Passing the Torch: Advice for the Class of 2022 from a 2021 Thru Hiker

It’s finally happening: the day you have been preparing for months, maybe even years, is on the horizon. It is a day you’ve likely been anxiously awaiting, nervously counting down until your life can finally begin. You are embarking on your 2022 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Whether your journey is starting at Springer, Amicalola Falls, Harpers Ferry, or Katahdin, your adventure is about to begin.

I have vivid memories of my stomach being in knots for weeks before starting my NOBO thru-hike on March 22, 2021. Attempting to hike the AT was something I had dreamed of for years, and for it to finally be happening was hard to wrap my head around.

A lot of people keep dreams on a shelf. Their far-off hopes and ambitions live insight but are just out of reach, oftentimes to protect against the possibility of failure. The fear of deciding to put your entire life on hold for 5-7 months is a huge undertaking, and most people are more comfortable dreaming about the possibilities rather than working to make that dream a reality.

Anna “Magic” McKinney concluding her 2021 thru hike on Katahdin. Photo courtesy of Joshua “Gooey” Kay.

You are different. Not only have you committed to a thru hike, but you have also taken the steps necessary to get on trail. You’ve saved money, tested gear, taken a leave of absence from—or even quit—your job, all to live in constant discomfort for the foreseeable future. You will wake up cold, wet, and hungry for days on end, push yourself to the absolute physical brink of exhaustion, suffer long hours in unbearable heat, and slog through mud while being relentlessly pursued by mosquitoes. Why are you willingly putting yourself through this hell?!

Everyone comes to the trail for different reasons.

You could be like me and have been laid off from your beloved job, running into the woods because you have nowhere else to turn. Maybe you have finally retired and feel as though you have earned a well-deserved break from reality. Maybe you’re trying to forget the pain of a recent loss, or are celebrating graduating. Or maybe you just really like to hike and want to see if you have what it takes to trek the 2194.3 miles that AT is officially measured at for 2022.

Whatever your reason, whatever your back story, you are finally here. I was shaking in my Altras when I stood where you are nearly a year ago. I doubted my physical abilities and mental fortitude but somehow managed to make it to Katahdin after 169 days. I learned more about myself and what I am capable of during those months than I can put into words, and I have no doubt that every hiker who walks away from a long trail leaves changed.

Life is simple on trail, and distractions are stripped away to a point where people are able to discover what it means to truly be happy. Small joys are found in shooting stars, lightning bugs, rolling vistas, wild ponies, campfires, dry clothes, and gushing springs. The trail will break you down to the raw version of yourself that has been buried under years of conforming to society, and you finally get the chance to just be.

Rolling hills of Virginia. Photo courtesy of Anna “Magic” McKinney.

It takes a lot of time and energy to prepare for the physical aspects of trail, but it’s a daunting task to begin to prepare for the mental games a thru hiker must endure. Even though most hikers’ journeys takes the same physical route, each one is different. What advice do I have to give to the AT Class of 2022?

1. Do Your Research

I met a lot of fellow hikers on trail in 2021 who had their lives upended in 2020. The global pandemic has been a catalyst for many folks, and a lot of people realized they only had one shot of making their life worth living and decided to take action. In the past couple of decades, long trails have become more popular and accessible thanks to mainstream media.

Because of the growing popularity, more people are venturing into nature and outdoor recreation is on the rise. There are more novices than ever on the trails, whether it be families out for a day hike or old friends tackling their first backpacking trip together. This is not an article about gatekeeping or the elitist mentality of some thru hikers, but it is an observation that not everyone who is on trail has done their research. A lot of people are not aware of how to recreate responsibly.

Keffer Oak in Virginian. Photo courtesy of Anna “Magic” McKinney.

Hopefully, most thru hikers have heard of Leave No Trace and practice The 7 Principles.

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

© Leave No Trace: www.LNT.org

If you’re wanting to test your knowledge, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has partnered with Leave No Trace to create a short and interactive quiz. These Principles can take shape in a variety of ways when you live in the woods, but we shouldn’t claim ignorance as an excuse for negligence. Pack in it, pack it out, and everything in between.

READ NEXT – Common Leave No Trace Mistakes Made by Thru Hikers & How to Avoid Them

In the same research vein, have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. As the bubble grows larger each year, ambitious thru hikers start their attempts earlier and earlier. Most likely the winter gear you start with in Georgia in February will not be the summer gear you’re using in Pennsylvania in July. Hypothermia is just as much of a threat as heat exhaustion.

Check out the average temperature in each region of the AT during the times you think you’ll be passing through, and plan accordingly. A lot of thru-hikers switch out their winter gear in Damascus, Virginia. My advice is to wait until after completing the Grayson Highlands. I got stuck in a freak snowstorm around Mount Rogers in mid-May and was very thankful to still have my winter sleeping bag!

Snowstorm in Grayson Highlands in May 2021. Photo courtesy of Anna “Magic” McKinney.

2. Test Your Equipment

Embarking on a six-month quest to Katahdin requires a lot of gear. People have to fine-tune their sleep system, test out their water filter, and even practice pooping in the woods. Please test out your equipment before beginning your thru hike! A lot of people will do a “shakedown” hike in the months before starting the AT. This hike is meant to be a trial run of what a thru hike will be like. A shakedown doesn’t have to be a multiday endeavor, but the more time you have to get to know your equipment the better.

Read Next: What Makes a Shakedown?

