Warrenton resident and author Keith Selbo thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail at the age of 64.
Sunday, March 4, 2012. Keith Selbo signed into the park register at Springer Mountain in Georgia, the beginning of the Appalachian Trail for northbound hikers. His pack, which contained everything he would need for the trail and enough food and water for 6 days, weighed in at 37 pounds. His goal: to thru-hike the AT, a 2,200 mile long trail that stretches much of the length of the East Coast from Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. A true feat of endurance, thru-hiking the AT is a huge accomplishment.
Of course, everyone who hikes the AT needs a trail name. Keith’s became The Badger, after the mascot at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. He also maintains that it refers to his sunny disposition.
A retired electrical engineer who has lived in Warrenton for almost three decades, Badger had a little camping and hiking experience in childhood when his parents would take the family on overnight camp trips in the State Parks. He liked being outdoors and being around nature, though, and in the years before his retirement he started hiking more and more, hiking the length of the Shenandoah National Park in stages. Then, after retirement, he set his sights on the AT.
So why take on the AT? Thru-hiking the AT is something of a bucket list item for a lot of people, as it was for Badger. “I just like backpacking, It’s just fun for me. I like getting out in nature, seeing the scenery, and being fit. I like the independence of having everything I need on my back and making my own schedule.”
“Where my wife and my other hiking friends see six months of drudgery, I see adventure … and maybe a little drudgery — OK, after 5 days on the trail I sometimes ask myself what I was thinking — but I can’t stay away.
I’ve waited a long time for this hike. Maybe too long. I’ll be 64 when I start. My knuckles look and feel like they got slammed in a door, the ringing in my ears is so loud that people sitting near me complain about the noise, and if I don’t wear braces, my knees seize up like a Yugo’s parking brake.
That said, adventure awaits!”
He explained, “Tackling the AT is different from day hiking. It’s like a cruise without the encumbrance of a ship. You’re out for days at a time. Instead of thinking of it as a 2,000 mile hike, you can think of it as forty 50-mile hikes, broken up by stops at small towns and hostels along the way where you can stay overnight, take a shower, charge your electronics, resupply, and then move on.
Before hiking the Trail, Badger weighed more than he, and his doctor, liked. “I like to eat,” he admitted. After getting back to his high school weight, he prepared for the hike by doing daily cardio workouts for about a month, which served him well. Even in his mid sixties, at the start of the hike he was covering more ground per day than younger, less fit hikers. Then, he said, the others became fitter over time and eventually surpassed him in speed. Even so, over the course of the hike Badger averaged a very respectable 15 miles per day, with 22 miles per day being his personal best.
Eating on the AT is a science unto itself. Hikers burn a significant amount of calories every day, more than they can easily take in, and the challenge is to eat enough to maintain your weight and energy levels. Keith’s goal was to take in 2500 calories per day, which still was not enough to maintain his body weight. As always, the balance of how much weight can be carried in your pack factors in, and a rule of thumb is to hike with about 6 days worth of food and water between opportunities for resupplying. AT hikers tend to subsist on lightweight, dehydrated foods that are also calorie dense and that stay fresh for 3-4 days. Things like Ramen noodles, mac and cheese, and instant mashed potatoes often appear in hikers’ diets. Sausage and cheese will stay fresh for a few days in a pack, and Tang (being higher in sugar than other powdered drink mixes) is also a favorite, as are granola bars, Snickers bars, and desserts of all kinds.
Then, at trail stops in various towns along the way, Badger could eat to his heart’s content without worrying about gaining an ounce. He gorged on ice cream, burgers, pizza, steaks, and anything else that he wanted, all the ingested calories, and more, expended by the exercise during the day. All-you-can-eat restaurants were a favorite, and Badger indicated that they may have actually lost money on the days he frequented them.
