Appalachian Trials: Interview with Zach Davis

Without a doubt, the question I get asked the most both on and off the trails is “have you hiked the AT?” The answer is yes, but not all of it and nowehere near as much as I would have liked. I know that over time I’ll get it all done and will continue to bite off sections of it as and when time permits, but I’ve always been envious of people that are able to thru-hike the AT. Even having done bits and pieces, part of me would like to go back and thru-hike the entire length just for fun.

I’m sure there are a lot of you reading this that feel the same way. So I got to thinking about what it would be like to actually do that and what the challenges and considerations might be – would they be mostly physical, mental or both?

I stumbled across an interesting new book called Appalachian Trials that was written by someone who successfully thru-hiked the AT in five months with zero prior backpacking experience. Unlike the plethora of books and websites offering information about logistics, gear, and endurance training, this book focuses on the most important and overlooked piece of equipment of all – the gear between one’s ears.

I was extremely happy to hear that the author of the book was willing to sit down with me for a Brian’s Backpacking Blog interview about his new book, his overall experiences, things he would do differently, and advice for those of us thinking of following in his footsteps.

So now – here’s Zach Davis, author of Appalachian Trials.


Zach, what is the hardest part of a 2,181 mile backpacking trip?

A common question I get from others usually is “how good of shape do I need to be to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail?” The answer to this question is undoubtedly “in amazing shape”, however you don’t need to go into the trail in amazing shape. When people think of backpacking from Georgia to Maine, they see an almost impossible physical challenge. The hardest part physically occurs only over the first few weeks. This is when your body is adapting to the rigors of daily full-day backpacking. Your joints are at high risk of injury. You will wake up and fall asleep sore. That’s what happens when you strap thirty pounds to your back and start climbing mountains. That said, after this initial period, your body begins to adapt. Soreness will still happen, albeit far less frequently, but fatigue stops being so much of an issue.

At a certain point (approximately the 3-4 week mark) the trail’s challenges shift from being physical to mental. Most hikers can get through the initial period because the excitement of living outdoors drowns out the pain. However, once your body adapts, a hiker’s mind tends to lose strength. Most prepare themselves for the physical fight, and end up losing the mental battle and thus their own brain gets the best of them.

You recently wrote a book about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, called Appalachian Trials. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and your inspiration behind writing it and the early feedback?

To elaborate on the above point, most hikers go into the AT readying themselves for a physical challenge unlike no other. Additionally, they get intimidated with the logistics of living outdoors for a half year. “How many resupply boxes should I send? Where should I send them? What maps do I need to buy? What’s the best sleeping bag?” These types of questions are typically what dominate hikers’ minds before embarking on their thru-hike.

These are the sorts of questions I was asking before leaving, until I was put in touch with another successful thru-hiker, Ian Mangiardi (creator TheDustyCamel.org), who completely changed my approach to the trail. He was blunt. He told me that I’d have access to food every 3-5 days, I wouldn’t ever need a maildrop, that the hiking eventually becomes easy, and that my concerns should focus on the mental aspect of living outside for a half year.

From that point forward, I spent ample time answering one simple yet important question: “why am I hiking the trail?” I knew there would come a point during my hike, when the trail began presenting these mental obstacles, where I would ask myself this very question. So, I created a series of lists focusing on giving compelling answers (I provide my lists in Appalachian Trials as well as templates for creating your own), carried them with me, and reviewed them whenever I felt my spirits starting to dip.

Additionally, I intentionally re-shifted how I would approach the challenging times on the trail. Instead of getting frustrated or trying to fight through these stretches, I viewed them as opportunities for personal growth.

These sorts of techniques what were occupied my time instead of the traditional AT research. I knew it was a gamble, but it was the only approach that made sense for me. Because I went into the trail with literally no backpacking experience- I learned how to pitch a tent only two days before leaving (I wish that were a joke) – I knew my unorthodox approach would either be a Hindenburg type failure or an eye-opening revelation about thru-hiking the AT.

Thankfully, it turned out pretty well. Not only did I finish the trail, I was able to keep a smile on my face when others were struggling, even after I contracted West Nile Virus (from which I still battle the symptoms today).

