Adjusting to Life on Trail: The Smokies to Damascus, VA

It’s been just over a month of living on the trail, and it’s starting to feel like home. It’s hard to describe all of my experiences and emotions, but overall I’m loving it. The camping is social and serene, town stops and hostels are a welcome refresh every 3-4 days, but hiking has taken up most of my time and energy.

I meant to get this post out sooner, but there’s surprisingly little time to collect my thoughts in between all of the activities of trail life. Below, I’ll try to summarize my favorite sections of the trail, and give insight into what a normal day is like for me.

My Favorite Sections of Trail

I’ve hiked over 350 miles since my last post, and we’ve passed through some very memorable sections of trail.

Smoky Mountain National Park was the first national park that I passed through on the trail. At first, I wasn’t too impressed by the scenery, but after passing Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT, the surroundings transformed from mostly-leafless trees into a beautiful spruce-fir forest very similar to what I’ve seen in the Adirondacks. These dark, magical sections of trail revealed stunning views of the mountains and left a great impression of the Smokies.

Spruce-fir forest in the Smokies—reminds me of the ADKs

I saw some wild deer and a Red Eft (a type of newt), but still no bears (I’d like to see one from a safe distance at some point). I have, however, heard many reports of food bags being torn down and stolen by black bears recently.

After the Smokies, The trail flattened out a bit and allowed me to hike longer miles. Sadly, my main hiking partner Husk sustained an injury shortly after this section and had to leave trail. Since then, I’ve been hiking with two newer friends, Singsong and Vamp. We’ve been hiking together since the trail town Hot Springs.

My new hiking buddies, Vamp (left) and Singsong

My favorite section thus far has been the Roan Highlands. This section also showed me how quickly the weather (and my mood) can change on trail. We started the section with a tough climb up Roan Mountain to our shelter for the night. To add to the difficulty, the temperature also dropped below freezing and a fierce wind was blowing all night. I was able to get to sleep in my hammock, but the next morning it was frigid and the hiking was miserable.

Cold, snowy, and windy. You can see the bare spot where my rain tarp was set up

I was in a bad mood until the afternoon, when the wind started dying down and the sun came out. At the same moment, we reached the bald summits that the highlands are known for, which provided some of the most beautiful views of the trip.

My most recent hiking into Damascus has been great weather and wonderfully flat sections of trail. From what I’ve heard, a lot of Virginia is similarly flat, which makes me excited to hike longer days and make progress into the state with the largest section of trail—even more than the 470 miles I’ve completed!

My favorite kind of trail—straight, flat, and long.

A Day in My Life on Trail

While I love all that I’ve experienced so far, I wouldn’t say it’s been easy. On average, I’ve probably hiked 15-20 miles per day, and I’m surprised at how little time I have after I finish for the day. Even zeroes in town are filled with chores, including laundry, resupplies at grocery stores, showers, gear maintenance, and recovery.

Here’s a sample of what a normal day is like for me on trail:

  • Wake up around sunrise, between 6 and 7AM (I don’t set an alarm)
  • Change from my sleep clothes into my hiking clothes and pack up my hammock, quilts, and tarp.
  • Retrieve my food bag and eat a quick breakfast, usually oatmeal, pop tarts, or cereal and an instant breakfast packet.
  • Pack up my food and start hiking between 7:30-8:30AM
  • At the first water source, filter 1-2 liters of water and add an electrolyte packet to one bottle
  • Around noon or 1PM, I’ll stop for lunch, which is usually a tortilla with tuna and something sweet as a dessert. I try to stop at shelters or campsites with other hikers around.

One of my favorite lunch spots so far.

  • Hike for another 3-5 hours, usually to a shelter with a water source
  • Find two nice trees and set up my hammock

A nice campsite before sunset.

  • Filter 2 liters of water and unpack my food bag for dinner—ramen, instant mashed potatoes with salmon, or knorr meals usually.
  • Stretch, roll out my feet with my cork ball, and talk to other hikers
  • Hang my food bag—either in a bear box, on bear cables, or my least favorite, a bear hang with my paracord

Bear cables make hanging food much easier

  • Change into my sleep clothes and go to bed around hiker midnight, when the sun sets (8-9PM)

Town Days

First order of business is getting into town—either hitchhike or a shuttle, if town isn’t on trail.

One of our riskier hitches…


Hiker shuttle full of Americans, Australians, Swiss, and Germans (photo credit: Husk)

I’ll go to a grocery store to resupply for my next section of hiking, take a shower wherever I’m staying, and attend to any other items like gear repairs and replacements, mail drops from home, and any minor injuries I’ve gotten while hiking.

A typical resupply for hiking 3-4 days—beer not included (usually)

And of course, the most important task—getting as much food for dinner as possible!

Pal’s: the best burger in Erwin, TN


The last thing I want to cover is injuries. Luckily, nothing serious has occurred that would take me off trail, but this is one of my biggest worries. So far my only issues have been foot pain, blisters, and my ankle which I broke two years ago and has been acting up recently. I’ve remedied the pain and blisters by switching to a new pair of shoes—Altra Olympus 5s—and popping blisters with a sterilized safety pin, then wrapping up the hot spots with bandage tape and antibacterial ointment. My ankle has been improving by doing stretches whenever I stop to rest or do camp chores.

Other than these issues, I’ve been doing great and hope to continue hiking at my normal pace!

Bonus: I got a Trailname!

I almost forgot—I got my trailname too! I am now known as Golden Calves—I’ll let you decide if it’s a fitting name or not.

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Comments 4

  • glenn beran : May 9th

    Hey Sam, Great to see that you are in good shape. I was wondering how it was going, after not seeing posts for a long stretch.
    We both would like to see more of them, but realize you are occupied and the physical requirements of your trek are tough.
    Do you think you will be able to meet up with the Mallahs when you get close to them?
    Anyway best of luck on your quest. We are both proud to see you in this setting.
    Love, Glenn & Susan

  • Rohan Popenoe : May 9th

    Golden Calves is very fitting hahahaha

  • Mucky : May 9th

    Way to go Sam!!!! What an adventure!!!! I’m so happy for you!

  • thetentman : Jun 17th

    PBR and Bugles. It does not get anymore thruhikey than that.



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