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AT thru-hike attempt cut short

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  • AT thru-hike attempt cut short

    I recently returned home from an attempt at thru-hiking the AT and I thought some of things I learned might be helpful or interesting for other hikers out there. I tried to give an account of my entire trip but by the time I got to the third day it was already too long so instead I thought I'd just give some of the highlights. At first, I'll discuss some of the social aspects of the trail and misconceptions I had about what I was getting myself into. Then I'll discuss some more technical details about the realities of long distance hiking and some lessons I learned.

    Part of the reason I wanted to hike the trail was to take a break from society but it didn't take long to learn that the trail is full of people. It wasn't an escape from society so much as it was entering into a new sub-culture of a large group of like-minded people. The trail is very popular and seemingly gets more popular every year. This has been the busiest year so far. And there is a large support structure of towns, hostels, trail angels, festivals, etc.all built up around the trail. I didn't make it to the 100 mile wilderness, but there was never any point where I would have had to carry more than 2-3 days of food if I had planned correctly. You don't even need to carry enough food for 100 miles in the 100 mile wilderness, as it now has resupply options.

    The trail is a social even for a lot of people. I thoroughly enjoyed the hiker community and quickly formed very deep friendships with many of the people who I found myself hiking with. You really do make some very good friends very quickly when you're spending all day with people and sharing some serious ups and downs. The hiker community also affords a lot of personal freedom and tends to be very supportive and nonjudgmental. With some of that freedom and non-judgmental attitude does come a bit of a drinking and cannabis use culture. I didn't expect this, but it was fairly common for people to pack out beer or liquor and cannabis use was everywhere. It was fairly common for there to be 2-3 different joints or bowls being passed around a shelter. There were even people driving up to hikers at road crossings offering to sell them cannabis and psychedelics unsolicited.

    As for trail etiquette, shelter etiquette, responsible dog ownership, leave no trace principals, etc. those are wildly inconsistent from hiker to hiker. The trail attracts a wide range of all kinds of people who are drawn to the trail for all kinds of different reasons. Trying to get any number of them to agree on the same rules of what is polite and appropriate is a losing battle. I would strongly discourage anyone from planning on sleeping in shelters and instead plan to tent out. Shelter areas are nice for the social aspect and they often have good water sources, picnic table to cook and eat on and fire pits. However, the shelter experience typically involves people preparing food, eating, storing their food in the shelters, and leaving garbage out or burning it in the fire, mice crawling all over backpacks and people trying to get to the food and garbage, people staying up late and talking loudly, smoking cannabis and tobacco inside the shelter, people arriving late after dark and making lots of noise, lots of snoring (there wasn't a single shelter I stayed at that did not have at least three people snoring/sleep talking/with sleep apnea), lots of people getting up in the middle of the night or moving around on top of inflatable mattresses (they tend to be fairly loud when someone moves at all) and people waking up early and making lots of noise.

    While the majority of dog owners on the trail (not many dogs lasted very long on the trail but some did and loved it) were responsible, there were some that were just so neglectful that it made for a some miserable moments. I saw multiple dogs acting aggressively, including growling, barking at, lunging towards, nipping at and even biting other dogs and hikers. And in most of those cases when myself or others would ask the dog owner to put their dog on a leash, otherwise control their dog or remove their dog from an area where it was being aggressive towards other dogs or hikers, the dog owner would act offended and give an answer along the lines of "they're not usually like this" or "I was here first". Even in cases where their dog had already bitten a hiker and was growling at barking at other hikers at a shelter.

    Unfortunately, were also a small minority of hikers who acted aggressively towards other hikers and locals. In some cases this was due to disagreements about "shelter etiquette" or conflicts related to romantic entanglements, in some cases this appeared to be their natural personality, in others alcohol was involved and there were sadly a few instances which appeared to be related to mental health issues. There were also some occasions when male hikers acted inappropriately or abusively towards female hikers. The trail can very much seem like a boy's club among certain groups of friends or hiker bubbles. There was even one occasion in a town where a hiker attempted to sexually assault another hiker in town (oftentimes men and women are alone in bunk rooms and it's popular to split hotel rooms to save money) and other hikers had to intervene.

