Keep your toenails: debunking 5 myths of the AT.

I enjoyed reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed.  She’s a talented writer and it’s a beautiful memoir.  But it is not, absolutely not, a manual on how to thru-hike the PCT.  And A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, while clever, witty and engaging, is not about how to thru-hike the AT.

Yes, both Bill and Cheryl spent time on a long trail.  And they had real experiences on those trails.  And they told great stories about their time on those trails.  And you will love their books.

But they won’t help you plan your thru-hike.

Here are a few thru hiking myths that I’d like to dispel:

1. Toenail loss is an automatic consequence of thru-hiking. 
No. No. No.  I did not lose any toenails.  I had good footwear.  I paid attention to my feet.  I lovingly massaged them with Bag Balm every evening.  I applied preventive blister patches, so not only did I not lose toenails, I didn’t get blisters (aside from three tiny ones the first week that I took care of right away) Which leads me to another myth I hear all the time…

2. Your feet are going to look like hamburger meat. 
Good gracious. No.  There is no reason for your feet to take a terrible beating.  If you are careful and don’t push big mile days at the beginning of your hike, you’ll have a much better time.  You can’t undo a blister once it’s there, but if you catch it ahead of time when it’s a “hot spot”, and put something on your foot to ease the rubbing, you can keep the blister from happening at all.  Really.  Large blisters are often the result of waiting and hiking the last two miles to camp without taking off your shoes to check your feet.  Stop when your feet feel uncomfortable and deal with them.  You will save so much misery in the long run!

My feet looked nice for my whole hike – except when they were muddy! But notice, there are ten toenails in this photo and this was 800 miles in! And all that mud washed right off!

3. It’s dangerous to hike alone, especially if you’re a woman. 
People, it’s dangerous to be in a parking garage if you’re a woman.  It’s dangerous to drive your car if you’re a woman or a man.  Compare auto fatality statistics to assaults on the trail or bear attacks or whatever it is you’re thinking about that’s dangerous on the trail. It’s just as dangerous at your house or in your yard as it is on the trail. It’s more dangerous, probably!

My time on the trail hiking alone, which I did about 80 percent of the time or more, was just fine.  The people on the trail, by and large, are extra-lovely. There’s a caring trail community.  You get to know people.  Folks look out for each other.  Yes. Pay attention.  Don’t hang around people who give you a bad vibe.  Trust your gut.  Know what you need to know to take care of yourself in the woods.  Check in with loved ones regularly. And then go enjoy the beautiful scenery and experiences on the trail that you can’t have in a parking lot or in your yard.

4. Your pack is going to be really heavy.
No.  Not unless you want it to be. Bill and Cheryl both hiked quite some time ago, when there was far less high-performance light gear available. They both were rather proud of their spectacularly heavy packs, and there are passages in each book devoted solely to the unwieldiness of their gear. Great entertainment, but not so great for you on your thru hike.

Me? I rarely carried over 30 pounds, fully loaded with 5-6 days of food and a bottle or two of water. And I could have gone lighter but I had some luxury items that worked for me, like a sentimental insulated mug, extra warm clothes (I was paranoid about being too cold) and even deodorant!

You can keep your pack weight down too.  You might need to look into gear that’s not available in your local outdoor store, as some of the best and lightest thru-hike gear is often made by cottage industries who don’t have the reach to be stocked by national retailers. Talking to other thru hikers can really help you figure out a lot about gear that works for a long hike.

5. You’re going to smell terrible.
Well, that’s kind of true. Hiker funk is a powerful thing.  But you’ll be surprised how often you can shower on the AT, and hey – a tiny deodorant doesn’t weigh that much, and if you wash your pack part way through, that will help a lot.  And really, when you’re out in the woods, who cares if you smell?

6. You’re going to want to eat everything in sight.
Ok – this one’s true! It might take a few weeks, but you will eventually crave and devour food in ways you never have before.  You will happily down a half gallon of ice cream at the halfway point in Pennsylvania.  You will hold a contest about who can do it most quickly!  You will sit in a hotel room in Vermont, polishing off a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, a container of guacamole, a big bag of chips and half a large package of Oreos.  And then you will think about what you’re going to have for dinner.

What’s a myth?  What’s a real experience of a thru hiker? How do you tell the difference?  Well, you talk to real thru-hikers – ones who’ve hiked in the last few years or so, not in the 1980s or 90s. You chat with people who love the trail – who spend time there every year. You get support and advice and ideas, and then you ultimately make the decisions best for you.

If you’re a woman looking for mentoring and support as you plan your upcoming thru hike, check out the Wild and White Blazing "virtual campfire" I created especially for women planning a thru.  You’ll hear from 22 successful women hikers of all ages, each with a unique story- and you’ll be able to ask questions live!  You’ll have the support of successful women thru hikers to help you prepare for your hike.  Don’t get overwhelmed by fear of losing toenails. Everything’s going to be ok!  And if you have other thru hike questions or myths you’d like cleared up, leave a comment and I’ll help you out right now!  I had an amazing thru-hike, and I want you to have one too!