Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike- Days 1-5
Wow, so I finally started the AT. Crazy and surreal feeling after so many months and years of planning and researching. I hardly slept the night before. Just way too many wheels turning in my head about what was to come. Got up at 3:30am and had an Uber pick me up at 5am. Daylight savings just happened, so it wasn’t even daylight yet when we arrived at the trail head, and the visitor center of the park where we were supposed to register didn’t open for 2.5 hours. The first day of hiking is not even part of the Appalachian Trail officially. It is just the approach trail- 9 miles up to the top of Springer Mountain where the AT officially begins. Met a guy who was dropping off his son for some hiking and he said he knew of a place we could register earlier and so he drove me up there. I just gave my name to a hotel up the hill and they said they would call down and give it to the visitor center later. Turns out I missed a full orientation that would have been nice to see, but I wanted to get going earlier. It also turned out that the place I got dropped off was a mile up the approach trail, not at the very beginning. So I missed the most challenging part of the 600 and some stairs that go past Amacalola Falls. Kind of wanted to see that part, but since we were already there and it took a mile off the day, I went for it. Starting slowly and not putting too many miles on your body too early is crucial. 7-8 miles a day is plenty for the first week or so as your body adjusts. Otherwise you risk overuse injuries. That’s part of the reason I was ok with missing that first mile. Start slow.
The weather was cold and rainy driving there. And as I hiked, that rain turned into snow. Not super heavy, but enough to coat everything white. Was beautiful but cold with wind whipping through at certain parts. I had heard the trail was pretty hard on the first day, but I didn’t find it too bad. Fairly gradual ups and downs. It is still winter, so the trees in the thick forest that we are hiking through are all barren. With the cloudy skies, it was kind of gloomy looking, but beautiful in its own way. Took me about 5 hours to summit Springer Mountain. There is a sign on the top marking the southern terminus of the AT and a register to sign. Took some pictures and video in the freezing cold and hurried on, as it was only .02 miles until the shelter where I would be camping for the night. Every 8 miles or so on the AT there are 3-sided shelters where people can sleep, or we can pitch our tents next to the shelters and camp. From what I’m told, every shelter in Georgia has a toilet and a bear box where we can store our food overnight. Very convenient, but unfortunately this is not the norm for the entire trail. After Georgia, it’s gonna be pooping in the woods and hanging our food on trees. Most people start the trail in mid-March (apparently 4000 people will attempting this hike this year), so the shelters are pretty full. I set up my tent for the first night. Thinking that I would rather tent camp as much as possible to have my privacy- in the shelters you are sleeping next to other hikers. Can’t really spread out your stuff, and have to worry about people moving around, snoring, staying up late and making noise, etc. But people say when it’s raining hard you want to use the shelters. Another reason to get up early and start ahead of the pack. Make sure there is room for you.
Met some cool people at the shelter and hung out with them after I set up my camp. We all cooked our pasta dinners on the picnic table and ate together. All the shelters are built near a water source, so we had to walk down the hill to the stream to filter our water for the evening and next day as well. After I had been there for a while, the sun came out and the skies were totally blue. The warmth was amazing compared to earlier in the day. But when the sun went down around 7 or 7:30, it got cold fast. Everyone was tired from the first day of hiking, so we all headed to bed. 8 or 9 pm is called “hiker midnight” around here. I tried to read on my iPad mini for a bit, but it was actually too cold to read. I needed to have my arms out of the sleeping bag to hold the iPad, and that got too much after about 20 minutes. So I just crashed out around 8:30pm. Such will be the life out here. Early nights, early mornings.
