The trials of the trail: Mental Preparation

This is the tiny shelter near the summit of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Yeah, it's not much.
This is the tiny shelter near the summit of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Yeah, it’s not much.

To put it mildly, hiking the Appalachian Trail is difficult. It’s long, almost 2,220 miles. You will be hot, wet, cold, dehydrated, hungry, worn out and dirty. You may also be bored since you will spend hours each day simply putting one foot in front of the other which carrying a heavy pack. Quitting is always an option. According to Walking the Appalachian Trail by Larry Luxenberg, less than 30% of those who start ever finish.

As someone who is preparing to face the challenge next year I’ve been preparing myself physically with long walks, overnight hikes and hours on my treadmill at the steepest incline. I’ve meticulously weighed gear, read hundreds of reviews of hiking equipment and (virtually) sat at the feet of past thru hikers seeking knowledge.

But as I’ve said before, this trail is less about physical prowess and backwoods knowledge than it is about persistence. My friend Skittles–Triple Crown Thru hiker of the AT (twice!), CDT and PCT—always said that the key to finishing is wanting to be on the trail more than you want to be somewhere else.

So how do you prepare mentally?

AppTrials-YellowI ran across an easy read recently that is the only book I’ve found that focuses on the mental aspects of long distance hiking. Appalachian Trials (notice it’s Trials not Trails) by Zach Davis is deceptive in its simplicity. If you just read it, I don’t know how much you’ll get out of it. Do All the Exercises if you want to internalize the information. Zach published the book himself and while there are typos and spelling errors (Hey, I edit training materials for a living. They jump out at me, at least in someone else’s writing!), these are easy to ignore if you are interested in the subject. His target audience is clearly the young (which I am not) but the practical exercises work for those with experience or complete novices.

The most important exercises have you answer these questions:

1) Why are you hiking?

2) What will you achieve or receive from hiking the AT?

3) What are the consequences to quitting?

If you can’t answer each of these questions in the privacy of your own home from a warm dry couch, how will you ever be able to answer them after the third day of cold, wet weather along the trail? When you want to quit, when you are feeling low, you can refer to the list as a reminder.

Here are my answers:

I am hiking the AT:

  • To evaluate my life.
  • To restore my faith in the basic goodness of people, something that always happens when I hike.
  • Because I want an adventure.
  • Life is short. I want to do something awesome while my knees and health are still good.
  • I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 12, and I cannot keep putting it off. I tell others to follow their dream and I need to as well.
  • I want to stop having the boring, predictable life that everyone else has.
  • I want to be in better physical shape.
  • I want to learn how to live simply, with less stuff, having more experiences and fewer things.
  • I want a great story to tell.
  • I will experience Trail Magic.
  • I need to get out of the cube farm.
  • If I keep spending hours each week stuck in ATL traffic I will go postal.

Appalachina trail at Springer Mountain1When I have successfully thru-hiked the AT I will:

  • Have unshakeable confidence in myself and my abilities.
  • Have the story of a lifetime.
  • See life (particularly challenges and troubles) in a new light.
  • Have overcome the largest physical and mental challenge of my life.
  • Use this experience to launch a new, adventurous life as a professional vagabond and travel writer.
  • Have a jump start on the second half of my life.

If I give up on the AT, I will:

  • Be giving up on myself and settling for less of a life.
  • Not be the person I believe myself to be.
  • Feel like I let myself down.

I’m going to read these at least once a week from now until I finish the trail.

My Labor Day Hike on the AT

Appalachina trail at Springer Mountain1Let me let you in on a secret. Hiking and camping are just OK. Being out of doors, meeting new people and having interesting experiences is the reason I backpack. With the long Labor Day weekend, I had a great opportunity for extra time on the trail. Part of my goal for this hike (and all my hikes this year) is to refine my gear for a future thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. I’ll fill you in on my very wet night near the end of this post, but the short version is that I won’t be using the new tent. Back to the drawing board on selecting a shelter!

I went to Neel Gap along US19 (mile marker 31.7 on the AT) and parked at the Byron Reece Parking area. You have to walk straight up Blood Mountain from the parking lot for almost a mile just to join the Appalachian Trail. It’s a true test of your legs and the weight of your pack. By the time I reached the top I was progressing about 10 steps at a time, with a stop for breath. It’s the highest point of the A.T. in Georgia. I looked over the shelter at the top, one of the few rock buildings. It was constructed by the C.C.C. during the depression. The view is amazing, but with no water source and Thunderstorms forecast, it wasn’t where I wanted to spend the night. Besides, the rain would help me check out my tent. So I turned back down and walked the two miles to the road.


