Walking in the Rain on the Appalachian Trail
Me giving advice on walking in the rain on the Appalachian Trail is like the captain of the Titanic giving advice on navigation. Well, not quite that bad. I made it, while the Titanic’s skipper didn’t have any such luck. But those of you who have read my Appalachian Trail book, Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, know that I was an unapologetic fair weathered hiker. However, the stark truth is that even fair-weathered hikers are destined to spend alot of time struggling in inclement weather.
That is especially true for the first month (and especially true this year as it has been an unusually wet spring). So what is the best way to cope. For starters, a hiker–especially a ‘thru-hiker’–should get psychologically prepared for their journey. Yes, you want to do all the shoppingfor rain gear at REI, or whatever outfitter–to help prepare you for the journey. However, probably the most enlightenening remark I got from the personnel at REI was the attendant who candidly said, “Look, this stuff will work to keep you dry up to a point. But after that, expect to get wet.” He was right. In moderate showers, I was able to get mostly dry. But in the really heavy stuff, all bets are off. The pitter-patter of rain off all the synthetic equipment we hikers adorn in the rain is one of the common features of trail life.
This is critical. Because when you get soaked in cold weather–and the existential challenge of the Appalachian Trail is the cold, wet weather in those first two states–‘the game is on’. This is when you ‘earn your paycheck’ as a hiker. What to do? The rule of thumb is to try to get out of it as fast as possible. Fortunately, the Appalachian Trail (unlike the Pacific Crest Trail) has shelters on average every nine miles. They are three-sided; so you will still be outside and possibly cold. But here is your chance to get dry. As one might expect, they fill up quickly on rainy days. So it is incumbent on you to make the decision to cut back on your mileage, if necessary, to get to and stay at a shelter. Of course, trail etiquette is important here. Others will be arriving later and wetter than you. I’ve been in shelters where such people were ‘hung out to dry’, so to speak, and not given a spot in the shelter. It is critical that every person arriving be given some time to at least dry off, before going off to set up their tents or tarps. For those who appear to be in truly bad shape–and there are cases of such hypothermia each year–they should be given a spot in the shelter.
Yes, these situation are bound to be unpleasant. But one of the integral parts of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike is helping those in a bad shape. Rain changes everything, usually for the more unpleasant. However, the bottom line is you’ve got to have it. So you need to deal with it the best way possible. Believe it or not, when it’s all over, you are bound to remember the times when you were really ‘under the gun’ in the worst storms as the very best moments of your Appalachian Trail hikes.
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, The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago, and Getting High–the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.