Was a pretty cold night last night. I was just warm enough but could have been warmer. I have a 15 degree F bag, and was wearing my down jacket underneath, but it was still borderline cold. I had to pee in the night and fought it for a couple hours, but finally had to leave the tent at 3am. Put on my rain shell to go out and left it on in the sleeping bag when I came back. That actually helped a ton and I was much warmer after that. Got up at 5am to get ready to hike. The mud from the previous days’ rain and snow had frozen overnight, which made it easier to pack up and not get all dirty. It’s a slow process that early and with a headlamp. Doesn’t get light until about 7:30am, but I wanted an early start. Eventually we will have to be hiking 15 miles a day, and I want some time at the end of the day to chill out at the camp and relax. The hike was quite easy for most of the day, to my pleasant surprise. Lots of downhill and flat for a lot of it. I did slip and fall on some ice early in the day and managed to bend my trekking pole a bit. It still works fine, but won’t collapse down at the end of the day. Pain in the ass but I’ll have to return it and get a new one at some point soon. Tried to drink some water an hour or so into the hike, but the mouth of the bottle was solid ice. Sunny day tho, so it thawed eventually. Met another guy named Jordan who just finished his military service in the Army. He is the first hiker I have met who is also doing a charity hike. His cause is for a program that works with vets with PTSD and helps them readjust with hikes and activities. Cool guy and we hiked most of the day together. Saw a girl named Ingrid a few times. I’d met her on the first day. She is hiking “only” 3 weeks with her dog Otto who is always excited to meet people. She didn’t do much research and doesn’t know much about the trail and just decided to take a long walk with her dog. I admire her spontaneity.
Was walking along around lunch time, and saw a bunch of backpacks piled up on the side of the trail. Walked into an opening in the trees and suddenly there was this huge green meadow! The rest of the forest is leafless for winter and pretty brown, so it was really strange and surprising to see this huge green field. A bunch of other hikers were hanging out at the top of it and having lunch, so I joined them and took a break for a while. Hiked on and got to my camp for the night about 1:20pm. Ate my lunch of peanut and jelly tortillas. Interesting to see what everyone is eating out here. Trying to steal ideas for later. One girl said she eats a full block of cheese a day on the recommendation of her friend who finished this trail and the PCT as well. Guess it gave him the fats for energy, although it seems to me that it would be hard to poop. My meals for this week are a drink mix of instant oatmeal, Carnation Breakfast powder, instant coffee, and hot chocolate for my breakfast. Follow that with a couple of granola bars. Snack on trail mix and Snicker’s bars while hiking. The peanut butter and jelly tortillas for lunch, and pasta packets for dinner. I add in a packet of tuna and a splash of olive oil for the fats and proteins that are crucial. Mostly hiker lose huge amounts of weight while hiking this far, but the danger is losing muscle if you don’t have the fats and proteins. We stop in towns along the way every 3-5 days to resupply and that will be the time to get some vegetables and fruit. Too heavy or too easy to spoil out here. Eventually everyone gets what is called “hiker hunger” from burning all the calories. Basically can’t get full and are always hungry. Town visits are also a time that people go nuts and eat tons at local restaurants. Despite all this, most hikers will lose 30-50 pounds from all the walking.
At camp now. Quite crowded today. I was one of the first tents up, but now I have several neighbors. Hopefully not too noisy. Everyone should be pretty tired and go to bed early. I did pack earplugs just in case tho. One guy here said his friend died recently and would have been 49 years old today. So he packed in 49 pounds of food in his memory and is giving it away to everyone to eat. Dried fruits, chocolate cover coffee beans, meats and cheeses, all kine. Enjoyed helping him get rid of some of that food while I was eating my lunch.
Well, time to go chill out with these people here. Will be hiking with some of them for a long time, so best to make friends now.
Cooked dinner and got into my tent by 7 last night. In the tent by 7 and lights out by 8 is my plan. Want to be up early and make an early start everyday. Have time to relax a bit in the afternoons at the camps after the hikes. Was super crowded last night at Hawk Mountain shelter. Tents everywhere. About 4000 people a year attempt the AT, and most start in mid-March or early April, so there is a huge hiker bubble that forms early on the trail. 