7 Harsh Realities of Thru-Hiking That Caught Me Off-Guard
Thru-hiking the AT isn’t all sunshine and roses. Like most prospective thru-hikers, I knew that going in. Nonetheless, I was still caught off-guard by many of the ridiculous, surprising, and oddly specific challenges I faced when I set foot on the trail for the first time. Because there are some things in life that you can’t truly understand until you’ve lived them.
Here are seven rude awakenings that took me by surprise when I started hiking the Appalachian Trail.
1. Wet wood is slippery.
Bog bridges are a fact of life on the Appalachian Trail. Most of them are simple constructions—picture a line of elevated 2x6s going across a wetland or a stretch of muddy trail. They’re lifesavers. Without this basic infrastructure, hikers would have to slog through mud or bushwhack around swampy areas all the time.
But be warned: when they get wet (which is often), they are slippery little bastards. Mold, mildew, decomposing leaf goo, etc. turn the boards into bona fide oil slicks when you add water to the equation.
I’ll never forget the first time I stomped my way onto a wet, greasy bog bridge during an early shakedown, so young and innocent and full of trust, only to go flying and fall on my butt immediately. I once skated clear across a bridge on one foot, arms pinwheeling like a cartoon character, and landed on my feet in knee-deep sludge. I once stood completely still on a wooden bridge and still felt my feet slowly sliding out from under me.
Now I know to approach wooden bridges with caution on the trails. Rather than charging ahead at full speed, I carefully inch my way across the boards with my trekking poles at the ready in case I slip.
2. There are creatures far more terrible out there than bears could ever be.
Like many newbies, I was stone-cold terrified of black bears when I started the AT. However, I quickly realized that bears are actually scaredy-cats who generally want as little to do with humans as possible.
But I’m here to tell you, folks: don’t let that knowledge make you complacent. There are other creatures afoot on the AT that are far more threatening than bears.
Don’t let their inch-high stature and adorable chubby cheeks fool you. The rodents of the Appalachian Trail are remorseless, savvy, and hell-bent on eating your food—even if they have to chew through the side of your $500 tent and run across your face to get to it.
Boars are fast, strong, and fearless. They travel in packs, and while they generally avoid humans, they can be very aggressive and are difficult to deter if they decide to charge you. Although not a common sight on the AT, I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that some still live along the trail in North Carolina and Tennessee. I’ve seen them while out hiking, so I can tell you that they are frighteningly speedy and somewhat alarming to look at. They’re also invasive and damaging to local ecosystems, so I don’t even feel bad about hating on them.
Sharp, poky, and mischievous, porcupines crave salt like no other. A porky chomped a bite out of the sweaty cork handle of my trekking pole in New Jersey. I also saw one slowly devouring the wooden walls of a privy in Pennsylvania.
Other hikers shared stories of having their shoelaces gnawed through by porcupines or having trail runners mysteriously disappear in the night. My dad has even reminisced about the time a porcupine chewed clean through both shoulder straps on his pack overnight on a remote trail. He used spare rope to replace the straps and suffered a very uncomfortable hike out.
Honorable Mention: Foxes
HOW many times did I wake up in the night thinking I was hearing a woman being murdered in the woods before realizing that the sound was actually just a fox having a sneeze attack? Foxes aren’t really dangerous, but that sound just about gave me a heart attack on more than one occasion.
Think it’s safe to sleep with your food because “black bears are scared of humans?” Think again. You should be respectful of bears, but don’t let them distract you from the real threats posed by other animals.
Even in supposed bear-free areas, you should store your food carefully to keep it safe from marauding squirrels, chippies, and mice.
At the same time, hang your trekking poles, shoes, pack—anything that might be sweaty and salty—from a low tree branch at night to keep the porcupines away. There are no porcupines south of Pennsylvania on the AT, but you should still hang your stuff to be on the safe side, as other animals crave salt too.
As for boars: Stay alert while hiking in North Carolina and Tennessee, especially at twilight, and keep your distance if you see any. Avoid contact with them or water sources where they’ve been active, as they can transmit diseases to humans. If a boar charges you, your best bet is to climb the nearest tree.
3. Dishwashing is not a thing on the AT.
Hikers don’t shower much. I get it. I always knew that, and I was ready to embrace the stink when I started thru-hiking. But not washing dishes? Ugh. I couldn’t wrap my head around that concept. I showed up on the AT armed with Dr. Bronner’s, ready to diligently finger-scrub potato smears and tuna juice out of my pot after each meal. And I assumed other thru-hikers were doing the same.
After a few weeks, I finally realized that that wasn’t the case at all. Most thru-hikers were either cooking everything in a bag, wiping their pots with a square of TP that later went into their trash, swilling water in their pots and drinking it (complete with food chunks), or not washing at all. I remember watching in horror one morning as another hiker swirled his morning coffee around with pale blobs of mashed potato from the previous night’s dinner floating in the brew.
It took me a while to get on board the no-dishwashing train. It was pretty disgusting to me at first. But eventually, I had to acknowledge that dumping soapy food water onto the forest floor wasn’t very Leave No Trace. Also, washing my cook pot was by far my least-favorite camp chore, especially on chilly days. I know that sounds weird because most people think finger-scrubbing food chunks off the sides of their metal pot with cold water is a really fun way to spend time. What can I say? I’m an odd duck.
Save proper dishwashing for town. If you cook in a pot, either rinse it with clean water and drink it down or use a very minimal amount of TP to wipe it out. Nature (and your hands) will thank you.
