The Boy Scout motto is “be prepared,” and I suspect it came about after a disastrous backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. Ok, that’s probably not where the motto comes from, but it’s certainly good advice for planning a backpacking trip.
Here are 7 tips to help you gear up to hike the AT:
1. Plan your route carefully.
I was so anxious to begin my first backpacking adventure on the AT that route planning took a backseat to other preparations. My 15-year-old son steered me to AT topographical maps which provided written and graphic descriptions of the sections we would be hiking (of course this was in the days before the internet; now it’s much easier to find topo maps).
No doubt these maps and books were a godsend, as sometimes we even had difficulty finding certain trailheads. We also found extended ascents more bearable with advance notice. A map with water source and shelter locations was essential information as well. We even learned from these guides that hiking the Great Smoky Mountains National Park section of the AT required permits as a safety precaution related to bears and hikers.
2. Check the weather forecast.
I once believed that checking weather forecasts was a waste of time because I could never change the weather, I could only read about it. The truth is, we can plan trips based on the weather, and doing so can have a great impact on a backpacking experience. If the forecast is 7 straight days of rainfall or below-freezing temperatures, this might be a good reason to postpone your trip.
3. Provide details of your hiking plans to friends or relatives.
If you have a problem sharing your hiking plans with others because this does not fit your independent, macho persona, then get over it. Think not of yourself, but think about your friends and relatives who worry about your health and safety. It is not all about you or me anyhow.
4. Prepare yourself physically and mentally for the adventure.
If this is your first backpacking experience or you have not backpacked in a long time, then you need to be sure you are physically and mentally prepared. A day hike with a fully-loaded pack navigating significant elevations can be a good test. Do not overlook the mental strain (and perhaps sense of accomplishment) that comes with climbing one mountain top after another with less-than-ideal temperatures and heavy rainfall.
5. Select your hiking companion(s) carefully.
My first backpacking companion was my 15-year-old son. He and I were both fast hikers, covering 20 miles per day on the AT in Georgia and NC. Being with my son was a great experience, and we both learned a lot about backpacking and wilderness survival from each other. One of my most memorable experiences was backpacking with a group of Boy Scouts and adult leader dads. One of the dads was a bit overweight and out of shape so part of his gear ended up on my back. You can only hike as fast as the slowest hiker. Choose your backpacking companions very carefully.
6. Check out your gear before you leave.
Too much, too little, or simply the wrong gear can turn a “fun, life-changing backpacking experience” into a “not-so-fun, life-changing backpacking experience”. Don’t take that risk. I like to make a checklist, and I go over it at least twice to make sure I don’t forget anything.
On the other hand, don’t take anything you don’t need. Be sure to weigh your gear and follow the rule of thumb that your backpack should weigh less than 25% of your body weight.
7. Get plenty of rest, nourishment and hydration prior to “take off.”
Getting a good night’s sleep before you begin your backpacking trip is important. Going into this adventure when you are already fatigued is a receipt for discomfort. You need to have plenty of nourishment and be hydrated when you hit the trail.
Being prepared makes backpacking the Appalachian Trail enjoyable and gives you a chance to focus on your surroundings without worrying about your comfort–or worse–how you’ll make it back home!
Your Turn: Have you ever backpacked on the A.T. before? Share some of your tips with us in the comments section below!