Culture Shock on the AT: What Life on Trail is Really Like

Many of my friends and family back home have a brief understanding of what life on the Appalachian Trail looks and feels like. Before I began at Springer in March, I thought I had an idea of it too. But it wasn’t until I lived it for over a month now that I’m finally starting to see the cultural and social differences of trail life. I’m gonna try my best to distill it down for anyone out there reading it…

Trail Names:

Many people know about trail names. It’s kinda like a nickname you get on trail. Most people are given a name, but a few people do choose their own. I got my trail name for having a mustache and looking like Miles Teller’s character from Top Gun: Maverick. But the thing I learned on trail is how weird it is to hear normal names. I was on the phone with my parents back at Standing Bear and I used my sister’s names in passing and it just felt weird. I’ve been calling people Cowboy and Squid for the past month and all of a sudden the names Jenny and Lisa are the weird ones.
The other weird part about trail names is finding out real names. I never would have guessed the Sweet Relish was actually a Nate. It’s kind of a fun game to try and guess people’s government names. And let’s not get me started on people who call people by their real names. I get it if they don’t have a trail name yet. But if they do and you still choose to say their real name, then I’m not sure I can trust you. Embrace the culture! 

Slow Goes vs Speed Demons:

This is one I’ve thought about a lot in recent days. There are kinda two types of people on trail. The Slow Goers and the Speed Demons. Some people like to mosey and check out side trails or find a cool swimming hole. While others are all about crushing big mile days. I understand both sides. Before Damascus, I was very much a speed demon. It’s fun to push yourself and see what you’re capable of. A lot of people try for the marathon day into Damascus, but I went for the 50k day into town from Vandeveter shelter. I wanted to make it to Damascus on my one month trail anniversary and to say I did 33 miles in a day. It’s awesome seeing the looks on people’s faces when I tell them that. But the day after I felt like garbage and was worried I might have injured my knee. Is being able to say I did 33 miles and saw nothing really the AT experience I want to have? To just go through a green blur without really capturing any fun times with other people because no one else wants to go 33 miles in a day? And why? I can only speak for myself but I think part of it was ego and a competitive nature. 
I did enjoy the challenge of crushing big miles. But ever since Damascus, I’ve been moving a lot slower. I haven’t done a day over 20 miles since then (okay maybe a 21, but that’s where the shelter was!). Instead, I’ve been filling my day with side quests to swimming holes or trying to identify birds. I’m enjoying my time at camp, playing Beerzbee or making fires and just meeting my fellow thru-hikers. The slower pace is suiting me much better, and I’m having a great time.

Conversations on Trail:

This one is kind of interesting to me. I can barely remember what people talk about off trail anymore. Maybe a new movie or current events? It feels kinda hazy what those conversations consisted of. Out here on trail, we talk about the trail! Most of our discussions talk about what shelter or campsite you came from and which one you’re going to. But we also talk about other hikers we’ve met. It’s really cool to hear about hikers ahead of you and then to finally meet them. Or hikers behind you. You’ll hear this name for couple of days and then sure enough you meet The Juice a few days later. It’s also weird when some says “Rooster? Oh yeah I’ve heard about you”. You have? What have you heard? Good things I hope! Hikers talk, and word spreads up and down the trail, so be on your best behavior!
The other big topic is food. We are all hungry all of the time so food is a huge topic. The best foods to bring on trail is always a good discussion, but talking about what type of food we are going to get on our next town day is always my personal favorite. A burger with a side of pizza and a chocolate milkshake please.

Shelter Logs:

It took me a while to start writing in the logs, but now it’s one of my favorite things to do. I love seeing who is ahead of me and the potential friends I could make. Or seeing friends that have passed me and hearing about their days. Sure we live in an age where I could just text them or look at their Instagram story. But the log book is a unique format with a charm that can’t be replicated. A lot of people will write something clever or funny, and they may draw a doodle to go along with it. All part of the fun.

Be Yourself:

The trail is good for opening people up. People are free to be their weird version of themselves because it’s all about fun out here. It’s a very welcoming space, so long as you’re a decent human being and not an asshole. Would I normally scream cock-a-doodle-doo in the middle of the street? No. Would I normally let someone paint my thumb with a smiley face? No. But out here that’s totally normal.

Feeling Like a Celebrity:

It’s really fascinating to see just how excited people get about my through hike. From family and friends to random strangers I’ve met in trail, everyone is rooting for me and wishing me good luck and success. It’s certainly welcome, just not something I’m used too. When I was at Clingman’s Dome it was a Saturday, and so many day hikers were out for their trip to the observation deck. And so many people were excited to hear my story and talk to me about the trail. Some even wanted their pictures with me! It was such a weird thing for me to see how my own journey brings so much excitement to other people’s lives. But their enthusiasm is always appreciated, and especially so when they offer a Snickers or a beer!
What do you think? Any other aspects of trail culture that I forgot? Let me know in the comments!

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Comments 1

  • Magoo : May 21st

    Great post, brought back fond memories. One thing that struck me was the interest most hikers have in each other’s success and well-being. I was at a shelter once with 3 vets and a young Frenchman who had underestimated his food needs. Each of us gave him some of our own supplies to get him through a few more days. (He didn’t know what pop tarts were and we had to tell him that we weren’t exactly sure ourselves, but that they really were edible. )


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