Lessons from a 2016 Hiker to the Class of 2017
Dear Class of 2017 Thru-Hikers,
Over the course of my 2,189 mile journey I learned a lot, both about myself and the trail. Now that I am several months removed from the trail, I can look back on my hike and see the big picture clearly. I’ve been getting Springer Fever seeing all the Instagram posts from this year’s thru hikers and I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned and some other pieces of advice before too many hikers get out on the trail. I’m not going to try to tell you what gear to use or what towns to stay in, you can look in my previous post for that. The lessons I hope you pick up from me are less tangible but much more important.
1) No Regrets
This is definitely the most important lesson so I’ll write it first in case you don’t decide to scroll any further. I made it my goal early on to leave each town with no regrets, which often meant buying the extra ice cream cone or taking another zero day. Over time, I made it my goal to leave the trail with no regrets, and I am proud to say that’s exactly what I did. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t things I would do differently next time or that looking back I might have made the wrong decision at times, if I ever do a thru hike again I would certainly change things up and learn from my mistakes. The important lesson is not to have any regrets looking back on your hike- accept the things you did and decisions you made and live with them. This lesson should probably be applied to your life after the trail as well, so take note.
2) Keep a Daily Journal
Looking back on my hike, one of the things I definitely did right was to keep a daily journal. It’s hard to believe, but at some point the memories from your hike will start to get murky, and that’s where it’s helpful to have a daily journal. Make the extra effort to write a few sentences each night- I know you’re tired after a long day of hiking but don’t skip out on this, you’ll thank yourself later. Write down what the best views were, the names of the people you met and your favorite, or least favorite, part about that day. Toward the end of my hike innumerable hikers commented to me that they wished they had done what I did and wrote down what happened each day of their hike, don’t have those same regrets (see first lesson).
3) Take Lots of Pictures
This one sounds like a given, but there’s more to it than that. While the views are incredible, don’t focus on taking pictures of the views as much as the little things. Take pictures of the trail, of each town you go into. Most importantly, take pictures of the people you meet and your closest friends. Not just pictures from the best moments, take candid pictures of some of the lows on the trail or of a group of people around a shelter. This is one of the things I did not do well on my hike and I wish I had more pictures of the shelters I stayed in or the terrain on a certain day or that awesome trail angel I met.
4) Don’t spend too much time in town
Yes, towns are one of the best parts of the trail, but only in small doses. You didn’t go out to hike the trail so you could spend most of your time in town. Spend most of your time on the trail, that way when you do go into town it is that much more enjoyable. You could be back home watching movies and eating gross amounts of food, so why spend your time on the trail doing that? It’s okay to take nero and zero days and to stop in lots of towns, but don’t forget the real reason you’re out on the trail.
5) Don’t take your hike for granted.
Don’t consider it a given that you’ll make it to Katahdin or Springer or wherever you’re headed. Injuries happen, money runs out, and various other circumstances force people off the trail. Even some of the strongest hikers, or most determined, get forced off by reasons out of their control. Make sure you enjoy your hike to the fullest so that if you are forced off you can look back on the trail as one of you best experiences in life. If for some reason you are forced off the trail, don’t view your hike as a failure but rather look at the positive experiences of it. You never know what could happen, so don’t be the person that gets to Maine and realizes they haven’t enjoyed the hiking. It’s easy to become fixated on hiking big miles, I had that problem for a while, but be sure to remember why you’re out on the trail and enjoy it while you can.
6) Be courteous to the trail and it’s community
Respect the trail and respect the people on the trail. Be grateful to the trail angels that give you rides or meals and be kind to the hostel owners and outfitters along the way. Most importantly, be kind to the people you meet on the trail. This isn’t your trail, you are sharing it with others, so make sure their experience is enjoyable too. You’d be surprised how many people you meet that act like they own the trail and you aren’t good enough to use it. Practice ethical Leave No Trace policies and keep the trail in good condition. Be sure to thank the volunteers and maintainers on the trail as you pass them by. Better yet, take a zero day in Harper’s Ferry or another town or volunteer for the ATC or a local trail club.
7) Learn from other hikers
As you hike, you’ll meet lots of former thru hikers doing a section hike or giving trail magic or who own a hostel or restaurant. Take some time to talk with them and learn as much as you can from them. They will enjoy sharing some of their memories and lessons and you’ll learn a lot from them and will gain a better understanding of the trail. Be sure to write down some of the things they say, too- you’ll want to remember them later on. I found that often the older hikers offered the best words of wisdom and said the most inspiring things.
I know that not every nugget of wisdom that I’ve shared with you will stick, but I hope that you’re able to take something from this article and in turn can have a better hike as a result. The trail is a magical and wonderful place and I hope every one of you has the opportunity to experience the fullness of what the trail has to offer. Best of luck to everyone on their journeys, whether that be a thru hike or section hike or anything in between. I’m excited to follow along and live vicariously through many of you and I’m looking forward to meeting some of you on the trail this spring and summer.
Leapfrog, NOBO ’16
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