In 2000 my wife and I decided we would do a through hike of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. The distance traveled would be 2,168.5 miles of foot trails through the wildernesses of the eastern United States. We climbed more than 250 mountains. Our elevation change was equal to climbing Mount Everest from sea level to the summit and back nineteen (19) times. The trail is very challenging and can be dangerous (two people died on the trail the year we hiked). The trail follows the crest of the Appalachian Mountain through fourteen states. Although this was a long “backpacking trip” it required us to have everything we needed to survive the outdoors for an extended time while living and walking through all weather conditions. Rain, sleet, snow, hail storms, 100 degree weather, in it all we walked an average of 14.7 miles a day, seven days a week for months. The lessons learned are very valuable when it comes to surviving extended periods of having to “make it” on your own. I’ve read many books, articles and heard many conversations about what is needed to survive natural disasters, terrorist attacks or bad economic times, but until you’ve spent weeks and weeks in the wilderness with just what you can carry, that information at times is valuable but very often overstated and dangerous.
Our adventure began on the 3rd day of March 2002 and ended September 26th 2002. The first night out it was 0 degrees with a 15 below zero wind chill. The first two weeks on the trail were not much better with most days not getting above freezing. We had to hike with our water bottles next to our bodies to keep them from freezing. When it became uncomfortable during the day we could put them in our packs in an outside pocket but turned them upside down so the freezing would occur in the bottom (now the top) and we could remove the bottle and turn it upright and remove the lid and drink. At night we would put our water bottles and water filter inside our sleeping bags at the foot of the bag to keep them from freezing. In the mornings we would turn our tent wrong side out and shake the frozen moisture out of the tent. The amount of water given off by the body’s respiration and perspiration during sleep is amazing and a problem when it is 20 degrees in your tent. During the summer months there was a record drought for most of the eastern U.S. We had days in access of 100 degrees and very little water. At times we collected water from ditches, cattle ponds and once from a deep tire track in the forest service road we crossed. In the White Mountains it took 2 hours to collect just 2 liters of water. We found a rock crevice that had a small trickle of water. We would collect it in our spoon and put it in our bottles. By the end of the trail we had walked from winter in the Georgia mountains to summer in Pennsylvania to winter on Mount Katahdin in Maine.
What allowed two people over the age of 50 to complete this hike was preparation and knowledge of personnel abilities and skills and equipment. By the time we started our hike we had our pack base weight down to 12 lbs plus food and water. We could hike for 10 days and not have our packs weigh over 45 lbs. and have over 4,000 calories per day in our meals. We only carried what we used and every item had multiple uses. If we didn’t use it at least once a week we didn’t take it. We saw early on that carrying things for “just-in-case” created more problems than the advantage of having it “just-in-case.” We realized that carrying too much, too fast and too many miles, people got hurt too soon and went home too soon.
Planning is one of the most important factors in accomplishing such a daunting task of surviving in the outdoors for an extended time. It appears to be difficult for a lot of people to understand the importance of preparation when it comes to difficult task. We like most people read as much material as possible on long distance hiking and specifically the Appalachian Trail. We read every journal we could find on the Internet and garnered as much information as possible. We took notes, studied maps, made list of materials, explored where we could get food supplies and the more we knew the more confidence we had in completing the task. The benefit of all our planning became evident very quickly on our trip. As we made our approach to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain in Georgia we met several other hikers starting their “through hike.” The first thing we noticed were the large packs. One young man was carrying a 108lb pack and when I asked him what he had in it he said, “only the necessities.” Another hiker had a pack that he had weighted at the ranger station that was 78lbs. Of the eight people we met that first day on the trail only one finished the hike and actually climbed Mt. Katahdin (the northern terminus) the same day we did. Then there were the Boy Scout troops with their 50 lb packs and the scout leaders with their 75lb packs full of “necessities.”. They would look at our packs and ask the question, “how long are you out for?” When we said "six months" they had a very puzzled look on their face and would ask the next question, “why are your packs so small?” When we answered we just carry what is “necessary” they would give us a curious look and walk on by.
Some of the things we did to check out our equipment was just common sense. Every time it would rain or snow we would put on our gear and head out on an all day hike through our neighborhood. I expected the white van from Bellview Sanitarium to show up any minute with the jackets to carry us away. We live in the historical district of our hometown and the area is very hilly, so, it was a good starting point to practice. We got some strange looks from our neighbors. A lady one morning asked if we were going mountain climbing?! We said "Yes, 250 of them". She smiled and went back into her house and probably dialed the phone.
