Into the Woods: The Appalachian Trail

Hiking the great American Appalachian Trail

mapping-the-trail

When hiking the Appalachian Trail, breaking something can be a big problem — especially when it’s a utensil. Anthony Earl of Medford was around only 100 miles into the Appalachian Trail when he broke his spork inside a jar of peanut butter. He had taken a snack break, digging deep into the bottom of the jar — and then snap. “I almost cried,” Earl says. Such a response wouldn’t have been melodramatic. For Earl, the staple food on the trail was peanut butter. It was light enough to carry, calorie-rich and required significant mastication, enough to trick the body into feeling more full. Without peanut butter, Earl might just have gone hungry. “I ended up doing the Winnie-the-Pooh bear thing and just went full on hand into the jar,” he says. (He purchased a durable spoon made from aircraft alloy shortly after.)

            In 2014, Earl hiked for 150 days, completing the Appalachian Trail. Yet packing in the peanut butter isn’t the only secret. Hiking the Appalachian Trail and — more rarely — finishing it require the right gear, preparation and adherence to some health and safety sense.

Hitting the trail

            Feeling burnt out during his senior year of college, the 21-year-old Earl filled out a survey for the Thru-Hike Syndicate, a partnership that provides gear for pioneering hikers. He must have given the right answers, because the organization agreed to a full-gear sponsorship for Earl’s Appalachian Trail hike. The gear, which ranged from a collapsible one-person tent to trekking poles, began rolling in. Earl had three months to prepare for the trek. “I didn’t feel like I was ready,” he says. “People plan for these treks for years. aI planned for it in a couple of months.” On March 13, 2014, at Springer Mountain in Amicalola Falls State Park in northern Georgia, Earl set off.

            Earl was no stranger to the outdoors. He taught horseback riding and rock climbing at a Boy Scouts camp and was an Eagle Scout himself. To prepare physically for the trail, he took up the StairMaster and stationary bike at the gym. Yet he also felt there wasn’t a lot of applicable physical conditioning to do, other than wearing a backpack and climbing stairs; he counted on the mountains and the trail training him as he went. Earl would hike 18–30 miles a day at points on the trail. At the beginning, it was much less. Building yourself up gradually is key, he says, or you can risk a stress fracture and other injuries.

Rolling trails, rumbling stomachs

            Not far into the trail, “hiker hunger” sets in. “You’re burning so many calories in a day that the normal amount of food you were eating is not sufficing anymore,” Earl says. “You’re basically having to double everything you’re used to eating.” Being in the woods doesn’t mean resorting to picking berries, however. The Appalachian Trail intersects with towns at points, allowing for restaurant meals and restoring provisions (and occasional laundry and showering).

            For the trail, high-calorie, low-weight foods are key. Bringing jelly to eat with all the peanut butter, which Earl would spread on tortillas for lunch, was impractical because of the jars’ weight. Instead, he carried marshmallow fluff, a physically lighter, calorie-dense alternative. Dinner, the only meal that Earl regularly cooked, required making a fire with a portable gas container. Dinner was often two packs of Ramen noodles with tuna (from packets, not heavy cans).

            Earl lost only around 10 pounds on the trail, while many hikers will lose 15 or 20, he says. All of his upper-body mass and strength shifted to his legs by the end. On the Appalachian Trail, the mountains are more than 6,000 feet at highest elevation. It’s comparably not that high to some other trails, but the Appalachian Trail fluctuates quickly in elevation, taking hikers up and down, up and down. Such terrain contributes to increased calorie burn and energy expenditure, Earl says, and also further necessitates staying hydrated.

A not so lonely planet

            Although Earl made a solo trek, he wasn’t always alone. On the Appalachian Trail, it doesn’t take long to come across other hikers. He’d meet, hike, and camp out for the night with other hikers, many of whom demonstrated trail hospitality by sharing provisions or even helping him dig out after getting snowed in at one point in the mountains.

            Before traversing snowy mountains during the early part of the trail, Earl — a San Antonio, Texas native — had seen snow only once before. The weather, and dealing with it properly, is one of the biggest health and safety factors. Without the right sleeping bag, hypothermia is a risk, Earl says. Similarly, the right rain gear is essential for staying warm and dry, and avoiding exposed areas during lightning storms is crucial, he says.

            Even though Earl joined up with other hikers on the trail, much of the actual hiking was still done alone. Hiking alone meant being extra careful. Earl carried basic first-aid supplies, which were needed after he slid down a rock and tore up his knee.  

Sleeping in while camping out

            Sleeping in a tent on a small air mattress in the woods might not sound like the best night’s sleep, but it was for Earl. He averaged 10 or 12 hours of sleep most nights. While the daily physical exertion likely played a role, Earl says he’d often go to bed when the sun went down and get up when it rose. This natural sleep pattern aligns with circadian rhythm, he says, and promoted such restful nights. He knows some hikers who even report trouble sleeping indoors after finishing a long trek, finding it too claustrophobic.

            The extra sleep must have paid off. Earl hiked 2,185.3 miles to finish the trail. And while he remained focus, he never forgot to enjoy the hike — which is, perhaps, his best piece of advice: “Everybody gets caught up in the miles. Everybody wants to do all these big miles for some egotistical reason, but they don’t need that.”

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More to Explore

Mapping the Trail

  • Springer Mountain at Amicalola Falls State Park in north Georgia – The start of the Appalachian Trail.

  • Harpers Ferry, West Virginia – The unofficial halfway point on the trail, where Earl realized that, at more than 1,000 miles in, finishing was no longer an “if” question, but a “when.”

  • North Carolina and Tennessee – In these states, Earl tried not to do any hiking at night, because, while rare, mountain lions prowl.

  • At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the highest point along the Appalachian Trail.

  • Damascus, Virginia – Hosts the largest annual gathering of Appalachian Trail hikers through Trail Days, a festival and hiking exhibition which attracts 20,000 hikers and visitors each year.

  • Shenandoah River in Virginia – Earl spent three days paddling down the river, trading his trail miles for water miles.

  • The northern terminus of the trail lies on Mount Katahadin’s Baxter Peak in Maine’s Baxter State Park.

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