Running the Gauntlet at the Start of the Appalachian Trail

Even those who know very little about the Appalachian Trail are able to appreciate what a monumental feat it is to complete the length of the almost 2,200 miles in one season. But even the most AT-obsessed persons may not appreciate the multitude of challenges those first 50 miles or so of the AT can present. I got to experience all of it for myself this week as I started my 2024 NOBO thru-hike. Any one of these trials might be enough to make a person think twice; going through all of them at once was definitely eye-opening.


As I mentioned in my last post, Norovirus, while always a threat on the trail, is especially bad this year. Before I even stepped one little toe on my thru, I had already been warned about it by various social media posts, two shuttle drivers, the educational kick off talk at Amicalola Falls State Park, and in a text from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Once on the trail itself, hikers tell horror stories around the campfire about Noro, more than legends about bear attacks and serial killers. Ridge runner Chris at Gooch Mountain Shelter told his personal story that I will never be able to erase from my mind. Never.

So, the Noro wary hikers are avoiding all shared surfaces. This means inside the shelters, picnic tables, and so on. Of course, not all hikers share this wariness, and they unaffectedly eat directly off the tables, pass around and reach into shared food bags, and (bc it is the AT after all) share a bowl or joint. So then the communal hikers can become something to avoid, too. So far, I’m 50+ miles in and I’ve done my best, but after a week on the trail I need a zero at a hostel. Fingers crossed!


March and April are the busiest times for NOBO hikers leaving Springer, and as I was leaving, the number of registered hikers with the ATC was about 40-50 per day. Take into account the hikers who don’t register, hikers who move their start date without changing their registration, and day hikers and unregistered section hikers, and you get an idea of how many people can be within a section of trail on any given night. Those people have to sleep somewhere, and it isn’t unheard of for people to get turned away from a full shelter/tenting area by a ridge runner, encouraging them to go to the next stop.

I was able to avoid this space crunch for the most part by getting on the trail early each morning and stopping at around 10 miles hiked (it is suggested to keep your daily mileage to 8-10 miles for the first few weeks to avoid injury and ensure long term success on the trail). This way, I ensured I had a spot to tent and if for some reason the place I wanted to stop was already full, I would have time to get to the next place.

A Durston tent is set up for a night of camping

My tent set up next to my neighbor. At this shelter, it’s two tents per tent pad


Warren Doyle teaches that from the start of the trail until Fontana Dam the terrain is 50% up and 50% down. Oh my gosh, so much yes. Nowhere on the AT is ‘easy,’ but for those who haven’t backpacked the AT before (or sometimes even anywhere!), I can imagine that Georgia could be a rude awakening. Couple that with those who have less than optimal conditioning and overloaded backpacks and it’s no surprise that approximately one in four hikers will leave the trail by Neel’s Gap (around 30 miles in).

Forewarned is forearmed, and I think it helped that I knew to expect big ups and downs. I have to say, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club takes fantastic care of their section of the trail, so even when I feel like I’ve been walking uphill forever (I’m looking at you, Kelly Knob), at least I don’t have to step over blowdowns or hike on washed out trails. Oh, by the way… Blood Mountain is often upheld as the hardest climb in Georgia, it being the tallest point on the AT in the state, but every single thru-hiker I have talked to says it wasn’t as tough as we thought it would be. Now, the climb out of Neel’s Gap with a belly full of Mountain Crossings’ pizza? Ugh!

An expansive view of mountains and bare trees

Those views are worth the climb, though!


There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes, right? Whoever said that clearly hasn’t hiked on a 65° day with partial sun and low humidity, because I have and I can tell you no matter what clothes I have on, that is way better than a 30° wet day with blustery winds. But so far on my trek, I’ve had both. One day, hikers are shivering, the next they’re sweating and sunburned. That’s the nature of the AT.

Speaking of sunburn, the AT is often referred to as ‘The Green Tunnel’ due to its tree cover, and I admit I’ve only ever sectioned on it in May-October. I have to admit I didn’t take the lack of trees and being at 3,000+ feet into account when not applying sunscreen for the first few days. Oops. Some poor hikers have gotten absolutely roasted, I have managed to escape before too much damage was done, with the exception of the top of my right thumb and forefinger joints, which face straight up into the morning and mid-day sun every day. It kind of looks like a roasted hot dog right now. Speaking of hot dogs…


Food is always a topic of conversation for thru hikers, mostly concerning what one is craving or what one ate at their last town stop. For neophyte thru-hikers, the tendency to overpack food is an issue, as one doesn’t always know how one eats on the trail. Newby thrus also don’t take into account that many backpackers have a reduction in appetite during their first few days or so. They may also not know the best foods to pack, either in terms of weight, freshness, or nutrition (which isn’t as much of an issue early in the trail), and they may be eating foods they don’t normally consume, like freeze dried meals, and that can upset one’s system.

Having backpacking experience, I know what foods I like on trail and I made sure to pack my favorites. I also have a good idea about how much I normally eat on trail, and I even underpacked a little to account for that expected dip in appetite. What I did not expect was a huge dip in appetite and intense nausea as well. By the time I reached the first resupply at Neel’s Gap, I had probably only eaten half the food I had packed for the three days before. I bought some more food, but as of a week in, I’m still struggling to get any food in and keep it down. I’m currently taking a Nero and a zero in a hostel to try and get it under control because the restricted calories are affecting my performance and it’s frustrating when you want to get stronger, but you feel weaker.

A hiker leans to get water from a dripping rock

Gotta stay hydrated, too!

Mental Game

The final gauntlet one must run through is the mental aspect of everything. This is huge and I’d suspect is the #1 reason people get off the trail at this early point. Oh sure, many will say it’s an ankle or a knee that took them off trail, but underneath it all, it’s their brain that took them off. None of this is easy and if it doesn’t align with what you expect, it’s a tough row to hoe.

Turns out that even if it does align with what you expect, it’s still hard. If you’ve been reading my posts here, you’ll know I’ve been preparing for this trek for quite a while. I’ve read and listened to countless memoirs and stories of thru-hikes.  I’ve dialed in my gear, set myself up for success, and physically and mentally prepared for this. But still, I’ve been blindsided with how difficult this first week has been. Everything mentioned above, coupled with the enormity and the openendedness of it all has really had me all up in my feelings. But I’ve told you (and myself) that I wouldn’t quit, so I’m still here and I’m working to get through this gauntlet and keep sharing with you!

A hiking trail is full of water

Here’s the trail as I walked to get to my ‘Nero’ at The Green Dragon Hostel


By the way, if you’d like to read more day-to-day updates about my thru, make sure to follow me on social media (links in my bio but it’s @emplowered across platforms) where I’m posting more trail flavor type stuff as I learn to manage my battery usage on trail 🙂

A smiling female hiker stands next to the Appalachian Trail plaque on Springer Mountain

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Comments 2

  • Stephen M. : Apr 10th

    I like your attitude & viewpoint .

    • Traci 'Purple Lotus' Withani : Apr 11th

      Thanks, Stephen!


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