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Appalachian Trail History and
Thru-hike Preparation

by Tanner Critz

     The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a 2,168 mile footpath running from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The trail was conceived in 1921 by a regional planner from Massachusetts named Benton MacKaye. MacKaye designed the trail as a retreat from the stresses of urban life and also to protect the Appalachian Mountain Range from the encroachment of civilization. Through the combined work of volunteer clubs, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, states, and the Civilian Conservation Corps under the direction of the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC), the trail was constructed, marked, and opened by 1951. In 1968, the National Trails System Act was passed, approving funding to purchase the lands around the trail, widening the trail corridor and making it one continuous national park. The trail is marked from Georgia to Maine with two-by-six inch white blazes (paint marks) on trees or rocks by the path, a symbol borrowed from the previously established Vermont Long Trail.
      In 1996 estimates showed that around 4,000,000 people hike some part of the trail each year. Out of those millions, about 2,000 attempt to follow the white blazes the entire length of the trail, and roughly one in ten finish. Most of these "thru-hikers" or end-to-enders hike the trail northbound, starting in Georgia in late March or April with the goal of finishing before Baxter State Park in Maine closes in mid October due to the hazardous weather. Many of these hikers meet and spend time with each other, and over the months a community forms among the groups and individuals, moving at different speeds along the trail, leaving messages in shelter registers, passing each other repeatedly, and sometimes hiking together for a while. For every thru-hiker, life on the trail starkly contrasts with their way of life prior to the trail, and over the five to seven months necessary to complete it, many changes occur in each hiker.
      In 1993 I was in a map shop in Atlanta and picked up a book called The Appalachian Trail Backpacker by Victoria and Frank Logue. I hadn't done any backpacking before, but upon reading it I felt like hiking the Appalachian Trail was something I had to do. Looking at my college class schedule, I decided that 1995 would be a good year for me to hike the trail and then held that goal in my mind as a top priority. Whenever anything was offered or mentioned that overlapped 1995, I would turn it down. Preserving an empty calendar was highly beneficial. Aside from growing used to the fact that I was going to spend six months hiking, it freed up the time necessary to complete the Trail, which is one of the most difficult hurdles for most people.
      Until 1994, my preparation consisted of a little more reading, talking about the trail, and trying but failing to find friends who wanted to accompany me. In the summer of '94 I began saving money and buying equipment. Since I had never been backpacking I had to rely on a mixture of the few books I had read and the advice of friendly salespeople to come to conclusions about brands and variations in gear. There were several equipment lists in the appendices of books like The Appalachian Trail Backpacker and Christopher Whalen's The Appalachian Trail Workbook for Planning Thru-hikes. The information in these books plus some common travel sense provided enough to get me started.

The Pack
     I carried an external frame pack as opposed to an internal frame pack. On an external, the pack is strapped to a rectangular, often aluminum frame which provides the structure. The pack is then divided into several pouches over the width of the frame. On an internal, the structure is built into the pack, and the narrower design allows fewer pouches. The main section of an internal is usually one large, tube-like pouch. I chose an external because they are much cheaper, regardless of the brand. The benefits I discovered were in being able to organize my gear among the many pouches and in being able to access any piece of my gear without pulling out loads of other equipment. I could also let air pass between the pack and my back by loosening the straps at the shoulders and letting it sit back on my hips, or lean it against a tree, or prop it up with my walking stick. The times I wished I had an internal were in negotiating tight spaces. The bulk of an external was tough when scrambling through precarious rocks, between tight spaces, or when trying to fit packs in a car while getting a ride.
      Strapped to the top where the frame makes an "L" shape to hold up the pack, I carried my tent, ground cloth, and sleeping pad. The tent was a one-and-a-half man Walrus "Swift." It is a long, narrow tent that affords little room for anything besides sleeping, but that's what it’s for. I bought it because it was the lightest tent I found that I could stretch all the way out in when I lie down (I'm six foot, two inches tall). The only thing that could have been better about the tent would be to make it free standing, meaning it would stand alone without the tension of the stakes in the ground. This problem only came up when we set up tents where the ground was too hard or too soft for stakes (a rare occurrence). The ground cloth was a piece of plastic tarp I would lay down before setting up the tent to protect the tent floor from harm. The sleeping pad was a self-inflating, full-length, medium-weight Thermarest pad. Its purpose was to keep a layer of air between me and the ground, which would otherwise suck the heat right out of a sleeping hiker. The pads come in a shorter three-quarter length version also, but I wanted to keep my feet on the pad as well, and I never regretted that extra weight.