    Nutrition was a constant challenge for me. It's a serious challenge to eat 4,000-5,000 calories every day. I never really got the "hiker hunger" that some people described, it's often difficult to have the desire or discipline to eat during the day especially after you get your hiker legs and don't have the need to stop to take breaks and you're doing 18+ mile days to try to get to Katahdin by October and want to get to a camping site, shelter or town and spend time with your friends. Also, the ramen, candy bars, dehydrated meals, etc. that most hikers are living off of on the trail tend to get tiresome fairly quick and there aren't always the best resupply options available in towns. If I had to do it all over again, I would have invested a lot more time and energy before the trail researching and trying out some better more creative food options.

    This is always the case when hiking, but taking care of your feet becomes even more important when you're hiking them every day for weeks at a time often in very wet conditions. Virtually everyone got blisters at first so make sure you bring lots of moleskin and tape. After the first 100 miles or so, blisters weren't so much of an issue. By then, the blisters that everyone got had mostly turned into rock hard callouses that were no longer painful and people had figured out their sock and shoe situation. I would suggest bringing at least three different pairs of socks and switching socks your socks for a new dry pair at least once during the day. If it's sunny out, you can also dry your wet socks by attaching them to the outside of your pack while you hike. I would also suggest bringing some form of camp shoes that allow extra room for your swollen feet and allow air circulation so your feet can dry. They can also be used for stream crossings to keep your boots dry. You're probably also going to want to bring a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to help prevent swelling and take the edge off some of the pain that you're going to experience in your feet and elsewhere. I preferred Aleve because it lasts longer and is more gentle on the stomach than Advil. Even if you have all your feet issues figured out, they are still going to hurt simply from being swollen.

    The majority of people had knee issues at the beginning of the trail. In most cases this was due to incorrect footwear and/or weak quad muscles. And in most cases they resolved themselves. My knees have always hurt when doing hikes with significant elevation change, and they were killing me for the first two weeks or so of the trail. While this was happening, I found taking Aleve and stretching my quad out at night before going to sleep was somewhat helpful. But once my quad muscles got stronger they stopped bothering me at all.

    Chafing is also very real and very painful. I started hiking with two pairs of Under Armour and typical knee length hiking shorts after experiencing some very raw bloody chafing I switched to ExOfficio underwear and 3'' inseam running shorts to allow better ventilation and my chafing issues improved dramatically. Pretty much everyone on the trail swears by ExOfficio underwear. I also ended up ditching my rain pants altogether and sleeping naked (in my tent) to allow my groin area to dry out at night.

    I strongly encourage people to bring earplugs and/or have a device to listen to music at night or in the morning in order to get good sleep. Shelters and camping sites tend to be very social areas and people will stay up late at night, get up in the middle of the night and wake up very early. There were also a variety of wildlife (especially birds) who make very loud noises throughout the evening, night and early morning. When I first heard barred owls calling to each other at 4am, I thought it was two hikers yelling at the top of their lungs as some kind of demented joke. Whip-poor-whils make a noise almost like a car alarm throughout the night. And on one occasion a deer walked directly through a tenting site loudly snorting at 1am. The trail is anything but quiet at night.

    A lot of people on trail had or ended up switching to inflatable sleeping pads but I preferred my roll up foam sleeping pad because of it's utility and durability. It's simply not as comfortable as an inflatable pad but it is waterproof, you don't have to worry about it losing it's ability to hold air and re-inflating it, and it keeps your sleeping bag dry even when you had to set up your tent in a downpour. This is crucial on especially cold nights at high elevation when keeping your sleeping bag dry (especially if it's down) could be the difference between sleeping comfortably and hypothermia. It also makes for a great butt pad both in camp and on the trail. I kept mind rolled up on the bottom of my pack and any time I wanted to take a stop for any reason I would simply put my pack down and then sit on my rolled up pad on the bottom. My pack even provided some back support.

    I had a 3L Platypus which had room for more than enough water, but found it helpful to also bring a Nalgene. It was incredibly convenient not have to remove my water bladder every time I wanted to fill up on some water, the Nalgene also worked well as a water scoop to get water into my Sawyer filter bag when water sources were low or slow moving, it was helpful to use to measure water for cooking and made a nice weight to throw line for bear bags.

