8 Tips for Future AT Thru Hikers – Going Beyond Gear
It’s hard to believe that five months have passed since I finished the Appalachian Trail. I reached the summit of Mount Katahdin on September 27, 2022 on a cold and cloudy day.
It seems like it was yesterday. Today, I am on the brink of my one year anniversary since I left for Georgia in March and embarked on a life-changing journey. This past year vanished, leaving an enormous mark on my life—a mark that propelled me into pivoting in a whole new direction.
It took me exactly 190 days to hike from Georgia to Maine—just about six months. The magnitude of those six months is hard to describe and I am still wrapping my brain around all that transpired. People often ask me how it was out there, but it seems unjust to adequately summarize the totality of it all into a brief elevator speech. It was amazing. It was hard. It was fun. It was joyful and miserable all at once. It was the best thing I’ve ever done, and yet it was the worst. Where do I even start to describe this journey?
Three days ago, I sat at the Orlando airport staring blankly at the polished floors of Terminal B. How did I end up so close to where I started, yet now, I was so far from where I was just a year ago? I couldn’t find the right words to express all that I felt and experienced in the months leading up to this moment, and to dive into all the complex emotions of hiking the Appalachian Trail is overwhelming. Five months later, I am still processing the experience of hiking 2,194 miles. Yet, I want to share my experience with the new class of the Appalachian Trail thru hikers, particularly the things I wish I knew before I left for the trail myself that almost nobody talks about.
My upcoming flight was taking me to Colorado, to my new home state. I settled in Boulder one month after I finished the trail, a place I fantasized about for two years prior but couldn’t figure out how to make it a reality in my normal life.
All the aspects of my modern day life were firmly holding me locked in place. I was sailing on a predictable trajectory that I charted for myself 15 years prior. I was a married, career-driven homeowner, with a tight circle of friends and family, all within a 50-mile radius. I was approaching 40 and didn’t have enough agency over my life to make the life-altering changes I felt were desperately needed. The Appalachian Trail became my launchpad. It created a gap and offered the distance to relaunch my life in a new direction.
Everyone told me that the trail would change me. I didn’t believe them at the time. How could I possibly change? I was just thrilled for the adventure—more anxious about potential creeps and possible injuries than I was about the greater significance of a long-distance hike. That’s the trick with preparing for such a big adventure, you don’t know how it’s going to change you, until you get to the end.
What To Do After Katahdin?
Few hikers think about the return plan—a plan to integrate back into society and back into “normal” life. It is liberating not to worry about the future beyond the trail. After all, I didn’t know what I would be like when I got to the end. My desires, values, hopes, and dreams might all look a little different, so how could I possibly plan for what’s next? To some extent, it even seemed wasteful to think that far out, knowing that some aspects of me would change forever.
Even the idea of getting to the end seemed insurmountable at the beginning. The thought of figuring out a plan for life after the trail felt a bit out of grasp. I could only worry about one thing at a time, and planning for what’s next before I even started seemed like omen of bad luck. I wasn’t even sure if I had packed the right stove or had a warm enough sleeping bag in my pack.
Standing at Amicalola Falls under the historic Appalachian Trail archway, the summit of Mount Katahdin seemed like an impossible distance away.
Was I really going to walk that far? Like me, almost every hiker was focused on just getting to Maine in one piece. Even during the last few days on the trail, when you know you’re going to make it, it’s hard to focus on what lies beyond the trail. The idea of returning home is just too much for a tired, hungry, and mostly depleted mind and body to process. It’s hard to think beyond what’s just in front of you on the trail, let alone plan for your future when you’re worried about staying hydrated, fed, dry, and warm enough to make it through the day.
1) To Pivot, or Not To Pivot
Not to overgeneralize everyone, but almost everyone who leaves for the trail, leaves with some notion of coming back to a different life—a better life, a life that is more aligned with values and dreams, a life that looks a bit different than the one left behind. In some ways the Appalachian Trail is a transitional gateway—a pivoting moment to turn life in a new direction.
Yet, the opposite of coming back to a different life is true for most of us. Since we spent most of our time planning the hike itself, there was almost no room left for planning for what happens after the hike. Thus, we returned to the same households, jobs, partners, and the same four walls of reality we left behind. The juxtaposition of hiking 2200 miles and the ordinary life we return to is so drastic that most people, like me, feel a sense of emptiness and fall into post-trail depression.
