In a recent post, I gave a shoutout to Patrick Freeman and his classes at Lauderdale County High School, where over 100 students are following my progress on the Appalachian Trail. (Hi, y’all! Thanks for supporting and motivating me!) They sent me some great questions about my backpacking adventure. After a brief delay and much anticipation, here are my answers.
Table of Contents
1. What made you want to hike it?
Long ago I read Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods. Hilarious book. I had heard about the Appalachian Trail, but that got me thinking about hiking it myself. However, that’s a big time commitment, usually 5–6 months.
I sold my house recently. In a few years, I’ll likely be caring for my elderly parents. My son just graduated from high school and started college studying cyber security, so he doesn’t need me around as much. Thus, I had this narrow window when I had cash and was between dutiful commitments. Great time to fulfill a long-time dream.
The more I looked, the bigger my dream got. I decided to hike not just the Appalachian Trail, but to do the Triple Crown, which adds hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. And why not go for the Calendar Year Triple Crown where you hike all of these in one year? Dream big!
My only issue was my business. I have my own IT support business. What do I do with all my clients? I don’t want to just abandon them. That would be irresponsible. But with my son in college studying cyber security, I decided to give my business to my son and spent a few months training him.
With all my responsibilities taken care of, I set out to live my dream. It’s awesome. Been a great decision. I’m having the time of my life.
2. What's the coolest thing that you have seen so far?
The sunrises and sunsets are amazing on the trail. Sure, you have those everywhere, but when you’re camping on top of a mountain, you can see for miles in every direction. The horizon glows red, and where the sun is, it’s like it’s burning yellow. And at the same time while you can see the sun on the horizon, you can look up and see the night sky. Dark blue with twinkling stars.
City sunrises and sunsets can’t compare. Buildings block your view. Light pollution from billboards and streetlights drowns out the stars. I recommend all of you experience a sunrise and sunset from the top of a mountain at least once in your life. They are beautiful. And if you were missing that beauty all this time, what else are you missing out on? What else could you experience if you venture out into the world?
3. What kind of food do you eat?
There are special freeze-dried meals specifically made for backpacking. They’re lightweight, high in calories and protein (both of which you need when hiking a marathon everyday), and easy to prepare. Unfortunately, they’re expensive and usually nasty. Plus, they’re hard to find.
Thus, I also get regular groceries. One of my go-to items is tuna packets, which are high in protein. I’ll eat them on a tortilla or mixed into instant potatoes. It’s as delicious as it sounds (which means it’s bland and nasty).
Peanut butter is great. High fat and protein. I usually eat peanut butter on carrots or apples or plain tortillas.
I also do jerky, nuts, cheese, or peanut butter M&Ms as a trail snack.
But that is all macronutrients: carbs, protein, and fat. When you push your body as hard as I am for such a long time, you need to make sure you’re getting micronutrients, too. That’s the vitamins and minerals that you need in addition to calories. Without micronutrients, you’ll feel tired, get cramps, etc. You can find micronutrients in fruits and vegetables. Thus, I usually try to carry an apple or a bag of sugar snap peas to eat as a trail snack, or a bag of spinach or bell peppers to add to my food. The fruits and vegetables have been a great boost to my energy levels.
4. Have you had any scary/weird encounters?
I did have this weird encounter where this teacher from Alabama kept following me on the trail and then started stalking me online. I’m kidding! Mr. Freeman is awesome. Don’t forget that he’s hiking the AT, too, so be sure to give him some support!
I have had some scary animal encounters. I saw two black shapes below me that I thought were two black bear cubs. Black bears usually avoid humans, but they become very aggressive to protect their cubs. I looked around nervously for mama bear, but soon I realized the black shapes were jet black wild pigs, not bear cubs. Danger averted.
Another time I was hiking at night and heard a bear crashing through the woods uphill to get away from me. I spent the next few hours hiking in the dark periodically yelling, “Yo, bear! Coming through!” to make sure I didn’t startle a bear, particularly a mama bear with cubs.
But the scariest was after a recent ice storm. The trees were encased in a half inch of ice. Branches and trees were collapsing under the weight of literally thousands of pounds of ice. As I was resting on a log, a branch from the top of a 30-foot-high tree cracked and fell to the ground just 15 feet in front of me. Walking down the trail, another branch fell 20 feet away. But the most spectacular was an entire tree that collapsed. I heard a thunderous crack about 50 feet away from me and looked to see the trunk of a huge tree splitting with loud cracks and pops as the tree slowly toppled over. When it hit the ground, snow exploded upward, engulfing the tree in a white cloud.
