On March 10, 2017, myself and two other “over 45” women began our section hike through Georgia. We had big plans. Mighty big plans! In fact our plans were so big, if they were edible, we could say our eyes were bigger than our stomach.
Only six months prior, in September 2016, I had learned about the Appalachian Trail (which from here on out will be referred to as AT). About a month or so even before that, I sat listening to a man talk about his preparations for his month long AT hike, and I was so envious that he was a man who could safely go out into the woods and fear nothing but bears and snakes. Or so that was my perception at the moment. When I made mention that that was something I had longed to do ever since I was little, he confirmed my naïve perception that it was not meant for females to do alone. My hopes were sunk. In hindsight, it was my own fault for never ever even looking into what types of possibilities were out there for hiking wannabe’s. I had no idea there was even a community out there. To me, it had always only been this internal calling to just ‘wander off’ into the woods. But thinking that was actually a possibility never crossed my mind. That is, until I moved to North Carolina. In my hometown of Tampa, Florida, I knew all about flat local trails, and most water sports. The mysteries of the mountains tugged at me like one magnet to another. I told my partner about the conversation with the man who was getting ready for his long hike, and she told me about the Appalachian Trail and how popular it is in our parts. I thought about the mountains I had seen since I had moved to NC. Were those the AT? She didn’t know for sure, and I didn’t inquire further. The answer was that some indeed were. At the time, I just didn’t know which.
One evening, I was settling down for bed and I came across a book about hiking the AT, by Tommy Bailey, and I bought it for my Kindle and read the entire book in one night. At 3AM, I laid awake staring at my ceiling, KNOWING I had just found a gateway to putting my own feet on the trail.
The next day I was alive as though I had just figured out the meaning of life. I now had some key insights on “how to” hike long distances, and that meant to me that this might be something I could put into action.
The next evening I learned even more stuff! This time I typed in Appalachian Trail on YouTube and came across a documentary on the AT by National Geographic. There I saw that not only were there women hiking this amazing foot trail, but they were ALONE!!!! The glass walls around me shattered, and I turned to my partner and exclaimed, “I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail,” in which she turned to me from her own tablet and looked above her eyeglass rims and said simply, “OK.” So I added, “And I might even do it alone.” “OK,” came the answer again. So, ok, I thought. Ok.
Now all I have to do is figure out how and when. “I’m doing it alone,” I said one more time, though I am not sure who I was proclaiming that one to.
I watched the hour long documentary, memorizing every bit of information it offered. Then I watched it again. In fact I watched it nearly every night before bed. The problem was, I thought it would soothe me into sleep, but instead it kept me awake with excitement, ambition, motivation, and personal empowerment. I had to start limiting my nighttime AT reviews to earlier hours or evenings when I didn’t have to wake up early.
SIX MONTHS TO PREPARE
I found myself too excited about this awesome adventure I was about to embark on to keep it to myself. I posted to FB, asking if anyone else wanted to go with me. How far will we go? How long will we need? In pure innocence and naivety, I chose 100 miles in 10 days. That seemed reasonable. Several of my friends showed interest in joining me, but as the months passed, several became a handful, then finally two others. It is not an easy event to prepare for. There are costs and times to figure out. Physical training. Gear to acquire. Everything was costing so much money! The one thing I was super confident in was how long I had to prepare. I wasn’t thru-hiking, after all. I just needed to prepare for 10 days on the AT. In early March.
I immediately started a hiking group in my area for beginner and returning female hikers. I needed a support group to be responsible to/with. All the things I needed to learn, I could do with this group. I met awesome women who taught me things about stoves, tents, water, and pushing through fear. Oh sure, I talk a big hike, but managing anxieties on the trail is another story. For me, anyway.
I had to be accountable for my fears controlling me more than the other way around. Thankfully, my friends were/are patient and ignored me, and helped me work through the moments. One example is when I was hiking a neat trail at Wilson Creek in NC and my hiking partner, Silver Fox, suggested we walk up a bank where water was flowing down. It wasn’t gigantic or anything, but I could only picture myself slipping on a slick stone and cracking a bone or something worse. I just knew pain would be involved. My muscles went weak and I just felt as though I didn’t have the strength to climb upward. Fox stayed on me and finally she climbed first to show me it wasn’t so bad. I finally followed, and it turned out it wasn’t bad at all. The best part is we found ourselves on that very terrain for nearly 2 miles when we decided to take the bypass around Blood Mountain and do Freeman’s Pass. BTW, I totally recommend doing Blood Mountain, instead of going around it. My knees were shot at the time, and I was afraid I couldn’t climb the mountain. I would have rather done that than face the rocks on the bypass. Although if you are in great shape and love a challenge, I bet the bypass is great fun!
GETTING IN SHAPE
This I gave its own section below. Just go down a little bit and you will see it big and bold.
