Lessons Learned from My First Backpacking Trip

With only a few days until my Appalachian Trail thru-hike commences, I can’t help but think back to my first backpacking trip and the invaluable lessons I took away from it.

The plan was to do a three-day section hike on the Appalachian Trail, starting at Springer Mountain and ending at Neel Gap. At the time, 31.1 miles seemed realistic for a three-day backpacking trip. However, I grossly underestimated the trail, had a false confidence in my physical capabilities, and I may have overpacked a bit.

At the top of Springer Mountain, ready for my first backpacking adventure.

Day One

Lesson learned: Be wary of overpacking.

My first day on the trail was absolutely blissful. It was raining as I started the climb up Springer. Getting wet didn’t faze me; I was simply overjoyed to be embarking on a new kind of adventure: backpacking.

My pack was unnecessarily heavy, however, and I knew right away that I would have to reduce my pack weight if this backpacking trip were to be successful. When I got back down to the parking lot I quickly unloaded whatever I could on any person who would take something from me—MREs, a book, my backup knife, etc. Yes, I brought MREs. Someone had suggested them as a source of food; someone who had obviously never backpacked before.

After dropping about five pounds from my pack, I carried on. I made it to Hawk Mountain Shelter with just enough time to set up my tent before another band of rain came swooping in. I crawled in my tent, exhausted; I fell asleep before I could even make dinner. I slept heavily for 13 hours.

Those 8.1 miles kicked my ass!

The face of bliss.

Day Two

Lesson learned: It’s important to stay hydrated and replace spent calories.

I awoke with the same eagerness to hike as I had possessed the day before. I rehydrated some eggs, packed up camp, and went on my way—sore but with a smile on my face.

As I hiked, I became increasingly aware of my body. My back and shoulders were strained from the weight of my pack. My hips were bruised and chafed from the hip belt. My legs felt weak, as if they could collapse beneath me, weary from carrying a 35-pound pack up and over mountains. I was so uncomfortable that I was walking at a pace of less than a mile per hour.

It took me ten hours but I managed to hike to Gooch Mountain Shelter. It was a long and arduous 7.6 mile trek to get there.

At camp, I struggled to set up my tent. Fatigued from hiking and operating on a severe calorie deficit, I could barely function. I poured water over my sweat-soaked body, hung my clothes out to dry, ate my dinner before it was done steeping, and passed out.

That’s not a peace sign; I’m signifying day two.

Day Three

Lesson learned: When the body is tired, it becomes increasingly difficult to control the mind.

As I set out to hike the morning of my third day, I noted that I was not nearly as enthusiastic as I had been the two days prior.

It was a slow start as I heavily carried the weight of my pack along the trail. As I progressed, my calves seized with a rebellion so great I had no choice but to shuffle my feet. I carried on in a pathetic gait.

For five miles I dragged my feet focused only on the careful movement of one foot in front of the other. Each step up felt as though there was a golf ball painfully rolling over my calf muscles. Each notch in the ball gnawing and chewing at the sinews of my lower leg. It was excruciating. I needed a break.

I took refuge on a rock overlooking a stunning view of the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains. With nearly seven more miles until I would reach Woods Hole Shelter, it became apparent to me that I needed to revise my plan. I was already behind schedule and now my three-day hike turned five-day hike was looking like it might take me a week if my calves remained locked, shredded, and immobile.

A tear rolled down my face. I tried to choke it back but the urge to cry was beyond my control.

Utterly pooped by day three.

The Failure of the Mind

As I sobbed, I thought to myself:

I can’t carry on like this. Look at me!

I can’t even pick my feet up off the ground.

At this rate, I won’t make it to the shelter until after dark.

I should quit.

I am obviously not ready to be a backpacker.

I can’t even handle a three-day expedition.

I am weak.

I am physically not prepared for this.

I have overestimated my capabilities and I do not possess the mental fortitude to continue.

I will never be able to thru-hike the Appalachia Trail.

I suck!

The view from the rock I sat on when I made the decision to get off trail.

Tapping Out

Did I  give up because my body hurt, or because my mind justified it?

I turned on my cell phone and I called Ron, the guy who shuttled me to the top of Springer three days before. I explained to Ron my situation; that my calves had seized and that it was too difficult to walk. Ron was shuttling some other section hikers to Fontana Dam that day and wouldn’t be able to rescue me but gave me the contact information for Wes. He said Wes would take care of me.

So I phoned Wes. Just as Ron had assured, Wes agreed to come pick me up. I was less than a mile from Woody Gap where Wes and I were to meet.

I took one last look over the vista and gathered my pack. A few more tears fell from my face as the sudden regret of tapping out sunk in. I was immediately ashamed of myself.

