Appalachian Trail: Expectations vs Reality
Surreal—the full gravity of hiking from sunrise to sunset every day has not fully sunk in. My mind compartmentalized all the experiences into micro-events as I tried to grasp my new reality.
It currently takes me 30-45 minutes to get out of my sleeping bag. The 20-30 F degree temperatures outside with 30 mph gusts of freezing wind aren’t very inviting at 6 am. But, once I am up, I am up. I take down my food bag from a nearby tree and immediately start boiling water for coffee and oatmeal. While the water boils, I wash my hands and face in ice-cold (filtered) water so that I can safely put on a new pair of contact lenses.
Soon, my body is warmer and I deflate my sleeping pad and stuff my sleeping bag in its compression sack. I pull out all the tent stakes from the ground and unclip my tent from itself. I reload all my gear into my pack and I am ready to start the day—only two hours after waking up. Eventually, this will become a faster routine, but for now it is a slow process.
I start walking and the sounds of the forest fill my ears. Birds chirp in warning as I get near, squirrels jump through dead leaves trying to get out of my way, and deer quickly scatter as I take those first few steps on the Appalachian Trail.
The first two hours of hiking just fly by. I warm up with each step and my fingers and toes finally start to defrost. I scan my body for any new aches and pains, and adjust my pace to get into a walking rhythm. The crisp cool air is a refreshing reminder that I am alive and I am out here—in tune with nature, hiking mountains, watching the sun rise over the peaks through the bare trees, listening to the wind swirl high above me.
By 10 am I have to eat a snack to keep my energy levels up. There is a time limit to this hike and every hiker thinks about their miles each day. When can my body handle more miles? Will I ever get my trail legs? How long before my feet and knees feel better?
After four hours of climbing up and down mountains, I finally take a lunch break. I scan the trail for a pretty spot in the sun and plop down on a log or a rock to take a 20-minute break. My body temperature drops instantaneously and I try to quickly resume back on the trail to stay warm.
The afternoon hiking is harder. My feet and body start to feel heavy as fatigue sets in after 4-5 hours of hiking. My brain starts to go over every item in my pack in search of how to cut extra ounces from my gear. Can I cut off the access straps to my backpack? Should I leave some of the wipes behind? How committed am I to deodorant? Should I dump the extra Ziploc bags? Should I buy a lighter sleeping pad? When can I send my warm layers home?
I check my phone for service. Verizon covers most of the southern part of the trail with at least one bar of cell reception. It’s time to listen to music or call my family. I scan my emails—one eye on the trail and the other on my phone. At this point I welcome any distraction to keep my mind from sinking into the tiredness that I feel. I can feel my swollen feet and my tired calves. All I can think of is dipping them in a cold stream.
Throughout the last mile I check the FarOut app every few minutes—How far am I from camp? Half a mile, quarter of a mile, one-tenth of a mile…campsite is so close yet so far away. Why are these campsites always up a hill?
A burst of satisfaction ignites my spirit as I find the perfect patch to set up my tent. It’s my home for the night. My private sanctuary to retreat to after I eat my dinner. It’s such a relief to finally reach camp and find a flat spot to sleep. In another few hours, I will curl up in my sleeping bag and drift away.
Once the tent is up, I quickly filter water and set up a bear rope on a good tree branch. It only took once to learn not to hang my 15-pound food bag on a dead limb. The 20-foot branch came down crashing just a few feet away from my face. My heart nearly stopped as I thought about the accident I had just nearly missed.
Once I finish my nightly chores, I drag my food bag to the communal campfire and rummage through it for a freeze-dried dinner. As I boil water, more weary hikers arrive. One by one, slowly, they all find a place for the night around the campsite.
Seated by the campfire are typically 5-8 hungry and tired hikers who commiserate over the gruesome steepness of the Georgia and North Carolina mountains and then laugh about whatever randomness might have happened during the day. We are all experiencing this together, equally sharing the same trail and all that it brings with each mile hiked.
By 8 pm, almost every hiker is back in their tent and the quiet of the night envelopes the campsite. Only the wind and the rustling leaves are heard through the thin nylon walls. Sleep comes almost immediately, exhaustion finally taking over.
