Rather than post yet another picture of my disorganized gear or pile of food and boxes, I chose the flowers above that I saw on a recent weighted-pack walk around Atlanta. They are much nicer to look at, and a good reminder that the adventure happens along the way, not when I touch the monument at the southern terminus and not when I am done!
I know many of you want to hear about gear, so I'll get to that first, and then I'll tell you a bit about other preparation that I am now wrapping up.
Gear for my CDT Thru-Hike
I'm really excited about my kit this year. Last year on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I switched out a number of things along the way as I learned an evolved. For example, I started with an Osprey pack and ended with a Zpacks one. I started with a hybrid foam/air sleeping pad (Thermarest Prolite plus) and ended with the inflatable Thermarest NeoAir Xlite. I learned that I wanted a waterproof pack because pack covers don't work very well and a wet pack weighs a lot more than a dry one. I also discovered that I am quite comfortable without having all the zippers, compartments, and buckles that an Osprey pack has. In fact, I like the simplicity of packs that are just one, large, compartment, like the Zpacks. The experience I got on the AT has completely changed my gear and approach to backpacking. In short, less is more!
Despite having changed a lot, I didn't replace that many pieces of gear during my AT hike. I was well on my way and didn't have the time or energy to put into it. I figured "maybe one day," if I keep backpacking. Obviously I don't need to give a spoiler alert for how this story continues, because here I am preparing for another trip. It didn't take that long for me to get into action on making some gear choices either. Last fall, I started thinking that I might want to do another thru-hike. I wasn't at all sure I would do it or it would work out at the time, but when Thanksgiving came around and gear started going on sale, I decided to upgrade my kit, regardless of whether I went on another thru-hike. I'm really glad I did because I saved a lot of money!
I was able to shave a lot of weight and replace gear that wasn't performing that well. To give you an idea of how much my gear choices an philosophy have changed, here are a few things I'm doing differently on the CDT than I did on the AT:
Using a smaller, lighter, single-walled tent that sets up with one trekking pole.
Using a down quilt that opens up completely rather than a mummy-style down sleeping bag.
Getting rid of camp shoes.
Tights instead of pants.
Synthetic jacket instead of down. In fairness here, my down jacket just wasn't as warm as it used to be, but I hated having to worry about it getting wet and losing loft, and when the loft would clump up the wind would cut through the gaps.
No cook pouch - cooking directly in pot.
Carrying a Garmin device for better communication/safety.
No rain pants! Bringing homemade rain skirt.
Bringing sunglasses. I didn't have these on the AT.
Larger battery bank (this is related to blogging and doing more video this year).
I made other changes in my kit as well, such as getting a slightly lighter stove and headlamp. These were $15 - $30 changes, versus my tent, which was a much bigger chunk of change. I don't mind spending money on good gear if I think it will be worth it to me. It might not be worth it to many, and that is a decision we all have to make for ourselves. To put things in context though, I generally don't spend money on much that isn't a necessity like food. In the past I was more liberal with my spending, but over the last decade I've really curbed it. I actually enjoy not spending money; rather, I enjoy deciding not to get something I don't need. Then, when there is something I truly feel I can get a great benefit from (e.g. a new tent for a thru-hike), I feel better about the purchase. It means more to me. Don't get me wrong - I'm unemployed at the moment and I still flinch at spending money, but I have a vetting process I go through, so buy the time I hit the "buy" button, I feel good about it. Over the past year I also did some pretty random things to get a little money in the door. For example, I charged electric scooters here in Atlanta, and I sold some of my old junk on Ebay. I had this old Blu-ray copy of Apocalypto that someone paid $40 bucks for! That paid for the new battery bank right there. Bam!
Lest I digress too far into the world of finance, the gig economy, and living outside of the "machine," let me finish up with gear. My evolving equipment philosophy is less is more, and if I only use a non-essential piece of gear 10% of the time, I am not going to carry it 100% of the time (e.g. camp shoes). Now, we shall see if I eat crow later on. I am perfectly ready to admit that the trail can change minds pretty quickly. I remember regretting sending my Crocs home on the AT, and then buying a cheap pair of flip-flops in Rangeley, Maine. I am expecting that the CDT will be a much drier trail than the AT though. We'll see. I hear some of you chuckling as I waiver - please do laugh as I find this process funny myself. The line in the sand is drawn (for now)! Nothing more goes into my pack, and if it does, in the end I have to come clean!