4. Solar panels are useless in the green tunnel.
I got a mini backpacking solar panel for Christmas before starting the AT, and I was pretty tickled by the idea of having unlimited charging capacity during my thru. I strapped it to my pack for my next shakedown and set out excitedly. Even in the dead of winter, when the trees were bare, I didn’t get much charge off of it. I was also the laughingstock of the trail when I had it out.
Unfortunately, I soon realized that solar panels aren’t that useful to thru-hikers. There’s too much tree cover for them to work correctly on the AT. Anyway, they’re heavier than rechargeable battery banks, which have plenty of capacity to get the average hiker between towns.
Even PCT and CDT thru-hikers, who get enough sunlight to power solar panels, typically opt for battery banks to save on weight and bulk.
Just stick with an Anker battery bank.
5. Hanging your bear bag is a risky business.
To hang a bear bag, you first have to tie one end of your rope to a rock or similar heavy object, then toss it over a suitable tree branch. For something so simple, it’s an unexpectedly fraught process.
I nearly poked my eye out on a low branch once while wandering around a hemlock forest in search of a suitable limb for my food bag.
Another time, I threw the line successfully and was hauling my food up when the branch snapped. I dodged out of the way, but it still caught my arm as it fell (minor scrapes only, thankfully).
And once, I threw the rock hard while accidentally standing on part of the rope. The bag came whipping back at my head, and I only just dodged it. According to a friend of mine who’s trained in wilderness medicine, head injuries related to bear bagging are a common complaint in the backcountry. I can only imagine how much it hurts to get brained by a hard-thrown bag-o-rocks. You could probably also hurt your back pretty badly while throwing the line.
BE CAREFUL when hanging your bear bag. Don’t stand directly underneath the branch you’re using in case it breaks, and make sure you’re not standing on the line. Be ready to dodge at a moment’s notice. And although I’m a huge advocate of always hanging your food correctly (see #2), if all the trees in the vicinity are crappy, know when to throw in the towel (you should still get it up off the ground and away from your tent, even if you can’t do it perfectly).
6. Everything is wet all the time.
Having lived in Virginia for years before starting the AT, I knew full well that frequent rain and high humidity were inevitable during my thru-hike. I’d read a lot about how trail runners would dry much faster than boots and that you could walk them dry in just a few hours. I’d read about hikers sleeping with wet gear and waking up with it nice and dry in the morning. Many people also talked about taking breaks in the afternoon to let their damp gear dry in the sun.
Armed with all this theoretical knowledge, I thought I had a plan that would allow me to enjoy dry clothing, shoes, and gear at least part of the day. But I was so very, very wrong.
My trail runners typically took days, rather than hours, to dry out—particularly in the height of summer, when the humidity was like a physical presence on the trail. Same with my clothing. It was often so drenched I didn’t want it anywhere near me or my sleeping bag at night.
Often, I would wear my wet clothes around camp for a few hours until my body heat mostly dried them out. But when I woke up in the morning, my carefully dried hiking clothes would be wet again! I eventually surmised that the salt from my dried sweat was sucking moisture back into the fabric overnight.
As for drying wet gear during the day, it can take quite a while for a wet tent to dry, even in full, direct sunlight, when you’re in such a humid environment. Besides, you can sometimes go days without encountering an open, sunny place where you can dry your stuff effectively.
Wearing your clothes dry kind of works if you then take steps to keep them dry overnight (store in a waterproof bag or inside sleeping bag footbox). You can also speed the drying time of your shoes by pulling the insoles out overnight.
But overall, the bottom line is that you’re going to be clammy. A lot. It’s just part of the lifestyle and makes the experience of an occasional hot shower in town all the more heavenly. Best to just accept it.
7. Rocks and roots. EVERYWHERE.
Yeah, yeah, I know. What else is new? I’m just saying there’s a difference between knowing and knowing. I’d done a bit of hiking on the AT before attempting an entire thru-hike, and I thought I got it. “Yes, there are rocks and roots,” I told myself. “But they’re just not that bad!” I didn’t get why thru-hikers complained about them so much. All trails have some rocks and roots. What’s the big deal?
Well, anything is a big deal when you encounter 2,200 unrelenting miles’ worth of it. After a few hundred footsore miles of ground-pounding, the same “not that bad” stretches of trail I’d previously hiked on shakedowns suddenly seemed horrendously rocky and treacherous.
As we hobbled through Painsylvania, my partner assured me that the rocks would abate when we reached Delaware Water Gap. He had backpacked there just months before starting the AT and distinctly remembered the rocks being mild and untroublesome.
When we got there, we found it just as rocky and terrible as the last 100 miles had been. When he hiked there before, his feet hadn’t yet suffered the cumulative effect of 1,000+ miles, and his perspective was different.
It’s all relative. Just because you’ve hiked some sections of the AT before and think you have a handle on how hard they are, take your memories with a grain of salt. Your experience as a thru-hiker will likely be different.
The same thing goes for data given to you by day hikers and weekend warriors. Their information is still worthwhile, but their perspective is likely very different from yours. (Also, day hikers often assume that all thru-hikers are super fit and strong and that pain means nothing to them, so they might think things are easy for you that aren’t).
Everyone knows thru-hiking is hard. Conquering mountains and all that—it’s tough stuff. But although some of the broader challenges of the backcountry are obvious even to the casual observer, it’s often the little things you didn’t see coming that end up getting to you. My best advice is to take it in stride as best you can. Make peace with minor irritants and learn to laugh them off, or else they’ll wear you down over time.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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