Top 10 Things I Didn’t Expect About Thru-Hiking
My First Six Weeks – What’s Surprised Me Most
I expected the AT to be beautiful—and it is.
I expected to have time to process and heal and grow—and I have.
I expected to be so glad I came—and I am.
But what I didn’t expect on the trail:
1. How Safe I Feel
When I contemplated doing the AT this was one of my top concerns. Would I feel safe as a woman hiking solo?
I knew from the books, podcasts, and my friend’s 2018 thru-hike, that I’d often be around groups of people. But there’s a powerful narrative of “bad things happening to women alone in the woods.”
What kind of self-defense classes, pepper sprays, and mental strategies would I need to ward off harm? What sort of dangers lay in wait?
But let me say this: I feel safer here than I did in my lovely Yonkers, NY, apartment. I feel safer here than I did on my college campus. I feel safer here than almost any place I’ve lived or worked.
Why? Hikers look out for each other. People who help hikers look out for us too—hostel owners, shop keepers, and shuttle drivers.
When I was sick, my friend Grubber walked back a mile and carried my pack to the shelter. When I ran out of food, friends gave me oatmeal, Snickers, and ramen. When I got to the 400 mile mark and felt bummed to be a day behind my crew, other friends came along and took me under their wing—bringing me along to a piano bar in the woods (this has to be seen to be believed).
When twice I arrived at a hostel after dark, both after 20-mile days, my fellow Kansas City friend Audible was there to yell “Sprout!” and offer a cold beer.
This kind of community creates not only a sense of camaraderie, but safety. Hikers a week ahead of me and a week behind me nearly all know my name, and I theirs.
When there’s bear activity nearby or a person on the trail with strange behavior, you hear about it early and often. Fellow hikers make sure you’re present and accounted for.
The point is—assuming you don’t take unnecessary risks or fall victim to really bad luck, you’ll be safe on the AT.
2. How Much I’ve Adapted
Before I left for the trail, my life was nothing if not comfortable. Warm, well-fed, air-conditioned, and dry. Organic mattress, filtered water, and daily green smoothies in the blender.
I wondered then how I would do living among tents, storms, blisters, and bug bites. An ex-boyfriend once told me that among other inadequacies, I wasn’t rugged enough.
What if he was right? What if my grown-up life had become too safe and sanitized? What if I’d shrunk into a sheltered suburbanite whose adventure years were behind her?
My frontier roots begged to differ. Our ancestors who’d forged a path west into Illinois, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming whispered, “Go forth. You can do hard things. It’s in your blood.”
Did it take me a few weeks to get the hang of setting up my tent and stove? Sure. Did hiking in the rain initially feel daunting? Yep. Did my first 20+ mile day feel like fresh hell to my feet? Oh yeah.
But exhilaration rises up in each of these moments too. For instance—after camping every day with groups, you call it a night and set up your tent solo in the woods. Stealth camping, it’s called.
The first time I did this, hanging my bear bag with no help or cables, I finally felt like a thru-hiker. After a few dreams about bear attacks, I woke up not to the sounds of tent zippers, but the songs of morning birds.
And I thought, “Here I am, living with the nature.”
A week later, on top of a mountain, long out of water and driving against the wind, I thought, “Here I am, pressing into the storm.”
And sometimes when I’m sloshing through mud and jumping over a fallen tree, I laugh, “Look at me, being all rugged.”
3. How Fun the So-Called Bubble Is
Another concern I had beforehand, reading through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website, was the infamous bubble.
That is, the group of thru-hikers who all start in March and early April, and supposedly form a rip-roaring “party scene.”
I pictured a traveling frat party, full of litter, loitering, and lolly-gagging. (Needed another “l” word). I imagined raucous drinking games and crude conversation about women. The ever-present “bro culture” I’d heard of.
(I should also add that I have attended exactly zero fraternity parties so maybe they are nothing like this).
OK, here is what surprised me: whatever the bubble is or isn’t, I’m here for it.
What I have found are super great people who loosely caravan together between shelters and tent sites and trail towns.
What I have found are huge amounts of respect and help and encouragement and sharing.
What I have found is that AT partying consists mainly of laughs, food, music, drinks, and tall trail-tales. And for this 40-something gal, that’s pretty perfect.
I promise you it’s less stressful than a New York cocktail party. Less small talk, more burgers, and everyone sporting the same dress code: “hiker-trash chic.”