There are dozens of ways to accumulate your gear. It is so overwhelming at first. I wanted someone to just tell me what to buy. Here is my advice on what and how to get your gear.
If you have REI or another outfitters store near you, go there first and ask someone to help fit you for a back pack. This is not something to be shy about, it is what they are there for and they know it too. This will help you see what a proper fitting pack should fee like and also let you compare the better fitting packs to those that are not able to provide you with the proper support.
If you DO NOT have an REI or other hiking outfitters store, it is going to take more effort, but don’t despair. Honestly, I admire those who make the best of what they have and can use. Really great sources are joining hiking groups on FB or Meetup. Seek out brand names like Dueter and Osprey. Seek out experienced hikers in your area and don’t be afraid to ask questions on how to measure for a proper backpack. I promise you, many hikers don’t mind sharing information. It’s not the type of atmosphere where we are like, “I figured it out on my own, now you do the same.” No… we actually like talking gear and helping others.
Watch YouTube videos on everything! Watch thru hikers, gear reviewers, those who explain how to do stuff, all of it. When you find someone you relate to, watch more of their stuff. Any questions you have, YouTube it. You will find out how to put your tent up, how to make a stove out of a tuna fish can, how to throw a bear bag and what type of rope to get, what to wear… anything you want.
Once you figured out that YouTube holds most of the answers to hiking the AT (or any other trail), things start to get easier. On Facebook you can also find used gear sites that may be able to help you afford your gear. My favorite is: Backpacking Gear Flea Market
GETTING PHYSICALLY READY FOR THE BIG DAY:
Initially I tried to turn myself into a super athlete and had wonderful visions of my returning to my high school body.
Here is my reality: Yes, conditioning is really important. Georgia is very rocky and hilly (but fun). For my fat body full of every joint hurting and not having a lot of muscle strength in hips and hands, this is a good list of things to focus on in preparation:
Squats & Lunges – wall sits are great too
Yoga!!!! I did not use yoga for Georgia, but I am starting NC next month and I am using it!
Stretching – Even when you get to the trail, stretch every morning before you set off. This will help prevent plantars faciatous from flaring up, as well as calf and knee injuries.
Hike or use treadmill at an incline. Start off easy, then add weight every week and increase pace. You can time yourself. A good athlete’s goal is 2mph on the trail. I have yet to achieve that at my ability, but I am getting better each hike.
Cardio – cardio is important, but super cardio isn’t for this. Focus on controlling your breathing while you are doing cardio stuff. You want to supply your muscles with oxygen for longevity and endurance. I huff and puff on the uphills and stop sometimes every ten steps. I began counting my steps and controlling my breathing in order to increase the number of steps to 40 between stops. My hiking buddy Silver Fox counts trees between stops. Whatever works, just think about keeping your heart rate and breath in your control.
Here is a list of things I acquired, how & why I chose them:
Before you start reading this, please know that there are no real rules on how to prepare yourself. The best answers are to just do what feels best for you. If you haven’t heard the phrase Hike Your Own Hike already, then I humbly pass it on to you. I needed a detailed plan, and this was the order I took to prepare myself. I hope it helps you. You may have noticed links throughout this blog. If you click on them it will take you to whatever it is I am talking about – videos, items, etc. I have an associate account with Amazon, so if you happen to buy anything from one of the links, I get a small fee, so thank you in advance! I am not affiliated with anyone in any of the videos. They simply helped me tremendously when I was figuring out what the hell was going on. All links to gear are only items that I personally purchased and use.
1. First purchase: David “AWOL” Miller’s “The A.T. Guide Northbound“. This is the AT bible for many hikers and an excellent resource to planning your hike. Inside you will find mile by mile detailed information on where the shelters, water sources, campsites, and more are located in every State. You will find detailed info on what is in every major town, including veterinarians, doctors, restaurants, hotels, spots for hikers, etc. One more excellent feature is that he shows you the elevations you will encounter as you go along so there are no surprises. In other words, you know in advance if you are about to hike several miles UP. I rip out the pages I am hiking for each section and carry them with me in a baggie (to keep it dry). We burn them in a ceremonial celebration as we complete a page, which is equivalent to 20 miles.
~ David Miller also wrote a book on his thru hike, which I totally recommend reading or listening to. It is a really nice introduction to trail life. He seemed to be in great shape and could wiz along (I started as a 4-5 mile hiker, while he gazelled 15-20) but his experiences and thoughts are great for getting an idea of what to expect.
2. Make a list of every item you want, think you’ll need, definitely need, imagine you’ll need, etc. to take with you on your hike. Some ideas are: shoes, tent, sleeping gear, hiking outfits… Write it all down and don’t lose it. Make an excel sheet if you want, or start a notebook. BTW, this is also a great time to begin journaling your journey if you are into that. Here is a word doc of my packing list for 5 days.
