An Introvert’s Guide to the Appalachian Trail
I have always loved hiking. It gives me time alone in nature to replenish my energy, enjoy the pure exertion of exercise, and appreciate the beauty of the world around me. Time spent in big groups or prolonged social settings leaves me feeling drained, so having this time to recharge is essential. Why then, if being alone is one of my favorite parts of hiking, did I choose the Appalachian Trail—a trail known for an ever-increasing volume of hikers?
For introverts thinking about hiking the AT, there are several aspects of the trail to consider and weigh against your personality and needs. There are also many reasons why the AT can still be a fabulous choice for someone who prefers time alone. Equipped with these tools, you can decide whether hiking the AT is right for you and if so, thrive on the trail as an introvert.
Why I Chose the AT
I am from the West Coast, so one of the most common questions I would get on trail was, “Why aren’t you doing the PCT?”
Closer to Towns. I chose the AT because I’m already familiar with the West Coast. I knew I wanted to do the PCT someday, but concerns about resupplying and getting into towns held me back. I learned that the AT was much easier to navigate in this regard. The idea of hitchhiking made me super anxious, so having to think less about that made me feel better.
Fellow adventurers. As a first-time thru-hiker, even an introverted one, I felt reassured by the social reputation of the AT. I still wanted to make friends and enjoy the people around me, and knowing this wouldn’t be a problem was comforting.
Pros of the AT as an Introvert
Even though the AT is an extrovert’s dream come true, there are many benefits for introverts.
The large amount of people will make it easier for you to decompress. Especially in the beginning of the trail, so many people will be at the shelter or campfire that your absence won’t be noticed if you leave to read in your tent. You will run into instances without as many people, but by that time most hikers have settled into the lifestyle and there are fewer campfires and shelter gatherings anyways.
Another positive aspect of the AT is the high concentration of trail towns for hikers who need a break from the social trail life. This will depend on your budget and resupply timing, but sometimes a quiet motel stay is just the rejuvenating thing a weary hiker needs to face the trail with renewed energy and perspective. Towns are also a great place to take a break from a group that you aren’t getting along with and rest while they gain some distance North. More on that below.
Being in nature is how I fuel my internal batteries drained by social interaction. If being outside provides a similar experience for you, you’re doing the right thing by thru-hiking. For a first time thru-hiker, spending 5-6 months outdoors will likely be the most immersive outdoor you’ve experience ever had. Unless you are hiking with a partner, and you never hike apart, you will also spend a lot of your actual hiking time alone. This is a blessing, and will give you time to prepare for the inevitable social aspects of the trail such as crowded shelters or hostels.
You will likely encounter a decent amount of trail magic on the AT, due to the trail’s popularity and proximity to city centers. I can’t see why any thru-hiker would ever complain about trail-magic (free food, rides, water, chairs, anything), thus I don’t feel the need to explain this point further.
Considerations for hiking the AT as an introvert
As you plan your thru-hike, these are some things for introverts to keep in mind. If any of these are a deal-breaker for you, continue reading for alternatives.
There are a lot of people hiking the trail, especially if you decide to start NOBO in March or April. My first few nights in Georgia I was camped practically touching other tents. If you’re a light sleeper like I am, you’ll have to deal with snoring, the sounds of dozens of NeoAirs (including yours) crinkling, excited hikers who just won’t go to bed, and late-comers shining their headlamps as they set up next to you. All of these things happen often and can get old. If people are what you would most like to avoid, an alternative thru-hike might be something to consider. More below on that option.
Shelters are the meeting points of the Appalachian Trail and where the social scene often originates. Sometimes staying at a shelter is unavoidable if it is the only water or camping spot for miles, but with shelters you get people, and with people you can have any of the scenarios listed above. Camping at shelters can easily be avoided if you aren’t averse to a little extra planning. Details on stealth camping below.
With any concentration of people, there is bound to be a group who just wants to party. Hikers most often let loose in towns, and sometimes pack out their libations. This is something to keep in mind if you plan to stay at a hostel or at a shelter right after a town. Partying hikers can be loud, stay up late, and are generally less aware of their surroundings. This is not to say that people celebrating can’t be perfectly civil—and I’m not always a party-pooper either. However, as someone who has had a drunk guy collapse on me while I was asleep in a hostel, I can say that this is definitely a part of the trail to note.
Again, this is especially relevant if you start NOBO in March or April. There was always much discussion of “The Bubble” — where it was, if we were in it, if it was coming up behind us. If you want to start when everybody else wants to start, you’ll most likely be in a bubble of some sort, surrounded by a lot of people for quite a while. When hikers finally start to spread out out—usually after the Smokies—you will inevitably catch up to another bubble or be engulfed by one coming up behind. Such is life on the trail.
Alternatives to AT NOBO
If any of the above sounds intolerable to you, there are other options to enjoy the trail as your beautiful introverted self.
SOBO / Flip-Flop
Starting Southbound from Maine usually means starting after the trail in Baxter State Park has opened, usually around mid-June. Because of this time restriction, there will be many hikers starting around the same time, but not nearly as many as the countless waves of NOBOs. The hiker population will thin out through Maine, until you run into the NOBO bubbles coming up from the South. Based purely on numbers, a SOBO thru-hike is a more solitary endeavor than a NOBO hike.
If you prefer the most solitary experience of all, you may consider a Flip-Flop. However, this depends whether you choose a traditional flip-flop—NOBO from Harper’s Ferry and then flipping back to Harper’s to head SOBO towards Springer—or if you start from alternative locations. You can plan where most hiker bubbles will be and when to avoid certain areas. This is also a great way to make the seasons and regional characteristics work in your favor. A friend of mine did a customized flip-flop, where he hiked only in ideal weather and still took a month off from hiking. Keep in mind that you will have to pay for travel expenses when you make it to your flip point. As a bonus, alternative thru-hikes help to reduce impact on the trail and protect its future, and the ATC is working to promote SOBO and flip-flop hikes.
