Top 5 Regrets and Non-Regrets of an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker

As of this week, Rocky and I are one year removed from our completion of the Appalachian Trail. I think about it frequently, and both with a fond nostalgia and a more analytical eye as we contemplate the PCT within the next few years. I am very happy with how our thru-hike turned out, but there are certainly a few things I would change about my hike, and a few things I refuse to feel bad about. I’ve found that these don’t entirely match up to other former thru-hiker’s reflections, so let me know what you think.

What I Would Change:

1) Take fewer days off

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Many people look back fondly on their zero days, but I think we took unnecessary days off in the beginning. We were unsure of how many days in a row we could hike, and tended towards caution, anticipating weariness when we actually could have made it to the next town. Thru-hiking isn’t a race, but I wish we had pushed ourselves more in the beginning. The second half of our hike saw us diving in and out of towns (Hero Days) more than staying overnight and spending gazillions of dollars.

2) Compare myself to other hikers

Hike Your Own Hike is A) overused and B) easier said than done. From the first week basically until the 100-Mile Wilderness, we would chat with hikers and subsequently feel inferior. They started after us, they had taken half as many zeroes, they averaged XXX miles more per day than we did. This was one of the biggest mental challenges of my hike, and while I wish it wasn’t so, I can pretty much guarantee I’d do the same thing on another thru-hike.

3) Spend. So. Much. Money

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Rocky and I spent an unnecessary amount of money on our hike. We could have survived with less extravagant zero days, more hitches/fewer paid shuttles, fewer post office stops, and smarter gear choices. I summarized it here, to help other hikers not make the same mistakes we did. We could have saved over $1,000 on gear if we just looked beyond the big box stores. If we just did some research about smaller brands, we would have found lighter, higher quality gear from specialized companies geared towards thru-hikers. We ended up buying small-brand items anyway throughout the hike. Because we are bad with money.

4) Not speaking up when I saw lousy behavior on the trail

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I saw a fair amount of unpleasant actions from other thru-hikers. Graffitiing shelters, blatant disregard of LNT, a psychopath literally killing the little animals along the trail. Did I speak up? No. I would pick trash out of the fire rings and tuck it into my pack, but I hadn’t said anything when I saw the hikers throw plastic in the fire, or carving their name into the new shelters. I ran away from the group who was killing animals, and even though I wrote about it, I still wish I had said something—anything. It takes a really strong person to stand up for what they think is right, and I hope if I’m confronted with something similar in the future, I can have the confidence to speak up.

5)  Aquablazing wasn’t totally worth it.

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There, I said it. This wasn’t a moral conundrum, I just wouldn’t do it again. I was looking forward to it as a 50-mile break from hiking, but I actually found it really monotonous. We were under the impression that “the river parallels the AT” meant we would be canoeing through Shenandoah, essentially waving to the hikes on the trail, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was pretty industrial and bland, and even though we were technically parallel to the AT, it was what? 50 miles away? Something like that? I was so happy to get back on the trail after a few days of canoeing, and I totally wish I’d hiked all the way through Shenandoah and had all of the blackberry milkshakes.

Things I am not sorry for:

1) Leaving our dog at home.

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Sako is wonderful. He is my main hiking partner, he comes to work with me, and he knows how to kick a tennis ball. But bringing him on the AT would have been a mess. He has aggressive tendencies, he’s enormous, and we had enough logistical challenges without worrying about him in towns or in our tent. He’s also rather injury-prone, and I’m confident he would have been shipped home with three legs or something. We missed him, but Rocky’s parents took great care of him and he has forgiven us for the five-month abandonment.

2) Not doing many Blue Blazed trails

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I have the utmost admiration and respect for hikers who took the side trail to the summit, the waterfall, or the far-away hostel. Personally, I felt the AT was long enough. I hike all summer, fall, and spring in Montana and the destinations of alpine lakes, peaks, and waterfalls do the trick. But if you’re up for it and you don’t live in a hiking paradise? Take the blue blazed trails. You won’t regret it.