Impressions – First Two Days
I was a bit surprised that many people kept mostly to themselves during the first two days on the trail. I expected a lot more socializing right away, particularly during those first few days. All the YouTube reels showed a string of “AT community” clips, and my expectations were high for how social everyone would be from the minute I stepped on the trail.
Perhaps the other hikers were exhausted, shell shocked, wanted some space to take it all in, or just apprehensive of strangers—but, at first, I found only a small number of people who were chatty and eager to meet the other hikers.
I was mentally prepared to conquer mountains—tall, steep, and jagged mountains. The Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail still managed to surprise me with its steep pitches and fairly technical terrain. I didn’t physically prepare prior to the hike, but as a runner the cardio baseline certainly helped. Within those first two days, almost every hiker was dealing with knee, ankle, and/or foot issues. The assortment of bodily ailments made their way into every conversation.
Disney of Trails
Having hiked many primitive and highly remote trails before, the Appalachian Trail seemed like the Walt Disney World of hiking. The trail is complete with shelter accommodations every eight miles, picnic tables and privies, shuttle rides to town, campsites galore, bear cables and boxes, and water spots every few miles. Ridge Runners—paid employees to help hikers with questions or any sort of trouble—roamed the Georgia section each day.
The Georgia Appalachian Trail Club of volunteers keeps the trail in pristine shape, not a single tree to step over or climb under! It’s like they swept the trail just for us, hikers. The only thing missing was an ice cream stand (oh wait…we did get trail magic with fruit, chicken noodle soup, hot apple cider, and food galore—twice!).
Coming from Florida, I totally overpacked and underpacked. The first few nights were brutally cold by Florida standards. I wore every layer and was still shivering in my 17 F degree sleeping bag. The late March temperatures dipped into the 20s and even hikers from Michigan were commenting on the frigid weather. But as the morning hours transitioned to the afternoon, the sun warmed up the trail, and layers were quickly packed away.
I was grateful for remembering to bring sunblock. The bare trees along the trail offered no shade from the sun. A few hikers were already sporting sunburns. And my exposed hands instantly became two shades darker than my arms which were covered by my long-sleeved shirt.
Impressions – Two Weeks Later
The temperatures continued to stay on the cooler side. But, I was more mentally prepared for how to handle the colder nights and mornings.
Hiking mountains has not physically gotten easier—yet, but I better plan my day with thoughtful breaks to refuel and regain my hiking momentum.
The hiker shyness of those first few days has melted away. Every campsite and shelter now bustled with chatter and laughter. Hikers were leapfrogging each other every couple of days since most did not have consistent mileage just yet. Some were hiking 10 miles per day, followed by 15 miles, followed by 7 miles, and then taking a ‘zero day’ to rest.
In those first two weeks, I mingled with the same 10-15 people on varied days and nights. We would spend one or two nights camping and/or hiking together and then not see each other for the next three days, and later catch up again at a random shelter. It will be interesting to see who I will end up hiking with more regularly in another few weeks when we all get into a more rhythmic hiking tempo and more consistent mileage.
In the last two weeks, the number of hikers has also drastically dropped. I estimate that roughly 30-40% of those who started at Springer Mountain are now gone. Not everyone was physically and mentally prepared for the steep ups and downs, brutally cold temps, hours of rain, or the 50 mph gusts of icy wind.
Many looked utterly exhausted at the very onset of their journeys—as they went from ‘couch-to-trail’ without any physical training.
I once read that backpacking is 50/50–half of the experience is pure awe and magic, while the other half is uncomfortable and can really test your mental game. In reality, the ratio of suckiness to amazingness varies by each day, hour, or even by each minute. Just when your spirit really drops, some trail magic will appear miraculously to lift you up.
Tip: If you are seriously considering coming out on this journey, I would highly encourage you to do a 2-3 night backpacking trip to test your gear, get a feel for the trail, and be mentally prepared for the full adventure that awaits.
Long Journey Ahead
As of today, it’s still fairly difficult to imagine being out here for another 5-6 months. It already feels like an infinity has gone by. Every day is filled with new experiences, and yesterday seems like a long time ago. More than 90 percent of the trail is still before me, but for now, I take each day in stride, trying to take it all in. It’s exciting and scary, and it is all bundled together, but that is what makes for an adventure.
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