Upon finishing the trail, I wanted to read other books that confronted the psychological component of the Trail. There were none. To me, that was insane. There are a plethora of how-to books regarding the AT, and NONE OF THEM DEAL WITH THE MOST CHALLENGING PART OF ASPECT OF THE TRAIL (sorry for the caps, but that was how strongly I felt about it). So, I wrote the book myself.

Appalachian Trials is the first Appalachian Trail book to tackle the psychological and emotional part of the AT. The feedback thus far has been amazing. The book has been out for only a few weeks and I’ve been bombarded with e-mails from aspiring hikers thanking me, saying they now feel better prepared and that they have much clearer expectations for the AT. Their feedback makes me feel good- to make a difference in someone’s life, no matter how big or small.

What would you have done differently?

I would have moved slower through the Whites and Southern Maine. I somehow convinced myself that once I reached The Whites, I was on the home stretch. Roughly translated, I could push myself for the remainder of the hike because I had an ocean of “zeros” (days off) waiting for me on the other end of the trail. This failed me for two reasons:

  1. This is the most beautiful section of the trail, hands down. The views from above ridge-line in The Whites and southern Maine are nothing short of breathtaking. You’ll bust your ass for an hour, look up, and all of a sudden are sitting on top of the world with 360 degree views of untouched, tree covered landscape carved out only by dark blue lakes. This section really is the climax of the trail. By pushing myself, I was constantly battling exhaustion, and not fully capable of being present during this unparalleled portion.
  2. The three hundred mile stretch starting at the Whites extending into mid-Maine is tough as shit (pardon my French). AT hikers go into this with an inflated hiking ego (for good reason, we’ve already covered 1,700 miles at this point). Unfortunately ego isn’t enough. The climbs are unlike anything we’ve seen to this point. They are steeper, extend much further, and are a lot more technical. Because of this, you’re using a completely different set of muscles. This results in getting worn down much faster than we’re accustomed to. By the time I had made it to the beginning of the 100-mile Wilderness, my legs were jello. I was pushing myself to my limit almost every day, and because of this, the next daywas always much more of a challenge. Although the common wisdom is to “slow down in The Whites”, I never received advice on why. I learned this the hard way.

What was your most memorable part of your AT thru-hike looking back?

Although there were many individual moments that I look back on with great admiration (canoeing in the Shenandoah River, night hiking under a bright full-moon, tenting on numerous mountain sides), the thing I will miss most about the AT is the freedom. There are no schedules. There is no regimen. You wake up without aid of an alarm. You walk when you want to walk. Eat when you want to eat. Break when you want to break. Sleep when you want to sleep. It’s complete freedom and liberating beyond belief. Although I try to live this as much as possible in my post-AT life, no person can really be as free as they are on the AT.

Would you do it all over again?

This could be interpreted two different ways. If you mean, will I ever go on a half year backpacking trip again, the answer is no. I did it mostly to test myself, to try something new, and to gain a new perspective. I’m happy with the outcome. With that said, a half year backpacking trip isn’t easy. I wouldn’t prove anything to myself by hiking the AT again. I would, however, do other long backpacking trips, just not six months. I’m actually considering hiking El Camino de Santiago in the next year or two. That sounds more my speed.

If the question means, knowing what I know now about the AT, would I still have gone back and originally hiked it, then my answer is a 150% absolute yes. I am a better person for my experience. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. The memories I have from my time on the trail are something that I will cherish until my death.

What was the biggest thing you learned or gained from Hiking the AT?

Life is short. Too many people live for some invisible promise of a better future when they retire. This premise is flawed. By the time many people have enough money stored away for retirement, they’re too old to actually enjoy it. A retiree vacation involves driving to many of the spots I was hiking through, taking 30 minutes to snap pictures while wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, getting back into the car, and driving to the local Italian restaurant. That’s not a bad day, but that’s not something that I’ll look back with pride sitting in my rocking chair in before dying days. Do whatever it takes to fulfill your life. That’s the only way to live.