    Stomach viruses are an inevitability on the trail, and water filters do nothing to prevent them. There were multiple Norovirus outbreaks from the very beginning. I managed to avoid them for 700 miles before they eventually were part of what ended my hike. I'd be cautious about sharing beverages, utensils, bowls/joints, etc. with other hikers. Many hikers stopped shaking hands/giving high fives altogether and would instead bump elbows. I tried to avoid shelters whenever possible. I know multiple people who got sick when they had to stay in shelters in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I didn't bring any hand sanitizer with me, but I did wait to use privies until after I had eaten whether I was stopping at one for lunch or staying at one for the night.

    I strongly suggest separating the food inside of your food bag into individual zip lock bags. It can get really unpleasant when an item in your bag bursts open all over your five days worth of food, especially when you have to reach into and eat food out of that bag for the next few days. It can be helpful to keep your bag organized into meals or days worth of food so you can more easily find meals and get a better idea of how much you should be eating each day.

    If there's anyone out there who would really like to attempt the trail but is worried that they aren't in good enough shape, I would go for it (assuming you get the go ahead from your doctor). I did virtually no training to prepare myself and was surprised by how many people were just as out of shape as I was. In fact, if you're in really good shape you may even want to add some weight. I lost 10 lbs. a month while hiking and there were some really in shape people who had to quit the trail because they had trouble keeping weight on and their body was eating their own muscles for fuel.

    And this should go without saying, but do as much as you safely can to shed weight. Everyone ends up ditching equipment in a hiker box (by the way there are tons of hiker boxes in hostels and hotels along the trail full of free hiking equipment that people leave behind for others) or mailing it home because they realize they didn't need it. As you get further and further along, not only do the beards get longer but the packs get smaller.

    Last but not least, please do be careful about Lyme Disease. I got a suspected case of Lyme Disease at the same time that I got a stomach virus. And after going to multiple doctors along the trail who misdiagnosed the symptoms as being related to the stomach virus, it eventually did knock me off the trail.

  • #2
    Originally posted by Taco Bell Mild View Post
    I lost 10 lbs. a month while hiking and there were some really in shape people who had to quit the trail because they had trouble keeping weight on and their body was eating their own muscles for fuel.
    As a preparation for this hike, how much weight do you recommend to gain?

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    • #3
      Originally posted by Yury View Post
      As a preparation for this hike, how much weight do you recommend to gain?
      I'm not a doctor but I would recomend a strict pizza and beer diet for three months. If anyone gives you a hard time just tell them you're "carbo loading".

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      • #4
        Thanks for the summary! Good advice too. It is a good reminder why I'm not interested in hiking the AT!
        ADK 46/46W, Grid 223/552
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        • bfinan0
          bfinan0 commented
          Editing a comment
          And a good reminder of why I am. I wonder what it will be like in 2049?

        • Taco Bell Mild
          Taco Bell Mild commented
          Editing a comment
          I would definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoys being around other members of the hiker community. It's just probably not the best hike for people looking to be alone in the woods.

        • bfinan0
          bfinan0 commented
          Editing a comment
          My plan is to start hiking north from Key West on 1/2/49 and see how far I can get before I'm snowed in that fall... hopefully at least up to Katahdin and onto the IAT. I doubt by that age even with a whole year I'd make it all the way through the EST/ECT but who knows, especially with a thousand miles of flatness to start out.

      • #5
        Having done it decades ago, hearing this and stories while on the PCT this year made me glad I did, and, after doing my little 369 mile stretch of the PCT, I can say that if I had done the PCT, then tried the AT, I'd have quit after a few days.

        My advice: start in trail shape, start early, and accelerate away from the bubble.
        46er #9404
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        • #6
          This is why I love the month of November! It's also a shame that bazookas are so damned heavy!

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          • #7
            Thanks for sharing your experience! Sorry to hear that you had to cut your hike short. I hope that you get to go back sometime and finish. I've been doing long section hikes (100 - 160 miles or so) of the AT for about 11 years now, and I have a non-scientific theory that many of the issues you bring up seem to occur more often in the GA -> VA sections than further north (except for chafing. The chafe goblin lives everywhere). I'm not saying that there aren't problems past Harper's Ferry, but my feeling is that the difficulty of staying on the trail for more than 2-3 months often weeds out the folks who aren't out there for the love of the hike.