75-80% of people do not make it to Maine, so the people thin out as we go, but pretty packed for now. People quit for various reasons: they run out of money, physical injury (knock on wood), or mental burn out from the grind of doing this for 6 months. The mental part is the #1 reason people get off the trail. I have no intentions of quitting myself, and really hope that I can be part of that 20-25% that make it all the way, but we will see. But I can already see why so many people do stop. It’s not easy and it’s quite busy every day. The hiking I expected, but setting up a full camp every evening after hiking, cooking, getting water, washing dishes, and many other small tasks, and then breaking everything down every morning and packing up is a lot of work. I guess I imagined a bit more chill time at camp, but I find myself pretty steadily busy doing chores. I can see how this, along with the big hiking miles can burn people out. Just trying to take it 1 day at a time now. Breaking it in to chunks mentally. We have to resupply in town every 3-5 days, so I just focus on making it to the next town, and not think about doing this for 6 months. That can get overwhelming quickly. The hiking part has been fine so far. Starting slowly at 7-8 miles or so a day. Just trying to be smart and not get an overuse injury early on. Ease the body into it. A guy I talked to back in Hawaii recommended 7-8 miles a day for the first week, 10 miles a day for the second week, 12 a day for the 3rd week, and then finally hit 15 in the 4th week. We need to eventually average 15 a day to make it to Maine within the 6 months. I hear a lot of hikers do 20+ a day eventually, but I have no desire to push it that hard. Trying to be kind to my body. But some hikers I meet here are already chomping a the bit to do more than 8 a day. They seem anxious to start doing 10-12 already. To each their own. Hike your own hike, as they say out here, but I do caution them about doing too much too soon. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Got up in the dark and cold to get ready this morning. I was the first one to leave camp, around 7am. Felt good to get a head start on the day and have some quiet time alone to walk. Seems like a majority of people so far are taking slow, leisurely mornings and leaving at 10 or 11am, I guess since we are walking less miles at this point and there is plenty of time in the day. I prefer the early start and slow afternoons personally. Had a lot of hills to climb in the first half today. Sassafras mountain was the big one today, with about 400 feet of elevation gain. Long climb, but after that one the trail finally eased up and it was pretty flat or downhill for the rest of the day. We all carry the same guidebook, The AT Guide, with us on the trail. I have the digital copy on my phone. It’s a great book as it gives you the exact mileage to your next destination, shows where there are shelters, where there are camping sites, water sources, and your exact elevation gain and loss as the day goes on. Nice to scan that in the morning to see what you have coming in front of you. There is also an app called Guthook that gives similar information as the guidebook, but also uses GPS to show your exact location on the trail, Since it accesses GPS, no need to be connected online to use it.
My biggest adventure of the day was the fact that my water filter froze overnight and I couldn’t filter any water. People have recommended putting the filter in the foot of your sleeping bag at night to prevent it from freezing, but I forgot to do that last night or didn’t take it that seriously, and this morning found out the hard way. I had a bit of water to make breakfast with and drink before I went, so at least that. Started hiking and stopped after a hour or so to drink water, and this is when I discovered that the filter was frozen. The filter screws on to the top of my water bottle and so filters the water as I drink. Except when it’s filled with ice. I stuck the filter in my pocket and thought my body heat while hiking would thaw it out, but every time I checked it was still frozen. After 3 or 4 hours of this, I went for my backup plan- water purification tablets that I also carry just for this reason. But the instructions were on the outside of the box, and had worn off while inside my pack, so I had no idea how many tablets to use or how to use them. I tried to Google it, but no signal there. So in the end I just ended up hiking the whole 8 miles with no water. Not ideal by any means, but it was fine. Right when I got to the shelter for the night I ran into another hiker I know and asked to borrow a filter or tablets. But first I checked my own filter again, and finally it had thawed!!! I drank an entire liter of water on the spot. Needless to say, that filter will be by my feet in the sleeping bag tonight!
At a spot called “Gooch Gap” tonight (hehehe). Tomorrow we head for Lance Creek campsite. No shelter there, so that means no bear boxes to store our food in at night and no outhouses. Will get to throw my first bear bag rope tomorrow night to hang my food, and if all goes according to schedule, use my trowel to dig a hole and poop in the woods for the first time the following morning.
More water drama yesterday evening after I’d finally gotten plenty to drink. Turns out that the filter I have breaks and doesn’t work at all if it gets frozen. Wish I’d known that before I drank that liter when I finished the day yesterday. Oops. Well, it’s been 30 hours since that drink, and I’ve had no symptoms at all, so I think I dodged a bullet on that one. Whew. Luckily I have some tablets for water purification as a backup, so I’m good. Will be sticking with the tablets from now on. I’m over the damn filter thing already.
Nice 8.1 mile hike today to Lance Creek campsite. Our first views of the trail today. Most of the hiking has been in the forest with no real views, or views blocked by tons of trees. Had a couple of amazing ones today of endless hills stretching out to eternity. Saw a hawk cruising over the mountains. Beautiful moment. There is a stream nearby the campsite where we are, but suddenly the word started spreading like wildfire that this stream is contaminated and people got sick from drinking it. So I had to stop at a stream a mile before the camp and just carry a big load of water the last stretch. Seemingly endless water issues recently.
