Book: Long Distance Hiking


Site Index


Peak to Peak Trail and Wilderness Links
Peak to Peak Trail and Wilderness Links


Long-Distance Hiking: Lessons from the Appalachian Trail
by Roland Mueser

I had heard of this book a while back when doing some research on alcohol stoves. Since then I have often wanted to get a copy to read. I had heard it was full of useful information about hiking the Appalachian Trail. And it is, in some ways.

To begin with, the book was written by Roland Mueser who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1989. During his hike he passed out questionnaires about everything from reasons to hike, pack weight, equipment, age, mileage, fitness, diet, expenses, sex, etc. The entire questionnaire asked a total of 72 questions and 136 hikers that he met on the trail or later thru the ATLDHA. This has given him quite a database of information to work with about what mostly successful long distance hikers did, used, or what they are like. What it doesn't do because of the sampling poll is find out what the large majority of unsuccessful long distance thru hikers are doing. But I understand that such a survey could be practically impossible.

As a thru-hiker in training, I found that several of the sections are very interesting and have questions I had not thought of before like sex life on the trail, older hikers (which I will be someday), and why people thru-hike? The last question and its discussion was extremely interesting because before reading it, I hade not put much thought into why I wanted to do it. Reading it helped me to put my motivations into perspective, as well as those of the hikers I most likely to share the trail with. Understanding where I'm coming from and where they are coming from could be key in my interactions with others along the trail.

The book also goes into some detail about gear. It covers aspects like boots, tents, stoves, backpacks, pack weight, and water treatment/purification. I won't try to go into detail about his findings (read the book!) but I want to point out a few nuggets of information that I found interesting, at least to my hiking style:

1. Stoves: of all the different stoves listed (the same ones we still have today) the most popular (MSR) also had the second highest failure rate. Alcohol stove users are the only group that had ZERO failures. Canister stoves had the highest failure rate.

2. Footwear: the majority of hikers used lightweight Hi-Tec boots and had one of the highest satisfaction ratings. I never liked Hi-Tecs believing they were cheap boots. Only four hikers reported using sneakers or running shoes, but they were also the highest for satisfaction at 100%. Remember in 1989 ultralight hiking wasn't at the peak it is now.

3. Tents and shelters: a conclusion he came to was regardless of shelter type carried, everyone seamed to be satisfied with their choice. I think he missed putting into that the fact that hikers on the average only spent about 22% of their time in the shelter they brought, mostly relying on shelters, hostels, hotels, and the occasional "under the stars".

4. Packs and weight: no frameless rucks were listed in the survey, but it did show that the highest number of packs used were external frame. The average pack after food was 47 pounds for men and 45 pounds for women - and at about 25% body weight after 1/2 provisions were gone. The lightest pack back then was already 20 pounds - was Ray Jardine hiking the AT back then?

5. Water treatment/purification: 59% of hikers never treated or purified water, or did it rarely. Also, the majority of hikers (57%) simply used iodine. The highest rate of people that became ill used chlorine, while the lowest was the iodine users; in the middle is the filtering, boiling, and no treatment crowd. But, other than the chlorine crowd with a 75% illness rate, the rest all come within a few points away from each other's average at about 29.25%.

It also covered interesting facts about fitness, mileage, injury, weight, and food. Here are some interesting facts I got from there:

1. The majority of hikers started off in only fair to good condition, while a handful were out of shape. The majority of hikers underwent no training program prior to the start of their hike letting the trail condition them for the trail. The only apparent benefit to good fitness prior to the start is less weight loss and more trail miles in the first month of the hike.

2. The average northbound thru-hiker starts off at 12.8 miles per day, while the out of shape hiker starts off at about 9.5 miles per day. After the first month all hikers average about 16 miles per day.

3. All hikers loose weight. The most lost was about fifty pounds while the lest was three.  Men also had a tendency to loose both fat and muscle while women had a tendency to loose fat and add muscle.

4. The most common injury at the beginning of a hike is blisters (go figure) while the most common later on is knee injuries. I can see the complete logic this makes because new boots + new feet = blisters; used knees + lots of miles + pack weight = knee problems.

5. Food, something I try to indulge myself in even early in my hikes, becomes an all consuming obsession for hikers. The hikers burn 3,076 to 6,137 calories a day. Getting enough food while on the trail is ALMOST impossible, so most hikers become pigs in town.

My conclusion about the book is this: it just shows me that there are 136 different ways to hike. Although there are averages, there are so many different successful hikers "Hiking their own hike". Saying "a canister stove is the only logical choice" or something similar about other gear is purely subjective. I have logged many, many miles in the past and have spent some time refining my own packing, sleeping, eating, and other systems; and it all works for me. There aren't any truths that always hold true in this book except that anyone can be successful with the right attitude. Despite heavy gear, or cheap gear, or bad weather, or low funds, or whatever else happened on the trail, these people found ways to enjoy what others would consider bad accommodations and hard work to complete what they set out to do (for the most part). The only logical conclusion is that hiking is all about attitude.

I think this book is a must read. It can help anyone from novice to experienced hike think more about what makes them successful, why others hike the way they do, and other little things about hiking that you may not even consider. Go read it! Bravo Roland!  

Hall of Honor Recipients for this page
Roland Mueser