Just across US19 is Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi (Wa La See Yee). It’s an historical stone building also constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The facility was completed in 1937 (the same year as the Appalachian Trail). The A.T. passes through the building, the only covered portion of the trail. The stop is a haven for hikers with bunks, cold drinks, showers, laundry services and gear. When a thru hiker reaches Neel Gap (or is it Neel’s Gap?) they’ve probably spent 3-5 days on the trail. It’s a taste of what they face if they choose to complete the almost 2,200 miles to Maine. What is abundantly clear at this point is that most are carrying too much on their backs. They may also realize they don’t have the right equipment. This is the place to spread out every item and get a second opinion of what will improve the experience. Most take advantage of the service.

tj8450_041009_142112_427942I met Will, who works and lives at Mountain Crossing. The “new management” at the outfitters and hostel turn out to be a couple of his friends and it’s obvious Will is more than just an employee. We talked gear for a few minutes and then he offered to show me the bunks, which are about to be completely remodeled. They had just gotten the air conditioning to work that day and the stone walls and floor did seem to be drying out a bit.

I met Reba (who goes by the trail name Seeker) doing 40 days on the trail. She is a larger women (not that I’m in a position to talk). She mentioned she had grown kids and a grandchild, but she didn’t look older than late 30s to me. Seeker admitted to no previous camping or backpacking experience when she started at Springer (30+ miles away). That’s more common that you’d think. When she started, her brand new JanSport pack weighed more than 50 pounds and dug into her shoulders. The scars were still visible. At the first opportunity she hitched a ride into town, got a hotel and sent about 10 pounds of mostly clothing back home, including cotton t-shorts and cargo pants. Back on the trail, she had no stove, mistakenly thinking she could build fires each night to cook. But the constant rain of July and August has made that impossible. Besides, fires are both dangerous and non-sustainable. Coming up Blood Mountain, she considered quitting, but the view was worth the climb and she redoubled her resolve. At Neel Gap, Will helped her pare down even more. Now at 38 pounds, including water and food, she was still holding onto her large free standing tent and her cotton “pajamas” to sleep in and use in town. Will was still trying to talk her out of them. She plans to continue with no stove, but says she is already bored of the food. She left several items in the hiker box that she didn’t think she could face again.

I hiked on North from Neels Gap with fond thoughts of Seeker. She plans to hike to whole trail next year and will be starting in early April. I hope to meet her again. She was spending the night in a bunk at Mountain Crossing where a friend would meet her that afternoon for a day hike. With the oncoming rain, I was tempted to do the same. I think she is proof that it isn’t about expert knowledge or physical prowess on the A.T. She had made the first 30+ miles of the trail and now knew much more than she’d started with. No doubt this “University of Backpacking” will continue to teach her—and me—lessons. And she wasn’t getting off the trail yet. This was just her first week. Seeker said she was a bit disappointed in her average of 8 miles a day, but I told her I thought that was excellent. The Georgia section is hard, particularly when you are just learning, refining your gear and still getting into shape. And she’d faced a lot of rain. Success is about moving forward and not quitting. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

black_bear_mckenzie_070110_cSomething else Seeker faced was bear. I was warned about them by every person I talked to. Everyone (except me) spotted them. Black bear have been very active this year in the Georgia section, even after hunters took out several. Seeker told me a story about a bear circling her campsite two nights before. He snorted repeatedly then finally hit the back of her tent, striking the bottom of her feet, before ambling off into the woods. She said she was balled up the fetal position waiting to die. Wouldn’t you be? She had her food in the bottom of her sleeping bag with her, which is what attracted the bear. The story may sound fantastic, but I have heard it dozens of times. Obviously, the bear could have easily gotten the food, tearing the thin walls of the tent and killing her if it chose. It walked away instead. Hikers the next day showed her how to properly hang her food. Talk about learning lessons! This is a mistake she won’t repeat.

Hanging-FoodEveryone says that hanging your food is important. Every hiker, every blog, every book recommends it. But in practice, I find only slightly more than half actually do it. It’s one of the reasons that I’m leery of shelters. I’ve had some good experiences there, but it just takes one idiot to endanger the entire shelter. But I suspect the mice—far more prevalent and destructive than bear—will keep most of them from bringing food under roof.

I don’t have a great throwing arm but I do my best to hang my food from a tree limb, at least 8 feet up (10 is better). Every. Single. Night. The first priority is to get it several yards away from where I’m sleeping. I am convinced that a bear that seriously wants my food can still get it. My goal is to make it difficult, but it isn’t impossible to lose all your provisions to a bear. I might have to miss a couple meals, but it’s a small price to pay. I go further and try very hard not to cook in the spot that I’ll be camping. I stop for my big meal early in the day then hike on, leaving the smells of my dinner behind me. Bear may have poor eyesight, but they have exceptional noses. This night I forgot and left my toothpaste out of the bear bag. It was after dark when I realized it, so I simply took it several yards away and left it on a stump. In the morning, both the bag and the toothpaste were right where I had left them.