Even if you don’t partake of all of the frivolity, it’s hardly a bacchanalia in the woods. Most every hiker I’ve met is into moderation or not drinking at all. Trekking 15 miles hung over makes for a long hike.
I have absolutely no regrets about starting my hike during the northbound peak season. It means more support, more friends, more fun.
4. How Much My Body Is Capable Of
Amid all the doubters and naysayers, I loved this comment from one of my church members, a West Point grad. “Remember, your body is capable of so much more than you think it is.”
But even I doubted whether a middle-aged minister (me) was physically ready for this. I have never been an athlete, I didn’t exactly train for the AT, and I am a 5’1″ small female. I knew that my age, size, and gender would make me a minority out here. Could I hang?
I needn’t have worried. The trail has some steep hills and occasionally rocky terrain. And yes, I am only 430 miles in. But come on—this isn’t a trail for elite climbers and marathon runners—it’s one very long walk.
Once you whittle down your pack weight and develop those coveted trail legs, you’re good to go.
The best advice I got on this was from Drew at Outdoor 76 Outfitters in Franklin, NC:
“Remember, you are still in spring training. Everything up till Virginia (basically the first 500 miles) is pre-season. You are shaping your body and brain into that of a professional hiker. You are developing into an athlete. Be patient with yourself, increase mileage gradually, stretch and sleep a lot, and feed yourself well. The games don’t count until Damascus.”
(Drew also taught me that in a pinch of hunger I could cut a bacon-sized strip of bark from a white pine. You peel it back to the third layer and cook it up to chew on. Lots of nutrients, evidently. I am happy to report I have not yet had to resort to this.)
Here are some fun facts: most men out here seem to lose crazy amounts of weight, even in the first month. Most women do not. I do not know the biology of why this is. I, for one, have gained a few pounds—maybe muscle, maybe Southern barbecue.
Either way, I am probably stockier than when I started. Not the elegant ballerina figure I aimed for in barre class back home.
But here’s the awesome truth—my body does so much for me every day and I am so incredibly proud of it. I don’t care what it needs to become in order to serve me for the rest of this hike and beyond.
I’m astonished at the strength of my core, the sturdiness of my feet, the power of my legs, and the capacity of my heart.
So if this is my trail body, I’ll take it.
5. How Much I Learn from Others
I’m not sure I’d even still be here if Flow, Monk, and Small Slice hadn’t taught me how to get my pack weight down. And if I hadn’t had the personalized shakedown from Special Brew, Compton, and Dirty Girl.
I wouldn’t wake up dry during a storm if Jim hadn’t taught me how to properly stake my rain fly. And I wouldn’t have the right pack without Justin at Mountain Bluff Outfitters in Hot Springs.
I wouldn’t be armed with key nutrition concepts for the trail if it weren’t for my wellness coach Katie and my researcher friend Amy. (Fats, proteins, greens, repeat!)
People have so much to teach you. Yes, the books and blogs and podcasts beforehand are helpful—but most of what you need, you learn along the way.
Pay attention to the people who seem to be rocking their hike—those who seem healthy and happy and grateful to be here—and find out what they’re doing.
6. How Generous and Kind People Are
I can’t say it enough—this hike increases your faith in humanity.
Not only in the hikers around you, but in all the trail angels and helpers and friendly faces along the way.
I have been astonished at how many churches and Bible study groups spend entire days just cooking up pancakes for hikers and passing out knit caps.
There is a former hiker named Odie—founder of the Hiker Yearbook—who stops at all the trail towns along the way and gives us rides in his converted school bus.
There is such a desire here to support and encourage people who are making this hike. And I feel privileged to be a part of it.
7. How Quickly You Can Go Deep
Yesterday I started the morning waking up at 5, ready to hike by 7. The morning was mostly me and Barbara Kingsolver, her voice on Audible reading from her Appalachian book, Prodigal Summer.
I knew my battery wouldn’t last all day, and by noon I was hoping to find company. As I set down my pack to take a picture of a beautiful view, along came my friend Kitty, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly two weeks. He had gotten off trail to replace some gear and visit his girlfriend.
But we hiked an additional 15 miles together, crossing over rivers, brand-new azalea blooms, and blazing mountain ridges.
Along the way we talked of his childhood in Maine, our families and friends, and the things we’ve learned the hard way.
Eight hours later, we high-fived each other for pushing through a long, hard hot damp day, together.
At nightfall he set up his tent down the hill and I checked into a hostel where a friend was saving me a bunk.
