Getting into gear

I started thinking about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail as early as 1997. Back then I didn’t really have a clear understanding of what the Appalachian Trail was, but I stumbled upon it on the highway between Helen and Hiawassee, Georgia on a summer camping trip. We parked at Unicoi Gap and walked east up the trail to an overlook near Indian Grave Gap, but the trail went on through the trees. I wanted to see where it went; I wanted to walk all the way.

In 2003, after buying tons of equipment at the local outfitter (who shall remain nameless), I and my friend Curtis both strapped sixty-five pounds — each — of weight onto our backs (at the time half my body weight) for our first overnight backpacking adventure on a North Carolina section of the AT.

It was supposed to last nine days. On day three, I suggested we get off the trail the following day at the first (and only) road we would cross before our planned end-of-journey. Curtis’s response was more or less, “Thank Christ! I didn’t want to be the one to say it.”

What went wrong? A combination of inexperience and overeager salespeople. We didn’t need half the stuff we were bringing along; and what we did bring, we just thought we needed regardless of the weight. We assumed it was normal to be overburdened. We were, in a sense, over-prepared gear-wise, but certainly under-prepared in terms of knowledge. All the planning and purchasing couldn’t keep sixty-five pounds of crap from feeling like a hundred.

Fast forward to 2016. Despite my horrible four-day experience in 2003, I’d never lost the wanderlust and the romantic notion of walking the entire AT. With a career shift on the way and a summer with no employment, a return to the trail almost seemed like a no-brainer, even if it were only a third of the over 2,000 miles. And I did still have all that expensive, heavy gear in my garage. But I knew that this time, it had to be different if I were to hike for over two months and not just a few days.

Armed with a copy of Andrew Skurka’s The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, I was ready to ditch the heavy stuff in favor of an actually enjoyable walk in the woods. And then I read, within the first several pages of the book, this revelation:

Backpacking … consists of two entirely different activities: hiking and camping. And there are two types of extreme backpackers — Ultimate Hikers and Ultimate Campers[.]

He went on to explain that Ultimate Hikers want “Type II Fun — not necessarily fun to do but fun to talk about later.” Up until now, I was an Ultimate Camper: I preferred Type I Fun (fun to do, fun to talk about later).

Could I be an Ultimate Hiker? Did I even want that? Clearly I wasn’t satisfied hauling the amount of gear on my back that would result in a camping-style experience. Can an Ultimate Camper become an Ultimate Hiker?

This blog’s intention is to answer this question. I’ll take you with me through New England as I decide which kind of backpacker I am. Have I gone overboard with the lightweight stuff? Am I really just a camper with delusions of walking hundreds of miles? I’m pretty sure it will be entertaining to find out.

Up Next: I make my own stove … out of cat food cans.


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