Book Review – Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike

31858255Thru-hiker extraordinaire Liz Thomas shares her wealth of hard-earned experience in Backpacker Magazine’s Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike. She covers the subject thoroughly, from why thru-hiking is appealing to an overview of several long trails to mental and physical readiness to logistics to nutrition to equipment.

One of the strengths of this book is how much Thomas emphasizes the “hike your own hike” philosophy. Each thru-hiker has his or her own reasons for hiking, as well as an individual approach to the trail. What is right for one hiker is not the right choice for another. This book highlights alternatives that will benefit different types of hikers instead of a “one-size-fits-all” method.

The sections on budgeting and scheduling are practical, presenting useful strategies for breaking down the daunting job of planning a thru-hike into manageable tasks. I benefited most from her tips on preparing for the physical and mental challenges along the trail–lots of useful pointers here, such as practicing packing and unpacking as part of the daily exercise regimen and how to communicate clearly with a resupply contact back home.

Rather than being intended for the beginning backpacker, Long Trails assumes some familiarity with backpacking and seeks to bridge the gap from shorter trail experience to thru-hiker. The information is focused on long trails rather than a weeklong trip.

The lush photography makes for both a beautiful and well-presented book. The pictures illustrate concepts nicely and show some of the wonderful scenery along the trail. I also appreciated Thomas’ cheerful, friendly tone; she comes across as very down-to-earth.

Several “asides” of paragraph-to-page length recount other hikers’ experiences. These frequently amplify Thomas’ points, and sometimes present alternative opinions and methods. A lengthy section examines different hiker’s gear lists piece-by-piece, showing multiple individual approaches to equipment.

Long Trails is vital reading for anyone interested in a longer trail–say, any trail where a resupply is necessary. Whether you’re headed for a more modest challenge or setting out on the Continental Divide Trail, this book will help you get there.

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Book Review – AWOL on the Appalachian Trail

114584324 stars. David Miller was a “regular guy”: 41, married with three girls, working as a software engineer, yet wanting something a little more. He sought it by turning in his notice and heading out on the Appalachian Trail to thru-hike the 2,200 mile footpath from Georgia to Maine. He takes us along the path with him in AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, the story of his 2003 AT thru-hike.

Miller communicates well, with direct sentences and little flowery prose. He’s pretty even keeled and approaches the AT with a pragmatic sense, but he also realizes that the goal is to enjoy himself rather than simply to reach a destination or put a feather in his cap. I get the feeling that Miller finds satisfaction in simply taking in the moment:

“…spectacular overlooks and scenic waterfalls have universal appeal. But I have come to recognize that most of what is memorable and pleasing about my time on the trail is ordinary moments in the outdoors. Simply sitting unhurried in the shade of leaves is an irreplaceable moment. It is a joy in itself to amble through the woods for hours, even when views are limited to the dense trees surrounding me. It is fulfilling to be saturated with the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors. My fond recollections of my hike are full of unremarkable moments, like the smell of a dewy morning, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the blaze of a campfire, the soothing trickle of a stream, or the rays of sun through a maze of trees.”

Any AT trail journal is, by necessity, repetitive: get up, hike, eat, set up camp, repeat until resupply point/town is reached, shower, eat massive amounts of food, hitchhike back to the trail, hike. Just as the sum is greater than the parts on a thru-hike, so is AWOL on the Appalachian Trail: no single thing kept me turning pages, but I did anyway because Miller’s hike was satisfying to experience through his eyes.

Miller is frank about the challenges of the trail: foot pain, gastrointestinal distress, drudgery, steep climbs, inclement weather. He also gives a good sense of the pleasure and fulfillment of the trail.

As a fortysomething code monkey myself, I easily related to Miller’s outlook and wish to fulfill a dream. It’s inspiring to know us cubicle jockeys can do something extraordinary when we put our minds to it! What I appreciated most was his frank discussion of why he chose to go, and what he got out of it:

“…it is important for parents to continue to live their own lives. We can’t sit by and say we’ve already made our decisions, done our striving, and dish out opinions on the doings of our children. Words alone lack authority, and we risk making them surrogates for the life we’d like to lead. We can better relate to the budding aspirations of our children if we follow dreams of our own.”

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail shows that attitude and persistence, combined with planning and preparation, are keys to success on the trail (and probably in life as well). This would be a great book for any prospective thru-hiker to get a good feel for how to proceed on the AT, and very enjoyable to armchair hikers everywhere.