Five Things Thru-Hiking Teaches You
(Or what it’s teaching me.)
Five lessons after 500 miles
Thoughts on tragedy, Trail Days, and things I’ve learned the hard way
1. Life is short and fragile
I’m starting with this.
Most of you already know about the recent tragedy on the trail. Two hikers were stabbed, and one of them killed—all just a few days ahead of where we were at the time.
I did not know Ron, the man who died. And I can’t fathom what his family and friends are going through.
But the other person stabbed is our friend, a woman with whom we’ve hiked and stayed in hostels. (She does not wish to have her photo or name published.)
When we visited with her several times this week, I looked at her staples and stitches, but I mostly watched her eyes. Her bright blue eyes sometimes verged on tears, other times squinted in laughter.
She kept saying she was lucky to be alive, grateful to have hiked, and hoped to be back next year. She told us how she joked with the paramedics and helicopter personnel. She said all she wanted was her gear back, but the FBI had to keep some items as evidence, not to mention the pack was deemed a biohazard due to the blood.
Your pack is like your second skin out here. I can see why she wanted it back. But what she cannot get back—at least not this year—is her hike.
Still she evidenced little to no self-pity. She said she wanted the attention and offers of help directed toward Ron and his family.
She is almost my size. Ron is almost my age. Everything can change in an instant.
Like the wildflowers that are here one day and overshadowed by new growth the next, life is fleeting.
“Leave nothing unsaid.”
A fellow hiker told me this. He was section hiking and shared how he lost his daughter years ago when she was only 12. A tire swing accident.
“I’ve learned to leave nothing unsaid,” he said. “You never know when—or if—you’ll see someone again.”
He left me with several Bible verses, and encouraged me to pray.
“I am a Christian,” said Rachel Held Evans, “because the story about Jesus is still the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.”
This is a quote from her latest and final book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.
A few weeks ago I listened to it on Audible, enjoying the author’s thoughts on wilderness spirituality while I sloshed through mud and skirted the poison ivy. I made a note about that quote above, because there is so little I’m sure about.
Before I’d even finished the book, Evans, 37, suddenly died. While I did not know her personally, I had seen her speak several times, and felt her loss acutely. She was a voice for so many of us—especially women—who navigate the wilderness of faith, inclusivity, and the story we’re willing to risk being wrong about.
“If I’ve learned anything from thirty-five years of doubt and belief, it’s that faith is not passive intellectual assent… It’s a rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred, all-night-long struggle, and sometimes you have to demand your blessing rather than wait around for it.”
This is what Jacob did in the Hebrew Scriptures. He said to the angel wrestling him, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
I can’t describe the blessing I sought when I left for the trail, but I knew I wasn’t going to wait around for it.
Speak the blessing
Life is short. Things can turn on a dime. Ask for the blessing. Speak the blessing. Tell your people—your trail people and your home people—what they mean to you.
Leave nothing unsaid.
2. Much of what’s lost comes back again
So much of trail life for me has been a discovery lost-and-found.
I lose a trail family, then find them again. A friend hikes ahead and moves on; weeks later we share pizza.
The socks I pin to my pack fall off while I hike in the dark. The next day a hiker brings them to the next shelter and asks if they’re mine.
I leave my trekking poles in a car and have no way to reach the driver. A friend loans me one of his poles for the next 24 hours until he misses it. Then he fashions me a beautiful hiking stick from a piece of wood.
The next afternoon we find a note taped to a trail marker miles that reads, “Sprout (my trail name). I, Leopard, am in possession of your lovely trekking poles and shall leave them for you at Trimpi shelter.”
Why do I mention these seemingly insignificant items? Because Marie Kondo (guru of tidying and minimalism) has nothing on hikers. We specialize in paring down life to its fewest essentials and honoring each possession we have.
Out here when something goes missing, it’s like a piece of you is lost. We treasure each and every item of food, shelter, and clothing and know where each piece lives in our pack. Sharing takes on a new meaning. There is so little we need to keep for ourselves.
Lost and found.
Which is why Trail Days matters
At Trail Days many of us come back to Damascus (or get a ride ahead) and reunite with friends we haven’t hiked with since week one. Costumes and music and gear vendors abound and over 20,000 people descend on a town usually home to 800.
The hiker parade draws a crowd, as well as some characters.
The truth of lost-and-found reaches beyond the trail. So many things we think are gone forever—friendship or love, professional and creative opportunities, the chance to nurture young life, possibilities for adventure—may in fact not be.
They might pop up again in a different form or at a different time. Maybe there were people you needed to meet in the meantime, experiences you needed to have, to ready you for the unexpected reunion.
Some losses can’t be recovered. But I believe they can be reimagined. In another book I just listened to, The Prodigal Summer, the character Nannie Rawley speaks of losing her only child. She consoles a new widow: “You learn to love the space someone leaves behind for you.”
This feels true.
3. Healing takes time, space, and good old-fashioned dirt
About 50 miles back, a sign read: “The next 500 feet around the trail are being restored. Please respect this section and give it space to recover.”
Don’t you wish at certain points you could wear such a sign?
