This post first appeared on TheTrek.co on April 8, 2018.
A few people have asked me to post about what a typical day on the Appalachian Trail is like. And so, your wish is my command.
A typical day on the AT so far is grueling, exciting, exhausting, inspiring, monotonous, crowded, peaceful, and really not so typical at all. It’s just such a different world out here, living in the wilderness, becoming attuned mainly to your more animalesque instincts (you’d be amazed how much I think and talk about food), having one clearly defined goal for the day (hike xx miles to xx shelter or campsite), and really just living inside your body as a human – with no fake societal bullshit to think about. You are using your body as nature intended – to move, to walk, to live. My friend asked me recently if I was having Netflix dreams (and what she meant was very vivid dreams) because I “have nothing to think about.” But I have plenty to think about – the lush green plants and colorful flowers that I pass by daily, the signs of animal life alongside the trail, when I’m going to eat next, what I’m going to eat next, how I’m going to push myself up the next mountain, my knees climbing down the next mountain, about my tramily dynamics, about my family and friends back home, about the next town visit and shower, about what I’ll do after the trail, about how tired I am, about how exhilarated I am. It’s a completely different way of life, and it’s beautiful in its own right. And to answer her question, I typically have extremely vivid dreams in normal life. They’ve actually calmed way down out here. Likely due to exhaustion.
But back to the point of this post: what does a typical day look like on the trail? I wake up in my tent around 7:30 a.m. (my friend Girl Scout used to have to wake me up but now it happens naturally), play around on my phone for a few minutes, put my contacts in (no mirror), then change my clothes and start packing my stuff away while inside my tent. (It’s usually quite cold in the morning so I change out of my thermals into my hiking clothes while still in my sleeping bag). I pack my (blowup) pillow and clothes into a waterproof dry sack, my sleeping back into its stuff/compression sack, deflate and fold up my sleeping mat, then emerge into the outside world. If I’m at a shelter, I visit the privy (and if not, find a semiprivate spot in the woods away from camp), brush my teeth (flossing is generally reserved for towns – don’t wanna put my grimy hands in my mouth and risk getting the dreaded norovirus), retrieve my bear bag from a tree (you hang your food to keep bears and rodents away from your tent), fill up and filter my water bottles (most shelters and campsites are built by streams, which makes this convenient and easy), then sit down and have breakfast, which is usually a protein bar or Pop-Tarts (I prefer Pop-Tarts) and sometimes instant coffee or tea (I don’t always feel like firing up the stove in the morning, but a hot drink is nice on the coldest of mornings and caffeine is always welcome). Breakfast usually includes chatting with friends as they break down camp as well.
Then I stuff everything into my backpack and get a move on down the trail. I generally start the trail about the same time as my tramily (trail family – which shifts but currently there are seven of us – me, Ibex, Girl Scout, Jukebox, Peppermint, John, and Head Chef) though uphills tend to quickly space us out. I’m one of the slower members of the tramily so tend to fall behind on the first big uphill of the day, but we’ll meet back up during breaks or at camp. Shortly down the trail I usually stop to take off a layer or two, then continue on my way. We’ve been hiking eight to 14 miles per day, depending on the terrain and our energy levels. Our mileage has been slowly increasing and the average at the moment is probably about 12 miles, but sometimes we’ll hit a massive, multi-mile uphill, which will slow us significantly. While on the trail I’ll chat with other hikers, listen to podcasts or music, or just enjoy the sounds of nature and quiet of the woods. More often than not I’m headphone-less. I like the tranquility of it all. It’s a nice change after living in a crowded city for several years. And though I’m an extrovert, according to the Meyers-Briggs test, I usually prefer to hike alone for a good chunk of the day. In “normal” life I often find it hard to shut off my brain – there’s so much thrown at us all the time, from the 24-hour news cycle to constant exposure to marketing to social media. But both the wilderness and exercise have always been keys for me in shutting all that out. And living on the Appalachian Trail gives me plenty of both. Peace comes much easier to my world-wearied brain than out in the “real world.”
As the day goes on, I’ll stop quickly for water and snacks, but usually not for long because it’s been quite cold even during the afternoons. On our couple of warm, sunny days, breaks have been longer – an hour to sit down and enjoy lunch, the company of other thru-hikers, and the beauty of the day. I’m hopeful there will be more long breaks like those when spring fully arrives. But for now I’ll take them where I can get them and otherwise continue to shove bars and candy quickly down my throat as the frigid air drives me on up and down the mountains. I find the quick sugar absolutely essential to getting through these rugged mountains, hence the candy.
We generally have a planned route each day, so I know in the morning how far I need to hike that day and at which campsite or shelter I’ll meet my tramily. When I arrive, I quickly set up my tent and lay out my sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and pillow (some people sleep in shelters, but I can’t sleep through the snoring, unfortunately), change into dry clothes (doing so right away helps prevent hypothermia), fill up and filter my water bottles again, cook dinner (which usually means macaroni and cheese, instant mashed potatoes, or a rice or pasta side), clean my pot, hang my bear bag, then head to bed. Hiker bedtime is usually when it gets dark, so as of now, I’m usually in bed by 8:30 p.m., then usually journal or check in with friends or family if I have service on my phone. My body is totally exhausted right now, so getting nine to ten hours of sleep each night is crucial to recovery. Eight to 14 miles per day may not seem like much, but it is when it consists of marching up and down mountains all day long with 40 pounds on your back. They say your trail legs take three to four weeks to come in. I’m ready for mine to arrive. They can come anytime now!
Hopefully, that gives you a picture of what daily life is like on the trail. Though it’s taxing and tiring, and probably sounds simple, it’s pretty magical, too.