Answering the Big Questions: How

Uhh … how do you know where you’re going?  Are you bringing a GPS?  Printing out topo maps? Just gonna wander aimlessly?!  Not to worry – navigating the AT is actually pretty easy these days with all the guidebooks, planning sites, and trail markings to aide you. Realistically, one could confidently hike the trail without any advanced planning or wilderness orientation skills.  However, even though you may never truly feel lost, there’s no point in venturing out foolishly without some help, so here’s what I recommend (and plan to use):

Guidebook/Databook: There are a few to choose from, but The A.T. Guide by David Miller is the crowd favorite within the community.  I already recommended AWOL’s AWOL’s other book, but this The AT Guide focuses solely on data – tracking all the AT waypoints like shelters, water sources, towns/roads, lodging, resupply options, and more.  It includes maps for the major town crossings with additional information on what to find there, which can be very helpful.  There are many other print and digital guide options available, but most hikers trust AWOL each year.  I will bring the PDF version on my Kindle for daily route planning.

Trail Map:  Not that you really need it, as the trail is pretty easy to follow and the AT Guide provides the same info, but it can be cumbersome to pull out a big book each time you reach a cross-section or milestone. You could rip out pages from the guide as you go (also a good trip for reducing pack weight), or bring small pocket versions like offered by AntiGravityGear – but another popular option is Guthook’s Mobile App. Using all the same data as the Guidebook, the app uses GPS to say exactly where you are on the trail and how far it is to the next waypoint.  Very nifty, and works in airplane mode to preserve phone battery.  Since my phone will always be with me as a camera and journal, I’ll use Guthook’s for real-time orientation on the trail.

Trail BlazesBoth of those tools are nice, but also useless if you accidentally wander off the trail!  With so many side roads, game trails, and pedestrian paths coming to and from the AT, there is one more tool of note.  The White Blaze!  The AT is marked in both directions with white painted rectangles of 2×6 inches. Blazes are placed at eye level on trees, posts, and rocks to mark the primary trail route.  Follow the White Blaze and you follow the AT!  And since blazes are such a big part of the trail culture, there are other colored varieties one could follow as well to navigate a path (both real and symbolic). Here are some noteworthy ones to keep an eye out for along the trail:

  • Blue Blaze – side trails to shelters, water sources, or shortcuts of the main trail.
  • Yellow Blaze – stepping out of the woods and walking along the road instead.
  • Aqua Blaze – bypassing the standard footpath for one by paddle, most commonly done along the Shenandoah River parallel to Shenandoah National Park.
  • Pink Blaze – following a female hiker’s path; this is creepy so just don’t.
  • Orange Blaze – following me, Hello Neiman!

Answering the Big Questions: Why


So why go hiking for 5 months? Why put a pause on the normal trajectory of my life, in order to chase a dream? Why do it now, of all times? Why leave the comfort of home, family, and friends for a bunch of strangers and strange places? I ask myself questions like these because the answers fuel my motivation to take that first step, and the 5,000,000 more after that. Not to label anyone, but in general, it appears most AT thru-hikers fall into one of 3 categories:

  1. College graduates looking for adventure before joining the workforce
  2. Retirees looking for excitement once done with the workforce
  3. People running away from something – bad job, bad family, bad life

Caution to my more practical readers, here’s where things take on that patented HelloNeiman! flare for the dramatic …

But, I do not fit into any of those labels.  I represent what feels like a small minority of people who hike because it is a dream they simply want to prioritize as soon as the time is right.  I’ve dreamt of it half my life, and I believe that is too much time spent wishing and not enough time spent doing.  I always regretted not being in Category 1 and taking a job too quickly out of college … but I am fortunate I don’t have to wait until Category 2.  And just to be clear, it’s not Category 3 either.  It’s just good timing – I do not have any children, no extreme financial obligations, nor permanent occupational consequences to taking 5 months off … and I have a partner willing to support me.

So it’s a dream?  Big deal, we all have dreams.  Well, I tend to be a bit emotional in life (understatement of the century), so a dream is a very big deal to me.  To me, dreams are not just floating ideas passing through the night – they are goals for purpose in life. An idea is just a consideration, a temporary thought.  But a goal is a milestone that we drive ourselves towards, in order to achieve value in its accomplishment.  Fulfilling this dream, to me, is achieving one of the greatest goals I’ve held myself to.

