You will have planned for this day for as much as a year. (Some hikers will have started even earlier.) You will have agonized over important decisions: tent or tarp, sleeping bag or quilt, boots or trail runners. You will have even spent more than little money on gear, transportation, and accommodations.
After all that, you have certain expectations — rightfully so.
I believe that hiking the John Muir Trail will meet all of those expectations and exceed them, but it probably won’t on the first day. Especially if you are relatively new to trips of this length (usually at least a couple of weeks and typically closer to three), you need to be ready for what is going to happen between your ears. You need to prepare yourself for the psychology of the first day.
The Ride to the Trailhead
I never feel so unprepared for the trail as I do on the ride to the trailhead. I mean, come on: what are the chances that I have everything in my pack I need to be completely off the grid for the next several days. And look at the backpack that other guy has? It is much smaller (which makes him far better prepared), or much bigger (which, oddly enough, also means he is much better prepared). Then I start to develop some phantom leg pains. For me, the best strategy to deal with this part of the trip is to get it over with. As soon as I can after rising that day, I’m on the trail.
The First Few Hours
Do you have a smartphone? Are you constantly checking email, Twitter, InstaGram, and your favorite website for updates? You realize that when you turn off the phone your mind will notice, and probably rebel, right? If I were to compare hiking to any other activity I would probably choose meditation. Without the instantly available distractions served up by social media don’t be surprised if you start feeling something not too far from panic. Relax. It will pass.
Oh No! I Forgot My [fill in the blank]
I’m no Andrew Skurka, but neither am I a novice backpacker. As a member of the U.S. Army Infantry, you could even call me a professional. Regardless, four or five miles into the first day, I almost always become convinced that I have forgotten something. Last August, about five miles from the Glacier Point trailhead, it was my tent. On earlier trips it was my sleeping pad or sleeping bag. My routine for packing is pretty foolproof: I first check everything off my list before I put in on the dining room table (with nothing else on the table), and then I check everything off my list AGAIN when I pack it. Using that technique, how could I forget my tent? I can’t, but I dug it out of my pack to be sure, anyway.
Long Day or Short Day?
When planning, one question you have to answer is this: are you going to take advantage of your fresh legs and good breakfast and walk a great deal on day one, or are you going to ease into this new routine a bit slowly? Physically, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. I do think it can be important psychologically. Here are the two characteristics of a good hike on the first day: set a distance you know you can finish, and pick a campsite that will delight you. Meeting your goal on the first day sets you up for success. Also, make sure you include ample time for breaks and lunch. Nothing will get your head in the woods quicker than munching on some GORP while taking a break next to a babbling brook.
When you decide to quit for the day, stop at a place that reminds you of why you are out here. My first day in August ended at a small lake nearly a quarter mile off the trail. Eating my hot meal that night as I watched the reflected alpenglow fade was one of the high points of the trip, and the first day is a great day to have a high point.
It takes a few days on the trail to cast off the worries and anxieties of your life off the trail. Knowing in advance that it is a process that takes some time will make you better prepared.
Good hiking, Ray