5 Takeaways From My Summer On The AT.
1. Just because it’s summertime does not mean it’s going to be warm!
I highly underestimated how cold it would get at night in June. I figured given the high elevation, it would get chilly, even in the summer. However, by chilly I was thinking 50, maybe 40, degrees. Oh how I underestimated Mother Nature! I was dripping with sweat while hiking into the over-mountain shelter within the Roan Highlands section on the NC/TN boarder (4,550 ft.). It’s one of the more well-known shelters on the trail. It’s a red, wooden, two-story barn that was converted into a shelter in the 1990s. I quickly secured a spot on the bottom of the old barn so I could take advantage of the open front section with incredible mountain views. That was rookie mistake number one.
I am smiling from ear to ear in this photo, extremely pleased with my fantastic spot. Oh how that changed drastically as I shivered all night.
Night fell quickly and the temperatures plummeted. It went from sunny and 75 degrees to dense fog, howling winds accompanied by an approximately 30 degree drop in temperature. Factor in the wind chill and it was “freezing my booty off” degrees. The smarter, more experienced thru-hikers all migrated to the enclosed top section of the barn. I was now stuck in my eno with the bone chilling wind cutting through my hammock. I learned an extremely valuable lesson the hard way that night. The moral of the story? Be prepared for possibly severe cold weather, even in the summer months.
2. Being physically fit is just as important as being mentally prepared.
I knew that lugging a 55 lb. backpack up steep mountains all day long was not going to be an easy task. Mentally, I was prepared to suffer some physical pain to reap the rewards of wandering around the trail for the summer. I had also been boxing six days a week, two hours a day, with a 25 lb. weighted vest on while I trained. Physically, I was in great shape and this was very beneficial to my body. My body was not so shocked and it transitioned to trail life so flawlessly due to that weighted vest training. Had I not been in decent physical shape, it would have been a lot more painful and mentally exhausting to me. Don’t get me wrong – you are still crazy sore all over but it was more manageable. I was already taxing myself prior to getting on the trail so, mentally, I was ready to deal with the pain.
The one thing that I was not prepared for were the hunger pains. I talked a lot about how unhealthy the majority of the thru-hikers’ foods were – most thru-hikers’ diets consisted of Oreos, Ramen noodles, and soda from my research. I then went on to layout my plan for eating extremely nutrient-dense foods, with the occasional pizza and soda. Rookie move number two.
I don’t think I can even do the hunger pains justice here. You just need to experience them for yourself. My body just wanted calories in the form of greasy, salty, delicious mounds of food. All the time. Granted, for the most part, I did stick to extremely nutrient-dense foods but when you hit town, you just can’t help yourself. You want to stuff your face with everything that is processed and packed with calories. And honestly, your body needs those calories. You are consistently burning fat while backpacking and taking in nearly nothing in terms of calories. However, when I came off the trail at the end of the summer I encountered another unexpected issue: binge eating.
I went from backpacking daily on hardly any calories and then pigging out in town (binge eating). When I got home I had the same horrible habits minus hiking with a 55 lb. backpack each day. Can we say “weight gain”? It’s no big deal to eat an entire pizza on the trail because you almost instantly burn it off after consuming it. This is not the case when you are back home. I quickly got my booty back into boxing and cut out the binge eating but it is something to be aware of and will help me plan my food better this time around.
3. Getting a sniff of your first thru-hiker.
Man oh man I am not looking forward to smelling like this! I will never, ever forget the first time I got a good sniff of a thru-hiker. It was a guy who was solo hiking and such a super sweet guy. But he was sleeping a few feet away from me in the shelter and it literally turned my stomach. I am not trying to be mean, just realistic. He smelled so bad. I don’t care how much extra weight my hygiene products take up – I will try to combat smelling like this at all costs.
4. Trail etiquette and lack of it among some hikers.
Listen, I am not going to lie. I love breaking and bending the rules. However, when it comes to rules that protect the trail and environment, I am a stickler. For the most part, everyone follows the rules. The most common sense of these are:
- Leave no trace
- Pass on the left
- Hikers going up hill are working a lot harder and should be given the right of way over hikers coming downhill
- Throw a bear bag down-wind from camp
However, be prepared to encounter idiots and for the love of God, avoid being one. I will never forget when we were hiking the McAfee Knob – Tinker Cliffs section in VA. It was in the dead of summer and hot. On top of that a lot of the water sources were bone dry as it had not rained for quite some time. This is where my husband and I learned another very valuable lesson: water will not always be around.
We were ill-prepared water-wise this day of hiking. Maybe we should have heeded the signs advising hikers to make sure they had plenty of water before proceeding but we figured we would be fine as we had mapped out the water sources we would refill at along the way. What we did not account for was the fact that it could be dried up, which it was. This section is extremely challenging, especially in the heat. We ended up getting to the top of Tinker Cliffs and then having to back track to get water from a water source we passed over. It was an extremely taxing day both physically and mentally and when we reached the shelter, we wanted nothing more than to relax. This is where the reality hit that not everyone cares about trail etiquette.
When we arrived at the shelter all we could think about was water. We actually utilized our dehydration pills that were in my first aid kit. Once we practically drank the water source up we returned to the shelter to setup. There was a large group of young kids and what looked to be two dads accompanying them. We set up the hammock and wanted nothing more than to just pass out. Within 10 minutes of trying to sleep, I was absolutely furious. These kids were out of control and they were screaming and yelling, throwing rocks, and decided to scale up the shelter and onto its roof. The two dads that were supposed to be watching them were nowhere to be found so we quickly packed up and moved on.
Now looking back I really wish I had tracked down the dads and laid into them. At the time we were so drained that we just wanted to get the hell out of there and setup camp somewhere quite to sleep. But the more I think back on this the more it infuriates me. If you are not going to teach the younger generations proper trail etiquette and how to protect the trail, not destroy it, then do everyone a favor and stay the hell off it.
I learned two major lessons from all this.
- Don’t be an asshole and follow the rules
- Be prepared for water sources to be dried up and have a backup plan
5. Fear is only temporary but regret lasts forever.
Basically my major take away from my summer on the AT is that fear is only temporary but regret lasts forever. Anything worth doing in life is worth doing because it’s a challenge. I would rather fear the unknown than live my life full of regret.
Backpacking 2,185 miles is going to be extremely painful at times and also just as rewarding. After the summer, I really did not think I wanted to fully thru-hike it all at once. As the weeks rolled back at home, all I was doing was daydreaming of being back on the trail and completing it and dreaming about being one of the “elites” who actually finishes this incredible challenge and experience its rewards. I was missing the gorgeous sunsets and the warm sun on my face and despite all the pain and struggle I endured along the way, I wanted to really do this. Commit to thru-hiking the entire thing because fear is only temporary but regret lasts forever and I refuse to regret never fully backpacking it all at once.
Hopefully you can get something out of this and my rookie lessons.
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