Who knows if and when I will see Kitty again? But the day was exponentially better because of him.
If you have a low tolerance for shallowness and pretense, this trail is for you. The alternating rhythm of silence, solitude, connection, and conversation has become one of the gifts I treasure most about the AT.
And when talking ends, we sing.
(With thanks to John Denver and Brandi Carlile.)
8. How Fun It Is to Hike with a Dog
I should preface this by saying that I am not exactly an animal person. (My family would roll their eyes and say, “That’s an understatement.”)
But dogs can be so fun on the trail! Not all dogs. Not aggressive dogs, barking dogs, or temperamental dogs. But there are some true canine gems out here.
I have hiked a lot with my friend Dean and his dog Blue. And I’m not sure I’ve ever met a dog I like more. Blue is a great pacesetter, a sweet buddy when you need a hug, and a ready friend who can’t wait to be petted and loved.
What’s more, she often displays what we all internally feel. After miles and miles in the hot sun up a hill, Blue finds the nearest shady spot and conserves all energy. She closes her eyes and takes a nap, and 30 seconds later when we tell her it’s time to keep going, she opens one eye and looks at us like, “You have got to be kidding me.”
Blue is a rescue dog, and her every move seems to be one of joy and gratitude that she is alive, that she is out here, and that she gets to be with us. She is friendly to all, but not annoying. It’s hard to describe how playful she makes a hike and how she draws people to her. (She also sometimes leads us off trail.)
9. How Much We All Revise As We Go
I have a confession to make: six weeks in, I am already on my second pair of shoes, and my third backpack.
How did this happen? I started with a pack that was designed for ultralighters, and it was too unstructured for me. Once I put more food in it (along with winter gear), it pulled on my shoulder.
I sent it home.
Then I got an Osprey 58 (I think?), which was initially better because it had over-the-shoulder load-lifters.
I feel happy and excited!
Until I don’t. Because after my multiple shakedowns and sending several sets of things home (totaling almost ten pounds), I need a lighter smaller pack, one that doesn’t require me to cut up foam padding from my sleeping pad in order to cushion the straps.
I send it home.
Finally—and I sincerely hope the third time’s a charm—I arrive at the Osprey Lumina 45.
Lumina means “light.” Lumina means lovely. Lumina carries just what I need and nothing more. And now my snail-shell of a home fits me.
Here is the takeaway that surprised me: figuring out your pack and gear is truly something you have to do for yourself.
You know those “must-have” gear lists for thru-hikers? Most are written by men and for men. Usually men who are at least 140 pounds.
If you are a small female, and you want to enjoy your hike, your list of essentials simply has to be shorter.
Here are some of the “necessities” that I sent back, which changed nearly everything about my hike:
Camp shoes, sleeping pad (still have a half-length Z-lite mat), most first aid, extra socks, extra camp clothes, and now I carry less water (I drink at the streams) and food (I make up for it in town). And I have barely noticed they’re gone.
Some things I kept that true ultralighters would not have: headlamp, medium-sized battery charger, Jetboil stove, pack cover, Nalgene bottle, spot GPS, facial cloths, nail clippers, tea tree and thieves oil, a good razor, and black mascara. (Yep.)
After six weeks of finagling, my pack now weighs—with food for several days—a whopping 21 pounds.
My goal is to get it below 20, which will be easier with summer coming. Lightness means freedom. Lightness means happy joints. Lightness means a lighter spirit.
“Angels can fly, because they travel lightly.”
10. How Hard It – Isn’t
Here is what I want to tell you, especially if you have been thinking and dreaming about hiking the AT and aren’t sure you can do it.
Maybe you’ve heard horror stories about ice storms and lightning and shelter mice and crazy people. But what I want to tell you is this:
If you are a basically healthy person, you can totally do this. And if you don’t feel basically healthy right now, maybe you can work on that in the months ahead to prepare yourself.
You do not need to be an athlete. You do not need to be a thoroughbred. You do not need to be an Eagle Scout, a spiritual giant, or an outdoor gear specialist (though that would’ve saved me serious cash!).
You just need to love the outdoors, crave adventure, and be open to new people and places. It helps to have a few core purposes for your hike as well.
Whatever you do, don’t get hung up on your age. I have hiked out here with people ages 17-73, which puts me squarely in the middle.
Maybe your life circumstances don’t allow you to take off six months (yet), but you’re dying to do a one- or two-week section. So plan it and go!
And get ready to be surprised:
You, my friend, are way more rugged than you think.
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