Post-Hike Thoughts: Health and Wellness

Can I gloat a bit here? I mean, it’s my blog, so I can do whatever I want, but please don’t judge me too harshly. For years I read about the trail injuries, illnesses, and issues that plagued thruhikers on their journey to Katahdin. Every blogger or biographer I followed had their tale of woe to share … broken bones, sprained ankles, toenails falling off, infected blisters, poison ivy, Lyme disease, hypothermia, norovirus, food poisoning, even one account of West Nile!

But for Sharkbait, not a single health problem occurred while hiking the Appalachian Trail. I did have a couple bad spells of dehydration (one which cost me a zero day lying in bed with a pounding headache and nausea), but we won’t count that. Was it good luck or good planning that helped keep my record clean? To be honest, I’d like to think both. Let’s look closer.

Avoiding Foot and Leg Injuries: I has plenty of luck that the one “bad step” never happened to me. I never had the misplaced foothold on a wet or pointy rock, or snag on an exposed root that caused any serious damage. But besides luck, I believe this was due to good planning up front on realistic mileage per day (including low miles for the first 2 weeks), good evaluation of trail conditions / caution requirements, and HIKING POLES.

If you stop at the Outdoor 76 outfitter in Franklin NC, they will lecture you (at length) about keeping your daily miles under 20 until you hit Virginia. This is because your body needs time to strengthen the muscles around your weaker tendons and ligaments. Too much too fast will cause a rolled ankle to snap something painful. But build up that support and you can roll those ankles all day and bounce back (like I did in Maine, EVERY day).

And I have notoriously weak ankles, so I planned shoes and miles to ensure they were as strong as possible. I have been sidelined for weeks from athletics throughout my life from bad sprains, and I also have a torn ACL that never quite got back to 100% since repaired. I think the fear of re-injuring those areas kept me diligent on watching every step and daily mileage closely. So, although others would rush past me in PA, or log multiple 30-mile days in a row in VT, I took my time. And doing so, I finished injury free … yet still faster than planned. That is because I did not need as many zero days for my knees and feet to recover.

Plus, I massaged my feet with a pickle ball and stretched my legs and ankles notoriously each day for the first month, which helped significantly early on. Lastly, great shoes (and replacing them when necessary) was the final step to well-cared-for-feet. Besides a bad week of rain in northern Virginia, I barely even saw a blister. Even my wife agreed my feet looked great after 5 months of hiking (trust me, that’s saying a lot). Barely a sign of any wear or tear on them. 👍

Avoiding Mosquito/Tick Diseases: Again, part planning, part luck. Like everyone else, I hate ticks and feared Lyme disease most. I even went so far as to bring prescribed antibiotics from my doctor if infected on the trail. To deter these pests in advance, I treated my clothes, hammock, sleeping bags, and tarp with concentrated Permethrin. According to other smarter people, this is harmless to humans and deadly to insects … which proved to be right. I only found 1 tick on me (not in me) in my 2,190 miles of hiking.

And the mosquitos were bad, but I would only find a bite or two on me compared to the dozens I’d see scabbing the arms and legs of other hikers. I used 100% DEET on bad days, donned a head net when needed, and put on my “longs and longs” whenever the temperature allowed it. With this strategy in place, I only recall a couple bad days in MA and VT where the bugs infiltrated my defenses … thus limiting my exposure to insect-borne disease. For mosquito protection, one lesser-known gear item I recommend to future hikers is arm sleeves. The ability to throw on or off protective sleeves without taking my pack off to heat my torso with extra material was a great way to manage bugs vs. heat. 👍

Avoiding Other Issues: Honestly, this last category is just about good backpacking hygiene. I never shared food or water bottles with others, I cleaned and dressed any cuts I found, I used hand sanitizer after every privy and before every meal, I leukotaped hot spots on my feet long before they became blisters, I sponge-bathed and checked myself for ticks nightly … I even used KT tape on early signs of shin splints (which helped tremendously, all hikers would benefit to carry a couple yards of this for the first couple months of a thru). 👍

I realize I am no medical marvel, and had a tremendous amount of good luck while on my thruhike. But I also believe my long preparations greatly aided in my ability to understand and mitigate any potential issues before they became problems. Years of backpacking experience and AT planning helped keep me comfortably safe, not to mention a solid foundation of childhood learning from Happy in the wild woods of Minnesota.

Also, I’m pretty sure I’m among the 15% of Americans that are immune to poison ivy, so that helps too.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

Post-Hike Thoughts: Actual Cost

One of the most common questions among soon-to-be thruhikers is, “how much will it cost me?” Before my hike, I read many first-hand accounts to try and get a good estimate of what to expect. And, as usual, I thought that I’d be different. I’m a responsible 30-something adult that can manage my own family’s finances, not to mention those of multi-million dollar projects at work all the time … I think I know how to plan a hiking budget, right? Wrong again.

The generic advice I gained from former hikers and experts was pretty simple – expect to spend approximately $1000 a month. This estimate was based on the rudimentary costs of $20 a day on food, $100 for every town stop, and $1000 for replacing shoes and miscellaneous gear items. The basic math for a 5-month hike with approximately 1 town stop per week could then be: (20×150)+(100×22)+1000 = 3000+2200+1000 = $6,200.

The Process: That felt high to me, and I’m far too OCD to allow such a high-level estimate to be my budget planning process, so instead I went full crazy on it (as usual). For a guy that planned out every day’s distance and destination, I doubt anyone was surprised that my Hike Plan also included a breakdown of realistic anticipated costs each day as well. Pretty Hello Neiman! of me, if I do say so myself.

