“Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or the left; turn your foot away from evil.” Prov 4:26-27 (ESV)
I am very, very, verrrrrry excited that spring is coming. As temperatures rise and leaves return to the trees, hikers return to the trail. That includes me, and I’m preparing for my biggest hiking season yet. I’ll complete the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail in the next two months, will spend some time on the Florida Trail, and am headed to hike in Canada in September! I’m one happy hiker.
I am still pretty new to hiking. With every trip, I learn more about what to expect and how to prepare. News flash – when spending extended time in the wilderness, preparation is pretty important. Forgot something? No big deal… I can pick it up at a store. After I walk 40 miles to get there. In three days. (Hope I didn’t need it today!)
The trip that started this obsession with the trail was a three-day saunter along the Chatooga River with some fellows who would eventually become my closest friends. It was my very first hiking trip, and I had no gear. I borrowed my pack from one guy, my bivy tent and sleeping bag from another guy, and scraped together what car camping gear I had that could be used on the trail. I called the trip leader the night before to figure out what supplies I needed. THE NIGHT BEFORE! If you asked me the name of the trail or where it was, I couldn’t have answered… all I knew was that I was jumping in a car and heading to the woods in northern Georgia for a few days.
A few trips later, and my wife and I ended up on a quick weekend hike on the AT with a friend. I knew a lot more about where we were going and what to expect; I even had my own gear! However, I still approached the trip as a follower, not a leader. There aren’t many areas in life where I’m not leading. Maybe I enjoyed not being in charge? All I know is that I should have at least brought a trail map! I learned that though I am comfortable following the white blazes, my wife likes to have more detailed info when walking in the woods. Funny… the nerd (me) and the free spirit (Vanessa) seem to swap roles on the trail!
For my upcoming trips, I’m taking my preparation to a new level. I’m meeting with fellow hikers to study topographical maps, debate expected miles-per-day and bemoan elevation change. I’m practicing setting up camp and packing my gear. I’m hiking our local bike trail with a loaded pack, doing bench jumps and running the high school football stadium (which my wife and I have dubbed Mt. Tharpe). I’m reading blogs, scouring forums and more forums, and listening to podcasts. I’ve called shuttle drivers to arrange a ride from our ending trail head back to the car… those conversations have yielded a TON of great information! (Did you know that the Fontana Dam area averages two heavy snows during April every year?) I’m preparing so I have better trips. I’m also preparing so I don’t go crazy until I can actually get on the trail!
While preparing for my trips, a thought came to mind:
Lots of folks walk through life and never think about where they’re going. If they do have some idea of a destination, they’re hoping they’ll arrive, not actually making a plan to do so. Hoping and planning are two very different things.
Here are 10 questions everyone should ask before the journey, regardless of the trail they’re walking. (I’ll talk about hiking and let you draw your own non-hiking, daily life parallels. They’re pretty easy to spot.)
Why am I doing this?
There’s a saying that gets thrown around a lot in the hiking world: Hike your own hike. Each hiker has his or her reasons for striking out on the trail. Some want to push their physical limits, to hike as fast and far as they can. Others want to linger at vistas and soak up the wonder of nature. Some want to meet hikers with funny trail names and swap stories at the shelter. Others long for isolation and silence. Some want to make it to a specific destination. Others want to spend a certain number of days on the trail, regardless of the distance traversed. Each goal is equally valid. Every traveler has to ask him or herself, “Why am I here? What do I want to accomplish on this journey?” Once you know your answer to “Why?” and can set some goals, you will also know how to prepare.
Who will go with me?
Once you’ve determined why you want to take your journey, you should decide who, if anyone, will go with you. Is this a solo hike or do you want someone to walk with you? Your traveling companions will make a huge impact on your trip. Be thoughtful about who goes with you and make sure that everyone knows the purpose of the trip. You will frustrate the sight-seers if you’re trying to hike big miles every day, and the fast hikers will want to bail out if you’re stopping every ten minutes to hang out at a waterfall. If everyone knows the purpose of the trip, they can get on board even if it’s not their favorite style of hiking. Consider the pace you can expect your team to keep. How fast will they move? Let your team know how many miles you expect to cover in a day. When your team is assembled, begin preparing together.