Side note: I encountered many retirees on the AT. These were 60+ year old guys and ladies who were keeping up with all the youngsters and enjoying themselves every bit, if not more, along the way. I tip my hat to these folks because I sincerely doubt I will be physically capable of a 2,200 mile backpacking trip when I reach their age. If you’re as badass as these individuals, disregard the above paragraph. You are a better person than me!

What was your favorite gear item you took?

For purely novel purposes, my Innate Mentor Storage Sacs. Not only do they work really well, but they’re the only sacs on the trail with an air compression valve (at least that I saw). When releasing excess air from your sac, it pretty closely resembles the sound of flatulence (there’s really no other way to describe it). When putting your food or clothes away at the end of the night, and other hikers hear this sound, it’s makes for an excellent conversation starter.

In terms of practicality, I know this isn’t exactly a popular outdoors answer, but my iPhone. It was just so damn versatile. It was my camera, my journal, and my mp3 player. Off the trail, when other hikers are fighting over the one computer at the hostel, I can send e-mails to friends and family without getting off the couch. It’s essentially the electronic version of a multi-tool. All of the pictures from my AT video slide-show were taken with my iPhone.

What gear item did you end up needing the most?

Aside from the backpack itself, my Eureka Casper 15 degree bag. There were a few pretty damn cold days in the beginning of the trail. One night it got down to 14 degrees. I dubbed my sleeping bag the “anti-hypothermia zone”. Waking up to pee in the middle of the night and getting out of my sleeping bag to do this was one of the hardest things I did the entire trail.

There were some who had only a 30 degree bag. I think that’s pushing it. I’m glad that I had the extra warmth. With that said, the bag is a little on the heavier side. I exchanged it out for a lighter Deuter bag starting in mid-May and got my Casper back before going into the Whites.

What gear item did you end up not needing at all?

Gaiters. Although a lot of people used them a lot, the feedback was mixed. I sent mine home within the first week. They seem to do a better job at keeping pebbles out of shoes/boots than in keeping your foot dry. If anything, it doesn’t allow heat to escape, causing more perspiration (which I already do in Costco size portions) . A moist foot is a breeding ground for blisters. For me, it’s not worth carrying the extra weight (although they’re pretty light), it’s easier to take the 12 seconds required to take your shoe off or just wait it out until your next break point.

Otherwise, most of the items in my first aid kit never ended up getting used. Although I wouldn’t recommend not carrying a first aid kit, I would suggest to not go overboard in what you bring. If an injury is severe, get off the trail. A Band-Aid isn’t going to do much.

Did you use postal drops and if so how did you arrange all of that?

I did. Most of the packages were sent from my parents, although I purchased most of the contents inside them before leaving. I also gave my friends Chris and Jeff some money before leaving as a fund to send me anything that I might need along the way. From there, I just scouted out a post office or hostel 150 miles or so ahead of where I was to have the box sent to and texted them the next time I had service. A lot of people have a strict maildrop itinerary setup before they leave. For me, this would have been more of a headache than anything else.

Having to stop in to a town when you still have enough supplies to get to the next is a bit frustrating and conflicts with my favorite aspect of the trail, not having any schedule. To any aspiring thru-hikers reading this- don’t stress maildrops. It’s unnecessary. If there’s a post office, a grocery store is not far off. Oftentimes, the grocery store is easier to get to than the PO. Don’t add hassle to a lifestyle that doesn’t require it.

- ZD

Zach Davis is an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, founder of the Good Badger, author of Appalachian Trials, and technology blogger at Tech Cocktail. He drinks crappy beer, good wine, green tea, and black coffee. He is currently in pursuit of his lifelong goal: escaping the confines of society.


Stay tuned for a chance to win a signed copy of Appalachian Trials via Brian’s Backpacking Blog…

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  • Jim

    Good write up, I ordered the book several weeks ago on my Kindle. Very enlightening on the head game of the hike.

