Hiking the 2,169-mile Appalachian Trail
Interview with Russell Tinkham

Each spring, the Appalachian Trail seductively attracts a small army of hikers whose goal is to trek its 2,169-mile length. But AT love is tough love for these thru-hikers, and with affection easily turning sour anywhere along the well-marked backcountry spine that unites Dixie with Yankee, stretching from Georgia's Springer Mountain to Maine's Mt. Katahdin. The dropout rate for thru-hikers is a staggering 84% --a phenomenon noted and personally experienced by travel writer Bill Bryson in his best-seller, Walk in the Woods. (Of the 1,200 thru-hikers who start out each year, an average of about 200 will complete the entire trail.)

RailRiders recently chatted with one thru-hiker who successfully went the distance. Russell Tinkham, 46, a third-degree black belt Tae Kwon Do teacher from Vermont, and who is also a construction foreman for a company that builds bridges, conquered the AT in his RailRiders Adventure Khakis in 1999. Two years prior, he had thru-hiked the 275 mile Vermont Long Trail with his wife, Debra, who is a cartographer and GPS field coordinator. They both wore Weatherpants on that trip.

Q: What was your daily mileage along the Appalachian Trail?

Russell Tinkham: I started in Georgia on March 17th and finished in Maine on August 9th. I averaged 17.5 miles per day, with two days of 32 miles being the longest, and a few sub-six mile days early on.

Q: How much weight did you lose? What did you eat along the way?

RT: I started the hike weighing 182 pounds and weighed around 146 at the end. Mice could have used my ribs for a ladder. I ate lots of Lipton dinners, Ramen noodles, potatoes and gravy stuff, and looked for all-you-can-eat places in town. My best meal was at The Homeplace Restaurant in Catawba, Virginia.

Q: Meet any bears?

RT: I saw six bears --all in New Jersey but never felt threatened. Of course, I didn't do anything stupid like approaching them to get a closer picture.

Q: Were you ever lonely or bored? Did you ever feel like quitting?

RT: I missed my wife, son, dogs, family, and my Tae Kwon Do family, but I wasn't really very bored or lonely. I'm hard-headed like granite so I didn't really think seriously about quitting, although on the second and third day when I was literally dragging one leg behind me, I was a nervous.The first few 100 miles I had severe pains in both knees but with neoprene knee braces and Ibroprofen I got my legs into trail shape. In the future, I would either buy a Stairclimber or do plenty ofrough-terrain walking with a pack to prepare for a big hike.

Q: Meet any interesting hikers along the way?

RT: Yes, and Im still in touch with some of the thru- and section-hikers, including a retired principal from East Tennessee, several doctors, a Green Beret chaplain, a young Buddhist who meditated every morning, and the sister (and her husband) of one of my Tae Kwon Do brothers from Vermont.

Q: Did you have a favorite state?

RT: Every state had its own beauty. In North Carolina, the Smokies were very beautiful. They are the closest thing to the Rockies east of the Mississippi. One state which surprised me was New Jersey. When I think of New Jersey I think of smokestacks and Bruce Springsteen but the western part of the state where the AT goes has its own pastoral beauty.

Q: Your least favorite part of the thru-hike?

RT: I'm not fond of blisters.

Q: And your least favorite day?

RT: Two of the worst days followed rainy nights in my Gore-Tex bivy sack once on the North Carolina and Tennessee border, and right before the end of the trail in Maine. My sleeping bag became completely soaked. In my opinion, Gore-Tex is worse than useless in warm, rainy conditions.

Q: How did the insect population treat you?

RT: If you are used to Vermont black flies then everything else seems tame. (Black flies bite and suck the blood out of you and they fly in your ears, eyes, and nose). Besides, by the time I got to Maine the worst of the black flies were past.

Q: What was your preparation?

RT: I read a lot about the hike including Wingfoots book and planning guide. I also bought guide books and maps for the first section but seldom used them and did not miss them. I carried 44 pounds at the outset including a 7.8 lb Gregory pack, MSR stove, Caribou bag, Therma-rest mattress, RailRiders Adventure Khakis, Smartwool socks and Danner leather hiking shoes. I ended the hike with a different pack, mattress, sleeping bag, and shoes but I still have the RailRiders which I now wear building bridges. I wore Adventure Khakis on the AT in 1999 and Weatherpants on the Vermont Long Trail in 1997, as did my wife. I have replaced zippers but basically they are bulletproof. They are well-made, pack small, dry very fast, and last and last. I now have three pairs of RailRiders Pants, and an Eco-Mesh Shirt, and I have my eyes on the Rampage Shorts, Eco-Mesh Pants, and the Explorer Pants. They make great gifts.

Q: What did you do when you finished atop Katahdin?

RT: My wife bought me a $9.00 cigar to smoke, but the wind was blowing fifty miles per hour and I didn't want to smoke it because it would have lasted six seconds. So I ran down the mountain to celebrate with my wife who intended to summit with me but stopped at treeline because the visibility was thirty feet with very strong winds.

Q: What advice would you give to someone planning his or her first AT?

RT: I would stress buying quality gear and keeping your load as light as possible. Look for gear made light yet strong. RailRiders are excellent examples. Most Gore-Tex jackets, for example, are grossly over-engineered and much too heavy for thru-hikers. Save weight wherever possible. I sold both packs I used on the AT and bought lighter ones. If you have strong ankles, forget boots. I wore running shoes most of the way ? buy them big because your feet flatten out ? and I never twisted an ankle. I even wore sandals for many plus-20 mile days. Unless you have a special diet, resupply at towns instead of mailing to post offices. Finally, a good attitude is your most important ally, and its weightless!