Keep in mind that the trail goes through the middle of a forest with trees in every direction. I looked up. The trees directly above me were heavy with ice and swaying nearly 20 feet back and forth from the wind. How much could these trees take before they broke, too, and fell on top of me?
I could have let that fear dominate me and scare me into turning around, but instead I pushed on. It’s highly unlikely that I would be under a branch at the exact moment it broke. It’s highly unlikely to be attacked by a bear even when you’re backpacking.
I don’t want fear to rule me. I don’t want to miss out on life because of fear, and you shouldn’t either. If there’s anything you learn from all this, it should be to not let fear rule you. Don’t be afraid. Take that chance. Yes, when you take a chance, you might fail. You might get your heart broken. But there’s also the potential for beauty and love and amazing experiences that you can’t even fathom. So don’t live in fear—go out and live your life to its fullest!
5. Have you gotten hurt/injured?
Within the first three days, I had damaged some toenails because my boots were too small. I’m likely going to lose 1–5 toenails. There’s a photo of one on my website but be warned that it’s cringe.
Also on my feet, I got pinch blisters on the bottom of my pinky toes. These made every step painful. One actually became a blood blister and looked really nasty (worse than the toenail). I had to lance them with my pocketknife. I’ve been keeping them wrapped in a bandaid, which cushions the toe and so far has stopped the blisters from reforming.
I had contact dermatitis on my shoulders. That’s basically a rash where my shoulder straps were rubbing in the humidity.
But the worst was my knee. I got quadricep tendonitis. It was incredibly painful. My knee swelled up. I could barely bend my leg. I was afraid it was going to end my entire hike. Even so, I hiked about 45 miles in two days to get ahead of a storm. Then I took a “zero day” where I don’t hike, rested my knee, massaged it, and kept it wrapped in a brace. It was still painful for several days, but with care, my knee has recovered, and my hike continues!
6. What keeps you motivated to keep going?
I have always liked to push myself to see what I’m capable of, so I’m pretty self-motivating. However, for the past two years, I’ve been telling all my friends and family that I’m planning to attempt the Calendar Year Triple Crown. This was important motivation because I don’t want to go back and have to tell all of them that I just gave up.
Even more motivating is the fact that hundreds or maybe thousands of people are following my blog and real-time map to see how I’m doing on the trail. I have people messaging me all the time about how they’re living vicariously through me, and I’m motivating them to pursue their own adventures.
Most motivating of all is that y’all are following me. Seriously. It’s one thing to motivate adults, but they’ve already made choices to be where they are in their lives. But for all of you, those choices are still ahead of you. I’m hoping that if I push through the hardships and achieve this goal or even just part of it, it will motivate you to pursue your dreams. You might encounter some difficulties, but don’t give up! Push through the setbacks and think of your end goal. Think of me pushing through losing toenails, limping stiff-legged, rain, cold, snow. These are short-term minor discomforts. There are also great days, new friends, amazing adventures, and that goal of accomplishing this enormous feat. At the very least, I’ll have an incredible story to tell for the rest of my life. You can, too. Just set yourself a goal and push to achieve it.
7. Where do you get all of your food?
I get special freeze-dried foods for backpacking at outdoor stores, but that’s only in larger towns. Otherwise, I resupply at regular grocery stores in the small towns along the trail.
And occasionally when I’m getting low on food, I hunt squirrel. But they taste a little gamey, so I generally don’t like eating them. I’m kidding! Squirrels actually taste great. I kidding again! I don’t hunt or eat squirrels (usually). 🙂
8. How do you stay warm during the winter?
While I’m hiking, I’m burning a lot of calories. Sometimes I actually get sweaty even if it’s below freezing. Thus, I like to “layer” clothes. That means I might have a thin base layer, like a merino wool t-shirt, then a long-sleeve merino wool shirt, and finally a windproof jacket. Merino wool is great because it still insulates even if gets wet, and it doesn’t get as stinky as synthetic clothing. If it’s really cold, I have a thin down jacket I wear under the wind jacket. I do similar layering for my legs.
When I get too hot, I can unzip special “pit zips” (vents along the armpits where people usually get sweaty) on my jacket to keep from getting sweaty while still staying warm. If I still get too hot, I can unzip the front of my jacket or remove a layer entirely.
At night, I sleep in a down sleeping bag on top of thick foam and air pads to insulate me from the cold ground. My sleeping bag is rated to -25°F, so I stay nice and toasty even on the coldest nights on the Appalachian Trail.
9. How much does it cost?
That depends on several things, like how often you camp versus staying in hostels or hotels, what kind of food you buy, and how long it takes you to hike the trails. Typically, hiking the entire AT, PCT, or CDT costs about $5,000 each.