Long story short (too late), my initial plan estimated the expected costs each day for food (both my pre-packed boxes and town resupply), hostels/hotels, and meals when in a trail town. After hours upon hours of spreadsheet and data model building (fun for all ages), I came up with the much more detailed and accurate estimate of $5,066. Once I added the $1000 for planned gear/shoes, I came to a grand total of … $6,066.

Oh for f*cks sake! That was a complete waste of time, wasn’t it! Ah, who am I kidding, it was fun. Completely unnecessary, but fun nonetheless. See kids, you can use that high-school math for just as useless problem-solving in the real world too.

The Result:  Ok, so my budget broke down to approximately $1000 a month, just as I was told it would. But how did the actual monthly expenses compare? Let’s look at the results month by month…

  • March: $1,200
  • April: $1,500
  • May: $1,400
  • June: $1,700
  • July: $1,100

As was also warned by past thruhikers, I went over my budget. There are a lot of reasons for this … the allure of burgers and beer, extra zero days due to cold weather, expensive gear failures, etc. There’s no shortage of excuses, only the reality of my credit card statement. Hiking the Appalachian Trail for 5 months is an expensive endeavor, and every future hiker should be realistic about what it will cost them. Besides injury, the most common reason a hiker quits the AT is that they simply just run out of money. I saw it first hand, and now I understand why.

The Conclusion:  The truth is, I could have spent less. You always can, of course. But at what other cost? Sure, I could have spent more nights camping in the snow, I could have skipped restaurants for ramen, and I could have forced my gear to last with duct tape and thread, padding, and an excellent MacGyver’ability … but that would have made it a much less enjoyable experience. I desperately needed those Yuengs ‘n Wings, that stay at Mountain Garden Hostel, and a backpack that actually fit me.

The good news is, this hike has the magical ability to just let your neuroses go, and just enjoy the experience of walking. It would be a terrible thing to waste the joy of hiking this scenic trail due to fear of spending. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to have that luxury. My best advice is to be realistic and to do what every good management consultant does … add a contingency of 20% to your budget.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

Post-Hike Thoughts: Weight Loss

145 days of hiking the AT, 36 pounds lost

I’ve missed writing my blog, so as I finalize my plans to go back to the AT and hike the NJ/NY section in the next few weeks, I thought I’d publish a couple short post-hike reflection and realizations thoughts to keep me busy. First up … physical transformation.

Going into the hike, I read many first-hand accounts of hikers losing significant weight while on the Appalachian Trail. I even discussed my expectations early on in this meal planning post. Using the science and math outlined there, I expected to lose weight, and in the comments conversation with my friend Jeff, I had hoped to keep my total weight loss at 10-15 pounds … spoiler alert, wrong again.

The Process:  On average, it is expected that male thruhikers can lose up to 20% of their body mass by the time they finish. Although a thruhike is not a good weight-loss strategy, the science doesn’t lie. Because men tend to carry excess bodyweight in their torso, and a thruhike is basically just 150 “leg days” in a row … the upper body withers away while your lower body becomes a lean muscular machine. Women tend to carry more weight in their lower body on average, so this statistic is different for female thruhikers, most of which actually end up gaining weight. I’m not a dietician nor physical trainer, but in chatting on the trail, many women I hiked with validated this fact being true for them.

The Result:  Although I tried to plan for minimal weight loss, I knew it was coming and therefore “let myself go” a bit in the 6 months prior to my departure. When I took the before pictures above on February 28, I weighed 189 pounds. I never did a BMI measurement, but I expect it was disgustingly high at that point. Then it was hike hike hike hike. When I returned home and stepped back on the scale on July 24th, I weighed 153 pounds.  Whoa. After 145 days hiking the Appalachian Trail, I lost 36 pounds (or 19% of my entire body mass). Looking at the after pics, I am all muscle, skin, and bones. Can a BMI measurement go negative? I think mine would be.

Side note, I kept tabs in my blog posts throughout the hike, and recall most of the weight understandably coming off in the first half of the trip. By the time I reached the middle of Virginia, I lost 15 pounds and my waist size dropped from a 33 to a 30 (forcing me to buy a new backpack).

The Aftermath: It is generally understood that the weight lost on a hike comes back twice as fast. Unfortunately for me, my “hiker hunger’ only hit in the last couple weeks of the hike and it is painfully obvious now. Even without hiking at all, I am insatiably hungry.  ALL THE TIME!  I am trying to maintain a healthy diet and exercise regiment, but my 5-day drive across America did not help with this goal (oddly, there are no fast food salad restaurants along I-40). Now that I am stationed comfortably in the DC metro area, I am running a few times a week and desperately trying to hold off my desire to eat constantly. It’s nice to at least have healthy snack options now though (mmm, fresh produce…).

The Conclusion:  Looking at the “before” photo now disgusts me, as its the most I’ve ever weighed by far. Since college, I typically work out 3-4 times a week and weigh between 170-175 pounds. But knowing the hike was coming, I subconsciously decided to not care and let my fat reserves store up like a hibernating bear or an OCD chipmunk. #winteriscoming.  However, at 153 pounds, the after is also too skinny. This is unhealthy and unrealistic for me. Plus, none of my clothes fit! Seriously, future thruhikers should plan post-hike budgets for new clothes.

In retrospect, I had planned/hoped to not lose too much weight, but it was inevitable. And now I realize the hike provided a nice “reset” of my body, giving me the opportunity to get back to a more comfortable shape. I’ve always believed in a healthy lifestyle and diet, but damnit if I don’t still want pizza, burgers, and beer every single day. Sort of tough to justify a high-calorie diet when you sit on a couch all day catching up on all the Netflix shows you missed.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!