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[at-l] Thruhiking - Learning about it



A thruhike is largely a head trip - so let's talk about head stuff.  A
few people can just pack up and go - but as part of the planning
process, most of us do some research. Specifically, you might want to be
reading and talking and listening.  

I think anyone crazy enough to want to thruhike is probably smart enough
to find a couple books and read them.  No --- it's not a requirement. 
But it'll give you a lot better idea of what you're getting into, of
what the high and low points might be for you, of the rewards - and,
sometimes, of the price that others have paid.  

For the AT, I'll recommend a couple specific books because IMO they're
the best introduction a prospective thruhiker can get to some of the
realities of the Trail. Try Lynn Setzer's "A Season on the Appalachian
Trail"; Larry Luxenburg's "Walking the Appalachian Trail"; David Brill's
"As Far As the Eye Can See"; Cindy Ross's  "A Woman's Journey"; and the
1975 set of Rodale books titled "Hiking the Appalachian Trail".   All
but the Rodale books are available from the ATC Ultimate Trail Store
(URL: http://www.atconf.org/).  The ATC phone number is 888-287-8673.
The Rodale books may be available at your local library. Personal
opinion is that among the plethora of AT books, these are the ones
that'll give you the best introduction to what thruhiking is about - and
what it really is.  But don't let that stop you from reading anything
else you can find - generally they're all good.  

There have been several books written about the PCT, but the best that
I've read is Cindy Ross's "Journey on the Crest".  We also have Karen
Berger's new book "On the Pacific Crest Trail".  As I recall, these
books are available from PCTA.  Their web page is at
http://www.gorp.com/pcta/ and their phone number is 888-728-7245. 

There's less variety with respect to the CDT, but I'd recommend Karen
Berger's "Where The Waters Divide", as well as John Fayhee's brand new
"Along Colorado's Continental Divide Trail", and, yes - even Stephen
Pern's "The Great Divide".  You can get these books from Adventurous
Traveler or Amazon.com.  

Books are great, but they're not the only resource - there are also
videotapes. All of them are good, but keep in mind that they don't
generally show the rain, hail, snow, etc.  Most people don't drag out
their video camera when the weather gets bad - so you won't see much of
that on the videos and it may give a false impression of what the Trail
is like on a day-to-day basis.  All of them are motivational - and I
enjoy watching them, but for real information content, my personal
recommendation for AT hikers would be Lynne Whelden's "How to Hike the
Appalachian Trail", followed by Lynne Whelden's "Lightweight Backpacking
Secrets Revealed", with the caveat that not all the lightweight
techniques will work for everyone. 

For the PCT, both ATC and PCTA have Lynne Whelden's new  video -  "How
to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail", as well as several other good ones. 

To my knowledge, there's only one video about thruhiking the CDT.  Joe
and Carol McVeigh produced "Journey on the Continental Divide" in a long
version - and a short version. Both versions are available from Jim Wolf
at the Continental Divide Trail Society (phone number: 301-  and the
long one is what you want if you're gonna thruhike.  The short version
is good for showing your family what you're gonna do - if you can get
them to sit down long enough to watch it. The lightweight video also
applies to both the PCT and the CDT to some extent - with the caveat
that it can snow any time of the year on either trail, so you need to be
prepared. In 95, Monk had snow every week he was on the PCT - and in 97,
Cindy Ross had sleet, snow and freezing rain on the CDT in Wyoming - in
August.  

Another information source is the Internet.  There's a whole gaggle of
people who have their journals on publicly available Web pages.  And
there's a lot of information on Web pages put up by ALDHA, ALDHA-West,
Trailplace, the ATC, CDTS, CDTA, PCTA, Kathy  Bilton, PATC and other
maintaining clubs, individual hikers --- seems like everyone in the
world has a Web page.  How much of the information actually pertains to
thruhiking?  Some - but not as much as advertised outside of the actual
journals, and even those should be taken with a large dose of salt. 
Like the videos, the journals are very often "cleaned up" for public
consumption.  The emotional,
sit-down-in-the-middle-of-the-Trail-and-bawl-like-a-sick-calf episodes
are usually deleted.  The "if-I-have-to-eat-another-Lipton's-dinner-I'll
barf" is forgotten with the first hamburger in the next town. And the
Oh-My-God-I-can't-stand-the-pain-anymore stuff rarely makes it into the
public spotlight.  Why?  Because it's embarrassing, because it doesn't
make us look like the Super-hiker, Got-it-all-together Thruhiker Studs
that we'd like to be.  It's an ego thing - it's a human thing.  But
those things DO happen - not to everybody, not every day, not even very
often.   But once again, it gives those who don't know about them a
false impression of Trail reality.  Why do you think some people stop
posting their journals the Web?  Sometimes it's simply because they're
too tired to write --- and sometimes it's because they stop caring about
what the rest of the world thinks --- and sometimes it's because they're
going through mental and/or emotional changes that they don't
understand, can't control, don't know how to explain - and would be
embarrassing if they were put in a public forum.  

