SHAKING DOWN YOUR LIFE BEFORE HITTING THE TRAIL
Thru Hiker Josh Sheets goes through the "not-quite-as-fun-as-the-gear-list-but-oh-so-important-list" long trail adventurers need to tackle before heading out for months on end. For those of you that have taken on long-distance trips, what were some of your experiences before you laced up your trail runners? Jump into the discussion after reading Josh's great advice!
Words by Josh Sheets. Photos by Josh Sheets and Tommy Corey
I sat in my soggy tent clutching my knees in a sort of hugging-myself manner. I sure could have used an actual hug right then and there. Even though I could feel it on my skin and on my clothes, I looked down just to confirm the situation. My tent was full of water. A triple whammy of all-night heavy rain, poor tent site selection, and my water bladder was not securely tightened and slowly leaked out all night. I resigned myself to the situation and continued to sit there and ponder just how I got myself there. Not in that precise situation, per se. Yet, how did I ever think it was a good idea to come out to the Appalachian Trail (AT) for months on end and open myself up to those sorts of situations? To understand how I got there, let’s go back a little way.
Flashback to early 2011 before I started the AT. I was a bright-eyed college graduate and you would have found me sitting at a small kitchen table, on my laptop, pouring over gear reviews for hours, training my body on the StairMaster in the basement, and triple checking my gear to ensure that it was what I wanted to carry on the AT. Then, I took all that gear on a shakedown hike before I started NOBO on April 3rd, 2011. Wouldn’t you know I wound up not sending any gear home or needing to replace anything (except shoes) as I hiked toward Katahdin? I attributed this to fully researching the gear I chose to buy/carry and familiarizing myself with it all before I left. The tried-and-true mantra is that knowing your gear very well will pay dividends by the time you’re on the trail. Yet, gear wears out and evolves; some of the items I used on my AT thru, I no longer use. These days, one of the recent packs I’ve used is the JUNCTION 55, which is a top-loading pack with rolltop closure instead of a pack with a lid (aka “a brain”). This was an adjustment at first but it actually helped to lower my base weight slightly because I wasn’t using the lid to store unnecessary items. Plus, the lid, you know, weighs something…
However, gear is just one piece of the puzzle that is thru hiking. Before I had the luxury of sitting in that damp tent filled with water, I needed to get my life in order before I left for Georgia. As mentioned, I did a shakedown hike with all my gear before I left and it was a very worthwhile experience. But there is another type of shakedown that is largely not discussed in these circles. The life shakedown. Before I left for the AT, I had to shakedown my life. I learned some things then and I am applying them to now, as I ready myself for a 2022 Pacific Crest Trail thru hike attempt.
The thing is, the older we get, the more life has a way of exposing us to things that might weigh us down if we’re not careful. What things, you ask? Material things, legal problems, health complications, trauma . . . just to name a few. It’s been 11 years since I thru hiked the AT. While I have since completed numerous shorter trails (Colorado Trail, Long Trail, Tahoe Rim, Laurel Highlands, Foothills, Uinta Highline, etc.) and lots of various weekend trips, my life is much more complicated now than back in 2011.
Let’s walk through it together.
Photo by Tommy Corey
Several years before I ever secured my PCT Long Distance Permit, I mentally set a rough end date to my job, set up a budget (and stuck to it!), kept tabs on my gear to figure out what needed replacing, fixing, etc., and I started talking to other successful PCT thru hikers about their experiences. In short, I primed myself. It is something I highly suggest. It doesn’t have to be years in the making but it should be a fair amount of time before you secure your permit. I know several folks who secured their permit and then didn’t have a clue about where to start. Don’t do that to yourself. Preparation is key; it reduces stress and fosters a sense of working toward a goal . . . so you can focus on the goal: thru hiking.
EXTRA, EXTRA READ ALL ABOUT IT!