3) Family Time

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My father hiked with us for three days in the Whites, and it is one of my favorite memories on the trail. Sure, your pace changes and you are out of your routine, but totally worth it. We also spent a total of seven off-trail days visiting our families, and both visits came at a great time. Rocky’s family was scheduled to pick us up on what happened to be the day after I had a complete breakdown RE psychopathic animal killer. I had never needed a break from the trail so badly, and we got to take Silent Bob to Jurassic World, something we had talked about for 1,000 miles. We hung out with my fam in NH—I don’t get to see them very often, so it was really special.

4) Not participating in most of the AT traditions

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Nothing against them! But it was too cold to jump off the James River Bridge, I don’t like beer enough for the 24x24x24 challenge, I had no interest in doing CT in one day, etc etc. I’m sure there are more traditions or challenges, but I didn’t participate so I don’t remember them. We took all of the iconic photos and saw the iconic sites. Taking the photo with the Katahdin sign was all the tradition I wanted.

5) Not training, at all, in any way.

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This picture is horrible and I don’t know why I keep posting it.  I don’t think we’ve been in worse shape than when we started the AT. Instead of training for the biggest athletic effort of my life, I figured “I’m about to exercise a lot. Don’t have to now.” This resulted in a plethora of gas station chicken fingers, weight gain, and a tough first 400 miles. However, we suffered no overuse injuries besides normal knee and shin pain, we finished the trail just fine, and we (sort of painfully) got in shape. I believe there’s no real way to prepare for those day-after-day miles, lugging a baby hippo up and down mountains. Would squats and 30 minutes  a day on the Stairmaster really going to help me? Maybe, but whatever it worked out fine.

No matter what you do, there are going to be things you wish you did differently and things you’re stoked on. One year later, I realize those little things? They really don’t matter. You did it, and that’s what counts.

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Comments 12

  • Steve : Aug 10th

    “It takes a really strong person to stand up for what they think is right.”

    It’s hard because you expect people to act maturely and appropriately. When they don’t it’s unexpected and you’re caught off guard with how to handle it. I decided a long time ago to not let things wrong go unchallenged, sometimes at some cost, but for me it has now become a habit. I’m not afraid of challenging misbehavior from adults anymore.

    It would be great if the AT community helped educate those who simply may not know better and then ostracize willful and persistent mal bahavior.

    Reply
  • Fisher : Aug 10th

    I feel that its all of our job to be respectful of the trail and do our part to keep things clean for the future generations. We need people to speak up when we see things that’s not right and tech others what the principles are for LNT. Im a big beliver in the LNT principle. Have a blessed day!

    Reply
  • Little Red : Aug 10th

    I didn’t have the confidence to reply when you wrote about one animal being killed. Now, you claim the group was killing animals, and you make it sound like this was happening the entire time on the trail, and it wasn’t.

    Also, doesn’t Rocky hunt? Doesn’t he go out in the woods and stalk animals to shoot and kill them with a gun? And, the hiker that you warned people about as far north as Upper Goose Pond was ahead of you, so your attempts to ruin his hike were futile.

    I enjoyed meeting you, but you slammed a really good friend of mine and made him sound like a psychopath. He has five little sisters and sang Disney songs. He’s warm, funny, and caring.

    Reply
    • Maggie : Aug 10th

      Hi there! Thanks for speaking up, I really appreciate hearing other points of view (also, speaking up is tough to do no matter what the situation!) This was a contentious topic for sure, but it does make me feel better to hear that you had a different experience with that than I did. I saw 4-5 animals killed on the trail, and heard about other people / groups doing the same thing. It really upset me, as I saw the AT as an inappropriate place to be engaging in such behaviors.

      All of my friends in Montana hunt (I actually work for Sitka, which is a hunting gear company) and I hear that argument as well. I view ethical hunting within conservation guidelines on approved land in a different way than I viewed the killing of wildlife along the AT. I can also understand how this line is blurry. I really enjoyed meeting you and Chuckles as well, and I hope you are still kicking butt on the CDT.

