The Thru-Hiker Metamorphosis, Part 1: Body

While researching for the Appalachian Trail, I was surprised to find little information about the effects long distance-hiking has on the human body and mind. Sure, there are before and after pictures, and selfie progressions galore, but it’s hard to truly capture the physiological benefits (and harms) of thru-hiking.

So let’s explore them, shall we?

Morning Routines

I have fond memories of weekend camping trips; waking up to the sounds of the forest and jumping out of my sleeping bag to freshly cooked strips of bacon. Mornings were spent lounging around camp, and afternoons with leisurely paced hikes. Camping was a chance to relax and recharge in nature, returning to normal life with reluctance.

Then there’s thru-hiking.

Mornings on the AT begin by fading into consciousness to the chorus of flatulence and clambering of other hikers. Instead of jumping from my sleeping bag, achy muscles strain to balance my body weight on useless and numb feet; it takes a solid 15 seconds to stand up and stagger out of my tent (on a good day). Lounging has become a distant memory; cold oatmeal is shoveled into my mouth hole after packing up. The only solace to be found are the moments spent performing the daily BM (more later); a tranquility interrupted by the agony of the day’s first few steps on trail.

Achy Athlete

One might think a thru-hiker embodies the peak human physique; a Chris Evans-meets-Hemsworth body toned through months of grueling exercise. Maybe we still appear so to regular folk, though the reality is a tad off.

In addition to the achy muscles and sore feet, a thru-hiker’s knees come to feel more fragile than glass, desperately holding the weight of freakishly thicc (two c’s) thighs and calves. Meanwhile, the thru-hiker’s upper body shrivels like the saddest raisin in the box; I’d be hard pressed to complete more than five push ups without collapsing from exhaustion. While overweight hikers inevitably shed their excess pounds, us thinner folk are cursed with redistribution of weight (“it’ll go straight to your thighs!”) as our bodies attempt to make sense of the prolonged trauma that is thru-hiking.

Them Bowels Though

Crap talk is most likely the number one conversation topic on trail; every thru-hiker can and will experience intestinal discomfort at some point on the trail. Having spent the past two years in Peace Corps in South America, I’m no stranger to the hours spent discussing the characteristics of the daily BM. As a hikers’ bodies become accustomed to the processed and high-calorie foods consumed on trail, they begin to reject the healthy foods while simultaneously craving them. Town visits become both a blessing and a curse, as any attempts to eat healthy tend to backfire not long after.

Hiker Bod

The transformation my body has gone through since starting at Springer Mountain continues to astound me. Sure, there are more aches and pains than I can keep track of, but being able to pound out miles becomes a major confidence booster (more in part two). So maybe I don’t have that hot bod I thought would come with thru-hiking, but that’s fine.

The physical pains are nothing compared to the mental metamorphosis.

To be continued…

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Comments 4

  • beth : Aug 25th

    talk of poop is certainly a popular one. I was worried about TMI but, rest assured, no one is offended. personally, pooping on the trail is the BEST. You go when you have to; no waiting around, the urge happens, you poop. And in the healthiest position. A light and heavenly feeling after … (sort of same thing with peeing).

    Reply
    • Sean Speckin : Aug 27th

      Like I mentioned, luckily I’m no stranger to poop talk; it was THE number one convo topic in Peace Corps. Some people cringe when you talk about BMs, but you know you’re comfortable with someone when you can talk about it without a second thought

      Reply
  • Lester Armstead : Aug 27th

    The strangest part of this transformation is the difference between male and female results. In my experience, women are transformed into magnificent hiking beasts, with great legs, and a very efficient form, while the men shrivel up to nothing, especially from the waist up, as we lost our biceps and pectorals, and began to look more and more like a T-Rex. I lost 50 lbs between Harper’s Ferry and Katahdin, (flip-flopped) and my perspiration smelled like ammonia. I talked to a lot of men who had similar results, but very few women. The funniest part is people who climbed 3500 feet up a mountain without breathing hard, then the next day, almost wet the bed in a hostel, just to keep from hobbling down a flight of stairs to the bathroom. You all know who you are. – Don’t Care

    Reply
    • Sean Speckin : Aug 27th

      I had the ammonia problem for awhile; it’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t had it, but it’s maddening when you can’t escape it!

      Reply

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