In 2004 I met a couple thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and asked if they’d taken any practice hikes. The husband said; “We didn’t want to take any practice hikes before our attempt because we were afraid that we might not like hiking.” Though his response was delivered as a joke, there is a certain amount of romantically-warped logic to the jump-in-with-both-feet approach.
It’s an adventure to experience the trail untainted by the opinions of others or by pesky details like knowing how to set up a tent. You can learn as you hike, get in shape along the way, and make adjustments as you go. There are ample opportunities to resupply or change gear. You won’t be completely removed from civilization for six months. Well, that is unless something goes terribly wrong.
I had been hiking many times before I attempted a thru-hike. It could be said that I had many practice hikes over the years, and indeed, I learned that I might not like hiking.
My father took me, my brother, and friends on hikes when I was a teen. Dad was wonderfully impromptu, and so our hikes were monuments to the unprepared. Also, no matter how challenging the endeavor, dad could find a way to make it more difficult. We’d drive long hours, sleep in the car, and get to our drop-off point exhausted. We carried heavy canned food. We used byzantine side trails to link us to campgrounds that served as base camps, which added “getting lost” to our set of outdoor skills. On each trip, we had new friends to break in to hiking; the old ones wouldn’t return.
After getting married, I wanted my wife to see what hiking was like. And she did. We were drenched by a thunderstorm and experienced lightning strikes closer than ever before or since. We pulled out the maps and found the quickest route back to civilization. From this I learned the value of maps, and that any future multi-day hikes would be solo attempts.
I found the inspiration to thru-hike many years later and everything had changed. Backpacks didn’t have clunky metal frames. Hikers used trekking poles and water bladders instead of sticks and canteens. My formal thru-hike practice hikes were opportunities to buy and try new stuff. In that respect, the practice hikes were useful. I changed my pack and almost everything in it based on what I tried or saw being used on practice hikes.
Nothing ever went as planned on any of my practice hikes. I got rained on, got awful blisters, and experienced knee pain. Sometimes I ended my hikes early, and some days I hiked more than planned. Practicing was very much like the real thing. The best lesson I learned was hindsight. No matter what happened on my short hikes or how trying they felt at the time, I always recalled them fondly. In my memory, getting lost or cutting a hike short became interesting diversions instead of failures. When I experienced the same challenges on my thru-hike it was reassuring to know that I’d been through similar difficulties and would, in the end, enjoy them along with everything else I experienced.
About David “AWOL” Miller
David’s website: www.theATguide.com
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