10 Things That Have Surprised Me About the Appalachian Trail

We’re over 1600 miles into our thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Despite all of my pre-trail research, this journey keeps finding ways to surprise us. Here are the top 10 things that I wasn’t expecting from our AT experience thus far.

1. Minimal Down-Time.

Pre-trail, I had romantic visions of Austin and I spending golden hour on mountain summits, journaling about our experience and searching for creative ways to fill our time. Not so. For the two of us, our day starts at 7:30am and goes until 10:30pm or later, each hour filled with hiking, hiking chores, or eating (and more eating). I’m in awe of those hikers who find the time to blog every few days or create dozens (sometimes hundreds!) of YouTube videos along the way. Stay tuned for a “day in the life of (these) thru-hikers” post — if I can find the time!

A rare moment of leisure in the Shenandoahs.

2. The Cold.

We started on April 6, expecting the cold weather to be behind us. Again, not so. Luckily, we were prepared with cold weather gear — every article of which we used for the first few weeks. We spent a memorable night at a poorly chosen campsite on a windy ridge, with temperatures in the teens. I laid awake for hours, fearing we’d find our friends unconscious from hypothermia in the morning. Thankfully we only awoke to frozen water bottles and ice crystals in the dirt.

Hiking in the snow on Blood Mountain in Georgia

3. The Heat.

Conversely, I’ve been equally surprised by the heat on the AT. Coming from DC, I knew to expect a few weeks of suffocating humidity as we tromped through northern Virginia. I did not, however, expect three solid months of 90+ degree temperatures and humidity so high you feel like you’re wading through the air. I don’t think my backpack has been fully dry since April.

The sweatiest I’ve ever been, hiking up a mountain in Virginia

4. Water (or lack thereof).

In my pre-trail research, I once heard someone say that if you run out of water on the AT — a notoriously wet trail — you’ve done something terribly wrong. Bullsh*t. Finding good water sources has been a challenge since Pennsylvania (we’re now in Vermont). Admittedly we’ve been hiking through a historic heat wave — with even the “reliable” water sources completely dried up. It feels like a glimpse into a version of the AT forever altered by climate change. Thankfully, trail angels organized water caches at road crossings during the driest stretches, preventing serious dehydration for us more than once.

Water cache from a trail angel in New York

5. Relationships.

While I knew going in that the AT is a social trail, I couldn’t have appreciated how quickly thru-hikers become quite close. We met a fellow hiker in the morning, and by lunchtime we knew their family history, professional goals, travel stories, and hopes and fears for the trail. We’ve spent a total of about 18 hours with them, and we’ll consider them a friend for life.

6. Camaraderie.

“On the AT, if you vocalize a problem, you have a team of people ready to help you solve it,” says Coaltrane. He was caught in a few days of cold weather with only his summer gear. Trail friends chipped in their own clothing to make sure he didn’t freeze. This happens over and over again on the trail, with hikers looking out for each other in big and small ways.

Thru-hiker gathering, 40 people strong

7. Trail Magic.

By a similar token, the trail is teeming with “magic.” This is another aspect of the trail I knew about going in, but couldn’t fully appreciate until I experienced it for myself. Whether it’s those water caches on a hot day, a well-timed hot dog at a road crossing from a former thru-hiker, or another hiker sharing their bug spray when the mosquitos are in a feeding frenzy — the trail provides. It also has many of us wondering, how do we facilitate “Life Magic,” where anyone, anywhere is supported by their neighbors and community members. If trail magic, mutual aid structures, and co-ops can serve as a model — I think Life Magic can be our reality, one day.

Trail magic from “Uncle Sam” in Connecticut

8. “Virginia is flat.”

I’ve come to believe the refrain “Virginia is flat” (spoken often by former thru-hikers and section hikers) is a form of light trail hazing. There we were, naively looking forward to crushing big miles in the “flat” section of Virginia. Cut to us laying on the side of the trail outside of Daleville, dripping with sweat and cursing those liars on our 4th big climb of the day. The AT in Virginia is many things (long, beautiful, monotonous), but flat is not one of them.

9. Deli-Blazing.

On the AT, food becomes a perpetual fixation for most thru-hikers. We dream of cheeseburgers, ice cream, sodas, and smoothies. Our trail family once spent more than hour while hiking discussing different types of pies, and which kind we’d eat first in town. It’s in this context that we discovered the joys of “deli-blazing” our way through New Jersey and New York, hopping from one trailside deli to the next. I’ve never eaten so much pastrami in my life — and been utterly thrilled about it.


10. Our Trail Funk.

I knew thru-hikers got smelly. I did not know that our funk would eventually transcend all usual types of funkiness. We seem to be culturing our own brand of bacteria in our sweat-soaked packs and dirt-caked socks. I’m beginning to think that smelling bad forever will be one of my trail souvenirs.

Hiker sock soup

Bonus: Our new sense of smell.

Mercifully, our sense of smell has changed in unexpected ways. Austin and I can no longer smell ourselves or each other. But we can smell the shampoo of day hikers from over 50 feet away, and the delicious notes of brats on a fire from a quarter of a mile down trail. I can only hope that if I’m going to be smelly forever, my selective smelling nose sticks around too.

Stay tuned for AT surprises, Part II once we (fingers crossed!) finish our thru-hike!


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Comments 4

  • jilly : Aug 17th

    My favourites are #6 and #7! I worked in a camp store near the AT for several seasons and encountered many thru-hikers. My motto was “I can smell ’em before I can see
    ’em”. That group of people is the happiest and chill-est bunch I’ve ever met – such a pleasure to serve them.

    • Dirk : Aug 24th

      Smelly like yeti

  • Maximus : Aug 23rd

    Hey there Meredith and Austin. Glad to see you guys are still on the trail! I just entered the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire and the water issues still persist. I remember hating hiking in the rain, now I pray for it daily. Keep hiking the good hike and I will look forward to your next blog! Happy Trails!!

  • Navster : Aug 24th

    Great list but I’ve never heard about flat Virginia. This must be a new joke that prior thru hikers are throwing around. For me, I looked forward to PA being flat but didn’t realize it would be a total waste as my feet crumpled on the rocks. 2018 NOBO.


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