Advice for the beginner hiker on the Appalachian Trail

An excellent WordPress entry from my friend Joe, who is presently section hiking the AT down in Virginia.

Advice for the beginner Hiker on the Appalachian Trail.

“Catch-Up’s” long walk summer 2012   by Joe Niemczura, RN, MS

The Dawn of Time:

I have backpacked since joining the Boy Scouts ( 1966) and many of the things that I take for granted seem to fade into my own psyche until I see somebody else struggling with the obvious elements of how to have a successful trip. Yes, folks, at present I am old and fat, but I still know how to have a good time and to feel comfortable when hiking….. I suppose this is because I have had my share of terrible camping experiences, and learned from each time.


On this present trip, I got up close and personal with a few hikers that were totally new to this sport. I could have stayed my distance, experiencing the schadenfreude of their trip, but I tried to be useful without being too directive. I do have some advice, before you go.


First and foremost, if you have never backpacked, be advised that this is more than just a walk in the woods, especially if it is for a multi-day trip where you land in a different spot each evening. you need to deal with weather, terrain, your own physical conditioning, how much to put in the pack, minor injuries/stresses/strains, nighttime critters etc. For a beginner, I recommend the book “How to hike the A.T. = the nitty gritty details of a long distance hike” by Michelle Ray. This is a good introduction to the wide variety of problems and situations you will encounter, written in a readable style.


One thing I found myself saying to a few of the beginners I met this week, was that to take a hike on the Appalachian Trail is akin to joining a cult. There are certain practices and etiquette that are followed. All the equipment that is used is specialized, more than you would think. So – among other things, if you get new stuff such as a backpacker’s stove or a water filter, make sure you have gotten it out of the box and learned how to use it before the actual hike. when you plan a menu, try the recipes at home so you will know what to expect.

Resist the urge to buy buy buy:

When you first go out, you will get a lot of new stuff. soon you will discover that you didn’t actually need half of it! what you put in the pack is what you will carry. for example, if you are going on a seven day trip you do not need seven pairs of underwear. all you need is two – the one you are wearing, and the other pair which you wore yesterday and which has now been washed and is hanging on your pack to dry. two most important pieces of equipment: 1) boots get them two sizes larger than your usual shoe size. 2) hip strap on the backpack. the weight of the pack should never be on the shoulders. 3) nowadays I would add a third: hiking poles.

You are not conquering the wilderness:

You are living in a different sense of harmony with natural elements.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint:

I met two guys from a church group who said that the first day, they chose the same pace they had trained on using a treadmill at 24-hour fitness – i.e., fifteen-minute miles. four miles per hour. at that rate they could have gone ten miles in 2 1/2 hours. oooooh nooooo….. after a half hour with packs going up hill these two newbies told me they flopped to the ground and figuratively, died. Then they had the good sense to laugh at themselves and ask what were we thinking? they recalculated a new pace. and got over their pride. for me? I plan on 1.25 miles per hour ( including breaks). On those occasions when I go 1.75 miles per hour with a pack, I know I am zooming along!

Things never to bring:

an axe. too heavy

frying pans or kitchen cook ware. also too heavy anything that is heavy.

an expensive folding knife. you generally shouldn’t expect to be gutting any deer on a backpacking trip……

likewise, leave the “heat” home. the ammo is too heavy!

a folding chair. yes, it’s been done. you can sit on a rock or a tree stump or a log. trust me.

any food that is half liquid such as canned beans. or, canned food in general.

soap. some people will shudder at this. trust me. there are alternative ways to clean stuff.

more utensils than, say, one cup. you don’t need a separate plate for each person.

things to always bring: the ten essentials, as defined by The Mountaineers in their classic book, The Freedom of the Hills. ( actually, the ten essentials omits toilet paper, so it should really be eleven essentials….) always bring a good attitude and team spirit.

Know that this is a team event: When you go with a group, or just one special partner, this is an intense interpersonal experience for the two of you, and lifetime bonds get forged. I have always been very particular about who I will take with me, and have been fortunate to find such legendary partners as Gummi Bear, Whoopie Pie, Snafu, and Sam Gamgee. You have a responsibility to your team, you can never be alone. think about this. meditate on it.

It’s a terrain sport like golf:

Yhe A.T. for example, is famous. There is a nationwide community which knows every spot on the Trail just as intimately as the viewing public knows the Augusta National. Strategy plays a part in a successful hike. There are days when the only logical thing to do is to wait for the weather to clear; there are days when calculated risks are taken by experienced hikers that would be dangerous for a less experienced person. for that reason, you can’t lock yourself into a pre-set benchmark of mileage per day, or try to be competitive about it.

The last thing:

When you are on the Trail, be friendly to all you meet. that is what life is about, and hiking is a reflection of real life.

June 24, 2012 at 10:05 am


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