Answering the Big Questions: FAQ

I get a lot of questions about this trip. I’m sure everyone planning a thru-hike does.¬† Instead of answering them all here, I’ll just share this fun video that pretty much does that for us. Not much I’d change in my responses, though maybe I’d put a little emotion in my tone. ūüôā¬† 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 loving 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…

AT Meal Plan: Introduction and Strategy

Planning for my backcountry meal plan is pretty fun, and probably the most important area to research in advance. Failing to prepare correctly for meals can cause some pretty frustrating issues on the trail, where your options are limited to only what you chose to bring – no Uber Eats here to bail you¬†out my friends. Plan wrong and you’ll hate your food, run out of food, carry extra food, or worse. ¬†So what should I eat, when should I eat, and how much should I eat? To know that, we need to know my¬†4 important rules to backcountry meal planning:

  1. Know which foods you like, and make sure you’ve eaten the meal before
  2. Know how many calories you burn hiking per hour, and how many hours you’ll hike
  3. Know which foods have the highest calorie-to-ounce-to-dollar ratio
  4. Leave No Trace, Carry No Waste

First, one of the learnings from my father years ago was to always try out a meal before taking it back-country. The worst thing you can do is bring an exciting new one-pot meal that you read about somewhere, only to find out you can’t stomach it in real life. Nothing will drop your moral faster than having that hot meal you anticipated all day be just too gross to eat.

Second, although not that big a concern on normal trip-planning, a thru-hike requires long-term planning for body mass gain/loss. ¬†On average, I can assume I will burn 450-500 calories hiking per hour, hike an average of 2 miles per hour, and hike 17 miles per day. These averages put my estimated calory burn at 4000-4500 calories per day. That’s a lot.

Next, the beloved “calorie to ounce to dollar” ratio. I won’t bore you with the nutritional research on this, but certain foods simply provide more calories for their weight and cost: nut butters, oils, nuts, dried fruits, dried meats, etc. (check out this great list if interested in specifics). The bottom line is that I want to have each day’s meal-plan cover my necessary calories for approx 2 pounds and 15 dollars.

And lastly, a personal twist on the hiker mentality of Leave No Trace. I am passionate about LNT, and therefore don’t want to plan meals that could leave trace, such as excess starch water from cooking pasta, or introducing strong meaty odors to the area. In addition, I don’t want to carry excess trash (waste) – canned beans sound great, but carrying the can for 4 days after eating does not. ¬†So, LNT and CNW.

With those rules in place, I produced a meal plan that I think will work well. ¬†Each “week” is defined for a specific 4-6 day section of the trail, and each week will only be repeated once. This is on purpose so that I don’t get sick of the same foods and can be confident in my plan to pre-prepare meals and ship them to myself at key places along the trail. And for days where I will resupply in town (e.g. buy supplies for a couple days before getting another mail drop), there is a standard rubric¬†I’ll follow as well – I may not know which rice/pasta dish I’ll find for dinner, but I know that is the goal.

Future Meal Plan posts will break down each week’s meals, talk about what I like about each and why I think this plan will work.

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 ‚Äúhiker hunger,‚ÄĚ 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)

AT Gear Plan: Introduction and Strategy

(sigh) Gear … the most exciting and frustrating part of backpacking. Wait I love gear! How could it be frustrating?? Any avid hiker knows that life is simply an unending tug-of-war game between tried-and-true old gear and flashy new expensive gear. I wish I could be more like my father on this topic, and use the same daypack, stove, and hiking shorts for 30 years … but the allure of newer and lighter things simply never ends. For my thru-hike, this has challenged me deeply.

I’ve been planning this hike for 15 years, right? So for 15 years I’ve been reviewing and collecting gear I will eventually want for this hike. I have owned everything needed for this thru-hike over and over again. But outdoor gear companies simply refuse to stop innovating, and my wallet refuses to want to stay full of money. So I upgrade, and I upgrade, and I upgrade. ¬†I’m pretty good at selling old gear, at least, so new purchases aren’t breaking the bank, but at some point I have to say “this is it”. And well, I’m happy to say now, this is it.

I have reviewed my gear and upgraded it to the point I can comfortably say I am ready to hike for 5 months with this all on my back. That being said, I know I need to make some more cuts. No more “I need to this new 7 oz puff jacket instead of my current 12 oz one”. ¬†Now it’s just “Can I live without this extra windbreaker?” ¬†Or “Can use this item for this purpose also?”

My goal continues to be an ultralight base weight of sub-15 pounds, and I’m currently over by 1.6 pounds, so I need to make some hard decisions. ¬†Will the Kindle make the cut, or should I count on phone battery life and use that instead? ¬†Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Future blog posts will break down each section of the Gear List and explain the purpose and rationale for each item, potentially with video.

