Does Thru-Hiking Have a Drinking Problem?

I was standing in a Whole Foods in Flagstaff, Arizona, and the beer was such a foul sight to see.

Just eight days earlier, while straddling the Utah border at the northern terminus of the Arizona Trail, I’d taken a single slug of whiskey and savored its sting’s slow fade like some doomed lover’s last kiss. If all went well, that would be my final booze for about five weeks, or the time I intended to take to hike the 800 miles south to Mexico.

This would, in fact, be my first long-distance hike without alcohol of any sort, and this refrigerated grocery aisle—meticulously stacked with colorful suitcases and satchels of beer, each as alluring as Daisy’s green dockside light—was my first true temptation. I’d now finished a quarter of the trail, and tomorrow would be my first day off, either feat a reasonable explanation for a standard trailside bacchanalia. So I scanned the vast selection, opened a frosted glass door, and tossed two six-packs into my grocery cart: Brooklyn Brewery’s Special Effects Hoppy Amber and Athletic Brewing’s Run Wild IPA, both beers without the booze. If I was indeed going to take it easy, this would have to do the trick.

The Appalachian Trail is often called the country’s longest pub crawl.

It’s little secret that these are boom times for the sans-alcohol set. Emerging from the pandemic’s extended global binge, non-alcoholic beer is pouring out of craft taps and ordinary aisles alike, with a 24 percent increase in sales during 2021. If the market maintains current growth projections, it could be a $25 billion industry by 2024. The president is a lifelong teetotaler, and the unfortunately dubbed “sober-curious” movement remains fashionable at year’s end. I recently visited a chic non-alcoholic bottle-store boutique in Los Angeles, and even maintains an index of the best “non-alcoholic spirits.”

What may come as a surprise, though, is how much long-distance hikers, myself included, drink while actually hiking. The Appalachian Trail is often called the country’s longest pub crawl, a playful sobriquet that cuts to the tension I was feeling in front of that Flagstaff beer cooler: we disappear into the woods for days at the time, all our food strapped to our back and our water waiting wherever we can find it, only to emerge in towns or even roadside convenience stores looking to get fucked up or, at the very least, put some imbibed space between our aching feet and exhausted minds.

After 6,000 miles of repeating that cycle, I wondered if that liquid courage might be exacerbating some of my resulting pains. I went to Arizona in part to find out; I left wondering if I will ever drink again.

Consider this routine thru-hiking scenario. You’ve been climbing mountain gaps or passes for a week, covering 150 miles while filtering water you at best flavor with electrolyte powder and stuffing down rehydrated food by day and night. You’re dirty and tired, with cravings galore.  When hikers arrive anywhere, we typically want three things: liquid with most any flavor, calories in most any form, and relaxation of any sort. See where booze fits in, the easily attainable and millennia-tested panacea for pain?

But it’s rarely, of course, one beer. If you plan to spend a night or two in a town, you start with a six-pack or a case, toting them back to your hotel room or hostel bunk and drinking until your mind begins to blur, your joints begin to ease. The custom is to drink until you leave and, should there be extras, pound them with collegiate ardor on the way out the door. And, natch, you leave town with two tallboys, indulgent treats for your first night back at it, a soft landing into the woods. You hike more, then repeat.

For most of my thru-hiking life, I have participated in this binge-drinking loop with unequivocal ardor—sometimes too much, if I’m being honest. After rounds of free drinks at a swanky pizza restaurant in an ostentatious Connecticut trail town, I drunkenly pitched a tent behind a dumpster only to be harassed around 3 A.M. by a fox shrieking in heat. (Terrifying!) During a particularly inebriated break from the Pacific Crest Trail, I got so badly lost at night in Yosemite Valley that a tour guide tried luring me back to her car. (Blissfully married, thanks!) And while drinking a Four Loko while navigating a road shoulder along the Florida Trail, I fell in a mud pit so seemingly deep I spent ten shameful minutes extricating myself. (It was a mud puddle, but at least hilarious pictures exist.)

“Probably the best amount of alcohol to drink would be zero glasses per week.”