But you don’t have to hike the entire trail. You can hike smaller sections for cheap or even just day hike it and still have some amazing experiences. You can do that either of those for little more than gas money to get there. Also, there are far more trails and parks across the country. Just search online and you might find some beautiful places closer to you.
10. How do you wash your clothes?
Most hiker hostels have a washer & dryer. Usually they also have loaner clothes that you can wear while you can wash all your clothes. Hikers pack very limited clothes, so it’s great to be able to wash everything.
The loaner clothes are usually pretty horrible. Like the reject pile from Goodwill. But you just need them long enough to wash and dry your own clothes.
11. How are your shoes holding up and what kind are you wearing?
I’m on my third pair of shoes already. My first pair of boots were too small, and they damaged my toenails in the first three days.
I stopped at an outfitter on the trail and got a larger pair of shoes. Unfortunately, that outfitter only had mesh shoes in my size. Those wouldn’t work in snow that I expected to encounter, but they did get me the next major town.
At the next town, I went to a larger outfitter with a huge selection of waterproof boots and spent a long time walking around the store, making sure I didn’t feel any rub points where I might get blisters, and repeatedly jumping up and down on their little shoe ramp to make sure my toes didn’t jam against the front of the shoes.
I settled on a pair of size 12 Altra boots, which have a huge toe box that makes them look like clown shoes. They have been working pretty well. However, despite being waterproof, they did get saturated while hiking through slushy snow, and then froze overnight when the temperature dropped into the 20s. Thus, at yet another outfitter along the trail, I bought some waterproofing cream. I coated my boots with a generous double layer, and now they are working out much better. They’re still not completely waterproof, but now it takes a lot longer for the rain and snow to seep into the boots.
12. What do you do when you run out of water?
The Appalachian Trail has lots of springs and streams along the trail. I collect water there and use a special backpacking water filter to get rid of nasty stuff like bacteria and viruses.
Water weighs a lot, so I try to carry just enough to get me to a later water source. Unfortunately, a few times that later source is dry or I miscalculated, and I have to walk miles without water.
On the PCT and CDT, there are desert sections where it might be days in between water sources. In those sections, I’ll have to carry gallons of water. Water is heavy. I’m not looking forward to that.
13. How far away do you keep your food from your tent at night?
There are different ways to store your food. Some shelters (tiny three-sided building with a roof and a sleeping platform) have bear boxes. These are large, bear-proof metal boxes where you can store your food at night, usually about 50–100 feet away from camp. We did that the first night. Unfortunately, shelters usually have a lot of mice, and this bear box had a small rusty hole on the bottom. The mice got in through this hole and ate some of our food.
Fortunately, I also use a bear canister, which is a large, plastic container with a locking lid. It’s strong enough that a bear can’t break it open even if it jumps up and down on it. The mice couldn’t get into that, so we still had plenty of food.
There are also bear sacks, which are like duffle bags made from a special material that bears and mice can’t chew through. Or you can use just a regular sack or even just your backpack. But with any sack, you should hang it from a tree. However, finding a tree with an unobstructed branch at just the right height and tossing a rope over that branch at just the right location is extremely difficult. It sometimes takes half an hour or more, which is horribly frustrating after a long day of hiking.
That’s why I like a bear canister. Just set it out away from camp about 50–100 feet and done. Unfortunately, even though bears can’t get in the canister, they still try. They knock your canister around, push it, roll it, and sometimes it rolls far downhill or off a cliff. When you wake up in the morning, your canister and all your food are gone.
For that reason, I usually sleep with my canister only a few feet away from me. That way if a bear comes, I’ll hear it and can hopefully scare it away before it absconds with my food. But I only do this when I’m alone because most other people don’t want a bear coming anywhere near them in the middle of the night.
I hope that answers your questions. Thanks for following my progress and keeping me motivated. And don’t forget that Mr. Freeman is section hiking the Appalachian Trail, so you can ask him about his adventures, too.
Now go out there and live your life to its fullest!
Where did you learn your hiking skills?
I was in the Boy Scouts as a kid and continued hiking and mountaineering as a young adult. However, over the last 20 years, my focus has shifted to caving and backpacking has basically ceased.
Also, even though I have some backpacking skills, those are from the days of old when “ultralight” backpacking didn’t exist. Everything was heavy. Heavy sleeping bag. Heavy stove. Heavy clothes. Heavy external-frame backpack. And stiff, heavy boots to help your feet deal with all the weight. Backpacking now is a learning experience for me with all new ultralight gear. Unfortunately, my mindset is still heavy. It’s hard for me to get my pack under 35 pounds even with ultralight gear.