I’ll give you a bit of background and then get into a day on a thru hike. I’m now 64. A few years ago I retired early so I could try to hike the Appalachian Trail. I figured I didn’t have that many good years left where I could do something like that. My career was military and engineering, and I had never had more than two weeks off at a time. I pretty much fell in love with backpacking and the outdoors. My wife, not so much. So I’ve spent about 3 months on the AT and CDT.
Last fall, I was starting to plan another CDT section, when family plans changed. Well, I ended up buying a Mercedes Sprinter cargo van and putting it in the shop for conversion to a camper van. I figured I could boondock out west in BLM land or national forests and do long day hikes. But still sleep in a soft bed!
Well, the van is still in the shop. And if it’s finished, I’m not so sure it will be safe (or allowed in some places) to take it out.
So, I’m sitting here at home getting more and more upset about another spring going by without backpacking or hiking. The news is infuriating. Most of the movies and shows are social justice crap. I’m staying in bed way too long trying to avoid the irritations. Here’s a rather long view of a day on a thru hike...
I’ve spent a month planning and getting ready. My pack’s going to be 23-25 lbs with food and water. I’ve been doing 5-8 mile hikes several times a week to get in shape. But don’t usually carry over 15 lbs. I’ve got anxiety about getting to the trail. It’s a 23 hr bus ride to the AT and about a 16 hr ride to the CDT. I HATE bus rides and especially bus stations—both are crowded, dirty, and uncomfortable. By the way, I don’t like crowds, and I hate shelters and hostels— trying to sleep with strangers all around you making weird noises. And being in my sixties, I usually have to get up to relieve my bladder.
Anyway, you make it to the trail and you are ecstatic. The first day or two on either trail is a killer. The state park steps up the mountain on the AT are plain tough. The heavy water load on the CDT makes you feel like you are carrying a bag of heavy rocks. Those first couple of days are exhausting, and I’ll skip them.
A few days in, you aren’t really noticing the weight any more. You get a rhythm going up the hills or mountains. I’ll start after dinner on one of those good days. I stopped about 5:00 pm, pitched my tarp, fixed dinner and ate. By six o’clock, I’ve drunk about as much water as I could. I plan to go to sleep about dark (8:00 to 9:00 pm).
At six, I stop drinking water. The plan is to take a leak about 9:00 so I can last through the night. I didn’t bring a pee bottle to save the extra 2 oz of weight. I usually work on the day’s photos and blog for a couple of hours. Sometimes I use my MP3 player and listen to music.
I’ve either set up my tarp (preference if I don’t expect lots of rain) or my Zpacks Altaplex tent. The tent is better for bugs and rain, but you don’t get the open feel of the outdoors. The tarp is pretty close to cowboy camping with a rain safety measure. And the tarp/bivy combo is a couple of ounces lighter than the tent.
I’ve blown up my 2.5 inch air mattress and put it in the bivy. My down quilt goes in the bivy on top of the mattress. I’ve got a small ground cloth under the bivy, and I drag my pack under the tarp. The tarp is set up like an A-frame with one end lower for weather considerations.
When I get in the bivy under the quilt, I can lay on my back and see the stars, clouds, or the tops of trees. Laying on my side I can see the forest or desert floors under the edges of the tarp. I tend to roll from side to side all night, stretching my back and legs when I’m laying on my back. I don’t get aches or pains from hiking, but my hips will get sore on the air mattress. Rolling over helps. I don’t think I fully wake up, but I am aware of rolling over.
You here the sounds in the forest or the yipping of coyotes in the desert. I don’t fear the animals or the night or being alone. It’s all just relaxing and great. I do occasionally see a spider near my bag and I don’t like those. The pattern of rain, the boom of thunder, or the flash of lightning are all relaxing. At least until the sound and flash from lightning get too close. The wind can be relaxing or an irritant. Too strong, and you have to hide your mouth or cover up from the cold. The desert wind has sand in it, and you have a hard time keeping it out of your mouth and nose.
The night is refreshing, but the sore hips and full bladder make me ready for the day. You watch the forest or desert appear out of the darkness. I hate to use a headlamp, so I wait till I can see a bit under the tarp, and crawl out of the bivy. I’ve usually slept in my hiking clothes without a jacket. If it was cooler I will also wear my wind shirt. And if it is near freezing or below, I will add a down jacket.
So I change into my cold morning hiking layers, rub some lubricant around my toes and put my shoes on. Now I put everything I can into the pack, leaving out any breakfast, and of course the tarp and ground cloth. Then I get out from under the tarp and do my morning toiletries. If it’s not too cold, I’ll eat a quick breakfast (no cooking). Otherwise, I’ll warm up on the trail and then stop for a breakfast bar. I’m usually off within about a half hour of getting out of the bag. And it’s usually about sunrise. In the forest though, you never see the actual sun rise.
On most days, I’m feeling really good. I almost never get blisters or have aches and pains. I don’t take Ibuprofin. My feet do not get sore. I will get tired. And occasionally, I’ll feel a muscle ache around a knee or ankle, though it will usually disappear quickly. I have gotten ‘hurt’ on two of my trips. On the AT, I tried walking without letting my feet splay out—and I pulled a muscle above my ankle. NEVER try to walk differently! On the CDT, I misjudged the risk on a deep, sandy, steep Jeep trail. I slid onto my rear and then my pack rotated me around, and I pulled my knee. Both injuries caused me to get off the trail. The moral of those stories, be careful!
