7 Lessons from a Thru-Hiker Who Knew Nothing and Still Finished the Trail
I was a pretty terrible thru-hiker. I say that mostly in jest. I finished and, in retrospect, I’m so pleased with every second of it, so what else matters really? But I was pretty terrible when I started. I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t think I got a grasp on the whole thru-hiking thing until Harper’s Ferry. I wouldn’t change anything, but if I were to thru-hike again, there are things I’m glad I don’t have to learn twice. While it’s helpful to know how to toss a perfect bear hang the first try and which podcasts make the miles pass more quickly, that’s not exactly the thru-hiking savvy I’m grateful to have internalized. What took me awhile on the trail to understand was how to best enjoy myself and feel like I was getting the most from my thru-hike.
1. Learn to like being by yourself as early as possible.
You are going to be petrified when you start your first steps on the Approach Trail or Springer or Katahdin or wherever. So will everyone else that has started alongside you. You are all going to want to group up because being terrified is easier in groups. And that’s a totally respectable way to go about things. I didn’t start hiking alone until Hot Springs, about 270 miles in. But odds are high the group you find on your first couple of days will not be summiting Katahdin with you. It’s very unlikely that in the first 24 hours you’ll find people moving at exactly your pace or aren’t part of the 70% of hikers that won’t finish.
I spent my first week hiking too fast on badly blistered feet so I wouldn’t have to hike alone, and then the next couple weeks hiking much slower than I wanted to so I wouldn’t have to hike alone. When I finally convinced myself no one would think I was weird and I wouldn’t get eaten by a bear, I realized how much I preferred hiking by myself and being able to make all my own decisions about my hike.
2. Meet as many people as possible.
People on the trail are the coolest. By the end of the trail, you’ll be able to become someone’s best friend in the time it takes you both to filter a liter of water. Chatting to anybody and everybody is the best trail pastime, and you’ll already share a deep connection with any thru-hiker you meet because you’ve all been through the same shit. Your community is constantly moving and revolving around you. You’ll float around people for hundreds of miles and then you’ll all scatter when a weird weather front moves through. You’ll find people in New Hampshire you haven’t seen since North Carolina. If you want to constantly be hiking around people you know, it makes the most sense to meet as many people as possible as often as possible. In retrospect, I’m baffled at my early timidity to talk to people outside of the group I formed in the beginning. Everyone is excited and eager to talk to you. And no one has anything else to do.
3. Take pictures of your friends
I have about 400 pictures of my feet in various states of disgustingness. I have fewer of the people that walked 400 miles by my side.
You can Google image search pictures of the Roan Highlands and (if you’re anything like me) they’re going to be better than the ones you take yourself. You can’t Google image search a picture of the time your friend brought trail magic pizza to your tent because you were too lazy to get out of your sleeping bag. Take a picture of it.
4. Take every opportunity to do something cool
I’m not exactly sure how many bridge jumping opportunities there are along the Appalachian Trail, but I do know I wish I had taken advantage of one of them. I walked into West Hartford, Vermont knowing it was my last chance, but it was cold and I wanted to get into Hanover at a decent time and I chickened out. But who knows when the next bridge-jumping opportunity will come in my life, and I wish I had done it when I could have. I can’t tell you how many times I stopped a half mile away from a summit and then the next morning walked the half mile and thought, “Why didn’t I camp here?” Hike the extra bit to camp on summits (unless camping regulations say you shouldn’t). Stop early if you find a cool camp spot. Take up offers of trail magic. Use the canoes next to the lakes in Maine. Visit Washington D.C. or New York when one of your friends goes. Odds are high you’ll only hike the AT once. Do all the cool stuff.
5. Find people on bad days
There are going to be days that just completely and utterly suck. It doesn’t matter how strong your mental gymnastics are. Some days you’ll be trudging through freezing rain and hating everything. Some days the bugs will be eating you alive and you’ll want to throw things. While I greatly preferred hiking by myself, I learned pretty quickly that some days just needed company. When you’re falling into a deep pit of despair for whatever reason, go to a shelter, find some thru-hikers, listen to them whine for all the same reasons. In 20 minutes you’ll find yourself laughing over whatever you were whining about 5 seconds earlier. Pro-tip: being around other people when it’s buggy splits the bugs so they’re not all biting you.
6. Start early, don’t be lazy, but do stop to enjoy things
This all may sound counter-intuitive but they all feel connected to me. First of all, start early as often as possible because you’ll have more time to meet whatever mile goal you have for the day, you’ll be up before the bugs and the heat, and the trail is at its most photogenic in the mornings.
Don’t spend all day screwing around for no real reason. Instead, screw around at swimming holes, sit around at cool views, or take a long lunch break with tramily. Don’t screw around on your phone next to some random tree for an hour. If you have four days worth of food to get you to your next town stop, don’t spend two days hiking no miles for no apparent reason and then have to kill yourself the next two days so you don’t starve. If you’re going to waste time, make it for something meaningful. (In this case, do as I say, not as I did.)
7. Don’t worry about what other people are doing
Don’t even think about what other people are doing. Thru-hiking is not a competitive sport. Some people will try to turn it into one. Some people will make it seem like you should carry less weight, or more. Some people will make it seem like you should be going faster or slower. Hike more miles, or less. Slack-pack or don’t slack-pack. Those people are a small minority. Most people don’t give two shits what you’re doing. Be like most people. The only person you have to answer to about your thru-hiking choices is yourself. It’s hard enough to get to Katahdin. Do whatever you gotta do to get yourself there and be proud at the end of it.
There’s plenty of advice out there for new thru-hikers on how to keep their pack weight down, how and when to send mail drops, which gear is best, and a million other very helpful things. It’s why the thru-hike success rate goes up each year. But I really wish I had gotten some advice on not just how to do it, but how to make the most of it. I know it’s cliché, but, holy moly, it really does go by so fast and a week after you’re done, you’ll be dreaming about the time you watched the sunrise from your tent thousands of feet up and scrolling through pictures on your phone for hours. Pack your trash out, but pack the memories in, guys.
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