Into the Mind of an Aspiring Thru-Hiker

This year I will be embarking on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. A 2,198.4-mile endeavor… A 5-6 month journey… Where I won’t be earning any money… And I’ll be sleeping in the woods…on the not-always-soft ground…

Now, to some people, this might sound a bit crazy and truthfully, it is. So, why would anyone want to embark on such a trip? Well, today’s your lucky day! In the following sections, I will be letting you into my brain, as an aspiring thru-hiker, and divulging some of the craziness wrapped up inside. Additionally, I will be sharing two other lists inspired by the book “Appalachian Trials,” by Zach Davis and another list inspired by my deepest darkest thoughts (a.k.a. my ‘fears’ list).

As a hopeful thru-hiker for 2023, I’ve heard some variation of the ‘why’ question quite a few times. Sometimes these questions are laced with interest and positivity, but sadly, that isn’t always the case. Occasionally, I’ll have someone tell me that I should be focusing on my career or that a young woman such as myself shouldn’t go into the backcountry alone, etc., etc. Most of the time I enjoy discussing the trail, but it can be exhausting trying to defend myself and my hike.

These interactions have led me to create a list on why I am hiking the Appalachian Trail, as well as the other lists mentioned previously. I believe that these lists are incredibly important for any potential thru-hiker (especially when written down) as they give you a sense of purpose and help you remain true to yourself along your journey.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Trail = happiness. Enjoying the Grayson Highland ponies along the A.T.

Why am I hiking the Appalachian Trail?

To hike the Appalachian Trail (or any long-distance trail for that matter), one has to have some reason for doing so. It’s a costly, long, and quite difficult adventure. Here are some of my reasons for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (in no particular order):

  • I need a change of pace from the monotony of my job and home life.
  • I need some time to think about my career trajectory and don’t feel like I have the time while working.
  • I want to be closer to nature.
  • I want to meet new people who will challenge my perspective of the world.
  • I often feel trapped and need some freedom.
  • I don’t feel challenged lately and challenges are what drive my body and brain to a happier existence.
  • I need some time to think about what I want in life (What kind of job? Do I want kids? Where do I want to live? Etc.).
  • I need a break from the hustle and bustle of society.
  • I need an adventure!

My reasons are largely based on feeling stuck in the place where I am right now and wanting to change that. I graduated college almost two years ago and while I enjoy my job, I don’t feel the passion. To me, passion is what drives my life in positive directions. Because I often work long days in a physically and mentally demanding job, I often feel exhausted to the point where I don’t feel like I have the energy to enjoy life on my off days. While the Appalachian Trail will also be physically and mentally demanding, it will also add many things that are currently lacking in my life: greater social interaction, enjoyment in nature, and freedom from normality. For these reasons, I am choosing to hike the A.T.

When in doubt, the outdoors are my happy place (especially when including alpacas high up on top of Rainbow Mountain in Peru).

What will happen when I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail?

This prompt comes from Zach Davis’ book “Appalachian Trials.” I think it is a great question for those thinking about thru-hiking and especially those who are actively preparing to do so because it allows you to think of the future beyond Katahdin (for those hiking North). How do you want to feel after finishing your thru-hike? What do you want to have accomplished? Here are my hopes and thoughts for my future self:

  • I will feel more confident in my body and who I am as a person.
  • I will have overcome many challenges and I will feel proud.
  • I will feel incredibly strong (physically and mentally).
  • I will have a better idea of the career I want to pursue.
  • I will have a stronger sense of purpose in my life.
  • I will have an idea of what kind of life I want to live.
  • I will feel like I can be independent from society’s wishes and live the life that I want to live.
  • I will be more social.
  • I will be stronger in my boundaries.
  • I will have had one of the most incredible adventures of my life.

Most of these are based on my why’s of hiking and what I want to have accomplished with my thru-hike. Now, I know that a thru-hike won’t magically fix my life and I am not expecting it to. However, I do believe it’ll change some aspects of my life and will help me to jumpstart change in others.

Feeling incredibly accomplished after thru-hiking the Knobstone Trail in Indiana.

What will happen if I give up on the Appalachian Trail?