I am hiking the AT because I believe the measurement of life is counted by the number of times one says, “this is a difficult challenge, but I have the fortitude to overcome it”.  To push ourselves past what we perceive to be capable of, and use it to raise the bar of what we can accomplish next, is to truly live a fulfilling and rewarding life.

To me, hiking the AT is the greatest physical, emotional, and psychological challenge in front of my life thus far.  So fulfilling it will be the best development of who I am and what I can accomplish with the next challenges life brings.  Then I’ll have children…

Stats of the Appalachian Trail

Most of these statistics are referenced in various AT books, websites, and forums … but in case any of my readers are still learning about how significant this thru-hike is to hikers like me, I wanted to share some fun facts and stats.  Some of these are quite astonishing and help to frame up how significant it feels to finally summit Mt. Katahdin (or Springer for SOBOs) at the end of their trek. If this doesn’t spark your adventurous spirit, you may need to get outside more.

5,000,000 – Approximate number of total footsteps taken to hike the length of the trail. This may throw off your annual Fitbit average, but you’ll kill it in the daily challenges.

165,000 – Approximate number of white blazes marking the Appalachian Trail. This averages out to about one white blaze every 70 feet. Still, every story I read has people getting lost on countless side trails.

17,898 – Number of hikers formerly registered as completing a thru hike since the AT’s creation in 1938.  It has been steadily rising every year as popularity continues to grow, with 1,110 recorded finishers in 2016.

6,643 – Highest elevation point (in feet) on the Appalachian Trail, at Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (mile 199.6).  In comparison, the lowest elevation point is Bear Mountain State Park in New York (124 feet).

5,500 – Average calories recommended a hiker consume to maintain their body weight during a typical day of backpacking. Feels like a lot, but typically it only takes a few weeks on the trail before thru-hikers achieve the celebrated “hiker hunger,” a near-inability to be sated by any amount of food.

5,000 – Average dollar amount spent during an AT thru-hike. Hikers estimate spending between $2-3 per mile on the rail, going toward food, lodging, laundry, transportation, gear upgrades, etc. This does not include gear purchased pre-hike.

2,190 – Approximate length of the Appalachian Trail in miles. However, because of trail modifications, switchbacks, reroutes, etc. the total length is always a bit in flux. In 2015 the formal date book listed 2,189.2 miles, in 2016 it was 2,185.3.

262 – Number of 3-walled shelters on or along the trail, averaging out to approximately one shelter every 8 miles.  If you want to go tentless, you could sleep in these shelters the whole way … I’d rather avoid snoring neighbors and creeping mice.

99 – Percentage of the trail that has been relocated or rebuilt since its creation in 1937.

87 – Percent of thru-hikers who attempt the traditional Northbound route. Due to the popularity of hiking from Georgia to Maine, the ATC is urging people to take alternative approaches, such as Southbound and flip-flop thru-hikes in hopes of decreasing the volume of hikers and impact to the trail.

75 – Percent of Northbound thru-hikers each year that drop out before reaching Katahdin. It is generally understood that 25% drop before they reach North Carolina, and 50% drop out by the informal half-way point of Harper’s Ferry.

45 – Fastest recorded number of days a hiker has completed a thru-hike (this year). In comparison, the maximum days a hiker could finish is 365 … as the ATC designates a hike must be completed within one year to technically be considered a formal thru-hike.

30 – Average number of pounds lost by thru-hikers during their journey. It’s tough to eat 5,500 calories every day!  More on the wallet than on the stomach.

16 – Number of times an AT thru-hiker would ascend Mount Everest. Many falsely assume the AT is relatively flat. Truthfully, AT thru-hikers climb nearly 500,000 ft in total cumulative elevation.

14 – Total states the AT crosses through.  In order (NOBO), they are Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine.

5 Average number of pairs of shoes most thru-hikers go through. In general, it is recommended to replace shoes every 500 miles to keep your feet in tip-top shape.

4  Average number of miles between road crossings on the AT, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).  There is something truly special about doing a wilderness journey in the woods so close to accessible emergency (and recreational) services if needed.

1/2 – In gallons, the amount of ice cream many thru-hikers eat in a single sitting at the halfway point, at the Pine Grove Furnace store.  Many need less than 15 minutes to consume these 2,300 calories.

0 – Total number of times I will be upset to be hiking in the woods for 5 months.