      The main section of the pack was divided into a top and a bottom pouch, and the top pouch had a small mesh separator that formed an extra internal pouch. The mesh pouch held small, loose gear and paper goods. I had my wallet; the book I was currently reading; my journal; the Data Book (Chazin 1994)—a mile-by-mile breakdown of the trail including reliable water sources, shelters, roads, etc.; the Thru-hiker's Handbook (Bruce 1995)—a more descriptive guide which we mainly used for planning town activities and which I didn't pick up until I had been hiking for a while; a couple of pens; my pocket knife; maps of the area I was in; my headlamp; my sun glasses; and by the end, my mask and a set of juggling balls. The paper items were in large Ziploc bags. The books grew lighter as we progressed on the trail since we would tear out the pages describing areas behind us to help start campfires.
      The main top pouch held my stove, cooking gear, and food. I carried a Coleman Feather 400 stove which is bulky, but only because the fuel container is attached to the bottom. It also gave me more control over the size of the flame than the more common Whisperlite stoves, allowing me to simmer dishes. It sat on the left in a small padded sack. Next to the stove were my pot and its lid which also served as my plate, though I often ate straight from the pot. Inside the pot were my pot handle for the pot or the lid; my spoon—the only necessary piece of silverware, carried in my pocket when in towns for ice cream; my lighter, which also lived in my pocket sometimes; a sponge; and biodegradable liquid soap. The rest of the top pouch was entirely for food (plus multi-vitamins and extra Ziploc bags), all kept in a large stuff-sac I picked up in Hot Springs, NC. Food was the heaviest thing in the pack and the most fluctuating in weight as it was eaten over periods of three to ten days between towns.
      The bottom pouch was for clothes. The clothes I carried changed more than any other equipment. I usually had about three pairs of heavily padded socks; two pairs of sock liners; a pair of polypro (a synthetic material which is warm and dries very fast) long johns; two pairs of spandex bike shorts necessary for me to avoid chaffing, a terrible hiking problem; one pair of shorts; one polypro shirt with the long sleeves cut off; one with them left on; a heavy polar fleece pullover that also acted as my pillow and was substituted for a lighter one in the summer; gloves; several bandannas used for towels, cleaning, tying things, head covering, and bandages; rain pants; a Gore-Tex rain jacket; my pack rain-cover; and a pair of short gaiters that kept rain and debris out of my boots. There was also a clean cotton T-shirt and boxer shorts in a Ziploc bag for clean days off in town. Normally I wore my boots, socks, liner socks, gaiters, bike shorts, shorts, the short sleeve polypro shirt, my hiking stick (which shortened by about six inches over the months but never broke), and a hat later replaced by a bandanna. Only when we were stopped or it was very cold did anything else get worn. In the hot summer I sent my rain gear back home and carried an ultra-light jacket in its place, then switched back at the end of Vermont before heading into the high altitudes of the White Mountains.
       Under the pack in another "L"-shaped nook in the frame, my sleeping bag was strapped in its waterproof stuff-sac which I bought in Damascus, VA. Before that I had used a normal stuff-sac with garbage bags inside it for waterproofing. The sleeping bag was rated at 20 degrees, meaning you would be comfortable at temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. When it was colder, I wore my clothes inside the bag.
       The right-side pouch had emergency and repair items: a stove repair kit, a sewing kit, patches for every kind of gear, duct tape that I never needed but was glad to have because other people always needed it, extra batteries, an extra lighter, extra fuel (the tank on the stove was a bit small to rely on solely), and my first aid kit. My first aid kit was larger than most, and I almost never needed it, but my fellow hikers did, and even the items I never used, I was glad to have. I had antibiotics, gauze, medical tape, Tylenol, Band-Aids, large bandages, sterile wipes, antibiotic ointment, tweezers, a razor blade, a safety pin, second skin for burns and serious blisters, and moleskin that I thankfully never needed but passed around frequently for blisters.
