My Five Biggest Fears for the AT

When you first tell people you plan on hiking the AT, and get past the basic premise that you have had a couple screws come loose and want to walk 2,200 miles, the conversation inevitably turns to fears.  And not my own fears, but their own fears.  Mostly this comes out as, “What about bears?”

My one sighting of a black bear, in the north Georgia mountains.

Bears really strike fear into the average person.  And I understand why. Bears are big, have sharp teeth, big claws, can outrun a human, and can climb trees (Really! Are you kidding me?).  Thankfully, the entire range of the AT has only one bear species—the black bear.  And to make my family, friends, and stunned random people in my life feel better, I always describe black bears as oversized, scared dogs.  This may have a sliver of untruth, but black bears tend to be wary around humans unless certain circumstances exist,, such as a mom with cubs or a bear that has learned to dumpster dive.

So, if I’m not scared of bears (and not scared of snakes), obviously I have no fear in my life and should have no problem finishing a thru-hike of the AT.

False.  Most of my fears stem from failure—and what things could cause me to voluntarily or involuntarily end my hike—so here are my five biggest fears for the AT.

1. Rain

You read that right.  Big, bad, couple screws loose Isaac is scared of the rain.  OK, that isn’t the whole truth.  I am not scared of rain—or water.  I am scared of my mental state on the fourth day of continuous rain.   And in case you don’t know, the AT is known for being really, really, really wet.

It’s hard to tell, but I’m sitting in my tent smiling as rain pours down. I’m wet, the tent is wet, everything is wet.

Once you’re wet in the woods, it is hard to get completely dry.  You are wet, your house (tent/hammock) is wet, clothes are wet, everything is wet.  And most of us generally like being dry. So there lies my fear.  One day of hiking in the rain—not the worst.  Two days in the rain—acceptable.  But I fear how I react on day three, day four, or day five of rain.

I’ll let y’all know how it goes.


2. Joint Injuries

Injuries can happen at any time during your five million steps on the trail—and I am nervous specifically about my ankles, and a little bit about my knees.  A knee or ankle injury can take you off the trail for a couple of days, weeks, or end your hike.  Thankfully, I have had a bunch of ankle injuries in my life for practice—oh, wait—that means my ankles suck.  Damn you ankles.

And since my ankles suck, I am worried about them.  Enough to hike in boots (this may change to trail runners, or sneakers to non-hikers) and do ankle exercises (yes, this is a real thing) for the past two months. Additionally, trekking poles help take lots of pressure off my knees and reduce the chance of falling due to a trip.

My beautiful trekking poles save me a ton of joint pain while hiking.

3. Ticks

My brother and I tried to set a world record for how many ticks we could get on ourselves one year at Hard Labor Creek State Park in Georgia.  We were both younger than ten, and my poor parents had to pull hundreds of the little blood-sucking, disease-spreading guys off us.

Turns out rolling around in the woods isn’t always the best plan—since we got those tiny deer ticks everywhere. No one wants details here, I promise. But if you’re a glutton for punishment, and ever meet my mom or dad, ask ’em.

Anyway, the tiniest of the animals on the trail scare me because they can carry different diseases—the most infamous being Lyme.  My fear is not having good habits of checking myself every night for the little buggers. One missed tick can leave you with all sorts of different diseases, some which are incurable (like Lyme).


4. Disease

Recently, norovirus has been in the news because hundreds of passengers got sick on a cruise ship—and noro is a nasty mistress.  Unfortunately, noro, along with many other diseases, can be spread between hikers.  It’s almost the perfect storm—lack of clean people, not many great ways to get sanitized, and a bunch of people crammed into a shelter.  Diseases can spread quickly and really slow you down for a couple weeks.

Additionally, it’s not just person-to-person diseases you need to worry about, but waterborne illnesses too.  Thankfully, these can be combated with a good water filter, and I plan on carrying my trusty Sawyer Squeeze.  Unfortunately, through of a combination of impatience and trusting of high-elevation water sources, I’m sure at some point I will feel the desire to not filter.  But I am going to do my best to filter at every source—just for precaution.

My Sawyer Squeeze. Dirty water flows from the bag, through the cylindrical filter, and out as clean, safe water.

5. Chafing

I will just come out and say it. I am sensitive about my sensitive areas.

And the only time I have had chafing in my life was when I was a little kid and would wear my bathing suit all day at the beach while running around.  All the salty water plus sand plus activity would inevitably lead to chafing.  And I still remember the burn to this day.

As I started to prepare for this hike, I read and heard (shout-out to Backpacker Radio) a lot about chafing.  It was something I never considered—but now I am nervous as hell about it.  Ergo, why I have a much too large bottle of Body Glide in my pack (Body Glide looks like deodorant but helps reduce friction between your skin and clothing).

I am also sort of just praying I am one of those hikers that can claim that I never get chafing just because of some genetically superior skin (or whatever magic creates chafe-free hikers).

There are my five biggest fears, and hopefully a few you didn’t expect.  And if I was to focus on the fears that are a little more abstract, I would talk about my fear of falling deeply in love with thru-hiking.  And the only reason I fear falling in love with long-distant backpacking is never being able to go back to my comfortable life, in a comfortable job, with a consistent schedule/scenery.  But that is for a post at the end of my hike, after six months of enjoying the trail while dealing with rain, the constant chance of misstep, ticks, potential for sickness, and chafing.  I cannot wait!

