Yesterday marked one month since I summited Katahdin and concluded my journey along the Appalachian Trail. I celebrated it by returning to the woods; though, this time under very different circumstances. My business school planned an outdoors trip to help incoming students get to know each other; the revelry around a bonfire and lazy river day was a dramatic departure from my quiet evenings of reflection on Trail. It was a blast, and it offered an outlet to talk about my trip in a different way--to actually show my gear and share insights. The weekend getaway reminded me that I had learned a lot on the AT, not just about myself, but about how to prepare and succeed for this epic adventure. Below are some crucial pieces of advice that helped me start and finish the Trail.
Find your luxury item. The backpacking community is, broadly speaking, gear-obsessed. Check out any online forum and you'll find countless opinions about what exactly you should carry in order to minimize your weight. When I first began planning for this journey, most of my gear was oriented for car camping--weight didn't matter and comfort was the focus. It was stressful wading through all of the options and frustrating that the "must have" ultralight gear was simply out of my budget. In the end, I had to trust my gut and compromise, getting as light as I could without going bankrupt. What I found, though, was top of the line gear didn't actually correlate with finishing the Trail. What did was the forethought to know what was a necessity for you. I started with a book, thinking that I would go crazy in the woods without the ability to escape into a world of fiction, but ditched that idea almost immediately--it was a luxury I didn't need. My two-person tent, however, despite being bulky and heavy, was essential. It offered me privacy when I wanted, a space to call home despite my nomadic lifestyle. Different people have a wide array of luxury items: a couple that carried more than a pound of Tang! because they regularly craved it on hot summer days and couldn't find it in most stores, an older gentleman with a knife nearly as big as a machete that used to be his grandfather's who inspired him to love the outdoors, and even a guy with a Japanese tea set because it helped him relax and feel more connected to nature. For the most part, I believe that happiness cannot be derived solely from material things, but when you're cutting your toothbrush in half to save on weight, one luxury item can go a long way.
Listen to your body. This tip is probably pretty obvious but is honestly the best piece of advice I can give to any aspiring thru hiker, and its also the hardest to listen to. Long-distance hiking pushes your body in ways that it likely is unprepared for, no matter how much training you've done ahead of time. There will be a point on any long hike when your body says, "I'm done," and you've got to figure out how to keep going. Normally, I'm of the temperament that I could just push through the pain and stick to the plan, but that leads to disaster on a thru hike. You see, its not just about getting to your destination for that day, its being able to do it each day, despite the exhaustion and hunger. If you push too hard on one day, you could wind up spending another holed up in a hostel trying to recover. As a planner, I like to tackle problems with a clear schedule; it allows me to mentally prepare for anything that I might face. Having a game plan is often a good idea, but flexibility is just as essential if you are going to be successful. It was hard for me to learn to deviate from the plan--to admit that I found some moments too hard, or that I wasn't going to reach where I had set out to go that day. It was much more difficult, though, to bounce back after a day where I pushed too hard. One of the best parts about the Trail is that you are removed from schedules and obligations; take advantage of that freedom and live fully in the moment.
Thank the Trail Gods. One thing that has proven true time and again (at least on this trip) was that gratitude goes an incredibly long way. I was grateful to have the opportunity to journey and face the challenge of the mountains. I am in debt to the countless strangers who popped up along the Trail to nourish me with food and conversation. I am humbled by the support that I received in raising money for Next Steps. That gratitude is important to express however and whenever you can, but this piece of advice goes beyond expressing how thankful you are to those around you. Early on in my hike, my friend Freud pointed out that the AT doesn't go over every mountain. She always tried to notice when the trail turns away from a huge climb and offers an easier route; it doesn't happen often (particularly in the North), but it can lift your spirits when you're exhausted. It's easy to miss, after all it feels like I've climbed every peak from Georgia to Maine, but if you take the time to notice the little things, you'll be a lot happier. I thanked the Trail Gods when a water source was particularly clear, when a good sitting rock was shaded at lunch time, when a campsite had a view of the sunrise, and when the fog lifted momentarily to showcase a vista. Thanking the Trail Gods is as much about reminding yourself you are lucky to have this beautiful, difficult experience as it is about expressing gratitude to others. When its hard, remember why you're out there to begin with.
Define your success. People told me before I started to write down the Why for my hike. I couldn't boil it down to a single reason, a single moment, or single idea that would keep me going. Initially, I worried that without a good Why, I wouldn't have the fortitude to last on the Trail. Then, another good friend, Farasi, challenged me early on to define what a successful thru hike looked like for me. At first, my answer seemed obvious--reach Katahdin. But over time, the journey no longer was just about the end. What I carried with me instead of a clear Why was the belief that I would gain a wealth of experiences no matter how my journey turned out. Success on Trail isn't just about having a strong will to reach the end, its the understanding that setbacks and side trips are part of the journey. As you push your limits, you'll learn about yourself. Be confident in the person that you thought you were as well as who you might become. For me, what makes a successful thru hike is not finishing the miles, but in growing from them. Know for yourself what this trip means to you.
Go, Go, Go! I saved this for last, because in many ways it is the hardest one. I often would ask fellow thru hikers what they thought the hardest point along the Trail was, and I usually got two answers: starting the trip or returning to the Trail after a break. Undertaking this journey is a logistical, physical, and emotional feat. Simply carving out the time can be a challenge for many. Then packing up your life, limiting yourself to what you can physically carry, and preparing to be out of regular communication with loved ones for months only makes it harder. Each day, you're greeted with one decision: to continue or not. At first, the idea of continuing feels impossible as your muscles strain to support you and memories of home tempt you. If you stay on the AT long enough, those struggles give way to the joy of the journey and momentum pushes you forward. You will still face hard days, but those moments are mixed in with so many experiences you cannot find elsewhere--the pain becomes worth it. This journey changed my life, I promise it will change yours.
These tips are obviously more philosophical than concrete bits of advice. Should you be planning a thru-hike of the AT and have questions, I would be happy to share more about my experiences and offer any answers I might have via email. Remember that every journey along the AT is unique, so what worked best for me might not be best for you. Regardless, I wish you luck and Happy Trails.