Badger slept in a tarp-covered Hennessy Hammock, which he prefers over a tent. As with everything on the AT, weight is a primary consideration. Weighing in at 1 pound 10 ounces, the hammock was a winner. Badger doesn’t particularly like sleeping on the ground, and with a hammock he didn’t have to find a flat, dry spot to pitch a tent every night; he could just string it up between two trees and crawl right in.
After having hiked from Georgia to Hanover, New Hampshire, Badger was injured in a fall which left a chunk of pine embedded in his hand. He soldiered on, but eventually came off the trail for surgery and antibiotics. After a few weeks of healing, he took another stab at continuing, but then admitted to himself, “I was kind of a wreck. The surgery took a lot out of me, and the antibiotics had affected my tendons and joints. I just wasn’t enjoying it any more. It was time to go home.”
Badger returned to the Trail a year later, healed and rested, and thoroughly enjoyed finishing the thru-hike. He reconnected with friends he’d met the previous year who came and hiked a portion with him, and then his wife, Janis, whom he credits as being “a trooper,” joined him for the last leg to Katahdin, which he reached on August 19, 2013.
The best parts about the experience? Being able to eat absolutely whatever he wanted was high on the list of favorite parts of the hike. He even finished the trail about 7 pounds underweight.
But another bonus was the people he met along the way. AT hikers come from all walks of life and, in Badger’s experience, they were all very friendly and helpful. “Everybody you meet is your friend,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll hike together for a few days, then they’ll disappear and reappear sometime later. But I’m still in touch with a lot of the people I met out there.” Often in the evening, hikers would gather around a campfire and socialize. And, of course, the Trail Angels are always appreciated. Anonymous supporters of AT hikers, Trail Angels leave treats such as soda, candy, and snacks along the trail or in the shelters for hikers to enjoy. Some, like John and Jody Nelson, who hiked the Trail in 1999, even welcome hikers into their home for home-cooked meals and banana splits.
Throughout the experience, Badger kept a blog. Nighttimes found him typing away in his hammock on his little folding keyboard that was connected to his phone. Partly it was to record the experience, and partly to keep his family and friends at home informed of his whereabouts and activities. He would upload his posts to his blog whenever he got a cell signal or found a place with wifi.
The blog took off, with over 300,000 hits in 2012 and 2013. These statistics were unusually high for a male AT hiker at the time, and bolstered Badger’s resolve. “The hit volume and encouraging emails from complete strangers went a long way in helping me keep at both the blog and the hike,” he said.
A few years ago, Badger’s wife suggested he compile the blog entries into a book for his family. Organizing the posts and photos was like reliving the whole experience, he said. Then, his wife had another suggestion: “Since you’ve gone to all the trouble of putting it together, why not publish it and see how it flies?” After some research, Badger decided to self publish through Amazon, which, he said, has been a great experience.
The book, The Badger: A Day to Day Account of Backpacking the Appalachian Trail, was published on January 8, 2018. Since then, it has gained an average of 4 stars in reviews and at one point ranked #9 in Amazon’s Hiking and Walking Travel category. “It was a lark,” he explained. “I really had no expectations. It pleasantly surprised me. It has done well, and it has earned enough to cover the costs of the trip.”
So, now at age 71, what is Badger up to? Once a month, as a volunteer for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, he travels about 60 miles to the Tuscarora Trail, a 250-mile long trail through the Appalachians of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. There, he helps to maintain a 3-mile section of the trail by weed eating, clearing the trail of deadfalls, and inserting stepping stones across streams so hikers don’t have to get their feet wet. He enjoyed doing small engineering projects, such as inserting a pipe into a spring to bring water for hikers to the surface.
Why? “After the AT, I just wanted to give back. On the AT you’d run into people maintaining the trail and you would know how helpful and important it is.”
And, of course, cardio exercise plays into his everyday life. Off the trail, he has to exercise and watch his calorie intake to keep his weight down, all while fondly remembering the days on the Trail when he could gorge on whatever he felt like eating.
The Badger: A Day to Day Account of Backpacking the Appalachian Trail is available on Amazon and at The Open Book on Main Street in Warrenton.