Six Things I Learned at the Appalachian Trail Kick-Off

With the start date of my AT thru-hike quickly approaching, I’ve been dividing most of my free time between pacing around my apartment and meticulously weighing my gear like a chemistry student performing his final lab practical.

Last weekend, however, I thought a better alternative might be to take the short drive from Atlanta to Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge to attend the Appalachian Trail Kick-Off.


The expo floor provided an opportunity to gather both gear and information.

The ATKO is held at the park every year in early March. It is a three-day event that provides an opportunity for presenters, vendors, and hikers to get together and celebrate all things AT as the thru-hiking season gets underway.

I ended up having an amazing experience where I learned a lot about thru-hiking and the Appalachian Trail in general. Here are six key things that I took away from the event.

1. LNT is Extremely Important


Even Bigfoot is down with LNT.

If I had to pick one common thread running between all of the weekend’s presentations it would be the importance of Leave No Trace.  With an ever-increasing number of people on the trail each year, it is vital that everyone do their part to minimize their impact.

Learning and practicing the principles of Leave No Trace not only helps the trail, it protects you, fellow hikers, and wildlife.

2. Technology is Changing the Way We Hike

Dehydrating Presentation

It was a weekend of informative presentations, including a great dehydrating class taught by Judy Gross.

While opinions about technology use on the trail ranged from acceptance to loathing, one thing that everyone seemed to agree on is that technology is impacting the way we hike. Guide apps, social media, and the ability to “connect” at almost any point in the journey has made the thru-hiking experience much different than it was in the past.

Also, with the rise in popularity of vlogging and blogging, people are documenting their thru-hikes more than ever. As Miss Janet pointed out in her presentation, many times this representation doesn’t match reality. In any case, when people do choose to use technology on the trail, it should be done in a respectful way that does not intrude on someone else’s experience.

3. Volunteers Are the Soul of the Trail

“Tent City,” located just outside the visitors center, was a great place to test out gear and meet other hikers.

It was interesting to learn about the unique relationship between the government and trail clubs that oversee the health of trail. The AT is one of the best maintained trails on the planet thanks in large part to club volunteers that devote countless hours to its upkeep. 

It’s incredible to think that this 2,000-mile stretch of trail is maintained mainly by people who are devoting their personal time to its care. The next time I see a volunteer on the trail, the least I can do is say “thank you.”

4. You Can Learn a Lot From Your Elders

One of the highlights of the weekend for me was getting a chance to hear from veteran hikers like Mic Lowther. In 1973, he decided to thru-hike the AT with his wife and 10-year-old daughter. With a 60-pound pack and hardly any of the amenities that we know today, Mic and his family made the journey all the way from Springer to Katahdin.

Mic’s story was a good reminder that while gear and technology are constantly improving, it really comes down to one’s drive and resourcefulness to complete a successful thru-hike.

5. Hiking the AT is a Privilege

Amicalola Falls

Taking the stairs from Tent City to the lodge each morning was an invigorating way to start the day.

Opening speaker Matthew “Odie” Norman reminded the crowd that “you are royalty,” meaning it is a unique privilege and honor to be a hiker of the Appalachian Trail.

It’s easy to forget that there are some people that will simply never have the time, funds, or capability to attempt at thru-hike. Others spend years dreaming about setting just a foot on the AT, something I do regularly without a second thought.

As one presenter remarked, every minute spent on the AT is a gift. I will definitely try to keep that in mind when I’m out on the trail.

6. The Bonds in the Thru-Hiking Community are Strong

campfire at the Appalachian Trail Kick Off

There were plenty of trail tales and laughs around the campfire.

Standing around the campfire on Saturday night, it was easy to see how the trail forms strong connections between people.  Hikers who have trekked thousands of miles rubbed shoulders with fresh faces like my own. I heard tales from the trail that made me laugh to the point of tears, and stories of tragedy that made my eyes misty for a much different reason.   

Toward the end of the evening, the crowd cheered on a brother and sister duo from Portland (aka “The Twins”) who were setting out for Springer in the morning. They were the just newest members in a royal line about to embark on the journey of a lifetime.

I’m glad I decided to forgo weighing out my sleep system for the 22nd time to attend the Appalachian Trail Kick-Off. I met some incredible people and picked up a few tips that are sure to help me out on my thru-hike.

It’s almost hard to fathom but the next time I climb the stairs at Amicalola, I will become royalty.

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Comments 7

  • Camilla Krag Jensen : Mar 6th

    I would have loved to go to the ATKO, but I’m too far away, so thank you so much for writing this Brian! Such good takeaways.

    • Brian Kavanagh : Mar 6th

      Thanks, Camilla!

  • Robert : Mar 7th

    Good Luck Brian! Is your plan to blog while on your journey?

    • Brian Kavanagh : Mar 7th

      Thanks, Robert! I definitely plan to keep blogging with updates from the trail!

  • Pony : Mar 15th

    Volunteers – yes!

    I wish every AT hiker would consider offering even just one day of volunteer service, on the AT through one of the maintaining clubs or the ATC if possible, but if not, then for a trail closer to their home base.

    I worked on ATC’s incredible Konnarock trail crew for two seasons after my ’16 thru-hike and the experience was so rewarding. Almost like a distilled version of my hike, hanging with people from all different backgrounds in the woods, bonding over a tough but worthwhile venture…. really so worth it.

    ~Pony (CT’15; AT’16; Foothills Trail, Alabama Pinhoti Trail’18)

  • Peggy Larson : Mar 2nd

    My husband and I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1977. It took 4.5 months. It was the most fun time of our busy lives. We were both busy large animal veterinarians so hiking the AT was both an adventure and a vacation.


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