Five Fears for a February Thru Hike
Over Christmas I received more of my thru hike gear list, ticking off the last of the big three and powering through to the last few odds and ends. With a bear bag ordered, and sock liners to come soon, I’ve almost completed my base weight pack. Preparation for the hike has begun in earnest and is going to continue up until it's time to go.
I also got a copy of Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, for Christmas by Laurence Gonzales. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Human Nature or dangerous situations. In reading it, he talks about what keeps us alive in our most serious situations. Throughout the book, stories of professionals ignoring the signs and plunging on ahead are rampant. People who should know better but go ahead anyways and pay the price. He also mentions stories of people with no experience who make it out of extremely dangerous situations alive. Not purely luck though, he diagnoses why these fortunate people make it out. If you want to get all the details you’ll have to read it, check your local library, they’ll probably have it. Or they might be able to order it for you.
Now, while serious crises can happen on the trail, I thought that the book slid over the concept of preparation a little too implicitly. You can’t be perfectly prepared, and experience is an amazing teacher. But if you don’t have the proper gear, basic understanding, and technical/physical ability to tackle something, you’re chances of dying or injury are going to go up exponentially. Now, I doubt that this is a mistake, but I worry that hikers might read the book and think that they can get away with pulling something off in the moment because they’ve got some sort of knack for survival. Surviving isn’t the same as thriving though, and while there are definitely going to be serious split second decisions, the primary battle is to fight before it happens. You can’t plan for everything, and you can’t carry everything, but common sense and prep can keep you from losing battles before they begin. It doesn’t matter how quick your reflexes might be, if you’re wearing just a fleece in 10 degree weather and only bring a 40 degree sleeping bag, you’re going to have a dangerous time. The real dangers I’ve found aren’t an avalanche or an earthquake or a bolt of lightning, but cold, damp, and hunger.
The basics. It’s not a flood that’ll drown you, it’s wet feet that rot away. It’s not a blizzard that’ll freeze you, it’s a frigid clear night in a tight ridge that the wind is ripping through.
Not a novel concept I know. Be prepared. But an easy one to forget. And a concept that has ended many a thru hike before it even got the chance to get off the ground. Heck, ended many a fun day hike out. The first time I ever went camping I forgot my sleeping bag and the temperature fell down to below 30 degrees. That was a fun time huddled around the fire at 1 in the morning, waiting for it to get light. During the day when it’s 65 F, it doesn’t feel so bad.
When it’s sub 30 and you have a light jacket and an extra shirt, not so much.
As a hiker and outdoors person, I’m rusty since I was I made Eagle and then moved away from nature. I also haven’t had the chance to attempt a huge hike like this before. So I’ve been getting back into the swing of things, relearning some knots, practicing building some fires with wet wood, and starting to hike day by day larger and heavier for training. The more prep I do, the better I feel. Not that I didn’t before, but you can feel yourself get sharper when you start to re-familiarize yourself with something you haven’t picked up in a while. Instruments, drawing, writing, singing, outdoorsmanship. If you don’t use those skills you definitely lose them.
With that in mind, here are my top five concerns for my thru hike of the trail:
When I was in Boy Scouts, the motto is “Be Prepared”. That sentiment is one of the best I’ve ever heard for any kind of outdoor adventure. And that’s what I’m hoping to be. Good preparation will help with every single one of these problems. Most have. As I’ve prepared more and more, I feel readier and readier. I’m ramping into more serious work on stretching and hiking seriously to build up my hiking stilts before I start.
1. Cold Weather
Oh the winter wonderland that awaits us in February. Or maybe not. More than a few days out I consider the weather to be a crapshoot of we’ll see what happens. While it may be frigid, hopefully I’ll be prepared between clothes, sleeping bag and liner, and a healthy pack of hot hands for those brutally cold moments when you just need a warm set of hands.
After an interesting experience with hypothermia on a mountain in Ireland, you can read about it here, I definitely have not skimped on winter prep. Between wind, rain, falling temperatures, bad to worse unexpected situations, cold weather is no joke. Especially not in the mountains, and rescue isn’t always possible if you get yourself in far enough.
Merino wool base layers, two fleeces, extra socks, a 15 degree bag, a +15 liner, microspikes, down jacket, and much more will hopefully help insulate me from the elements. Not to
mention a good rain suit to keep out the water and wind. If I could switch out one annoying thing with my setup, it’d be the amount of headgear I’m bringing. I’m ok with cold, but the wind is another story. I plan on having several layers around my head just like the rest of the body. I’m not just grabbing a toboggan and heading out. It’s a toboggan, plus a loose balaclava, plus a hood, plus a scarf. Overkill? Maybe, but it’s not a lot of weight versus the knife cuts that a mountain top gale can hand out when that cold air moves across your skin.
With how skinny I am, weight is a major concern. The best way to keep the weight though, is to eat more. Food won’t just be important for the bare sustenance, if I’m not making sure to eat as much as I can always I won’t make it through the day. This will translate to more calories, and more weight, but may also lead to weight gain. As much as I worry about weight loss, only being 120 pounds, it may be possible that I’ll gain a little weight. As skinny as I am, I put on weight when I’m working outside. I suspect that I might even go up a few pounds once I start to get a month or two into the hike. Which, I would be thrilled about. I definitely wouldn’t say know to a few more pounds to strengthen up my back and legs for the weight of the pack.
