Lessons Learned: Going into my 2nd Thru-Hike

New Year, New Trail

After a year away from thru-hiking, it’s time to get back onto the trail. Since immersing myself in thru-hiking culture in 2017, it’s been a significant part of my life. My 2023 season was spent on the PCT helping hikers navigate the abnormal winter conditions in California, so I was never too far away from the thru-hiking community. It made me realize how much this community meant to me and how much I enjoyed the feeling of being out on the trail. Now it’s my turn once more; I am ready for my second thru-hike.

2022 taught me a lot about my ideal hiking style and why I enjoy the challenge of a thru-hike. The biggest challenge going into this year’s hike is the new environment of the Appalachian Trail. I have been on and around the PCT since 2017. It’s been my home for so many years. I’ve never really explored the East Coast. It’ll be a completely new experience. I know many people throughout the trail, though, so I am confident that I will feel right at home immediately. My first full thru-hike gave me so much insight into the best ways to enjoy my second.

Hike Your Own Hike

The principle of HYOH is simple: experience the trail the way you want. We have a tendency to focus on how others do things on the trail—the gear they use, the paths they take, the directions they go. New thru-hikers often get stuck thinking that to be successful, they need to follow the methods of experienced thru-hikers from the past. There are so many ways to complete your thru-hike. Don’t feel the pressure to be like everyone else. Blazing trails, having a 30lb base weight, going SOBO—it’s all okay. Not everyone is on the same journey.

One significant pressure we all face is forming trail families. Groups form naturally, and sticking together can sometimes get in the way of your own hike—whether it’s going too fast, too slow, or forcing a zero day to stay with someone. Remember, it’s your hike. We’re all drawn to people who make plans; some hikers will have their entire hike planned down to the last detail. Find hikers who enhance your hiking experience, not detract from it.

More Mental than Physical

Walking 2,200 miles is quite the feat. If you’re an active person, you’ll naturally get into the physical groove of hiking every day. Go into your hike ready for the physicality. The first three weeks will form your true trail legs and build up the endurance necessary to hike the entirety of the trail. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Take the first weeks to build up the pace. The true challenge then starts: the mental strength to stay out there.

You might be physically strong, but waking up early every day, in the cold, the wet, the dirt, will start to break you. Let me tell you, two weeks without a shower, lack of nutrition, and the monotony of constantly walking all day long can make you want to quit. I know the days become a blur, and everything hurts. At the end of the day, remember why you’re hiking. Don’t focus on finishing; focus on the little things every day—the small moments that make you smile, that make you cry, that make you laugh. A thru-hike is not all about the finish; it’s about the experience.

What I am Doing Differently

The biggest change going into my second thru-hike is how I am approaching the trail. While I took my time with the PCT, this second hike is all about the challenge. I do have a deadline for when I need to be done. As a result, the goal is efficiency. My pack is lighter, my body is stronger, my mind is focused. This is not the only trail I am doing this year; I’ll actually be returning to the PCT to section hike some of my favorite parts. So the AT is going to be more about the challenge of finishing in 100 days.

In order to do this, I am planning fewer zero days and being more methodical about how I hike. I probably won’t be in a tramily and will spend less time faffing around. This means no side quests or lazy town days. I know what’s ahead and the goal I have set forth. The mentality is different.

Advice to the Class of 2024

The thru-hiking community has been a large part of the last seven years of my life. I’ve experienced so much with so many hikers; I could never imagine my life without the people I’ve met. My second thru-hike will be more challenging. While I’ve made steps to make it easier, I know the mental hurdles that await me will test my own perseverance.

My best advice I always give thru-hikers is to enjoy every single day. The days will be long, and the nights will be cold, but the memories and the people you meet will change your life forever. We always think about the finish line first. The goal to reach the terminus. Hike your own hike and be true to yourself. This is your journey, full of ups and downs, lefts and rights. Remember to look up; we forget to sometimes.

And most importantly, stay optimistic.

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