Lessons from my first 100 miles

The morning after passing the 100-mile point in my hike, while sipping my instant coffee, I started scribbling down a list of the things I’ve learned thus far. Now that I have a chance to hop online and update my blog, I decided to share that list with you!

1. Wear sunscreen.

On the second day of my hike I hastily rubbed some sunscreen on myself while filtering water. It was one of those sticks of sunscreen, so I just scribbled it over my arms, shoulders, and face.

I definitely missed a few spots.

My forehead, my scalp, my nose, and especially my shoulders got burned. I can see exactly where my sunscreen scribbles missed. I will now be carrying the extra weight of lotion-style sunscreen and applying it religiously every morning.

Update: Even though I’ve been diligently applying sunscreen, I have the worst hiker tan/burn. My nose continues to burn no matter how frequently I put sunscreen on it. I also have tan lines from my trekking poles and backpack straps.

2. Men are so lucky they can pee standing up.

I apologize if me talking about bodily functions makes you uncomfortable, but I need to include this one. Bathroom breaks for women during a hike are the worst.

You have to stop, remove your beastly pack, trudge out into the woods to find a decent spot, remove clothes, squat (not fun for sore legs), pray a tick doesn’t find your exposed bottom, do your business, and return to the trail after strapping the beast back onto your back. It’s even worse in the rain.

Obviously it’s important to stay hydrated while hiking so much, but drinking bottle after bottle of water throughout the day means frequent pee breaks.

You also have to carry out any used toilet paper, which is gross. An alternative method is using a bandanna as a “pee rag,” which you use repeatedly and wash once a week. Also gross.

I’ve run into several men peeing right on the trail, backpack still strapped to their back. It takes them maybe 30 seconds, and then they are on their way again. They can even pee around other hikers without really exposing themselves or offending anyone. They are lucky they don’t have to deal with this nasty pee rag business.

I guess I should not have rolled my eyes when I first heard Freud’s theory of penis-envy, because I’ve now developed a bad case of it.

 3. Trekking poles are a necessity.

I remember reading that some hikers forgo the trekking poles. After a week of hiking, I have no idea how that is possible. The descents are killing my knees as it is. Around the third day I felt like I had aged 40 years. I cannot imagine the beating my knees would be taking if I didn’t have my poles. They’ve also prevented numerous falls and twisted ankles. The trail is a lot rockier than I imagined and there are many slippery streams to cross, so if you decide to hike the A.T., bring poles!

4. Don’t underestimate those 1,000-foot climbs.

When I was in the planning stage, I looked at the elevation profiles in the guidebook to help me set mileage goals. Some days have impressive climbs of over 3,000 feet, making the climbs of 500 to 1,000 feet look like nothing.

They are not nothing. I’ve learned that 1,000 feet is way more than I thought it was. Even the 400-foot climbs can kick your butt. It’s easy to look at a bumpy line on paper with numbers by it and say it doesn’t look so bad. Hiking that line is a completely different experience.


The biggest lesson I’ve learned, by far, is this: Climbing mountains is hard work.

Hiking the A.T. might be the toughest thing I’ve ever done. Waking up and hiking all day, especially with blisters or when it’s raining, has been testing my resolve. However, the fact that I might fail is what makes this challenge interesting!

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Mileage Goals & Averages

Many thru-hikers are overambitious when they set a daily mileage goal. It’s easy to set hiking goals sitting on the couch with your guidebook. You think to yourself, I’m in decent shape and I can easily walk a mile in less than 15 minutes… If I set out at 8:00 AM each morning and hike until dusk, 20 miles a day seems perfectly reasonable. 

Not so fast.

When was the last time you hiked, or even walked, over 10 miles in a day? Add to that thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, inclement weather, blisters, and a heavy pack strapped to your back. It’s hard.

Now imagine doing that day after day for weeks on end. There’s a reason only 1 in 4 thru-hikers actually make it.

Because I love to plan, I set some specific mileage goals and tried to map out when I’ll arrive at various towns and landmarks. These may be unrealistic. To temper my expectations, I did some research to answer these questions:

How long does it take most hikers to complete the Appalachian Trail? What about each section or state? 