Off trail, in my day-to-day life, I am the pedestrian two-beers type, motivated by the threat of a hangover and a family history of sometimes-violent alcoholism to stop just beyond buzz’s edge. Avoiding addiction has long seemed a shortcut to not becoming my father or grandfathers. But thru-hiking presents a rare and paradoxical combination of endless vacation and extreme effort, where the only bosses to whom you answer for strenuous but exhilarating 12-hour days are yourself and the trail. It is a kind of sweat-stained Spring Break, where there are no rules but forward motion. You party because, otherwise, you just walk. Thru-hiking is the closest I have come to courting alcoholism, or, at least, a habit.

Early into the Appalachian Trail, I met the manager of a small-town North Carolina outfitter who had seen many new and zealous hikers never make it to thru-hiker status; they quit before they could. He offered a compelling edict: For the next five months, I was a professional athlete, and I needed to respect my body for the work it was doing. I began massaging my legs every night, stretching most mornings, and eating salads at most opportunities. An hour after he said that, however, I was at the aptly named Lazy Hiker Brewing.

“It might be what your mind needs, but the worst fuel you can put in your body at that point is alcohol,” quips Dr. Evelynn Parr, a research fellow at Australian Catholic University who helmed an often-cited study a decade ago about how drinking limits muscle synthesis after workouts. “Even if you do have protein with the alcohol, you are slowing down the muscle-recovery process.”

To reach this conclusion, Parr and a team basically loaded a set of amateur Australian rules football players with nine-to-15 “standard drinks,” then performed muscle biopsies. The results were staggering. The muscles of those who drank rebuilt nearly 40 percent less efficiently than those who didn’t.

Parr’s findings represent only one link in a mounting web of damning evidence about alcohol, which often seems like an epidemic we’ve chosen to ignore despite all we now know, not unlike climate change or smoking. We’ve all heard about moderate alcohol consumption and its potential benefits for the heart, but that has lately been called into question. And we’ve heard that booze can be a great way to refuel after endurance sports, but that, too, has been scuttled.

“Again, probably the best amount of alcohol to drink would be zero glasses per week or ounces per week,” Stanford neurobiology professor Andrew Huberman said recently with some fatigue near the end of an exhaustive two-hour episode of his popular science podcast, Huberman Lab, about the trouble with booze. And there was lots of trouble.

The U.S. Olympic Committee’s Sports Nutrition Team reminds its athletes not only that injuries are more common among those who drink but also that the fat deposition and fluid retention it causes lead to weight gain. How are you going to spend $100 to cut an ounce from your backpack’s base weight with the latest piece of ultralight gear only to put it back on with a tallboy in town?

Drinking, and drinking hard, often seems an ineluctable part of distance-hiking and sports culture at large. I think it’s worth having a conversation about the compromises it entails and what we may gain when we back off or away.

Nearly three months have passed since I lifted that last glass bottle of whiskey to my lips at the Arizona-Utah border and two months since I reached Mexico. I’ve yet to take another drink, and I don’t actually know that I will. I began my break as an experiment and, somewhat cynically, a readymade prompt for the very piece you are reading.

But I am not, it turns out, some exception to the science. I felt better on trail without booze. I woke up every morning ready to roll, having fallen asleep quickly and then woken up early as if rigged to a switch. My muscle aches were minor in spite of the rough terrain, and my mood was practically sunny in spite of the cacti and assorted thorns cutting constantly into my legs. I walked fast. I laughed. When I reached Mexico, I could have kept going—a first in my thru-hiking life.

And I feel better off trail in most every conceivable way. I’m better rested and sharper, with a longer attention span and much less moodiness. After the Appalachian Trail, which was indeed one long booze cruise, my body and brain hurt in extremis for months. I could barely run ten miles for the better part of a year, and I saw several therapists about the new-to-me sensation that perhaps I shouldn’t exist. It was the lowest point of my first four decades after perhaps my highest achievement, like descending into some valley with no apparent bottom.

