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Ask a Thruhiker: Your Questions Answered

From Teri, via Facebook:
Is it easier or more difficult than you imagined?

Overall, I would say the trail has been easier than I expected. I don’t mean physically so much as mentally: I really thought I was going to have to cope with at least a couple of major crises of purpose. You know, “Why am I doing this? What’s the point of all this?”

I haven’t experienced that at all. Perhaps that’s because I came into this undertaking with a very clear set of goals and expectations for myself.

That’s not to say I haven’t fallen into mental traps every now and then, but for the most part, I think I’ve handled them well. I mix up alone time and social time, and I’m not afraid to head for a hostel or turn to off-trail friends when I need a pick-me-up.

Physically, the trail is definitely challenging. It’s constantly going up and down and up again. The two biggest surprises there have been how tough the descents are on the body, and how arduous even a fairly level stretch of trail can be if the footing is rocky. But it’s been incredibly rewarding to witness the body growing stronger!

From Tim, via Facebook:
Do you still have toenails?

Yes, I’m pleased to report that I do! My feet have actually held up remarkably well, with few blisters.

From Tom, via Facebook:
What’s your strangest skin condition?

Strangest … that would have to be what I’ve dubbed “thruhiker hand.” I have tan lines on the back of my hands from the straps of my hiking poles, and I’ve developed calluses and new wrinkles on my palms, again from the poles.

From Marina, via Facebook:
What’s the most annoying song that you sing when you are hiking?

Ha! Annoying to me, or to others? No, I don’t generally sing aloud.

The most annoying songs are the ones that remain stuck in my head for multiple days, despite my not knowing the words! The best example of this is that “I Would Walk 500 Miles” by the Proclaimers. I know two lines of that damn song and I had them on repeat in my head for a solid three days.

And now I’ve gone and gotten it stuck in my head again. Sigh.

From @halfmoonmama, via Twitter: How do you deal w/mishaps throwing you off schedule? Extra miles another day, or accounted for when initially planning hike?

Generally speaking, I am not tightly bound to a schedule, so it doesn’t matter! This has been one of the delights of the trail – enjoying the freedom and flexibility to do whatever I want on any given day. On a couple of days, that has turned out to mean being very lazy, staying in my tent until 9 am or even later. On other days, though, I’ve felt strong and the terrain has flowed by beneath my feet, and I’ve covered many more miles than I expected.

Before my hike, I drafted out a rough itinerary for the first six weeks or so. I built in a few rest days, which also served as a cushion in case of delays. Now that I’ve passed beyond the bounds of that initial schedule, I’m essentially just estimating my location up to a month in advance based on my expected weekly mileage. Over the course of a week, those day-to-day blips balance themselves out nicely.

I did have a few specific time constraints during the first few weeks on the trail. A friend came out to hike with me for the first week, and we had to get him on a bus on time. Another friend flew out from Chicago to join me for the Smokies, so I had to meet her on the planned day. Oddly, it was a bit of a transition after the Smokies to go from scheduled to flexible! It took several days for me to adjust to not having a specific plan for each day.

From Sam, via Facebook:
How many other women have you seen?

At the start of the trail in Georgia, there were more women than I expected, but our ranks seem to be dwindling.

My rough estimate at Springer Mountain and in the first few days of the hike was that about 40% of the people starting out were women. This was a pleasant surprise. My backcountry experiences in the western national parks had led me to believe that less than 5% of overnight hikers are female. In the West, too, it was rare to see a solo woman in the backcountry, or a group that was all women.

Here on the AT, there were a decent number of solo female hikers at the start, but I haven’t seen many in the past couple of weeks. I don’t know if I just happen to be in a mostly-male bubble right now, or if the women have dropped off the trail.

I would be very interested to see stats on this, rather than just giving my highly subjective impressions.

From Christine and Pei, via Facebook:
What would you say is the age range of the hikers you’ve encountered?

The thruhikers I’ve met personally have ranged from 9 to 74. The young kids were a bit of a surprise, but there are at least three different families out on the trail. The parents seem to be doing some homeschooling as they go.

The majority of hikers, though, are either in their early to mid 20s or are old enough to have retired (though many must have taken a pretty early retirement). There have been very few other hikers in their 30s. I can’t say that was a surprise: our socioeconomic system makes it hard for normal people to take so much time away at this point in life. I feel very fortunate I’ve been able to do this.

From Tom, via Facebook:
How remote are you? After years of living in Montana, I pretty much think of everything east of the Mississippi as urban.

I’m not as remote as I feel, that’s for sure. Most of the time that I’ve been on the trail, I’ve felt nice and secure in the illusion that I’m way off in the woods. The thick deciduous forests of the east help with this because our sight lines just don’t extend all that far. But I had a bit of a rude awakening when I stayed with a friend in Roan Mountain, TN. The AT makes a big loop around there, and it turned out that I spent four days hiking and was never once more than a few miles from his house! Trail miles are not the same as straight-line miles, though.

Ultimately, it varies. Overall, they say, the AT crosses a road about once every four miles. Yellowstone or any of the other vast western wildernesses, it is not, but it still feels like legitimate backcountry. Most of the time.

Another from Tom, via Facebook:
I’m also curious about how the whole hiker culture works. You all come back with names and life long friends – shouldn’t you pretty much be alone out there?