  • http://hikingthetrail.com/ Adam Nutting

    A great book and a great guy. He has been a huge help in my planning of my AT thru-hike in 2013. I would recommend it to anyone going on a long hike or just wanting to know what it is like to hike the AT

  • Ryan Wheeler

    I picked up the book a few weeks ago, and completed the read in a very fulfilling day. It gave me a good boost for how I thought I was preparing for my thru, which I’ll now be leaving for in a bit over a month. I’ve always viewed the AT as more of a mental challenge, and it was a wonderful find to see this book pop up in the time leading up to my attempt at it.

    The poetry of that in itself is easily appreciated.

  • sygyzy

    What a great interview. Zach sounds like an amazing person and I like that he’s very practical. He calls it like he sees it and doesn’t try to change the hike into something it’s not. He’s the kind of person I want giving me advice if I were to do the AT.

  • http://www.adventureinprogress.com/ Damien @ ADVENTUREinPROGRESS

    We recently purchased this too. Haven’t gotten all the way through it yet, but so far it is really good.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10784207690298277613 joe

    Completely agree with everything he said. I managed an outdoor store before my hike, so you can imagine the amount of gear geeking I did. I was very well informed and very well outfitted. I spent so much time thinking about what I was going to carry and very little thinking about why I wanted to do the trail in the first place. I lasted about 500 miles before I just got bored. I wasn’t ready for the mental part.

    Future hikers, heed Zach’s advice. Don’t worry about food drops, don’t stress too much about gear, don’t set a schedule. The most unlikely people make it all the way while the shoe-in fall off after a week. Have some really good answers ready when you inevitably ask yourself “what the _____ am I doing out here?!?”

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Sygyzy, I’m glad you see it that way. That’s how I felt too and as I haven’t thru-hiked the AT, I wanted to get some real perspective of what it takes to complete a hike like this.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Does it make you want to do the AT?

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    What great timing Ryan! I’m jealous that you’ll be hitting the AT, but excited for you and hope you have safe travels. Let me know if I can help!

  • www.naturesfather.com

     I started hiking about twenty years ago when I lived in North Carolina. I spent years hiking the Uwharrie and Appalachian mountains and really enjoyed it. Three years ago I moved to South Florida and wasn’t able to hike due to a back injury. Seven months ago I moved to Northern Illinois and was able to start hiking again. The prairie and hill hiking is completely different than the hiking I did in North Carolina, but still really fun. I have spent the past couple months hiking the forest preserves in the county I live in and the surrounding counties. I’m not use to the cold weather yet, and to be honest I really don’t want to get use to it. Thankfully, spring is almost here and along with it warmer weather…YAY! I’m looking forward to hiking the trails around here when the trees have leaves on them and I don’t have to wear four layers of clothing just to stay warm.
     I though I would share some of my equipment tips with everyone. I bought a good fitting pair of waterproof hiking boots, a small backpack for my day hikes, and a couple cans of tent waterproofing. For extra protection from the water I sprayed my boots from top to bottom with the tent waterproofing. Then I sprayed my backpack, let it dry, and sprayed it again with the tent waterproofing to protect everything inside my pack from the rain. Whenever I go hiking, from day trips to week long hikes, I always take along the following items. Some people might think that taking some of these items is being overly cautious, but you never know when you might get hurt or lost and being prepared can make the difference between a fun hike and disaster.
     1. I clip a stainless steel water bottle to one of the straps of my backpack and fill it with fresh water before every trip.
     2. I pack a first-aid kit in my pack. I make sure the kit has Tylenol, Advil, iodine, hydrogen peroxide, bandages(different sizes), ACE bandages, first aid tape, popsicle sticks (for splints), needle, thread, and tweezers.
     3. Water purification tablets, a couple extra bottles of water, and food. For food I pack a few apples and some dried fruit with nuts.
     4. Rain poncho
     5. Emergency blanket, the one that looks like aluminum foil… it really does keep you warm.
     6. A compass 
     7. If you can get one, pack a map of the trail or of the surrounding area.
     8. A knife
     9. A coil of lightweight rope
     10. A small tarp. Along with the rope, the tarp can be used to make a make-shift tent if you have to unexpectedly spend the night in the woods.
     11. Water-proof matches, flint and steel, and a knife sharpener
     12. an extra pair or two of socks 
     13. A flashlight
     14. Plastic bags. I have a roll of plastic bags that you can cut to size then tie off the bottom. The plastic bags are good to pack your stuff in to protect if from water even though your pack will be water-proof. I also use the bags to put my trash in and any trash I pick up along the trail. Remember, pack it in…pack it out!