I’ve hiked more miles this year than I did that year, but I haven’t even approached that anguish. I am running faster, more consistently, and with less pain than I have since long before I began hiking such extended distances. When I can find a trail or a mountain on a day off, my body is light and limber, as if perpetually renewed. And my mind seems more pliable, ready to ask better questions and process more complicated information. Is this, I wonder some days, what it feels like to be clear-eyed and ready for the world to come?

This isn’t some call for prohibition or even temperance. I have had far too much fun for far too long with the aegis of alcohol to criticize anyone else or even suggest that they change, and I don’t know really know if I’ve had my last drink. Maybe this is my self-righteous phase, conveniently backed by science? But drinking, and drinking hard, often seems an ineluctable part of distance-hiking and sports culture at large. I think it’s worth having a conversation about the compromises it entails and what we may gain when we back off or away.

No, I still don’t treat my body like that of a professional athlete—too much ice cream, too few massages, too few superfoods. But I am finally treating it like an equal partner, not something I ask to work for a reward that simply poisons it. On the long trails of my past, booze was self-care, the thing my mind needed, to paraphrase Parr.

Like the kids in the Mischel marshmallow experiment who always chose to gobble their treat instantly, I’ve made that decision dozens of times, from the hollers of Appalachia to the ski towns of the Sierra. Maybe I’m old enough to know better now, to have the sort of self-control that may keep me moving longer.

5 Booze-Free Beers for the Trail

Bill Shufelt did not intend to quit drinking, let alone become a mogul of the non-alcoholic beer movement. But a decade ago, Shufelt put his love of New England IPAs on hold long enough to pause for 50K training. “I just felt so good—so sharp at work, better sleep than ever ,” says Shufelt, then happy at a large hedge fund. “And I realized I wasn’t really missing any elements of the alcohol.”

But what Shufelt did miss was the taste of good beer, especially that complex balance of sweetness and bitterness he knew so well. He decided to make it himself and, in turn, revolutionize the ambitions of this very conservative market. His company, Athletic Brewing, has now been offering such flavors since 2017, becoming the 27th biggest craft brewer in the United States during 2021.

Others have followed Shufelt’s lead, from upstarts hoping to add to the variety to major beer makers expanding their lines to keep up with “sober-curious” consumers. If you find yourself on trail trying not to drink but hoping for something that at least provides a placebo, I’ve done the hard part and sampled loads of non-alcoholic brews. Here are five favorites.

Coors Edge

An old friend intending to scoop me from an Arizona Trail parking lot asked me what beer I wanted. “One without alcohol,” I offered hesitantly, knowing they’d be confused. This is the best their grocery store had, and it is a surprising delight, sweet and malty despite its 41 calories. More refreshing than Budweiser Zero, it’s the non-alcoholic option you get if you don’t want the drinkers asking you questions.

Best Day Brewing’s West Coast IPA

Based across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Sausalito’s Best Day might just be making the best and most complex booze-free IPA right now. Fruity on the front and bitter on the back, it has enough happening to make you think you’ve stumbled into a taproom on a day away from trail and asked the bartender for their favorite pour.

Athletic Brewing’s All Out Extra Dark

Most non-alcoholic beer falls into loose categories of IPAs, lagers, or other light varieties; that’s sensible, given the focus on drinkers who are active. Who wants to run and slam some barleywine? But this stout rendition—smoky, sweet, almost thick enough to pass for the real thing—is among Athletic’s best accomplishments, perfect for a cold night off trail around a campfire.

Mikkeller’s Drink’in The Sun

The thing about forgoing booze is losing all the flavors it offers, the work not only of centuries of breweries but also the field’s recent explosion of innovations. Copenhagen’s Mikkeller makes some of my favorite strange brews, so I was delighted to learn how much fun they were having with non-alcoholic beer, from raspberry-loaded Flemish ales to yuzu sours. This wheat ale is pure pleasure.

Pabst Blue Ribbon’s High Seltzer

You’ll notice I never used the word “sober” to describe my recent changes, because I’m not. A little weed remains one of my indispensable hiking joys, a near-nightly ritual before bedtime. PBR did us half-sober folks a favor and infused its alcohol-free seltzer water with weed. Non-alcoholic weed PBR? The mind reels, truly.

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