            Originally posted by Taco Bell Mild View Post
            The hiker community also affords a lot of personal freedom and tends to be very supportive and nonjudgmental. With some of that freedom and non-judgmental attitude does come a bit of a drinking and cannabis use culture. I didn't expect this, but it was fairly common for people to pack out beer or liquor and cannabis use was everywhere. It was fairly common for there to be 2-3 different joints or bowls being passed around a shelter. There were even people driving up to hikers at road crossings offering to sell them cannabis and psychedelics unsolicited.
            This seems to have increased exponentially just within the past 4 or so years. Or maybe people are just more open about it than they used to be. Whatever it is, I've definitely noticed a real "party atmosphere" amongst a lot of AT hikers. I met a group in VA a few years ago that hadn't done any hiking for about a week because they were just hanging out in town and getting drunk. Meh. But as they say, "everybody hikes their own hike." Even if that means NOT hiking.

            Originally posted by Taco Bell Mild View Post
            And in most of those cases when myself or others would ask the dog owner to put their dog on a leash, otherwise control their dog or remove their dog from an area where it was being aggressive towards other dogs or hikers, the dog owner would act offended and give an answer along the lines of "they're not usually like this" or "I was here first". Even in cases where their dog had already bitten a hiker and was growling at barking at other hikers at a shelter.
            One word: Entitlement. (The new normal. Ugh.)

            Originally posted by Taco Bell Mild View Post
            There was even one occasion in a town where a hiker attempted to sexually assault another hiker in town (oftentimes men and women are alone in bunk rooms and it's popular to split hotel rooms to save money) and other hikers had to intervene.
            This is disturbing to hear. I really hope that it was an unfortunate exception. I backpack solo quite often and have never had a problem, but also never take it for granted.

            Originally posted by Taco Bell Mild View Post
            If I had to do it all over again, I would have invested a lot more time and energy before the trail researching and trying out some better more creative food options.
            I think that this is such a great point. Good food on the trail can make a huge difference! And it doesn't have to be expensive pre-made meals. I've been building my list of favorite DIY backpacking meals and always get excited when it's time for a long backpack trip because I'm often looking forward to the food just as much as the hike.

            Originally posted by Taco Bell Mild View Post
            Chafing is also very real and very painful. I started hiking with two pairs of Under Armour and typical knee length hiking shorts after experiencing some very raw bloody chafing I switched to ExOfficio underwear and 3'' inseam running shorts to allow better ventilation and my chafing issues improved dramatically. Pretty much everyone on the trail swears by ExOfficio underwear. I also ended up ditching my rain pants altogether and sleeping naked (in my tent) to allow my groin area to dry out at night.
            Two words: Gold Bond! (I carry a 1 oz. travel size container of Gold Bond powder. It works wonders.)

            Originally posted by Taco Bell Mild View Post
            Stomach viruses are an inevitability on the trail, and water filters do nothing to prevent them. There were multiple Norovirus outbreaks from the very beginning.
            This is another thing that seems to have really increased over the past year or two. Maybe it's due to everyone sharing all those joints.
            We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing ~ Satchel Paige

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            • #8
              Originally posted by Taco Bell Mild View Post
              There were also some occasions when male hikers acted inappropriately or abusively towards female hikers. The trail can very much seem like a boy's club among certain groups of friends or hiker bubbles. There was even one occasion in a town where a hiker attempted to sexually assault another hiker in town (oftentimes men and women are alone in bunk rooms and it's popular to split hotel rooms to save money) and other hikers had to intervene.
              Unfortunately this behavior seems to be pretty common along longer thru-hikes, largely due to the fact that thru-hikes tend to attract three generalized groups of people: The FKT'ers and ultra athletes, people simply interested in doing a really long hike for the sake of doing it, and social outcasts/weirdos.

              A colleague who uses his sabbaticals to hike the AT every 6 or 7 years always comes back with stories of sexual predators among the hikers, or people who form relationships that end very badly. While obviously unacceptable, these instances still seem to be pretty common among folks living on the fringe. This is one of many reasons why I have no interest in an AT attempt.

              Sorry about your hike being cut short. Norovirus is no joke, and I can't image having it combined with Lyme disease.
              “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” - Ed Viesturs

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