      The left-side pouch held my water filter, nylon cord, toilet paper in a Ziploc bag, small plastic trowel, tooth brush, dental floss, compass, whistle, and mirror for signaling rescue aircraft and fixing hair. This was the least full pouch, so overflow from elsewhere was likely to go in that pouch.
      The mesh pouches below the side pouches held my one-quart water bottles (called Nalgenes because this is the most common brand). The mesh pouches were low enough to be reached without taking the pack off and were the ideal size for Nalgenes. I carried a third Nalgene in the front on the hip belt of my pack. There was also a small, waterproof watch attached to the right shoulder strap of the pack.
      In Erwin, TN I bought a pair of rafting sandals to wear around camp when my feet were ready to be out of my boots. There was no room for them in the pack, and they dangled for awhile from a strap on the back but ended up stuffed under the tent and sleeping pad. In New Hampshire I bought an extra knapsack for day hikes and extra gear. The school-type pack strapped to my sleeping pad and tent roll, keeping the weight up high and out of the way of the pouches. When we had to carry ten days of food through the Hundred Mile Wilderness, even the knapsack was filled with food.
       The pack weight changed considerably over the course of the hike. How much food was in it, how much water I was carrying, what clothes were in it, and what clothes I was wearing all affected the weight. When I weighed it in Virginia, it was 65 pounds. It was probably 75 pounds going into the Hundred Mile Wilderness, and about 40 going into towns in the summer, when I was out of food and carried fewer clothes. For the most part, my gear was the same when I finished as when I began, if a bit worn. In truth, there are a few essentials, but how people handled most of their gear choices was a matter of taste and necessity. Just about any style/brand/model of any equipment will do the trick. I could carry more since I weighed more, but most people had to be more selective. The rule of thumb is to not carry more than a third of your own weight. At 225 pounds, this rule allows me about 75 pounds of pack weight, but restricts most people to 40-60 pounds. Actually a more accurate formula taking into account a less than perfect athlete is (ideal weight/3) minus the amount you are overweight since you are already carrying that additional weight. So actually I should stick to about 65 pounds, though on the trail, achieving your ideal weight isn't difficult.
      After assembling my gear I went on an overnight hike to make sure the gear worked and that I knew how to use it and to see if I was forgetting anything. I ordered the maps and guide books that I couldn't find in stores from the Appalachian Trail Conference, though they didn't arrive until after I had left. I bought several foods in bulk including candy bars, nuts, and macaroni and cheese to be sent in packages to post offices before I reached them. These packages of food, mail, and gear supplements were called "mail drops". In planning these mail drops I could also give friends and family places and dates to mail letters to me. I only planned the first six weeks of these before leaving, though, saving the rest of the planning for when I had a better feeling of how fast I moved and how much food I needed. My mother volunteered to send me the packages, and by the end she had sent a great deal more than what I had pre-purchased. She also bought a dehydrator to specially prepare foods so that they could be carried and cooked easily on the trail. (Thanks, Mom!) In truth, if I had had to eat the food I pre-bought for six months, I might have lost my mind. Variety in meals is invaluable. My father also gave me his phone card, offering to pick up the bill and asking that I call when I could. (Thanks, Dad!) Obviously it never hurts to have a great support team.
      That was it. I had my gear. I had a plan. All that was left was to hike 2,168 miles. People say different things about physical preparation. I think the only thing that would have prepared me for long-distance hiking was long- distance hiking. One way or another, if you stick to it, you'll get into perfect shape for hiking; it’s just a matter of how painful the process will be. I'm a long-time practitioner of the martial arts, and the conditioning of my body (especially my feet) and mind gave me a definite advantage, but they weren't necessary. In the end, the most important ingredients for completing the trail I found once I was out there, and all the preparation in the world would not have carried me through without them.