(adapted from data provided by the ATC, AMC, and REI)

Prep Hike 1: North Cascades National Park

A couple weeks ago, I departed dusty LA for the green majesty of North Cascades National Park in Washington. The original plan for this backcountry father and son trip was to do the popular 34-mile Copper Ridge Loop in the NE corner, but had to change last minute to a less aggressive itinerary for the group. For anyone interested, my research found this loop to be of the best in the park, and I highly highly recommend it.

Although the trip was converted to mostly car-camping, I treated it as an AT prep-hike nonetheless and packed accordingly. I still wanted to test out the Gear List finalized earlier this month, so packed only those items with the comfort of knowing we could go into town if needed. However, no resupply trips were required and the Gear List held up great!  Since minimizing base-weight is so key to an ultralight pack, some discomfort can be expected, but I felt 80% pleased with the items and accompanying weight I brought.  Still, there were learnings to consider and tweaks to the Gear Plan to be made:

  1. Sleeping Pad – I admit it was wishful thinking to assume I could avoid cold butt syndrome for 5 months with a sleeping pad. Although the DIY reflectix wings helped, the comfort of a hammock is lost with every toss or turn.  Instead, I will trade in my 16oz Thermarest ProLite for the 14.5oz 20d EE Revolt.
  2. However, since switching to an Under Quilt will leave me without a sleeping pad for shelter/hostel stays, I have to add that as a luxury item. At 10oz, the small Thermarest Z-Lite Sol is the best option (and brings other uses like a sit pad in camp). I’ll drop my 1oz foot pad and look for other ways to make up the added weight.
  3. Hammock – Although I love my Dutch Half Wit in Southern California, the bug net will definitely not keep out Appalachian bugs. I’ll be upgrading to Dutch’s versatile and interchangeable Chameleon.
  4. Pillow – The Exped Air Pillow was great, but stained easily, made noise, and lacked that soft pillowy feel. I will evaluate a swap to the Sea to Summit Aeros.  Or bring none. 
  5. Nail Clipper – Although it was a recommended luxury item, I found it easy to cut my nails with the scissors on my Swiss Army Knife instead.  #hegone
  6. Bag Liner – The Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Dry Pack is unnecessary and annoying. It traps too much air for compacting and is a nuisance to open and close. I will just use my bag liner and a trash compactor bag.
  7. Winter Jacket – I still think I can live without a puff jacket, but for now, plan to bring my Patagonia through the Smoky Mountains. I picked up a 3oz Mountain Hardware Ghost Lite jacket on sale in Seattle which I think will pair nicely with my fleece sweater to provide similar warmth. If needed, I’ll wear my Top Quilt for additional insulation around camp.
  8. Cook Pot – My Keith Ti3209 900ml Titanium Mug does not have water measuring lines, so I created a DIY version out of an aluminum baking tray.

Since these changes look to add ~1 pound, I will continue to evaluate additional changes to stay within the UL goal of 15 lb base weight.  At first glance, I think the extra T-Shirt is a gonner…

The Best Prep is Reading Someone Else’s Journey

In my 15 years of preparation to hike this trail, I have consumed dozens of books, YouTube channels, and blogs sharing the personal journey to be found on the AT.  Some were great, some not so much (hint, avoid Morris the Cat’s trilogy).  But for anyone interested in this adventure (whether to hike or understand why others like me do), I would recommend the below 3 books as early must-reads.

  1. Take a Thru-Hike by Jessica “Dixie” Mills.  Dixie’s book is the best I’ve come across to prepare a novice hiker for the AT, though it is also nice for those more experienced as well.  She keeps it short and sweet to walk through every preparation stage before getting on the trail – what to bring, why to bring it, how to prepare physically/emotionally/financially, what worked for her and didn’t, etc. The eBook also includes links to her YouTube channel with videos supporting each chapter for additional visual support as well.  It’s a short read (and cheap), and should be the first book any hiker reads when they sit down to begin prep.
  2. AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David “AWOL” Miller.  Not to be confused with his AT Guide, which is now the most popular guide for on-the-trail navigation, this book was AWOL’s first publication chronicling his trip.  I recommend it because it is a no-nonsense, no-drama, detailed daily account of all 2,190 miles.  AWOL does a great job of walking you through each section of the trail, culture, people, and towns that will give you the best understanding of what to expect along the way.  It does not focus much preparation (though does do some), nor his personal emotional state throughout (but again, some) – and instead provides realistic expectations for a hiker to anticipate as they progress North each day. 
  3. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.  Everyone is probably familiar with Bryson’s book, but it’s an important read for a few reasons.  First, it’s the opposite of AWOL’s book … highly emotional, dramatic, and focused on telling an entertaining story.  Since this hike is about so many things, it’s great to also read a fun and popular version (which may also represent the only reference your family and friends know).  It is relatable, comical, and a page-turner to the end.  Second … spoiler alert… Bryson doesn’t finish.  All the build up, anticipation, and excitement fizzles out just like it will for 75% of thru-hikers each year. It’s important to know why even the best-prepared hikers leave the trail early, and this is a good reminder.  The Robert Redford movie was also decent.