The short answer is between 5 and 7 months. This is originally how I came up with my goal of hiking 1,100 miles in 3 months.

But in the course of my research, I discovered some statistics compiled by a hiker named Steve Shuman. He gathered information from 240 hikers who successfully completed the Appalachian Trail between 2001 and 2010. This is the gender and age breakdown of these 240 hikers:

He calculated the number of days it took to hike each section and their daily mileage. Because I am a visual learner, I decided to map out this information:PrintThe average amount of time it took these 240 hikers to complete their journey was 5.7 months, or about a week and a half shy of 6 months. Shuman divided the sections based partially on state lines and also on changes in terrain.

If you are wondering when these thru-hikers started and ended their journey, these charts show the most popular starting month and when most finished:

How many miles do most thru-hikers complete in a day?

Most hikers start out doing 8-10 miles per day for the first couple weeks. After being on the trail for a couple months and getting in “trail shape,” many hikers have a few 20+ mile days, but the average overall is about 13-14 per day. Of course this all depends upon the hiker, the weather, and the terrain.

Below is the map of the average daily mileage for those 240 successful thru-hikers. These averages include “zeros” or “neros,” days in which hikers go into towns to resupply or rest.Print

Some sections are slower-going because they are more challenging, like the White Mountains in New Hampshire and western Maine, while other sections slow hikers down because of the tempting amenities nearby, like in Shenandoah National Park.

If you do not factor in zeros/neros in town, these are the mileage averages per hiking day:

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You can see that most hikers hit their stride by the time they reach Virginia. Mileage dips slightly as hikers hit more challenging terrain in New England and then takes a serious hit as they enter the White Mountains. According to Steve Shuman’s study, the average for the entire trail is 12.9 miles/day, or 14.7 if you disregard town days.

Keep in mind, the vast majority of people who set out to complete the AT drop out at some point. These numbers represent the champions who actually reached their goal.

If you would like to read the complete report by Steve Shuman, you can find it here.

How to Prepare for a Thru-Hike

I have about a month left before I begin my hike and I’ve currently got “The Final Countdown” playing in my head on repeat. It’s the perfect accompaniment to my ever-increasing excitement and anxiety. To distract myself from this, I decided to summarize the preparation I’ve done for my hike.

So from a total novice, here’s How to Prepare for a Thru-Hike: 

Step 1: Stumble upon some blogs, books, or movies about thru-hikers. Become obsessed and read all of these:

And watch the movie versions of Wild and A Walk in the Woods while you’re at it.

Step 2: Daydream a lot… and finally decide to plan your own long-distance hike. Start thinking through the logistics, like when to begin and how much it will cost. Decide on this 1,100-mile section, passing through ten states:

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Step 3: Buy lots-o-gear. Become increasingly excited as your pile of gear grows and depressed as your bank balance shrinks. Watch that National Geographic documentary about the Appalachian Trail on Netflix to make you feel better.

16129471_1745569479091473_1199956784_oStep 4: Plan. Research. Figure out transportation. Excitedly set up your tent in your living room and sleep on the floor for three nights. Develop a very sore back and struggle to fit your tent, sleeping bag, and inflatable pad back into those tiny stuff sacks.

Break the news to your family and friends. Listen to lectures about bear attacks, rattlesnakes, ticks carrying Lyme disease, and loony hillbillies hiding in the mountains. Master the art of persuasion in order to convince concerned relatives this is a good idea. (But also buy pepper spray and a knife… just in case.)

Step 5: Realize your hike is starting in a month and you are not in shape. Uh-oh. To make matters worse, you live in Minnesota, which is seriously lacking in mountains or hiking trails.

You decide to become best friends with the stair-master at the gym. But that gets old, so you decide to start walking around your suburban neighborhood with your stuffed 65-liter backpack strapped to your back. Don’t forget to wave at all of your neighbors with your trekking poles!

These are the steps I’ve completed thus far. Soon comes the really crazy part: Actually beginning my hike.