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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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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