This year, I used a free website called Lighter Pack to create a gear list. Below is a snapshot of the overall analytics graph. You can click HERE to go to my Lighter Pack page and see a full, categorized, itemized list of all of my gear, complete with the weight of each item. I included some explanatory notes in the description as well. Additionally, for those of you who are even more visual, I put together a 2019 CDT Thru-Hike Gear Overview Video on the Unfettered Footsteps YouTube channel. If you are only interested in a particular category of gear, you can use the notes in the YouTube comments box to fast forward to that section. I hope you find the Lighter Pack page and the video useful!
What Else Does it Take to Prepare for a Thru-Hike?
I have had a pretty compressed timeline to get ready for this trip. Obviously I have to research the trail and learn about it, as well as figure out logistics for resupply, which I wrote about previously (and made a video about, in which I apparently decided it was cool to become a human bobblehead...). Of course there are gear decisions to be made. But what else? Here are some other things that I do to prepare, and have been working on:
Timeline planning. Think through a feasible timeline and pick a starting date. The AT is available for a very long hiking season. Weather makes this tougher on the CDT. I start the trail on April 24 and I do not have a set finish date, but I at least had to make sure that it was feasible for me to finish in September. I know that snow can start in September and is a real threat in Glacier National Park (near the northern CDT Terminus) in October, so I needed to make sure that my start time was realistic based on an estimated pace, a guesstimate of rest days (zero mile days), and the wild card factor (getting lost, injury, seeing something super cool and wanting to hang out for a day or so, etc.).
Spouse communication. I hear you all moaning! Yes, this is a thing. You really have to do it. My wife Gillian wrote a great article about this for The Trek. Part of planning is getting on the same page. Gillian would tell you that I had quite the guilt complex over heading out again so soon. Not only did I have to reassure her on some things, but she had to reassure me that it really was ok! We also had to come up with a communication plan, which resulted in me purchasing a Garmin InReach Mini. Once you get talking, you'll be surprised at the things that will come up. For example, you will probably end up deciding whether or not you want to try to meet up while on trail. It's important to think through the fluid nature of a thru-hike and decide whether or not it adds more stress to the situation to try and coordinate something amidst that fluidity.
Financial planning (e.g. the bills). Are the taxes done? Does your partner have the password to the power company website that usually sends you the e-bill? Are bills set up to auto pay while you are gone, or is there something that always comes in the mail that people will have to help you with? I had to think through all of this last year with Gillian, and so we have a good system this year. We've set up billing notifications to go to her, we have a shared informational sheet with various important details on it, and we use her calendar reminders for stuff I normally do, like replacing the furnace air filter.
Health and hygiene. Maybe I'm a bit OCD, but I like to see the doctor and dentist before heading out on a journey like this. If something is going to go wrong with my body or teeth that can be predicted, it's better to know before I'm days away from the nearest dirt road!
Physical training. Some may need this more than others. I'm a firm believer in training for injury prevention. That means not waiting until the thru-hike starts to walk with a pack, or walk 10 miles. I've struggled with training this year because of my compressed timeframe and being sick with bronchitis for a month. I have definitely been training though - running ("regular" running and wind sprints to build my lung capacity back up after the bronchitis), always wearing a 30lb pack when walking, stretching, push ups, sit ups - that's it for me.
Resting. It's also important to get enough rest, particularly closer to launch date. I'm super bad at this one. I like to always be in motion. Oh well. I'm going to try not to run or walk 10 miles the day before I head out :-).
