9 Unexpected Benefits of Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

I went into my Appalachian Trail thru-hike with few expectations other than the hope for a great adventure and a vague idea about “growing as a person” over the course of the trek. I’ve always loved hiking and struggled with anxiety and self-esteem issues. I was certain a long, grueling adventure on the AT was just what I needed.

It was.

Hiking the AT taught me more about myself than I ever anticipated. I think I’m a better person now because of it. The experience also drove home healthy everyday habits that continue to pay me dividends both on and off the trail.

The trail helped me in many ways I had expected (self-confidence, physical fitness, etc.), but many of the long-term perks caught me by surprise. Here are nine unexpected benefits of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

9 Unexpected Benefits of Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

1. I sleep better.

A good night’s sleep is priceless. Photo by Jody Frank Evans via Clay Bonnyman Evans.

I experienced consistent, sound sleep for the first time in my life on the Appalachian Trail.

Before the AT I was a walking dumpster fire of sleep deprivation and nightmares. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep at all. At other times I felt so tired that I could hardly do anything but sleep, to the exclusion of my work, social life, and chores.

Everything changed when I started my thru-hike. Suddenly I was able to sleep soundly throughout the night, every night, sans-nightmares. I also gained the ability to nap during the day, something I’d previously never been able to do.

Hiking all day left me too exhausted for my brain to get in the way of a good, long snooze. Abruptly leaving behind all the stress and responsibility of my day-to-day life probably had something to do with it, too. I wasn’t in a rush, I wasn’t paying much attention to the news, and I was surrounded by peaceful and quiet woods 24/7. It was incredibly relaxing and restorative.

After the trail, I retained my newfound snoozing abilities. It’s been three years now. Other than a few bad nights here and there, I haven’t lapsed back into my old zombie-like ways. Now that I know what I stand to lose, I value my sleep and am more motivated to protect it.

2. I have an attitude of gratitude.

The AT helped me appreciate life’s little joys, like this incredible cup of Gifford’s ice cream at Abol Bridge with Katahdin in the background.

It’s all about the little things in life. In the old days, I took many aspects of modern life for granted. As I developed a love for backpacking, I even sneered a little at modern conveniences. I thought I was a tough-guy backpacker who didn’t need to be coddled with extravagances like indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and privacy.

Well, I’m not a tough guy. On the AT I discovered my true self, and my true self is a fancy-pants who revels in cotton sheets, fresh food, and a dwelling with a front door I can walk, rather than crawl, through.

I’m very comfortable roughing it in the backcountry and still prefer a simple, un-materialistic life when in town. Still, there’s no denying that modern stuff is awesome. Spending nearly six months on the AT changed my perspective and made me appreciate the many conveniences I used to take for granted. I’m happier and more contented as a result. I have an attitude of gratitude.

For instance, after months of rehydrated mush for breakfast and dinner, I now know I’ll always take immense pleasure in eating a fresh salad. (Not to mention washing my bowl in a sink with running water after I’m done). The rigors of the trail also put my day-to-day problems in perspective. Give me a roof over my head and a warm cup of tea on a rainy afternoon and I don’t need much else.

3. The AT looks great on a resumé.

You did something incredible when you thru-hiked the AT. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. Photo by Jeffrey Stylos via Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Many prospective thru-hikers worry that having a six-month gap in their resumés will hurt their chances with future employers. In reality, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail makes you stand out to hiring managers. It’s unique and says a lot about your commitment and work ethic.

Taking time off work to thru-hike isn’t a liability when you’re applying for jobs—it’s an asset. After your hike is over, you should absolutely include your thru-hike on your resumé. It’s not like you were laying on the couch watching soap operas for six months. You were solving problems, pushing your limits, and broadening your horizons. Thru-hiking is a volunteer activity, and you showed up every day, rain or shine. You’re a finisher.

In my case, my thru-hiking experience ultimately landed me a sweet job with The Trek (yay). However, this advice applies across all industries. I even know someone who swayed a reticent landlord to rent him a house by including his AT summit photo in the rental application.

Bottom line: you did something incredible when you thru-hiked the AT. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn a bit.

4. Good poops.

Enough said. Image via Emma Rosenfield.

They say a deep squat is the most ergonomic position for shitting, and I must say I agree. Really lines up all the plumbing. The fact that I was drinking at least a gallon of water per day and getting tons of exercise probably helped, too.

Whatever the cause, all I can say is that I was delightfully regular on the AT. I experienced some of the best, most satisfying poops of my life and also drastically improved my ankle dorsiflexion while squatting.

READ NEXT – Five Ways to Poop in the Woods: An Illustration.

Before the AT I always had to make sure I pooped before going on a day hike or similar outing. Now I don’t have to worry about it! I just pack my trowel so I can dig a cathole at least six inches deep and four inches wide and a ziplock bag to pack out my TP and I know I’ll be good to go! Remember to dig a nice, deep cathole at least 200 feet away from water before depositing your little gift.

Pro-tip: Make sure your cathole location is not swarming with fire ants before dropping your drawers. The last thing you want is to feel the searing pain of an ant bite on your foot just as you’re reaching the point of no return. Don’t be like me.

5. It made me reassess my relationships.

Hiking the AT gave me the perspective I needed to reassess my relationships back home.

Negative relationships are like takeout menus: you really don’t need them, but they have a way of gradually accumulating in your life. I love my friends and family, but there were also some stinkers in my life before the AT. Spending time away from everyone gave me a valuable new perspective on myself and my assorted relationships. I had plenty of time to mull things over during long, solitary days on the trail.

