9 of My Biggest Appalachian Trail Regrets

I absolutely loved my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. It was a challenging, rewarding, and above all fun experience that I feel very lucky to have had. But like with any major undertaking, there are some things I wish I’d done differently. With the benefit of hindsight, I made a list of my trail regrets, so hopefully, you’ll be better equipped for your hike and not make the same mistakes I did.

Top AT Regrets: Gear

1. Hiking 860 Miles with the Wrong Pack

Taking my pack on her very first plane ride (Hot Tip: on some flights, buying a seat for your pack is cheaper than paying for checked luggage. Wild.)

I started out with a Gregory pack that was just not the right fit for me. The AT was my first backpacking trip, so I didn’t really know what to expect from a pack. I’d worn it on gear shakedowns and it felt fine, but after doing my first 15-miler on trail, I felt a strain in my neck and shoulders and worried about carrying it all the way to Katahdin. I convinced myself that any pack becomes uncomfortable over time and aches and pains were just par for the course. That was my big mistake.

Of course, you can expect some level of discomfort when you’re carrying a 35-pound pack for six months, but it shouldn’t actively cause you pain. Rather than pausing at the first outfitter and checking out other pack options, I tried muscling through and relied on Tylenol and Icy Hot to keep from crying when I took my pack on and off.

I finally reached my limit when a strap broke outside of  Waynesboro, VA, and I bought a new pack to replace my Gregory. After a week with my new pack, I realized that I could even forget I was wearing it when hiking and that I no longer needed my first aid routine. I wish that I had accepted that my pack just wasn’t right for me in the beginning rather than torturing myself and believing that all packs hurt. Choosing the wrong gear happens, but the best thing you can do in that scenario is to listen to your body and accept when something just isn’t working.

2. Ordering Freeze-Dried Meals in Bulk

So many left over, it’s ridiculous.

I was super nervous about resupplies before stepping on trail. I’m a vegetarian and I wasn’t sure how easily I’d be able to find food in trail towns. So before heading out, I bulked up on freeze-dried meals for my parents to send me along the trail. But resupplying ended up being super easy as a vegetarian (I can’t begin to tell you how much peanut butter I ate though) and the resupply boxes just turned into a logistical hassle.

It was more convenient and made the most sense to resupply in town, so I basically wasted a lot of money buying those freeze-dried meals and subsequently bailing on them. I’ll still use them for future trips (I mean they last for years), but I wish I had waited to see, or listened to past hikers, about whether resupply boxes make sense. If  I had, I would never have bothered with the bulk meals.

RELATED: Where to send Mail Drops on the Appalachian Trail

3. Adding Last Minute Gear

A few days before flying to Georgia, I checked the upcoming weather and panicked. I saw that temperatures were going to drop into the 20s and below at night, and I worried that I wouldn’t be warm enough with the gear I had packed. In a frenzy, I added a vest, a hat, an emergency blanket, and extra pairs of socks to my pack.

I wore the vest maybe once on trail, same with the hat, and never got around to using the emergency blanket or extra socks. I was perfectly comfortable and warm with the clothes I had tested out and packed, but I added all that unnecessary weight out of sheer panic. I sent them home at the first post office I passed and learned quickly to trust my prep and packing list rather than throwing last-minute things in my pack when I’m already in stress mode.

4. Switching to Altras

Peer pressure 101: don’t buy something just because everyone else has it. But, alas, there I was, in Damascus, VA, desperate for new shoes and the only ones at the outfitter in my size were Altras (remember those supply chain issues over the summer? That was fun).

I’d heard so many hikers tell me how much they loved their Altras, so I made the big switch from my stiff and supportive Oboz hiking shoes to a zero drop trail runner. Terrible, terrible idea. Midway through the first day in my Altras, my feet were on fire and I had to switch back (thankfully I had decided to hold onto my Oboz just in case). But that left me with over one hundred dollars gone and the extra weight of unwearable shoes hanging off my pack. I felt foolish and embarrassed, believing I could switch to a zero drop shoe just because everyone seemed to be into them.

So please, be better than me and don’t give in to gear pressure. I mean, you wouldn’t change from a tent to a hammock midway through trail just people are raving about them, would you? No, so be consistent with your shoes as well, and don’t make any drastic decisions when it’s time for a new pair. (Eventually, I did switch to trail runners, but they were Hoka SpeedGoats, not a minimalist zero-drop because that does not work for my sensitive little feet.)

Top AT Regrets: Expectations

5. Thinking I Needed to Treat the Trail like a Job

You learn pretty quickly on trail that you need to leave some wiggle room in your schedule and expectations for the day. You need to be flexible to allow for days when the weather is shitty or your body is aching and you can’t do the miles you were expecting to. It’s totally fine to stop early on a day when you’re not feeling it, but I didn’t get that at first.

I was so used to the office mindset where you clock in at a certain hour, keep your nose to the grindstone, and do what you came in to do. I would get so mad and down on myself when I stopped early because I framed it as failing at my task and not getting my job done properly. I even pretty much kept to a 9 to 5 schedule, panicking for zero reason if I got into camp any later.

