Five Unexpected Things I’ve Learned While Training for My Thru-Hike

Living in St. Louis, Missouri, definitely has its perks. Busch Stadium is in my backyard to satisfy any baseball cravings. The Blues won the Stanley Cup this year, so that’s kind of a big deal. I can eat Bread Co. (aka Panera) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner because, why not? Oh, and there’s also this really cool metal Arch to visit downtown. I mean, come on. St. Louis is a pretty awesome place to be. But honestly, I don’t care about any of this.

To me, the best part about living in Missouri is that the Ozark Trail is only an hour away. It’s become my main source of hiking practice for the Appalachian Trail, as it’s the state’s only long-distance trail. So far, I’ve been picking and choosing the chunks of the OT that I want to go through and it’s been a spectacular way to get more experience. I have learned a lot about myself as a hiker after having gone on these trips. I’ve been able to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what I still need to adjust before the AT next year. While there are some things I’ve come to understand as fact (example: cotton is the devil), there are other things I discovered that surprised me. Here are five things I never thought I’d believe while training for the Appalachian Trail.

Cold-Soaking Isn’t Gross

Cold-soaked ramen and broccoli.

I don’t find this as repulsive after giving it a chance. For those who don’t know, cold-soaking is the process of rehydrating, or making food without using heat from a stove. What’s that you say? You can make dinner without having to use a Jetboil? Yes, you can! All you need is a trusty Talenti jar (without the ice cream, of course) and filtered water. That’s all. I’ve made ramen, rice, oatmeal, quinoa, and macaroni and cheese through cold-soaking. I like the simplicity of the process and that it lowers my pack weight a little. However, it’s not for everyone. If you hate eating cold meals, then this method isn’t for you.

Calories Are My Friend

Since we’re on the topic of food, I’ll step on my tiny soapbox for a second to go over the importance of giving your body enough fuel. As someone in eating disorder recovery, I know how it feels to not have an adequate amount of food. Physical activity asks a lot of our bodies. It’s our job to replenish the energy we use. I’ve had to eat way more than I’m comfortable with in order to do what’s best for my body while preparing for the AT. Slowly but surely, instead of seeing calories as the enemy, I need to see them as more of an ally. Without plenty of food, I wouldn’t be able to get through my hikes. But more importantly, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy them.

Leather Boots Are Not Cool

Me on top of Missouri sporting my leather boots.

I was pro hiking boots up until a couple of months ago. I liked how protected I felt in them and how my feet never got wet while crossing small streams or creeks. They also gave me peace of mind whenever I’d roll my ankle on trail, but mostly I just felt like a hiking badass in them. When it was time to replace my beat-up, clunky leather boots after the tread started to wear off, I decided to hike in my old running shoes for a while before buying a replacement pair. I felt a change immediately.

In my running shoes, I felt faster, lighter, and certainly not as clumsy. I like not feeling weighed down by my boots or as if I’m walking through quicksand. It was a conflicting revelation because I always thought I would hike in boots. However, I realized that trying something new is OK, and changing an opinion is not the end of the world. I ended up buying a pair of hiking shoes and for now, they work.

Night Hiking Is Actually Fun

Picture this. You’re out in the woods alone at night and all you can hear are crickets and the occasional snap of a branch. You’re swallowed by darkness, except for the small flashlight beaming the path ahead. As paranoia sets in, you become 99.9% sure Slender Man or Bigfoot or both are about to get you at any moment. Under your breath, you start silently making your will and funeral arrangements. “My dogs and lava lamp will go to…” This is exactly what I thought night hiking would be for me.

I thought I would have crippling anxiety over what could go wrong while on a trail after dark. I was shocked to find out that it’s really not that bad. It’s actually kind of fun. I love how clear the sky is, and how I can see millions of stars above. I love seeing how bright the moon can be and how quiet the world is without light or noise pollution from civilization. Once the sun goes down, it’s just you, the trail, and nothing else. Not scary at all, right?

20-Mile Days Are Possible

The Middle Fork Section of the Ozark Trail.

Before attempting one myself, I thought all the hikers I follow on social media were crazy for going that far. “How in the world can they do that? I get tuckered out after ten to 15 miles. Will I ever make it past 20?” It’s easy to compare your abilities to others and it’s easy to get discouraged while doing so. However, the only way of knowing if you can do something is by giving it a shot. I thought it was rocket science, but it’s really not.

Because I have a habit of questioning myself, I tried to not get caught up in all the self-doubt I was feeling when I set out with the goal to hike 20 miles in a day. I simply connected to the trail and reminded myself to take one step at a time. Thinking about my values and intentions for hiking helped as well. Even though some miles were more mentally difficult than others, I was still able to finish the hike.

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