From Dorm Life to Camp Life: Preparing for a Thru-Hike as a College Student

People often tell us to go to school for something we’re passionate about, but unfortunately, I have yet to find a 4-year degree for thru-hiking.  I’m in the final weeks of my freshman year of college in North Dakota and I can’t wait to trade the windy grasslands for the deep woods of Maine.  I know what you’re thinking, what kind of hiking can there possibly be in North Dakota?  You’re right, absolutely none. 

Nonetheless, I still found ways to keep my trail spirit alive, taking every break I had to explore parts of the Southwest, including the National Parks of Utah over Christmas break and a family backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon in the spring.  The majority of the spring semester has been a balancing act of wrapping up finals and preparing for my southbound hike of the Appalachian Trail.  

As with most places in the midwest, the culture here is much different from that on trail.  When I told my roommates I was going to spend the summer hiking on the East coast, my idea was greeted with both confusion and concern.  Little did they know, within the next month my dorm room would transform into a kitchen, dehydrating, portioning, and preparing meals for the next few months on the Appalachian Trail. 

It seemed like every day there was a new scent wafting from my room, usually foul and unpleasant.  Based on an unspoken consensus, I could tell that my dehydrated chicken smelled the worst.  Nonetheless, their support came around towards the end of May, when this adventure became more realistic to everyone, including me.  

Growing up in Minnesota, I have very limited experience hiking in the Appalachians, so the AT will bring on a new realm of terrain and culture.  Luckily, my hiking partner, Hazel, is a Vermont native and will gladly show me the ropes.  Training for a thru-hike in North Dakota has its limitations, especially considering that the nearest ski area is 130 miles away, and hiking trails are few and far between around here.  Nevertheless, running and weightlifting will suffice until I get my trail legs. 

Speaking of which, starting my hike by climbing Mount Katahdin will surely remind me of my lack of training and geographic difference between Maine and the midwest.  Based on past experience, I have found that running is the best training for a long-distance hike, especially in preventing injury and avoiding shin splints, so I’m hoping I can “outrun” my injuries until I get my trail legs.  Hiking southbound will surely be a challenge, as many veterans have claimed the first 500 miles to be the toughest. 

Packing up my dorm room and preparing to fly out East is a bittersweet symphony.  On one hand, I’m feeling a loss for people I’ve lived with for the past 9 months, as all of us move out and onto our separate ways.  On the other hand, I couldn’t be more excited to get on the trail and cross paths with a hundred lucky strangers who are enduring the same journey as I am.  More than anything, I’m looking forward to getting back into thru-hiking culture.  Going to school in the Midwest, I’ve met very few people who are as crazy about hiking as I am, which is why the process of dehydrating food in my dorm room was so strange to them. 

Being surrounded by very few other hikers was surprisingly the best situation for me to be in as a college freshman.  This culture allowed my mind to take a break from constantly planning my next adventure to focus on school and my future for the time being.  However, now that I’ve finished all of my finals, it’s time to start obsessing over thru-hiking again.  With less than a week left here in North Dakota, the excitement is building and I couldn’t be more excited to trade my textbooks for trekking poles and get back to doing what I love.  See you on the trail!


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Comments 4

  • Chris Wyse : May 19th

    Nice write up Ellie. Look forward to reading about your adventure on the AT.

    “Based on past experience, I have found that running is the best training for a long-distance hike, especially in preventing injury and avoiding shin splints, so I’m hoping I can “outrun” my injuries until I get my trail legs.”

    I second your advice. I lived for an extended period in the ‘flats’ and found plenty of novel training devices to emulate conditions I would encounter at higher elevations. My personal favorites aside from running include a ‘versa-climber’ (emulates rock climbing) and any other cardio machine that gives you intermittent elevation gain/loss workouts for extended periods.

    Safe travels!

  • Mikeycat : May 19th

    Ever hiked the Superior Hiking Trail?

    • Ellie Tillma : May 19th

      I haven’t. It’s on my laundry list of backpacking trips I’d like to take some day! I’ve done a few sections with my brother who plans to thru-hike it in August.

  • Jane Dean : May 19th

    Ellie, I wish you the best on this trip and am hoping you will continue to let us know how you do, especially doing the SOBO route. I, unfortunately, cannot do a thru-hike (own a house, two cars, utility bills, no family – not complaining!!! and am quite fortunate to be in such a “predicament”!) Instead, I will try to section hike the AT and am looking forward to my “mini-shakedown” hike I’ll be taking to celebrate my birthday. I’m going to do this regardless of my age (68 on May 24). Regardless of my experience ( beginner) and I will try not to do anything foolish that might compromise other hikers that I might meet. Namaste!!


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