So, you’ve been planning a thru-hike on the AT…or maybe a bike tour or a backpacking trip across Canada or some other wild adenture. Chances are, if you’re planning a long hike, you’ve been asked if you’ve read Wild or A Walk in the Woods, those being the only sources to the long trails many people have. If you’re planning any other trip alone maybe you’ve had advice pulled straight from the Liam Nesson-driven Taken films thrown at you. Everyone you know has probably pumped you full of advice–good or bad. You’ve surely inundated yourself with information from blogs and journals and friends of friends no matter what adventure you’re setting out on. That’s most likely why you’re on this site to begin with. Maybe you’ve become convinced you can’t possibly step one foot on a trail without $4,000 worth of high-tech gear or get that passport stamp without buying 15 guide books and a hostel membership.
Nah. Here’s a reformed uber-planner here to tell you to, well…hike your own hike.
I’ve seen an okay amount of the world in the past decade or so since my parents finally let me leave the country and for the most part I’ve been obsessively Type-A about it. I’m a list maker, repacker, send your friend who lived there a million page of questions emailer, map ogler, and complusive second guesser. I spend months deciding where to go and making a plan to get there. When I started planning for the AT, which I was setting out on solo, I poured over every book and email thread out there. I was doing it on a crazy small budget by most standards and thought by trying to plan every mile down to the dollar, I’d have a better shot of finishing with the little money I had.
At one point, maybe a month before hoping to hit the trail, I had found a thread on the site “White Blaze” about trying to hike the AT on a $1,000 budget. I was horrified by the responses. People were downright nasty to the man who had been the original poster. They called him a “mooch” just “looking to pray on people’s kindness” and “irresponsible” and “stupid” and all sorts of other nasty things. The other responses were either obnoxiously nit-picky about all the places he would have to skip out on or pleas for him to only go half way. Everyone seemed to be counting on his failure. If these are the people I’ll be sharing the trail with, I thought, I’m going to have a rough go of things. It made me seriously reconsider going. It was the ONLY thing that ever made me reconsider going. Despite having traveled on a dime numerous times before, I was suddenly panicked over one comment thread online!
I decided to sleep on it.
The next morning, I woke up, took my AT guide I had been highlighting and making vigorous notes in and chucked it across the room. I put my notebook in my pack indefinitely. I deleted the calendar I had spent hours upon hours creating. It was decided, I was going to do this thing and I was going to do it on my own terms. I was done taking everyone’s word for it.
In the end, there was literally nothing in my original planning that I stuck to apart from finishing. I barely looked at the notebook I had written so much in and I bought an entirely new guidebook on the trail. The new book (AWOL’s Guide) had a profile map and town mileage info, and that’s esstentially all I used it for. I skipped the infamous shakedown at Neels Gap because I didn’t care to be told that I was doing everything wrong or convinced I needed to buy a ton of new crap. I got made fun of all the time for having a few changes of clothes–I like to have something dry to sleep in, thank you very much–but no sleeping pad. There were SoBo’s and section hikers who seemed almost angry that I didn’t hike with poles as though I was being irresponsible. What I can’t seem to figure out is why they care. My guess is that they had read, as I had, that certain things were essential and universal to all hikers and couldn’t shake any different image.
As I trekked along, I met friends on the trail I sped up and slowed down for. I got Lyme Disease and had to get off trail for 10 days. Nothing could have prepared me for that and that won’t necessarily be the trip you will have. I couldn’t recite guidebook facts (wait till you meetthose people) and became increasingly frustrated with those who would constantly. The log books along the way can be very helpful for making plans, but you might soon realize that your opinion of a good day or a fun stay in town can differ wildly from your fellow travelers’ so stick to your gut.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail was the most amazing experience of my life. For the time that I was on it, it was my trail. I hiked my own hike and didn’t worry about everyone else. As I embark on my next adventure–a solo cycle tour of Iceland in April–I’m trying to remind myself to loosen up and not overly plan. I still enjoy reading about other people’s trips around that magical island, but am trying to leave room to discover things on my own. The typical guidebooks are almost useless to me because I once again am not leaving with a huge budget or even the desire to pay crazy prices to sit on a tour bus, anyway, so I’m pulling references from less likely sources like Twitter and friends-of-friends. I’m leaving space open for random, exciting things to happen so as not to miss out on the magic that comes from spontaneity. I’m planning to the point of safety and actually catching my flight home; little more.
Despite the fact that I’m writing a post on a blog that dispenses great and useful information and I even have one of my own where I answer reader’s questions, I can’t stress enough the need to take it all with a grain of salt. Pick and choose what works for you and forget the rest. When you pack up your luggage, you’ll be the only one carrying it. In that bag too, you’ll be carrying around your own personal fears and hopes for the journey and not anyone else’s. Those things will change according to you and your experience and you’ll be the one made to adapt as you go along. Don’t get too caught up on your favorite bloggers favorite spots or gear or food. Spend a good bit of time thinking about what you might want to get out of the journey and what you might need. Don’t just walk into a bike store or gear shop with a credit card and an itinerary and leave it up to the guys and gals in the shop to build your adventure. Don’t keep your nose buried in the guide books and miss out on all the little things. Don’t be a slave to your itinerary and your original plans. Hike your own hike and have your own adventure!
Emily “Yellowtail” Flynn is a writer and doula in Durango, CO. She thru-hiked the AT in 2012 starting out solo. You can read more about her adventures on the trail, moving to the Southwest, and upcoming travels abroad at www.eflynnand2000miles.tumblr.com. Feel free to drop by and ask her a question!