Welcome to Trailblazer Tuesday. We have an amazing interview for you today. We are talking with Zach Davis who hiked the Appalachian Trail. Did I mention that the Appalachian Trail is 2,181 miles long? I bet you have some questions about that. I know I do!
Today’s Trailblazer is Zach Davis from theGoodBadger.com
Zach Davis is a 26 year old computer nerd and writer for Tech Cocktail–a website covering technology start-ups. Additionally, Davis is a noted lifestyle and comedic blogger at his personal website: www.theGoodBadger.com. In 2011, after realizing his brain was turning to wet garbage from spending too much time staring at his computer screen, he decided to attempt thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail despite not having any backpacking experience. Despite overwhelming odds against him, Davis was able to join the less than 30% of hikers who hike the full distance spanning from the Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. He has since written an Appalachian Trail Book- Appalachian Trials–A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail. Appalachian Trials details the hidden secret behind long-distance backpacking- focusing your efforts in preparing for the mental challenges.
Thanks for joining us today, Zach. First off, tell us…what were you thinking? I’m sorry. That wasn’t my first question. How long have you been a hiker and how did you become interested in hiking? I think the first question is more appropriate. And the answer is, “I’m not sure.” That was the second most common question others asked me before leaving for the trail, with the first being, “you’re kidding, right?” Friends and family knew all too well that I should be the last person to attempt a notoriously difficult, half-year backpacking trip. I didn’t acquire my first piece of equipment equipment until two months before the trail. It wasn’t until two days before leaving for the trail that I learned how to pitch a tent (literal version). In my people’s terminology, I was a nOOb (which is virgin for beginner).
It wasn’t until I stated my intentions on the Good Badger that people started to take me seriously.
To answer the second question, I’ve always been into hiking- the sort where you disappear for an hour or two, only to return to you air-conditioned car, giant bottle of Gatorade, and hot shower. Backpacking/camping on the other hand, was not my thing. That requires savvy and grit, both qualities I went into the AT sorely lacking. I saw the AT as my “grit-gaining-getaway.” (#FirstWorldProblems).
One night, a friend and I were at the bar when he told me his plans to hike some trail that goes all the way from Georgia to Maine. This conversation happened at the height of my computer burnout. And because I was drunk, I agreed. Even the next day, upon sobering up, the idea still sounded appealing. That’s how I knew I needed a break from my current lifestyle.
How long did it take you to hike the Appalachian Trail? Five months and one day.
How do you prepare for a half-year hike? Very Unconventionally. I didn’t go on a single backpacking trip (mostly due to a lack of free time). Instead, I reached out to former AT thru-hikers to pick their brains about what it takes to make it the full distance. One of these thru-hikers, Ian Mangiardi, became my personal mentor before leaving for the trail. Ian just so happens to be the co-founder of the backpacking review website The Dusty Camel (thedustycamel.org). I was very lucky to have him as a resource. Not only did he have a hand in almost every single piece of gear that I brought with, but even more importantly, Ian was very blunt in his advice for finishing the trail. He was the first person to admit that the AT is far more mental than physical.
For me, this confirmed what I had already suspected, but was having trouble finding elsewhere. I think because the trail is male-dominated (approximately 90% dudes), there’s a stigma against saying that your emotions are getting the best of you. Ian’s forthrightness about this fact marked a sea change in my approach. Instead of stressing over mail drops and sweating endlessly on the StarMaster, I set goals, I prepared myself for a rigorous emotional roller coaster, and I purchased a variety of “self-help” readings to strengthen the gear between my ears. Ultimately, this gamble paid off. In watching other more experienced backpackers falling off the trail around me, I was able to keep a calm, collected mindset. Even after contracting the West Niles Virus. Yeah, that happened.
These are the techniques, along with learning lessons from other successful AT thru-hikers, that are the focus of Appalachian Trials. It’s the only resource that actually confronts the most challenging aspect of long distance backpacking. I’ve been overwhelmed by the early positive feedback. I’ve received several e-mails from 2012 aspiring thru-hikers, thanking me as they now feel far better prepared for what’s ahead of them. It’s a great feeling to know that I can help make a positive impact the way that Ian did for me.
Now for the hard hitting questions. What did you eat on the trail? How did you bring enough water without pulling a wagon? Food: Everything. If it was edible, it was going in me. Snickers, trail mix, peanut butter, honey, beef jerky, summer sausage, string cheese, cookies, tuna, chicken, pop tarts, instant mashed potatoes, crackers, and whiskey. You eat like a pregnant buffalo. There just isn’t enough food in existence to squash the hiker hunger. The engine is working too hard.
Typically a hiker will stop into town every 3-7 days to resupply either at a grocery store/convenience store or pick up a resupply box sent by a loved one.