Once I freed myself of those expectations and even stopped planning where I would camp every night, I enjoyed myself way more. I started living in the moment and changing my plans on a whim without any guilt when I felt tired or met cool people I wanted to hang out with. The only caveat, and a big one at that, is that you need to be sure that you can still make it to your next resupply before your food runs out, or you’ll regret stopping early for an entirely different reason.

6. My Soloist Mindset

Everything’s better with tramilies.

The trail provides whatever experience you want from it, and at first, I went in with the mindset that this was an athletic challenge that I would tackle on my own like I do with my running. But because I had such a narrow focus, I ignored the fun community aspects of trail. I didn’t socialize at night, I hated stopping to eat lunch with other hikers, and I was unwilling to change my hiking schedule to make room for a tramily.

Eventually, I calmed down and started having fun, but I think I missed out on a lot of the early stages of the trail when everyone is excited to meet new people, make mistakes, and explore the strangeness of the trail together. I found myself in the Smokies hiking between tramilies and wondering why I wasn’t in one. That was when I realized it was because I was too focused on getting my miles done and hiking on my own timetable to make any real connections.

And of course, there’s an element of Hike Your Own Hike and following what’s best for you, but I took that too seriously—to the point where it clouded any fun or social opportunities because I only focused on myself and my schedule. Eventually, I met great friends and joined a tramily, but I do regret that it took me so long and that I was shut off to friendships at first.

7. Expecting to Lose Weight

Hike Naked Day looks different for a lot hikers. This was the most I was willing to do, but it was a big step for my self-conscious little brain!

Before hiking the AT, I had a very clear image of what a thru-hiker looked like and I wanted to meet that expectation so badly. I thought being a thru-hiker meant, yes, hiking 2200 miles, but also getting super skinny along the way. But everyone’s body is different. While a ton of people do lose weight on trail, many stay the same weight or even gain a bit. I was one of the hikers who stayed the same weight, but rather than feeling good about how well my body was adapting to the trail, I felt disappointed. I worried that I didn’t look like a thru-hiker and that people wouldn’t take me seriously as one.

I remember looking at the above photo and feeling embarrassed of my stomach rather than getting hyped about reaching 1000 miles. I was so consumed by the idea that I was doing something wrong since I wasn’t losing any weight, and my body-shaming overshadowed my feeling of accomplishment. I started thinking that maybe I should count calories to try to lose weight, but then I came to terms with how focusing on weight loss and trying to restrict calories would stand in the way of my more valuable goal: making it to Katahdin. So I poured all my attention into just completing the trail, framing food as fuel to keep me going instead of worrying how it would affect my weight.

Granted, this is an issue that bothers me off trail as well as on, but I wish I had never thought of trail as a weight-loss guarantee. It isn’t for everyone, and besides, the trail has so much more to offer than just the possibility of changing a number on the scale. Over the course of my hike, I learned to be more accepting of my body the way it is and marvel at how far it’s taken me. The thru-hiker community spends a lot of time talking about food, calories, and weight loss, but I wish I’d just ignored it from the start and never gotten in my mind what it means to look like a thru-hiker because we come in all shapes and sizes.

8. Missing Sunrises and Sunsets

But imagine how incredible this picture would be with a sunrise.

One thing I valued above all else on trail was my sleep. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have finished the trail without my regular 8-hour nights, but I did choose sleep over experiences that I’m now wishing I’d had. I never woke up to do a sunrise hike or stayed on a peak to watch a sunset. I was too focused on sleeping the full night and not getting into camp too late.

I wish I’d gotten up early to watch the sunrise from Clingmans Dome or eaten dinner on a peak in The Whites as the sun set around me.

Top AT Regrets: Towns

Front Royal

I would just like to give a quick shoutout to the lovely town of Front Royal. It’s a bummer that it’s right between Shenandoah and Harpers Ferry because it gets way overlooked and you’re anxious to just scoot along and get out of Virginia. But it was a super cute and fun town with great food and activities. I stopped in for a night and had one of my favorite on-trail meals, and I wish I’d stayed the next day as well to keep exploring the town.

What have we learned?

Take advantage of every opportunity you get, because eventually trail will end and you’ll wish you’d said yes more often. But on the plus side, I guess I have my excuse to revisit the AT!

Related:

Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).

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Comments 16

  • pearwood : Feb 8th

    Sarah,
    Thank you! This is all stuff that I know but easily forget. I had to bail out after the approach trail broke me, but I plan to be back with a much lighter pack!
    Blessings,
    Steve
    https://thetrek.co/appalachian-trail/time-to-bail-rethink-and-replan-and-maybe-restart/

    Reply
  • Hannah : Feb 8th

    This is such a thoughtful, vulnerable post, thank you for sharing it! I really related to the issues you talked about in regards to weight and eating. It can be really tough. I have an article posted on The Trek dedicated to that topic (How I found Food Freedom on the AT), and I would love to know if you resonate with it at all because it seems we might have faced similar battles <3

    Reply
  • thetentman : Feb 8th

    Great article. ‘Gear’ pressure, LOL Still laughing over that.

