Last week I got the fortunate opportunity to drive up to Virginia from Florida to pick up my dad who has been in Norfolk for the last 3 months for business. What a great excuse to finally experience a piece of the trail I will be tackling next year! So I picked up my dad, and we drove 4 hours west and parked our car at Middle Creek Campground (which is a beautiful place to take a break, resupply, go swimming in a cold pool, get a giant cheeseburger, and take a nice shower), and got a ride from the campground to Petites Gap, where we would hike 2 and a half days back south to our car. We took our time hiking (7 miles a day) because we are both new to hiking, and it made the experience completely enjoyable and invigorating. In just 3 short days in the woods, I did manage to learn a lot of things about myself, my equipment, and my goals, and I am gladly sharing those with you, along with a short video I put together of our hike from Petites Gap to Middle Creek.
#1: I do, in fact, want to thru-hike this thing
I can see how people get addicted to this trail. When we were hiking I couldn’t wait to see what was at the top of the hill, or what was after the clearing, or who was going to be at the next shelter. I just wanted to keep going. Once we were back at the campground where we left the car, I was a bit sad. When I got home, I immediately wanted to go back, and now it’s something I can’t stop thinking about. Hopefully I can find some time before next spring to go back and feed my addiction. But solidifying in my mind that I do, in fact, want to complete this hike, was something that I was looking for, and I’m extremely thankful I found that reassurance.
#2: I need to do this by myself
As much as I loved spending time with my dad and having him there and being able to share my first hiking experience with him, it just further emphasized that I need to conquer this journey alone, at least most of it. There were times when I just wanted to put my headphones in, sing out loud, and hike. Unfortunately, the one time I managed to put headphones in, my dad wanted to tell me something every 5 minutes or so. After only a couple of days, he was getting on my nerves. I think most people would agree that hiking with a parent would probably brew up some pretty intense rivalries after not-so-long. I think I’ve solidified, through this short hike, that I need to do this for me, and I need to do this by myself.
#3: I’m willing to work my ass off to make this happen
In order to quit my job and spend 5 to 6 months in the woods, I apparently need money. I’m currently a full-time grad student in architecture and also working a part-time job at IKEA. I’ve decided that during my last year of school, I’m going to increase my hours at work up to 30 hours/week. Which might kill me. But I think I can handle it. I just have to keep the goal in mind: Not let money (or lack-of) send me home when I’m out there.
#4: I don’t know what day it is, or the name of the overlook I’m standing on, or the name of the next shelter, or where I am. So stop asking me.
I’ve always been completely horrible with names. I can’t remember movie titles, actors, people I met 5 minutes ago, famous architects, etc. Well, apparently this applies on the trail as well. When my dad was recording video, he kept asking me, “So, where are we Bon?” and “What’s the name of this overlook again?” The answer is: I don’t fucking know, I’m just here enjoying it. I don’t know what shelter is after the one I’m sleeping next to. I don’t know if I’m on a “Creek”, or a “Ridge”, or a “Gap”, or a “Landing”, or a “Falls”, or a “Hill”, or a “Mountain”. All I know is, I’m following the White Blazes and I’m on the Appalachian Trail, and I think I’m in Virginia. My dad is trying to come up with my trail name from this. If anyone wants to help him out, feel free! I need a trail name!
#5: I don’ t need underwear
I was debating this for a couple of days, but I figured since I was wearing my bike shorts hiking, and I don’t wear underwear when I’m wearing those cycling, I might as well forego them. I’m kinda glad I did. At the end of the day, my tush wasn’t surrounded by a soaking wet piece of unnecessary clothing that would probably have increased my “funk” level to new heights. Plus it’s less weight I’m carrying around. I did bring a small travel size of wet wipes that, I think, came in handy keeping my tush clean and my shorts clean as well. Weighing in at something like 4 oz, it was worth it to me.
