Managing Fear & Self Doubt When It Comes to Hiking on the Appalachian Trail: 5 common worries.

As an expert “work in progress” when it comes to managing fears and self doubts about my hiking capabilities, I have learned I am not alone.  I have also been learning that there is much to learn by listening to others talk about their fears and self doubts.  It is not a ‘misery loves company’ scenario, but more of a way to discover that most of our concerns have been already overcome by those who walked before us.  What I mean is, talking about fear and self doubt opens up lines of communication that are helpful in overcoming what we are allowing to cause stress. (BTW, when I speak of fear and doubts here, I am specifically referring to ideas related to hiking)

Looking back, I can see I have always had irrational fears about just about anything.  Except watching scary movies.  I absolutely love to be thrilled by a good scary movie.  On the trails, however, I am finding myself battling with my mind about stuff that in hindsight is nothing but a waste of energy!  Luckily, I have friends who have no problem living in the moment and will drag my rear end through the miles of the Appalachian Trail rain or shine.

So, lets talk about some of the fears and doubts that keep you and me from experiencing the best of the trails.  Our minds can work against us, or for us. We are still in control, however.

I’m too fat/out of shape – I don’t know if I can hike long distance

Ok, you might be fat or out of shape, but it does not mean you cannot hike.  I have met and seen and heard many obese women and men on the trail (have you seen me out there?).   Weight concerns are important, so talk to your doctor first.  It’s not a matter of can’t, but ‘how to safely get prepared’.

You don’t need to become an athlete or get back to your high school capabilities, you just need to prepare your body.  My legs become two swollen tree trunks by the end of most days after 5 or more hiking hours.  After,  I can barely squat and getting into my tent becomes a real pain in the ass.  3 doctors and physical therapists have recommended these to me.

Wall sits  – for my weak hip flexors, quads, and knees
Lunging – gets you ready for those endless up-hill hikes (1 mile can feel endless for us fatties)
Squats – Don’t try to go all the way down and don’t bounce.  Just controlled squatting without going below the knee.
Treadmill at incline – doesn’t need to be super high and fast, but it’s fun to watch how fast you get better.
Work on building the tendons that are on the sides of the knees.  The muscles will grow fast but those tendons are slow and those are the ones that get hurt while hiking.  Slowly get them babies ready.
My hiking pard is now doing yoga, and it is such a fantastic idea, I just started also.  Seriously, if you google any yoga transformations, you will be amazed at how it turns bodies from broken to healed.  Here’s my favorite!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX9FSZJu448

I’m afraid of getting lost


Me too!!!  But for some reason I don’t fear it at all on the trails.  If you go to a state park, the trails are always marked.  On the Appalachian Trail (AT), the trail is marked well with their blaze, which is a white line usually on a tree or rock.  You can feel pretty confident in seeing them every 10 or 15 minutes.  There are easy ways to keep yourself on track.
Be observant of your surroundings.  If you notice something unique like a cool shaped tree or an interesting rock, remember what side of the trail it is on.
Keep a compass.  Look at it often.  The thing with trails is they are winding at times.  When you encounter switchbacks, the trail will take you from side to side up a mountain, rather than straight up because that would be too steep or dangerous.  One moment you may be heading west and another, east.  On the AT, if you are heading towards Maine, you are always considered heading north, even if you are physically heading south.  And if you are hiking the AT towards Georgia, you are considered going south at all times.  When you get off the trail for a quick break or setting up camp, get into the habit of laying one of your walking poles down and pointing it in the direction you are heading.  That will take some of the second guessing out of it.
Grab the map.  If you are at a state park, pick up one of their trail maps.  This gives great practice to safely navigate yourself through the trail and give yourself bearings.  On the AT, there are maps to use(I like David Awol Miller’s AT Trail Guide) that you can pretty much tell where you are at all times.  I know at first glance they can make you feel lightheaded, but the more you look at what it says and what is around you, it all comes into focus.
Take a map reading class for hikers.  Check REI or your state parks for free classes on map orienting!!

BEARS!!!

I envy those who sleep peacefully without having that little part of their mind standing guard all night, waking them up at every acorn falling from the tree.  On the AT, there are black bears, and most of them are so afraid of humans that if you see a bear, it will be it’s cute bear butt running away. I have heard many stories otherwise, but I have heard only a handful of stories that get any worse than that. I haven’t seen one myself yet, but I’ve seen plenty of scat, so I know they are around.  So how do we manage our fear of bears?  Educating yourself is key, and here some other tips.

1.  Take precautions.  Food and other items with an odor should be hung properly from trees or put in bear canisters or boxes.  Items with an odor include toothpaste, chapstick, lotions.  I believe all or most parks provide boxes to store food in to keep not only bears but other critters out.  On the AT, a big obstacle is finding a branch low enough (if there is a branch at all) to hang your bear bag from.  Be diligent, which is in itself a great practice to have on the trails.  Ive heard that making a triangle out of your camp site is smart.  Your tent goes at one point, your fire at another, and your food at the third.

2.  Bear spray/ air horn.  I keep a horn attached to my pack. One of those tiny airhorns you can pick up at Dicks Sporting Goods for a few bucks.  My hiking pard carries bear spray.

3.  Look around.  Bear poop (scat) is easy to spot as it is usually full of grass and berries.  You can tell if it is fresh by noticing if the grass is more green or yellow.  Green indicates more freshly dropped scat, so they may still be in the area.  Also, if you do see hair or meat in the scat then the bear is likely in a more confrontational mood and it would be better to leave the area.

4.  Pepper spray vs bear spray.  If you have the choice, please use bear spray over stuff made for man.  Bear spray is horrid enough I promise! (my hiking partner has a habit of dropping hers and dusting us or herself at surprise moments)  You want to get the bear to move away from you, you don’t want to blind a mama bear who may be trying to protect her cubs, and then make it so she can’t take care of them.

