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Thru Hiker Q&A: Everything You Need to Know About Hiking the AT (Not Really)

It’s early March, and intrepid backpackers across the country are making final preparations for northbound—NOBO—thru hikes of the Appalachian Trail.

To get in the spirit of the season, we hosted an AMA on reddit, where 5 of our resident thru hikers (3 NOBOs, 2 SOBOs) answered questions from, jib-jabbed with, and gave gear recommendations to any redditors who had hiker-trash aspirations of their own—and we’ve gathered our favorite Q&A’s for you, right here.

Our Thru Hikers:

Keckeley AKA “Scrunchie” – SOBO 2017, June 3rd – October 13th
Austin AKA “Captain” – SOBO 2008, June 29th – December 9th
Chris AKA “Cyclops” – NOBO 2015, March 12th – September 23rd
Amanda AKA “Chesapeake” – NOBO 2015, March 15th – October 1st
Chris AKA “Shivers” – NOBO 2004, April 27th – October 1st

Q: How many pairs of shoes did your thru hike take? Where was your best mile, and why? Where was your worst mile, and why? – /u/mpenders40

Captain: I went through 3 pairs of shoes—one pair of Garmonts that lasted from ME to MA, a pair of Merrells that lasted all of two weeks, then a pair of the same Garmonts I had at the start which lasted me for the rest of the trail.

My worst mile was in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness in ME, I just physically and mentally quit. There was no way out, though, so I rested at a shelter for two days. I was all good from that point on.

My best mile was also in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, when I got the feeling that I was “really doing it” after all of my planning.

Chesapeake: I went through two pairs of shoes, but I think I could have done my entire hike with one pair. I started in some Timberland boots that were pretty bad, but 700 miles in I switched to Chacos and loved them! They (the Chacos) definitely would have made it the whole way if I had started in them.

My best mileage was a 27-mile day when I got to ME. My worst mileage? A drunken 1.5 miles in MA.

Scrunchie: I went through two pairs of shoes—Oboz Sawtooths all the way!

My worst mile was in PA, the rocks are B-A-D, and it was also really rainy so I got mad blisters from walking through the stream that the trail had become.

My best mile was coming down from Mt. Washington! It was cloudy at the top, but as we came down it started clearing off. Being above tree line the rest of the way was such an uplifting view!

Cyclops: I went through four pairs of shoes, the first two were a bit undersized so I blew out the sides rather quickly. My third pair I got about 800 miles out of (with proper sizing), and I only needed the fourth pair for the last 114 miles. I also used Oboz Sawtooths and can’t recommend them enough, I’ll be using them on my SOBO PCT hike this year.

My worst mile was the entire Wildcat Range; I had to get a prescription filled and resupply, but I wasn’t going to make it to town in time. This, with a buildup of other issues, caused me to have a bit of a breakdown.

Best mile? Far too many to think of, I honestly loved every minute in ME but I couldn’t pinpoint a single mile.

Shivers: I believe I went through three pairs of shoes: my boots from college made it to Harper’s Ferry, the Vasque light hikers that I had second didn’t last long; they ate my feet and fell apart. Then I had a trusty pair of Garmont Flash’s that lasted the rest of the way. I went for trail runners (the La Sportiva Wildcat and Ultra Raptor) for my PCT thru and would probably do those again or something like them on another thru hike.

Best mile: On top of Saddleback Mountain in ME when the sun was shining. I had a great lunch, but still thought my stomach was growling—the noise was actually a nearby moose munching on vegetation in a mountaintop pond. He eventually sauntered off with the Rangeley Lakes in the background.

Worst mile: The mile after realizing I lost my journal and wallet in a hitch when my pack flew across the back seat of the car and they had both slid out. However, I benefited from post-trail trail magic and they were mailed (wallet still with cash!) to me a year after I finished.

Q: What was the most dangerous thing you guys experienced during your times hiking the Appalachian Trail? I’m an inexperienced hiker, so what are common dangers I should look out for? – /u/mannahmannah

Cyclops: I night hiked alone one night in Shenandoah and ran into 5 separate bears. Would not recommend.

Scrunchie: The most common dangers I believe are sicknesses— Lyme, Giardia, Norovirus. Those can take you off the trail and some can affect you for the rest of your life. It’s important to be diligent and always treat/filter your water and check for ticks!

Captain: I pushed a mountain late one evening and as soon as I got to the top—which was bald—a lightning storm came over the ridge and lightning was hitting all around me. I ran for the tree line to set up my tent and on the way my trekking pole tip jammed into a rock and the handle jammed into my rib. It hurt but the adrenaline was pumping so I ran for the trees, set my tent up and when I was taking my wet t-shirt off I noticed part of my skin sticking out. I started breathing heavy and realized my rib had broken, I pushed it back it and took deep breaths and calmed down. It bothered me for another week and still pops out sometimes when I’m stretching in certain positions.

So in short, lightning.

Chesapeake: The most dangerous thing I ever faced was almost getting ran over by two moose in NH. I feel like this is a fairly uncommon experience, but I was almost trampled and it was pretty terrifying. Other than that: lightning strikes on ridges, possible drunk drivers on hitch hikes, and definitely any sort of disease or water borne illness. Also, toxic masculinity.

