How our Appalachian Trail thru-hike attempt affected our bodies
Attempting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail will put a huge strain on your mind and your body, but it's the body that we will focus on in this blog post. Chris and I started our thru-hike attempted on 22nd March 2018 with the enthusiasm and determination of any other thru-hiker. We made it 600 miles before quitting. That's a quarter of the way through, which might not seem very far, but it's still a very long hiking trip; more than our bodies have ever been put through before. And by the end of that, we felt it. In fact, we've only recently fully recovered and we've been off the trail for 2 months now!
Before I get into how we felt and what the hike did to our physical state, I want you to know that we were fairly fit and had trained for the hike beforehand. To work on our cardio, we went running for about an hour every other day, followed by a yoga stretching routine. We were also going on long day hikes with our packs on, once or twice a week, and long dog walks without packs, on the days in-between. Our shoes were well worn in and our backpacks had moulded nicely to our shoulders and hips. We even visited the doctor for health checks, and apart from a lingering virus, there was nothing majorly concerning.
However much you train, it's difficult to predict how your body will respond to a thru-hike unless you have completed one before. Knowing that we mustn't push ourselves too hard too soon, we hiked around 8-10 miles a day initially, gradually increasing our distance as we developed our trail legs. We hiked fairly slowly, took lots of breaks and tried to enjoy the scenery. It doesn't take long before your body starts to complain though.
Here's how your body can be affected by a long-distance hike:
NECK AND SHOULDERS
Depending on your posture, backpack and the weight you're carrying, you may have problems with your neck and shoulders. Previous thru-hikers and ultralighters don't seem to get the same aches and pains in this region because they have cut their pack weight right down and their backpacks fit beautifully. However, most thru-hikers have heavy packs and aren't used to wearing them for 10-12 hours a day, so will experience aches and pains in their shoulders, neck and back at some point. Chris and I both had Osprey backpacks, which have an anti-gravity system in them. They're extremely comfortable in comparison to other packs we had tried, and neither of us had an issue with back pain. We still had a few days with achy shoulders though and this was always worse in the first couple of days after resupplying. One thing that we both found helpful was to redistribute the weight in our packs. Most people will tell you to pack heavier things at the bottom of your pack, but we read a military training book, which recommended putting the heavier stuff at the top. Although this reduces stability somewhat, as it shifts your centre of gravity, it worked wonders for shoulder pain!
Knees seem to cause the most concern to thru-hikers, with about a quarter of the people we met needing to wear a knee support at some point in the first 2 months. I was one of those people, wearing my elasticated knee support on and off during our second week. Having a lot of weight on your back puts an awful lot of pressure through your joints, and walking on uneven ground up and down mountains can cause your tired legs to twist, over-stretching your knees. If you keep pushing yourself despite feeling sharp, aching, burning or pulling pains in your knees, then you'll likely cause more serious damage and need to come off trail while your heal again. Take it slow, there's no rush. The last 3 days of our thru-hike attempt caused me significant pain in both my knees. We took it slow, but towards the end of the day I felt about 90 years old and struggled to get up once I'd sat down. I was kept awake for hours each night by aches and pains around my knees and the only way I was able to get to sleep was to take drowsy Ibuprofen. The stiffness continued for at least a month once I got off trail.
Another joint with similar issues to your knees. Lots of people roll their ankles on the Appalachian Trail. Usually this just means a minor twist on a tree root or rock, leaving you with an ache for an hour or so, but if you're like me and have weak ankles, or are a little clumsy and tired, then you may end up with a sprain or strain, stopping you from being able to weight-bear fully. I managed to get my foot stuck under a huge tree root and fell forwards, rolling my ankle in the process. We were halfway up a mountain and nowhere near the campsite we had been aiming for. I could barely put any weight on my foot as it felt instantly hot and painful, but there was nowhere to stealth camp. I hobbled slowly for one mile until the next campsite, where we stayed all afternoon. I probably should have listened to Chris and taken a zero day there, but I was eager to crack on, so we continued hiking full days until I rolled my ankle again at Fontana Dam Shelter. The second time was worse and hurt a whole lot more. A friend strapped me up and we took a proper zero-day to rest. Luckily I had no further issues with that ankle; we took it slow when required and cut days short if we needed to.
Chris had a lot of problems with his hips on the trail. He spoke of a grinding pain in the joint and would complain a lot when this flared up. My hips were fine while we were hiking, but as soon as we quit and returned home I seized up completely and could barely get up and down the stairs. The only way to describe it is to say it felt like I developed a sudden arthritis; sensations of rubbing, grinding and something catching in my hip joints. It was horrible and lasted nearly a month once we had quit thru-hiking. We couldn't hike or run for the first 3 weeks on returning home, and spent most of our time pottering around the house, stretching occasionally and groaning whenever we needed to bend.