I continued my awkward shuffle until I reached the parking lot at Woody Gap.

It wasn’t long before Wes pulled up. I threw my things in the trunk and jumped into the back of his SUV. As we drove away, I tried to carry on a polite conversation though my thoughts raced as I reviewed my short backpacking trip. The feeling of shame I felt in that moment was far greater than the pain I had experienced while attempting to hike with my strained calves. I had let myself down

I had set a goal to hike from Springer Mountain to Neel Gap, but when things got tough instead of soldiering through, I took the easy way out. I had quit. I had failed myself. There are no words to describe this awful feeling.

Don’t mistake my smile. I felt defeated to be getting off trail.

A Promise to Myself

It was while sitting in Wes backseat, as we drove back to my car, that I made a promise to myself: I will do whatever it takes to be both physically and mentally prepared for my hike; because hiking is the love of my life. There is no joy greater to me than that of walking in the woods; and I don’t ever want to feel the regret and guilt of quitting on my dream ever again.

The creek near Three Forks.

Lessons Learned/Actions Taken

When I got back to Florida, I wrote the following about what I learned from my trip. Opposite each lesson is the action I have taken or intend to take to avoid future pitfalls.

Lessons Learned Actions Taken
1. I am overly ambitious. Be realistic starting out, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
2. I need to work out more. Sought support from a personal trainer and running coach.
3. When you think you can’t push forward anymore, you really can. Practiced in long-distance trail running and further applied in my thru-hike.
4. Physical exhaustion has been redefined for me. Remember to properly refuel your body, it helps combat fatigue and rejuvenates the spirit.
5. There are REAL mountain in Georgia. Keep an open mind and never underestimate the trail ahead.
6. Sassafrass WILL, in fact, kick your ass Heed the warning and suggestions of those who have hiked before me.
7. There is a culture where stinky strangers sleep next to each other. We’re all on this unique journey and although we may experience it separately, we rally together to celebrate each step.
8. Fresh water from a stream tastes better than bottled. Don’t forget to stop and cherish the small things, the journey is more than reaching a vista.
9. Sometimes you have to look backwards in order to know you’re headed in the right direction. There is always a lesson to be learned.
10. A positive attitude goes a long way. Don’t listen to the lies you tell yourself. Shut down negative self-talk. Be kind to yourself and treat your body and mind with compassion because both are needed every step of the way.


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Comments 9

  • Ashley : Apr 10th

    Just looking in on ya, gritting my teeth as I read your words and imagine your aches.

    When I went to the Marines about 55 years ago, my dad’s last words of wisdom were: “Never quit, never give up, never surrender. You are stronger than you know.”

    You, too, are stronger than you realize. Keep the faith, be good to yourself. Your dream is not out of reach.


    • Jessica Luty : Apr 11th

      Thanks for the support!

  • WannabeThruHiker : Apr 11th

    My Army friends tell me the 3rd day is always the hardest. After that your body starts to acclimate, it may still hurt but not as bad as that 3rd day. Seems like you proved that to be true.

  • LeoYermo : Apr 11th

    And I have been a pack sniffing wanna be for all too long. Reading your posting and this in your bio: “I have a knack for being too honest and sharing more information than is necessary. I’m also a bit random at times.” Just want to say GREAT, THANK YOU, it all hit home for me!
    So glad you wrote and that I read.
    This old coot has a new out look on many matters pertaining to hiking.
    A keeper for sure.
    Looking forward to the next one .

  • Michael E McCordy : Apr 11th

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us Jessica .
    Of course your trip was not a failure, just part of the learning curve.
    Hope to meet you on a trail some day !

  • Bob : Apr 15th

    Jessica, congrats on the distance you’ve made so far. Don’t quit! Just did my first section hike last weekend. Plan to eventually section it entirely. I’m looking for suggestions for sections and shuttle contact information.

  • Ann aka Mom : Apr 16th

    Failure is not a word I would use to describe your efforts. I have watched you stumble and fall many times, only to rise to the occasion and better yourself every step of the way. Your ever increasing strength, determination and passion will carry you through.

    • Jess : Apr 27th

      Thanks, mom!

  • Jeanna LaBossiere aka Tammaro : Apr 24th

    This is so cool, Jessica! I am totally keeping up with your journey and am cheering for you hard core. I live in Johnson City TN now. We are only about 45 minutes from the AT off Roan Mountain by Janes bald, Round Bald, Grassy Ridges and hike it often. I have been told this is one of the most beautiful parts of the AT (Respectively). Keep me in mind when you make it up this way. SO PROUD OF YOU!


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