Karl Meltzer's Guide to Tackling an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

Karl Meltzer began exploring the Appalachian Trail (AT) as a young boy growing up in New Hampshire and has been hiking it ever since, culminating in last year’s thru-hike speed record (that’s 2,190 miles in 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes).

In other words, Meltzer knows the AT like few others. “I have always been drawn to it,” Meltzer told us over the phone from his home in the mountains of Utah. “People try to make comparisons to other trails like the Long Trail or the John Muir Trail, but there is truly nothing like the AT.”

Meltzer’s record run was his third attempt and first with the full support of his sponsor Red Bull, who were also there to capture the record on camera. Now they have made the inspirational footage available to the public as the documentary Karl Meltzer: Made to be Broken.

Despite it being just over six months since making history, Meltzer admits that he is already itching to get back on the AT. “I have been toying with the idea of starting at the other end, and setting that record too,” he says. For those of us not looking to break the record — taking the usual three months to hike it — here's his advice. 

Train on Trails

“I learn by doing things, not just reading about them. I think to hike your best you must be trying to hike the most. Find somewhere where the terrain is closest to where you are going. I personally did the route from Mount Katahdin to Grafton State Park two times before I started out on my full run, so that I knew what I was getting into. So many people put so many hours into speed work. You don’t need to do speed work, because you aren’t going to be running fast.”

Pace Yourself

“I would say it is more of a head game more than it is a muscle game. Don’t push yourself too hard, or set expectations too high, because they’re always outside forces that are going to intervene. There is a point when you get your legs eventually, usually a few days in. I want to wake up every day excited about waking up each morning, not dreading it. Make sure to do your homework so you know where you are going to be getting your fuel each day.”

Chase The Calories

“I just wanted the calories; I didn’t care where they were coming from. I am not the healthiest eater while on the trail. I eat a lot of vegetables at home, and we make a lot of our own meals. I never eat donuts at home, but there are a massive amount of calories in a donut, and that pushes you forward. I wanted to do it on real food, so I finished my last gel on the third day. There are going to be days where there may not be the most options of places to buy food. Jenn Pharr wrote in her book that she was eating a lot of McDonald’s when she did the trail, because that is what was available. So I know I’m not alone. Sometimes you are going to walk into a small grocer and the best that they have is a slice of pizza. I can guarantee that the last thing that I’m craving when I finish a 100-mile ultra marathon is a kale leaf. I want that cheeseburger or a nasty hot dog off the rack at a 7Eleven. I am going to feel bad about eating that in three days, so I may as well take advantage.”

Protect Your Feet

“During the run there were spans of days where I wouldn’t take a shower, because you are on the trail, everything smells. I always would wash and take care of my feet, though. That was priority number one. The first two times I took to the trail, I got bad blisters only three days into the trip, and that meant I was wincing through the rest of the experience. That is the last thing you want. I also believe in a soft shoe, because it truly counts when you are out for that amount of time. I went through 19 pairs of my signature shoe, the Hoka Speedgoat, not that I needed to, but you don’t realize how nice it is to have a little bit of extra comfort there. So I would absolutely bring the best that you have.”

Shut Off Your Phone

“Listen, I totally understand people want to share where they are every once and awhile. But sometimes it gets far too much. Personally, I never take a phone with me when I go on a run or a hike. If I do, for a longer haul, then it is never out while I’m on the move. There are companies that try to pay me to post about their gear, but that is not what those trips are about for me. For me, it is all about the escape, it is about escaping all of that social media bullshit. How can you fully appreciate what you are experiencing or observing when you have that distraction around? You are in the woods. What in the hell is better than that?”

Have a Beer

“There is something about that taste of an ice-cold beer at the end of a long day of hiking. That is something special.”