About 4:30p I could hear the thunder coming closer. I came to an empty tent site and decided to quickly erect my Contrail from Henry Shires at This was my fourth trip with the tent, but the first with rain. I already had serious concerns even though Backpacker Magazine has rated it highly. This sounded like a storm to test it in. Daylight conditions are always better for testing and in case of a complete failure, I was only 2 miles from the hostel.

350px-Rainy_Blue_Ridge-27527It was raining hard before I had the shelter all the way up, but I find it’s better to take your time and get it right. It’s a small tent and it took advanced gymnastics to change out of my wet shirt. There’s nowhere to hang wet things inside tent and nothing to attach a line to create space. The pockets for keeping odd items hang directly over the side “ventilation” mesh netting. The actually attract the water, letting it run into the tent. Useless. For a single wall tent, the ventilation has to be good to avoid condensation, hence the mesh around the bottom of the tent. But the ventilation is too good since there is no way to reduce it for blowing rain. I had to use the air mattress to stay out of puddles. I kept my sleeping bag in plastic.

In the close quarters, it’s impossible to sit up, so I simply lay there for an hour, mopping up puddles and hoping the shower wouldn’t last long. I could smell my body, but with less than a day and just 5 miles under my belt, it was actually a pleasant aroma. It reminded me of trail riding on the farm when I was a kid–wet leather and sweaty horse hide. I’m sure the scent wouldn’t be so welcomed after a week without a shower!

The tent is a disaster. The rain only lasted an hour, but it was clear that it simply won’t work on the trail. I can deal with the close quarters, but when I tried to rearrange the set up to get a more taunt profile and (perhaps) reduce the exposed mesh, one of the stakes broke.  I am checking now to see if the manufacturer will let me return it.

Still, a wet day on the trail beats a cubicle any day!

End of August Update on my Dreams

I’ve listed my goals, but at the top of them is to sell my house and get my possessions down to only what I need. I post my progress monthly, partially to hold myself accountable and partly to share with those who are interested. Here’s the progress report:

imagesCA9WHBU1CONDO: As promised, I got the condo on the market in early August, for a bit more than I had guessed I could list it for! Yea for the (slow) economic recovery! By mid-August I had a binding contract on the home. As of today, we’ve agreed to the list of fix-it items following the home inspection and my handyman (what a great guy!) has completed them all. Today is the FHA appraisal inspection, a critical part of the financing. This is the last major hurdle and I hope we can sail through it just as quickly as the other items. Closing is tentatively set for the last day of September. OMG, that’s THIS month!

POSSESSIONS: I continue to pare down what I own. A friend got my bike and accessories. I bought an iPad Mini and gave him my oldest computer. I’ve made three trips to Goodwill this month (I think they recognize my car now). I have a carload of stuff to take to my family on my next visit and three boxes of kitchen stuff goes to a friend tomorrow. Two metal shelves (which are getting close to empty) go to my beloved handyman. I’ve been through every closet, box and shelf I own at least twice this summer, so I don’t have a lot of excess at the moment. Most of what remains in my kitchen and almost all remaining furniture will go to Goodwill, which I’ll arrange for them to pick up.

MOVING & TEMPORARY HOUSING: I girlfriend is letting me share her house and I will start moving in mid-September. I’m meeting with her tomorrow night to check out the space and see what I can move there. Specifically, I’d like to see if I can move the treadmill—a very helpful item to my fitness!—or if I will be giving that away too. If I’m not moving the treadmill, I can probably move all the items in my car and not hire movers.hE0CC4CF6

BACKPACKING EQUIPMENT: I took two trips to the Appalachian Trial in August. This past weekend’s trip was WET and gave me a good opportunity to fine tune my set up. The result is that while most of my equipment is fine, I will need to replace the tent. Since it’s new, this is a blow financially. If I’m lucky, the company will take the tent back. This is a critical reason to buy from REI, IMHO. They take back almost anything. This tent isn’t from them, however, so we will see if the manufacturer will let me return the item.

3664640-744936-money-bag-with-dollar-sign-vector-illustrationBONUS:  Most of you know that I owned and ran Atlanta Culinary Tours, a great little sideline business that helped me fund this dream. I thought I had a buyer for the business when I stopped running tours in July, but they backed out. Well, a new buyer has come forward and I have a very good feeling about this. If it all works out, ACT will move forward with a really great owner and I’ll have some additional cash to fund my adventures. I expect to have this all wrapped up before the middle of September. With this additional income, I could meet my top savings goal (I’ve already met my minimum savings goal) by the end of December.