Sometimes we need time and distance for new seed to take root. For our soil to be nourished and our souls to breathe.
Many of the people I’ve met out here have lost something big: a loved one, a relationship, a job. Some have gone through a significant illness. Many battle depression or anxiety.
A documentary filmmaker we met at Trail Days told us about the stories of thru-hikers he’s following. He described the known power of dirt and woods to effect positive change, both psychologically and physiologically.
We are creatures of the earth—“From dust you were made and to dust you shall return,” say the Hebrew Scriptures—and in the earth we find transformation.
Out here we have rhododendrons for wallpaper, logs for chairs, and pine needles for a mattress. We breathe the exhale of maples for oxygen and receive the spring rain for showers.
If there’s some kind of knot inside you that you can’t untangle, you could do worse than going outside.
When I left my apartment in New York, I craved a better morning wake-up call than the frantic zoom of cars. Now my alarm clock consists of sun through my tent and the melodies of birds.
And something clenched inside me lets go.
4. There’s no Insect Shield for the heart
One of the greatest health risks on the trail isn’t poisonous snakes or bears—it’s ticks. Specifically deer ticks that carry Lyme disease.
That’s why many of us treat our clothes with Permethrin or send them off to a company called Insect Shield. They do a longer-lasting treatment that survives six months of washes and lessens your chance of getting ticks.
Some people forgo the chemicals and take their chances. But getting Lyme can have grave consequences—especially if you don’t catch it early.
As I recently sat outside a hotel in Abingdon, VA, and retreated my clothes with Permethrin spray (you have to do it every six weeks), I thought, “If only there were an Insect Shield for the heart.”
Something that would repel red-flag relationships, unrequited love, and festering insecurity. Something that could prevent the diseases of bitterness and despair.
But what I know for sure is this: for all the transforming properties of nature, you are still you. You are still vulnerable to heartache and jealousy and confusion.
The human condition affords no Insect Shield to save us from hasty decisions and hurtful words, mixed signals and misunderstandings.
I don’t know what such a shield would even look like. But I do know that for me the rhythm of the trail provides this:
A way to keep walking. Even on the days I’m troubled or sad or regretful, there’s another white blaze to follow. That strip of paint that says, “Here is the path forward. Take the next step. There’s something waiting for you around the bend.”
5. Thru-hiking is about more than just you
When I announced to my church and family and friends that I was leaving to hike the AT, I braced myself for naysayers and doubters. The people who’d shake their heads and say, “midlife crisis.”
What I didn’t expect was the flood of support, encouragement, cards, funds, and best of all, people who said my choice inspired them to take a chance.
My friend Sarita wrote in a Facebook message: “By now I’m sure you realize you’re hiking for all of us.”
And I think I knew what she meant. Taking this journey gives others permission too. Permission to say, “Hey, what blessing have I been waiting around for? What do I wish I could do? What might be possible if I dared to say ‘yes’?”
Is thru-hiking selfish?
Isn’t it selfish, though, to take off six months from life and not work, not take care of family, not see your friends, and not help society?
Zach Davis, founder of thetrek.co, addressed this in his book Appalachian Trials. Here’s my paraphrase:
You’re spending five to six months in nature backpacking and camping and hiking and connecting with new people. Many report that this makes them more confident, capable, ecologically minded, and kind.
Those are qualities that will benefit the people and world around you when you return. Those are a gift to society.
I hope this will be true for me.
I hope you are right, Sarita. I pray that in ways I can’t yet understand, I am hiking for all of us.
Plus eight bonus lessons for eight weeks on trail!
😊 😊 😊 😊 😊
1. Take only enough for today
Here is something I have to keep learning over and over—just take what you need.
Like the manna provided to the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, we are given exactly enough for today. When the people in Exodus tried to store up the manna for the future, fearful that there wouldn’t be enough, the bread went bad.
And so it is for us If we try to take more than we need and hoard it, we pay for it in the form of heavy packs and bloated bellies.
Whenever I think, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have an extra day of food, or these extra first aid supplies, or this tiny can of dry shampoo,” I regret it.
Just enough for today. (Or until the next resupply.)
2. Embrace uni-tasking
In my normal life back in New York, I often attempt to do five things at once, in the name of being efficient.
Modern Americans proudly call this “multitasking.” But research shows that what we are actually accomplishing is far less than what we think we are accomplishing.
It turns out we may be doing a lot of things at once, but we aren’t doing any of them well. And what’s more, we fill our minds with distraction and our bodies with stress and cortisol.
One of the most freeing things about the trail is the gift of doing only one thing.
When I am putting up my tent, I can’t also be cooking dinner. When I am digging a hole for the bathroom, I cannot also be talking on my cell phone.
Every task demands my full attention, and many of these tasks are slow and methodical, no matter how many times I’ve done them.
When I find myself stressing to get more done at once and more done faster, a harsh voice inside barks commands.
That’s when I hear my friend Jenny’s words in my head: “Let’s just gentle this down.”
One thing. Only this.
3. Drink from the source
Here is the surprising thing: even though I am surrounded by natural beauty, I still need daily habits and practices to ground me.
