Friday, October 26, 2007


I wonder if this is some kind of convoluted envy: Sometimes I feel mild contempt for hikers who spend thousands of dollars on the latest high-tech feather-weight gear to make it more comfortable to go out and live in the woods scraping by with the minimum essentials for life, including not enough food (thru-hikers usually lose about 20 pounds en route.)

Spending thousands of dollars on bare essentials seems a little paradoxical.

Recently I spent a great weekend in Gettysburg, PA at the annual ALDHA (Appalachian Long-Distance Hiking Association) Gathering. I went to a couple of workshops on lightening your load. One of the things that was said again and again was, "This thing (pack, jacket, tent, whatever) only weighs X grams and is well worth the cost." A variation on that was "The savings in weight is worth whatever it costs." Or, "It's only a couple hundred dollars and you'll never regret it."

Plus, they've somehow quit their jobs for 6 months.

It's growing on me that deliberately living on nothing and being hungry all the time while hiking in the woods is essentially a sport for the affluent.

Affluent, I ain't. Our main income is my husband's retirement income, which isn't all that much (certainly less than our two professional incomes were, and actually less than his alone.) We supplement that by working in campgrounds for a free site and (usually) minimum wage or close to it. It's our choice to live this way so that we can travel the country. But we don't do it high-class.

I'm thinking a person doesn't have to backpack high-class, either.

Bare essentials are shelter, water, food, and warmth.

"Grandma" Emma Gatewood who became, at the age of 65 (more or less... accounts vary, just like the distance of the AT), the first female ever to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail end-to-end in one fell swoop, did it pretty much on the spur of the moment (not years of planning). She sewed up a denim duffel bag, put into it a change of clothes, a raincoat, a wool Army blanket, a plastic shower curtain for a shelter, and a modest supply of beef jerkey, cheese, and nuts, walked out the door carrying it over her shoulder and wearing a pair of U.S. Keds, and started hiking. She carried a little money so she could buy more nuts and crackers when she ran out.

No $300 tent. No $185 ergonomically-designed backpack. No $300 down sleeping bag. No $150 folds-into-itself super-hot-burning stove. No $75 Titanium pot (that's about the price of the one-pint size.) No $150 waterproof-breathable rain jacket and $100 matching pants, no $200 down jacket.

She made it. She said: "I thought it would be a lark. It wasn't."

I plan to carry a little more than Grandma did, but I'm not going to be able to go high-class. When I first started making noises about how much I'd like to do this, Steve said that he could work extra hours during the 6 or so months, to make up for what I wouldn't be working. (Now that's supportive.)

They say it costs about $1 to $2 per mile, not including gear and getting there, to hike the AT. So we're looking at $2000-$4000 dollars.

The low end if you don't stay a lot in off-trail motels and hostels and eat in restaurants a lot, the higher end if you do.

I haven't added it up, but I'm sure I'd be incurring $2000 in living costs in 6 months even if I stayed home. The main difference would be in not earning an income during that time.

I repeat: My husband said he'd work two jobs so I could do this.

I'd been thinking about this post, or maybe series of posts, before Jack brought up a few days ago about winning the lottery to afford the hike.

Some of my next posts will be on gear -- affording it vs. just going out and buying it as apparently a great many of the hikers do. The ones who go first-class. I'm going economy.


bunnygirl said...

When you consider the distances our ancestors traveled, in rough terrain with no support, no wicking clothes, no $200 shoes, no energy gels or convenience stores, it really puts into perspective the concept of what you really need to go the distance.

We so often confuse want with need that it's a little scary.

Flo said...

Sounds like hiking is a lot like triathlon. You could spend thousands on the top of the line gear, or you could go basic. Sure the top of the line gear is going to make it faster/lighter/warmer/more comfortable/whatever, but is it really necessary? The very first Ironman was done with zero support and not a whole lot of training. They all survived :)

Polly said...

Ellie - think of your pioneer grandmothers!

Wanda J said...

You're approaching it with the right spirit! We are too inclined to expect comfort in all situations.

Think not only of your ancestors, so much of the world still deals with traversing long distances hand to month out of necessity.

If you haven't read any of Dervla Murphy's book try to get your hands on some. She was an amazing solo traveler who knew how to go lightly. Her first adventure was riding her bicycle from Dublin Ireland to India in 1963.(_Full Tilt_) She includes lists of her essentials pared down to the absolute basics. Fascinating person and engaging writer. In her book, _Where the Indus is Young_ she wrote of taking her six year old daughter on a trek through Baltistan in the winter. For days they survived on a handful of dried apricots and walnuts with a bit of tea.

I've been reading your blog off & on for several months, I think you've got the inner stuff to take on the AT the way it is meant to be hiked.