For many people the Appalachian trail seems like a kind of mecca of freedom and personal achievement, and for me that would be especially true. Backpacking the AT for me was the beginning of a journey that has not yet ended and one that I don't ever intend on letting stop. While I only did 800 miles of the trail in the spring and summer of 2009 it instilled a desire to travel, see the world, and meet new and interesting people. I know that I had a lot of questions before I set out on my journey back then and here I hope to lay down some of the answers I found not only from my backpacking on the AT but on other long distance trails as well.
Before you sell your car and house!
Read this first!
When most people think of the challenges they will face on the AT they think of only the physical aspect of it. You'll be tired, hungry, and often times in pain from pushing yourself beyond limits you knew you had. But for me and for others I have spoken with the hardest challenge doesn't come from the hills and insects and blisters but from your mind. The AT is a grueling affair and when bad days hit the last thing you want to do is take even one more step. Compared to the internal struggle the mountains are the easy part.
With that in mind before you make any dramatic changes to your lifestyle by quitting your job and telling your family you will be back in four to six months think about doing a test run first. Do some camping with what gear you have or borrow a friend's gear, and if you can take a week off from life and try a few days or a week backpacking a nearby trail. Be sure to wear proper boots or hiking shoes and weather appropriate clothing while doing your test run as both are essential to enjoying whatever trip you are on. After a few test runs if you have decided the AT is not for you then read no further. If on the other you are craving more continue on and see what worked for me.
Preparation for a six month absence
Few people are lucky enough to have a job where they can be gone for six months and come back to after they finish the trail. For the purpose of the article lets assume you don't have this issue. After that there's the question that stops many people in their tracks and that questions is money. While it doesn't cost a fortune to do the trail it can get pricey. Gear costs can get outrageous, but by using this article and others like it you can get helpful ideas on how to cut those costs.
After gear food will be your largest expense, but by making smart purchases and not impulse buying you can cut down that cost as well. Another cost you'll have to watch out for is the temptation to spend a night in a hotel with a hot shower and soft bed, but this can break the bank faster than anything else. My advice would be to skip the soft bed spend the night in the trail shelter happy in the knowledge that you have saved a lot of money. Most websites put the amount of money spent on the trail at around $3-5,000 USD including gear which is pretty close for most people. If you can't get that much dough together in time for your trip then just remember that people have done it on much less and don't get discouraged. It may mean you don't get to splurge while in towns but you left the splurging town life to get in the woods to begin with so just consider it a part of the journey.
What to bring
On the subject of what to bring there's as many opinions as there are backpackers. Nobody ever brings the same things and there isn't any "correct" way to backpack the AT. I have figured out over the years what works for me and this list is just what works for me. As you will hear many times during your trip "Hike your own Hike".
Osprey Exos 46 Backpack The Osprey Exos 46 at 2 lbs 5 ozs is light and sturdy so long as you keep the weight in the pack at or under 35 lbs. $170.00 at Amazon
Hennessy Hammock Expedition Asym Zip Hammock This hammock tent only weighs 2 lbs 13 ozs and provides the most comfortable camping I have ever had. $145.00 at Amazon
- REI Lumen Sleeping Bag A descent synthetic bag for the price at around $150.00 depending on length and at 25 degrees F it will do the job for the AT.
Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Sleeping Pad Lightweight at 10 ozs and comfortable this Therm-a-Rest is my favorite for the price of $40.00.
- MSR Pocket Rocket I have used the same MSR Pocket Rocket for five years now and it looks just as good now as it did when I opened it out of the box in 2008. Not the lightest option out there but at 3 ozs without fuel it is still pretty small. $40.00 at Amazon
- Cooking Pot I use an old boy scout cooking pot I have had for twenty years that is very light and holds about a liter. Both REI and Amazon have a lot of options to fit every budget.
- Lighter or water proof matches obviously
- Bear Bag I use an 8 liter sea to summit bag to hang my food up at night but any kind of waterproof bag should work well so long as it is reasonably strong.
- Rope I always take 100 feet of white rope that is found in the Outdoor area of Wal-Mart. It's pretty cheap and pretty strong.
- Water Bottles I use two Gatorade bottles because they are cheap and sturdy. Many people only carry one liter of water at a time which plenty but as I have a fear of going without water I carry two liters.
- Water Purification I have always gone with Iodine Tablets but if you don't want to ingest Iodine every day for six months there are a lot of good options out there for water filters.
- Pocket Knife and Stone I always carry a pocket knife with me and I use it every day. A knife is a great tool and a small, 3 inch stone for sharpening doesn't add much weight. Black Arkansas stones are the best.
- First Aid Kit In my first aid kit I always carry sports tape, band aids, alcohol scrubs, emergency blanket, extra lighter, iodine tablets, small mirror, Ibufophen, and Benadryl. This kit is something I carry whether I'm on the AT or snow shoeing in the North Cascades.
- Clothing On a spring/summer trip I take 3 pair of socks and liner socks all synthetic NO COTTON! two synthetic shirts, one pair convertible pants/shorts, one pair of synthetic underwear, one rain coat or poncho, one set of long underwear, one fleece sweater. The early spring on the AT is quite chilly and in parts of the northern end it can snow any time of the year.
- Boots I use Keen hiking boots that are not too heavy but provide ankle support. Generally the lighter your pack weight the lighter the shoe you can use. If you are truly going ultralight (under 20 lbs with food and water) then a light shoe would be fine.
- Trash Bag Pack it in Pack out. Always follow a leave no trace policy and carry all trash out with you. I put all my food trash in a ziplock back and find a place to dump it in town.
As said before this list is just what worked for me. When it comes to the weight of my pack I usually try to go for 30 lbs with food and water or less but I have met successful thru-hikers who carried 90 lb packs and I've met hikers who carried 10 lb packs. A lighter pack will make the hike easier but sometimes it's nice to have those little extras you took the energy to lug around. Just remember the catch phrase "Hike your own Hike" and don't be discouraged if you get on the trail and realize your pack is just too heavy. Ditch what you don't need at a local hiker box and continue on your way.
And to sum it all up
The Appalachian trail will at times be grueling and unpleasant. There will be days when you can't imagine walking another step and you wonder why you started, but don't lose hope because it will pass. The camaraderie of other hikers will keep you going and when you come to a beautiful vista that you just backpacked hundreds or thousands of miles to see it will instill in you a wish to see more. Whatever you gain through struggle and hardship is always sweeter for it in the end and that is never more true than on your backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail.