4 Kinds of Hikers in my First Week on the Appalachian Trail

Washed Off the Mountain

The rain is coming down sideways in fat drops, and that pea-soup fog we’ve had for the last three days makes it hard to see who’s ahead of me. It’s early in the day, but then again I started early. The camp at Low Gap was just barely sheltered from the wind, and the trees dropped small branches on my tent all night– mud sprayed in under the rain-fly and through the mosquito netting. 

I am soaked. I am tired. I am having the time of my life, but I won’t be staying in the wadded mess of a tent tonight. Hell or high water (likely the latter) I’ll be falling asleep dry. 

Which means I need to make Blue Mountain Shelter before the others do. Before it’s lined end to end with sleeping pads and cloaked in tents, bags, clothing set out to dry in the mist. 

The trail is a river, rhododendron groves hemming hikers and water into the same narrow track: that ragged line we all decided to start following. I’m crashing through the water, no sense in trying to keep the feet dry. As the trail turns up Blue Mountain, the water drains away, it becomes a jagged row of mismatched boulders. 

The weight of my pack has started to bruise my hips where the belt is clipped tight. Pumping my legs up the final incline I look up to see a figure in the haze– the Welsh dude from last night is strolling down towards me with his water filter. No pack. He’s been here a while, I can tell.

“How’s the shelter?” I ask.

“Pretty full, I’m afraid.” He frowns through his beard; I must have looked disappointed.


The sun comes out briefly, before the clouds come back, the rain and darkness doubles down. It’s 1:00 PM. 

My first two days were characterized by sunny, warm weather, but it was clear early on that forecasts don’t matter much. You have to use ATWeather.org to get the forecast for your specific section of the trail. The caveat is that you need cell service to access those reports, and cell service is… spotty.

The People

“The Bubble” refers to the large mass of hikers who leave roughly at the same time from Amicalola Falls, and can often see 70 or 80 people setting off a day. In 2024, the bubble began earlier, towards the end of February, and seems to have tapered off towards the end of March.

My start date in the beginning of April was later than most people start on any given year, and I was worried about isolation. What if I didn’t see anyone for days? It’s one thing to be cold and wet, and something entirely different to be cold, wet, and alone with no one but you and the pantheon of Appalachian cryptids that doubtlessly watch you from the fog. 

I did not have that problem. My first night I stayed at the camp at Stover’s Creek with 6 other folks, and it seems like I’ve met 6 new people every day since. 

With a sample size of about 30-40 people I’ve met so far, I’ve hypothesized there are roughly four categories of pacing the first 70 miles of trail. 

  1. People who started with their trail legs ready to go. They’re either coming out of the military or off some other trail, and they’ll average 20 miles a day at the get go. 
  2. People who did not train, but are already vaguely athletic and can comfortably hike between 10 and 16 miles a day. Any fewer miles and these people feel shame, and will push themselves the following day. Any more than 16 and they risk serious injury. 
  3. People who may or may not have trained but are cautious regardless of their level of athleticism, and do between 5 and 10 miles a day without losing any sleep. Also in this category are people who did not train and also vastly overestimated their own ability and/or brought 60 pounds of tactical military gear. These are almost exclusively men, often also carrying a liter of whiskey. 
  4. People whose level of training or ability is indecipherable because they set out on the trail looking for a 6 month party. Generally they’ll do between 3 and 16 miles on the days they choose to hike. Most of these folks seemed to have been weeded out by Blood Mountain, the tallest peak in the Georgia section of trail. A dubious few have also just been driving from gap to gap with a tent and as much drugs and liquor as fits in their car. These folks will frustratingly keep pace with people in Group 2. 

But everyone has been extraordinarily kind. I think most of us are nervous, but that’s fading by the day. I think I used to critique the trail, even as I was planning my thru-hike, for being an exercise in the failed myth of rugged individualism. The mantra, “Hike your own hike” reflects a culture that may encourage us to hesitate helping others. This, I thought, was a tremendous flaw in the capacity of the trail to encourage moral growth.