~ Start watching YouTube videos on hiking the AT. Search specifically for ‘what’s in my pack?’ or ‘packing list for the Appalachian Trail’. Watch what the thru hikers are packing, because you will be carrying the same. Compare your list with theirs so you can see how to narrow your own list down. This is the video I watched when I first learned how to make a packing list. I took from it what I needed: YouTube packing list video
3. Plan out a budget and time frame to begin acquiring what you will need. IDEALLY: Most hikers agree (and I can now attest) that $1200 – $2000 is about the average amount you will spend if you are starting from scratch. There are dozens of sites to buy used gear and also cool videos on how to make some of your own stuff like stoves.
4. WEIGHT before you buy – get it? weight? lol. No matter how far you are going it is important to be aware of how much weight you are going to be carrying on your back. Some people are fine not worrying about weight and pack what they want and are good to go. Others (myself included) prefer or need to pay attention to how much weight they are carrying. If you think you might be a weight watcher, then your magic number is (by average) between 28-33lbs. It isn’t wrong to go over 33lbs!!! In fact there is NO WRONG. Only if it is wrong for your personal needs. These are just average numbers that seem to be the consensual ideal weight of a happy hiker. It is possible to have less weight and I applaud anyone who has the ability to achieve it. I have not yet.
5. What to buy first? Some people say to buy all your gear first THEN get a backpack that will carry it all, but I preferred to buy my ideal back pack FIRST so that I could use it to measure the size of the gear I was buying. I’ll say it now: I would not skimp on your backpack or your sleeping bag. While the man at the Happy Hiker in Highlands, NC was so awesomely explaining what I should be looking for in a pack, I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, and all his explanations were jargon at the time. I ended up just trying on packs until one felt “normal”. I feel very lucky that it happen to be the Osprey Atmos 50 AG. Word to the wise: If you are going to be serious about multi-day hiking, go ahead and get the 65 Liter pack, no matter what brand you buy. I love my pack’s design and how gentle it is on my shoulders, but it is a real struggle to hike beyond a few days with 50 liters worth of space. You don’t have to use all 65 liters, but when you need to pack more food than 3 days worth you will need the space. My recommendation is to try out the Osprey packs first. Then you can compare the difference between the anti gravity fit and all others.
6. Sleeping bag: My method was to compare weight and money. I absolutely have to have the least amount of weight, but my funds are limited. I picked out the one with the most amount of weight I wanted to carry (2lbs) and either waited for a sale or looked for it on Ebay and used gear sites on FB. Believe me, they are findable. I went to REI and Diamond Outdoors, and laid hands on the lightest stuff (which usually equated to the most expensive) they had, and then shopped around til I found a deal I could live with. DO NOT SKIMP ON SLEEPING BAGS! It really really sucks to be cold at night and then think about repeating it the next night, and the next…
My best advice is to get the sleeping bags that are synthetic on the bottom and goose down on the top. They are light and affordable. You won’t have to panic if they get wet on the synthetic bottom. I bought the all goose, but I wish I had the hybrid. I went with the Marmot Helium 15 degree 800 fill. I tried my friend’s REI Flash half goose – half synthetic 35 degree bag and would totally be happy with it and a bed liner for additional warmth.
While it is easy to get someone to just tell you which one to buy, it is important to do some research. To what degree do you want to be protected? I went with protection down to 15 degrees but I only felt comfortable down to 25. After that I shivered. There are items to help protect against cold, like bag liners. Some say a $15 light blanket from Walmart does the trick just fine in adding additional warmth.
DON’T FORGET A SLEEPING PAD!!! Keep something between you and the ground! Blow ups are awesome, and so are those accordion looking pads. Check for how well they protect in certain temperatures. You will never feel like you do in your own bed, but you will become accustomed to your outdoor bed.
7. The Tent: For me, it was again about weight. Most tents are three season, but double check before you buy. I also wanted space because I knew I may have my gf or hopefully a pet or both with me at times. Again, I needed it to be super light, so I held a bunch of them at REI, and then waited for the right sale. I got the Big Agnes UL (ultra light) Copper Spur 2. If you need space, THIS IS IT. I swear I have a mini apartment with me. Super light, stands alone, 2lbs – 12 oz. And there are two doors (vestibules) so I don’t feel trapped and can slip out the back for a middle of the night potty.
8. Cookware: I love buying cookware! There are so many options for buying a stove. If you want to save on space and weight – I highly recommend the MSR Pocket Rocket Stove . Those are the kind you just screw on a gas canister and put your pot on top. There are so many types out there, I recommend you watch youtube videos on different types of stoves and try some out. Some people make stoves out of discarded catfood or tuna cans. There are really inventive ways to boil your water, which is essentially the main goal of the stove.
