Preparing for The Great American Rail Trail

Less than a month ago, we discovered something called The Great American Rail Trail. Three weeks ago we decided we’d like to try walking it. Since then, we’ve been frantically preparing for that adventure. We’re now less than 48 hours from departure, and here’s what we’ve accomplished:

1- Map the route

While The Great American Rail Trail website lists a complete proposed official route, long stretches of it are just that– proposed– not established or passable. Some of the official route passes through private property, uses trails that don’t yet exist, or crosses old railroad trestles that are unsafe or impassable. Rod has spent hours and hours finding a route from coast to coast, utilizing as much of the proposed GART route as possible. Where it’s impossible to follow the proposed GART, he looked for well-maintained trails, roads, and byways. I then reviewed Rod’s route for services like places to resupply food and water, campgrounds and other accommodations, and public lands, and replotted Rod’s route where necessary, to ensure we will have access to adequate services.

2- Build and test a cart

We knew from the beginning we’d need a cargo cart to attempt this route. There’s nothing commercially available that fits our needs, so making something that worked for us was one of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome before we could walk. We started with a pre-fab bike trailer, modified it to connect to a walking harness, and built a large, waterproof, lockable box on it. In another post we’ll give you all the details on how we did it. We’ve now tested it, loaded it, and it’s ready to roll.

3- Gather gear

We had sleeping bags, a tent, and lots of other camping gear, but our route travels across the northern states through lots of wilderness area– both desert and mountain– so we had to acquire wilderness supplies like bear canisters, tick keys, and water reservoirs. We’re also more accustomed to car camping than wilderness camping, so we had to find lightweight alternatives for many things like seating, a stove, and power. All told, it feels like a lot more gear than anticipated, but I’ll be darned if I can exclude a single piece of it as non-essential.

4- Prepare food

We spend A LOT of time in bear country. That means all our food must be stored in bear canisters. In addition, we’ll often walk 5 days at a stretch between resupply services, and THAT means we must have at least 5 days food for two people in bear canisters. Sometimes more. And sometimes the service we find at day 5 or 6 is just a gas station, bar, or post office, so we’ve prepared resupply boxes to have shipped to strategic locations as necessary. I have to admit: I think I’ve over prepared. It is very possible we will come home to a towering stack of unsent resupply boxes filled with powdered eggs, freeze-dried meals, and dried fruit that we never needed on the trail. Better safe than hungry though.

5- Train

To be honest, we’ve trained less in the past 3 weeks than we trained the rest of the year. See, our initial plan for this spring/summer was to walk across the south of France on the Voie d’Arles, so we spent months training for that goal. Then Covid hit and our travel plans were derailed, but we kept walking (in appropriate, legal, socially-distant ways!) as a way to stay healthy and sane. Our training walks were 3-4 days/week, usually 12-15 miles, though some were as long 20 or as short as 8. When we discovered the GART and committed to walking it, our focus turned from walking to preparing for the logistical challenges of the trail– like gear, gear transport, and food–, challenges we would not have encountered walking in France.

6- Square away our life at home

We travel frequently, and often for long stretches, but leaving home for such a long time always takes some work. We have a condo, incoming mail, lots of plant babies, and a very well-loved cat that all need care in our absence. We’ve sourced help from friends, family, and neighbors to ensure everything we leave behind is cared for.

7- Accept our limitations

While walking across the country sounds romantic, it’s a huge undertaking, and one we aren’t likely to finish this year. If our bodies don’t give out before the end, the weather very likely will. We have decided our mantra is “One state at a time!” We’ll walk across one state at a time then reassess: Are we healthy? Are we happy? Is the weather cooperative? Are the trails passable with a cart in this season? If we can answer yes to all these questions, we’ll continue. If not, we are prepared to accept our limitations and head home for the year.

So…are we prepared? I think we’re as prepared as we can be, but it’s really hard to know. We have transport, food, water, shelter, emergency supplies, and peace of mind knowing our lives at home are well cared for– and that’s as good as it gets with an undertaking like this. If we’re not prepared, the trail will certainly tell us.

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