The Hardships of Hiking the Appalachian Trail

When I started this journey I assumed that the hard parts would be walking for 10-20 miles per day, setting up a proper bear hang and being afraid of things that go bump in the night. What I have discovered is that I actually enjoy the physical challenge. The sweatier I am, the steeper the grade, the bigger the challenge – the wider the grin. And bear hangs were only hard when my primary throwing wrist was broken. Now that I have ditched the splint, I can usually get a good hang in less than three throws. Who knew that pitching underhanded in softball as a kid would pay off 50 years later?

Things that go bump in the night don’t bother me – I am usually so deeply asleep I never hear them! The last time I camped near a road with Scout, she asked me if I had heard the drunken locals howling at the moon the night before. Kind of sorry I missed that one. Physical challenges aside, it is the mental ones that I find the most daunting. For me that would include saying goodbye to Tramily, dealing with anxiety over getting to The Mountain before the snow flies and being alone.

One of the best parts of doing a thru hike is making many friends along the way. The ones that stick, because you just gelled, hike at the same pace or stay at the same place for a zero, become your Trail Family or Tramily. I have been fortunate to count a number of hikers as part of my extended Tramily. Saying goodbye to them is the hardest part.

These goodbyes usually happen when a Tramily member makes a choice that is not aligned with my personal plan. “Hike your own hike”, is the guiding mantra of the trail. For example, just outside of the Smokies, Dawg City decided to continue to night hike when he was uncomfortable with a neighboring tenters poor bear hang. We had hiked together for around 200 miles but I was beat and willing to take my chances with the bears; he was energized and not willing to risk it. We said ‘see you down the trail’, and didn’t know in the moment that we would actually reconnect the next day. Of course, he did eventually leave me to attend Trail Days in Damascus and then fly home. As he was a Lasher (Long Ass Section Hiker), I knew his departure was inevitable, but I didn’t know how lonely I would feel after he left. Friendships are made quickly on the trail and the connections are deeper than expected given the short time frames. I still find myself wanting to turn around and point something out to Dawg City even though he has not hiked beside me for months.IMG_1489

Other Tramily members have been forced to end their hikes early due to injury. Papa Canuck made the wrenching decision to go off trail because one of his knees just will not cooperate. Despite taking time to rest it, his knee swelled up and hurt when he tried to ease back in with some slack packing. I had hiked with Papa C after Dawg City left and then reconnected with him when I returned to the trail from my daughter’s wedding. We did Shenandoah National Park to Washington Monument State Park together. When we said ‘see you down the trail’ we didn’t know it would be a trail in my hometown Boulder, or his hometown Edmonton during a future visit.


My most recent Tramily consisted of two strong women. Squeeze, Scout and I hiked the end of Maryland and most of Pennsylvania together. There were a few male guest appearances, but the Three

Amigas proved that three women can get along and that they can hike some serious miles! When I found out that my Mom needed a new Aortic Valve, I made the decision to fly home for the procedure. As appealing as it was to just skip and rejoin my girls a week later, I made the hard decision to turn my Nobo into a Flip Flop. I look forward to seeing them again on my way south!

The unexpected medical issue forced a decision that resolved my ongoing dilemma about turning my Nobo into something different. When I envisioned my thru-hike, I always envisioned finishing on top of Katahdin. The idea of my thru-hike germinated as I witnessed others completing theirs when I climbed The Mountain as a 17 year old Explorer Scout. In my mind thru-hiking and Northbound (NOBO) were one and the same.

When Covid happened my hike was postponed indefinitely. After I was able to get my vaccines in early 2021, I went ahead with my plans, knowing that my mid-April start could force me to become a flip flopper but determined to finish Nobo. The night before I got shuttled to Springer Mountain, my daughter informed me that she was going to be married in late June. In the end, wedding dress shopping and wedding attendance took nine days away from my trek. When I got back on trail after the wedding, I found myself unwilling to take a zero and pushing myself into  high milage days to try to catch up – both to my trail family and to my original schedule.

This ‘fear of the flip’ anxiety crept into my mind during every decision. Do I get off trail for the forecasted serious storm (with tornados likely) or try to grab a few more miles? Does my body really need a full day of rest – maybe a Nero with resupply will be enough. Can I hike 22 miles with a full pack over three major climbs? If I opted for low milage, I spent the day worried about the time I was losing. Mentally, I was always anxious. I skipped shelters or viewpoints further then .2 off trail and never took the time to visit landmarks in neighboring towns. I believe my hike quality was suffering from this internal drive to just go faster!

My Mom’s need for some company and support during her medical procedure and the week I spent back home was the turning point. It made more sense to fly back to Maine and head south then it did to fly back to PA and continue trying to beat the weather northbound. Today I am on a plane to Maine and the fear of the flip has morphed into the realization that I can breathe now and take the time to enjoy the 973 miles I have left.

Hanging out with Capt. Cosmos.

