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Man Hiking Appalachian, Ozark Trails for Charity
On February 25, Michael McLaughlin set out on a hike for charity. This hike is neither a day hike nor a weekend excursion. Instead, McLaughlin has mapped out a 2,500-mile, six month-long hike that spans more than half of the country.
Why would someone go to such great lengths for charity?
As it turns out, McLaughlin has a personal connection to abused children. The 31-year-old told CBS news that he was beaten, starved and even electrocuted as a child. Through his hike, he hopes to bring funding and awareness to neglected children. His Hike4Kids will benefit the Family Resource Center in McLaughlin’s hometown of St. Louis and a school for neglected blind children in Cameroon, Africa.
We had the privilege of chatting with McLaughlin a few days before he set out on his fundraising journey.
What inspired you to hike versus other ways to raise funds?
When I originally considered holding a fundraiser, I was actually thinking of a bicycle trip because I really like bicycling and the outdoors. I’ve taken big trips on a bike before. When I pitched people the idea, they said, “Yeah, that’s nice, but many people have done that before.”
My wife loves hiking. She has hiked 550 miles with the Appalachian Trail and the Ozark Trail. She said, “Why not a thru-hike?” So, I started pitching the idea to people, and people really seemed to gravitate toward it. I think it was because it was a such long experience. Like, OK, to hike the Appalachian Trail and the Ozark Trail back-to-back, I mean we are talking at least six months. People were kind of impressed. It got people’s attention, and that’s what I was looking to do.
Why 2,500 miles? Why not 2,000 or 200?
I didn’t necessarily pick that number. What happened was I wanted to do the Appalachian Trail, but I wanted to do something more than the Appalachian Trail. To get the attention I wanted, I needed to be the first to do something. No one has ever hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Ozark Trail back-to-back. So, I thought, well, if I could do that, then it could be another element that would get people’s attention. Then I added up the mileage. It came up to be around 2,500.
I like the idea of hiking two trails for another reason, and that’s because I am supporting two charities. One of the charities is a local St. Louis charity, and the other charity is in Africa. So, it is more like a global cause. The Ozark Trail is kind of a local trail, and then we’ve got the bigger-name trail that a lot of people in the world know about. It kind of mirrored the causes that we are supporting.
This might be a silly question, but are those two trails connected in some way?
No, they are not. It would be nice if they were. My wife is going to drive me to Georgia, and I am going to hike north to Maine to finish the Appalachian Trail. Then my wife, who is very nice lady as you can tell, she is going to drive to Maine to pick me up. Then she will drive me back to Missouri, and I will immediately hike the Ozark Trail. I am not going to take any breaks. I am not even going to spend the night in my house.
So, this will not be a solo thru-hike?
I am going to be solo on the Appalachian Trail. When I am in Missouri, I had planned on being solo. However, there are people who said, “Hey, I will come hike two days with you.” I had a guy yesterday on Facebook who offered to hike the entire Ozark Trail with me. He said, “I was already planning on hiking it in March, but now that I hear about this great cause, I will wait until you get back.” I’ve never met that guy, but he seems pretty sincere. With the Ozark Trail, I might have more company.
McLaughlin soaking up the scenery on his charity hike.
What is your hiking experience?
Until I decided to do this? Very little. The most I’ve ever hiked was 40 miles over a weekend.
I have been training for this for a few months now. The Mastodon State Park in Imperial, Mo., has one trail in particular that is straight uphill and then downhill. It is about 2.25 miles. My wife said that this was the best trail that simulated the uphill and downhill trials of the Appalachian Trail. So, I have hiked that trail so many times. I will get my pack and all my gear just as if I’m on the real trip to simulate the actual experience of the hike.
Has training for this hike had an impact on your daily life?
At the beginning, I weighed 233.6 pounds and now I weigh 210 pounds. I’ve lost quite a bit of weight. I have changed my diet, too. I’ve stopped eating so many hamburgers and started eating more salads. I guess it has been like two and half months. I just have had rapid weight loss.
I have also been sleeping in the woods behind my house in my hammock. I am going to use a hammock instead of a tent. And I have been sleeping in there just to get used to the idea of using it. There was even one night a couple weeks ago where it got really cold—it was a low of 16 with a wind chill of 4. It was one of the coldest nights we’ve had. My wife said, “Are you sure you want to go out there?” I said, “If I can’t deal with it now, what am I going to do out on the trail?” Nothing I do now is going to prepare me for the real experience, but I am doing my best to get ready for that.
