimony could get me a credit, who knows! What I will say though is while those Gortex boots may be waterproof, and trust me no one likes their feet dry more than me, you need to pivot from this mindset. Those Gortex boots are great for keeping water out, BUT they also do a pretty darn good job of keeping water in. That is why trail runners are so great! My La Sportiva and Altra trail runners completely changed my outlook on what it meant to put on my shoes in the morning. With my boots, I dreaded every morning because I knew that they were still wet and were going to stay wet. With my trail runners, my foot’s natural body heat would dry them throughout the day to the point where by the end of the day they were bone dry. Bryan kindly tried to point me in that direction but unfortunately for me I’m a stubborn SOB and needed to figure that out for myself. As for the ankle support, that is a fair concern but what I will say is that by doing that much walking in your trail runners, your ankles will strengthen to the point where this is a non-issue.
(These are my two pairs of trail runners which I got about a 1,000 miles out of)
Filter Your Water
I felt kind of obligated as a new member of RRT to preach safe hiking so I need to mention my reckless actions. For about 2 months I stopped filtering my water, which looking back on it was really testing fate. If you go out and experience a thru hike, you too will know just how much of a pain in the butt filtering water is. Especially for someone who was a little more miles oriented, I viewed filtering my water as a waste of time but more importantly daylight which towards the end of the trip became extremely valuable. (In my defense I had an evaluation process and a knowledge of what was safe to drink and not to drink, but it wasn’t the best choice.) One of the worst things that can happen to you when you are out there is getting Giardia, which for those of you who don’t know is uncontrollable bowel movements exploding from both ends. It’s an intestinal parasite that is going to sideline you for at least a week. I really tempted the AT gods with what I was doing and the future person might not be as lucky. It’s better to take precautions to keep yourself safe rather than trying to save a little bit of time which in the grand scheme of things is not that important. You can always make up the time.
More Expensive Gear Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Better
This is something that I didn’t figure out until after I got on the trail but I think it’s important to mention the acquisition of gear for your trip. When I was coming into RRT, I was pretty hell bent on buying the more expensive pieces I needed for my trip because, again, I’m a stubborn SOB. For example, instead of just going for the Sawyer Squeeze which is a crowd favorite and ol’ reliable, I went for the MSR Hyperflow pump, which there is nothing wrong with it but in terms of what is easier to attach to the top of any water bottle, that’d be a Sawyer. That is probably my best example of seeing something that was more expensive and because of that, I assumed it was superior but I believe this problem can extend to most facets of a gear list. When you are planning for your trip and getting the stuff you need, don’t just fly like a moth to light towards the expensive stuff because that’s not always going to equate to better gear. The biggest thing I would’ve done before is a little more of my own research. There are countless product reviews, blogs and chat spaces where you can gather all sorts of varying opinions to start to better understand what is going to best suit your specific style of hiking.
Have Gear Ready To Ship For When The Weather Starts To Change
This was a huge misstep on my part. I started in early July and it was incredibly hot. I really didn’t have to worry about a lot of gear in the start because I never had to worry about any sort of layering. That all changed though in early October when my cousin, uncle, and little brother came to hike with me. When they came to hike, they brought the cold with them and after it came it did not leave. Despite the fact that I didn’t need to use the gear right away, what I would have done is made sure I had a supply drop of warmer gear ready for when the weather turned. The same holds true for when you are in cold weather and it starts to warm up, but it is definitely crucial that you have warmer gear for the cold. Nothing is more miserable than being out on the trail and being too cold. Once you start hiking your body temperature will rise and you can start to take off the layers, but you want to make sure you have those layers at your disposal. Same goes for your sleeping system. You want to make sure you can get a good full night of sleep because if you don’t get your rest, it’s going to make hiking the next day that much harder.
