In my attempt to understand the AT not only knowing every mile of trail and the towns along the way, but also knowing the mental journey that will take place. I ran across a blog quite a while back just shortly after I started this blog about a guy who knew nothing about backpacking but was going to hike the AT. The blog is called the Good Badger. A perfect example of his antics can be seen here.
I was rather skeptical about his desire and his abilities to be able to actually hike the whole AT at first. As his blog posts continued through his journey I started to believe that he would finish the hike and was rooting him on. I imagine that if I had talked to him before he hit the trail his overwhelming desire and passion to hike the AT would have been enough to convince me that he was going to do it no matter what. His hike turned into not only a life lesson for him but also a personal redefinition of who Zach Davis really is. I was not only shocked of the massive change in his twitter and Facebook updates during the trip but his posts after the trip were also more inspired. I connected with Zach and wanted to know more about his adventure and his personal journey. He agreed to answer a few questions about the trip and about the gear he took. Before we get started with the interview I want to thank Zach Davis aka The Good Badger for his time and sharing his great wisdom. Also make sure you read all the way to the bottom for a wrap up video of his trip.
1. What was your most memorable part of your AT thru-hike looking back?
Although there were many individual moments that I look back on with great admiration (canoeing in the Shenandoah River, night hiking under a bright full-moon, tenting on numerous mountain sides), the thing I will miss most about the AT is the freedom. There are no schedules. There is no regimen. You wake up without aid of an alarm. You walk when you want to walk. Eat when you want to eat. Break when you want to break. Sleep when you want to sleep. It’s complete freedom and liberating beyond belief. Although I try to live this as much as possible in my post-AT life, no person can really be as free as they are on the AT.
2. What would you have done differently?
I would have gone slower through the Whites and Southern Maine. I somehow convinced myself that once I reached The Whites, I was on the home stretch. Roughly translated, I could push myself for the remainder of the hike because I had an ocean of “zeros” (days off) waiting for me on the other end of the trail.
This failed me for two reasons:
1) This is the most beautiful section of the trail. The views you get from above ridge-line in The Whites and southern Maine are nothing short of breathtaking. You’ll bust your ass for an hour, look up, and all of a sudden you’re sitting on top of the world with 360 degree views of untouched, tree covered landscape carved out only by dark blue lakes. This section really is the climax of the trail. By pushing myself, I was regularly battling exhaustion, and not fully capable of being present during these moments.
2) The three hundred mile stretch starting at the Whites extending into mid-Maine is tough as shit (pardon my French). AT hikers go into this with an inflated hiking ego (for good reason, we’ve already covered 1,700 miles at this point). Unfortunately ego isn’t enough. The climbs are unlike anything we’ve seen to this point. They are steeper, extend much further, and are a lot more technical. Because of this, you’re using a completely different set of muscles. This results in getting worn down much faster than we’re accustomed to. By the time I had made it to the beginning of the 100-mile Wilderness, my legs were jello. I was pushing myself to my limit almost every day, and because of this, the next day was always much more of a challenge. Although the common wisdom is to “slow down in The Whites”, I never received advice on why. I learned this the hard way.
3. What advice would you give to anyone wanting to hike the AT or other long distance trails?
If you’re still undecided, but you’re considering it, allow this to push you over the fence: DO IT, DO IT, DO IT….DOOOO ITTTTT!!!! Chances are if you’re even considering going on a half year backpacking trip (or other long backpacking trip), it’s probably the right move for you. It’s likely a unique circumstance that one would consider doing something like the AT in the first place. Either you’re a backpacking junkie [such as yourself Adam 🙂 ], or you’re bored or unhappy with your current situation. The AT (or other long distance backpacking trip) is the perfect remedy for this.
And as far as nerves go, I was very anxious going into my hike. Because I’ve put myself through other difficult changes in my life, I was aware the anxiety was a good sign. It’s a pre-cursor to positive change. Instead of using this feeling to dissuade yourself, use it as fuel to make it happen. Nothing truly awesome is easy. This is a good thing, otherwise everyone would be awesome. A long distance backpacking trip is your opportunity to flex your awesomeness.
4. Would you do it all over again?
This could be interpreted two different ways.
If you mean, will I ever go on a half year backpacking trip again, the answer is no. I did it mostly to test myself, to try something new, and to gain a new perspective. I’m happy with the outcome. With that said, a half year backpacking trip isn’t easy. I wouldn’t prove anything to myself by hiking the AT again. I would, however, do other long backpacking trips, just not six months. I’m actually considering hiking El Camino de Santiago in the next year or two. That sounds more my speed 🙂
If the question means, knowing what I know now about the AT, would I still have gone back and originally hiked it, then my answer is a 150% absolute yes. I am a better person for my experience. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. The memories I have from my time on the trail are something that I will cherish until my death.
5. What was the biggest thing you learned or gained from Hiking the AT?
Life is short. Too many people live for some invisible promise of a better future when they retire. This premise is flawed. By the time many people have enough money stored away for retirement, they’re too old to actually enjoy it. A retiree vacation involves driving to many of the spots I was hiking through, taking 30 minutes to snap pictures while wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, getting back into the car, and driving to the local Italian restaurant. That’s not a bad day, but that’s not something that I’ll look back with pride sitting in my rocking chair in before dying days. Do whatever it takes to fulfill your life. That’s the only way to live.
