By Christopher Pregony, BS, CSCS | Photos Provided by Christopher Pregony
The “hike,” as it has come to be called, all started about seven years ago. Three of my closest friends and I decided we wanted to hike the Suwannee section of the Florida Trail (that adventure is a story for another time). We had such a good time, we decided to up the ante and begin doing sections of the Appalachian Trail. Our first time on the trail was in northern Georgia. Only three of us could make this trip because the fourth sacrificed his leisure time to serve in the United States Army as a Green Beret. Bitter Clinger, Big Bear and I made up the three compadres that did the hike.
Our plan was to start at Springer Mountain and hike for three days to Neel’s Gap, which is roughly a 30-mile hike. In theory 10 miles a day was a modest goal, but the trip still required a good deal of preparation. I would load my pack up and head to either Devil’s Millhopper or the stadium to simulate the elevation gains that we would encounter on the trail. Florida is flat; what we call mountains others call hills, so these inclined walks were a must.
We decided to use a shuttle service to take us to the start (Springer Mountain) and pick us up so we didn’t have to drive multiple vehicles. Our guide was an interesting character who called himself Survivor Dan. He was a stocky man, about 5 foot 8 inches and very intense. He had a tattoo of the Appalachian Trail logo on his ankle, yet had never actually hiked the whole thing.
Our journey began around 2 a.m. when we left Florida. We got on the trail as fired up as three grown men could be. We started off at a furious pace, racing up the mountains and bounding back down. It took about three hours for reality set in. We hadn’t slept in over 24 hours and the terrain started to take its toll. We made it 7 miles that day and set up camp near Hawk Mountain shelter. Believe it or not, we were actually able to get a decent night’s sleep.
We made up for our slow first day by going almost 15 miles on the second. I had a map that showed different shelters, views and places to fill up on water. Despite the pain in our shoulders from packs that were too heavy, we were moving along at a decent pace. I would typically pick a point on the map and we would try to make it there before taking a break. We were about 3 miles from where I thought would be a good place to set up camp. Our water was about half full, so we chose to skip one of the streams and push on to our destination for the night. This proved to be a costly mistake.
It was the fall of 2010, which for much of the Southeast was a dry one. We got to our checkpoint and proceeded to where my map and signage said there would be water. After walking down a side path for about 15 minutes, we became skeptical. We pressed on another 2 miles, but still nothing. We turned around to find a barren creek where the water should have been. It was getting late, so we decided to set up camp while Bitter Clinger went down to a nearby county road to find a store. BC walked for another 2 miles only to find a store that had closed 15 minutes prior to his arrival. Upon BC’s return, Big Bear and I had set up camp and were anxiously awaiting good news. It was tough to swallow that we didn’t have any water. Dehydrated as could be, we decided to turn in early.
We found dinner difficult to eat, and eating when overly dehydrated only makes it worse. Sleep was difficult to come by. Our mouths were dry and our heads were pounding. We ended up coming to the conclusion that we needed to press on and find water. We broke down camp, packed up, put our headlamps on and headed out on the trail a few minutes shy of 4 a.m. It was the right call. The air was cool, the sun wasn’t bearing down on us, and the promise of nature’s sweet nectar propelled us forward. The sound of the wind in the trees was easily mistaken for rushing water, which played constant tricks on our warped minds. Dawn was beginning to break as we reached the top of a mountain. It made for one of the most spectacular views we had ever seen. After taking the view in, we pressed on.
We all heard the sound around the same time. It wasn’t the wind this time — it was WATER. We sped up to find a small stream. Water had never meant more to me than in that moment. We filtered, sterilized and drank over a liter each at a time. We could feel the life return to our blood streams and muscles, and the fog our minds were in was lifted. We all had a new appreciation for something we had taken for granted. All in all I think we hiked over 20 miles that day. Our feet, shoulders, calves and legs were radiating with soreness.
Since then we have done four more sections of the AT. We can’t do it every year due to kids and work, but we try. Every hike has been an extremely positive experience. I highly recommend embarking on your own hike, but remember to never pass an opportunity to get water!
PREPARATION + SURVIVAL
- Shoes are an important choice when hiking. I like hiking shoes instead of boots, but whatever you decide, be sure to break in your footwear before the hike.
- Socks are crucial! Pack plenty and change them twice a day. It is amazing what a fresh pair of socks can do for your morale.
- Pack high-density caloric foods such as nuts, nut butters, packaged meats or ready-to-eat meals. Camp stoves are nice, but not essential.
- Pack light but smart. One of the main problems you will encounter on the trail is the weight of your bag. Between food, water, clothes and camping essentials, the pack can get HEAVY, especially when you are carrying it for eight hours a day. Aside from gathering supplies, preparation must include getting your pack on and walking, preferably up an incline.
- Always have a plan and know your surroundings. Check maps and local weather to see if there is anything coming that may impede your hike.
- Water is by far the most important consideration when planning an excursion, especially one that lasts multiple days. There are several ways to sterilize your water — we use sterilizing tablets, water filters and ultraviolet pens. I keep sterilizing tablets in case of an emergency, but mostly rely on a combination of a filter and an ultraviolet pen. The pen is compact and kills 99 percent of viruses and bacteria.