Shivers: Biggest danger I encountered was a lightning/hail storm on the ridge after hiking out of the Nantahala outdoor center in NC—I had to hunker down and the lightning was close enough that I crouched, separated from the other hikers I was with, and jettisoned/stowed trekking poles. This was the day I got my trail name due to the suddenly cold temps, hail, and fact that I was shivering uncontrollably. Just keep your wits about you, and share and accept knowledge with other hikers.

Q: Med-kits can get really heavy. What are the essentials that I shouldn’t backpack without? – /u/DreExplores

Chesapeake: It would be easier to tell you what to bring: Neosporin, bandaids, Immodium, and ibuprofen will take you a long way. What I suggest typically is that if you don’t know how to effectively use everything in a first aid kit, don’t bring it!

Scrunchie: Ibuprofen (“Vitamin I” as some call it), an Epi-pen, if you’re allergic to things, Leukotape, which is the stickiest skin tape of them all, Immodium, because diarrhea in the woods blows, and Birth Control, if that’s your thing.

There are many other things you can bring for comfort, but I’d say those are the essentials.

Cyclops: My med kit is pretty embarrassingly small, I only bring Ibuprofen, Immodium, Aleve, a few bandaids, and some duct tape.

Also: regular “safety meetings” at camp keep the inflammation in check.

Captain: So my med kit on trail was duct tape and gauze, a needle, and some dental floss. After taking a wilderness first responder course, I now carry a 1 lb kit. Inside of it I’ve got: a pocket-sized Wilderness Adventure Medicine book (that is really amazing for fielding any symptom, and I feel like it’s essential), giardia pills (I didn’t get it on trail, but I did get it in India, and you don’t want it), a needle and some dental floss (it’s great for fixing gear and stronger than thread), gauze, medical tape, quick clot, rubber gloves, crevats (to make slings or use as gauze, tie down splints, etc.) a Leatherman, Benadryl, a fire starter, a lighter, tweezers, and nail clippers.

Shivers: I can’t count the number of times I used the tweezers and toothpick from my trusty Victorinox classic. I had WAY too much first aid stuff at the start and whittled it down to a small ziploc of Vitamin I and Immodium, duct tape for hot spots, a tin of anti-chafe cream, a few alcohol wipe packs that usually dried out by the time I needed them, and hand sanitizer.

Q: What is your favorite section of the trail? – /u/clarabelle_says

Chesapeake: It’s so hard to choose and as the time passes, you start to look back fondly on trail sections you hated in the moment (except PA; screw PA). I guess my favorite sections would have to be the Greyson Highlands in VA because it felt like being in Lord of the Rings; the Blue Ridge Parkway/Shenandoahs because it felt like home; all of Maine, especially the Hundred-Mile, because of all the lakes. But most of all Katahdin, because it was an incredible culmination of everything you’ve worked towards. I was also taken aback by the beauty of New Jersey.

Scrunchie: Maine is a butt kicker, but has the most epic views! NH and VT are also very epic. Tennessee has surprisingly cool views due to the balds and the Blue Ridge Mountains! Sleep at Overmountain Shelter!

Captain: Maine, NH, VT. And the 13 miles of flat farmland in PA.

Cyclops: My favorite sections were for sure in New England. When I started Vermont I was extremely grumpy because of all the Long Trail hikers causing a bubble, but after about two days I absolutely fell in love with the state, I guess that’s why I moved here and did the rest of the Long Trail. New Hampshire is out of this world with views (and difficulty). Nothing compares to Maine for me though. You get a real sense of being “out there”. Maine has so many lakes and ponds and opportunities to swim or paddle or just hang out. This is making me want to hike the AT again!

Q: How do you have that much time off? – /u/black_flag_4ever

Chesapeake: I hiked right after college, so I was happily fun-employed.

Captain: The demographic is: 10% just graduated high school, 50% just graduated college, 40% are retired, 10% having a mid-life crisis.

That may have changed with the bad economy, when I was doing trail magic in the years after I hiked (in 2008) I met a lot of people hiking because they were laid off.

Shivers: I was between graduating college and an AmeriCorps gig for the AT. Finding time later in 2012 for the PCT, with my wife, was more complicated, but we did it during a transition from grad school for her and before our move to VT. Being “in-between” has been how I/we’ve managed the time off.

Cyclops: I worked in auto parts and completely hated my job. My favorite part of pre-trail was quitting that place!

Q: Who was the most unprepared person you met? – /u/Guide_You_Outdoors

Scrunchie: I suppose I would say that there’s a difference between being ultralight and being unprepared. I met this guy in VT that kept saying how surprised he was at how big my pack was (it was about 35lbs). He continued to brag about how his pack was 20-25lbs and that his food bag was a 6″ x 6″ cube. I couldn’t stop thinking about how hungry he’d be tomorrow, because I’d go through that much food in half a day. Do yourself a favor, carry more food.

Captain: I named this guy “Emergency.” It was June and he said he was going minimalist, and was going to layer up. He had an emergency bivy sack (no sleeping bag), shorts, and a t-shirt and long sleeve. He was freezing at night, and had added a blue hardware store tarp that he found under a shelter to his sleep system. I had an emergency blanket that I realized I wasn’t going to use, so I gave it to him. He kept rolling around to keep warm and that homemade sleeping bag made so much noise with every movement. He kept waking us all up, and we gave him his name in the morning. He quit in Monson, ME.

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Published:March 9, 2018

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