I learned a lot by walking day in and day out on the Appalachian Trail. As the journey progressed, I wrote down the maxims that I learned. Below are some of my favorite Appalachian Trail Takeaways.
Appalachian Trail Takeaways #1: Food is fuel.
Obvious. Humans need to eat. Physical activity requires calorie inputs, especially hiking 18 miles every day. I knew this before hiking the AT. But when I hiked on a constant calorie deficit, the importance of food magnified. I ate 4000 calories per day and I was hungry all the time. By the end of the trail, I had still lost 8lbs.
Food is fuel is a crucial lesson that successful thru hikers learn early. Hiking 2200 miles requires constant calorie input. Subsisting off of lower calorie levels makes the rest of your experience deteriorate. Your body first consumes the calories for your natural processes. Once those calorie inputs are met, the calories feed your energy levels and mental state. If you fail to meet certain calorie levels, you lose energy and your mental state deteriorates.
Performance required constant food intake. I could not rely on regular meals to sustain me throughout the day. A 1000 calorie breakfast lasted me two hours and same with a 1000 calorie lunch. I needed more calorie inputs throughout the day, so I regularly ate 200-400 calories to maintain my mental and physical state.
Eating remedied all my issues.
When I was tired, I ate. I was in a bad mood, I ate. I couldn’t think, I ate. When I was cold, I ate. I know my body is a furnace, and if I don’t feed it calories I will be cold, tired, and hungry.
I’ve had to rein in my hiker hunger. I no longer need the excessive number of calories because my physical activity has decreased significantly. Food is fuel is still a major takeaway. I know that if I am working and am unable to focus it is likely because I haven’t eaten in awhile. Additionally I know that I should eat breakfast to jumpstart my brain. The idea that calories lead to higher brain function is foundational to high functioning.
Appalachian Trail Takeaways #2: Do it now.
Procrastinating sucks. There is some activity that you are required to perform and you don’t want to do it. So you put it off. Sometimes there are legitimate excuses. Maybe a family obligation pops up making a certain chore move to the back burner. Most of the time procrastination is self-inflicted.
I lived a very simple life on the trail. Wake up, eat, walk, and sleep. If there was something I had to do, there were very few things that I could use as excuses to put off an activity. “Do it now” is revelatory at a micro level and a macro level.
On a micro level, if I walk and feel uncomfortable because my jacket is too hot, I should take my jacket off immediately.
This seems common sense, but in this circumstance I would frequently set a certain time in the future to take off a layer. The next water spot seems like a good time to take it off, or I will wait until the I finish the hill. In reality I prolong my uncomfort by setting aside this task that needs to happen. By taking my jacket off now, and not later, I limit my uncomfort and walk to that future destination feeling more comfortable.
If I really want to hike the AT, why wait a year to do it, when I could do it right now?
Do it now is similarly revelatory on a macro level. It is easy to create excuses for big life events like changing jobs, or going on an adventure. But if I realize that there is nothing institutionally stopping me from completing a task / event / goal now, I might as well do it now and save myself any future discomfort. There are many more variables to evaluate when using this mantra on life choices. If in doubt, I just do it because the fear of unknown outcome is likely holding me back from completing the goal.
Appalachian Trail Takeaways #3: Divide goals into manageable pieces.
Learning how to set goals successfully is valuable, especially when the end goal is large and ambiguous. At the Southern Terminus of the AT, the caretaker advised us that we should never think about Katahdin and instead focus on the more immediate goal of finishing the day’s miles. This advice proved invaluable.
If I were to go back to the start and think only about getting to Katahdin, my mental state would be horrible. Simple naivete wouldn’t protect me. I know so much more about the hardship. However, if I were to pursue another thru hike, I know I would be able to finish because I would divide my goals into manageable pieces.
On my thru hike my goal structure had ten levels. Ten levels seems ridiculous, but so does stepping off of Springer thinking you have to walk 2200 miles. My goal levels were as follows: 1) Katahdin 2) half way 3) next state border 4) the next 100 mile mark (typically 5 days) 5) the next resupply (typically 3-4 days) 6) the day’s miles 7) miles to lunch 8) the next hour (2-3 miles) 9) the next mile 10) the next step.
Every time I completed a goal level, dopamine released, and I felt pleasure.
Of course, I felt a lot more pleasure reaching Katahdin than I did each step. But I felt pleasure at each level of goal completion nonetheless. By segmenting my goals I was being productive towards my final goal without being lost in the magnitude of the final goal. The Tao Te Ching has an excellent quote to sum up my goal setting mentality:
“Great affairs always start off being small.
Therefore the sage never deals with the great
And is able to actualize his greatness.” – Tao Te Ching
As a goal setting method, segmentation is incredibly important. I currently segment my goals via the Impossible List to make my long term goals manageable and accessible.
These Appalachian Trail Takeaways significantly helped me complete the AT. They continue to resonate with me as I pursue a more standard life. These takeaways are only a couple of the many insights I had on the trail. Stay tuned for Takeaways Part 2 with more Appalachian Trail Takeaways.
- I have many impactful Appalachian Trail takeways that I use in my day to day.
- Food is fuel.
- Do it now.
- Divide goals into manageable pieces.