This leaves me with my last hardship – loneliness. It remains to be seen if Captain Cosmo was right and I will have plenty of company on my flip. I am hoping so. While I am confident in my ability to hike solo, there is comfort and safety in having companionship in the backcountry. The miles go faster and with less pain when you are chatting with a friend. Also, it is nice to know that someone will witness your body floating away during a stream crossing gone bad!

Hiking solo can play mind games with you. Every dark bush becomes a bear and every slip becomes an almost broken leg. Setting up camp in the wilderness and not seeing another hiker mosey by for the entirety of your stay can convince you that you are the only one on trail. On the other hand road crossings and the increased local traffic can make you long for that secluded spot. Time can be filled with music and audio books, but the comfort of Tramily is hard to beat. I can’t wait to meet my Southbound Flip family – keep an eye out for me.

See you in the woods!

Camping solo

Uncle Johnny’s tent city

Some Tramily members from my time on trail so far (I apologize to all the people I couldn’t find a picture of!):

Faceplant, I hiked with you less but miss you more. Hope you are hiking in paradise my friend.

Research and Radar. I couldn’t keep up with these two but we always seemed to meet again at the shelters… just took me longer to get there!

Fire pit at the NOC.

Near Clingman’s Dome

At Lady Di’s in Damascus.

 

 

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Comments 8

  • Cody w johnson : Aug 11th

    I think you should write a piece on Kelly hays aka Kelly hays hikes youtube. She is still on trail but if you want to know what hardship is it is this woman Had to have emergency surgery After struggling to hike 5 miles to a road. Learning that she had a very large cyst on her ovaries. She flew home rehab And then traveled back out to me her trail friends where they had ended up. When she gets to Maine she Is going back to where she met them to walk back to where the incident all took place at camp that morning Before her struggle hike to the road. Her videos are great and she’s gaining traction in the social media space. Might be beneficial for both. Lots of people Our following her story. be it through YouTube Facebook or Instagram. Just a suggestion. Very inspirational story And I don’t think anybody has covered it yet. Just Kelly documenting

    Reply
    • Kat Tracks : Aug 12th

      That is hardship! I agree wholeheartedly. I have met several people with stories that could fall into that category – dealing with a medical emergency in the back country – but my article is focused on the more generalized challenges that I think all hikers face. At least the ones I have chatted with. I am glad Kelly was able to do what she did and is back on trail with her Tramily! I look forward to meeting her on my way southbound.

      Reply
  • Juan : Aug 11th

    Very interesting article on hiking.

    Reply
    • Kate : Aug 13th

      Good

      Reply
  • Mike : Aug 15th

    I just read your post and found it entertaining and fascinating. I’m a little to late to begin such a challenging adventure but I do hike and passionately love nature. I’m 75 years old and just received a new left knee in April. We live in Highlands Ranch, CO., but have a small place in Franklin, NC. I recognize your photo at the NOC. I’ve hiked portions of the AT in this area, Siler Bald, Standing Indian etc. I will continue to follow Kat Tracks, thank you, Mike

    Reply
  • Omoo : Aug 18th

    Good article. You may not remember me, but I hiked with you briefly. We met at Angel Refuge Hostel, then later hooked up at Laurel Shelter for lunch, then later hiked together (with Captain Cosmos) just south of Niday Shelter. (I took your photo at the Keffer Oak.) We crossed paths once again at Lamberts Meadow Shelter, south of Daleville…where we talked about “Bruiser” and “Sprockets”! One thing I discovered is the diversity amongst distance hikers. Unlike you, I prefer solo hiking and have no interest in a Tramily. I like teaming up occasionally, for the reasons you cited, but only if I can break away later. Also, I’m dead opposed to slackpacking. (I noticed you and the Captain were doing it.) I won’t go into all the reasons! Lastly, while I feared having to deal with loneliness before my hike, I was never “lonely,” even camping alone in the darkest mountain corners. I felt solitude, yes, but not real loneliness, since I knew a hiker or hikers could appear any minute. Truth be told, having a digital communication device close at hand probably helped.

    I applaud your resilience and commitment. I had to get off at Wind Gap, PA due to blood clotting in my leg. I’m hoping to pick up from there next April and go the rest of the way to Katahdin. Anyway, best of luck to you on your flip-flop. Also…I’ve written about my own hike on my WordPress blog, peterkurtz.com….feel free to stop by.

    Reply
    • Hoosier : Aug 22nd

      This is Hoosier. I enjoyed hiking with you in the good times and the tough ones. Reading your post it is like being with you in person. You write how you think and speak.
      Great to see the pictures of our friend Captain Cosmos. As good of a person as you could ever get to meet on or off trail!

      Reply
  • Sarah Runyon : Sep 2nd

    Ive been contemplating maybe doing a serious hiking trip of my own ( The sea to Summit Palmetto Trail in South Carolina). When i think about it the first thing that pops into my mind ( or the first thing my husband says) is that im a bit too old to be doing something like that. Im 46. But you have inspired me to start ignoring those negative thoughts and comments and start training for something i feel will be very life changing and worth it. Thank u!!

    Reply

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