Not on the AT! You can hike alone for lovely, long stretches, but it isn’t solitude in the same way that I have experienced on, say, the Two Ocean Plateau in Yellowstone, where you can feel pretty confident there is no one else around for miles.

The trail is downright busy in Georgia if you start in peak thruhike season, as I did. I knew there would be a lot of other hikers, but I wasn’t really prepared for how that would feel. But now that I’ve hiked several hundred miles, the crowds have thinned out nicely, and peace and quiet aren’t hard to find.

From @AaronBatesPhoto, via Twitter:
How has being a Ranger prepared you for the thru-hike and what made you want to take this challenge?

Being a park ranger, I have often thought, isn’t a job so much as it is a lifestyle. The parks that I’ve worked in (Yellowstone, Badlands, Big Bend) have been vast and remote, and those of us living there tended to spend our free time out exploring. Though I had done some backpacking before I started working in parks, I have grown tremendously in experience and confidence as a result of all the trips I’ve done by myself and with friends.

It probably also helps that I’ve taught others about safe, Leave No Trace hiking skills while leading groups in Yellowstone. Though the park unfortunately doesn’t offer full-day, ranger-guided hikes any longer, I got to lead many of those trips over the course of several seasons. We would do things like have the group act out bear encounters (kids love being the bear!) to think about different scenarios that a hiker might encounter.

Really, though, it was a couple of experiences in grad school that made me realize I was entirely capable of thruhiking. First, I did my master’s project research on alpine plants in a wilderness area in Sequoia National Park, living for extended periods in the high country. That reassured me that I could be out for long periods and still enjoy it. Second, I trained for a marathon while in my final semester of school. Successfully completing that months-long effort involving a planned physical activity just about every day made me realize that yes, I really did have the stick-to-it-ness necessary to complete this kind of undertaking.

From Susan, via Facebook:
Is there a stinkiness index with which to analyze thru hikers?

It’d be a fun project to create one! I definitely notice the people who are all fresh and clean from a town stop. I think the opposite end of the spectrum is when I start to feel ingrained with oils and sweat and dirt, and when I catch a whiff of something gross that turns out to be me!

From Deanna, via my blog:
I have a somewhat personal question, so of course feel free not to answer. But I’m curious how this particular hike has been affecting your mental health, in comparison to other trips you’ve been on. Happy trails!

Being on the trail has worked wonders for my mental health. 2013 was, bluntly, a kind of crap year for me, and I failed to do the things to help myself that I really needed to. Spending serious time outdoors has always been one of those things that helps. Being physically active is another. For most of 2013, I was an indoors and inactive, and it was bad for me both mentally and physically.

So being outside and active every day has been a much-needed reset to my system. It’s tough to compare this trip to others–it’s a different order of magnitude, if you will. But I’ve always found backcountry trips to be rejuvenating to the spirit, even when they’re only quick weekend jaunts; this is like that, only more so!

As one hiker said about a week ago, when we were hunkered down in a trailside shelter, dodging a snowstorm: “Well, a bad day on the trail still beats a good day in an office.”

From Teri, via Facebook:
Is there one item you wished you had packed? What can you not live without (besides the basics) on the trail?

There isn’t anything that I brought that I haven’t needed (except some of the items in my first aid kit, thankfully), and I haven’t really needed anything that I didn’t bring. It’s interesting to see the gear choices other hikers make–some of the ultralighters travel without a sleeping pad, for instance. As a side sleeper with broad hips, skipping the sleeping pad simply not an option for me.

The one thing I’m carrying that isn’t “standard issue” is my Exped AirPillow. I bought it in 2011 and have found it greatly improves my backcountry sleep. It packs down smaller than my fist and is worth every one of its 3 ounces.

From Frank, via Facebook:
What type of pack do you have and how would you rate it so far?

I am currently carrying one of the heaviest packs on the trail, a Gregory Petit Dru Pro. The thing weighs in at over 7 pounds before I even put any gear in it! (For reference, the thruhiker pack of choice is an Osprey that weighs around 3.5 or 4 lbs.) It’s bigger than I really need and, now that I’ve swapped out my warmer gear for my summer stuff, I’ll be downsizing into my smaller pack. That one is also a Gregory, a Deva 60.

Many thruhikers buy gear specifically for the AT. I already had everything. Rather than re-outfit myself with equipment optimized for long-distance hiking, where weight really does start to matter more, I decided to save money and use what I had. In doing so, I chose to sacrifice a little bit of speed and daily mileage. I remain comfortable with that decision. My pack is durable and it fits me great.

From Alice, via Facebook:
Are there any ghost stories on the AT?

There certainly are a few true-life horror stories that get shared around, like the lovely waterfall where a father and son drowned a few years ago, or a pond where some poor guy hiked 20+ miles, went for a swim, got leg cramps, and died.

The closest thing to a ghost story that I’ve come across so far had to do with a young woman who was hacked to death with a hatchet in the Vandeventer Shelter in Tennessee. I of course learned about this the morning after sleeping in that shelter! The structure made weird banging noises in the night. Very creepy, in retrospect.

And, in closing, from Dan, via Facebook:
Are there any things that duct tape cannot be used for?

Yes.

But what they are, I don’t know.

Happy trails!

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