Water: There’s typically a water source (stream, spring, river, etc) every 3-8 miles on the trail. There are various ways to treat water: filtration pump, Steripen, chemicals. I opted for chemicals (chlorine dioxide) because it was fast and light. It also makes your teeth incredibly white (basically bleach). I can’t imagine that being good for the lining of my stomach, but that’s neither here nor there. I never got Giardia.
Did you hike the trail with other hikers? Were they friends of yours or how did you find them? The social dynamics on the trail are very interesting. It’s one giant happy community of bearded vagabonds (and some vagabond ladies too). Everyone is selfless, friendly, and almost always has an interesting story to tell. You don’t meet too many “Bob’s from accounting” on the trail. I think I was probably closer to that stereotype than most.
I started off hiking with another guy, the aforementioned San Diego friend, but we ended up doing our own thing. The trail is interesting in that most hikers hike alone, together. There’s almost always others nearby (not always), but everyone is sort of on their own schedule. In the initial phases its more common to see hikers grouped together, for the sake of comfort, but eventually the woods become your mental concept of home. You don’t feel any more uneasy in the woods than you would sitting in your living room at home. Once hikers get to this point, they’re much more likely to break away from the group and sort of do their own independent thing. In all honesty, the times I spent alone on the trail were some of my favorites. Watching a beautiful sunset from a mountaintop knowing (or at least thinking) that there wasn’t another human within a half-day’s walk is a truly liberating experience unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.
Love your pictures. What camera did you use? All of my photos were taken with my iPhone 4. Although I would have preferred to take a better camera, to me, it wasn’t worth the additional weight. That said, I have to agree with you that the quality of pictures are surprisingly good.
Confession time. During the hike, did you ever think to yourself, “What was I thinking?” I got pretty much all of the way before leaving. I knew once I stepped foot on the trail, I would have to keep a focused mindset. So in all honesty, no. The only question I asked myself with regularity was, “is it time for a snack?” (Hint: the answer was always yes).
Did you have days that you rested and did not hike a long distance? Yeah. In the beginning it’s pretty normal to take one out of every 5-8 days off. This necessity diminishes later on, but will still take the occasional “zero” (trail terminology for a day off) or a “nearo” (a near-zero), to enjoy the simple pleasures of civilized life (i.e. beer and pizza).
What advice would you give other hikers considering hiking the Appalachian Trail? Stop worrying so much about planning mail drops before you take off. You will always have access to a store. I’m not sure why or when this became such a point of emphasis. Instead dedicate your pre-trail time to setting goals for why you’re hiking the trail, what you want to get out of your experience, and how you will feel if you give up on yourself. If you really invest yourself into answering those three questions (with emotion), you will be far more prepared than those who dedicate countless hours to dehydrating apples and beef for three consecutive weeks.
How did you keep from getting bored on the trail? Did you sing? Come on, you can tell us. Music and audiobooks. A lot of them. This is a divisive issue on the trail- use of technology.
There are stretches of the trail that are either mundane, repetitive, or both. There’s no rule that says I must suffer during those times. There were many instances where music improved my enjoyment of the trail.
I recently talked to a hiker who gave up on the trail last year who is going to reattempt his thru-hike again this year. The biggest change he’s making he told me, “I’m definitely bringing music and audiobooks this time. I wish I would have last year.”
I understand those who are opposed to electronics on the trail. The trail is a sacred technology free zone in their mind. They should adhere to that principle. But don’t impose your views on others. I don’t try to convince others to listen to music on the trail. That’s up to them. The AT’s most common motto is to “hike your own hike“. The use of technology, in my opinion, is the best example of this.
Zach, thank you so much for enlightening us about the nuances of the Appalachian Trail. I have learned so much from our conversation. I can’t wait to get your book, Appalachian Trials. Before you go, we have one more question for you, the Silly Question Sendoff.
What was the most epic meal you ate on the trail? A large meat-lovers pizza, followed by a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food, followed by a 6-pack of Budweiser. I busted my butt for the previous 30 hours to get into Erwin, TN to catch a Chicago Bulls playoff game on TV. I didn’t budget much time for food breaks during that time span. When I got to town, apparently my hunger caught up to me. That’s one of the things I miss most about the trail, guilt-free gluttony.
Guilt-free gluttony…maybe I should consider hiking the Appalachian Trail. HaHa! If you enjoyed our interview with Zach, head on back over to his website, The Good Badger and give him a virtaul high-five, in the form of a comment! Now it’s time for you, our readers, to answer our Silly Question Sendoff.
If you were hiking the Appalachian Trail and could eat any meal guilt-free, what epic meal would you choose?
I’ll see ya around the campfire.
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