    Thx.

    Reply
  • Clay : Feb 9th

    I enjoyed reading about your hike. I also hiked the trail in 97 and had a similar experience with gear, missing sunsets, and nose to the grind mentality. This a good reminder to take advantage of all the wonder. Hope to see you on the trail. You sound like one of the good ones.

    Clay

    Reply
  • Trey : Feb 9th

    Thanks for writing this. I enjoyed your article. 🙂

    Reply
  • Sage : Feb 9th

    My regret was not having a reliable hiking partner. She did not give one $&^% I was slowly injuring my knees and keep pressuring me to hike more mile on sore knees. Never caring about us a team, and only about herself. I finally ejected her and moved on with my hike.

    Reply
  • Jay : Feb 9th

    Hike that long, they must have plenty of money to wonder around for that long with no income. Must be nice.

    Reply
    • Jeanne : Feb 26th

      Greetings,
      I’d like to help you understand how it is possible to hike such a long time without earning income.
      I can only speak for myself. I plan to begin my AT hike this April 2022 and I am in my sixties. I have been saving for over ten years in order to be able to finance my hike. I’ve wanted to hike the AT since I was 12 years old.

      Reply
  • Brian Worthley : Feb 10th

    Very interesting and well put thanks for sharing. In April I started in GA. And made it to the GA/NC border. That was the goal for me. Found out from other’s, car rentals one way weren’t available in the area or forward on trail, from SoBo coming South.

    Vacation in Maine in July for the month in the town of Rangeley. Did a little of the trail between Rt 4 and Rt 27. Great experience both section hikes. I’m based in Wilmington NC.

    Looking forward to more section hikes on the AT and enjoy reading post from other’s. All the best Brian, Stay safe and healthy!! 🤓🇺🇸

    Reply
    • JW Soares Jones : Apr 3rd

      The key thing is: hiking outside. Everything else: details of magnitude. Have fun, learn and meet people and our planet.

      Reply
  • WD : Feb 10th

    No need for regrets. It’s just a little education for your next adventure!!

    I think I recall seeing you somewhere last year… and recognize some of your hiker-friends in the above pics, but it was well up in the 1500-2000 mile range 🙂

    On those freeze dried meals… Good To Go has recipes on their site with using them as regular meals, just by adding some extra veggies, etc. I’ve tried a couple and they taste pretty good. You should check that out.

    WD

    Reply
  • Don King / SOBO 2005 : Feb 11th

    FYI – Altra shoes do require a transition period, someone at the outfitter should have explained that to you. Altra used to include a “guide” explaining how to transition, they do show this process on the website:

    After my first run in Altra shoes, I got sore in places that I don’t with normal shoes. Why is this happening?

    Because your shoes have Balanced Cushioning. This means that your shoes are completely even from heel to forefoot to place your feet in a more natural position. This allows you to use your lower calf and foot muscles more dynamically than they are used to and could be the reason for the soreness. It isn’t a bad thing; your muscles are ultimately getting stronger and will adapt after a few runs.

    I’ve heard about a transition. How long will it take me to get used to Balanced Cushioning?

    Transitioning to Altra shoes is easy and will depend mostly on the cushion level you purchase. The more cushioning, the shorter the transition period. We recommend you wear your Altra shoes on easy efforts for week 1, moderate efforts on week 2, and go to long or hard efforts on week 3 unless you feel more adaptation time is needed.

    So it wasn’t the fault of the Altra shoe, it was a poor job of the outfitter letting you know that going from a heel lift shoe into Altra would be a bad idea if you didn’t allow yourself time to transition and let you Achilles, Soleus, and Calves time to adjust and build strength.

    Reply
    • Janice : Mar 2nd

      I agree. Altras are the only shoes I’ll wear now. It also depends on which style you bought. There are some Altras without much cushion. The Olympus 4’s are my favorite so far.

      Reply
  • Bob : Feb 12th

    Great hot wash and hope future hikers read your post. Congratulations and now your 9 reasons for thru #2!

    Reply
  • Nat Lambeth : Feb 14th

    I started hiking the AT in 1971. Nixon was still president. My first back pack was a Boyscout canvas pack with a homemade birtch frame. I replaced it with a Kelty Tioga that I still have. I carried a Coleman lantern. A stone crock full of butter. I carried a heavy tarp. I quickly learned to travel lighter. It took about 3-4 days to get my body aclemented to hiking life. I learned to stay on the AT and not take side trails. I learned to always top off my water. I learned to shop and cashe food ahead. I learned to be self relient and to pace myself. It was one of the greatest adventures I ever had.

    Reply
  • Edward J Hulme Jr : Mar 28th

    Interesting article . Good lessons learned . Taking time to smell the roses so to speak would be more enjoyable to me personally. Being an independent type I usually do what I want and do not let others unduly influence me . Hiking your own hike yes . But not to the point of unresonable scheduals . It should be enjoyable yes ? My thoughts.

    Reply

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