My First AT Experience

As we near the start date for our thru hike, I figured it would be worth sharing my (Justin’s) first AT experience, because as awful as it was, it inspired me to pursue a thru hike.

Now that the intro is done, all aboard the struggle bus!

I first set foot on the Appalachian Trail in November of 2009 with my best friend who I had bamboozled into joining me on this ill fated journey with the promise of awe inspiring vistas and adventure. My planning for this hike consisted of searching “Appalachian Trail” on the internet and selecting the first link in my area. Lo and behold, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park at Clingmans Dome was the closest access point my browser populated!

All smiles

Look at these two.. completely oblivious of what the AT had in store.

Now, to give you some context for just how ignorant I was, I lived in Georgia. If you have found Zach Davis’s excellent website, you probably know enough about the AT to know that the closest access point to me would have been Springer Mountain, but no, I blindly pushed on deciding that the GSMNP section would be a perfect introduction to the AT.

As I am sure you can guess from my excellent research ability, I was not an experienced backpacker. Here is a short list of the ridiculousness we managed to cram into our packs:

  • Gigantic knives so we could “fight off” the bears
  • Canned beef stew & tuna (We had no can opener)
  • Full cooksets with multiple bowls & plates
  • 5 liters of water per person
  • An ancient Coleman backpacking stove (That we didn’t know how to use)
  • A tent (For all those overflowing shelters in November)
  • Hand crank weather radio
  • And oh so much more useless junk

How many mistakes can you spot?

How many mistakes can you spot?

Despite my awful planning, we stepped off from the Clingmans Dome parking lot and dove straight into adventure. We were immediately tested by the (what seemed to us) steep walking path leading to the top of the tower. The gravity of the situation instantly sunk in, and if it weren’t for both of us putting on false bravado, we would have walked right back down to the parking lot.

Clingmans Dome

But how can you not keep going after seeing this?

After taking photos atop Clingmans Dome the time had finally come to take our first steps on the Appalachian Trail:

First Steps

Remember the 5L of water? We each also had two full Powerades

The weather held up for the rest of the day, and we were treated to glorious vistas as we ridge walked. Despite the steep descent from Clingmans, we were on an emotional high as we rolled into Derrick Knob Shelter for the night. This lasted until about dinnertime, when that little issue about not knowing how to use our stove came up.


The firepit looked more appealing with every failed attempt to use our stove

Fortunately a fellow hiker that was more savvy with stoves took a break from laughing at us and helped get it going. After chatting it up well past hiker midnight, we finally settled in for the night, where another planning mistake reared its ugly head shortly after the temperature dipped below freezing:


The sleeping bag on the right is rated for 20F. The sleeping bag on the left, maybe 40F.

We arose the following day to rain on the shelter roof and our motivation escaped like air from our sleeping pads. Begrudgingly, we departed the shelter intent on making the Russel Field Shelter before nightfall.


It was all rain, all day

Aside from being waterlogged, we made it to Russel Field Shelter without incident. The rain turned to snow as night descended and the temperature dropped. The following morning was the toughest of our trip, as we were turning around to hike the way we had come. Knowing that all of the uphill was ahead of us, we stepped off from Russel Field demoralized.

Thunderhead GSMNP

Almost instantly the AT reminded us why we were out here

Inspired by the stunning views that followed the rainstorm, we completed our longest day yet (11 miles!) to Silers Bald Shelter. Exhaustion made sleep come easy that night, and we arose early to gorgeous weather on our last day.

GSMNP Clouds

The lingering clouds from the previous day

The final day went quickly as we charged up the hill towards the Clingmans Dome Parking lot, visions of greasy cheeseburgers dancing before our eyes. Never had we been so happy to see pavement and the “civilization” of a parking lot before. With great joy we flung our packs down at the car, ecstatic that the suffering was finally over.


We didn’t know it, but we were already addicted to the AT

During those four days we encountered snow, bears in camp, injury, and had pushed ourselves to the  breaking point. Despite these challenges, the Appalachian Trail had sunk its teeth in and wouldn’t let go. Not even a week had passed before we began planning our next adventure.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 2

  • Chris : Feb 22nd

    I convinced my room mate at Tennessee to do a day hike from TN/NC border to Clingmans dome and back one day. The AT going up wasn’t that bad but going down it began to rain and didnt stop the whole way. My favorite part was the look the people from the parking lot at Clingmans dome gave us looking all beat up. They asked where we came from and we told them the real trail. That section of the AT must enjoy breaking in newbs.

    • Justin and Wella Jay : Feb 22nd


      It certainly claims plenty of victims each year! The looks are pretty priceless. We had quite a few people surprised when we emerged from the woods out onto the pavement.


What Do You Think?