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COMMUNITY CONNECTION: RYAN CONKLIN’S 2184.2 MILES ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL


Backcountry.com’s online community comprises a passionate group of wanderers, adventurers, Gearheads, athletes, and guys and gals who make mincemeat of that 5.12b you’ve been eyeing. Community Connection highlights outstanding individuals within the Backcountry herd.

ryan-community-connectionRyan Conklin is an active Backcountry.com community member and one of our hand-picked hike and camp experts who voraciously tackles trail around his home in southwest New Mexico. Ryan is a Spanish-speaking yogi who loves hiking, fine food, and his dog Osa. In 2012 Ryan tackled a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail’s 2184.2 miles, posting about his progress every single day from his iPhone on his blog “Following Blazes” for the duration of his 136-day hike. His blog is an excellent resource for those who are considering an AT hike. We wrangled Ryan away from his busy schedule and ramblings to ask him a few questions about his trail time. Included below are a few snippets and highlights of his massive journey and his list of recommended gear essentials.

Give the uninitiated hiker a little info about why you chose to name your blog “Following Blazes.”

I chose the name “Following Blazes” because the AT was largely an introduction to backpacking, as my prior experience was limited to a few multi-day trips. I would literally be following white trail-blazes all the way from Georgia to Maine. In a figurative sense I would be following the emblazoned footsteps of those adventurous thru-hikers who had journeyed before me. Writing my blog was my way of giving back to all those who helped me along the way, and I wanted to use my writing to inspire others to push themselves in the outdoors by forging a lifelong connection with the natural world—in essence, I’d blaze my own path for others to follow.

Can you share a little insight on the AT tradition of bestowing “trail names” on fellow hikers?

Life on the AT is very different from life in an urban setting: all men grow beards, laughter is commonplace and often accompanied by tears, showers are a weekly event, food is cooked over a tiny stove, and you burn 5000+ calories a day walking in the mountains. You simplify your life to the point of arguable perfection…it only makes sense to adorn yourself with a trail name to solidify this new, albeit temporary, identity as you attempt your journey.

What was your own trail name, and did you choose it or did others assign it to you?

My trail name was “Rayo,” which was given to me by my wife’s grandmother who’s Venezuelan and couldn’t quite pronounce my name, Ryan.  She opted for Rayo (rye-oh), or “ray of light.” I liked it because it reminded me of my Venezuelan family, and since I was planning to hike an average of 17 miles per day for four months, I’d need to move quickly, though not at the speed of light.

Reading your blog, the preoccupation with food becomes increasingly poignant as you log miles. Any favorite trail meals?

I made a few killer meals with way too much butter and cheese, but I still lost 35 pounds on the trail. Towards the end of my travels I could eat in one sitting what a family of four eats on a typical week night. I remember the looks of startled curiosity as day hikers watched me eat. They would hand me more and more as I gobbled up bowl after bowl of stew using giant chocolate chip cookies for utensils.  On the trail, food is God. Hallelujah!

Ryan’s List of 7 Absolute AT Essentials

Excerpts From Ryan’s Blog

day4--1767871545Day 4

It’ll be nice to get out of Georgia. The trails aren’t too rocky, but it’s just irritating knowing that I’m not headed north. I explained GA today as the following: when someone first drew the AT on a piece of paper to decide the direction, they scribbled on the paper to get the ink flowing. The result of the scribbling: Georgia trail.

Day 12

The mountains seemed to be lined up like a family photo with all the siblings aligned by height. Each ridge seemed to crash into the side of yet another bigger, uglier mountain. And worse yet, from afar they look evil: dark, pointy trees shoved into a tar-covered dome jetting skyward.

Day 23

day23-1

The 300-mile marker was far from official.

Day 39

That’s one thing about the AT, you can come out here an amateur and make mistakes without putting yourself in tremendous jeopardy as would be the case somewhere a bit more remote, say, the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail].

day43-780233929Day 43

The AT is 2184 [miles], and what makes it so special is that just like life, it’s everything in between the start and finish that makes it so sweet.  Katahdin takes a tremendous amount of dedication, and […] in a marathon you give everything you’ve got to make the finish, [but] Maine requires you to do the same thing, but every day for over 150+ days.

Day 45

The last climb I did today was one of the steepest thus far in my journey. It was the standard 1000-feet-over-one-mile arduous climb, but devoid of switchbacks, it had your tongue hanging out like a necktie.

Day 49

I was sweating like a mascot doing a halftime show in southern Mississippi in mid-July. The combination of spider webs, caterpillars, seed pods from maple trees, and sweat all coating my exterior was a little much. I wanted Gatorade and a swimming pool. (Funny that some ten days ago it was snowing….)

Day 68

day68-1

Halfway there!

Day 75

Other things that stop most thru-hikers dead in their tracks are signs.
We love to see mileage markers and signs for shelters, springs, roads, lookouts, upcoming points of interest, etc.  I also stop for fallen food and eat M&Ms off the trail—all thru-hikers do.

