In less than 12 hours our grand adventure begins. We will put on our backpacks, cinch the hip belt tight, and step into the woods. YIKES! Both of us have the jitters. I’m pushing away panic, wondering “what in the world was I thinking?!”
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” –Nelson Mandela
This morning I finished sorting through piles of papers and half-finished art projects. Hubby plans to do some house renovations and repairs while we are away and I certainly don’t want HIM to choose what to throw away and what to keep. (Please tell me that at least some of you are packrats…and that you understand what I’m talking about!)
Daughter and I finished cramming the last few items into our packs and hauled our things to the car. One last day of wearing my comfy jeans and favorite t-shirt, then it’s trail clothes (synthetic rather than cotton) and sturdy hiking boots for the next two months. One last night sleeping in a bed followed by a morning shower. One last session on my laptop before typing on a tiny screen on my phone when we get to internet in town.
Daughter finished the last performance of “The Suessification of Romeo and Juliet” at a local children’s theater. While she was busy with the play, hubby and I had one last “date.” For the next two months we will keep in touch by texts and phone calls on weekly town days.
It’s quiet now in the hotel room near the trail (six hours from home). Hubby and daughter are both asleep. When I finish this post, I’m headed to bed, hoping to shut down my mind and get good rest. The jitters will hopefully disappear tomorrow when we say our goodbyes and head into the woods. It’s time for the next Big Epic to begin!
(Read about the goodbyes and the pre-trip jitters on later trips HERE and HERE.)
The AT is approximately 2,180 miles long. (Relocations alter the distance every year, making exact figures difficult.) We will cover 10-15% of the trail in the two months we hike.
It is among the longest, continuously marked footpaths in the world! It takes approximately 5 million steps to complete the trail from one end to the other.
The AT passes through 14 states. During our two month adventure, we are starting in Maryland, will cross the state with the least amount of trail in just one day (WV with 4 miles), and spend most of our time in the state with the most miles of trail (VA with 550 miles).
There are more than 250 three-sided shelters along the trail—used by hikers in addition to or in place of tent-camping. Shelters and the trail itself are maintained by volunteers (who contribute 220,000 hours of work each year). We are carrying a tent with us to use most of the time.
About 2000 hikers attempt to “thru-hike” each year, with about 25% of them completing the challenge. Hikers include folks of all ages, ability levels, and fitness levels. Whew! We, too, can do this activity!
The total elevation gain for someone hiking the entire AT is equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times! (And “thru-hikers” average just 5+ months to hike the entire trail from end to end…) Okay, I admit it, this fact is both crazy and scary!
Almost 3 million visitors walk at least a short distance on the AT each year. But most of the year for most of its length a hiker sees few other people on the trail itself.
“The Appalachian Trail derives much of its strength and appeal from its uninterrupted and practically endless character. This is an attribute which must be preserved. I view the existence of this pathway and the opportunity to travel it, day after day without interruption, as a distinct aspect of our American life.” –Benton MacKaye
HISTORY: The AT is the same age as my mom! It was proposed in 1921. The initial path was completed in 1937 with continual relocations and improvements since then. In 1968, the AT became a National Scenic Trail and was placed under federal protection. In 1970 the first person completed a “thru-hike.” I started reading about and dreaming of hiking the AT in the late 1970s.
“Remote for detachment, narrow for chosen company, winding for leisure, lonely for contemplation, the Trail leads not merely north and south but upward to the body, mind and soul of man.” –Harold Allen
(Read about the many different faces of the trail HERE and HERE.)
We will be hiking in the woods for two months this fall. Everything we need will be carried on our backs, which means we must find light weight gear at the lowest possible price. That, of course, is always the dilemma: in the outdoor equipment world, the lighter the gear, the higher the price. In addition, there are a zillion gadgets and doodads available, to make life more comfortable while living outdoors. Well…more comfortable in camp, but every extra ounce makes the hiking more painful. HELP! How do we sort through all the options and find the best balance between weight and comfort and price?
We are among the lucky ones. We have not just one but two REI stores right here in town. What? You don’t recognize REI? It carries a wonderland of gear for every imaginable outdoor adventure. Don’t worry, the folks working here are friendly and full of information. Most of them will encourage your adventures (no matter how crazy) and will patiently answer a million questions. Let me introduce you:
Welcome to REI–doorway to outdoor adventures in every season!
