Through-hikers are full of stories

Posted Aug. 28, 2010, at 1:14 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.

Through-hikers always have stories to tell. Talking to them should be on your list of planning strategies, especially if you’ve ever thought of hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.

Even if you only take short, section hikes on multiday backpacking trips, they’ll give you all the advice you’ll need to help make your next overnight hike better. These thread-bare hikers have tons of experience that is only acquired the way they did, by hiking and spending nights outdoors. And they love telling their stories.

I met a few of them on the trail lately. They shared with me some of their anecdotes, tips and wisdom on how to have a great hike on the AT. The three guys I caught up with a couple of Sundays ago were stuffing hamburgers and Italian sandwiches into their faces at Abol Bridge Store and Campground; just across the Penobscot River on the Golden Road.

While we talked, Chris Manza, a ridge-runner on summer duty for Baxter State Park and the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, informed incoming through-hikers about the regulations in the park.

These three were in their 20s, all had beards, and were wearing shirts so full of holes that they were falling off their bodies. When I asked how long it took to plan the hike, it was enough to get them started.

“I took two years,” said Adam “Achilles the Red” Hiatt from Oregon. “I planned for the hike to take five months. I left Georgia in April, so I guess I only took four.” He met his hiking partners on the trail, “somewhere,” he said.

One of his buddies, Jeff “Boundless” Gants, said, “I’ll say I’ve been planning my entire life, but really only a couple of months before I got serious about the hike.” When asked what it takes mentally and physically to hike more than 2,100 miles, the other partner, Doug “Wrong Way” Littell, spoke up.

“I don’t know what it takes to do a through-hike, really. I didn’t plan for it very far ahead. Maybe, January? I left in April, too, so only a few months. But, I planned my stops for re-supply,” he explained.

I put out another question to them and asked whether it takes discipline or adaptability to hike the trail. “Boundless” responded with, “Discipline, definitely. It takes discipline to just suck it up and keep going when you feet hurt for day after day on end.”

At least they planned ahead. Every hike starts off with a plan. Another pair of hikers I met on Pleasant Pond Mountain in Caratunk last weekend had a plan that they worked on for three years before starting out in Georgia.

“I pretty much set the wheels in motion about three years ago,” said Steve “Draggin’ Tail” Spydell, 56. He was hiking with his 19-year-old son, Matt “Sherpa” Spydell. They are from Independence, Missouri. “We are on a fundraising hike for Water for People, a global nonprofit agency that develops solutions to provide people in developing countries around the world with safe drinking water.” Their goal was to raise $10,000 and they’ve just passed $14,000 in pledges.

As to what they were carrying for weight, their packs weighed around 30 pounds with three to fives days worth of food. They bought some of their food from the Boy Scouts, Steve said. “We bought 50 surplus packaged breakfasts, lunches and dinners for two people from the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, which we supplement with noodle side dishes by Lipton’s and Knorr’s and tuna in a foil pouch. Of course, we eat oatmeal and pop-tarts. And when we leave town, we leave with fresh produce, like avocados for the fat content, cheese, and kale.”

“On our first few days after re-supply, we eat all the heavy food before it spoils,” he said.

They left Georgia on April 5, “the day after Easter,” Matt said, It’s been “139 days.” Through-hikers always know how many days it’s been since they started. I asked jokingly if they were still father and son. They both laughed. “Yup, and we didn’t have to send our knives home,” Steve added

I spent a few more minutes with the pair, then, they had to get moving. They were trying to hike a 20-mile day before dark and had about 10 more to go. It was about 3 p.m. and they still had to cross another mountain, Moxie Bald. We said our goodbyes and they were on their way north.

If you have ever thought of taking on a through-hike, talk to a hiker who’s been there. It worked for me before my own section hikes of Maine. I went on my first backpacking trip in my 20s, solo, and completely uninitiated. All I had done before was day hikes. My first backpacking day I hiked 8 miles, stayed the night, and went home the next morning, I was so beat up. I originally planned to go three nights and cover 35 miles in the Mahoosucs in southwestern Maine.

I came home determined to train more locally by carrying a bigger pack on my day hikes. Then, I met a through-hiker who I knew before he and his wife left on their AT trek. He agreed to meet me in the Mahoosucs when they came through. We met and after that same first day, I wanted to go home, and told my friend. He gave me the best advice I’ve ever received about backpacking. “Don’t decide that now,” he said. “Wait until morning.”

Morning came and I felt great. He knew I would. I shouldered the pack and we climbed up Success Mountain, about 3,500 feet. About an hour into the hike I felt like turning around, but by then I was committed. Eventually I ended up hiking all of Maine’s 278 miles, twice. In 1994 I finished all the rest of the trail by hiking from Georgia into Andover. All because of listening to a through-hiker who said, wait for morning.


Tips and techniques for long-distance treks

Hiking a long-distance hike is as much mentally challenging as it is physically. “It takes more head than heel,” said Emma “Gramma” Gatewood, a three-time through-hiker.

Start by taking section hikes from road crossing to road crossing. Most hikers on the AT are actually section hikers or day hikers. End-to-enders make up the smallest group of users.

There’s a saying about Maine, the hardest state, among would-be through hikers. They say if you can hike Maine you can hike it all. It’s that hard. Don’t be discouraged if you want to quit. Everybody does at some point. Wait until morning. Hit the trail early in the morning, while you feel good. You’ll have more time for stops during the day to enjoy the scenery.

Finally, plan everything. Go through your pack before you leave and take out everything nonessential. After you’re done, weigh it often and work to reduce weight. Unload it on the floor and look at just how little you really need. It’s never much. You’ll have more fun hiking if lifting that pack to your shoulders isn’t agony.

For planning guides, books and maps on sections of the AT in Maine, contact www.matc.org or www.appalachiantrail.com for the other states.

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