To blog or not to blog? I can't answer the question for you, but it is something that needs to be decided early. It takes a decent amount of work to set up a blog, even if you aren't building a website like I did. It took me a while using TrailJournals.com, and typically there are a minimum required 3 posts before the blog becomes "official" and your profile can be viewed. Things like YouTube channels, and learning the ins and outs of various forums takes time. My commitment to blogging this year has been one of the more time consuming items - just getting the platform ready to try and deliver a better experience for both me and you! I'm glad I had the time to do it and didn't leave it until the last minute.
Getting to and from the trail. The AT was easy - I drove an hour and a half north and we were there! The CDT required some research and planning. Ironically, I still don't know how I'm going to get home - I haven't gotten that far yet. To get to the trailhead, I first have to get to Lordsburg, NM. To do that, I chose to fly and then take a bus. My point is, this all required research and planning. This should be part of budgeting too - the shuttle to get to the Mexican border alone costs $120! That could definitely be an unpleasant amount to learn about at the last minute.
Choosing navigation. There are a lot of navigational tools and maps to choose from these days. The more there are that are actively in popular use, the more there is to research and decide. The CDT is one of those trails where there is a lot to learn about navigation. Ultimately, I ended up with a combination of apps and paper maps, but I also had to take a refresher course on using a map and compass in the field. The AT is pretty easy with regards to navigation, but there are still choices to be made there - this stuff takes time.
Special occasions. Are you going to miss birthdays, anniversaries, etc.? Probably. I try to plan for this in advance by pre-purchasing cards and gifts, and either giving them in advance or having someone help me disburse them. Who knows where I will be on the trail - better to lock it down in advance so that I don't miss someone's special day.
Insurance and general safety. If you're not getting insurance through a spouse or employer, there are decisions to be made. Also, it's generally good to understand the potential hazards of any trail and be prepared for them. My AT hike had black bears, rattlesnakes, copperheads, and hitch-hiking. I know that on the CDT, I have to be prepared for lots of rattlesnakes, mountain lions, long stretches without water sources, fires, snow/ice conditions that require judgment calls, grizzly bears, and hitch-hiking. Therefore, I have had to think about my strategy to mitigate risks in these areas. For example, I researched rattlesnake bites (not a lot you can do really), I will carry the Garmin, I have studied up on self-arrests with an ice axe, snowshoeing, how to read various snow conditions, and I have a better system in place to help protect myself when hitch-hiking. I like having a plan for this stuff so that I can be safe and better enjoy my experience.
Mental toughness. The mental challenge of a thru hike is by far the hardest part. It's important get into the right frame of mind. That process is probably different for everyone. I try not to think too far ahead and take things one day at a time. Gratitude is super important for me to keep perspective, as I am sure you noticed last year if you read my journal. And lastly, know why you are hiking. If I can't say why I'm doing it, it's easy for me to decide I don't want to be doing it anymore.
That should help give a general overview of what, aside from gear and logistics, goes into planning a thru-hike. I could go into more detail, but this post is long enough!
Where I'm At
I'm in good shape. I'm almost ready to go. My parents are kindly going to help with a couple of mail drops, Gillian and I are squared away logistically (this is always easier than the actual saying goodbye part, which is the hardest!), my sharp stuff and trekking poles are waiting for me in New Mexico, and I set up my Garmin device and tested that today. I have a few random punch list items left, and then on Monday I'm mailing a box of food to myself to a place called Doc Campbells in New Mexico. Then all that will be left will be to say my goodbyes and get on the plane! I fly out Tuesday and then take the shuttle to the border to officially start the trail on Wednesday, April 24.
I know why I am hiking the trail. I'm following my heart. Something bigger than me is telling me to do this. Take what you will from that. I just know that I have the opportunity, support, and means to do this now. I could have chosen just to go back to work, but why? I know I won't regret seeing this out. It is such a privilege to be able to do something like this, not just to have the means, but to have the ability to step aside from the normal path in life and see that there is more out there to feel, do, and experience. This is going to be awesome!
I'll probably post once more before my posts from the trail begin. I won't be able to post every day from the trail, but I do intend to write every day and post when I have a signal. It's been a real process getting used to the new site, and I'm still doing that and working out some kinks. Thanks for hanging in there with me and for following along!