Is Your Name Judy, Because You’re Judging Me!

One of THE BEST things about the AT (and similar long trails)  for me is the egalitarian nature of trail culture. The trail doesn’t care if you make a six figure salary, how much you can bench press in the gym, or how many letters you have after your name. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to get up the same mountains, we all eat cheap ramen, and we all have to poo in a hole from time to time. People of different ages, from different cultures, with different experiences hang out with much more ease than than in the ‘real world’.

There’s also an unspoken understanding to try and avoid casually discussing the things that often separate us in our everyday lives. You know the big ones: political views, religious beliefs, whether or not you’re a ‘Swiftie’. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s not going to be that one guy spouting off his ideologies at a shelter from time to time or that you and your tramily (trail family, people you end up hiking with on the regular) won’t get into some deep philosophical talks as you walk along, it’s just that overall the ‘judginess’ of the everyday world is lifted a bit when you’re in the backcountry.

Oh, but that doesn’t mean we backpackers don’t judge each other at all. We do, it’s just usually exclusively over backpacking stuff. In that spirit, I’d like to share with you some of the most commonly debated backpacking/AT topics and the choices I’ve made so you know how to categorize me!


Start Date/Direction of Hike

When and where a person starts their thru hike immediately signals to other hikers something about them. Traditional NOBOs (people going northbound on the trail – Georgia to Maine) are a dime a dozen amongst AT thru hikers, commonly starting in March or April. Maybe the only way to differentiate yourself in this pack is to choose a starting date with extreme variance, like the first of January or a crazy date like February 29th (2024 is a leap year). SOBOs (those going southbound on the trail) often start in June and cite the solitude from crowds as the main reason for starting in Maine and heading south. Flip flop hikers are those who do the trail any way other than from one end to another in a continuous direction. An example is someone who starts in Harper’s Ferry (the unofficial halfway point of the AT) and hikes north to Katahdin only to return to Harper’s Ferry and finish going south to Springer. Flip floppers are the true unicorns of AT thru hikers.

Well, if you read my intro post here at The Trek you know I am always middle of the road and, unsurprisingly, this means I’m hiking NOBO and starting in early April. Ya basic, Purple.


Shoes vs. Boots

For many years, the chosen footwear of hikers were thick, leather boots. I assume this came from a time where there weren’t a lot of footwear options and most people were wearing some sort of leather boot in everyday life anyway, so walking in the woods in them didn’t seem like much of a burden. Boots have some good qualities and they have their place in outdoor adventuring, but the prevailing wisdom of modern backpackers (and actual scientific research) in most three season trail situations leans well toward trail runners. Trail runners are lightweight sneakers that dry quickly but also wear out pretty quickly. Many AT hikers find themselves having to replace their trail runners every 400-500 miles on the trail. Newer hikers often think they need a ‘waterproof’ shoe or boot, but again, unless you’re in some very specific situations, waterproof shoes are usually more detrimental than beneficial. Finally, many people will say they need hiking boots for ankle support. That’s another kind of old fashioned notion, most modern research shows that the ankle is actually made weaker by this support. But, hey, I’m not a physiologist or ankle-ologist or anything. So if what you’re wearing is working for you, meaning you don’t end up with pruny, blistered feet at the end of the day, you keep doing what you’re doing.

I am a trail runner wearer. And I wear gaiters (little tubes of fabric that covers the part where your foot goes into the shoe and helps keep debris out) over them so I really look like I know what I’m doing out there! Emphasis on ‘look like’.


Trekking Poles

Since most thru hikers on the AT use trekking poles these days, maybe it’s not as ‘judgy’ of a topic as it once was. All I can say is that when I see a young, strong hiker NOT using them, I do make some judgements about how much their knees must NOT bother them, so there’s that.

I am firmly on team trekking pole. I have hypermobility issues and my poles save me from falling more times than not so multiple points of contact with the ground is my jam.