We started our quest with the most important piece of gear: boots. For a long distance hike, we need footwear that is sturdy, gives good support, and is both breathable and waterproof. Most important of all, these boots must be comfortable. Unfortunately, the purple boots were too narrow for daughter to stuff her feet into. But she quickly found a comfy pair that at least has lavender laces and purple trim! Shoe shopping for me is usually a Goldilocks story: this pair is too tight, that pair rubs my anklebone, the other pair cramps my toes. Ahhh…but with the advice of an REI expert, the second pair of boots I tried on fit “just right.”
So many choices of boots
A few weeks later, we returned to the store to find a backpack for each of us. Our friendly REI worker measured our backs and explained the nuances of a proper fit. Again, daughter quickly found a pack that is comfortable. She loves that it is bright green with a big yellow (silk) flower attached. I love that the frame is adjustable, just in case she grows another inch or two in the future. It took me longer than finding boots, but eventually I found a pack that has a long enough hip belt, comfortable shoulder straps, and ventilation behind my back.
A Rainbow of Backpacks–in every size, style and color!
Finally, we had to choose a sleeping bag and tent. Who knew that there were so many options?! REI has a handy-dandy bench on which to lay out a pad and sleeping bag, then climb in to try it out. I was relieved to find a modified mummy bag: I hate being wrapped tightly at night! We also piled into a tent to check the space. Yep, it is worth the extra weight to gain a few extra inches of floor space since daughter is a restless sleeper.
Try out the gear–right on the sales floor at REI!
In choosing gear, it is certainly possible to do online research and make online purchases to save pennies here and there. But I have become a loyal REI member: all products returnable for up to one year, generally competitive prices, and the ability to test out and try on everything in the store. Best of all, the staff is WONDERFUL! Check them out next time YOU are considering an Epic Outdoor Adventure!
THANKS for your patience in answering a zillion questions over a million visits, Mark!
(Details of our gear list can be found on Trail Journals HERE. Product reviews and specifications can be found at the REI website HERE. Note: I have no affiliation with REI…I just love the store, its products and its staff!)
(Just like every hiker, we continue to try new gear options each time we head to the woods. Read about new water systems HERE, new bear food protection HERE, and a different hiking skirt option HERE.)
I crave change. Being outdoors offers so many possibilities for enjoying ever-changing variations: moving water, clouds floating past in a bright blue sky, leaves rustling in a breeze. It makes little difference to me if I’m active or sitting quietly, being surrounded by nature soothes my soul. For many years, that pleasure has mostly been found in my backyard or in a city park. So how did I get to the point of embarking on a wilderness adventure?
When I was young, our family stayed in campgrounds rather than “wasting” money at hotels. My sisters and I were responsible for pitching our own “pop-up” tent—a behemoth of heavy canvas with plenty of space for all three of us. We enjoyed campfires, and washing dishes by hand, and wandering paths in surrounding woods.
I might have lacked fashion while hiking…but I had FUN!
Before my first year of university, I spent two wonderful weeks on a “Wilderness Challenge” in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. We backpacked for 5 days and canoed for another 5 days, portaging between lakes. We were each dropped off on our own private tiny island for two days of solitude. On another day, I was fascinated by—and terrified by—rock climbing and rappelling on cliffs dropping down to a lake shore.
After getting married, we occasionally camped, especially when my mom and I were traveling with the kids. Our family still laughs about the time a little one woke me up in the middle of the night, afraid of the growling bear outside the tent…yep, grandma snored that loud in the neighboring tent! Many years later, my mom was the one worried about bears when we escaped home responsibilities for a 3 day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Tennessee. I was hooked…dreaming of the day when I could finally spend an extended time living in the wilderness while hiking the AT.
Mom and I enjoy our first backpacking adventure on the AT a decade ago
Many things have changed in the intervening years. Our large family is mostly grown and is scattered across the country. We have survived tragedy and have had the joy of a few “Big Epics.” After a time to regroup and reorganize our lives, we are reaching another transition point. As always, I crave change…but, it is not yet time to move on.
This summer my hubby asked me where I would go and what I would do if I could get away for two months. In that moment, I realized it was time to pursue the next “Big Epic.” We may not (yet) be able to make big changes in our living situation, but it IS time to chase that dream of a long hike on the AT. My daughter and I are making plans and gathering equipment, getting ready to spend two months living in the wilderness, carrying everything we need in our backpacks! Wish us luck!