5.  Noise works.  I’ve seen dog owners attach little bells to their pups even.

6.  Look up.  Cubs are taught to run up a tree to avoid danger.  If you are hiking and you notice limbs falling around you look up.  If you do happen to come across a mama bear with cubs, give them the space to move on first.

7. I love this video by flatbrokeoutside on YouTube.   Click on the link, or copy/paste it, and get his frankness on bears on the AT.  He makes sense of just about any fear you have out there:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqrLn6BSmfw

Stranger Danger​

That was my very first initial fear about hiking alone, followed by bears.  On personal experience, I have not encountered anyone that I got those instinctive vibes from, but I know that others have had encounters with people that should be jailed for life.  And yes there have been murders.  But, to put things in perspective, the AT is far more safe than even just hiking at your local state park.  The trail community as a whole works together.  If you are carrying bear spray or a horn, those items will also help detour someone who is not welcome.  I am a huge proponent of carrying any means necessary to make sure I am protected against a human predator.   That being said, I have only carried a gun once, and the rest of the time, I forgot even my knife.  I feel 100X safer on the AT then hiking at the parks in my town.  And I love the parks I hike at, as well as the rangers.  They do a superior job.  Different states have different laws, so know them.

If you come across individuals you’d prefer not to spend too much time with, move on and let those who are confrontational have their space.  Report anyone who is threatening in any way, especially if it is verbal (obviously if they are physically threatening  you, make sure to let other hikers know and contact the local rangers asap).  An older man last year who was dressed very well, and appeared to be the least likely person to have ill intentions was sexually harassing female solo hikers and not letting them pass, and implying they are not safe alone.  One woman got his picture and posted it to a hiking group and many of us contacted the rangers in the area.  So, plan ahead on what to do if faced with whatever scenario frightens you, so that your mind will remember to execute. These types of stories aren’t common,  but I don’t want to give the impression it doesn’t or can’t happen.  They should not deter you from hiking solo if that is your desire.  You should probably fear surprising a snake, or squatting over poison ivy more than being in danger of a stranger.  That’s my own experience, and it is the majority of experiences I have read of others.

**An important thing to remember is not to camp near roads.  Locals visit the sites most near the parking areas when wanting to gather for partying, etc.  Just keep on hiking to the next site further down.  It’s more risky to camp near main roads where the locals come to then to camp among other hikers.  Anyone will attest.  Make it your law.

Running out of food or water.

Totally legit concern.  Even if you do everything right, there have been instances where a bear was able to get to someone’s hung bag and then they were without food – which is very scary.  I fear both because we obviously need water and hiking makes you lose a lot, but also because my blood sugar drops easily, and it would be bad for me to be stuck miles from a place where I could get food.  With planning, you can reduce your risk of running out of water and food long enough that you would die on the AT.
1.  Always have a minimum of 3 liters of water available.  I know that is a lot of water to carry, but it is doable.  My hiking partner carries 5, while I continue to find myself worried when I start getting low and can’t find a water spot that doesn’t take an extra mile to get to.  At my hiking pace, miles = hours, so I can’t afford to take an extra hour to refill my water sometimes, especially when the water source is a mile out and a mile back.  This season I bought a 3L water bladder and will keep two liters on hand.  I hate the space waste of a water bladder but they are so nice to have.  And water is heavy.  The only encouragement I can give is that they become lighter as you drink, so it’s not like you are carrying all that weight the whole time.  I can’t promise that I will carry all 5 liters, but I will carry 4 with no problems.  THE KEY IS TO FILL UP OFTEN.  Try to keep a certain amount always, that you won’t go below.

2.  Know where your water sources are.  Don’t wing it.  It is wise to carry a map of the AT if you are hiking it.  AWOL’s map marks the water sources throughout, so for me, I like knowing how far between each.  If you get lost and are off the trail, I would head downward, since that is the direction water flows, and it is easier to find in lower locations.  Keep your ears open for sounds of water.  If you run into other hikers, ask if they have seen any.

3.  As far as food goes, you are going to need to get off the trail and get to a place to resupply.  Plan not to panic if your food bag is stolen, just get to nearest place you can get off the trail.  Hopefully there is someone you can call to help you, but if not, just make yourself prepared mentally each night, that if it happens, you know what you will do.  Personally, I think I would be more pissed off that I wasn’t able to have my coffee if my bag actually got stolen.  Of course, then reality would set in.
**You can google videos on how to hang a bear bag.  It can be a fun challenge, and also one that leaves you cursing.  I just learned about the PCT method of hanging bags and think I will give it a go next time I am out there (April 2018).


Thanks for reading this, I sincerely hope it helped in some way. When fear keeps us from doing stuff that we should be able to go out and enjoy, it is important to look into what is really happening inside and why.  It is good to look at what is rational and what is not.  Fear of freezing temperatures is rational.  If you know how to stay warm and have the proper shelter, it’s part of the AT experience that has its rewards.  I get in my own way all the time.  Talking with other hikers has helped enormously, otherwise I may have never stepped foot on the trail.  Don’t be shy to ask a hiker questions.  We loooove sharing our experiences and helping others.  Find hiking groups around you on Meetup.com, FB, and local outfitters, for great insight.  I am a huge fan of watching youtubers share their experiences!   There is one piece of advice my professor Ron McC gave me when I was expressing different fears about the trail, and that was “Do it anyway.”  That landed me on the AT during a tropical storm, but the cool thing is I wasn’t even afraid while I was in it, only the thought of it was scary.  And there were many others hiking also.  I like to tease him about that, but the truth is, you should just do it anyway.

Stay Stinky!!

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