We’re close, people. Early season permits are printed. Bear canisters are being left with loved ones. (“Please ship this the exact day I text you.”) Gallon-sized Ziploc bags are being filled with charging cords and trail snacks. It’s thru-hiking season once again.
Before I even finished the AT last year, I knew I wanted to hike again. It was my first backpacking trip, and it felt like an average day on trail was better than some of the best days I had experienced living the traditional weekend-warrior lifestyle. The PCT seemed like the obvious candidate for another long hike.
A lot has changed about me since I took a picture under the arch at Amicalola. I think anyone who completes the AT can attest to that. Just as much as my gear and preferences have changed, my intuitions and my priorities have too. But not everything; some things will never change.
Here are a few things I’ll be reminding myself as I head NOBO toward Canada, on the West Coast this time.
1. Don’t Believe The Hype
“That next climb is a real pain in the ass.”
“Don’t go into that town; it sucks.”
“The water there was flowing great!”
“You’re coming up on the best view on trail!”.
Opinions. You will get an infinite amount of them, more often than not, unsolicited. It’s one of the best and worst parts about backpacking. You will be exposed to so many different perspectives on subjects you didn’t even know you could have dissenting opinions. Everyone likes to share their thoughts — probably because we all hike for hours and hours in silence.
But when it comes to random advice and conflicting reports, I usually follow a general rule: Take them all with a grain of salt!
The good AND the bad.
Don’t get yourself hyped up for a great view or find yourself depending on a word-of-mouth water source. Don’t avoid a trail town because of somebody’s bad review. Make your own assessment and find your own way. That’s what you’re out there to do anyway, right? Tripping and stumbling on your own is part of the fun, so don’t let others scare you away from the inevitable speed bumps.
2. Dry and Full >>>
My priorities shifted a lot on the AT depending on the section I was in: staying hydrated in the heat of Pennsylvania; staying rested in the beatdown of the stormy White Mountains; staying stocked up on toilet paper after visiting a town with a buffet.
Two priorities never came down from the top of my list though.
1) Going to sleep dry and 2) Eating as much as I possibly could without spoiling the next day’s rations.
As I slowly shipped things home out of my pack, I realized my pack weight wasn’t going down proportionately. What the hell? I found myself packing the missing pounds back in as food.
I found going to bed with a full stomach provided me more comfort than maybe the warmth of a pair of gloves. I’m not saying double up on your food supply, but packing an extra dessert can do wonders for your mental game.
While I wasn’t afraid to send layers home and endure the coldness that comes from being idle in camp, I always carried a second pair of underwear, a shirt and socks. (For warm/ dry and hygiene purposes … I’m not THAT hiker-trash ; )
Being dry was, and still is, a top priority every night at camp. However, while I’m hiking, it's a different story. Much like that first step into an ankle-deep puddle, once you’re soaked, you’re soaked. I would rather embrace being wet and accept that reality than keep fighting the inevitable.
That warm meal and good rest after a hard day was the lifeblood of my morale on the Appalachian Trail. I don’t see that changing as I head west this Spring.
3. Believe in Blind Optimism!
Some of my most memorable times on the AT were also some of the most unsure times. The trail will lead you to so many people and situations you may have never encountered. You will be put in close quarters with people you only met minutes ago. You will probably sleep somewhere that, otherwise, in any other context, other than on a thru-hike, you would absolutely seek out an alternative.
Some people avoid these scenarios like the plague. Not me. I like to not only endure these scenarios but also embrace them.
Thru-hiking is all about taking yourself out of your comfort zone. Physically. Mentally. Socially. Getting out of your comfort zone can be intimidating, but just like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Be warm and friendly. Be obnoxiously excited about the stuff everyone is dreading. Yeah, some days suck. But it’s going to suck a lot more if you keep telling yourself it sucks, rather than telling yourself “Well, it could always be worse.”
Like I said in the first sentence of this section, the most memorable times I had thru-hiking were also some of the most off-the-wall. Have fun with it. Don’t be afraid to say YES! It’s not going to be perfect. Not even close. Sometimes your spontaneity will come back to bite you in the ass. Sometimes it will lead you to much more than you could have ever expected. But you will never know unless you jump into those moments with two feet.
I'm Connor Chapdelaine but my closest friends call me Jackrabbit. I'm a biologist who loves running, backpacking, and anything that keeps me out in the sun all day. I hiked the AT NOBO last year and summited in Katahdin in August. I'll be heading NOBO on the PCT this year starting this spring. Backpacking will always provide you with amazing views but even more valuable to me are the amazing people. Keep up with the good times with me on the PCT through my blog at thetrek.co/author/connor-