But I think that it will balance itself out the most with just getting what calories I can where I can and making sure that I stock up appropriately. I’ve done my research nutritionally, been looking into some recipes to try out, and also am willing to pack extra. Maybe that means a couple more supply drops on shorter outs, but it means a healthier, better hike. And I want to stride up to the Katahdin sign, not drag myself across it. And to have the strength to make it I better be eating everything in sight and taking it calculated enough that I don’t burn myself down. Speaking of which,
3. Injuries/ Too Much Too Soon
This I’m worried about in terms of falling off a cliff, or being crushed by a tree, and more about repetitive easily- preventable-with-stretching-injuries. And, the ones that can occur even if you do take care of yourself. Nothing, I think, would be more frustrating than to have the desire to finish, and the ability, and to get knee capped right before the end by an injury I could have easily prevented. The way to prevent this though is 15 minutes of stretching after the hike, and 15 before. It’s, in of the most extreme senses, a marathon and not a sprint. The goal isn’t to make time, but to finish.
Do I hope that I make good time? Of course, but speed in exchange for safety I’m less keen on. It doesn’t matter how fast I’m going if after a week if I break down from 10 consecutive 20 mile days. The importance of preparation, and continued preparation, being of the utmost importance.
On the Appalachian trail I’ve noticed a little bit of a trend towards comfort and ultra-lightness, at the expense of safety, preparedness, and common sense. I understand that you’re an ultralight bad-ass who only brought a tarp for shelter. If you get caught in a brutal blizzard though, then you’re just a dumb-ass who froze to death because they thought they could get away with too much. I think that this is especially relevant for people who may be hiking for the first time. Though experienced hikers can be just as stupid. We all can. I can for sure. I’ve had way too many confidence building exercises. And yeah, that’s part of the risk you run. You can’t control everything I understand. But deciding not to bring any sort of first aid kit because, why would you need it 100 miles from civilization? Not sure I get that one as much. Or the idea that you’ll only bring a sleeping bag liner on a mountain hike where the night temperatures can dip well below freezing. Summer is a different story, but for those starting early, many a hiker has ended before they began for lack of warm, properly cared for, clothes.
There are plenty of people grumbling right now about how they can take the risks they want. “Who are you to tell me how to how to hike my own hike?” Nobody to be sure. But make sure that when you approach a situation, farm from help, and with little supplies, make sure that you’re real about the situation. And if you need to. Back off. Wait a day. Regroup with a new set of friends to tackle a challenge in group. A great example is the Thru Hiker Dixie, who you can find the youtube page of here, who describes in one of her videos how she almost took a life threatening crossing when she didn’t feel safe, and then decided to turn back. After a while, some new people came along and she tackled it in a group.
*If I’m able to refind the video I’ll update the link. If you’ve seen this video please message me the url so that I can link it.*
If you’re new, you might feel like you need to prove something to yourself or to other people.
If you’re experienced, you might feel like you need to prove something to yourself or to other people.
It’s a great sentiment, and a great drive. Just don’t let it rule your life to the point that it takes a broken limb or a frozen set of feet to realize that it’s not worth it, and that you could have just waited.
4. The Crowds
In an odd way, I’m worried about how many people there will be flowing into the same spaces the most of any on this list. I know the ideas around avoiding shelters for less volume, and I am starting fairly early, but I can’t help but wonder if in my zero days I’ll start to see the population creep. If it’s a warm winter, there definitely will be dangers with norovirus and a strain on water supplies. Recently the Smoky Mountains announced that it had been particularly dry winter and that water resupply might be iffy atm. Now, there’s a whole two months until I hit the trail, but it’s definitely possible that there might be some cold, thirsty miles.
I also, like many people, am heading out to get a bit of solitude as well. Like the statistics state though, 1 in 4 people complete the trail. So while the beginning might feel a little cramped, once I make it to hot springs I think that the path will have cleared out some. While I might be making it to shelters earlier for the added protection from the elements, as it gets warmer, I’m also hoping to transition to more back country and campsite evenings where available.
It definitely seems as if the Appalachian Trail is a much more social trail than other long distance trails. Maybe because of movies, books, and media, maybe because it’s less intense than the CDT or PCT in certain ways. Maybe it’s just the social trail. Any way you slice it it’s definitely the busiest of the three routes for thru hiking.
The PCT has already seen it’s numbers increase beyond sustainability and have had to start issuing permits. Perhaps the AT should start looking at the same thing. With concerns already about the numbers rising every day, with 100 Hiker starting between February 29th and March 1st. That’s one thing that’s beyond my control and may be less of an issue than I think it will. Especially if people do peel away early.
5. Bears. (and maybe mountain lions)
Now, Mountain Lions I’m much less worried about, but there have been increasing sightings in Tennessee as people spread out more. And while I’m not sure what to do in a cougar attack, I’m at least going to look it up before I leave. Will I run into a Cougar? Probably not, but a five minute read on how to react is a small enough cost for a small boost when it counts.
While cougars may not be a huge concern, bears are. I feel ready to handle that encounter though.. Running nose to nose with a blackbear at 2 am cured me of the worry that I won’t know how to react. You can read about that encounter in my post here. Suffice to say though, sometimes, it’s reaction plus preparation that wins the day.
I’d prepared, listened to, and acted out “in case of bear” scenarios, but until I met a bear I wasn’t sure how i’d react. Minus an immediate slip in front of the bear, I reacted the way I should have in that situation. In the woods though, there’s no inside to sprint to. Puff myself up though, yell, and try to disengage from the situation. Like anything else though, what you find on the trail, ya deal with as it comes.
Thank you for reading and good luck hitting your own trails!
If you’d like to follow my upcoming thru hike of the AT while I hike, you can follow me @stickbugthru on Twitter and Instagram, and at my Youtube channel here where I’ll be posting my vlog episodes after I finish and get a chance to see what I have.