Now that I have written an account of my AT hike, I thought I would write down some things that I think are true about hiking before writing about the next hike. The first thing to note is that I subscribe completely to the hike-your-own-hike (HYOH) philosophy, so this should be read as descriptive more than prescriptive.
Leave No Trace
Okay, I lied. This is the one prescription. Read the principles and follow them. Also follow any other rules that are in place for the area that you're in. If it says not to make camp fires, then don't. It's a pity to need to say this, but I've seen experienced hikers break the rules (and I'm not perfect either, but I do my best).
So much of the conversation about hiking with non-hikers or inexperienced hikers is about dangerous animals. I probably saw less than one bear for every month of hiking that I did, and they were all running away from me. I never hiked in grizzy country, and if I ever do, I'll think about maybe carrying bear spray, though I doubt I will in the end. Wilderness is vast and bears and other dangerous animals are sparse. They generally don't want anything to do with us.
The most scared I was of an animal on the AT was the time I saw a skunk on the trail in the Shenandoahs.
I'm generally not an ultralighter, though I'm moving more in that direction. This is the gear that I used.
I love my hammock. It's lighter than many tents, far more comfortable than sleeping on the ground, and you don't need to find a flat spot to set it up. On the other hand, you do need to find suitable trees. This is easy in a pine forest and is probably impossible in the plains.
Not boots. I grew to be very happy with the North Face Singletrack trail-running shoe. It is a bit more rugged than a normal running shoe, but far less stiff and heavy than a boot. I like my shoes to last at least 10 miles per dollar. The Singletrack normally costs about $100 and lasts about 1000 miles, so that works out.
I wore the same pack for both of my thru-hikes: the Black Diamond Infinity 60. It worked well, though I came to feel that it was heavier than it needed to be.
All synthetic. For the AT hike, I wore the same shirt and shorts most of the way. I got a new pair of shorts in Damascus, just because I was getting tired of the pair that I was wearing. I started my AT hike with three pairs of socks and they lasted me the whole way. I would generally change socks only as needed because they were wet or once per week during dry sections. I carried the following:
- One short-sleeved shirt
- One long-sleeved shirt
- Two pairs of underwear
- One pair of shorts
- One pair of long pants
- Three pairs of socks
- One fleece
- One rain jacket
- One down jacket
On sections that I knew would be very cold, I carried a hat and gloves. In the Sierras I carried wool tights as well, and there were nights where I wore everything that I was carrying.
I have a fairly generic down sleeping bag from MEC. Since it's down, I must be very careful to keep it dry. To do this, I keep it in a trash bag inside its stuff sack.
It's the law that you must carry one in the Sierras, so I did. They are the worst – heavy and bulky, and they still don't fit as much food as a normal food bag.
As far as I can tell, simpler is better. A strap is good and telescoping is good so that they fit in cars when hitching. I've never used poles with shock absorbers, but I really don't see how they would help.
The main change between my hikes was my stove. On my AT hike, I used a MSR Whisperlite stove. It's a great stove – it puts out varying levels of heat and is very fuel efficient – but I thought it was a bit heavy for one person. So on my PCT hike, I took a Vargo titanium alcohol stove. It was lighter, but only had one temperature, was more prone to accidents, was a pain to fill, and required more fuel. I know that if I was going on a hike with more than one person, I would take the Whisperlite, but I don't know what I'd do on another solo hike.
For some hikes, they are necessary, for others emphatically not. I took the AWOL guide on my AT hike and printed out the Halfmile maps for my PCT hike. Since the AT is so well marked, only an elevation profile is necessary so that you know how difficult the next stretch of trail will be. On the other hand, it is important to have maps on the PCT because there are places where the trail is not obvious.
I have about 50 feet of parachute cord that I attach the lightest possible carabiner to. I then use the PCT Method to hang the food bag from the tree (with varying degrees of success). As I noted earlier, I'm generally not too concerned about actual bears, but hanging food is always a good thing, especially near established campsites where there is a high probability of rodents.
I'm a firm believer that you should always pack in a consistent manner. This saves you time rooting around in your pack. The only tip that I have is that the sleeping bag should go on the bottom. You won't need it all day, and it's nice to have something soft on the bottom of your pack if you put it down quickly or fall down backwards. Other than that, I don't think the order matters too much as long as it's consistent.
Both of my long hikes have been solo hikes in the sense that I made no explicit arrangement with anyone else to hike together. In both hikes, I have had periods of being truly alone and periods where I would regularly meet up with the same people nearly every night. I probably enjoyed myself the most when I was in groups of three or four, but I also think that it would be nearly impossible for me to stay with one single group for an entire hike.
The community aspect of hiking is one of its strongest selling-points. You meet all kinds of people who are all doing the same thing as you. So that gives you something to talk about right away. Nothing bonds like shared misery.
There is also a strong sense that everyone is looking out for each other. This was put into the starkest relief for me when I was hiking in the Sierras on the PCT, so I'll go into it in more detail when I get around to writing about that.
I might write another of these more general posts about hiking later. I still haven't touched on things like a daily schedule or what town stops are like. For now, however, I think this post has gotten long enough.