I tell any and every one I could and that will listen to me: I am going to attempt a PCT thru hike. By doing this, it prompts those in my life to be intrigued and hopefully supportive of my endeavor. It is just as much about keeping them updated in my life as it is reaffirming. Also, this exercise serves as a way to keep me accountable for what I am planning to do. This obviously doesn’t guarantee success but it lays a solid foundation in which you can depart for your thru hike attempt feeling as if you are, indeed, going to give it your all. I might also suggest that, if you have the time, you see some people that are important to you before you depart. I have been doing this and I find it is therapeutic. These meetings are not “goodbyes” but more of a “hey, I’m leaving for a while and want to see you.” A lot can happen out on your hike and I would say that when you finish, you may not wind up back where you came from—physical location and/or mentally. The trail can be a very life-changing experience.
CHEERS TO GOOD HEALTH
In this section, I want to talk about how to approach your health in the run-up to your hike. In a perfect world, you would start the trail with no ailments. Yet, when I started the AT, I was wearing a knee brace and, honestly, I was unsure if all the appointments to physical therapy was enough to prevent a flare-up problem. I took it slow and weaned myself off the brace.
If you have an ailment (skin issue, something requiring physical therapy, a condition requiring treatment with antibiotics or other medications, etc.) make sure you start addressing them long before you are slated to leave. Time flows quickly when potentially having multiple doctors to see, dealing with insurance claims, waiting for your treatment regimen to work, etc. These things are on top of everything else you need to do before leaving. Give yourself plenty of time to fix or mend any health issues. Stop putting off seeing the doctor, dentist, optometrist and go for that check-up! It will set you up nicely for the trail and your body will thank you.
YOUR ‘OTHER’ (BUT NOT-SO-SECRET) LIFE
It’s no secret that thru hiking costs money. So does your life back in the “real world”. We all know mortgages/rent and other types of bills will still be due but there are things that can be very easily overlooked and cause you a headache. Put recurring bills on auto-payment, save more money than you think you’ll need to successfully thru hike, and leave things back home in the hands of a very trusted friend or family member.
Make sure anything that you need and that is going to expire in the timeframe you plan on being out on the trail is either renewed or other arrangements have been made before you leave. This includes driver’s licenses, passports, credit cards, professional work licenses, car/home/life/pet insurances and/or registrations. Not only can reactivating or renewing any of these be a major pain from the trail, you may even have to pay a fee if it is late; dollars are even more precious when you’re not working. Furthermore, trying to fix an issue from the trail can be anything from a minor inconvenience to a major hassle. I have seen hikers have to leave the trail because their life back home was calling. At that point, it’s not usually something that you can let go to voicemail.
Photo by Tommy Corey
LEMONS TO LEMONADE
When I departed for the AT, I was unemployed except for very menial side jobs that produced just a trickle of income. I had no career and no employer to beg to approve my desired sabbatical. Again, my life is more complicated now versus then. There is truly something to be said for being fancy free, but I digress. Should you find yourself in the camp of having to quit your job to pursue a thru hike, well, you are certainly not alone. Almost 40% of PCT hikers report quitting their jobs to pursue a thru hike, according to Halfway Anywhere’s 2021 hiker survey. As I prep for the PCT, I am squarely in that group. My employer denied my leave of absence request and was unwilling to hold my position until I got back; it just is not in the company’s purview despite my manager telling me that she personally thinks I “kick ass” and wishes me the best. That said, let’s talk a bit about how to turn a situation like this (quitting a job) into something sweet–or at least bittersweet.
First and foremost, try not to burn any bridges and maybe even fortify some, too. For instance, in my resignation letter I let my employer know that while my leave of absence request was denied, that I do cherish working for the organization, truly love my co-workers, desire to be coded as “rehireable” once I do depart, and desire to be kept abreast of any positions I may be a good fit for when I return. If you don’t wish to return to your current employer, it’s never too soon to start putting out feelers to prospective employers, friends, recruiters, etc. so you are on their radar. Be honest about your adventure plans and ongoing interest in the months ahead. It can be a sort of kinetic activity that yields dividends when you return and once more seek gainful employment.
