You are one, two, maybe three years out, but you’ve done it! You’ve thought long and hard about it, you’ve made your lists, and you have your reasons…you have decided to thru-hike. Great!
Logistically speaking, it is not exactly easy to hit the pause button on your regular life to spend four to six months living off the grid, out of a backpack, and in limited contact with the outside world. Frankly, the very concept of taking “four to six months” may prove most difficult for some because it is an open-ended amount of time. That’s just it; it is impossible to predict what will really happen when you set foot on the trail. All you can do is have a sound plan in place and be ready to roll with the punches… and rocks… and weather… and whatever else the trail throws at you.
In order to succeed, you must be first be strong and steadfast in your resolve. Then, before you can hope to hike your own hike, you must actually plan your own hike. With a strong will and a well thought-out strategy, you just might have enough persistence to keep moving forward past the 165,000 white blazes between Springer and Katahdin.
Drawing up a plan for a thru-hike will be different for everybody because each factor in a person’s life contributes to the list of what is necessary to include in the logistical organization of the trip. I am not here to tell you what to do in order to have a successful hike. In doing so, I would be robbing you of your ability to hike your own hike. I am here to tell you about my experience with the hopes that it will give insight into the many things that one must consider as they prepare to embark on such an incredible journey.
Work, School, and Family
No matter what we do in life, it sadly seems to be at least somewhat dictated by what we do for a living. When it comes to thru-hiking some folks leave their jobs in search of adventure, an action that presents many potential logistical difficulties. Some folks are in school and can simply take a semester off and hike into the summer. Many thru-hikers on the trail are at a crossroads in their lives. They are either between working and going back to school or they just finished school.
Regardless of where someone comes from, it is important to think about how he or she can get to the trail.
I find myself in the last of these three camps (pun intended). If you read my first post, you know that in February of last year I decided to thru-hike in 2019. I made this decision whilst I was amidst unpaid full-time student teaching and two part-time jobs. By day, I was working closely with mentors and teaching music in public school. Two nights a week, I was directing a university choir and teaching a conducting class. On the other nights, and through almost every weekend, I was working at the REI Co-Op.
As I calculated what to do next, the thought of thru-hiking crept higher and farther forward in my mind. Rather than do what most would do in my situation and lock down a full-time teaching position, I chose to wait and seek adventure first. Naturally, this meant that I could not teach anymore. Toward the end of the Spring 2018 semester, I sat down with my university program director to break the news to him and I will never forget his response: “I wish I could come with you!” We both agreed that Fall 2018 would be my final semester. I took summer classes and finished my graduate program in August of 2018 before setting off into the fall semester. In September, I broke the news to my students. Of course, this shocked them, but by the end of the semester, they were excited and supportive of my goals.
Logistically speaking, leaving my job at REI was a little more difficult because it was the job that provided me with healthcare, something that I wanted to keep for obvious reasons. Many employers offer leaves of absence for various health or life reasons. Whether or not a thru-hike is included will depend on the employer. A leave of absence is ideal because in many situations, it allows the hiker to maintain health coverage for the duration of his or her time in the woods; however, even REI, a company whose motto is “A life outdoors is a life well lived,” limits leaves of absence for “life adventures” to a maximum of 12 weeks. Needless to say, there was no budging their policy: I had to accept the reality of leaving both of my jobs.
Research taught me that many thru-hikers forego having health insurance of any kind, but to me, thru-hiking with no coverage is just asking to take a hard fall on Mount Washington in NH! I needed something. COBRA was expensive, and other health plans weren’t much better. I looked into catastrophic plans, which allow people under the age of the 30 to apply for a low-premium, high deductible plan. It looked better, but I was still a bit hesitant. I then found World Nomads, a travel insurance geared toward adventures such as my own. More research and several reviews later, I had found the answer. The only fine print was that my trip had to keep me at least 100 miles from home. Easy, considering the Appalachian Trail goes nowhere near Missouri.
This portion of my logistical planning would have been much more difficult if I was married or had children. I do still have a very supportive girlfriend and a couple furry children to worry about, though. If you are planning your thru-hike and you have a family that depends on you or your income, there will be a few more important steps to take in order to ensure that they are safe without you for six months. Plan carefully. It is vital that they support your trip because you simply cannot do it without them.
Although I am attempting this trip by myself, I am not at all fooled into thinking that I am doing it alone. Yes, I am going on a solo thru-hike and I am the one taking the 5,000,000 steps toward Katahdin; but I would be nowhere without my person back home sending me mail drops. I would be nowhere without the advice I got from my buddies about gear. I would be nowhere without the guy who lent me his big knife so I could wear it on my hip to look more intimidating as I travel up the east coast alone. I would be nowhere without the thoughtful trail gifts I have received from family and friends alike.
I know I am not alone in this endeavor. And that will help me to succeed!
Money, Food, and Gear
In getting things together for this adventure, I am sure you can imagine that I spent quite a bit of money. Tackling the A.T. is not exactly an inexpensive venture, but you can always find places and ways to save as you go; however, the trick about leaving my jobs to hike is that I will no longer have a steady income throughout those months.