What gear do you plan to bring along?
My backpack is from REI, and it is really lightweight. It weighs like 2 pounds. And I have a set of Vasque hiking boots. They are specifically called Vasque Breeze, and they’ve got Vibram soles, Gore-Tex lining and everything. My wife picked them out. I’ve got a rain jacket and a skirt. Since I am going to have gators, my wife said I don’t really need rain pants. So I got this rain skirt that is really lightweight.
In terms of my house, I am going to be using a hammock. I am going to use is the Warbonnet Blackbird Hammock. When there are wintery conditions, I have an underquilt that is also from Warbonnet. It’s called the Yeti, and it’s supposed to keep you warm down to like zero degrees. The underquilt is something that I have in the bottom of the hammock. It is made out of down. Inside the hammock, I was going to originally bring a Marmot sleeping bag, but I have decided against it because I am really going to go lightweight.
McLaughlin shows how his poncho also serves as his rain shelter.
How heavy will your pack be?
My pack is going to weigh in the neighborhood of 20 to 22 pounds, including food for four days. Instead of the Marmot sleeping bag, I decided to go with the top quilt, which is a sleeping bag with no zipper and is open on one side. When you use a sleeping bag, your body weight compresses whatever it is sitting on. So it will compress the down and then the bottom of you isn’t getting much insulation. So, why do we need that part? That’s why the top quilt is open on one side. It is almost like a blanket.
I am also going to use the Warbonnet Super Fly. Basically it is more than a tarp. It almost makes the hammock look like a tent. It makes it so the hammock will not get wet if it rains, and that you can get out of the hammock and not get rained on. I can get out of the hammock, go to my pack to get something to eat and not get wet. My hammock is 29 ounces, and my top quilt is 30 ounces.
At this point of your training, do you feel pretty prepared?
All my life experiences, as bad as they were, they kind of helped prepare me for this hike. My wife has told me about people who have quit the trail. She said that people just have a hard time outside night after night. I said, “Well, that’s kind of an advantage for me because that used to be my life.” I used to be homeless and stuff. In a way those experiences made me who I am today, and they helped prepare for this. I know I can live outside for six months because I’ve done it before. And I know I can go without creature comforts because I know I can eat the same food day after day, and I can deal with all of that hardship.
One of the most recent pics of McLaughlin he took after hiking 10 miles in one day with a shin injury.
What do you think you will gain from this experience?
I really think that by spending so much time alone, it is really going to help me figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I have an idea. I have lots of things I am working on, and I have plans. But to spend that much time just in the woods, I’m really going to have a lot of time to think about who I am, what I stand for and what I want to do with the next 30 years before I retire.
I am really looking forward to a peaceful hike. Sure, it will be a pain in the butt, and my knees will ache. At the same time, I will get a lot of time to think about my life and my plans for the rest of it. When I come back, I will be centered, and I will probably be in the best shape of my life. I also think mentally I will be in a really positive mood because this is going to be an adventure. It is going to be one of the adventures of my life. I will remember all the days when it was raining, and I pushed on. I am going to be really proud of it and cherish this memory
UPDATE: McLaughlin sent us an update saying: “I’m very close to the halfway point at Harpers Ferry. I’m so excited!.” We’re also excited for him! We were curious to see how the journey was going and asked him a few more questions.
What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
Ankle problems. I sprained my left ankle twice in the first few weeks of the hike. It hurt both times but the pain the second time was excruciating. I tried several ankle braces but none of them prevented my ankle from rolling when I stepped on rocks or tree roots. It was very dispiriting as I constantly worried about spraining or breaking my ankle. I eventually got an Aircast and haven’t had a single ankle problem since!
What’s been the most memorable moment?
Tough call. I think about the night I hiked into Mountaineer Shelter a lot. I hiked 24 miles and spent at least an hour hiking in the dark. There was a thunderstorm so lightning would occasionally light up the forest around me, which was kind of eery. When I finally reached the shelter, people were shocked that I had continued hiking through those conditions. Many people are afraid to hike alone at night, much less during a storm, so they were really impressed and very kind toward me.