Total Miles: 2068.9
Early this morning, just before leaving Olallie Lake I stepped out onto the dock to enjoy the view over the lake to Mount Jefferson bathed in the early light of the day. There wasn’t a soul stirring anywhere and the lake was glassy with calm. I can’t think of a better way to start a day.
As Gazelle and I pulled ourselves away from the dock and started down the trail after Beardoh and Sweet Pea we began reflecting on all the things that make a thru-hike enjoyable and successful, and conversely, what can bring it to an unceremonious end, particularly for first-timers. I’d thought about writing a post on the subject for quite awhile, thinking back on what I’ve learned over the course of 5000+ miles of thru-hiking and on what I’ve seen bring the hikes of many good people to an early end. It’s an open-ended discussion, to be sure, but here’s my take on the most common pitfalls that first-time thru-hikers often fall into.
Carrying too much weight: Back on my very first thru-hike of the Long Trail, my buddy Ian and I carried giant loads, planning to haul 8 days worth of food at a time. We were young, fit, and strong but it made the effort on an already rough and difficult trail harder than it needed to be. On a longer trail, carrying loads like that would have eventually exacted a mental toll, in addition to a physical one, that might have driven us off trail for good. The presumption of needing to carry big heavy packs is usually the byproduct of both inexperience and insufficient planning. Another overlooked consequence of the heavy pack? It’s demonstrably less safe: more pounds equals more strain on joints and ligaments, significantly increasingly the likelihood of either serious or repetitive use injury. In short, don’t be this guy:
Not paying enough attention to diet: At age 23, when I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, it seemed like I could eat anything and transform it into pure rocket fuel. Until the last month, that is, when I ran on fumes every single day. All the tubs of cake frosting sprinkled with peanut M&Ms (true story) could not power my legs in the way I’d known all my life. What I hadn’t learned yet was that the caloric deficit of thru-hiking cannot be overcome–doing so would mean eating close to 4 pounds of food per day, making it prohibitively heavy–and the answer to solving my energy needs was not solely to eat as many calories (read: sugar) as I could. A high-calorie diet is important, but not more so than the types of calories you eat. On this trail, as I felt that all-too-familiar leg fatigue setting in after only 600 miles or so, I thought all the way back to my experience on the AT and steered my diet heavily from that point on towards fat and protein as much as possible. How much protein to feed those leg muscles? For me, a minimum of 100 grams per day.
Self-inflicted wounds: Injuries on the trail, just like at home, are tough to predict but aside from freak accidents there are really only 3 main causes: pre-existing conditions, insufficient training/preparation, and hiking too many miles too fast. The first may be the result of genetics or just plain bad luck, but the latter two are entirely avoidable in all but the very rarest of cases.
Over reliance on gear rather than skill: When I was a kid, slowly working my way towards becoming an Eagle Scout, I learned very early that the Boy Scout way to learning skills and solving problems in the field was to bring an entire toolbox when a simple wrench would do. In other words: bring a tool for every possible scenario you’re likely to encounter. What I learned much later in life is that this is precisely backwards: even if you could carry a tool for every scenario, it would once again be unnecessarily heavy and thus unsafe, and it misstates the fact that the real skill is in sufficiently understanding the situation you’re in and then using the single most important piece of gear–your brain–to integrate all of your learned skills and improvise a solution to the problem with the few critical items you do have. It’s the proverbial MacGuyver approach. Broken bone? Splint it with sections of your air or foam mattress. Need fabric to tie it? Tear strips starting from the bottom of your shirt. The notion that having the right gear list alone is all that is required to complete a thru-hike is not only misleading, but dangerous. For the gear you do carry, however, absolutely agonize over every item and learn the skills to use each piece in ways you’d never previously imagined.
Underestimating the mental/emotional challenge: Thru-hiking long trails is inherently hard–no surprise there. But far more than the physical challenge is the mental one that often lurks outside the awareness of those who dream of taking on such an adventure. Something as simple as understanding how it will feel to be away from home for the time it will take to finish a long trail is a thought process worth having. Regardless of the romanticized notions depicted in A Walk in the Woods or Wild, if you’re not mentally prepared to be uncomfortable, dirty, tired, hot, cold, or in pain then you’re not prepared. When hikers come face to face with these inevitable challenges, they often react not by taking the time to mentally and physically recuperate but by doubling down on their panic: through imposing an arbitrary deadline for completing the hike, allowing ego to dictate their speed or miles, or any number of other choices that only serve to heighten the pressure of completion. Some may even succeed, but wasn’t the point of embarking on this kind of adventure to enjoy it to the fullest?
The beauty of long distance hiking is that all of these challenges can be overcome, as people extract from themselves something–a fortitude, a calm, a resilience–that they may never have thought they even possessed. Anyone can do it. It just pays to stack the deck in your favor.