There are hundreds of other stories out there and no way to read them all, but the goal of this blog is simply to synthesize my years of prep into short and succinct bits of knowledge to help explain how I got here – so those are my 3 recommendations.

Now, I also subscribe to many venues for new information and am always asking for more recommendations – personally, I could read a thousand more stories and still be intrigued by each one because of the unique personal journey each hiker goes through. And I have a few youtube channels and blogs I like in my Links page worth checking out as well, but the most important advice I can share is to encourage you to find biographies of people similar to you in personality/experience/emotional state/etc. which will share a story you can most closely relate to.  A longer list of recommended reads with detailed descriptions can be found here from The Trek – and below may be a few reasons to read what they suggest:

Lastly, I’m always open to other people’s recommendations, so feel free to leave any additional suggestions in the comments below.  Hello Neiman!

Answering the Big Questions: When

So when are you planning to be on a 5-month hiking journey?!  That’s probably the single biggest question I am asked when I talk about my dream to hike the AT.  The short answer is either this Spring or the year after.  The longer answer is … hopefully starting in March 2018, assuming we can solve a few more logistical and financial requirements in time, otherwise for sure in March 2019.

March is the most common month to start a Northbound (NOBO) thru-hike of the AT in order to avoid the cold temps at the start and finish (and ensure you reach Katahdin before the trail shuts down in October).  Some hikers appreciate the solitude and challenge of winter camping, but that is not one of my motivations. To me March remains ideal for a few reasons:

  1. No desire to carry weight for extra warm clothes and gear
  2. No mental strain of getting out of bed in freezing temperatures
  3. More sunlight on the trail for maximized hiking time
  4. Proximity to trail festivals along the way (e.g. Damascus Trail Days)

However, since this is the most popular time, it can make for a congested trail and very crowded shelters/hostels.  The above graph shows that of the 1700 hikers who registered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 2017, more than half started in March.  The ATC collects this data voluntarily, so may not be 100% accurate, but it certainly supports the theory.  The good news is that I do not anticipate this being a problem for 3 reasons:

  1. I am extremely extroverted and look forward to sharing adventures with new friends on the trail
  2. I am primarily hammock camping, so will rarely sleep in a shelter
  3. I have a Hike Plan to anticipate and reserve town rooms in advance

I will explain why 2017-18 specifically represents the best time in my life to hike a long-distance trail for 4-6 months in a future blog post.  Stay tuned for more Hello Neiman!


HelloNeiman! and the Appalachian Trail

Image result for appalachian trail


Welcome back!  At long last, I am proud to present a relaunch of the infamous HelloNeiman blog.  This time, however, the writing is laser focused (as is my attention) on my biggest passion project ever – a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. During the past year, I really ramped up preparing and planning for this epic journey. Now, most friends and family know I have been obsessively planning this trip since first picking up Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods back in 2003, but this past year brought on a new level of dedication as a start date is possibly on the horizon (more to come).  For those unfamiliar, the AT is a 2,189 mile journey from Georgia to Maine, passing through a total of 14 states along the way.

But I’m not leaving tomorrow, so why start the blog today?  Well, as a career Management Consultant, I truly appreciate the art of planning and project management – putting a strategy in place, preparing goals, establishing important milestones, defining requirements, aligning stakeholders, preparing a budget, etc.  So, although many AT thru-hikers prefer to just get out there and wing it, I believe the planning is just as fun and will lead to an even greater experience out on the trail.

Whether you have an interest in this adventure or not, I invite you to subscribe, follow, or read along as I update the world on my planning progress.  And if/when the exciting day comes when I take my first step on the white blazed trail, this blog will become the daily journal of my travels.  Hello Neiman!

Note:  For nostalgic purposes, the original HelloNeiman blog entries are archived here.