Pro tip for post-trail life: It is my experience that a thru hike can create a glaring hole in your resume and become a sort of liability for you, if you let it. Don’t be caught flatfooted in an awkward interview. Be bold and put your thru hike on your resume and find a way to “sell” your thru hike experience to your potential future employers. In my numerous interviews since I finished the AT, I have found that prospective employers are intrigued, impressed, and “buy” me being a dedicated hard worker that isn’t going to quit when it is metaphorically raining in the office. Your hike isn’t just a long walk, it is a highly unique experience that bestows countless lessons you could deploy in employment.
DECLUTTER & DECIDE
Needless to say, when you are going to hike four to six months with everything you need on your back, it is quite minimalist in nature. Leaving the creature comforts of home can be a shock to some and liberating to others. If this is your first backpacking experience, you better buckle up, buttercup; it’s bound to be a rollercoaster ride. If possible, it can help to prepare yourself for living with less. I have found that decluttering, simplifying, and streamlining your belongings and daily routine before you leave can set you up nicely for a minimalist approach to backpacking and pay dividends when you return home. When I returned from the AT, I was at times overwhelmed by all of the ‘stuff’ I had either accumulated or thought I needed… and that I had to move when I changed residences. I am now what I would call a minimalist. I attributed this to the lessons that the trail instilled in me.
Chances are if you have made it this far in your thru hiking plans, you’re pulling the trigger on your pursuit. Congrats! The work is just about to start. What do I mean? Well, if you’re deciding to spend months outside, it’s probably safe to say you like the outdoors . . . at least a little bit. But WHY? Why do you feel compelled to be outside and to thru hike? Why this trail? Why NOW? Decide what you’d like to take away from your time on this journey. This should be fluid and may change! But I urge you to decide to set some sort of framework for yourself or to be aware of your vices and virtues.
Want to know a secret? I rarely discuss or admit that when I finished my AT hike, I kept waiting for an epiphany to tell me what it all was about. It largely never came. Still, the memories and lessons the trail taught me are near and dear to this day. Yet, a piece of me feels like it was a missed opportunity to not foster some self-reflection while on trail. So, before you depart, decide on some of the goals, ideas, and values you think you should have while on trail. This is crucial, for it is said there is purpose in the process. As you wind your way along the trail, these goals, ideas, and values (that you’ve likely held for a lifetime) will be thrown into stark relief by the sheer experience. They will either be replaced, discarded, reaffirmed, or added to as your journey progresses. More often than not, the validity of these adjustments holds true when we return to our “normal” lives. The individual who achieves their goals—and does so in a manner true to their own innate sense of “right” can only return a stronger and self-reliant individual.
Photo by Tommy Corey
Deciding to thru hike a long-distance trail requires a certain mindset. Robust resolve and mental fortitude will be some of your best assets as you progress down the trail. Nonetheless, you have a lot to do before you leave; some is directly related to the trail and some is very much in the periphery. I hope you found these tips helpful so that you can be aware of some of the things that may not be front-of-mind in the run-up to your departure. This is by no means an inclusive list. It is just meant to gently guide you to a broader vision for the successful execution of your goal. After all, you want to make the most of your time “out there” and do everything you can to ensure you complete what you initially set out to do. Cheers. And Happy Trails!
Josh Sheets is a Social Worker and Adventurer. After completing the Appalachian Trail in 2011, he turned his focus to HIV social work. In subsequent years, he completed other trails including the Long Trail, Colorado Trail, Foothills Trail, Tahoe Rim, Laurel Highlands, Teton Crest and Wind River Range Traverses, and the Uinta Highline. He aims to complete the Pacific Crest Trail in 2022. He can be found and followed as “ Soulslosher ” on the social channels.