But back to the trail. You try to drink a lot of water before you leave camp. If possible, there is a water source nearby to refill your bottles. On the AT the water sources are a pleasure. On the CDT, at least in New Mexico, they are disgusting. Since I am out there for fun and not desperate to complete a thru, I worry little about mileage. On the other hand, I do pay attention to the guides to be sure I don’t run out of water.
On the AT, it always seemed that heading out of camp meant going up a mountain. So you concentrated on warming up and getting your body going at speed. On the CDT, the biggest challenge seemed to be keeping on the trail. Sometimes it seemed more like bushwhacking.
But on both trails, the scenery was enchanting and always changing. The flowers, cacti, moss and trees always seemed to change and create new patterns. You spread your consciousness between trail obstacles, observing the scenery, sounds, and animals, getting your body through the current physical challenge, and whatever’s in your own mind. Sometimes you think about food (at a restaurant!), a shower, a favorite song, or what’s ahead on the trail. You tend to zone out and get in a rhythm. It’s just you and the creator’s greatest creations.
If you are not comfortable with your own company, you probably need to hike with others. But for the most part there is no fear, just a feeling of happiness. Of course, you do get a bit of a rush when you come around a corner and see a moose, buffalo, snake or bear. Luckily, the bear was far off. The others required action to avoid. I’ve only felt uncomfortable about one fellow hiker. He pulled out this huge Bowie knife in a shelter and set it down next to his bag. He said it was for bears.
Occasionally I see a fellow hiker on the trail. Most will give you a happy greeting. Some of the older ones will stop and chat for a few minutes. I joined up with another hiker for most of my CDT miles. It was nice to have someone to talk to, but I think I still prefer the freedom of solo hiking.
About every hour to an hour and a half, I like to stop for five minutes and have a snack. I usually try to find a log or rock to sit on, but if it’s not muddy, just sitting on the ground is fine. I try to take the weight off my leg muscles.
These were attempted thru hikes, so they were not casual strolls through the forest or desert. While I love the scenery, they also were not park discovery trails. I tried to go just below my top speed. With hills, roots, and rocks, I often didn’t get anywhere near my top speed. But I usually got hot and sweaty; though use of layers minimized sweat staying on me.
By lunch time, I was usually still feeling pretty strong. My favorite lunch is peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla, a big one. Normally, I would take my time, about twenty minutes. This included taking the pack off. By about 2:00 pm, I usually started to feel the strain and would be getting tired. It wouldn’t be a wall, I just couldn’t go as fast, and really didn’t look forward to long uphills.
Usually, by 4:00 to 4:30, I would start looking for a good stopping place for the night. If possible, I would try to get near the next water source. On the AT, I liked mountain tops. Open spaces were hard to find. On the CDT, usually any moderate open space near some trees would do.
One critical factor for setting up my tarp is a flat spot. I’ve made the mistake several times of thinking a spot was flat enough only to find my head was downhill or my bivy was moving downhill every time I rolled over. Putting down my ground cloth and laying down on it is now my regular practice.
I set up the tarp as soon as I get to camp. If water is nearby, I get it. Then I cook my dinner. An alcohol stove is my favorite. I only boil water, and never put food in my pot. All food is in a ziplock bag. I do take whey protein powder and drink a shake with dinner. The entree is usually a freeze dried meal. Most times I also have freeze dried fruit. Water and vitamins complete the meal.
If it’s raining, I will cook under the edge of the tarp. But I will also eat a lighter meal to avoid the mess.
As I mentioned earlier, I try to drink a lot of water with dinner, or by 6:00 pm. I also drink a lot while hiking. Dehydration is not fun on the trail, and it also isn’t good while trying to sleep.
After blogging, listening to music or just light napping, I get ready to sleep. That is usually a trip to the bushes, then changing into my sleeping attire, and adding more foot lube to the toes before putting on clean socks. The clean socks are usually put on with the last light.
Usually three to seven days like this will go by before I get to a town. The last day or so, lots of thinking involves anticipation of good food, a shower, and a soft bed. There’s also a bit of anxiety about the availability of a hotel or hostel. When I can, I try to call a day before I get into town to get a reservation.
Typically, I pick up a resupply box from the post office, shower, and go to a restaurant. Oh, the real food! Then you also have to find a laundry. You do your clothes while attired in your rain coat and pants. If you don’t pick up a box, you will need to go to a grocery to stock up. You will also, about every other town, need to look for stove alcohol or a canister. Then you get to lounge on a soft bed, watch TV, and catch up on uploading your blogs.
If you are taking a zero, you will stay two nights. Oh the luxury! If you are not young, zeros help with muscle recovery.
Leaving town is the worst part of a stop. It’s almost always uphill with a pack full of food (heavy). And places to stop for the night can be less than ideal.
Those stops can be expensive. Even so, when you come off the trail, you will most likely be somewhat depressed. The joy on the trail is not like anything you have at home or on the job. You really don’t want to head home. Of course, if you did the complete thru over six months, you will likely feel differently—being totally exhausted.
Back home, you just want to hit the trail again!