The average thru-hiker spends approximately $1,500 on gear during his or her pre-trip phase. A lot of this boils down to research, watching for deals, and pulling the trigger when the time is right. It can be hard to find the right things for both your hike and for your bank account. Luckily, I committed myself to hiking a full year in advance. This allowed me to spread out my purchases over that time. Working at REI also eased a lot of the burden of accumulating my gear.
When it comes to choosing gear, there is much to consider. I asked myself so many questions as I made my way through the countless amounts of outdoor products. How heavy is the item? Do I really need it? If I don’t need it, is there going to be a time I wish I had it? How much does it cost? Am I willing to carry it for four and a half months? If not, then is it something I might need part of the time and can I ship it home?
I did my best to be very intentional with all of my choices. If I chose something that wasn’t the lightest or best bang for my buck, I always had very concrete reasons in my mind. I knew that in the end, I only have to justify things to myself, so as long as I am happy with my choices, things will turn out fine. For example, some people do not carry tents on thru-hikes. They plan to stay in shelters the entire way. I know myself, and I know that I do not want to leave my trip up to that. I am packing a tent, a comfortable sleep system, and a collapsible chair. Make no mistake…this is all still quite light (appx. 6 lbs, 12 oz total). It is not as light as say a hammock or a tarp shelter, but I know that I will be happier with it and that I can shave weight elsewhere.
A wonderful tool is this premade spreadsheet created by thru-hiker Erik the Black on his blog. It is very simple to download and very simple to use. On this sheet, I was able to tally up the weights and cost totals of every piece of gear that I needed for the trip. Now that it is all filled out, it is fun to look back at it and see where all of my weight is coming from.
But how much money do you really need to thru-hike? After the $1,500 or so on gear, I have seen numbers suggesting that hikers should budget two to three dollars per mile on the trail. I have also seen a hard and fast budget suggestion of $1,000 per month on the trail. Obviously, these numbers will be different for everyone. The amount of money spent by a thru-hiker will depend on resupply strategy, frequency of paying for lodging in towns, and the overall length of the trip.
The least expensive way to manage food resupply is to buy or prepare most of it before you leave and have the folks back home ship packages. Many hikers also employ the use of a “bounce box,” a package that is sent to oneself one town on the trail to another. The final resupply option involves purchasing food at local stores in the many towns on the trail. In my planning, I have found that the best option for me is a combination of these three strategies. I am purchasing quite a bit of food beforehand in the form of freeze-dried foods, meal replacement bars, energy food, and nonperishable high calorie but low weight foods such as peanut butter and trail mix. Much of the rest of the food that I eat will be acquired in towns that I pass through.
It is important to me that I am happy with the decisions that I’ve made. Logistically, buying food in trail towns might be easier, but it is also more expensive, less reliable, and may result in me missing out on necessary nutrients. I felt that in planning and purchasing some of my food ahead of time, I could better regulate the things going into my body that are refueling me. I also did myself a favor and purchased Awol’s updated 2019 A.T. Guide, an incredible little book with all of the information about post offices, trail towns, restaurants, water sources, you name it. When I ordered it, I knew it would be helpful. When I received it and looked through it, I realized it would be way bigger for me than I even knew before
Hostels, hotels, and other places to stay are tempting expenses for thru-hikers. Nothing sounds better than a hot shower after four consecutive days walking in the rain. Some hotels can cost as much as $65 per night even in small trail towns, other options will have less expensive thru-hiker rates, and some hostels will even arrange for a free night in exchange for work. Each time I stop, I will know that regardless of whether I stay in a hotel, a hostel, or decide to just camp out [again], all of the totals will add up.
It will be a balancing act between the cost on my body and the cost on my bank account
I know my body, and I know there will be times when all I need is a shower and some quiet time away from my tent. I know that sometimes the $15 for a bed in a hostel will completely revitalize my body, especially if I also just spent $10 on a pizza buffet in town. I am prepared for these expenses when they present themselves as necessary.
With all of that being said, it is easy to see why the overall length of someone’s hike would change the amount of money necessary to complete it. One more month on the trail means one more month of food resupply and one more month of what I will call bed costs. I spent quite a bit of time researching and thinking before being able to truly conceptualize what a plan for these aspects of the trip might look like. Even now, the plan is still bringing itself together.
So Where Do You Start?
Your life stage, financial state, the size of your gear closet, and the amount of time you have before you intend to begin your hike will ultimately decide where you start your preparation. I was thankfully able to segment my planning, which helped me to make it a reality. I spent the first six months giving notice to my employers, doing my research, and making my gear decisions. After that, I was able to work through the rest of the plan at my own pace.
Making my gear choices helped to flesh out much of my plan, and now I find myself just days out and ready to go with my guidebook, my mail drop plan, and my unbridled enthusiasm and excitement! See you Saturday, Appalachian Trail!