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Practice Hikes by David “AWOL” Miller

David Miller on Mount Katahdin
David Miller on Mount Katahdin

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.

First Hike with my Dad and Brother
First Hike with my Dad and Brother

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 Miller is the author of “The A.T. Guide,” a guidebook for hiking the Appalachian Trail that is updated annually, as well as “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail,” a narrative of his own journey hiking all 2,172 miles of the famous trail. David has worked as a software engineer, handyman, and writer. He lives in Titusville, Florida with his wife and three children.

David’s website:  www.theATguide.com

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  1. Amen, brother! I enjoy practice hikes as much as the real thing. There’s always something new to try out or just knock the rust off. And on all the ones that has something disastrous happen, I also look back on them with fondness and am thankful they were relatively short. Times like that helped me realize that a day may be miserable, but collectively miserable days can be quite enjoyable when looked back upon as a set. Its amazing how much a human can actually endure… and re-endure multiple times.

    I also discovered my thru-hikes will be solo attempts, but have also discovered that if I can make a longer hike out of multiple overnighters, I can con my wife into coming along. My wife came along with me on a week long section of the Massachusetts section of the AT where we could hit towns every other night and that was the frequency of civilization that she needed to not beat me with a stick. Spending a week hitting the many breweries and brewpubs in Vermont and New York afterwards was the other carrot that helped her enjoy the hike. We had rain and mud for more than half of it which would probably have ruined that hike for her had we not gone a simple practice three hour hike at home where we got totally drenched and she was able to discover that being soaked to the bone was not so bad. This, too, shall pass. Fun times – just like the real thing.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said! I’m hoping to being a thru hike of the AT in March, 2013 and to prep for it, I’ve done several day hikes up around Amicalola Falls and to the summit of Blood Mountain. I’ve also done a trial run here at home in Florida (minus the mountains) just to make sure I knew how to use my gear or to see what I didn’t bring that I needed. Most recently, I headed back up to north Georgia and completed the AT Approach Trail, spending the night atop Springer. Like you said, my most recent 19 miles kicked my out of shape butt but I have so many fond memories and it was a tremendous learning experience for me. I even had the chance to get my first black bear encounter out of the way! I’m currently awaiting the arrival of your book and can’t wait to read it. Happy hiking!

  3. David, hurrah for your cheerful “best lesson”: hindsight! Seems like that’s the way it goes—to some extent—if we are to live and learn at all. Your “awful blisters” brings back my first hike. The inadvertent joy of surviving the “awful” comes in acquiring a good story, and I’m still telling this one.

    My best friend enrolled in a camping course in junior college (I can barely imagine now that a course like this existed in 1961, but it was Southern California). When she announced her class was going on a three-day hike, and why didn’t I come along, we trotted down to Army Surplus and purchased WWII wooden-frame canvas-sack backpacks—no hip belts—and what would nowadays be considered dauntingly heavy sleeping bags. Off we went, each lugging 55 pounds, for our three days on Mt. Baldy, which I can recall exactly none of, except undoubtedly faulty flashbacks of the terrain being all uphill. During the five hour ride home, our raw-meat, bleeding heels scabbed over, and the muscles between our collar bones and arm pits began throbbing like a thumbnail bludgeoned with a hammer, and then seized up solid. When we crawled out of the International Travelall at my friend’s front door, we were bent over like two rickety, osteoporotic crones, shuffling along flat-footed, not wanting to flex an ankle for fear of cracking open a scab.

    My friend’s father, who was my family doctor, took one look at our posture, and bundled us into their station wagon and drove us to his club. He scheduled long massages for after we’d steamed in individual “Turkish baths” that zipped up to our chins. Two hours later, we walked out feeling as limber as cooked linguine. It was my first encounter with, if not a black bear, the “exotic.” I still think the agony was completely worth it. And rather than its killing my adventurous spirit, I was ready to head off next to Turkey.

    Looking forward to your inadvertent story of AWOL on the Appalachian Trail.

  4. Interesting background to your 2003 thru-hike. I, too, had hiked a lot before venturing on the A.T. in earnest. Most of my early hiking was peakpagging in the Whites, and I learned a lot. I have fond memories of those early hikes and how I felt better as I became more fit. I still don’t use a water bladder, but trekking poles saved my knees for sure. I finally found a good pack with an internal frame and became efficient in camp. As with most things, preparation and practice make a difference.

  5. I take practice hikes all of the time. Sometimes they’re a few hours long, sometime I go bag a peak in the White mountains or I go backpacking for a few days. Most of the time I’m either testing a new piece of gear, doing physical conditioning or practicing and refining a new skill. These ‘practice’ hikes really prove their worth on my longer 1 or 2 week backpacking trips and help eliminate of lot of oversights or gear mishaps that might jeopardize a longer trip. Of course nothing every goes as you expect on a backpacking trip, but it helps when you only have to deal with the things that you can’t control, versus the things in your power to control by being well prepared.

  6. Good topic AWOL. For me, all hikes are “practice” hikes. I never seem to get it right. I’m always trying some new piece of gear that turns me back into a beginner. Technology will fail, pieces get lost, things get wet that should stay dry, things that should be wet dry out and so on. Stoves never seem to light and shoes too near the fire will burst into flames. It never fails.

    I think hikers are more like doctors, we practice until we retire. Then again, that’s the fun of all this stuff. I guess I’ll just keep on practicing. Hey, you live in Florida, if you’re ever over in the Sarasota area, check out the ATCflorida dot org site. We always welcome visitors.

  7. Has anyone tried to do the AT in the winter?

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