Everyone talks about blisters and how to prevent them on trail, but there is nothing you can do to stop them from appearing when you're walking through flooded paths and rivers for several days in a row. It rains a lot on the Appalachian Trail, so your shoes and socks are going to get wet. Not just wet, but completely soaked with water sloshing around in your shoe. To prevent hypothermia, you need to keep a set of clothes dry to put on as soon as you get to camp. This set needs to remain dry, so these nice dry socks shouldn't be worn in the daytime, however gross your other pair are. Putting wet socks and shoes on in the morning is not pleasant, but it needs to be done. The friction caused by wet socks starts to rub your skin away from your toes and feet. We found that strapping our toes up with climbers tape was quite effective to stop the rubbing, but this starts to move around and fall off as your feet get wet again. Every evening when we stopped walking, I'd inspect the damage. Both little toes had hard caps on the tip, where they had blistered early on in the hike and healed. The sides of my heels had formed huge callous lumps, which were rubbing against my shoes. And the tops of my toes were red raw and sore with blisters. Luckily the blisters healed extremely fast once we stopped hiking, but I was then left with dry, flaking feet for weeks. In fact, they're still extremely dry now. I must have peeled off about 5 layers of dead skin!
Pooing in the woods is a very common topic on trail, probably because it's obvious when you're heading off to do your business. You can't hide that trowel and toilet paper from everyone! And you don't want people accidentally stumbling across you while you take a dump, so it's wise to tell people where you are headed. What people don't always talk about though is how a hiker diet affects your habits. Eating a combination of salty, sugary, processed and high fibre foods is not good for your digestive system. You'll be pooing a lot more regularly than you're used to, and it will be a lot softer! We also found that it's much paler in colour than normal, maybe from a lack of iron. Remember to eat lots of vegetables and salad when you're in towns to balance out your diet and ensure you're getting all the vitamins and minerals you need. You probably won't feel like eating healthily, but trust me it's worth it! The temptation to eat burgers, fried chicken and pizzas in towns is very high, but every time we ate a huge meal in town we felt sick and unable to move. The Southern states of America have an extremely unhealthy amount of deep fried meals, sweet tea and unlimited refills of fizzy drinks. Sugary foods and drinks cause mood swings and energy crashes, fried foods may give you diarrhoea and all that salt will leave you thirsty and dehydrated. Not a good state to be in whilst hiking!
The first night we got off trail, we went to a Mexican restaurant in Pearisburg. The food was delicious, but neither of us could eat even half a plateful. We were so bloated from the carbohydrates and fizzy drinks that we started getting cramps and nausea. Chris almost ran back to the motel, thinking he was going to throw up. Then for the following week, we would wake up at 6am feeling ravenous, but would hardly be able to finish a meal. We were wandering around Washington DC and New York City and would suddenly feel starving hungry and unable to walk further. Yet every time we ate, we'd have the same issue of not being able to finish. I came to the conclusion that our stomachs must have shrunk and we were now over-stretching them, leaving us feeling sick every time we ate a full meal. This may sound contradictory to what you've heard about 'hiker hunger', but when we looked back at our eating habits on the trail we realised that although we were eating a lot and our foods had all been high in calories, our portion sizes had been pretty tiny because we'd been eating five to six times throughout the day instead of three. My main piece of advice to avoid the pains and nausea is to continue eating little and often for a while once you return home, but stop eating sugary and processed foods otherwise you'll quickly put on weight.
On a positive note, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail will give you really strong, toned muscles and will leave you with a strength and fitness far greater than before you started. Even two months on the trail gave us nice muscly legs and arms, I can lift far heavier items than I used to, we can run for longer (and up hills) and a 10-mile hike feels easy! Weight-loss is also inevitable, unless you're already tiny and end up gaining muscle mass. Being fairly small myself, I only lost a few pounds, but Chris lost a stone and a half (21 pounds).
Despite lots of aches and pains, we're both really impressed with what we were physically able to achieve. Carrying around 30pounds for 10 hours a day whilst hiking up and down mountains, is not what our bodies were designed to do. Yet they're able to adapt to these conditions and carry us forwards. We may not have completed the full 2,200 miles, but we know that it wasn't our bodies that stopped us. It was a combination of money, time pressures and our general feelings towards being on trail. If you're truly motivated to complete the Appalachian Trail and you have enough time and money (which we didn't have), then however much you hurt, you can do it! Just take it slow, pace yourself and listen to your body. If you need to rest, then rest. If you need a few days off trail, take them. Don't worry about what other people are doing and how fast they're going. Only 20% of people will complete their thru-hike, so in the end it doesn't really matter what everyone else is doing. You can never tell who's going to be successful and who won't.
Let us know your thoughts and comments below. If you have any questions, you can also ask us below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you're attempting a thru-hike, then goodluck! Keep in touch and let us know how you get on!