random advice on long-distance hiking

This summer I hiked on the AT. I only did about 600 miles – olanar fasciitis, bad knees, heat rash, Jamestown Canyon Virus, falling off a mountain, some more falling off a mountain… and yet, I still miss it, and can’t wait to get back on.

Everyone’s mileage will vary, but: here’s my personal advice for hiking the AT.


All hikers are created equal. If you keep reading the same piece of advice over and over, it’s probably best to assume that it will apply to you – at least until proven otherwise, on the trail.

All hikers are created unequal. Don’t do things just because everyone else does. Learn how your body works. Learn how you hike.

Make sure your shoes fit. This isn’t here for metaphorical content. It’s just… make sure your damn shoes fit. :-)


Don’t fight the ultralight. Carry as little weight as possible. Period.

Sweat the grams or carry the kilos. If you aren’t anal about every little ounce, you will end up with pounds of unnecessary weight.

Never sacrifice quality for weight. If it’s not the toughest in the world, fine. If it’s not the most comfortable in the world, fine. If you’re not sure if it will survive a full thru-hike, do not bring it.

-If you ever think to yourself, “wow, carrying two of these undependable things is still lighter than carrying one dependable one!” – carry the dependable one. Source: carabiners. >:|

-If you ever think to yourself, “well, I already have a Thing from camping / boyscouts / my mom’s thru hike in 1973” – treat that item with the same skepticism as something you have yet to purchase. 99 times out of 100, you’ll want to leave it at home.

Spend it now or spend it later. If you’ve got the money, buy great gear right out of the gate. If you don’t, consider delaying and saving up.

If you can’t spend money, spend time. If you can’t afford good gear, find ways to make your own or rig things up. Cough Tyvec cough.

If you can’t spend time, start hiking. If all else fails, remember: you can hike the trail carrying nothing, and you can hike the trail carrying everything.

It’s easier to leave it at home. This seems completely illogical, but I found it true. If you start carrying something, it was much harder to send it home – from finding a post office, to remembering to do it, to bothering to do it, to fighting the inertia of chucking one of the few things in the world that you have. Whereas if you leave it at home, you can get it sent to you, or pick up an equivalent on the trail, pretty damn easy. And hey, what’s logical about hiking 2200 miles anyway?

First grams, but second, liters. Big and bulky stuff – or stuff that will be damaged by compressionn – might not be worth its weight savings.

Make sure it fits! I recommend buying the backpack last for this reason.


-Pound for pound, an insect barrier is the most valuable gear you can carry. The first night where it’s too warm for your sleeping bag is also the first night where every mosquito will find you.

-A waterproof backpack is a better luxury than a jetpack.

-Waterproof socks keep in more water than they keep out. The same is true of waterproof shoes.

-Rain kilts are effective, light, and in a pinch can be used for a whole lot of things. Most important they breathe – which if you’re hiking a giant mountain in eighty degrees is pretty awesome. Also, for the men out there, they will give you something to talk about when the old men hikers give you eeeendless shit for wearing a skirt :)

-In a cold rain, waterproof rain mitts are better than a roaring fireplace. And there are a million things that will work just as well, from disposable gloves to grocery bags.

-Dudes: consider hiking in a shirt with a collar. There are lots of wicking polo shirts. It makes you 8000% more presentable in town. Even when your beard makes you look like you operate a moose taxi service.

-Sawyer Mini has too slow a flow rate. Get the squeeze. YES! I ADMIT IT!

-Leave the ereader at home. You’ll either be hiking, or you’ll be too tired at the end of the day.

-Same with earbuds. At best, hiking with earbuds means missing out on the world. At worst, it means missing out on the rattle of a copperhead.

-Camp shoes. Bring them. For fording rivers, for when your shoes fall apart (#pennsylvania), for having something that ISN’T YOUR HIKING SHOES at the end of the day. Something you can hike in (sandals, crocs) is best, but even a pair of flipflops is a-ok.

-Wool > synthetic. It might dry marginally slower, but it’ll feel so much better putting it on in the morning. Absolutely worth the trade-off.

-Headband. I’m a sweaty dude, and this might be the single most important piece of my hiking kit. When I lost mine in Kent – sorry, Kent – but seriously, fuck Kent – the next few days were misery itself.

-Bandanna. I’m a bald guy, and… the Cumberland Valley. “Field day.” A mandatory 18-mile sprint with zero cover. Bandanna up.

Three pairs of socks. Two to switch back and forth, day by day. A third to sleep in and never ever to hike in. (Shout out to Darn Tough for the former.)

Ear plugs. People SNORE. This includes NATURE. Bring EAR PLUGS!

Sleep mask. I slept with a $10, 10g sleep mask almost every night. I found it really helpful for falling asleep, especially if it was still light out, and especially in shelters with other people using headlamps and such.


You can be a zero-to-hero. Before the AT, I’d never hiked more than a few hours, I’d never hiked carrying more than a few pounds, I’d never backpacked, and I’d never even camped in the woods. It didn’t make it harder. If anything it made the first few days a little scarier and more adrenal… which made it easier :P

Know how to adjust. You’ll be readjusting your stuff – particularly your pack straps – throughout the entire hike. At the very least, make sure you know howto adjust your pack.

