This year, from March 28 to August 9, I completed a lifelong dream of mine: thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. This was my first ever thru-hike, and prior to this hike, most of my backpacking trips consisted of 2-4 days throughout the state of New York.
I always knew I wanted to hike the trail some day, so I wanted to learn about the trail as much as possible, with the hopes of getting an idea of what it might be like to embark on such a journey.
Over the years, I think I’ve read every book that has ever been written on thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. No, seriously ... name the book!
Anyways, the point is, that my expectations of life on the Appalachian Trail were different from the realities of life on the Appalachian Trail. Here are my three biggest takeaways from thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail:
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is hard. Like, really hard.
I think this goes without saying, but hiking 2,193.1 miles from Georgia to Maine following the spine of the Appalachian Mountains is no easy task. Although the two other triple crown trails, the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail, have more total mileage than the AT, the AT has more total elevation gain; at roughly 500,000 feet of total elevation gain.
The terrain can be extremely rugged and technical, too. Many times, especially in New England, the trail goes straight up, and then straight down, featuring little or no switchbacks. Add in car-sized boulders, slick rock slabs, and tons of roots, and you’ve got yourself quite the physical endeavor. I always knew that the trail would be physically challenging, especially in New Hampshire and Maine. I went into the trail in solid shape; but no amount of physical training can fully prepare your body for walking all day, everyday.
I soon learned that what makes the Appalachian Trail especially challenging is the mental component. I believe what drives most people off trail is the mental struggles. It takes a TON of fortitude to press on everyday when you’re feeling sore, battling an injury, missing home, or just not having a great time anymore. There were certainly sections of my thru-hike where I was either lacking motivation or I just simply wasn’t enjoying myself.
Weather plays a massive role in the mental aspect of a thru-hike; there’s nothing like three days of non-stop rain to really put a damper on morale. This leads me right into my next takeaway …
Having the proper gear that you’re comfortable with makes a big difference.
Before my thru-hike, I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a gear nerd. I didn’t have the flashiest, state-of-the-art ultralight gear when I stepped foot on the Appalachian Trail. But every piece of gear I owned got the job done, and I was very familiar and comfortable with using everything I owned.
Most people cringed when I told them how much my tent weighs (I used the Lynx 1 by Alps Mountaineering, weighing in at about four pounds in total). I could’ve switched to an ultralight tent like many other hikers on trail, but I knew that my current tent would withstand almost any weather that the trail would throw at me.
This reigned true throughout the duration of my thru-hike; my tent came with an amazing rain-fly that never leaked, even during intense thunderstorms. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, it rains a lot on the Appalachian Trail.
I met a few hikers on trail who didn’t own the proper tents, or owned tents that they weren’t familiar with. This would oftentimes lead to water seeping into their tent, making life on trail that much more difficult. Knowing that my tent would keep me completely warm and dry every night turned out to be a huge mental boost for me. I personally am a big tenter, and I would avoid shelters most nights because I slept much better in the cozy confines of my one-person tent.
The people you meet along the way is an important part of the journey.
From all the books I had read, I knew that there was the tight-knit community aspect that comes with hiking the Appalachian Trail, but I never expected to meet and connect with so many people during my hike. I was meeting people from all walks of life (no pun intended), each with different motives for being out on trail.
Knowing that there are other people enduring the same struggles as you really helps. I think this is why hikers connect with other hikers so easily; no matter who we are off trail and what our values or beliefs may be, the trail automatically gives us something to bond over. I found myself making friends with people that I might not typically socialize with off-trail; something I wasn’t quite expecting.
The friendships and relationships you build on trail are all a part of the Appalachian Trail experience. I promise there is no need to stress over making friends or building connections on trail. You will build a strong bond with several other like-minded individuals, and this bond only grows stronger as you approach the finish.
Most of these friendships will last once the trail is over, too; I know I will continue to keep in touch with the friends I met. Once you get involved with the Appalachian Trail — whether as a thru-hiker, a section hiker, a hostel owner, or a local trail angel — you will forever be a member of the ever-growing, tight-knit Appalachian Trail community.