How I Went from Day Hiker to Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker

Max Kiel
AT Thru-Hiker

Thru-hiking isn’t exactly what you’d call a popular activity among the masses. Sure, the number of people embarking on long-distance treks has exponentially grown in recent years; but for many, a weekend or multi-day trip is more realistic, and a 4-6 month adventure seems like a pipe dream. 

I grew up in a small town in New York, about thirty minutes away from the Appalachian Trail. I remember the first time I ever learned about the Appalachian Trail; my 10-year-old brain simply couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of such an adventure. But the idea of walking across the country stuck with me, and I remained intrigued throughout my high school and college years. 

Most people spend years planning and preparing for their Appalachian Trail thru-hike, yet I committed to hiking the trail only three months before departing for Georgia. I had only done a handful of weekend and multi-day trips; what made me think I was qualified? 

A backpack and a dream 

AT Thru-Hiker

I wasn’t exactly what you’d call an outdoorsy kid growing up. Most of my summer afternoons in middle school consisted of playing Xbox all day with my friends. My mom had to beg me to join her on a walk in the park with our dog. But by the time I got to college, thanks to a couple friends of mine, I caught the hiking bug, and I caught it HARD. 

Something clicked in my brain one day on a short hike; exploring the wilderness with my friends was a much better time than sitting inside all day. From then on, I was all-in on hiking. I remember the first time I met a thru-hiker, who went by the name Spartan, telling me and my friend wild stories from the trail while trying to explain all the amazing things he’d seen. The seed was planted. 

What a life-changing adventure I remember thinking to myself. Do I have what it takes to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail? I had never even been on a backpacking trip, yet I was so intrigued by the prospect of thru-hiking. Not too long after, my dad and I took a trip to the local outdoor consignment shop where I purchased my first pack: a North Face Terra 60 Liter, along with all the other gear I’d need to begin pursuing my newfound hobby. 

Learning the ropes 

AT Thru-Hiker

Flash-forward one year later. I tested out my gear on a one night, 6-mile loop with a friend, and returned home feeling like a hardened veteran — successfully surviving a night in the woods with nothing but what I had in my backpack. 

With the Appalachian Trail still on my mind, my dad and I decided to embark on a four-day hike in the High Peaks Wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains. This was my first big multi-day expedition, and I was eager to put my very minimal backcountry skills to the test. 

It was a very successful trip; but extremely challenging. The final day stood out thanks to a face-to-face encounter with a full-grown black bear. It pumped my veins with adrenaline, but not enough of it to get me through the overwhelming exhaustion and hunger I was feeling. 

Backpacking is supposed to be fun, I thought to myself as I slowly made my way down the trail. Why does this suck right now? This trip taught me the important lesson that every moment of a backpacking trip isn’t actually supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to be hard and tiring at times too. But I also learned that it’s these hard, tiring moments that make you feel more rewarded when it’s all over. 

Turning my dreams into reality 

AT Thru-Hiker

Now let’s flash-forward one more time to the Fall of 2020, a few months before departing for my AT thru-hike. I was set to graduate college in the Winter, completing school a semester early. This opened the perfect window of opportunity to hike the AT, but I wasn’t committed yet. 

I tried to get out for weekend-long backpacking trips as often as I could; whether that was solo trips or accompanied by friends. I was doing an abundance of research on the Appalachian Trail; watching video after video on YoutTube of people accomplishing their dreams of thru-hiking the AT.

I realized that now was the best time for me to thru-hike; I was a recent college grad, and I hadn’t committed to any full time jobs yet. In December of 2020, I sat down with my parents and we had our first real discussion about me thru-hiking the AT. They knew that I was always intrigued with the prospect of hiking the trail, but they did not know I was seriously considering starting this March. My parents were all in, and it soon became official; in about three months I would be headed down to Georgia to begin my long-time dream of being an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. 

AT Thru-Hiker

On March 26, my dad drove me down to the start of the trail in Georgia. I was filled with nerves and anxiety almost the entire ride.
Am I even qualified to be doing this? I had only done a few weekend trips and one multi-day trip, am I even a real hiker? Despite my negative thoughts during the days leading up to the start, on March 28, 2021, I began my thru-hike with my head clear and my heart full. The white blazes had been calling my name for a long time, and it was finally time to answer that call. 

The morale of this story is simple: if you want something that badly, then go for it.

AT Thru-Hiker

If you are reading this article and have any sort of thru-hiking aspirations, I highly recommend you go for it! I was no backpacking expert by any means before beginning my thru-hike, but I knew that I wanted this
so badly for myself. So, strap on that backpack, hit the trail, and chase your dreams. I promise it will be worth it.


Continue Hiking with Max >>> @max_kiel_trail

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