Skywalker Suggests Taking Plenty of Zero Days in the Early Going on Appalachian Trail
The numerous readers of Bill Bryson’s Appalachian Trail narrative, A Walk in the Woods, will recall how he and his hapless sidekick, Katz, got bogged down in nasty, early springtime weather in the southern Appalachians. At one point, they were forced to take three days off in some out of the way hiker’s hostel. Of course, they began in March when the weather is notoriously dicey in these parts.
I have been quite vociferous in advising aspiring thru-hikers to not begin until April 1st. The reason obviously has to do with weather; but calories are also a major issue. Quite simply a hiker is bound to use multiples greater number of calories hiking in cold, wet weather. Is it worth it? It depends. First, let me just say that unless you are an especially experienced and capable hiker, you should be attempting, whenever possible, to get off the trail in really bad weather. The shelters spaced across the Appalachian Trail on average once every 9 miles afford plenty of opportunities to do this. And then, of course, there are ‘zero days’. As their name would suggest, these are the days that hikers elect to forgo hiking. The best place to take them is in trail towns; however, in especially dire circumstances, I have taken a zero day in a shelter. This is not any fun, to be sure. But it can save you a lot of trouble, and maybe even danger. But the easiest decision of all is when you are in a trail town and the weather is diabolical. The cost-benefit analysis of hiking in that kind of weather is not usually positive, unless you are a particularly crack hiker.
Those of you who have read my AT narrative, Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, will recall that I was wracked in the early going from the unseasonably cold, wet spring weather. One day I tried clearing Blue Mountain in north Georgia in a major thunderstorm; ultimately I became hypothermic, dizzy, and paranoid, and ended up having to abandon my backpack. What I should have done was stay at Neel’s Gap that day; as it was, it took me almost two weeks to recover from that harrowing episode.
Please remember: this is a long-distance challenge. There is no need to use unnecessary energy by hiking in the very worst weather, if you have any choice. There will probably be other times when you have no choice; these will give you plenty of chance to earn your outdoor spurs. Happy trails.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012).