Make Sure To Treat Yourself To A Mountain House
In the wise words of Tom Haverford, “Treat yo self”. If I could do it again, I would have bought a Mountain House every once in a while to break up the monotony of the food you eat on the AT. Let me give you a window into the culinary delicacies that a hiker is fortunate enough to eat every day. For breakfast, I would eat Pop-tarts and a Honey Bun. For lunch, I’d have two packs of some variation of tuna in a tortilla, or with some kind of crackers, and fruit snacks or a delicious Snickers if it wasn’t too hot. Then for dinner I would eat Ramen, more crackers, and more fruit snacks (Wash, rinse repeat). Not every hiker is out to torture their body as much I did, some freeze dry their own food, but for me I never really wanted to deal with resupplies because you don’t know where you will be from day to day. That’s why I say sprinkle in a Mountain House meal because it’s real, filling, and delicious food that you will be excited to eat at the end of the day. Heck I could eat their Turkey Dinner meal any day of the week.
Trust Your Preparation
Trusting your preparation is so crucial because as the date gets closer and closer you might start to freak out a little if you are like me. One of the fantastic things that makes RRT so unique is that they will stick with you every step of the way, so a week before I left I came into the store for one final pack shakedown and went over the final checklist. Let me start by saying if it isn’t on that final packlist, it’s probably not there for a reason, it’s because you don’t need it. So, there I was going through my packlist with Bryan checking off the items one last time and when we finished I went home happy because my backpack felt great and was at an ideal weight. Then a little time passed and that’s when I started to let doubt creep into my head. I laid awake in bed and would think, “Oh no I forgot this second battery pack, I’m definitely going to need that”. That is when you start to stray from your list and get stuck with stuff that is going to be unnecessary weight that you don’t need, trust the process.
Don’t Over Exercise Before You Leave
When I was preparing myself for the trip I asked Bryan what do I need to do to prepare for this trip in terms of exercising and eating, and what he said to me still sticks with me. “Whatever sort of exercising you do will not be enough. You really can’t emulate what it’s going to be like on the trail.” I did my best though trying to be healthier and making sure to do a lot of cardio, I even lost about 8 pounds in doing that. I felt I needed to prove to myself and those around me that I was serious about doing this trip. Looking back on it though I should have actually tried to gain weight. I was 150 lb before I left and once you start getting into the rhythm of hiking everyday, weight will begin to melt off. By the time I was in Georgia, I weighed 128 lb. If you are not in the greatest shape, you should work on that a little bit with cardio just so you have a good baseline but once you are out there, that is when the real exercise starts. There is no doubt I was too skinny, to the point that people said when they saw pictures of me out on the trail, “Arms of an Angel” by Sarah McLachlan would automatically start playing in their heads.
Invest In A Lifeproof Case
This is another thing that if I could go shake Preston right before he was leaving for his trip, I would tell him go get a Lifeproof! I was lucky enough to be apart of the rainiest season in recorded AT history and I did not have a case that was waterproof. Instead I had a Otter Box water resistant case, which was about as useful as a poopy flavored lollipop. My phone on several occasions would get soaked even inside of multiple plastic bags. Fortunately, it turned out alright and my phone never broke because of it. The only thing that ultimately failed due to the water damage was the iPhone camera, which was a huge bummer. I was still able to get a ton of incredible pictures but they were lower quality because I had to use my front camera so they looked like they were being shot with a Nokia flip phone for anything that was farther than 5 feet away. When I got to McAfee Knob, I went up to a complete stranger and asked for him to take a picture of me which he kindly said yes to. Then I quickly followed that up with “But on your phone and could you text it to me I’ll put my number in your phone”. Keep in mind, this is all while I was looking like Marv from Home Alone and smelling like a garbage disposal. Moral of the story, just get a Lifeproof or other waterproof case.
(This is the absolutely dynamite shot a stranger was nice enough to snag of me)
Have A List For When You Go Into Resupply
Lastly, the final thing I would do is make a list for when you are going to resupply your food. This will eliminate a lot of the stress that comes with going into a grocery store because you know what you need to get. One of things that comes with being a thru hiker is everything, and I mean everything, in the grocery store looks good. Your eyes are way bigger than your stomach especially when you are shopping hungry. You also will avoid buying too much food, which can be what really weighs down your pack if you get too much to eat.
I’m so happy with how my trip turned out and I wouldn’t do most things differently because what I did worked for me. Hopefully though, with my guide, someone who is thinking about thru hiking the Appalachian Trail will consider heeding my advice and learning from some of the mistakes I made along the way.