If I go for weeks without a speck of journaling, meditation, or reading, my well starts to run dry. I can’t rely on the sheer fact of daily hiking to replenish my soul.
I need calls with friends and family, uplifting podcasts, and quiet moments to pray- to remind me of who I am and why I’m here.
I need to be reminded that there is more to me than my hunger or sore feet or woeful lagging behind the group.
One small thing that I have managed to remember most days is a short prayer from Father Michael Bird at Christ Church Bronxville.
I went to church there on my last Sunday before I left New York, and the season of Lent was just beginning. He suggested that instead of focusing on all the things we wanted to give up for Lent, we could take on this simple daily prayer:
“Dear God, thank you for this day. I am grateful to be alive. I love you, Lord. Thank you for loving me into these next 24 hours.” (My paraphrase.)
I especially love this: “the next 24 hours.” Here on the trail there is so little that we can plan for. There are constant variables of weather, health, the current trail group, and the changing terrain.
It is hard for me to get to a church most Sundays and I haven’t met very many people I can talk about faith with.
But having some tiny anchor of spiritual practice frees me from my default settings of insecurity, greed, comfort-seeking, and self-absorption.
I need to drink from the Source.
4. Comparison is the thief of joy
Just like life off the trail, there are a million ways to “compare and despair” while hiking the AT.
Daily I meet people who hike faster, pack smarter, recover quicker, and look lovelier than I do. People who are funnier, taller, younger, and in possession of radiant acne-free skin (how is this possible on a trail-food diet?).
But here is what I love about wildlife: every single iris, trout lily, and spring beauty stands with pride as it is. Not one newt, beetle, or carpenter bee bothers to compare himself. Every robin, woodpecker, and barred owl sings what it sings and eats what it eats and apologizes not for a second.
So here is me: 5’1″-ish, 5-ish pounds heavier since I started, skin like a second puberty, clutching the pew as my hiker knees struggle to kneel at church.
But I’m bored with comparison. There’s too much to see and learn and love and give to get stuck in the trap of self-loathing.
5. Never say never
Prior to the AT, here are some things I thought I’d never do:
Go five days without a shower.
Develop a fondness for Walmart and the Dollar General.
Share a hotel with people I met 12 hours ago.
Go to the bathroom in the woods with ease.
Hang my underwear to dry in public.
Eat as much as a high school football player.
Buy groceries at a gun shop (I am not making this up).
But now I’ve done them all and then some.
So never say never, y’all.
You might start talking in a Southern accent and loving that fried chicken and waffles.
Even better, you might make friends with people you’d never have met in so-called real life. People you might have quickly judged, or deemed too different from you to connect with.
Never say never.
6. Embrace the limitations-and the possibilities
As one of my friends out here said, “I’m always asking myself, ‘Is my gear wrong? Or am I just not very good at this?’ ” I laughed in solidarity.
The trail lets you know real quick: there are a bunch of things you suck at. And according to author Karen Rinaldi, that’s a good thing.
In her new book, It’s Great to Suck at Something: The Unexpected Joy of Wiping Out and What It Can Teach Us About Patience, Resilience, and the Stuff that Really Matters, Rinaldi says:
So here’s to not being good at everything. On the trail, you plan and hope and prepare and try, and sometimes things just take a detour.
That’s when you can ask, “So what’s possible now?”
7. Surrender expectations
One of the friends I hiked with shared this maxim:
“Expectations are the mother of disappointment.”
I am so grateful for the quantitative thinkers out here, because I am so not one of them. For those into personality sorters, I’m an ENFP and an Enneagram 7.
I would guess most out here are ISTJs and Enneagram 3s and 5s. In other words, the majority of hikers think in ounces and grams, calories and miles, goals and achievement. They observe, calculate, and meticulously count. I would literally still be in Georgia if not for them.
But I know that I bring something valuable too: the willingness to rest, readjust, get to know people, and change things up.
When friends have to visit the doctor for an injury, I don’t see it as a setback to accompany them—I see it as a welcome break to spend time with a friend, and enjoy conversation, writing time, and an iced coffee. I see it as a rare chance to feel useful to someone in need.
My biggest challenge so far on trail has nothing to do with the weather, gear, body, or terrain—it’s the ever-changing social dynamic. You think you have a set group and you form a little culture and language and history, and then poof—it changes. People get off trail or forge ahead or slow down. And then you make new friends and start again.
The fewer expectations I have in this realm, the more each new interaction becomes a gift.
8. There’s always the nature
And when all else fails, and you have no idea what lessons to learn on the trail—or in life—there’s always the nature.
That’s my motto out here when I’m tired or sad or frustrated or alone. I focus on what’s right in front of me. What do I see, smell, hear, taste, touch?
What’s now in bloom, that a day ago was just a bud? What is that bird sound that sounds like a shriek? What manner of honeysuckle is that? Why are there millions of worms falling on my head? (Come on, Southern Virginia).
Sometimes my head runs in circles and my heart spins a sticky web. I need these moment by moment five senses check-ins to bring me back to where my feet are.
There’s always the nature.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.