Day 81

Brink Rd. Shelter, New Jersey

day85--2050662756Day 85

The views were beautiful, and I even caught a sight of Manhattan. I couldn’t make out what was what, but I could see the skyline as hazy headstones, a few poking up much higher than others, but all grey.

Day 90

I’m in Connecticut and have five states to go! It’s great to be in New England and able to count the number of remaining states on one hand.

Day 113

I climbed up to Franconia Ridge about 1:30 p.m., and the next three hours were sublime. The best views I’ve had backpacking, ever. What an amazing place. It should go on your bucket list, now.

Day 124

The rocks were wet coming down Saddleback Junior and I had to toss my trekking poles down and hike with my hands to aid me—too slippery otherwise. I slipped on a big rock as I crossed a stream today and fell flat on my ass. All I could think to do was laugh. Once I got up and slipped again as I planted my feet, I growled at the boulder—maybe I’m reading too much Jack London lately….

Day 132

day132-1

BAM! Katahdin in all her glory stood there, beaming at me like Mordor in the Lord of the Rings. It didn’t strike me with fear though, it was more a sense of awe, almost sublimity. I had goose bumps, and it wasn’t due to the 50-degree temp and 15-mph winds; the journey had a visible end, a finish line is sight.

Day 135

[The ranger] also asked what number thru-hiker I thought I was on the year. I guessed #98, and she looked at her deputy with surprise. “No, but close. You are our 100th!”
My goal was to be in the first 100 finishers of 2012, and I achieved it. So cool.

Day 136

day136-1

The dragon has been slain. All morning a battle was fought in Baxter State Park in the center of Maine, and a victor stood victorious, and scantily clad, atop the conquered beast at 8:15 a.m. on this day Sunday the 29th of July, 2012.

Follow Ryan within the Backcountry.com community: Ryan’s Profile
View Ryan’s complete journey on his blog: Following Blazes

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9Comments

Here's what the community has to say.

Ryan Conklin

Ryan Conklin

@hunterrayevans -- In terms of exercise, just being an active person is helpful; in other words, get outside! I recommend hiking to start, then trail running, and cycling as well for cardio. Food: have a balanced diet (there's an ocean of literature out there about eating well) and minimize fast foods and processed foods to be as rare as possible. As far as boots, almost everyone (90%+) use trail runners (rather than boots). They dry faster, are lighter, and so allow for a more comfortable/effective means for making miles. As far as brands, I like Salomon and Brooks (but that's just my personal preference). Good luck!

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Hunter Ray Evans

Hunter Ray Evans

So I've decided to try the AT out myself and have two years until I graduate college. I hear the best time to go is early Spring and it can take up to 5 months to trek. Within that time, how can I better prepare my body(exercise/diet)? What kind of boot brands do you suggest, as well as clothing type? On the trail, is freeze dried food better(and less expensive) to pack?

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Ryan Conklin

Ryan Conklin

@BigAl - You know, I bought the torrentshell parka because at 6'3" I wanted something longer that wouldn't ride up my back due to hipbelt contact--the parks is great in this respect. I've had a good experience with mine and I still use it as my go-to hard shell. My version is a few years old now, so the new one is likely a few ounces lighter yet. The inner pocket and outer pockets make for ample storage, pit zips are average length, I like that it folds into one of its pockets for convenient storage, and at 16oz, I don't hesitate to bring it on all my hikes. There are plenty of good shells out there these days, so if you tend to overheat, this one may not be the best choice, but it is a solid one nevertheless.

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Big Al

Big Al

Hey Ryan this is somewhat off topic but what's your opinion of the Patagonia Torrentshell? I've looked at many rain jackets but took real interest in the Torrentshell and wanted to know your opinion, the opinion of an experienced hiker who knows what's worth the money and what isn't.

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Ryan Conklin

Ryan Conklin

@AlexB & RIJ: The support network is great; you're right.



Financially speaking, the AT will cost you between 3,000 - 5,000 and where you fall in between will depend on how often you stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, drink beer, as well as how much gear you'll need to start, etc. You can probably get by with 2,500 by only shopping at Dollar Generals, eating fast food, and avoiding hotels, but that's no fun. I'd say a good number is $4,000--this will ensure you can occasionally indulge and you'll be prepared to replace gear when needed.



As far as getting started with research, you'll need to establish your gear list (what you have and what you'll need). My recommendation is to use excel and input the weight of everything in addition to item and description. Check out my blog for an example. Once you've established your gear list, have a few people give it a shakedown so you can fine tune it. Whiteblaze.net has a ton of people on it that are willing to provide shakedowns, myself included. Then, you'd do well to read a few blogs (mine for starters, :)) all while getting yourself into good shape by hiking/running a few times each week. Let me know if you have any more questions and enjoy!

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Maria Isabel P.

Maria Isabel P.

Hi I really need to know all the advice for the trip. I want to do that next Year

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Alex B.

Alex B.

How's the financial aspect of hiking the whole AT? I hear the AT support network is great but where would be a good place to start my research in planning a thru hike?

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Lexi Dowdall

Lexi Dowdall

Feel free to ask Ryan about trail advice and tips here!

He would love to help out fellow hikers who plan to tackle the mighty AT.

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