If any of these options still sound too riddled with hikers, you may want to consider a different long-distance trail completely. There are plenty of remote and/or less established trails that aren’t yet the well-worn walking highways like the AT and the PCT. More planning will be necessary, but it could be well worth the solitude.
Still want to do the AT NOBO?
If you’ve weighed your concerns and still want to walk from Georgia to Maine, I don’t blame you.
There is a powerful allure in doing it this way—with Katahdin as the end goal—and one of the reasons it is the most popular option. There are still some things to keep in mind if this is the path you choose.
Accept the AT the way she is
You’ve done the research and know that Georgia is going to be a tent-to-tent, campfire-every-night, party of inexperienced and delighted people. And you know that this won’t really change all that much for the entirety of your hike—you’ll usually be in or around some sort of bubble. But you also know that you chose this trail, in this direction, for a reason. If you blame the trail for something you knew going in, she will spite you with a man snoring loudly next to your tent for countless nights in a row. Don’t blame the trail for who she is. Accept it and do what you can to minimize your grief. Practical steps to follow this include:
1. Register your hike
Registering your hike with the ATC is good for so many different reasons. It helps you to pick a day that won’t be as crowded, which decreases impact on the trail, and it helps the ATC to predict when the trail will be most impacted, helping them protect the trail to the best of their ability. You can check start dates periodically and pick one that will decrease your chances of starting in a massive bubble.
2. Be flexible
If you want the flexibility to leave a particularly large or obnoxious bubble, it is helpful to have freedom built into your plan to either hike faster or slow down. This can be more difficult if you have a tight deadline to finish the trail, or are picking up packages at post offices that tie you to towns on certain days. If possible, build in a window of a few weeks to give some leeway in avoiding bubbles. This will allow you to take a few extra days in town to let a bubble pass, or even flip ahead if the bubble is really hard to shake. Being open to different options will make your trail experience more enjoyable.
I’m slightly wary of suggesting this because if done incorrectly, stealthing can damage the area surrounding the trail. However, I stealthed often and it quickly became my favorite way to camp. I did my best to follow Leave No Trace Principles by choosing already established sites (i.e. setting up on a patch of dirt clearly used by many, rather than setting up on a bed of vegetation) and camping only on durable surfaces (so not an eroding hillside). It takes better planning with water and requires somewhat more flexibility, but having the site to yourself, where you can unwind with your evening routine and appreciate your temporary home, is the ultimate solution for an introvert. If you stealth, just promise you will memorize and adhere to the Leave No Trace Principles, and won’t create a site of your own, okay? Pinky promise? If not, my ghost will haunt you each night for eternity by whispering the reasons you must always carry a trowel and pack out your toilet paper.
These are the real nuts and bolts for surviving as an introvert on the AT.
Take your time
This doesn’t necessarily mean go slow. It means take the time you need each day to decompress, meditate, roar into the mountains—whatever it is that makes you feel rejuvenated. Hiking and being outside makes you feel good, but you’ll be hiking a hell of a lot, and you still need to do the things that will preserve your sanity. If this means shunning everyone at the campfire and using the precious hour between eating and losing all ability to stay awake to read your Kindle and journal, I hereby give you absolute permission to do this. You are hiking the trail, and you must take care of yourself in order to finish it.
I mentioned earlier that a drunk guy fell on me in a hostel. Hostels are great, and an essential part of the trail experience, but so are the motels along the trail that give you a glorious (usually) clean room with a bed, a TV, and most importantly, nobody else. Watching Catfish reruns, eating pizza and cereal and letting my pounding feet rest on a stack of pillows while my hiking partner and I barely talked are some of my fondest memories. I’ve never appreciated completely tuning out from life more. Solo motelling can quickly run through a budget, but in my experience, splitting a room with three other hikers usually came out even or cheaper than a hostel bunk would be. The key is to share a room with hikers you want to hang out with, who also want to rest. Otherwise you’ll end up more exhausted. And sometimes the occasional solo motel is worth the money. Allow yourself some breaks; it will enable you to see the trail in a different light once you return.
The one downside to being the first person on trail is that you’ll have to break the spiderwebs that have formed overnight. The upsides, however, are plentiful. You will pass many people still asleep in their tents, thereby not having to interact with them. You will get a head-start on your day and feel more accomplished earlier on, which will allow you to stop earlier at a stealth site where you can be alone. And you will probably get to see more wildlife and cool sunrises that you otherwise would have slept through. Achieving your hiking goal earlier in the day gives you added flexibility to change your plans if you find a site more crowded than expected, or if a water source isn’t running. You’ll have time to continue hiking and choose a site to best fit your needs.
Don’t be an asshole. As an introvert, sometimes people perceive me as mean or weird or just super, unnaturally quiet, but I never mean anyone harm with how I’m acting. Even if you’re quiet, there are still friends to be made, and memorable times to be had on the AT. I don’t claim to have mastered it, but there is a way to take the time you need to recoup from the social scene around you and to exist within it, while making friends and maybe even enjoying yourself. As long as you aren’t making anyone’s time out there worse, you can exist just as you are, and not worry what anyone else thinks.
I will not deny that the social aspects of the AT weren’t sometimes draining, but it was absolutely worth it. I wore earplugs while camped next to big snoring men, slowed down to let big groups pass, and carved out the time to journal every night. I found ways to survive as an introvert on the most social of trails, and so can you. You might have a drunk guy fall on you as you’re drifting off to dreamland, but afterwards, you’ll sleep soundly knowing you picked the right trail.
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