Thru-hiking: What I'd do Differently

I was thinking about the Appalachian Trail on the way to work today. I did a southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2000, and if I were to do it again, I'd change up a few things.

Have a bigger budget

Worrying about every dime spent is a drag on a long trip. I'm still a cheap dude and would like to do it on the cheap just as a challenge, but knowing you have some extra money to fall back on gives some good piece of mind.

Take less zero days.

On my thru-hike, I took at least 30 days completely off over 6 months. On the Mississippi River trip we took off 6, 3 of which were to dodge a hurricane. On the AT, I got into a bad habit of doing big miles for a few days, then having to take a day off to recover. I think you're better off doing a more moderate pace daily, and hike farther between resupplies. Big mile days beat the hell out of you.

Make more of my own gear.

So far I've sewn our packs, stove, windshirt, stuff sacks, and few other things. I still use an 8x10 silnylon tarp that's in good shape, but I'd consider making an oversized poncho for use with a hammock.

Carry an Email Device

I would certainly carry some way to email and post photos instead of dealing with public access computers. I wasted a lot of time on the computers in towns, both finding the libraries and mindlessly surfing around. I'm writing an article about the setup I'd use, but in a nutshell it's a Palm Treo with a folding keyboard. Bear in mind that I'm usually writing a newspaper column while I'm hiking, so my needs are a little different. A Pocketmail system is the way to go if you're not doing overly long posts or need internet access. Write your emails, go to a pay phone and send/receive emails, and then be on your way. Simple, easy, elegant - but I'd hate to try and hammer out a bunch of pages out on that thing. We used one on the Mississippi but depended on our Gmail account for most stuff.

Use a hammock

There's a weight penalty, partially offset because I could use the down underquilt as insulation and ditch a jacket. I don't know how much I'd actually do that in the winter, but I'll be damned if I'm carrying another fleece jacket through the late spring through early fall again. A hammock opens up a ton more places to sleep each night, as well as being more comfortable once you get the learning curve down.

Carry less weight.

I probably had about 18-22 lbs in my pack before food and water. I think I can easily get that down to 10 pounds with just a few changes. Once your base weight is in the low teens, who cares about adding an extra couple days of food?

Cook more over a fire.

I'd just put 3 stakes in the ground and build a tiny fire between them. In decent weather, I could see doing this about half the time. The rest of the time I'd use my trusty homemade alcohol stove. I've got 1,500 miles on a Frito-lay refried bean can stove so far. Stupid simple to use, because I'm a simpleton.

Wear trailrunners instead of sandals.

I thru-hiked in Chacos, but getting a system together for cold-weather use was interesting to say the least. Still have all my toes though. Trail runners are a lighter option.


I'd use a Gcast Audioblog instead of emails just to stay in touch. I used this on my recent Cape Fear River trip, and it worked great. All you do is set up a free account with Gcast, call in to there 1-800 number, and leave a message that shows up as a podcast on their website. It was a super easy way to let everyone know where I was at, and give them a real-time taste of what was happening.

For more tips and tricks about thru-hiking, be sure to check out our Mississippi and Appalachian Trail Blog.