This camp site is nice. No shelter here, so many less people and much more intimate. Easier to talk with everyone and a more communal feeling than like 30 tents and huge crowds. I’m not keen on sleeping in those shelters anyways, so I’ll be happy to find more campsites like this one going forward. Just depends on the mileage. We have a number in mind of how many miles we want to hike on a given day, and then search the guidebook and see what’s available for camping at around that distance. But rarely is there anything exactly that distance, so we either have to cut some miles off, or add some to our day. So far I’m erring on the side of less to ease into this thing, as I’ve talked about.
Well, tomorrow is the first town day when we get to Neel Gap. There are supposedly cabins there for $72 that fit 4-5 people, so we are all taking about sharing some and splitting up the cost. Good gear resupply place there apparently to change anything you haven’t been happy with so far. The sole of my hiking shoe started peeling off on the side today, so I may need to change out my shoes in addition to my bent trekking pole. Both are fine to use for a while longer, but hopefully I can get REI to ship me some new ones. Everything is under warranty for a year. But other than the gear, we have restaurants, showers, laundry, and food resupply to look forward to. Starting to slowly get a rhythm down for the hiking and camping part of this journey, so will be good to see what the town side is like.
We camped last night at Lance Creek. Aside from the mileage, the reason we camped there was because the next 8 miles have a lot of bears and they require that everyone carries a bear canister. For those who don’t know, a bear canister is a huge plastic jar that all your food goes into, and bears cannot get into it. We all use the bear boxes that are sometimes at shelters here, or hang our bags on bear cables like last night so that the bears and other critters cannot get into our food. But I guess the next area was bear-heavy. None of us carry a bear canister due to the size and weight, so we all just camped out of the bear zone. Today we got up and hiked all the way through the bear area, 7.2 miles to Neel Gap. After this we are free and clear. I guess they were not joking tho, because 5 minutes out of camp I saw a huge bear poop on the trail, and saw 4 total while I was hiking today. Never seen that in the preceding days. Haven’t seen any bears yet.
We climbed Blood Mountain today, our biggest climb yet. I think we gained about 1500 ft of elevation all told, but a lot of up and down. It was fairly hyped up as a huge and tough mountain, but actually the gains were very gradual and it wasn’t bad at all. The views from the top were amazing! Neel Gap turns out to be just basically an outdoor outfitter store and some cabins. Nothing much at all. I’m glad it was there tho, because I was able to buy new trekking poles to replace my bent one, ship my bent poles back to REI, and arrange for REI to ship a new pair of boots to a town in North Carolina that I will hike to in about 9 days or so. Also bought a smaller cooking pot as the one I had was too big, and couple of other items I needed, including the hard copy of the AT guidebook. I originally ordered both the hard copy and the e-copy for my phone and iPad, but I decided to ditch the hard copy to save weight and just use my phone. Turns out that we need to really study the guidebook for quite a while to plan out the next few days mileage and where the next town stop is. It takes time and it was killing my phone battery. Thankfully they had them here. Good to get to test out the gear for the first 5 days and be able to exchange a couple of things so soon.
The word was that all the cabins were full at Neel Gap and there was tent camping only available. After 4 nights sleeping in my tent and many more to come, I was not interested in tent camping there. Turns out there is a town 14 miles away called Blairsville. A couple we are hiking with had already reserved a motel room there, so 4 of us are sharing this room tonight. Only $18 a piece split 4 ways. I like that about the culture here on the trail. It’s very communal. Everyone is striving for the same goal, and we are all in this together. Everyone helps everyone out. I was planning to hitchhike to Blairsville from Neel Gap, but the lady at the outfitter flagged down a local guy and asked if he was heading that way. Turns out that he was a former AT thru-hiker himself and he was happy to give me and another hiker a ride. He dropped us off at the motel and gave us his phone number to call him for a ride to Walmart tomorrow to resupply. Nice guy. We are all taking the day off tomorrow to resupply, do laundry, etc. Also to just take a break and catch our breath after 5 days of hiking.
The hot shower I took when I got here was AMAZING!!! You really learn to appreciate the little things being out here. Then it turns out that across the parking lot is a $7 all-u-can-eat buffet of salad and pizza! We have all been eating camping food for the last several days, so that was a huge treat. A big group of us piled in there and filled up. Anyway, nice to have a day off tomorrow. It is supposed to rain a lot, so good day to be indoors anyways. This is just how I will chunk up this trip. 4-5 days at a time until the next town stop.