Side note: I encountered many retirees on the AT. These were 60+ year old guys and ladies who were keeping up with all the youngsters and enjoying themselves every bit, if not more, along the way. I tip my hat to these folks because I sincerely doubt I will be physically capable of a 2,200 mile backpacking trip when I reach their age. If you’re as badass as these individuals, disregard the above paragraph. You are a better person than me!
6. What would you have done differently to train / prepare for a AT thru-hike?
To be honest, nothing. Although I had virtually no experience with camping, and literally no experience with backpacking prior to embarking, I spent a great deal of time preparing myself mentally for the journey. In knowing that roughly 80% of attempting thru-hikers ultimately fall short of their goal, it was clear to me that the biggest challenge was purely mental. I considered the first two weeks of the trail to be my training for the rest of the trail. I picked up all the necessary bits of knowledge from more experienced backpackers along the way.
When the trail became difficult for many others, I felt more prepared for what was ahead of me and how to handle the challenges that your mind can throw your way. I was able to install myself with the proper motivation as well as techniques to maximize enjoyment to ensure I didn’t stop until I got to Katahdin. This is the subject of my upcoming book: the psychological component to hiking the Appalachian Trail.
1. What was your favorite gear item you took?
For purely novel purposes, my Innate Mentor Storage Sacs. Not only do they work really well, but they’re the only sacs on the trail with an air compression valve (at least that I saw). When releasing excess air from your sac, it makes a pretty unique farty noise (there’s really no other way to describe it). When putting your food or clothes away at the end of the night, and other hikers hear this sound, it’s always a great conversation starter.
In terms of practicality, I know this isn’t exactly a popular outdoors answer, but my iPhone. It was just so damn versatile. It was my camera, my journal, and my mp3 player. Off the trail, when other hikers are fighting over the one computer at the hostel, I can send e-mails to friends and family without getting off the couch. It’s essentially the electronic version of a multi-tool. All of the pictures from my AT video slide-showwere taken with my iPhone.
2. What gear item did you end up needing the most?
Aside from the backpack itself, my Eureka Casper 15 degree bag. There were a few pretty damn cold days in the beginning of the trail. One night it got down to 14 degrees. I dubbed my sleeping bag the “anti-hypothermia zone”. Waking up to pee in the middle of the night and getting out of my sleeping bag to do this was one of the hardest things I did the entire trail.
There were some who had only a 30 degree bag. I think that’s pushing it. I’m glad that I had the extra warmth. With that said, the bag is a little on the heavier side. I exchanged it out for a lighter Deuter bag starting in mid-May and got my Casper back before going into the Whites.
3. What gear item did you end up not needing at all?
Gaiters. Although a lot of people used them a lot, the feedback was mixed. I sent mine home within the first week. They seem to do a better job at keeping pebbles out of shoes/boots than in keeping your foot dry. If anything, it doesn’t allow heat to escape, causing a foot to sweat more. A moist foot is a breeding ground for blisters. For me, it’s not worth carrying the extra weight (although they’re pretty light), it’s easier to take the 12 seconds required to take your shoe off or just wait it out until your next break point.
Otherwise, most of the items in my first aid kit never ended up getting used. Although I wouldn’t recommend not carrying a first aid kit, I would suggest to not go overboard in what you bring. If an injury is severe, get off the trail. A Band-Aid isn’t going to do much.
4. Did you use postal drops and if so how did you arrange all of that?
I did. Most of the packages were sent from my parents, although I purchased most of the contents inside them before leaving. I also gave my friends Chris and Jeff some money before leaving as a fund to send me anything that I might need along the way. From there, I just scouted out a post office or hostel 150 miles or so ahead of where I was to have the box sent to and texted them the next time I had service. A lot of people have a strict maildrop itinerary setup before they leave. For me, this would have been more of a headache than anything else. Having to stop in to a town when you still have enough supplies to get to the next is a bit frustrating and conflicts with my favorite aspect of the trail (the no schedule thing referenced in answer #1).
5. What kind of technology did you take if any and how did you keep it charged?
My iPhone, and nothing else. I would leave it in “airplane” mode when out on the trail and turn it off when I wasn’t using it. I also brought a solar charger, which was really inefficient as a solar charger (requring 24 hours of direct sunlight for a full charge), it served as an extra battery since I could charge it through an outlet when in town.
6. What general advice can you give to anyone hiking the AT about the gear they take?
Don’t stress too much about what you’re bringing at first. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re probably pretty well read on what you need for the trail already. There still is a tendency for those starting off to bring too much, but you’ll figure out what you need as you go along. You can send stuff home as soon as Neels Gap, which is only three days out of Springer.
If there’s one piece of gear you should be highly particular about, it’s your footwear. Bad footwear, or footwear that doesn’t fit properly, will ruin your feet. Walking with blisters on your feet isn’t fun. Wear your boots/shoes on a few long hikes before going out on the trail. If your feet still feel pretty good at the end, you’ve got a winner. If not, don’t settle. You’re taking 5 million steps. Treat your feet to something that works for you.
For those who are unsure about what they need for six months of hiking, I used The Dusty Camel school of thought for packing (minus some of the electronics, of course). What was in my pack at the end of the trip was essentially the same as when I started.