A backpacker uses trekking poles for balance as they cross a small stream on a narrow log

Trekking poles are great for maintaining balance on water crossings

Tent vs. Hammock

Ok, out of all the ‘controversial’ topics in this post, this one scares me the most because…how do I say this…hammock people are very ‘passionate‘ about their chosen sleeping arrangements. I get it, hammocking allows you to set up almost anywhere (unless you’re above tree line or in an environment like a desert where there’s no trees) and since there’s no pressure points on your body while you’re hanging, you sleep like you’re floating on a cloud. It’s super comfy, no one argues that. I think the discussion comes down to convenience or use of space? Tenting does require a relatively flat, unencumbered space but in return you have said space to stretch out and spread out your gear right next to you. And right about this point, the hammock people want you to know that you can get all sorts of pockets and hanging accessories so you can have all your gear right above you or under you.

And that’s exactly why I’m a ground dweller. The small amount of comfort I’d gain from hanging does not, in my humble opinion, outweigh the burden of all the stuff you need for hammocking. I have a tent, a sleeping pad and a quilt. That’s it. A hammock set up requires a hammock, tree straps, a tarp, an underquilt, a bag or quilt for inside, maybe a ground cloth for under, and all the other accoutrements like ridgelines and drip lines and the aforementioned things you can hang from the ridgeline, and maybe an insect net if it’s not built in. Exhausting! Plus, when hiking the AT, making the switch from tenting to sleeping in a shelter is easy. I still have my sleeping pad and quilt but instead of putting it in my tent, I put it in the shelter. Simple!

In the end, the tent vs. hammock debate is similar to when people debate about pickles. You’re never going to convince someone to start or stop liking pickles, so in the end what you want as a pickle lover is to be friends with a pickle hater so you can have an extra pickle when you dine out. Every time I find out someone is a hammocker, I think that’s one less person jockeying for a good tent spot. Win-win for both of us!


Sleeping Bag vs. Quilt

Okay, this is sort of similar to the shoes vs. boots thing. For many of us born in the previous century, sleeping bags were all we knew when it came to sleeping in the outdoors. When I first read someone post about using a quilt when backpacking, I literally pictured a piecework, brightly colored, cotton blanket. That is NOT what a quilt is in the backcountry. You see, insultation is all about trapping air, that’s how the down or synthetic filler works in a sleeping bag or quilt, that’s how Styrofoam works in a cup. When you lay down in a sleeping bag, the top and sides of it use that trapped air to keep you warm, but the part you lay on is compressed by your weight, so you lose the insulation value of that area. A quilt is literally a sleeping bag minus the part you’d lay on and render useless, thus saving weight because you don’t have to carry as much fabric and filling. The quilt itself can strap to your sleeping pad so no air escapes from the sides. Some feel a quilt is more drafty, others will say you have more options to cinch the quilt down for cold nights, and vent it out for warmer ones. Some say the feeling of being in a sleeping bag is claustrophobic and hard to move in, others like the snugness and closeness. Either way, there’s so many more options these days for people of various sizes, including extra/less length and width so once you know which option is right for you, you can really make it personalized for your comfort.

I ended up in the quilt camp, for me it’s just all around more comfortable since I don’t have to carry all the extra weight of a bag and, as a side sleeper, I find it much easier to roll over without it being a full body workout like it was in a sleeping bag.


A Few Other Areas of Contention

Hikers on the AT and elsewhere will endlessly debate other subjects like:

  • Whether or not you carry a bear canister, use a bear proof sack, or hang your food
  • What rain gear you use including jacket vs. poncho and pants vs. skirt
  • What/how/if you filter or treat your water
  • Ultralight vs. lightweight vs. conventional (you think hammock people are ‘passionate‘, try talking to an ultralighter!)

In the end, as long as what you choose doesn’t violate Leave No Trace guidelines and any local rules and regulations, your choices only have to make you happy. Hike your own hike!

Purple Lotus is a NOBO hiker in the AT class of 2024. Read her first post, an introduction of herself, here.

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Comments 4

  • Harry Poppins : Feb 2nd

    I never realized it, but I think what I like best about the AT is the egalitarian nature of the trail as you say. On The Trail we are all equal. Excellent observation.

    • Traci 'Purple Lotus' Withani : Feb 2nd

      It literally feels like the way the world should be! Except for the ticks, those jerks need to exist nowhere 😛

  • Russ Hobgood (Russ 1663) : Feb 3rd

    You called, hikers are blessed with a wonderous and colorful variety of gear, direction and line of thought.

    Best of trail luck to you Purple Lotus

    • Traci 'Purple Lotus' Withani : Feb 4th

      Thanks, Russ!


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