Keeping in touch with people back home takes a fair amount of energy, especially on the AT where cell service and battery life are limited.  Thru-hiking helped me realize which of my relationships were worth fighting for and which could be abandoned. I also realized that I needed to make changes in some of my most cherished relationships to reassert my own needs and boundaries. In the few instances where I did decide to cut ties, my prolonged absence made the process easier for all involved.

Some unpleasant relationships are unavoidable—we can’t often choose our neighbors or coworkers, for instance. But we can choose who we give our free time and energy to. The AT helped me learn that and I’m much better for it.

6. I finally have something to talk about at parties.

I’M COMPLETELY NORMAL. Left to right: Sally Forth, Ibex, and No Doubt. Photo via Dawanna Blue.

I am an incredibly, almost aggressively, awkward human being. I’m essentially just one big, person-shaped cringe that has attained sentience. Go ahead and try talking to me at a party. I dare you.

Ever since hiking the Appalachian Trail, I finally have a reliable fallback subject to fill those inevitable long lulls in the conversation. Awkward silences? Fuhgeddaboutit! It’s true that no one likes a smug thru-hiker who has to make every conversation about themselves and their incredible Appalachian adventures. However, if you knew me you would forgive me. Because I’m honestly just trying to put us both out of our misery.

Besides, I legitimately think the Appalachian Trail is cool and love to talk about it. I’m much less overbearing about it now than I was in the months leading up to the trail, when I was so obsessed with the coming adventure that I almost literally could not talk about anything else.

This technique also works well for icebreakers. (Share my name and one interesting fact about myself? Check, check.)

7. It helped me to downsize.

Living out of a backpack for six months teaching you just how little you need. Photo via Kaylin Brown.

More importantly, it helped me to stay downsized after I got back from the trail. I’ve never been one to accumulate a lot of junk, but you know how it is. It creeps up on you over time despite your best intentions. Planning for the AT forced me to take stock of my possessions and decide which I truly valued and which were dead weight.

As much as possible I wanted a clean break with the civilized world when I left for the AT. Downsizing my material holdings was a key step in that process. Leading up to my hike, I let go of most of my stuff and moved out of my apartment.

Spending the next six months living out of a backpack taught me that I never needed most of that stuff to begin with. It taught me that having less made my life simple, streamlined, and agile—and I loved it. After completing the hike, I never wanted to re-clutter my life again. Now I primarily live in a van or out of a backpack and travel light wherever I go.

8. It gave me a new community.

It’s easy to make friends with fellow thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Photo via Annemarie Athey.

If hiking the AT made it easier for me to talk to non-hiker folk at parties, it did even more to help me relate to fellow trail people. Making friends is hard as an adult, but thru-hiking the AT is an equivalent social experience to attending Kindergarten. Everyone is there for the same reason, we’re all eager to make friends, and our goals and interests are straightforward and well-aligned. Fellow hikers and people in the greater trail community are incredibly relatable.

The hike also opened my eyes to a thriving community of hiker trash, nomads, and vanlifers who have rejected conventional lifestyles. I was born into a 9-5 family and that culture was all I knew. Before starting the AT I viewed the hike as a six-month hiatus from “real life” and expected to dive back into my career as soon as I got back.

Once I got out there, though, I realized that the AT experience was as much part of the real world as the apartment and 9-5 job I’d left behind. After the hike, I wasn’t ready to give up this newfound part of my reality. Everyone has a different way of keeping the magic alive. For my part, I kept hiking, started writing for The Trek, and got involved in vanlife as a means to stay connected to the nomad community.

9. I can hike whenever I feel like it.

I was passing through southern Virginia in May 2019 and decided to go for a spontaneous night hike to catch the sunrise on McAfee Knob.

It takes a lot of work to get ready for a backpacking trip when you’re starting from square one.

One of the first trips I ever took was the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail with three colleagues. We had barely any backpacking experience between the four of us, and we spent about six months planning for the 40-mile adventure. It was a painstaking process involving much gear research, several planning meetings, and diligent training.

When we hit the trail, we made lots of mistakes and spent most of our downtime stressing about getting eaten by bears. In contrast, after finishing the whole AT my backpacking skills were on point. I’d become very comfortable sleeping in the woods and had quality gear that I knew how to use.

Instead of needing months of prep time, I can now easily launch into a multiday (or even multi-week) hike at the drop of a hat. I don’t waste much energy stressing about getting lost or savaged by wild animals, either. In fairness, it’s never smart to go backcountry without adequate preparation and a good understanding of the risks. I’m not suggesting that you should.

However, I now feel more inherently prepared with the skills, equipment, and comfort level I need to hit the trails with ease and confidence. The effort to plan and prepare for an individual hike is so much less now that I have a foundation to build from. In short, I’m not reinventing the wheel every time I decide to go for a hike.

Closing Thoughts

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a life-changing experience for most people. As The Trek’s hiker-in-chief, Zach Davis, points out in Appalachian Trials, you’ll have a better chance of finishing if you go into the hike with clear goals and motives. That said, the trail is unpredictable and it’s impossible to predict how it might change your life for the better.

If you’re planning to thru-hike the AT, what are you hoping to get out of the journey? If you’ve already thru-hiked, what unexpected benefits did you reap from the experience?

Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm (@chris.helm).

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Comments 2

  • Meghan : Oct 21st

    Wonderful article. I learned such confidence. I am really scared of nothing. I am prudent and thoughtful about situations, always have been but the idea of being able to drop everything and sleep in the woods, needing almost nothing gives me great confidence and belief in myself.

    Oh I totally get the poop thing. I can’t squat, look more like a one legged crab. It is so freeing. Lol

    I too am on the nomad life, with a small trailer, volunteering at national parks when I find a good gig.

    Keep up the writing.
    Thanks for a wonderful article.

    Sister Bear


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