I thought I had the perfect setup before my February 2021 shakedown hike on the Foothills Trail in SC. The FHT was my first time using my new tent, sleeping bag, pack, etc. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing! Spoiler alert: I was so ill-prepared to tackle the FHT that I got off early and wasn’t able to finish. I may not have completed the FHT, but I learned enough about my gear and my body during this experience to better prepare for my AT attempt. I discovered how cold I sleep and bought a heavy-duty sleeping bag. I realized my Sawyer Mini wasn’t going to cut it, and upgraded my water filtration system. Had I started the AT without making these adjustments, I may not have made it to Katahdin.

Anna “Magic” McKinney’s VERY overstuffed Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack on her shakedown hike of the Foot Hills Trail. Photo courtesy of Kayla “Bug Bite” Measell.

3. Have a Loose Plan, But Be Open to Changes

There is a saying among hikers that “the trail provides.” When the situation seems dire and you’re running out of options, the trail has a funny way of meeting your needs. I witnessed this time and time again when I needed a hitch into town and a trail angel picked me up, when I ran out of food and walked up on trail magic, and when all the hostel bunks were taken but I was allowed to camp in the yard. It is important to have a plan, but it is equally important to be open to change.

Truck bed full of hikers on a hitch into Glasgow, VA. Photo courtesy of Zach “Fro” Shaw.

A lot of hikers will hike town to town or resupply to resupply. They may know where they need to end up in three days but have no idea where they will be camping on the nights in between. Other people roughly plan out their mileage for the days between resupplies and know what shelters they will be stopping at each night. You will have plenty of time to try various hiking/resupply styles and figure out what works best for you.

One of the first resupplies in Hiawassee, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Erika “Creature” Novak.

Some of my best trail memories came from moments when things didn’t go according to plan (and when I wasn’t hiking). The trail is going to provide you with amazing people and incredible opportunities to make memories. Say “yes” as much as possible—the trail isn’t going anywhere. The miles you miss today to have some fun can be made up tomorrow.

4. Start Small to Go Big

Some practical advice: start small to avoid overuse injuries. I started the trail with two other women, Bug Bite and Ranger. Thanks to some advice Bug Bite received from a former thru hiker, we planned a rough itinerary for the first week. Our goal was to not do more than 10 miles per day the first week. Most people’s bodies aren’t used to walking all day, it takes some time to build up your “trail legs”.

One mistake I witnessed firsthand was folks pushing too hard right out of the gate and developing overuse injuries early on. Our strategy was to build up our mileage gradually. 8-10 miles a day the first week, 10-12 miles a day the second week, upwards of 15 miles by week three. It took over a month before I felt comfortable doing more than 20 miles a day. I got there eventually, but was thankful I took the time to build my trail legs before “crushing big miles.”

Dinner with a view! Photo courtesy of Joshua “Gooey” Kay.

Last Minute Lightning Round Advice

  1. Never quit on a bad day; eat a snack, sleep on it, and talk to someone you trust before deciding to get off trail (unless you have an injury)
  2. Take as many pictures of the people as you do the scenery
  3. Enjoy the simple and easy moments
  4. Eat your fruits and veggies and stay hydrated
  5. Discover the joys of flossing (you will more than likely consume copious amounts of candy, don’t risk a cavity)
  6. Hike for yourself, not the people you’re with (translation: “hike your own hike”)
  7. Keep track of your spending so you don’t run out of money before you’re ready to be finished (Read Next: How to Plan a Budget for Your Thru-Hike: A Step-by-Step Guide)
  8. Swim in as many lakes/rivers/ponds as possible (and always check for leeches afterward)
  9. Consider downloading music playlists, audiobooks, and podcasts to keep yourself entertained when you get sick of walking
  10. Even if you think it’s cheesy, sign the shelter logs. It’s fun to keep track of who’s around you and can be free entertainment during breaks
  11. Take your time – I promise once this adventure is over, you will wish you could add extra time to your hike

You Got This!

No matter how much research or preparation you do before starting the AT, nothing beats real-life experience and actually being there. You are going to make mistakes like everyone else and will learn as you go. Whatever your end goal is, I hope you reach it. I guarantee you will change in ways you didn’t think possible by the end of your journey. Be prepared to leave your former self on this winding footpath, I promise the trail will give back to you tenfold.

Traversing Franconia Ridge, New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of Joshua “Gooey” Kay.

Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).

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Comments 4

  • Crossword : Feb 16th

    Good advice! Thank you for the words of encouragement.

    Reply
  • Alex messinger : Feb 16th

    Loved this post. I dream of doing one of the triple crown trails one day.

    Reply
  • Jane McCarter : Feb 16th

    Excellent! Thank you for writing so eloquently about a singular journey. As a trail angel on the AT for 35 years I most appreciate the prepared hikers. Sharing food, transport, stories, a pup to pet, and a chance to rest and tell your stories at 1000 miles NOBO is a genuine joy. Looking forward to your posts and future adventures. 💕🐾.

    Reply
  • Mud Duck : Feb 19th

    Ha! I also did a shakedown hike on the Foothills Trail which I could not finish. It, too, was a tremendous learning experience and it definitely contributed to the success of my 2021 AT thru hike. Like yours…my hike was an amazing, life changing journey. (I even got to hike with you a little!!! 🙂)
    Thanks for the look back and for the great info for the class of 2022!!! I really enjoy reading your posts, Magic…keep up the good work!

    Reply

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