This spring, after moving to North Georgia from Florida and driving through the surrounding mountains, I came to the decision that I should attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. It was an admittedly hasty decision for someone as unaccustomed to sleeping outside in inclement weather as I was, but as it was already March and the thru-hikers were assembling on Springer Mountain, I had no time to waste.
The first order of business, I determined, would be to quickly assemble the existing outdoor gear I had accumulated from the few times I had gone car camping, digging through dusty storage bins in my attic and pulling out anything deemed potentially helpful to outdoor survival. I had a 3-person Coleman tent (with rain fly, poles, stakes, and handy carrying bag), a small canvas backpack that I'd used in high school to carry my books, an assortment of various sizes and shapes of cast iron cookware, a telescopic hot dog or marshmallow cooking stick, a hatchet, a large knife with storage in the handle (filled with matches, a wire saw and some bandages for when I attempted to use said knife or wire saw), the flannel-lined sleeping bag I'd had since childhood, a five-gallon water jug, a battery-powered lantern, and a propane two-burner stove. Clothing wise, I had several flannel shirts, a felt hat and mittens, a wool-lined waxed canvas jacket for colder weather, several pairs of old jeans and my trusty pair of leather Danner hiking boots (with the ubiquitous red laces). Obviously, I was off to a great start.
The next day, I began calling loved ones to announce my intentions to embark on this brave and perilous journey. After speaking to my parents, siblings and friends, it was clear that I would need a gun, a large canister of bear spray, and a satellite phone. I was going to have run-ins with aggressive bears, and I had better be prepared to defend myself. In case of extensive injury obtained from multiple bear battles, I would also need the satellite phone to request air support.
As a greenhorn in the ways of long-distance hiking, I decided it couldn't hurt to do some research, just in case. Naturally, I took to my local sporting goods retailer to see if there was a general consensus amongst the more experienced sales staff as to what I should be carrying. I left with an inflatable boat for potential water crossings, a pair of two-way radios with rechargeable batteries, a handheld gps unit, a pair of small binoculars, a solar battery charger, a collapsible cot, a folding camp chair, hand and foot warmers, a comprehensive medical kit with carrying case, an emergency blanket, a snake bite kit, a whistle with built-in compass, a signal mirror, some road flares, and many different redundant means of starting fire. After all, better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it, am I right?
After returning home, I wondered how I could possibly carry all of this, so I began weighing the contents of my future pack. The grand total was 167 pounds. Clearly this was too much to carry in my high school book bag, so I purchased a proper hundred-liter backpack designed just for such loads. If it’s good enough for the guys climbing Everest, it’s good enough for me. Do people use Sherpas to carry their weight on the AT? A wagon of some sort might've been more efficient and comfortable, but as I'd just spent a small fortune on equipment, this was out of the question. I'd also have to postpone my start date for hiking by a month or two so I could get a second job and save more money.
I worked tirelessly for two months, saving every penny I could by eating ramen noodles, biking to work and canceling my cable television, internet and wireless phone services. After finally saving the money necessary to begin my hike, however, I realized that I hadn't even begun to think of what I would eat and how I could possibly bring enough food to nourish myself on a six-month adventure. I came to the conclusion that a wagon was indeed the only way to potentially carry all my gear and food. I resolved to settle the issue once and for all, so I purchased an all-terrain cart with inflatable tires and a harness designed for a pack animal of some kind, along with a veritable pantry’s worth of canned goods and several coolers for perishables. Finally I was ready. I'd just have to continue working two jobs, saving my money for another couple of months and there was no stopping me. Maine, here I come!
Or so I thought. What a fool I was…A WAGON? How embarrassing, when, by chance, I stopped one day to peruse my local specialty outdoor outfitter and learned I was going about this all wrong. Light and fast, of course that was the way to go! I immediately held a yard sale to rid myself of all the dated, heavy equipment I'd accumulated over the past four months and scraped together enough to buy the most modern, lightweight cuben fiber backpack and shelter imaginable, together weighing less than three pounds! Pointed in the right direction at last, I was unstoppable. All I had to do was work for a couple more months so I could purchase an ultralight sleeping quilt, down jacket, sleeping pad, rain jacket, synthetic undergarments, hiking socks, trail running shoes, gaiters, water treatment system, headlamp and carbon-fiber trekking poles. I'm just glad I didn't show up on the trail with all that ridiculous gear. What would people have thought? I would've been laughed right off the trail, that's what. Now I’ll be the one laughing at those posers.
Two months later, having finally scraped together enough money to purchase the necessary remaining gear, I was the proud owner of the ultimate ultralight setup. I would now be able to put down lightning-quick miles with the best of them. My fellow hikers will be envious of my carefully assembled, fine-tuned, masterfully minimal setup. Just a couple more months of work to save money for food and incidentals I'll need along the way, and then just try and stop me world! Maybe I'll even go for the speed record, who knows? In the meantime, I'll cut my toothbrush in half, start removing fasteners and straps to further lighten my pack, and fashion an alcohol stove from a cat food can. I've accounted for everything this time.
Well, one thing I didn't account for was that all this preparation would lead me clear into the dead of winter. After becoming a gear expert throughout this whole process, I now know that winter demands an entirely different set of equipment. I'll obviously need a four-season tent, ice axe, crampons, and a water repellent down sleeping quilt, merino wool base layer, 900-fill-power down jacket and sleeping pad specially made for the sub-zero conditions I'm sure to endure. I should also look into climbing rope systems, helmets and harnesses as well. You can never be too safe! Just a couple more months of work and at last I'll be ready to hike for the first time ever! Stay tuned for future updates as I refine my gear...