These Appalachian Trail Lessons come from Wade Bastian, one of two of my old Scouts hiking the 2200 mile trail. Wade and fellow Eagle Scout Bucky Kellorg started in February. As planned, Wade interrupted his hike to spend the summer employed as a peak steward in New York’s Adirondack mountains
Bucky completed the trail in July, here he is on Katahdin with fellow hiker Brightside
You can listen to Wade and Bucky from the trail on the Scoutmaster Podcast –
I asked Wade to share what he learned on the trail, (he also shares some great gear tips in this article).
Here’s a seven Appalachian Trail lessons I’ve learned from the first few months of my through hike –
- Hiking every day is hard, but not how you’d expect
- Sometimes you can’t eat enough
- Good Eats – Good Attitude
- Pace yourself, there’s no shame in zero
- Just because you can doesn’t mean you should
- Gear wears out fast
- Be Prepared; more than a motto
Hiking every day is hard, but not how you’d expect.
I expected challenging, even brutal, physical challenges, and had plenty. They were not difficult as I imagined. I dreaded the idea of setting up camp, cooking, and the more mundane chores of the trip but they made for a pleasant routine. The hardest thing to accept, the most difficult part of this endeavor, was overcoming the sheer monotony of hiking every day, for 2200 miles.
I had no idea this was even a thing.
Hiking with a friend two is great, talking and joking your way along. I couldn’t imagine doing this alone. Solo hikers say they want to collect their thoughts, find themselves, figure out what they want to do with their life. Some listened to audiobooks, others listened to music or podcasts, but even those distractions grew monotonous.
That kind of solitude isn’t for everyone.
Sometimes you can’t eat enough
Within a week or two of starting northward I met a southbound hiker who was just days away from completing his hike. He advised me to stock up on food that I liked because I’d find getting enough to eat difficult.
Eating enough difficult? Really? Most of us think in terms of eating too much and I couldn’t imagine not being able to eat enough.
As a Summit Steward in the Adirondacks I experienced “Hiker Hunger” (insatiable, crazy, rampaging, dinosaur hunger) carrying heavy loads up steep trails. I knew I should snack at 2 to 3 hour intervals, and I did when we started.
As our daily mileage increased, my energy levels dropped. It took a while to figure out I wasn’t getting enough calories.
After I started snacking constantly my energy levels and attitude improved.
1300 miles later I slam down tons of candy, energy bars, anything I can get, and still lose weight.
Good Eats – Good Attitude
Eating well is important to your health, but it also has a huge effect on your attitude.
Bucky, my hiking partner, and I prepared great dried dinners before we started. Plenty of veggies, various proteins and carbohydrates. Because we had a tasty dinner nearly every day, we felt better, and our attitudes were better too.
What really drove this home was three days at an organic farm in Virginia. It was remarkable how good we felt after feasting on the healthiest farm-raised meats and other goodies. We returned to the trail with great attitudes, ready for anything.
Gear wears out fast
Many nights in camp we fixed worn-out gear hoping it would last another hundred miles.
Gear takes a real beating when you are hiking every day for months, and wears out faster than you’d expect. I started with brand new, high quality, gear but I was constantly fixing or replacing something.
I punched a hole in my rain pants the first day. Add a ripped jacket, holes in a dry bag, and diminishing waterproofing in nearly everything in differing degrees of severity. I bought new socks and pants (people occasionally say unkind things about my favorite shirt but I am keeping it). Boots that normally last for years of regular hiking barely made 1300 miles.
Pace yourself, there’s no shame in zero.
I read most through-hikers planned to cover 15 or 20 miles a day and take one zero day (that’s what we real hikers call a day off) a week.
Wait, a day off?
Blasphemers! Anyone who takes days off can’t call themselves a true hiker, right? What a bunch of babies. Me? I can hike 20 miles a day nonstop for months.
Yeah, I know, I am young and foolish.
I was starting off in pretty good shape (in my own mind). I’m an Adirondack Mountain peak steward, I eat miles for breakfast!
I ignored 20 pounds I gained during 4 months I did little more than sit around prior to the hike. I ignored the weight of my backpack and just kept adding stuff to it.
We hiked 17 miles our first day, a day now celebrated as The Day I Wrecked My Knees.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should
On the second day, trying to cover 15 miles, I folded from extreme pain and stress in my knees.
The third day we covered 5 miles to a hostel, took a zero day, hiked two more days, and I was forced to stop.
I overestimated my abilities. I was a wreck.
After a full week’s rest, my knees felt better. When we reached Franklin North Carolina, we stopped at Outdoor 76, an outdoor store that prides themselves on being foot care experts.
I asked the expert at Outdoor 76 if there were insoles or exercises that would help my knee problem (inflammation of the IT band).
He said that’s not what I needed, that my trouble was pushing too hard in the beginning.
He likened through hiking to baseball; “Baseball pitchers take spring training slowly. If they try to throw a 100 MPH pitch in the spring they’d blow out an arm for the season, if not the rest of their life. They build up to the 100 MPH pitch slowly.”
Okay, that makes sense, I thought.
He continued; “Right now, you’re in the spring training phase of your hike, aim for 10 mile days. Most hikers doing 15-20 mile days push too hard, many develop injuries, and some will be forced to leave the trail. I see it all the time.”
I came away understanding if you push too hard because you think you have something to prove leads to getting hurt. Slow down and rest or be forced to, or to give up the trail.
Hikers who have nothing to prove go easy, build up their endurance, and finish the trail.
I had started out having something to prove. Besides, I hate sitting around when I could be out hiking! I decided then and there I wanted to finish the trail, even if it meant resetting my expectations.
Patience paid off. Back on the trail at a more realistic 5-10 miles a day my knees were soon back to full strength.
Before long we started logging twenty mile days regularly, but still took zero days at least once a week. It was nice having a day to relax, shower, and recover.
Now that I don’t feel like I have anything to prove I know I can finish the trail and I am truly enjoying the hike.
Be Prepared; more than a motto
My appreciation for being prepared comes from being a Scout who was allowed to be as miserable as he wanted.
We were told what to bring backpacking, what to expect, and the skills we would need. Naturally we didn’t listen, our Scout leaders knew we didn’t listen, they knew we’d be miserable, but thankfully they let us be as miserable as we wanted. My health and safety were never in real danger, they wouldn’t let that happen, but I had the opportunity to experience things for myself.
I remember blubbering from pain and exhaustion during my first ever backpacking trip. I remember hating those stupid adults and their smug smiles. It would take a while to understand how having less than pleasant experiences would make me better at backpacking (and a lot of other things too). Experience has become my most trusted and honest teacher.
In addition – three trail-related life lessons that go beyond hiking –
- Little things mean a lot.
- Uphill climbs don’t last forever, and neither do downhills.
- If you are making progress you’ll never stop being sore.