I wanted to reach out and tell you that you’re doing great and thank you for sharing your questions and goals with this group! A journey like hiking the entire AT begins with one step, even if that step is joining an online community and putting your dreams out there. When you do get out on the trail you’ll find that hikers come in all shapes and sizes, from your ultralight fast-packers carrying the bare bones essentials to the woman I know who hiked the entire AT with a bottle of nail polish and an extra pair of shoes!
Please do not be intimidated by the advice you are getting here or the fact that you may not have the newest or lightest gear. We all started somewhere, and I’d like to share my story with you to offer some support and let you know that if you really want to hike the AT you can absolutely accomplish it! Much like doing a long backpacking trip, don’t focus on the distance between you and your goal, focus instead on taking that next step, whatever it may look like.
I did not grow up ‘in the outdoors’ in the traditional sense. It wasn’t until I was in college that a friend of mine and I decided we were going to become backpackers. To make sure we weren’t the slowest or most ill prepared ones in the group, we convinced my 12-year-old brother to come along with us on our first trip. It was a case study in what not to do while backpacking. I don’t remember how many people we passed on the trail, but as I look back, I am shocked there wasn’t a search and rescue effort being assembled when we got off the trail.
The plan seemed straightforward enough: Hike in to Ice Lake in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in northeastern Oregon, spend the night, and hike out. It is a nine mile hike to the lake, and in spite of the guidebook’s emphasis that the trail was all uphill and lots of elevation gain, we thought that if we could run a mile in under 10 minutes we could probably walk one in 20 minutes, and therefore would be at the lake in three hours, four if you added some time to eat dinner and take in the views. We hit the trail at 4pm thinking we’d make it just in time for the sun to be setting at 8pm.
What we packed is almost as impressive as what we didn’t pack:
- Three massive rectangular sleeping bags.
- Blue Jeans, cotton socks, leather work boots, t-shirts, sweatshirts and cotton bandanas (we looked like ill-equipped pirates in camp I am sure).
- Two flashlights for three people.
- An entire box of kitchen matches.
- A large cooking pot from my mom’s kitchen (we were at least smart enough not to take the cast iron one).
- A very large four person Coleman tent that weighed at least 12 pounds.
- A single large can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew.
- The can opener from my mom’s kitchen.
- A single spoon.
- Three Nalgene bottles of water and one full bottle of contact solution for my friend’s contacts.
- An entire box (including the box) of Nature Valley Granola Bars.
- An entire roll of toilet paper.
- The entire guidebook, of which 2 of the 400 pages were dedicated to the trail we were on.
- Three backpacks that were dramatically undersized and thus had about 75% of the above items hanging off of them in various fashion.
- Three knives that may or may not have met the qualifications to be considered swords in several states because we, and I’m quoting here, ‘wanted to be ready for anything’.
What we did not take:
- Spare clothing.
- Sleeping pads.
- Anything else that would have been useful, lighter, prudent, or made sense whatsoever.
Needless to say, we looked ridiculous (I know because I have photos to verify) and made our lives so much harder than necessary on the trail. We lost daylight when we were less than halfway to the lake, I ended up carrying my poor brother’s backpack on top of mine for the last couple miles of trail, and none of us slept because we were freezing cold and uncomfortable with just our sleeping bags between us and the cold, uneven, hard ground.
In spite of looking like we didn’t know what we were doing (and let’s be honest, we didn’t) that is not at all what I remember most about that trip. What I remember is the sense of achievement for making it to our goal, the amazing sense of being a small part of an incredible environment, and the camaraderie of shared hardship and overcoming with others. I do remember the blisters, judgmental stares from other hikers, not sleeping well, eating cold stew because none of us could hold the pot in the fire long enough without burning our hands (and we weren’t smart enough to set it on a rock), and the next day my brother running the last mile of trail to the outhouse because he just couldn’t make himself poop in the woods. I recall all of those things fondly as a part of my story, which is ever evolving and getting better with each mile of trail I hike on.
I hope that you continue this journey you are on and that you keep sharing your progress with us, I’m excited to see how far you will go!