#6: Things will get wet, even it doesn’t rain
The weather could not have been more perfect in Virginia last week. It was supposed be in the 90’s with good chances of rain and ridiculous humidity. But at the last minute, a hurricane in the Atlantic sucked up all the moisture in the air and our hike was 3 days of 80 degree weather during the day, 65 degrees at night, sunny with some clouds, and no rain. And stuff still got wet. The dew point was high at night and our tent (cheap $40 tent at Walmart, this may have had something to do with it) had dew all over it in the morning, some of it getting inside where my bag was touching the wall. So my sleeping bag got a little damp, which caused some funk it my pack. Lesson learned. Buy a good quality tent, don’t touch the sides of it, and air out your sleeping bag.
#7 I love my hiking shoes
Everyone’s feet are different, and everyone has different preferences when it comes to what shoes to wear. I weighed the pros and cons and decided to get myself a pair of Keen Voyageurs which is a breathable hiking shoe that has substantial toe protection and does not have a water proof lining. I decided that it was worth it to me to have the protection of a hiking shoe rather than a trail runner, but I also wanted to shed the “water-proof” Gortex lining because I’ve read nothing but bad news about that stuff. And I have to say, my shoes kept my feet very happy for the most part. Aside from a minor blister on my pinkie toe (which I think is attributed to my sock liners and socks being a size too big), my feet were comfortable, dry, and protected. There were many instances where I scraped the side of a rock, tripped over a rock, or just didn’t look where I put my foot, and I was glad I had the protection. I will definitely be starting my thru-hike in these.
#8: I still don’t know if I want to invest in a hammock or a tent
Right now, this is the next big piece of equipment I’m looking into. For a while, I was set on a Hammock. People rave about how much better they sleep in a Hammock than in a tent, how much easier it is to set up, etc. For this trip, we used a cheap tent my dad bought at Walmart a couple years ago, and for the first time, I didn’t sleep on an air mattress when we were camping. And the result? My back felt better than it has in a long time. I should preface this by saying that I am a stomach sleeper…a hardcore stomach sleeper. That’s how my mom decided to lay me down to sleep when I was a baby, and it’s stuck every since. So, in order for me to switch to a hammock I would have to change the way I’ve been sleeping for 24 years. I’ve tried for the last 2 months, and it’s just straight-up not going to happen. This fact alone should persuade me to invest in a tent, but I’m still debating for some reason. I also like the fact that I can sit up in a tent, cook in a tent, lay my stuff out in a tent, and play solitaire in a tent. I think my mind is made up, but it’s not 100% there. I’m looking into getting an MSR Hubba Hubba NX. If anyone has advice on this, please comment!
#9: I need a pillow
At the very last second I decided to grab a small pillow off of my couch to take with me. It’s original intention was for a head pillow in the car during my 12-hour drive north to Virginia, but I decided to take it with me on the hike. I’m glad I did. The first night I tried to do without it and use my clothes bag. That was not comfortable. I’ve learned during this trip that I’m a picky sleeper. I have to be on my stomach in order to fall asleep (god forbid I ever get pregnant, I won’t sleep for 9 months), and I have to have my left arm under a pillow. 10 minutes after uncomfortably fighting my clothes sack, I whipped out my small pillow and immediately dozed off. On the way back to Florida I stopped in an REI store in South Carolina and picked up a 3 oz inflatable pillow that I’m hoping will be enough for my needs.
#10: Mountains go up and down
You think this would be obvious. But up until this hike, I was comparing miles on the trail to how many miles I walk to go the gym near my house. Florida miles, are not at all the same as AT miles, even if you’re slack-packing. It felt like we were walking forever. There were countless times when I was wondering, “Are we friggin’ there yet?” only to look at my gps and realize the answer was, “no.” By the end of the hike, it felt like someone had poured concrete into my calves…
#11: My body can retain copious amounts of fluid
When I finally got a chance to look down at my feet and calves, I did in-fact look like someone poured concrete in them. The first full day of hiking, I drank nearly 4 Liters of water, and only peed twice. Apparently, the rest of it went into my legs and my face. I woke up the next morning with puffy eyelids as well. Once I got back home after our trip, I peed probably 12 times in 15 hours. Hopefully once I get into hiking every day for long periods of time, my body will realize it doesn’t need to do that and give me a break. Did this happen to anyone else?
