I never wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). Until, that is, I lived in the Upper Valley of Vermont last year where the AT wandered through my backyard. Truth be told, the trail was a few hundred yards behind my house, but I could have walked from my backyard to where the AT passed through Norwich without leaving the woods.
I had been thinking about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for a few years, but for some reason never gave much consideration to the AT. This probably had something to do with being a native of Massachusetts, and living in New England or Upstate New York for most of my life. The AT was close to home, while the PCT was far away and more exotic – at least in my mind. Living next to the AT though prompted me to purchase a Kindle e-book about the Appalachian Trail in early 2011. Several similar titles followed. I was hooked.
Interestingly, while I read several trail memoirs (quite delightful reading, by the way), I did not encounter an AT book about the psychological demands of hiking 2,181 miles up the East coast just for fun.
Zach Davis thru-hiked the AT in 2011. Prior to hiking the AT, Zach admits he had only slept in a tent twice, and had never been backpacking. Nonetheless, he successfully thru-hiked the entire AT on his first attempt, despite contracting a serious virus during his hike.
Following his hike, Zach looked for an AT book about the psychological aspects of thru-hiking the AT. Unable to find such a book, Zach wrote the book himself. That book is Appalachian Trials.
Zach credits former AT thru-hiker Ian Mangiardi (The Dusty Camel) with helping him prepare for the trail by being his “therapist/coach,” and now hopes to help other hikers mentally prepare for the trail. He notes that some 2,000 hikers attempt the AT each year; however, seven out of 10 end up off the trail short of their goal.
Zach makes these observations in his Introduction:
- “You might assume the most difficult aspect of walking the length of the eastern United States would be purely physical…
- “In no uncertain terms, the psychological and emotional struggle is what drives people off the Appalachian Trail.”
- “What was interesting to me about the trail were the mind games, the AT culture, the roller coaster of emotions, and the personal metamorphosis that comes from living in the woods for half a year.”
Zach identifies three types of AT hikers in Appalachian Trials:
- Hikers who quit due to the mental challenges of the trail
- Hikers who manage to make it to Katahdin only through determination, but who do not enjoy the process
- Hikers who enjoy most, or perhaps all, of the process while successfully thru-hiking the AT
Zach hopes to help more hikers make it into the third category.
Appalachian Trials is organized into four sections.
- Bonus material
The first three sections, pre-, on-, and post-trail all address common pitfalls and helpful mental tools to overcome psychological obstacles on the trail. The final section includes an entire chapter on gear for the AT, FAQs, money saving tips, and more.
“When it comes to backpacking 2,200 miles, the greatest determining factor of success is purpose.”
The Virginia Blues is the subject of chapter four. Virginia, which accounts for almost precisely one-fourth of the total trail mileage, is often blamed for hiker depression. Virginia is not to blame, Zach argues, instead providing helpful tips for not only surviving, but enjoying, Virginia.
“Hike your own hike” is a trademark AT trail slogan. Sometimes though this may be easier said than done. Zach addresses social dynamics on the trail, groups, and hiking partners while considering how to “hike your own hike” successfully.
Hiking the AT will certainly present thru-hikers with some obstacles. Chapter seven considers how to conquer those obstacles to keep the hike enjoyable.
“If you can’t embrace what’s happening, you should at the very least accept what’s in front of you. Wishing that your day were anything other than what is, is the fastest path to dissatisfaction.”
“This very well might be the greatest challenge in your life. What do you want to remember about the way you handled it?”
The story doesn’t end when a hiker finishes the AT at Katahdin though. Chapter nine addresses life after the AT with some helpful thoughts adjusting back into the “real world,” post-AT depression, and post-trail weight gain. Zach includes seven tips for avoiding post-trail weight gain.
Several bonus chapters are included at the end of the book.
- Chapter 11, written by Ian Mangiardi, covers AT hiking gear.
- Chapter 12 addresses Lyme disease and tick safety.
- Chapter 13 includes FAQs, and some other odds and ends, covering topics from sponsorships to mail drops to whether to hike SoBo or NoBo.
Appalachian Trials fills a unique niche in AT trail literature. This book will help prepare any long-distance hiker, AT or otherwise, for the ups and downs of trail life. Definitely buy this book if you are even thinking about thru-hiking the AT or another long trail. The few dollars you spend will be money well invested.
My longest outdoor excursion to date was a week-long canoe trip/seminary class in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. I wish I had read Appalachian Trials before taking that trip as it might have prepared me for some of the psychological stress and emotional ups and downs that I experienced on that trip.
Zach blogs at The Good Badger, even while walking through the woods from Georgia to Maine.