     On my website, http://www.naturesfather.com, I have a day hike check list, long distance hiking check list, camping check list and my outdoor journal. I also have links to very good companies that sell all your outdoor gear needs at great prices. I also have some E-books up for FREE download!

  • http://zrdavis.com/ zrdavis

    Glad you found the book Ryan.  Definitely reach out with any further questions you might have :)

  • http://zrdavis.com/ zrdavis

    I am nothing if not honest.  Thank you sygyzy.  Very nice of you to say!

  • http://zrdavis.com/ zrdavis

    I’ll be eager to know what you think upon finishing the book!  Thanks Damien!

  • http://twitter.com/vortex33 Vortex33

     I’ve had this book in my wishlist for a week now while I finish my current book so it’s great that this interview got posted! Books about hiking the AT have captured my interest over the last 3 months and make me wonder if I could actually backpack for that long (especially when the longest I’ve backpacked is 3 days/2 nights so far).

    I do have a question, especially after seeing many people doing this during my Rim to Rim trip… why wear headphones while backpacking? Does it help with the mental challenge of being out for so long?

  • http://zrdavis.com/ zrdavis

     Definitely.  Going on a weekend backpacking trip is invigorating.  You don’t need any additional stimulus; the serenity of the woods is stimulus on its own.  Now imagine that for a full week.  Two weeks.  Four weeks… Twenty five weeks. That’s what a thru-hiker goes through.  Not all of the terrain is exciting.  Much of it is repetitive.   For me, the trail would have been a different experience without the aid of music and audiobooks.  That being said, I understand why others abstain.  It’s up to each individual hiker as to how they want to approach a half year of walking.  I opted for music. 

  • http://twitter.com/vortex33 Vortex33

     That makes complete sense then. I am still fairly new to backpacking so books and blogs are helping me catch up. I typically will weigh myself down with a book so the thought of an audiobook or more definitely has its appeal.

  • Lesley

    ZD,
    I am also thinking about waking the el camino in the next couple of years. I’ve heard it’s a much different hiking experience … wine and cheese every night! Have you thought about why you would hike the el camino?
    Have you thought about hiking the JMT? The JMT changed my life … 20 days of trail mix, high passes, and amazing people I met along the way!
    I look forward to reading your book, as soon as I can find a copy! ;)
    Happy trails
    -diesel (what was your trail name? I was really slow on the ascents)

  • Beats Workin’

    Great interview, and every word that Zach said resonated with this former thru-hiker (1980). The trick to getting into shape is not to quit. If you wake up every day and walk towards Maine, in 3-4 weeks you will be in fantastic shape. It is a mental journey, first and foremost. The whole middle third is mostly terrain you would not bother to hike if it were not part of the AT.

  • Freefreeass

    wonderful suggestions in the blog post! My friends who are into hiking also shares a lot of useful info online at www.my-travel-mate.com/ care to join us in the discussion?

  • http://twitter.com/kingneece King Neece

    Our University of Alabama patented personal solar desalination product (U.S. Made) uses no electricity, can be taken anywhere and extracts pure water from any contaminated water source. It removes radiation, fluoride, salt, pesticides, bacteria, dirt and other contaminants from any water source. Be prepared for disasters, save hundreds on bottled water and utility bills. 

    Panels can also be arrayed together to create an ‘oasis in a desert’ or other non water locations globally.

    http://freshwater.ecogreenenergies.com 

  • http://www.facebook.com/armyrhoads Aj Rhoads

    I bought you’re book not too long ago. I’m currently reading it, and when I’m not, I keep on my T.V. stand in my living room, for all to see. Everyone thinks my wife and I are crazy, but I think after I get out, this will be the perfect way to reset. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and advice!