About the Author: Laurie Freeman is a naturalist, environmentalist and soon-to-be retiree. She earned a BE in mechanical engineering and a MA in biology (ecology, evolution and behavior). Laurie spent the majority of her career as a professor of biology and environmental science at a small upstate NY community college.  She and her husband Jim built their home (and homestead) using local material and human powered tools, and she continues to practice self-reliance by gardening and beekeeping. Laurie teaches yoga and runs a small herbal medicinal practice in her community. How she finds time to hike is a mystery. You can follow her AT thru hike on trailjournals, Instagram @lauriefreeman and Twitter @LaurieJFreeman. 

To see more posts from Laurie, including all her planning and prep for her AT flip-flop, click her name above!

If you’ve read my previous posts you know I put quite a bit of thought into planning. I knew I couldn’t plan for everything so here are 10 things I learned in my first 10 days.

1. Harpers Ferry has some amazing history.  The trail brings you by a plethora of historical locations: Storer College (an institution that trained black teachers), Jefferson Rock, Chesapeake and Ohio canal, the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers and more. I had intended to experience all the trail has to offer but I was so excited to be on the trail that I could not focus on any of the interpretive signs. Maybe I’ll be able to appreciate that history and soak it in when I flip back.

Sunset from Annapolis Rocks

2. Maryland has some strict camping rules. You can only tent at designated sites. My plan had been to try to hike 8 miles per day. My first day I had choices of 7 or 11 miles. I chose to go 11 miles and tent near the Crampton Gap Shelter. The next day choices were 5 or 12.5 miles. I opted to go 14.1 miles to Annapolis Rocks to see the sunset. That option was recommended to me by a day hiker I met up on White Rocks Cliff. He told me that the shelter just before (Pine Knob) was noisy. You hear the tractor trailers’ jake brakes all night. The next shelter (Raven Rock) was 11.5 miles away. The point is that an 8 mile per day plan does not translate well to field conditions in Maryland.  

View of the Potomac River from Weverton Cliffs

3. It’s true that the trail is fairly forgiving in Maryland. That said, the first climb up to Weverton Cliffs is steep and my pack was as heavy as it’s likely to ever get. Between packing my fears (which means I likely have too much gear to start) and a full resupply of food (which for me and all the other flip floppers I met was way too much food), I had quite a load to haul up that mountain.

4. I knew I’d see plenty of people on the trail. Starting on a Friday meant I would see lots of day and section hikers. I did not expect multiple Boy Scout troops. It was great to see so many young people on the trail. It was not so great to hear them after dark. I had one group of youngsters hooting and hollering through the woods well after I wanted to be asleep.

5. Flip flop hikers are not abundant.  The thru hikers that started in Georgia are moving super fast.  I barely had time to say hello. It took until day 3 to meet another flip flop hiker.  At this point, I’ve met several and have spent some extended time (over nights at a shelter) with a few north-bound (NOBO) thru hikers. Basically, it takes a few days to become part of the trail community.

6. For all I heard about trail magic, I did not see any in the first 10 days. Perhaps timing is everything. Starting mid-May means I’m ahead of most NOBOs and there just are not a lot of flip floppers. So the trail angels that do the magic are not on the job yet. I didn’t count on trail magic but it would have been fun to experience some.

Poison ivy alongside the trail

7. Poison ivy is prevalent. I find myself not only navigating the maze of tree roots and rocks but also dodging ‘leaves of three’. This plant is hanging into the path, is along the sides of the trail and seems to be everywhere I want to step off to the side of the trail.

8. My feet are my important asset. People talk about ‘getting your trail legs’. Reality is that you need to get your trail feet. Most of us do not spend 10 hours per day on our feet. Once I started doing that, I noticed all sorts of things. First I got some hot spots on some toes. I taped them right away with Leukotape to prevent blisters. (I ended up with some minor blisters because I wasn’t prompt enough with the taping.) I saw some folks with blisters so severe that they had to take days off the trail to heal their feet. It is worth it to take the time to tend to your feet. I also found that because my right foot inverts (I have a weak arch), I started to get some significant pain on the little toe side of the foot and some ankle pain. I decided to try some inserts and bought Superfeet Journey Hikers. I also started taping my foot with KT tape. These changes made all the difference. If I hadn’t done something, I could have ended up with foot, ankle or even knee issues. A stress fracture is a real possibility. I’ve met folks out here that had to stop their thru hike in previous years for exactly these reasons. I have become super aware of my feet and take the time to daily roll out my arches with a tennis ball I’m carrying.

9. Guthook (the most popular trail app on the AT) and the AWOL Guide (The A. T. Guide) do not have all the information you might want. I was trying to decide where to stay in Duncannon, PA.  A couple of us were going to get a room at the Red Roof Inn but there was no vacancy. The other options listed included The Doyle and a camground. The Doyle has a reputation for good food (which I verified) and dingy rooms (which I wanted to avoid). The campground was away from the main downtown area and was not known as ‘hiker friendly’. I needed another option. Through the trail grapevine I heard of another ‘hostel’. The pastor of an Assembly of God church makes the basement of his house available for hikers. For a donation, I slept on the floor (along with several other hikers). There was a kitchen and a full bathroom (including towels, soap and shampoo for the shower). This turned out to be one of the cleanest and most pleasant nights I spent off the trail. I really couldn’t even call it ‘off trail’ because the trail went right by it!

10. Good earplugs are a must if you plan on staying in shelters. The first night I stayed in a shelter it was not the snoring but the noise of people rolling on inflatable pads and grinding their teeth that I heard. There’s also a racket on a metal roof when it pours down rain (which is the only reason I’d be in a shelter anyway.) I purchased some wax ear plugs. They work great. I don’t hear a thing now.

I’m still having a blast. I am finding it a bit challenging to write these posts on my phone but I’ll keep trying.

If you have thoughts or questions, I’d love to see them in the comments below. Thanks for reading!