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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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September 20, 2019

The tide rushes in: 18 days to AT thru-hike start

I have come to the conclusion that there is really only one way to prepare to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.  Fortunately, it involves only one step:

Step 1: Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.

Done?  Good, now you’re ready.

In all seriousness…

I have spent a great deal of time researching equipment, reading reference books and personal accounts on the AT, shaving ounces, and monitoring the weather on certain parts of the trail over the last couple months.  For someone who is used to “winging it,” opting to just jump in the car and go, this has been a stretch for me.

All of the money I have spent over the years in slightly higher last-minute hotel rooms and picking up bathing suits in high-priced tourist traps because I didn’t know exactly where I was going until I got there has been money well spent.  Spontaneity and the absence of planning stress has been well worth these expenditures.  However, when you’re planning on spending six months in the woods with just a pack strapped to your back, a certain level of respect for the trail and the wilderness is required, and with it a certain level of planning.

Kevin McCourt getting ready to hike on beach

Bundled up as I head onto the beach for a 20 degree morning hike.

How many long distance hikers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

That being said, in the end the best you can hope for is a good set of options because – and I am not exaggerating here – there is only one thing in the world AT thru-hikers seem to be able to agree on, and it’s this: An AT thru-hike can be pretty damn cool.  On everything else, there will be endless debate with valid points on every side.

You will never get everyone to agree on hiking boots versus trail runners, but at least if you’ve done your research you won’t show up in flip-flops or street running shoes with no tread.  Down versus synthetic sleeping bags, internal versus external frame pack, lightweight versus ultralight, shelters versus tent camping, the choices and debates are endless.  The important thing is that you understand what those choices are and the implications of your decisions.

I have spoken to people who look at total pack weights over 25 lbs as a travesty, and others who are willing to hike with as much as 40-50 lbs to bring along some extra comfort.  There is no question that it’s easier and more enjoyable hiking with a lighter pack, but you also have to live on the food and comforts you’ve carried once it’s time to stop hiking and enjoy the scenery.  Personally, my budget and purposes probably won’t allow a 25 lb carry in cold weather (10-15 lbs base pack weight + 10-15 lbs food and water), but I’m working hard to get my base weight under 20 lbs and carry very calorie-dense foods.

Hike your own hike… but give up some luxuries

beach at morning

No trouble finding a spot today.

Everyone has their own reasons for hiking the trail, and these reasons can impact the priorities in terms of what you carry along the way.  I am looking for the solitude to read and write, so being able to read via a lightweight “old-school” kindle, listen to audio books, and to write on a semi-real keyboard will be important factors for me, and in the end will require a few more pounds of added weight.  Another one of my priorities is warmth during the colder parts of the trail, so I will probably carry a bit of extra weight in a lower rated sleeping bag and a real tent (versus my tarp and netting).  To carry these items, I’ll have to give up on some others.

You should always hike your own hike, but realistically one of the many trail conditions you must monitor is other hikers.  I fully intended on carrying a bear canister, for example, but after talking to dozens, if not hundreds of AT thru-hikers, I have yet to come across one other person who will.  Bear canisters are useless if you’re the only one using them, so mine has been tossed from my bag.  To be honest, I’m happy to be 40 oz lighter.

I have also finally given up the stranglehold on my JetBoil camp stove.  It would be lovely to boil water in two minutes for a hot cup of coffee in the morning and quick preparation for dehydrated meals, but the weight of the fuel and the large cup attachment for fast-boiling water is just so much.  My switch to a basic ultralight camp stove and fuel cubes probably took as much as a pound and a half out of my pack.

In the very beginning I expected to be doing a lot more hiking in preparation to build up my hiking legs, but the real preparation has occurred in reading, weighing every piece of equipment, and taking occasional hikes for pleasure to test out different pack weights and new equipment.  These hikes themselves have resulted in many changes.  I have turned in my pack’s built-in water bladder for a Gatorade bottle.  I wouldn’t have learned I needed a larger hiking boot size if I hadn’t done some early 8-10 miles hikes (For the first five miles my feet felt like they were walking on clouds).

hiking backpack on beach

This is the best breakfast spot in town.

Depending upon your particular situation, a lot of preparation has to go into the reality of disappearing for six months, as well.  Six months is a long time and many things can happen.  (I would not be the least bit shocked to come out of the woods to find a Kardashian is the front-runner for President…).  I am rushing to get business tax returns done, change various mailing addresses, hire a registered agent for my business, downgrade the car insurance on my car that will be parked for the duration to save some dough, and make sure my business is ready to be properly handled while I’m gone.  Oh, and of course there’s the whole issue of finishing up my Bachelor’s degree in the next 8 days, and making sure the diploma that will probably be released as I head into Tennessee is shipped to a safe place.  I expect I’ll need to stop once or twice a month in a hostel or motel with wifi access to get a few things done, but for the most part I expect (and look forward to) being pretty detached from the real world.

Some recent prep hikes

Preparation should be enjoyable, too.  I’m still at one of my midpoints on my way to Georgia, the Delaware Shore, and while mountains and hills are nonexistent in Delaware, the views of the bay and ocean are wonderful and hiking on sand gives a bit more resistance and challenge than the flat trails and smooth paved surfaces in the area.  Yesterday morning I took a spontaneous hike along the ocean in a brisk 20 degrees and ate my breakfast of pop tarts and Gatorade watching the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean.

I also did a recent 9 mile hike through the streets of this beach town because I was itching to get out.  It was definitely a pleasurable experience, but also a lesson in how unshaven guys with backpacks are looked upon “in-town.”  It was such a cold day that I came across no walkers, but in the more upscale neighborhoods I did have as many as three cars at a time idling at 3 m.p.h. to see what I was up to.  I expect this less in the towns bordering the AT that are used to the constant rush of hikers passing through, but it is an interesting lesson in how we judge people based upon appearance.  Or, in this case, since I had woken up in a condo with hot running water and not a lean-to in the woods, the simple fact that someone is wearing a pack.

Kevin McCourt near end of 9 mile prep hike

After nine miles of hiking, I see that familiar sign. I’m really smiling, my face is just frozen.

Officially registered with 18 days and about 15 hours of roadtrip left before Georgia

I have officially registered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for a start date of 3/26 from Amicalola Falls.  This certainly makes things real as well, as I rush to get everything ready in time.  I’ll be parking my car in North Carolina 4 hours from the trail, so I expect this means I’ll be headed to Amicalola via any means necessary on the afternoon of the 25th so I can start fresh hiking in the morning.

Before then I’ll be spending a bit more time at the beach here in Delaware (Hey, it’s going to the be in the 60s all week!), then a quick lateral move over to Washington, DC., and finally down to my last stop outside Charlotte, NC.  I look forward to lots of pleasure hikes as my pack becomes more fine-tuned, a last minute trip to REI for a boot swap-out and final equipment purchases, and some more great sunrises.

Getting my trail legs early…

While I have been doing plenty of prep hikes between 2 to 10 miles, I just don’t have time to hike 10 miles every morning.  I’ll be hiking 2200 miles over the next six months; hiking is definitely the one thing I will have no shortage of soon.  I do plan on doing some long-distance, steep mountain climbs every day for the last 3-4 days before I head over to Amicalola Falls.  My theory here is that if I get through the first few grueling days of hiking before I even start the trail, by the time I start in Amicalola Falls it will seem like I’ve already been on the trail for a few days.  The cramps and tight muscles will already started to set in, and I’ll be able identify any weak spots while I’m still in the real world.

Well, 18 days and counting… I better get to work!

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