Who is leading the trip?
No trip will succeed unless someone is the leader. Too many leaders and chaos ensues. No leaders and you never leave the parking lot. Someone has to take charge and a healthy team will understand that.
What challenges will the environment present?
It’s called the wilderness for a reason… it’s pretty wild out there, and even a well-trodden trail like the AT presents some challenges that could potentially take your life. Are you prepared to be outdoors in a lightning storm? What if the temperature drops? What about hail, snow or high winds? What should you do if you see a bear? Or a serial killer? What if you get lost? Think through several scenarios, the most likely ones as well as the worst-case ones, and prepare accordingly.
What kind of help will I need?
No epic journey can be completed without assistance from others. Even if you’re the go-it-alone, ultimate survivalist solo hiker, you’ll still need someone to pick you up at the final trail head and give you a ride home. Though you have all you need for day-to-day existence in your pack, you can’t fit a car, your kids or an accountant in there. Who is going to take care of your family while you’re gone, even if it’s just for the weekend? What about your job? There are people out there who can help you accomplish your goals. Think about the support system that needs to be in place for your journey to succeed, and then work on establishing it.
Do I have what the journey requires?
This is both a question of equipment and personal skills. Do you have the right gear for the length of trip, conditions, and specific goals? Are you in good enough physical shape to complete the hike? Do you have the support at home to train for the trip and then complete it?
What should I take with me?
There are lots of things that can fit in your pack, but that doesn’t mean you should take them all. Streamline your equipment. Not only is your pack capacity limited, but so is your wallet. The smallest, lightest gear is often the most expensive. Are there ways to do what you want to do without losing all financial sanity? Can you DIY some gear? What items can serve dual purposes? How can you do more with less?
Do I have a good map?
Wow… this one is important. Some folks say that you don’t need a map to hike the Appalachian Trail because it is so well marked with iconic white blazes. If what I’ve seen in Georgia is true of the remaining 2000+ miles of the AT, this is an accurate statement. Except if you go off trail and lose your bearings. Or if a stretch of trail is maintained by a less-than-stellar trail club and the blazes are worn. Or if you’re hiking in thick fog or a downpour and it’s hard to see the blazes. Or if you lose your glasses and can only see four feet in front of you and you can’t make out a tree ten yards away, much less a white strip of paint. In an ideal set of conditions, maps aren’t necessary. In the real world, you need a map that gives you the information you need, is easy to read, can withstand the weather, and is up to date. Technology is great, but batteries die and GPS directions go awry. A good, old-fashioned, accurate map will get you where you need to go. Oh, and make sure you know how to read it.
Can I get the supplies that I need?
If your journey is going to take you a while to complete, you’ll need a strategy for resupplying. You can’t carry everything in your pack. Or, if you try, your hike will be much harder than it should be. Look down the trail and be aware of resources in towns and at road crossings. Think strategically about what you need and where you can get it. A lot of peace comes from knowing 1) you don’t have to carry EVERYTHING and 2) there are resources along the way. Also be aware of long stretches of trail where you need to supply more heavily because the towns are further apart.
What questions do I not know to ask?
As a newbie hiker, this is a very important consideration for me. I know enough to know that I don’t know enough. I am amazed at the things I learn as I listen to more seasoned pilgrims. Connect with folks who have walked this path before you (literally) and ask, “What do I need to know?” You’ll be glad you did.
Whether you’re hiking a literal trail through the woods or are on a challenging journey of another sort, take time to prepare adequately. God will direct, but he gave you a brain and he expects you to use it. Whether you’re getting married, having kids, buying a house, starting a business or entering retirement, you are surrounded by incredible resources (you’re probably unaware of some of the best ones!) and he will help you find them if you are diligent in looking.