But the trail families have disproved this perception of the trail. It is a primarily social adventure that happens to take place outside. Talking to others is not just one way to pass the time in the evenings, but it’s also critical to sharing information. Shuttle driver numbers, trail magic locations, water availability, no one has all of this information. We all hold pieces of a puzzle that, when shared, put together a map to the next shelter that is safe and enjoyable. 

The Camping

Georgia has shelters every 5 to 8 miles on the A.T., replete with bear boxes or cables for your food, and latrines. As such they tend to be where hikers have preferred to set up camp so far, whether there’s room in the shelter or not (and due to a HUGE norovirus outbreak, you couldn’t pay most of us to stay in shelters). 

Water is plentiful in Georgia, and I rarely need to carry more than a liter, knowing there are plenty of places to filter water throughout the day. 

A challenge I’ve encountered is that I get to camp too early in the day and have a lot of extra time to sit and stew. Boredom and homesickness are the two bugaboos out here, they’re lurking behind every tree. That’s a good thing. I love my life in Kansas City, and not everyone I’ve met has that sort of luck. Still, it can make the evenings long. 

Fortunately the social life out here is vibrant, and I love hearing the stories of others. Folks who left the military and were looking for somewhere to clear their head. Teachers who took the summer off to hike. A guy from Milwaukee who was just hiking to Tennessee before going back to his pharmacy job. 

Campfires are common, but superfluous. The warmth is nice, but the conversation bubbles just as easily on nights when the wood is too wet. By the time you get your tent set up, bedroll situated, water filtered, food cooked, you still have an hour to shoot the shit before folks tuck in for the night. 

By Grace

As I sat looking at the rain, munching an energy bar, calculating my next move, more hikers from Low Gap began showing up at Blue Mountain Shelter. Each ran their eyes with something like bitter defeat over the row of hikers who got there first, ringing out their shirts or snuggled in their sleeping bags and sitting up against the wall checking their phones for signal. Hotels and hostels were full. Calls to shuttle drivers from Unicoi Gap were throwing up busy signals. It looked bleak.

Finally, the Bird Sisters, a pair of sisters from Massachusetts with whom I’d been hiking since Neel’s Gap, got a driver named Grace to pick up and frantically motioned to me to see if I’d be interested in a ride. 

“Hell yes,” was my response.

One hour and a muddy scramble down to Unicoi Gap later, we were huddled beneath the National Forest information kiosk when Grace, who runs Hitch-a-Hiker shuttles, came screaming up in her massive black pickup truck. The sisters, myself, and two others loaded our muddy bags into the bed, and jammed shoulder to shoulder in the cab like canned fish. We stank, but Grace didn’t seem to care– she was busy forwarding messages from hikers to other drivers, calling friends with chain saws to report limbs down in the road, and generally being a god damn badass.

As we careened through the rolling hills towards Hiawassee, Georgia, Grace looked at me through the rear-view mirror. 

“Where you going, sweetheart?”

“Budget Inn.” They’d been dodging other hikers’ calls since noon, but I’d finally gotten through and secured a room last minute. 

“No you did not. Hiker Hilton? We’ll have to see, that place is usually full up.” 

As I stepped out of the cab in the Budget Inn parking lot, a man slid open the office window and shouted, “You Ben?”


“Your room is ready for ya. Come on in.”

I looked back at Grace, who was shaking her head. “They should call you Lucky Ben.” She said. She put the truck in gear and sped off. 

Weeks Ahead

I’m not sure if the trail name will stick, but I like it. I’ve never been fond of nicknames, and the culture on the trail so far doesn’t seem to center them in a way we’ve been led to believe. This is fine. But I do feel lucky. 