#12: Bad breath is a component of “Hiker Funk” that you can control
It’s understandable that after living in the woods for months, you are going to smell like you just went swimming in a compost field, but I don’t think that’s an excuse not to brush your teeth. I noticed that some thru-hikers smelled even worse when they started talking. Fortunately, dental hygiene is something you can still control while on the trail. Invest in a toothbrush from the dollar store, cut it in half so it weighs next to nothing, and buy a tiny travel bottle of toothpaste. Hell, squeeze half of it out if you don’t want the 1 oz of weight. I’m sorry thru-hikers, I understand your body odor, but there’s no excuse for your mouth to smell worse than your pits.
#13: I’m willing to risk infertility and neurological damage if it means I won’t get Lyme Disease
I bought a bottle of Jungle Juice before I left, which is an oil that contains 98% DEET. There is a lot of conflicting data about DEET and the harmful effects it may or may not pose to adults. It worked pretty damn well. While I had flies kind of hanging around me, I got away without getting bit, and for the most part, they stayed away from me. This oil is comfortable too. Once you apply it and it dries, it doesn’t feel like I have anything on, and it doesn’t have that choking mist-cloud that comes out of those spray cans of OFF either. Invest in it, it’s worth it.
#14: My Samsung Galaxy S5 can last 4 days without a charge, even while taking pictures, videos, and instagram-ing.
This is going to sound like an advertisement, and I’m not trying to make it sound that way, but I thought long and hard about the advantages I would have with this phone for hiking before I bought it. 2 months ago, I was a die-hard iPhone user. I wanted to switch carriers, but I wanted to take my phone with me. Unfortunately, my phone was a Sprint phone, and it doesn’t use a SIM card, so I would have to buy a new iPhone with a different carrier. I decided to look into the Galaxy S5 and realized that there are a lot of really attractive features that would be beneficial if I were to be living in the woods. This phone lasted 4 days without a single charge. I did turn it off at night when I went to bed, and I turned it on airplane mode when I wasn’t using service. But I had it out nearly every 10 minutes taking pictures and recording video, and then once we got to camp, I would put a couple of pictures on instagram. I didn’t even need to use the “emergency power saving” mode that the phone offers as well. On a full charge, my phone will last nearly 13 days in this mode. Another perk that was extremely attractive to me as a future thru-hiker was the fact that this phone is water “resistant.” Now, I put the word resistant in quotes because I have watched videos on youtube of people dunking this phone in a swimming pool, leaving it there for an hour and then putting it in the washing machine for a full circle, and the phone still works perfectly. I think the phone is water proof, but Samsung doesn’t want that liability, so they deemed it “resistant” instead. It also takes outstanding photos and video (16 mp and up to 4k video). If you are thru-hiking next year and are getting a new phone sometime this year, consider Samsung. Everyone was right when they told me I wouldn’t go back to iPhone once I went to Samsung. Just do it. You’ll be happier.
And last but not least, and maybe most importantly…
#15 I shouldn’t beat myself up if I don’t accomplish my thru-hike next year
I met 2 hikers on the trail that changed my outlook a little bit. “Hopscotch” and “MeToo” are 2 school teachers (hopscotch is retired now) from Maine who have been hiking the trail together for 18 years. They decided that hiking the entire trail at once was not for them, and they’ve been conquering the trail section by section. They will be finished next year. Wow, what an accomplishment. After hearing about their lives and their story, I felt nothing but pure excitement for them. I felt like their goal of section hiking the entire AT was an accomplishment just as powerful as someone talking about finishing a thru-hike. They don’t know this, but something about their story reassured me that even if, for some reason, I have to quit or give-up on my thru-hike, that life goes on, and it doesn’t mean that the trail beat you. It just means that you have to come back and finish what you started. As long as you finish, it’s going to be a great accomplishment regardless if it takes 5 months or 25 years. How many people are you going to meet in life that can say they’ve hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail? Not many. Most people can’t hike from their house to the grocery store. So getting off the trail because of illness, injury, or lack of funds isn’t something that is going to keep me down. It’s just an excuse for me to come back.
And without further adieu, here is short video I made of my first AT experience that I got to enjoy with my dad.