At other times we would pitch our tent in a downpour in our backyard and spent the night cooking and eating our meals in the rain (you cannot eat in your tent because of animals, from bears to mice will invade your sleeping quarters) and it paid off, we never slept in wet bags or tent in six months. When it was below freezing we hiked and learned how to layer our clothes. We learned what to take off and when to take it off. We knew we would be alone, sometime days from the nearest town or road and we had to get it right the first time. In the first month alone on our hike over 25% of the hikers we knew quit because of poor preparedness for the drastic changes in weather. The struggles became very depressing and they stated, “this is no fun.” Preparation made it fun and rewarding. I’ll never forget the beauty of the ice storm we had in the Great Smoky Mountains and we were 35 miles from the nearest road. I’m glad we took it seriously, during our hike a fellow hiker we knew died of hypothermia in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Not only were we prepared with the right clothes and equipment we were prepared physically. By the time we were at the half way mark in Pennsylvania, over 75% of the hikers had left the trail. A considerable number had left because of physical problems the majority of which were either feet or knee issues. Walking in pain is part of the hike. We lost all of our toenails and had some sore knees and foot problems but “no blisters.” Two thousand feet downhill walks with a heavy pack are a killer on knees and feet. “Toe bang” is what they call it when your shoes are not large enough and your toes hit the end of your boot. In a day or two you have black toes with a lot of pain. Preparation avoided this and all of the other issues that we faced.
By the end of the first week on the trail we came to an outfitter in Georgia that sits on the trail. (Literally, the Appalachian Trail goes through the building. It is a little of the trivia on the Appalachian Trail). The outfitter was going through individual packs and sending “stuff” home. He said on an average day at the peak of the starting days (end of March through April) he ships out over 500 lbs of gear he has taken out of hiker packs. The conversation around campsites each night covered only a few things; food, miles, next water source and pack weight. With over 1,000 miles of hiking experience before our hike, we were still tweaking the contents of our pack the entire hike. The only thing we added to our packs on the entire hike was Thermarest micro pads (we shipped the closed cell pads home in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia). They were awesome! Sleeping on the ground for six months got a lot better when we swapped 12 oz pads for 1 lb., 2 oz pads. I carried three Band-Aids for 2,168.5 miles. I don’t carry band-aids now. If I need one, I’ll use a piece of duct tape with Toilet Paper and triple ointment over the wound. Everything must have multi-use abilities or you don’t need it.
You will never know what will happen around the next ridge or over the next mountain but you can develop the skills and habits that will enable you to deal with what ever happens; good or bad. It will take more than a few weekend trips. Weekend trips will not give you enough situations to correct your gear nor will it give you the fatigue you will encounter on 100 to 200 mile hikes. You can run, jog, ride bikes and do 10k runs but 100 miles in the woods carry a pack will indicate very loudly what is wrong with your set up. And trust me it will show up… you will end up cutting the labels out of your shirts and the unused pockets out of your pants. You will get rid of the “stuff” you just couldn’t do with out. You will need to spend extended periods in what ever the predicted situation may be. Weeks of consistent “practice” will hone your skills and purge your equipment into a workable tool set.
Basic gear list:
First, what you carry depends on how far you’re going, where, and when. Camping and backpacking magazines may make it seem as if you’re doomed unless you have the latest gear. But, new equipment for even an overnight hike can easily run $1,000 to $2,000 or more. Don’t worry. You can plan a hike on the Appalachian Trail without bankrupting yourself in the backpacking store. Most of our gear we collected over years and less than 25% came from a name brand or a known outfitter (i.e., REI).
What should I carry?
Packing for a day-hike is relatively simple:
- Map and a good small compass (learn to use them first!)
- Water (at least 1 quart, and 2–3 on longer hikes in hot weather)
- Warm clothing and rain gear and hat
- Food (including extra high-energy snacks)
- Tent peg (used as a pick to dig a “cat hole” to bury human waste)
- First-aid kit, with duct tape for blister treatments
- Whistle (three blasts is the international signal for help)
- Garbage bag (to carry out trash you find on the trail, some people are slobs!)
- Sunglasses and sunscreen (especially when leaf cover is gone)
- Blaze-orange vest or hat (in hunting season)
- Toilet paper (take out the paper center and flatten your half roll and put it in a Ziploc bag)