      Reply
  • Little Red : Aug 10th

    Hi Tortoise/Honey Badger! I’m sorry to hear that you were so upset about people hunting for food on the AT. I did some research, and hunting is allowed on approximately 1250 miles of the AT. Here is a link to the article I read: https://www.appalachiantrail.org/home/explore-the-trail/hiking-basics/safety/hunting

    I lived in Vermont for 12 years, and I knew many hunters. I don’t disagree with hunting. I was just taken aback at your reaction because I know Rocky hunts. Not everyone hunts with guns. There are all different weapons and

    My friend was hiking on an incredibly tight budget, and he was probably hungry. Hunting squirrels, woodchucks, and other small animals is not uncommon in the south, which is where my friend is from. Chuckles grew up in Memphis, and he has hunted and eaten squirrel. Perhaps my friend didn’t have a permit, but he is certainly not a psychopath.

    Calling someone you barely know a psychopath is just wrong and kind of mean. The caretaker at Upper Goose Pond told us that he had been left a note by the previous caretaker warning him about my friend, and this warning came from you.

    If you notice, I’m not using his name. I was most disappointed that even though you used quotation marks, you used his actual trail name. And, now you claim that there were others who engaged in hunting, but you only named him. In my opinion, this was unfair and unnecessary.

    Chuckles & I decided to end our CDT hike after finishing New Mexico. We relocated to Denver, and we’re having a great time!

    Reply
    • Bud : Aug 15th

      Your friend was leaving carcasses to be found all over the trail according to what I am reading here. Leaving bodies on the edge of the trail for others to see sounds pretty disturbed to me.

      I usually don’t keep the bones of my t-bone steaks laying places for others to find them.

      Reply
  • Vincent : Aug 10th

    Hi Maggie! I started on the same day as you guys, but only met you first around the halfway point (I’m Shrugs, hiking with Axon). I’m really glad to see these comments on your hike and to know that you finished it! I agree with a lot of your regrets/non-regrets, especially about the money, the traditions (except the half-gallon challenge, that was a fun one) and the “hike your own hike”. We compared ourselves to the other hikers pretty much every day and it was one of the difficult mental aspects of hiking the AT. It’s normal when you start early though, most people are behind you so only the fastest will actually catch up with you. And in then end it doesn’t change anything when you reach the top of Katahdin!

    Anyway, glad to see you had a great time and are still thinking about doing more.

    Reply
  • Cathy : Aug 10th

    I believe that if you go out to hike with nature you have no business eating it. To hunt while hiking is the most extreme and pathetic thing I have ever heard of. The A T trail is the animals trail, not ours. We are blessed to travel along it.

    Reply
  • Tom Brown : Aug 11th

    These are some very nice tips. Thanks for posting. You must of had a great time spending days in nature.

    Reply
  • Karyn : Dec 13th

    Hello Maggie,
    Thank you for this (and the how to save money post) – I appreciate the brevity of your points and rational and will certainly keep it in mind for my planned 2017 AT thru-hike as you have nailed a few of my ‘concerns’. My only question that I would like to post here in public is: did you or do most thru hikers bring cash (and how much is average) or use credit cards for purchases? I have a lot more questions about thru-hiking but I think ‘to each his own’ and ‘it’s all relative’ so I just keep reading books and blogs dope out what will, I can only imagine, work out best for me…to start 🙂

    Reply
    • Maggie : Dec 13th

      Hi again…

      I did bring some cash as a backup in case a card was declined or my bank got weird and shut it off. I think the majority of people did the same. They brought a card (or two) and also had cash in case something went wonky. I brought $100 in cash and then would refill at ATMs if I felt I needed more. The worst thing is to be stuck out there with no funds.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that some hostels are donation-based, so you will need to have cash on you. Some small towns and privately run hostels only take cash as well. It was also good to keep some cash stashed separately in case your thru-hiker wallet AKA ziplock bag should happen to go missing.

      I believe you will do very well! You seem to be preparing and thinking critically about the hike. Again, there’s only so much you can control, and it’s so healthy to recognize that!

      Maggie

      Reply
  • nin : Dec 24th

    That before/after picture is priceless. Says it all!

    Reply

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