Cooking pots/cups: I recommend going non stick. In reality, doing dishes in the woods isn’t practical, and you really will hate it when it is cold out. Get one 450L cup for coffee/tea, etc., and something a little bigger to boil water in for your dehydrated/freeze dried meals. A lid for your pot is important and useful, but not totally necessary. I prefer one. It helps the water to boil faster which saves gas in the canister.
WHEN COOKING YOUR FREEZE DRIED/DEHYDRATED MEALS: Prepare your meals in separate freezer bags. Boil the water in your pot, then pour the water into the freezer bag. DO NOT pour the food into the water inside the pot. This will allow you to seal your bag for re-hydration AND when you are done you can simply put your used bag in your trash bag or burn it. Either way, your pot is still clean and ready for re-use. (yes, you will eat your food out of your freezer bag)
Utensils: Get a spork.
9. Hiking shoes: This probably should be the first thing on your list, but if you haven’t done so already, you are probably re thinking your current hiking shoes by now. What should you be considering? Material, price, weight, stability, longevity, style, etc.
FIRST: Plan to get a pair that is 1/2 to 1 whole size larger than what you normally wear. Do not deviate from that. Your feet will swell and you do not want to be stuck with your toes ramming the entire trip. I wear a size 9, but a 10 hiking. In some brands, I can wear a 9.5 while hiking, so try different shoes on to make sure you don’t go clown size big.
~ If you are new to hiking, I recommend buying shoes that are mid ankle. You will undoubtedly slip unexpectedly and it is so comforting to have that support when you need it. Knock on wood, I have not had any sprains on my many mini ankle twists on an unexpected root or rock. Also, if you are overweight or have poor balance (I am both), your ankles will thank you. And so will your confidence.
At first I bought three different pairs of hiking shoes. No, four. 2 pairs of Merrills: 1 Moab Ventilator, and the other I couldn’t tell you as they were also my first ever pair and I chose by color. The other two pairs were by Keen: both Targhee II, one mid ankle and one below. I love the Moabs by Merrill, but when I wore the Keens over rocky terrain I felt more secure. Plus the Targhees are water proof (well… resistant) and I am fine wearing them all year round. I am not a sweaty foot victim, so I wear them in the summer too. I have weak ankles and bad knees — REALLY BAD KNEES, so I can’t wear the below ankle ones hiking, but they are great for daily wear.
10. Water filtration system: I’ll make it easy for you. Get either the Sawyer mini filter, the Platypus gravity system, or both. Also I recently discovered filtration droplets that are AWESOME. I am going to switch to those definitely. They are smaller and faster AND the water tastes great. I personally will keep the mini sawyer with me for back up filtration because every now and then the water just plain looks or tastes questionable. In that case, filtrate the water first through the Sawyer or Platypus, then do the drops thing for extra protection. You can always boil for 5 minutes too.
So, now that you are overwhelmed… Next is clothes, first aid, bear bags, hygiene, clothing materials, and little things I am possibly not thinking of now. Like a headlamp. Never ever forget one. It sucks to not see in the middle of the night. If you have started doing research for the items mentioned above, you now have some dependable resources to help you fill in the gaps. REI has excellent videos and staff to help you find anything you missed or fear you missed. You can always write to me and ask!
Here is a video I made of the first part of the hike, from Springer to Neel Gap. It’s amateurish and could have used a lot more editing, but it was fun to make. There are more videos as the journey continues as well as me blundering through getting myself ready.
I sincerely hope this has helped you begin to put the framework part of your hike together. There will be so much more to learn along the way and also while you are out there. Undoubtedly, you will find many flaws with my list and theories as you put yours together, but that is natural and the beauty of discovering your hiking badass self. When it comes to my own 100 mile journey, I am still at it. I thought that doing ten miles on flat land with no weight on my back meant I could do ten miles with 30lbs on my back going up and down steep grades and literal boulders and large rocks. For me, it was an upsetting awakening that I was no longer the athlete I perceived myself to be. My 100 mile hike turned into 11 miles and getting the hell out of the woods due to below freezing weather. Then excessive rain cut my journey short the 2nd trip. By now I have hiked along side a hurricane, in snow, lightening, and perfect weather. During each section, my average distance has increased, but ten mile days are rare. My knees continue to give out after 6 or 7 miles and I now have good ole plantar fasciitis (or facetious planters, as I like to call it) to contend with in between and during hikes. Thankfully it is manageable, and I have no doubt if I changed my diet and exercise I would benefit greatly. To complete Georgia, we ended up taking a long weekend every month and completed 15-ish miles. We would park at the end spot and have a shuttle driver take us to the beginning, that way we could hike back to our cars, which is really motivating! You will discover your strengths and weaknesses very quickly, and I encourage you to embrace each of them and love yourself all the more. You are unique, vibrant, and strong. Even if you don’t feel each of those things now, you will find them on the trail. They are already there, I promise!