Each day on the trail is filled with at least fifty new experiences, from sleeping at a new campsite each night, hiking new terrain, meeting new people, to exploring all the small towns along the way. However, when coming home, we return to our old routines and habits—where nothing is novel and everything is predictable. While it is a luxury to sleep in your own bed and have a hot shower at any point, those few comforts don’t quite make up for the excitement of each day on the trail.
Thus, keeping your mind and body engaged in new ways when returning back home will fight off the post-trail blues.
2) Home Before You Know It, Plan Ahead
If you’re attempting to thru hike this year, I urge you to think about and plan for your return, before you leave. For me, the six months on the trail flew by lightning fast, and I landed back in Orlando way faster than I thought I ever would.
Each day on the trail I only thought about the present, because I could only focus on what was right in front of me, i.e. where I was getting water next, when I was stopping for a snack break, where I was going to sleep, or how I was going to get into town to resupply. There was no time left to think about my future while I hiked.
Did you quit your job? Talk to your boss about returning now, even if it isn’t something you want to come back to right away. Having financial stability upon returning will ease many worries and pressures, allowing you to better focus on what’s next.
Don’t forget to call your supervisor from the trail when you are halfway to Maine to check in, and let them know you’re still interested in returning.
After I returned from the trail, I dove hard into running. I pre-registered for an Ultra Marathon, my first 50k race, before I left for the trail, with an assumption that my body was going to be conditioned to take on the mileage. By the end of the Appalachian Trail, I could easily slack-pack a 25-mile day, so what’s five more miles without my pack? All I had to do was keep up the miles when I returned to stay in shape for the race, which was only five weeks after I summited Mount Katahdin.
Even though I mostly ran for less than an hour each day to train, that hour of physical activity gave my mind a new goal and supplied my body with the endorphins I needed but was now missing from hiking 6-10 hours each day.
5) Don’t Stagnate, Reset
Chances are you’re leaving your life to hike as a way to make some changes in your life. Great! However, keep in mind that your old habits will pull you right back into the same routines you left behind. If you want to make changes, do it quickly when you return. Change your scenery: change your job, move to a different state, or just rent a new apartment. It took me all of two weeks to realize that I no longer fit in Florida. The mountains were pulling at my soul and I knew I had to move. I rented an AirBnB in Boulder, packed my car with all that would fit, and drove three days to the mountains. It was the best decision I made after the trail.
The change of scenery and meeting new people in Colorado reminded me of life on the trail. There is so much new terrain to explore and so many new like-minded people to meet, it is exciting and fun. If it seems scary to just get up and move across the country, I can tell you that you’ve already done the hard part—you committed to hiking a long distance trail. That’s way scarier. Nothing seems that frightening after hiking. The uncomfortable unknowns are the experiences that help you grow. The less comfortable you feel, the more you’re growing.
My tramily is still in almost daily contact. We established a group text where we openly share life updates, fun memories from our hike, and upkeep general banter. Your tramily will become your closest friends and your sounding board for all things post trail. We might be scattered across the country now, but getting a random ping on my phone brings little moments of joy to my day. Don’t lose touch with those you spent so much time hiking with.
A few additional things to think about…If you’re selling your possessions now, you’ll come back to an empty place. What will you do with an empty place? Sketch out a loose plan now, don’t wait until you come back to an empty house to “deal with it.”
If you’re selling your house, who will you live with when you return? Returning to live with your parents, even if for a brief stint, will feel like you’re going backwards. After all, you just completed a journey of a lifetime that only a select few will get to experience, and now you’re back in your parent’s basement. It’s a tall glass of water to swallow.
8) How To Hike 2200 Miles?
How do you boil an ocean?
It was often hard to see the forest through the trees, literally. Yet in hindsight, my tramily’s motto, Hike North, Don’t Die, kept me inching forward through the thick of it. The simplicity of those words was a daily reminder to never let the small things like wet feet, cold mornings, blisters, Norovirus, or even Lyme disease, get in the way of getting to Maine. As long as we didn’t die, we were going to make it. And, we did. I did. I made it every step of the arduous journey. And, every member of my 12-person tramily summited Mount Katahdin.
We all returned home. We all resumed the lives we left behind. It took some of us months to set a new trajectory after the hike, while others are still figuring it out. Whatever the case, the trail is a window of opportunity. What will you do with that chance to make changes in your life?
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