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Comments 13

  • Kathy Treadway : Feb 20th

    How perfectly reasonable fares that I never would’ve thought about for the AT. I am so happy for you in this adventure and can’t wait to read all of the tiny mini stories that make up this wonderful experience. You now have me wondering if trek polls will help me with my bad knees and balance.

    • Peter Pritchyk : Mar 8th

      Yes. Trekking poles will absolutely help you.

  • Mike S : Feb 21st

    Ticks. Ticks. Ticks. Lightening. And, ticks.

  • Greg B : Feb 21st

    I think part of accomplishing something like this is figuring out how to power through the rough times. No doubt, you will have many rainy days in a row and want to bail out of the hike, but then a couple of days later you will feel so strong that you were able to suck it up and make it through, and you will be excited about wherever you are at at that moment, and all will be good… and you will be slightly changed, for the better, because you were able to power through the hard times.

    The ticks are what worry me. I have had ticks so small on me that I checked one day, found nothing except what appeared to be a teeny tiny scab – literally almost invisible – just to find out two days later that it was an freakin’ TICK! Crap! I started carrying reading glasses just to magnify when I check.

    Good luck on your hike. You’ll do great!

  • stealthblew : Feb 21st

    Let’s take these in order:

    Rain – news flash …prepare to be wet all the time regardless of the conditions. You will most likely be wet with sweat when not wet from the rain. Not that big of a deal, but consider bringing an umbrella.

    Joint injuries – good to be aware of this possibility. It is imperative to start slow for the first week or two. Even if in top condition … allow for acclimation to the trail. Slow down and enjoy some new friends.

    Ticks – are not that big of a deal. Only have picked up a few over the course of three thru hikes.

    Disease – do not share food and remember to wash after defecating….or at least have a wipe hand and an eating hand.

    Chafing – spandex underwear or shorts will prevent this from happening.

    Enjoy your trip – no need to sweat the small stuff.

  • TBR : Feb 21st

    I’d add blisters to my list.

    Got some bad blisters right from the start and took weeks to sort that out.

    Now, I’ve got blister-fear.

  • Jim "One of Each" McFadden : Feb 22nd

    When I hiked (80’s), the most difficult aspect was my ill-fitting boots hassled me with blisters…skipped off the trail and had Peter Limmer make me custom boots. Blisters gone, still have them, resoled once.

  • Tricia Kyzer : Feb 22nd

    Hi Isaac! I met you at a Foothills Trail Workday. Great to see you on here!
    You are going to do great in spite of your fears. You will face up to them and move on up the trails. Can’t wait to read about your journey and I will be praying to the rain gods that you do not get weather like we have had this week in SC.

  • Jen : Feb 23rd

    I am at home and it has been raining for the past week and they are calling for another week of rain. I am home, dry and mentally not doing very well with all this rain. I just want to escape somewhere where the sun is shining so I spend my time looking at trail pictures and videos and it really helps to brighten my otherwise gloomy mood.

  • stealthblew : Feb 25th

    Here are some words for thought….

    Fear is the mind killer. The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you free.

    Just let go and enjoy your journey.

  • Pony : Feb 25th

    I agree with @Stealthblew on rain: You *will* be wet on the AT, guaranteed, often when it’s not raining. Heat and humidity in the mid-Atlantic states will have you feeling like you’ve been dipped in gasoline, and hiking up hills in rain gear you’ll soak through in an instant. Embrace the wet or drive yourself crazy trying not to get wet (not possible).

    Ticks are worth worrying about. You don’t want to get Lyme; it sucks.

    Bears? Nah. But be bear-smart.

    Chafe sucks, too, but you should expect to have some. My miracle cure for chafe is Vagisil (no, really). Slather some of that stuff on your chafe and it will sting for about 15-20 seconds, then it will feel better. Overnight, the ol’ Vag will clear chafe right up. Good stuff. (Also worth bringing along some Leukotape, which I use on occasion to cover up particularly bad patches of chafe.)

    Noro is a serious thing, too, especially if you are staying in shelters or hostels with others. Wash your hands as often as you can, and behave as if every person you meet might have the bug.

    I got Lyme and chafe, but not noro, when I hiked in 2016.

    Good luck and have fun. Bottom line is once you get on the trail, everything will sort itself out anyway.

  • Jami Reddish : Mar 9th

    Seed ticks. Those are the worst…tiniest little buggers I’ve ever seen. My dog, my kids and myself were covered with them after hiking around Hunting Island S.C.

    Chafing can be combated with compression pants (I.e. tight pants) (or u can buy the ladies Monistat chafing relief powder gel it comes in a smaller tube than the bodyglide).
    I hike in yoga/workout pants that are skin tight because I’m one of those super blessed girls who are “thick” which causes horrible chafing.

    Good luck on ur hike & dont forget to check for ticks!

  • Thunder : Mar 18th

    Crack me up! Rain?!? My Daughter and I hiked Amicalola to Fontana last spring, 17 days and it only rain for 17 days!! You’ll be fine. Cheering you on from here and jealous that I can’t be through hiking as well.


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