Practice your PCT hang. There’s really nothing I regret more than not doing this. Especially since I started at Harper’s and then got used to the bear boxes. I had to have someone reteach me in NJ – I’m shocked I didn’t lose all my food beforehand.

Know how to read the blazes. Also your guidebook or Guthook. Also Google Maps!


Take it slow. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Meet people. Be friendly. Even if it’s not in your nature – it really helps. Especially at the beginning when you can get advice and help… and especially later for the same reasons :-)

Don’t give yourself a trail name. It’s presumptuous, and no fun. Just trust me on this. Let it come.

Don’t assume people are always right. I got a lot of well-meaning bad advise the first few days. And a lot of advice from people that worked for them but just didn’t work for me. On the other hand, the weirder the advice sounds, the better the chance that it will prove to be accurate. (Ramen Bombs, anyone?)


Take it slow. It’s still a marathon, not a sprint :)

Use polls. It’s so much better for your knees. It’s also good to share the work with your upper body, I find.

Downhills are more dangerous than uphills.

Wet rocks hate you. And even more importantly: wet feet make wet rocks!

The logbook is the dirtiest place in the shelter. (Thanks for that one, Flying Scott.) Always sanitize after touching the logbook. Especially if it’s in one of those zip-loc petri dishes.

If you haven’t seen a blaze in a few minutes, make sure you’re on the path.First, turn around and see if you can see a blaze going the other way. Then, hike ahead about 200 yards. Then, if no blazes, turn the fuck around.

If you come to an intersection and aren’t sure which way to go, backtrack 20 feet and you’ll probably be able to figure it out. If you find yourself clearing brush, you’re not going the right way. If you look down and think “this looks insufficiently trampled,” you’re not going the right way.

Try to stay clean. Never turn down a shower. Go out of your way for a shower at all times. If it’s hot and humid out and there’s a stream, jump in. If there’s no stream, consider pouring spring water over yourself behind the shelter. Beats heat rashes, every time.

Shelters are fun, but not always for sleeping. Most of the time I realized I preferred a tent. So pitch your tent or hang your hammock, then hang out in the shelter for a while. Save the shelter for when it’s undercrowded, or the weather’s nasty, or you’re so damn tired that the thought of putting up your tent makes you want to fly home and donate your feet to science.


Eat. Eat more. You’re gonna be at a caloric deficit pretty much no matter what you do. I remember the first time I ate an entire pizza by myself. I felt like such a pig. Then I realized that I was still probably at negative five THOUSAND calories for that day.

Don’t worry too too much about what you eat. At every resupply or restaurant, try to eat as healthfully as you can form the choices available at that moment… but don’t compare those options to some platonic What Is Healthy. Or you’ll drive yourself crazy.

Try to eat more protein. Aim for 1g/kg of body weight, every day. If this means you have to buy 10 protein bars from every gas station you pass… do it.

Drink more water. This is true at basically every level.

Drink extra water when leaving town. Especially since you’ve probably just eaten salty salty town food, which will catch up with you 3 miles later.

Water flavoring. I strongly recommend against it. I never needed it, even in PA/NJ… but once you use it, it will be very hard to go back.

Stop for water. If you’re empty or near empty, and the next spot for water is far away… get more water. Because the next water source WILL be dry.

Read the guide ahead to see how much water there is. If you’re entering a dry spot, carry more.

Every beer is ten beers. Lots of exercise. Never enough food. Perpetual dehydration. Yeah, you will get fucked. up.

Caffeine. Won’t make your body run. Will just make your mind run. That’s my opinion, at least.

Eat on zeroes. The day after a full day of hiking, you will still have elevated metabolism and protein requirements. This probably won’t be a problem for you to do! Just don’t feel bad about it.

Don’t eat until you barf. At a buffet, take it slow and easy, and don’t destroy yourself. On a zero day, it is perfectly permissible to hit the same buffet two meals in a row :-)


Turn your phone to minimum settings. Airplane mode is your friend.

Turn off your phone when you’re sleeping.

Charge whenever you can.

Phone with a big battery. If you can, it’s such a luxury. Samsung Galaxy Active is my choice. Alternatively: portable power source.

Waterproof phone. 100x luxury.

Wristwatch. It’s great to know if something’s going to be open or closed when you get there. I’d recommend a day/date to know when things will be closed for Sunday. And I can vouch that hiking is great for keeping an automatic watch wound :-)

Compass. Two main uses. One, being able to tell your mother that, yesss, I’m carrying a compass. Two, getting you turned around when you shouldn’t be. But you can get a fine compass for ten dollars (and six grams), so it’s a nice safety feature – especially for getting through towns, and in the 100 Mile.


Have fun. Don’t force yourself to go faster. Force yourself to keep going. Eat more. Drink more. Talk to more people. Make friends for life. Take more pictures. Pet more dogs. Eat more peanut butter. Talk to everyone. Stop and smell the roses. Turn around from time to time. Lay in the grass. Wave at a bear. Shout from a mountain-top. Have the time your life.


~ by davekov on 12 October 2017.

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