Each day I ache: my knees hurt, my Achilles tendon is sore, often I’m cut and bruised for god knows what reason. But my breaths feel fuller than they have in years. Each day is filled with a sense of what can only be described as euphoria– I’m confident, focused, and in love with my surroundings. My body seems to be good at this, and Maine seems not only doable, but likely. The North Carolina border is so close I can reach out and touch it. The Smoky Mountains aren’t much beyond that. 

In the mornings I feel it most, rain or shine: the profound understanding of the privilege we all have to be out on the Appalachian Trail. 

I’m interested to see what the week ahead has in store. As my muscles recover and I push on into North Carolina, I’ll have my eye on how the social sphere changes. We’re all settling into our own paces now, some speeding up, some taking zeroes. As folks drop out (I’ve seen two leave the trail today) the campsites will probably become a little more quiet. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing though, there are always more lessons to learn.

I was reading before I left Kansas City about how there is a serious correlation between being open to new experiences, and what we perceive as good luck. I’d like to take the next few months to test that theory out. 

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Comments 15

  • Brett : Apr 14th

    I was suggested your article from Google News, (I work at REI in Pittsburgh, so the algorithm knows I like this kind of thing) and I just wanted to say that I enjoy your writing. One of, if not the best, hiker journals I’ve read recently. Keep it up! Have fun and be safe.

    • Ben Carpenter : Apr 19th

      Thanks, Brett! I don’t always have the best signal to respond to comments as you might imagine, but I appreciate you reading! Stay tuned!

  • Jasper O'Connell : Apr 15th

    Excellent post; you have a fine way with words. I’ll keep following and good luck.

    • Ben Carpenter : Apr 19th

      Thanks Jasper! Stay tuned, the next few weeks are promising to be pretty gnarly, let’s hope the knees are up to it!

  • Jenny : Apr 15th

    Great writing, hope to see you post again and share your thoughts and images of your journey.

    • Ben Carpenter : Apr 19th

      The blog has been an excellent creative project to have on trail! Gives me something to think about other than walking and eating haha. Thanks for reading!

  • Theresa Kimmel : Apr 15th

    As I was reading your post I thought to myself if this guy is not a writer he should be. Looking forward to following your story. Best of luck.


    • Ben Carpenter : Apr 19th

      Thanks, Theresa! I do have a writing background, and I love having this platform to share my experience. Stay tuned!

  • Christy Troehler : Apr 15th

    You are an excellent storyteller and I hope to follow your journey. My Great Nephew is presently on the AT, having started around mid March. If you encounter an electrician from Cincinnati with a purple ribbon on his pack (for his young cousin) tell him his aunt and uncle send their love. Best wishes for strong internet when needed and for a wonderful journey. This is nothing we could do but it’s great hearing your trail adventures.

  • Jeff Greene : Apr 15th

    Good stuff. Keep on keeping on!

  • Steve : Apr 16th

    Ben nice meeting you on the trail. Love the blog will read it all way through on your adventure. Hope your knee feels better after a a few rest days.

  • Carly McCalla : Apr 16th

    Ben – you are a fantastic writer and have a way with story-telling! I’m a little ahead of ya (leaving the Smokies!) but I love reading about what’s going on behind me. Your description of hikers is so accurate – I’m a solid 2! 🙂 Maybe we will cross paths. Keep your eye on the prize – with rainy days come ones with sunshine and mountains as far as the eye can see.

    • Ben Carpenter : Apr 19th

      The Smokies! Yeah it sounds like you’re a bit ahead but if we cross paths we’ll have to compare notes. Stay safe!

  • Kristin : Apr 18th

    Kansas City misses you, Ben! So fun to read about your adventure–sharing with the farmers. 🙂

  • Ryan : May 17th

    You are the best blogger here. Your way of explaining your adventure along the trail as well as your philosophical insights into the mindset absolutely puts the reader right there with you. Keep going I see you making it the distance. Afterwards possibly consider writing a book of your experiences. We support you Ben!


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