Thru hiking is a live and learn experience and these tips aren’t meant to tell you how to hike your hike or be an authority of proper thru hiking. These tips are things I saw and experienced in my northbound hike and are what I think are important to recognize before starting a thru hike.
Carrying Unnecessary Water Weight
This is a big mistake people make early on when they’re still adjusting to the trail and hiking all day. It’s typical for hikers to carry two 1-liter bottles in their bag, however that would be an incredibly heavy amount of weight to be adding to your pack, 4.4 pounds to be exact. An uncanny number of hikers are carrying full liters and showing up to water sources with all that water.
There are times when carrying this amount on the Appalachian Trail will be necessary but it’s rarer and usually specifically known. In Georgia when starting northbound you’ll be crossing a water source on trail every couple of miles.
The best method for hydration is to ‘camel up’ at water sources by drinking as much as you can. This is a technique thru hikers use to stay hydrated and minimize water weight carried. If the next source is only a couple miles away it might be overkill to carry anything more than a liter of water.
Test this out early on and see how much water you’re arriving with to the next source that you stop at and evaluate from there.
Sending Home Winter Gear Too Early and Not Getting It Back
This is a twofer of a mistake, one on the front end of a northbound hike, and one on the back end. If you’re starting in February or early March, chances are you have the most winter gear and are likely looking to drop those pounds as soon as possible. Even for hikers starting in March and April you may have winter gear that you realize is not coming in handy.
A general rule for sending home this gear should be after the Roan Highlands at the earliest, but even the Grayson Highlands to be on the safer side. These places have higher elevations in the south and can see freezing temps even in May. It’s good to wait because sending home winter gear may also come with getting summer gear and a 40-degree quilt will make for sleepless nights when temperatures are in the 30s.
The second common mistake with winter gear or colder weather gear is not getting it back in the northern states. This seems obsolete because you could finish your thru hike in July or August which is still summer.
However, New Hampshire and Maine commonly have nights with the temperatures dropping into the 30s. Having a summer quilt on more than a handful of nights would have been dangerous. So, if you ditch some of your cold gear, or all of it, at least get enough back to weather The Whites and Maine.
As another general rule, never send home your puffy jacket. Even Mid-Atlantic states can have those damp windy days and when you’re sitting around exposed it’ll be nice to have.
Poor Food Planning
This is another twofer because this also goes both ways. Poor food planning can mean carrying too much food, and it can mean carrying too little food. This is something that usually takes a month plus into your thru hike to become pretty good at. Without going into detail on diet and planning what I’m getting at here is try to avoid blatant mistakes. If you’re in a town resupplying but there is another good resupply option in two days don’t go for a full 5-day resupply. Sure, it’s always easy to over-buy but consider leaving half of the oatmeal in the 8 pack in the hiker box. It seems like a waste but you’ll thank yourself once you start climbing a mountain without that extra food.
On the other side it’s more common to see experienced thru hikers making the mistake of not carrying enough food. This comes about because they’re used to doing higher mileage days and used to trying to limit pack weight as much as possible. Northern states also slow thru hikers down and mileage can easily be cut into half of what was normally being hiked in a day. The best advice here is to always carry a few things extra that don’t fit into your daily meals. This gives you leeway incase you’re eating more than you expected with increased elevation or not able to do originally planned miles.
Putting Too Many Miles on Footwear
The trail runners you start in Georgia with will not be the ones you summit Katahdin with, if you hadn’t realized that let me tell you that is certain. A general rule of mileage to put on trail runners is about 500. Many can and are pushed further than that. The mistake here is where you keep hiking with a shoe that is giving your feet injuries. This can happen fast and once it starts to happen you might not be able to get replacement shoes until the next week.
Also be aware that even though you got to 800 miles on one pair of trail runners, your next pair could blow out after only 400 miles. This is usually what happens to people hiking through the northern states of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. As the trail terrain becomes much tougher with boulders and scrambles your shoes will break down faster. During my hike The Whites trashed the trail runners I had planned to use until Katahdin so badly and I had no plan in place so my feet were getting injured in Southern Maine.
Maine is completely remote and it makes for tougher maildrops and planning and I thought I was going to be screwed. Luckily, Shaw’s Hiker Hostel, a must stay before the Hundred Mile Wilderness has a superb gear store and had plenty of the same trail runners I was using in my size.
Over-Spending on Gear
There is no right or wrong dollar amount to spend on gear but my tip here is to not fall into buying the most expensive of everything you’ll need on a thru hike.
Only buy a $600 tent if you can afford it and want it. If you’re going to sleep in the shelters, or you might think that you could end up sleeping in shelters, then you can get away with a cheaper tent or tarp. The same here goes for items like trekking poles, some people like the quality carbon fiber poles from Leki and Black Diamond but anyone with a $40 amazon pair will swear by those. See my trekking post about cheap vs expensive here!
Hiker boxes are also filled with gear at early hostels and outfitters and a lot stays for weeks because every hiker has already bought their own and has no need for a second. A friend of mine got a working Jet Boil stove in Franklin, NC from a hiker box, I’ve seen plenty of Pretzl headlamps, and even bear canisters that people didn’t feel like mailing home for a hefty price. I wouldn’t recommended at all to carry a bear canister but it’s a good example of gear you can get without actually buying.
A last item on this topic is hiking outfits, if you don’t want to spend money on expensive clothing then don’t. I’ve hiked with plenty of friends who do the whole trail in $5 Walmart short and are a lot cooler than what costs $70 at REI. Most clothing is getting thrown out at the end of your hike anyways so who cares if it’s all from Goodwill anyways?
No thru hiker has a perfect diet nor do many actually care. The most important nutritional number on the back of the label is the calories anyways. So what’s the purpose of bringing this up then? The tip here is that some hikers try and push how little nutrients they can actually get and it’s tough to hike on only sugar carbs.
I was at a gas station one time in Virginia on my thru hike and another hiker checking out had his arms full with Honeybuns and also Honeybuns stacked up to his chin. This is one of the best dollar-to-calorie foods you can buy, costing usually $1.
Nonetheless I felt terrible for the body of the person who is climbing mountains powered by strictly Honeybuns. Try to mix things up, buy some trail mix, eat some cliff bars, up your protein content, pack out a spring mix while it’s still cool, and remember avocados ARE a trail food.
Don’t let somebody tell you their gear is better than yours unless it’s a few things.
A portable battery pack will always be better than a solar, (the AT is literally called the Green Tunnel)
A bear bag weighs nothing compared to a bear canister. (See my post on dry bag uses here!)
These are a few examples, basically research gear enough to know what is typical for thru hiking on the Appalachian Trail and what isn’t. I never understood having an umbrella but I recognize enough people swear by them and for that I would never say it’s useless to all hikers.
Curious what gear I used and my post-trail thoughts? See Here - Appalachian Trail: Full Thru-Hike Gear List
Best of luck if you’re researching a future thru-hike! Be sure to check out my other articles on the Appalachian Trail too.
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