If I were gonna recommend a Web page journal, it would be George "Exile"
Steffanos's AT journal "Then the Hail Came"
(http://w3.nai.net/~exile/Hail-nf.html).  It's long (really long) - but
then it's a really long trail, isn't it?  But it's also real - he
doesn't hold anything back.  And IMO - it's just plain good reading.  

Keep in mind that not all journals (in any medium) are good examples. 
Usually no one tells you that, but think about it - if you can acquire
positive attitudes and knowledge by reading journals, you can also
acquire negative attitudes, bad habits and a false impression of what's
normal or even acceptable on the trail the same way. 

And then there are the email lists and forums. If you're a future
thruhiker, I'd advise caution with respect to what you get from them. 
There's a lot of valuable information - but there's also some nonsense. 
I think one fault with the lists lies in the attitude that such things
as cell phones, speed records, bear canisters or other political Trail
"issues" have any real importance or relevance to those who are
thruhiking. Those "issues" may be good "armchair discussions", but
they're essentially irrelevant to the trail.  And the forums generally
have a "resident population" who use the forum as a personal
communication medium. That can also be true of some lists.  There's
nothing wrong with that, but it can sometimes be hard for newcomers to
break into the "conversation" and get real information.  

The lists you want for thruhiking are those that discuss gear,
techniques, trail conditions and (sometimes) the "soft" subjects like
attitude, the mental/emotional side of thruhiking, etc.  For example,
one of the main topics last spring on pct-l was snow conditions while
the discussion on at-l was about safety on the trail.  Now if we could
only get a discussion about snow conditions on the CDT….    But Mark
Dixon's CDT snow page is coming --
(http://missoula.bigsky.net/mdixon/snow/snow.htm)

Nearly all hiking/backpacking forums and lists place heavy emphasis on
gear discussions.  And the gear discussions tend to perpetuate the
illusion that the "perfect gear" will ensure a "perfect hike".   But
aside from at-l and pct-l, very little importance or attention is given
to lightweight gear or lightweight backpacking.  People on gear forums
tend to extol the virtues of expensive 2# jackets, 9# packs and 8#
tents.  Not what you want for thruhiking.  

On the other hand, "lightweight" is an attitude - it's something you
have to grow into.  But  don't be in a hurry about it, because for every
increment of weight your pack loses, there's a corresponding loss of
comfort, convenience and safety.  But it's a good thing to know about
even if you don't use much of it.  A lot of people don't even understand
what it is or the advantages it offers - so they never consider it to be
of value for themselves.  

Generally, the best posts on the email lists are those that get little
or no response --- because there's no way to respond to them.  The truth
in them is self-evident and/or their main content is attitude. Attitudes
are hard to respond to, but they're something that can be learned and
absorbed by watching and listening to those who have them.  Again -
remember that not all of my attitudes - or anyone else's - will fit
you.  Like everything else, you have to pick and choose which attitudes
you can live with and use - and sometimes you'll have to grow into
them.  

One of the most important things you can do is to talk.  Talk to both
past and present thruhikers - find out who and what they are - find out
why they did the Trail - and how.  Find out what they know about the
Trail - where are the good hostels - which town stops are good - whether
they'd do it again and what they'd do differently - what are the
toughest parts of the Trail and the easiest - where did they resupply
and how good was it - what are their best memories and their worst -
there's a whole world of information just waiting for you to ask the
questions.  And thruhikers love to talk about the trail - any trail.  If
you give them an opening, they'll tell you more than you ever wanted to
know about it.   Yeah, I know about the Wingfoot and ALDHA books (and
now the PCTA town and mileage books) - but personal experience is better
- and you'll find that their enthusiasm and excitement are contagious.
You can't get that kind of enthusiasm and excitement from a book or even
a videotape.  And very often the information changes so fast that the
books are out of date by the time they've been printed.  Why do you
think Wingfoot and ALDHA re-issue their books every year?  

Go to the Gathering (either East or West - or both), go to Trail Days,
go to Trailfest if you can possibly get there.  The Gathering is best
because you'll be talking to thruhikers who have finished the Trail,
sometimes just days or even hours before.  They'll have a much better
idea about what the Trail really is than someone who's only been on the
Trail a month or two and finished only the southern states. They'll know
about ALL of the Trail rather than just part of it.  

As a sidebar - the same general rule applies to "studies" or "surveys"
that are taken after people have completed only a part of the Trail. 
For example, from personal experience, some of my equipment held up well
as far as Damascus - and then it started to fall apart.  And the
difference in my attitude between Damascus and Monson was utterly
shocking to a number of people who had known me for years.  A gear (or
attitude) survey taken in Damascus would have gotten vastly different
answers from the same survey taken in Monson.  Which would have been
more accurate?

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