Photo: John Hayes
THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL is the longest hiking-only footpath in America — and with 2,187 miles of trail, more than 250 shelters, and an overall elevation gain equivalent to climbing Mount Everest 16 times, it earns that title.
Every year, a couple thousand people try to hike the AT from beginning to end in one season, and a few hundred manage to accomplish it. These people are known as thru-hikers, and these are the warnings I wish I’d received before attempting to become one.
1. Mistakes make great trail names.
A popular tradition of Appalachian Trail culture is to give thoughtful nicknames to your co-hikers, such as MonkeyButt, Golden Shower, or DangerPants. If you point your headlamp down while you pee in the dark, you’ll be called Flash; if you dig up someone else’s cat-hole while making your own, you’ll be called Divining Rod.
These trail names are what you go by in lieu of your real name — so don’t do something dumb early on, or it’ll follow you for 2,000 miles.
2. Sunscreen is a good idea.
Being of a darker complexion, I expected to gradually bronze up like a shiny leather lion, but after the first week my skin was closer to the red sheen of a baboon butt. The truth is I wanted to save weight by not bringing sunscreen. The Appalachian Trail has a reputation for being a “green tunnel,” with lots of tree cover, but in the early spring you can’t depend on that foliage to have your back.
Walking under naked tree limbs in Georgia and North Carolina for eight to ten hours a day can leave you fried to a crisp, so don’t listen to the ounce-counters who tell you sunscreen is more weight — so is your skin.
3. You should rain-test your gear.
Our new tent, which we hadn’t learned to properly stake out, stood up boldly to the first sprinkles we encountered. Then we got hit with a real storm. We spent the night bailing water like a sinking ship and the next day drying out our sleeping bags.
So when I say “rain-test your gear,” I don’t mean “camp in the rain.” I mean go to your local YMCA, set up your tent in the locker room, turn every shower head towards it, and play solitaire inside for an hour while you establish which seams need to be resealed.
4. Food should be hung when you’re in bear country.
Fortunately for us, we got this warning. Our food was blissfully undisturbed while our tent neighbor lost everything but his instant mashed potatoes. This followed a nocturnal encounter with a particularly nefarious bear in Georgia. Every other bear on the AT is a big, dull-witted raccoon compared with this ursine MacGyver.
Georgia was the only area we encountered bears of unusual intelligence, but you should still hang your food, especially if there are bear cables or bear poles available. We regrettably witnessed a bear removal in the Smoky Mountains due to hiker negligence. Don’t be the person who loses their food bag.
5. Rain pants are awesome.
As a previous bike tourist, I thought I’d sweat inside rain pants and get wet anyways. But when you’re hiking, rain pants can make the monumental difference between a good day and chafed thighs. And in April those pants are more likely to prevent hypothermia than create sweat. I envied the hikers who wore them over their shorts for the cold, misty mornings.
6. Diaper cream will save your ass.
Honestly. Chafing is less of a problem for people with slender builds, but for most people, and especially for women, it’s a common problem in hiking. You can laugh now, but when you feel the forgiving kiss of Desitin on that burning monkey butt, it’s like a choir of angels has blessed your posterior.
7. Larger tents save relationships.
My personal nickname for a 6×4-ft enclosure is a divorce tent. I’ve seen people break up over dirty dishes. Try spraying frigid water droplets on each other while you struggle into greasy long johns. This experience brings a dark reality to the phrase “for better or for worse.”
I finished the Appalachian Trail with my significant other despite our tiny enclosure, so it can be done. If we were to do it again, though, I think we’d upgrade a few ounces for the comfort. About 50% of our arguments began with an accidental knee to the temple.
8. Traffic happens.
One of the reasons I switched from cycling to hiking was my dislike of traffic. On those long bike rides uphill, inhaling exhaust, I pictured myself on the AT, walking through pristine forests unblemished by modernity. I was conveniently overlooking the fact that in order to make a 2,000-mile linear trek across the US, there are a lot of roads to cross.
Cars are a big part of life on the AT. Whether you’re catching a ride from a kind passerby or running across the Palisades Parkway in a terrifying imitation of Frogger, you’re interacting with these steely beasts on a near-daily basis. Even in the middle of Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness, our lunches were interrupted by the distinctive sound of logging trucks.
Eventually, I learned to appreciate the symbiotic relationship between hikers and drivers on the trail. After all, at the end of a long, rainy walk to a road, there were people with magical machines who were willing to transport me to hot food for the price of a good story.
9. “Thru-hiker” can mean different things in different places.
Being from New Hampshire’s White Mountains area, the section of the AT notoriously known for testing the mettle of hikers, I defined a thru-hiker as a brave-spirited Adonis who sweats pure accomplishment. This is slightly different than the more populous Mid-Atlantic areas of the country, where thru-hikers are often mistaken for something else called “homeless1.”
We learned we couldn’t always depend on our thru-hiker label to protect us or explain our circumstances. Many people don’t know about the Appalachian Trail. Once we explained ourselves people were friendly, but until then they were reasonably wary of smelly, unkempt strangers in the woods. Don’t let basic misunderstandings color your impressions of some places when an explanation can go a long way.
1I would distinguish these groups by saying that hikers actually smell much worse than homeless people…and also that they choose to.
10. Moonshine is trail ambrosia.
To me, moonshine always conjured images of pigpens adjacent to dirty bathtubs and old clay jugs marked with triple Xs. I assumed drinking grain alcohol would be like swallowing a flaming hellcat, so I avoided the glass jars with their mysterious floating fruit for several hundred miles before my (usually self-injurious) curiosity compelled me to try a sip.
It was the best thing I ever tasted.
Don’t be like me. When presented with something new on the AT, embrace it with an open mind. You might get a mouthful of hellcat, or you might find yourself sipping the nectar of the gods.
11. You can and will finish.
We were so wrapped up in the question, “What if I don’t make it?” that we were almost afraid to have fun. The AT isn’t your job, and no one can say anything to change that.
There’s a petty side to human nature that seeks to tear down strong people because we interpret their success as an offense to our own inadequacy. The words of the people who succumb to this have no bearing on you, so don’t let anyone’s arbitrary benchmarks determine your actions. It doesn’t matter if you begin the trail out of shape or without hiking experience. You’re the only person who can say whether or not you’re going to finish.
If you believed what people said, you wouldn’t be standing on Springer.
A version of this post was originally published at Appalachian Trials and was reworked through MatadorU with permission.