This question is also from Zach Davis’ book and has allowed me to process how I would feel if I quit my thru-hike. This question is not meant to make you feel guilty for quitting if you have an injury, a life-altering event, or other such reason for quitting. It is mainly for you to have a list of thoughts that will re-inspire you and make you think about what you would be going home to if you left the trail just because it got hard (“No Pain, No Rain, No Maine” – am I right?). Here are the things that I would expect to feel if I decided to give up on my thru-hike:

  • I would feel disappointed in myself because I know that I am a strong individual.
  • I would feel like I let others down, even though this hike is for me.
  • I would feel unhappy with my choice later on.
  • I would return to a job I don’t love.
  • I would feel like I didn’t see everything that I needed to see through.
  • I would continue to settle on various aspects of my life and I know that I am tired of settling.
  • I would feel shame.
  • I would miss out on putting myself out there and meeting new people that I would normally never get the chance to meet.
  • I would not scratch the adventure itch.
  • I would not have time to work on myself and my purpose if I went back to my previous life.

While no one really wants to think about this question and the possibility of giving up on¬†something that may have been a life-long dream, it is important to have this list so that you can remind yourself on the bad days that it’s not worth it to quit. It is meant to keep you going even if you are cold and soggy or hot and muggy. For some, emotional guilt may be strong in preventing them from quitting. For others, it may be not wanting to go home to their previous life. Whatever it is, write the list. Keep yourself going.

Giving up would mean missing out on incredible happenings such as seeing wild ponies in Grayson Highlands.

What are my fears about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail?

This question does not come from Zach’s book, but I think it’s an important thing to think about. Humans are naturally fearful creatures, but we often don’t want to think about our fears and so we push them deep down inside ourselves. By writing out my fears (big or small) about hiking the A.T., I have been more able to come to terms with some and start working on the others. With this, I hope to create space for a happier and more positive thru-hike. So, what am I scared of?

  • I’m sometimes afraid of animals and insects (ticks for sure).
  • I’m sometimes afraid of the dark on nights when I’m surrounded by sounds I don’t recognize.
  • I’m not always so trusting of strangers.
  • I fear that a bear may snatch my bear bag while I sleep.
  • I fear that I won’t find a tramily (trail family) that suits me.
  • I fear running out of food (and water for that matter).
  • I occasionally have a fear of missing out.
  • I fear that I will miss my family, cats, and friends.
  • I fear I may get homesick.
  • I’m sometimes afraid that I won’t finish the trail.

While these aren’t all of my fears, they are definitely some of my big ones.¬† As you can tell, some have simple fixes, while others may not, and that’s ok. For example, I can sleep with earplugs at night if I don’t want to worry about noises outside my tent. I can use resources like the FarOut app to check for future water sources and check the comments to make sure that they are running. I can call home every time I’m in town so that I don’t feel too distant from those I care about. However, some things I can’t prevent, like if I will find a tramily that I mesh well with. Sometimes you just gotta hope for the best and if things don’t work out, then you work them out as you go.

If you are like me and have lots of thoughts in the back of your head on what-ifs, doubts, or other such scary things, write them out! Brainstorm solutions if you can and just vent about the others if you cannot. Don’t let fear consume your thru-hike.

As they say, without darkness, there is no light (featuring a sunrise in the Wyoming wilderness).

In conclusion…

Now that you’ve had a chance to look into my brain a little bit, is hiking in the woods for six months a little less crazy? Probably not, but I’m still gonna do it. There are many reasons why people choose to go on thru-hikes, section hikes, and even short backpacking trips. Whatever the reason, it’s definitely good enough. Let me know what some of your why’s and fears are for thru-hiking in the comments below!

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Comments 3

  • Craig : Jan 19th

    Hell yeah! You’ve got this!

    Reply
  • Steven : Jan 20th

    DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! Do it all the way. You will regret it in your elderly years if you don’t
    I am 69 and regret having worked at a mediocre job for 40 years and now trying to empty my bucket list and I don’t have enough time. And I do regret not doing things I wanted to do but didn’t feel I had time or money
    SO I like your why’s and the tramily will find you because you will attract them. DO IY BIG TIME

    Reply
    • Alejandra May : Jan 20th

      Thanks for the note! My mom’s uncle gave me a similar little speech and I find this kind of information so valuable. I will do my very best to reach Katahdin!

      Reply

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