Find the Cost of Freedom: Deciding to Thru-Hike the AT

The risks of disassembling one’s life to attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail go far beyond gear, logistics, and on-trail concerns. Here’s the Real Life consequences I weighed, and then a look at how I decided to “break down camp” and hit the trail!

What Am I Giving Up to Thru-Hike?

  • My Job – At a time when employment is tenuous for millions of people, the decision to thru-hike right now and give up a reliable stream of income isn’t considered “wise” by many (including my mom, HI MOM!). This issue is compounded by the fact that roughly 30 percent of trans people say they’ve been denied a job, a promotion, or fired because of their gender identity… So getting my next job may prove difficult.
  • Affordable Health Insurance – As a transgender woman on Hormone Replacement Therapy, and someone who uses therapy and medication to treat my mental health, this is a risk. MassHealth/Health Connector plans don’t cover out of state emergencies so I’m left paying for private insurance out of pocket through COBRA, which hampers my overall budget significantly.
  • A Retirement Plan – I’ve contributed to an employer supported retirement plan for the past six years. I will lose eligibility for those benefits (although I will roll the current funds into a 403B plan, so I don’t lose everything)
  • Savings – Instead of hiking, I could’ve spent this money on gender confirming medical procedures to ease my gender dysphoria, or saved a “rainy day fund” for extended periods of unemployment/major life events.
  • Loved Ones and Queer Community – We’ll stay in touch, but it won’t be the same while I’m on trail.
  • Recovery Supports – Lack of easy, consistent access to Zoom recovery meetings, my sponsor and other sober friends.

Acknowledgement of Privilege

At this point, it’s important I address the huge amount of privilege I’ve benefited from, and continue to benefit from. That privilege has allowed me to have all of these things to give up in the first place. As a white person who lived publicly as a cisgender man until she was 30 years old, I benefitted from the innumerable privileges associated with presenting as a white cisgender heterosexual man. That greatly impacted the education, career and personal opportunities to which I had access. I don’t take that fact lightly. I’ve also benefited from intergenerational wealth. My grandmother left me some money when she passed this year, and that gift will fund much of my trip.

How I Made the Decision

  1. Checked in with people and researched info sources I trust and respect – Friends, former thru-hikers, blogs like The Trek, and other folks in the outdoor community. They were all helpful, and most gave the same advice “only you can know what’s right for you”. 
  2. Ran the numbersI scrolled through Trek blogger posts to find hikers with similar budgets/timelines to estimate my costs. For reference, in 2019 median hikers spent between $5,500-$6,000 on trail according to The 2019 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Survey, plus another $1,000-$2,000 for gear. I’ve allotted a budget of $10,000 for the trip, not including health insurance and phone costs. This should leave wiggle room for any unforeseen emergencies, so I believe my plan is realistic.
  3. Planned for “Societal Reintegration” – This year more than ever, it’s nearly impossible to know what life will look like 5-6 months from when I start the trail, but I wanted to make sure I’d be able to pay rent the first couple months at least while I job hunt and I know I have “gig” work opportunities available to me to help me get through a longer period without full employment.
  4. Sat with my options – I didn’t rush myself to decide “Yes” or “No”. I came back to the question week after week to make sure my resolve and resources haven’t changed. This coincidentally, is how I decide what tattoos to get as well… it’s just an overall great life policy in my estimation.

Final Thoughts

Through this process I became sure that attempting to thru-hike the AT was the right choice for me. I’m responsible for my own happiness and fulfillment, and I won’t feel right unless I follow through. It doesn’t come without financial, medical, professional and personal risk. But when are the best things in life ever risk-free? I’m trusting myself to complete the trail AND to pick up the pieces of my life after the trail… I feel confident I will. Using what I’ve learned, I’ll build something new that’s more authentic and more meaningful than ever.

Thanks for reading along. I hope you’ll stick with me through my entire thru-hike by subscribing to my posts here. And be sure to add me on Instagram @selterskelter. I’d love to hear from you!

With Love,

Lyla

PS. If you’re wondering, the title is a reference to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song “Find the Cost of Freedom”. <3

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Comments 17

  • Avatar
    Tina : Dec 21st

    Making big life decisions can be overwhelming and scary. It seems like you carefully considered all options and were able to listen with your body, mind and heart to figure out what is the best path for you. Sounds like a recipe for success! Happy Hiking!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Dec 21st

      Thanks Tina! I like how you put that… It reminds me of what author Glennon Doyle called “the Knowing”, which to me means sitting with yourself patiently and waiting for your path forward to bubble up from inside of you. I really love that idea and tried to use it while making my decision.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Tina : Dec 21st

        Glennon! Love that woman <3 She knows whats up

        Reply
  • Avatar
    pearwood : Dec 21st

    Thanks, Lyla. Hang in there.

    Being retired, I have a different set of financial concerns like, “How do I do this without blowing up my fixed and limited income?” My response has been to buy as little new gear as possible and to plan on curbing spending on the trail. Life does get complicated.

    I think I’m already following you on Instagram. I’ll check. I’m on as PearwoodPhoto.

    Blessings,
    Steve

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Dec 21st

      Hi Steve, wow yeah that sounds like a whole different and tough set of challenges. Just followed you on instagram! Happy holidays.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Sam Cermak : Dec 21st

    Fantastic post – very well thought-out and insightful. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Dec 21st

      Thank you, Sam!

      Reply
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    Mike : Dec 21st

    Love the nod to CSNY, Lyla. Best of luck on your journey.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Dec 22nd

      Thanks Mikey, can’t beat the classics <3

      Reply
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    Alexander Tucciarone : Dec 21st

    Seems like you’re approaching this all with precision! Remind yourself of that if you hit a rough patch out there and feel self-doubt growing more powerful: you were incredibly thoughtful and rigorous prepping for this. Keep posting and stay safe, Lyla!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Dec 22nd

      Hey Tucc, I’m positive there will be tough times where I’ll need to do just that… thanks for the reminder and for your support! Be well!

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Eric : Dec 26th

      Giter done!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Adam Cable : Dec 22nd

    This is so well thought out – really excited to see the updates.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Dec 22nd

      Thank you, Adam! Not sure I would even be doing this journey if it weren’t for my first backpacking trips with you and Gem in Washington.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Sassy Spider : Dec 22nd

    Lyla,

    My child is nonbinary/trans female (they/them/she/her). I can relate, through her, to all your struggles about the extra life decisions around HRT/surgeries versus other life expenses/timing. As a fellow backpacker, I can totally relate to the call of the trail to shape and form you which transcends gender, race, age–really everything. I’ll be following you here (don’t do instagram) and I’ll be on trail for 350 miles this year so hope we’ll cross paths! Hoping the trail gives you joy, hope, peace, growth, and the reminder that we’re all connected and that there are some truly amazing people out there!

    Sassy Spider

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Lyla Harrod : Dec 22nd

      Hey Sassy! Thanks for your comment, yes please keep an eye out for me on trail! Happy hiking.

      Reply
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    Nina Martin : Dec 23rd

    Great post, thank you. I began transition in 2009 and GRS in 2014…so I know what you’re going through. It’s been over 10 years for me and life really does get better when you’re your true self.
    I will be thru hiking this year as well, beginning at Springer late March. You’re much younger than I, but maybe we’ll cross paths somewhere along the trail.

    Good luck!

    Reply

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