AT Hike Plan: Section 1

In my opinion, planning out Section 1 of the AT is a big big big big big deal. Why? Historically speaking, approximately 25% of all NOBO thru-hikers quit the trail during this 75-mile stretch. I don’t have any formal statistics to back this up (since all data collection is voluntary), but the theory certainly sounds reasonable – unprepared, unconditioned, and unsettled hikers will fondly look at Neels Gap as an easy escape clause to their plans. Even David AWOL Miller, whose guidebook is gospel on the AT, had a backup plan to save his old job if things didn’t feel right in Georgia. As for me, short of a major injury early on, I have every intention of happily and eagerly finishing Section 1 like this:

  • Start of Section:  Amicalola Falls State Park
  • End of Section:  GA/NC Border
  • Total Miles: 75.6
  • Total Days: 8.5
  • Average daily miles: 10.6
  • Town Stops:  2

General Strategy for Section 1

  • Amicalola Falls is 80 miles from Atlanta.  Through a combination of planes, trains, and automobiles, the adventure begins at the State Park Lodge.
  • Although I hope to average 20 miles a day on my journey, that’s not the plan yet. With only partially conditioned legs, partially tested gear, and partially convinced mindset to get out of a warm hammock during freezing March temps … I plan to ease in with just 10 miles average per day.
  • This is both for my benefit, but also for that of my expected hiking partner. Not to question his ability, if he is able to join, the guy is in much better physical shape than me – doesn’t eat meat, runs every day, can lift a small Volkswagen over his head, etc.  But, he has never been on a long backpacking trip that I know of, and our only other travels together took place in a Winnebago. It will be smart to give us time to acclimate to the trail, and to our partnership. 
  • I’m not going to be a purist, insistent on putting feet on every inch of the trail, but I’m also not going to start my hike skipping miles – I plan to hike the controversial 8.8-mile approach trail from Amicalola Falls State Park to Springer Mountain. Even though the trail doesn’t technically start until you reach the summit, most thru-hikers include the approach trail and I will too. I want to earn that emotional first day’s end on the AT’s southern terminus!
  • From there, we’ll do casual days on the trail and nights at the shelters, leading up to the first major peak – Blood Mountain.  At 4,500 feet tall, it is a steep beast to summit before making your way to the first anticipated town crossing.
  • Enter Neel’s Gap. Here, hiker’s can get the infamous gear shake-down, a warm bed for the night, and an expensive resupply. I will do all 3 and then keep moving.
  • A couple more days on the trail, then we’ll try to find a warm bed at Dick Greek Gap’s famous Top of GA Hostel. I’ll pick up a mail drop here and take my first Nero Day to evaluate Section 1 and consider changes for what comes next.
  • After that, it’s a quick 1.5 days to the GA/NC border.

Will it all happen as simply as this?  Most definitely not.  Am I excited for this plan regardless?  Oh ya, you betcha.  Hello Neiman!

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…

AT Hike Plan: Introduction and Strategy

On the Hike Plan page of this blog, you can find a detailed breakdown of my preliminary strategy to hike 2189.2 miles in under 5 months. As explained in the introduction, I know pre-planning can seem taboo, as things will certainly change once on the trail. But, I feel one of the best ways to prepare oneself for this trip – mentally, strategically, financially, logistically, not to mention for the sanity of friends and family – is to have a detailed plan in advance that I can best hold my myself accountable to.

Over the next few months, I will walk through each “section” of this hike, as broken out by the by Map Man and labeled in Column A of the Hike Plan spreadsheet. The purpose of each of these preliminary posts will be to provide 3 valuable assets to me and my followers before hitting the trail:

  1. Expectations.  By doing a descriptive walkthrough of the trail section, I can try to understand (and share) what to anticipate during that section: Difficulty of terrain, towns to pass through, sights to see, festivals to participate in, trail milestones to look forward to, budget to account for, etc.
  2. Timing.  This baseline will act as the barometer for all logistics planning to my support network: When to send mail drops, when to expect me off-trail (for pre-planned events such as a wedding in June), and when to join (if interested) for section hiking alongside me. Many friends and family have shown interest and (if they can keep up) would be a great addition to the adventure.
  3. Safety. ¬†If for some reason I am unable to post daily updates from the trail, you will know where to expect me next. If (god forbid) I don’t show up, you’ll know where to go look for me. This is unlikely to happen – but better safe than sorry.

Future AT Hike Plan posts will break down each section of the Hike Plan (1-11).

How to Follow My Journey

Since (re)launching the blog, I’ve had a few requests to explain how one can easily keep up with my adventure. Although current blog posts are focused on basic info and planning, it will eventually evolve into my daily journal update to follow me real-time on the trail. My daily posts will follow a similar format as done by¬†Jax Dad¬†(who is finishing up the beautiful White Mountains as I write this). If you want to follow my journey closely, there are 3 ways you can subscribe to instant notifications:

Get an Instant Email
At the bottom of the blog, click the gray Follow button, fill in your email address and other basic info and submit. ¬†Whenever I post a new entry you’ll get the full text as an email.

Subscribe via RSS Feed
For those of you using Feedly, DiggReader, NewsBlur, etc.  Or if you prefer to get RSS feeds on Microsoft Outlook at work like I do.  At the bottom of the blog, click the RSS-Posts link, then copy and paste the URL in your RSS feeder.  Whenever I post a new entry, it will go to your RSS feed.

Follow me on Facebook or Twitter
I setup my blog to auto-post to social media with any new entry.  Although my Facebook posts are private to friends and family, my Twitter account is public for all. Follow me on either, setup notifications as you prefer, and see my new entries as they are posted.

Follow with WordPress Reader
For those using WordPress¬†themselves, there appears to be a new Reader feature that allows you to create an activity stream of blogs you follow. ¬†I don’t know if anyone uses it, but here’s a link for more info.

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!