Unpacking Fears on the Appalachian Trail
There is an old saying on trail I love. I think it can be applied to any situation or journey in life. The first time I ever heard it was during a family AT section hike in the VA Highlands. A man, who I later found out had quite the reputation for feeding large groups of hungry hikers, made a comment that stuck with me. It was very clever and thought-provoking. “You only pack your fears.”
As my family and I sat under a tarp eating burgers with a group of other section and thru-hikers, I was captivated by a husband and wife team from Germany. They hiked an additional 5 miles past their planned 20 the day prior. A severe lightning and thunderstorm forced them to take a zero day on trail despite a diminished food supply. News travels fast within the trail community; they heard that Fresh Ground’s Leap Frog Cafe was parked another day before heading further north. The prospect of a hot cooked meal gave them the mental fortitude to get through those additional miles.
In the back of my mind I was taking inventory of every single item in my backpack. Did my backpack look that weighed down? Regrettably I blurted out, “Well, I’m not really afraid of anything out here. What fears do you think long distance hikers usually pack?”
His reply stuck with me, and I’ve thought about it often in these weeks leading up to my thru-hike. “We all have fears and we tend to carry them with us. If you plan on hiking all or any portion of the trail, just remember to take inventory of your fears. Unpack what you can.” That’s powerful if you think about it! You can be as superficial or go as deep as you want to with that sentiment.
Common Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiking Fears
The fear of wildlife is very real for many. The national parks are where I would be most concerned, as they are heavier populated with bears. Lots of day, section, and thru-hikers = increased opportunity for bears to catch an easy meal from anything left behind or not stored properly. My husband and I own several acres bordering a bear sanctuary in the Pisgah National Forest of NC. Our wildlife cams have revealed bears, yet I don’t overthink their presence. I have what I refer to as a “healthy fear” of bears and what they are capable of in certain situations. Some great resources for me have been The 7 Principles – Leave No Trace and Bear Wise.
I am sure I have walked past more snakes than I care to be aware of. I’ve seen a few hanging out on rocks, but snakes are not something I perseverate on. My footwear comes inside my tent with me at night. I don’t want to give one the opportunity to curl up in my shoes. I keep an active eye out when rock scrambling or sitting on boulders along rivers.
Ughh, those annoying little buggers! They love to chew through gear if given the chance and are the main reason I choose to not make a habit of sleeping in the shelters. The thought of a mouse running across me at night is not pleasant. However, I have stayed in shelters a few times with my husband without incident. After dinner and some fire pit kumbaying with other hikers (if I am not completely exhausted from a long mileage day); I still prefer the privacy and warmth of my tent.
Of all the creepy crawlers, ticks keep me on high alert. They can be very tiny in the nymph stage and difficult to see. They love to hang out in tall grasses along the trail and hitch a ride on hikers passing by. I plan on treating most of my clothes and gear with Sawyer Permethrin. Sawyer advertises a single treatment can last up to six weeks or six washings. It is effective against ticks, mosquitoes, spiders, and chiggers; protecting from Lyme disease, West Nile and Zika viruses. Permethrin is a contact insecticide that binds to fabrics without staining or damaging. Due to this tight bond, it reportedly eliminates risk of skin exposure.
A reputable resource for all things wildlife on the AT – Wildlife: Appalachian Trail Conservancy
2. Stranger Danger
This is the most common fear non-hikers have for me. The number one concern I hear is, “Aren’t you afraid of the people on the trail? Are you going to hike it alone?” For the most part, I will not be alone on the AT—unless I choose to be. At one time, I was scared to pitch my tent near (let alone sleep in) an AT shelter. But the fact is, I now trust fellow hikers more than I do strangers in the suburbs or on city streets. There have been some incidents over a great span of years on the AT. Statistically, I am more likely to get murdered (to put it bluntly) in my own bed than I am on trail.
Creepy people radar travels quickly on hiker social media, in trail towns, and among hostel owners. Most section and thru-hikers can quickly discern day hikers from sketchy wanderers that are out of place on the trail. I plan on carrying my Garmin inReach Explorer, though a much lighter version (Garmin Mini) has been on the market. This allows my family to track and communicate with me even when out of cell phone signal reach. Unless an adverse situation were to arise, hopefully, there will be no need for me to ever press the SOS button on the side of the device.
3. Injury or Illness
I cannot control nor predict illness or injury, but there are preventative measures that can be applied. Listening to my body with focus on pacing myself is something I need to make a conscious effort towards. If there is ONE thing that I will carry with me from medical training it is simply—standard precautions: washing hands. It is the single most important way I plan to reduce my chances of infection and illness. Bronner’s biodegradable soap and hand sanitizer will be on my gear list. I have also learned from a previous rookie mistake: not boiling unfiltered water long enough prior to cooking a dehydrated meal. I ended up with Giardia after returning home from a section hike; IT WAS NOT FUN.
My Biggest Fear
My biggest fear is something many may not consider. I take it very seriously; consequently, it could make or break my thru-hike. It is semi-doable for many to backpack 5–7 day sections, given the right gear, logistics, proximity to the trail, and planning around favorable weather. During previous section hikes, I knew I was returning home to lick my wounds, tell a few stories about my experiences (for those interested), and upload some scenic photos on social media. There was no need to consider my biggest fear, which could weigh heavier than ANYTHING in my pack.
It is the fear of self-sabotage, the fear of reverting to self-limiting thought processes when faced with relentless rainy, cold weather, physical pain, exhaustion, injury, illness, or even loneliness while on trail. The mind can weigh in heavily. Less than favorable days will happen, and these are several reasons previous attempting thru-hikers threw in the towel, getting off trail indefinitely. So how am I going to push through? If I am forced to get off trail for a temporary reprieve (illness or injury), how am I going to change the narrative in my mind during setbacks or difficulties?
I am going to look at self-limiting thoughts objectively and straight in the face. I am going to execute my strategies to address each possible mishap and remind myself of my reasons for attempting 2,198.4 miles. Why am I doing this? What would it look like if I decided to quit? What if something far beyond my control happens and prevents me from completing the entire trail?
Over the years, I have read several books about others’ journeys on the Appalachian Trail. Some of my favorites are:
Hiking Through by Paul Stutzman
Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer “Odyssa” Pharr Davis
AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller
Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail by Heather “Anish” Anderson
How to Hike the Appalachian Trail by Chris Cage
A Walk In the Woods by Bill Bryson
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery
Appalachian Sojourner by Stewart Kincaid
The A.T. Guide by David “Awol” Miller & AntiGravity Gear
Chicas on the Appalachian Trail: Women-Specific Tips by Jen “Chica” Seymour
However, one book that provided me with the forethought and strategies to overcome and unpack my biggest fear was Appalachian Trials by Zach “Badger” Davis. He outlined exactly what I needed to hear to follow through and solidify a commitment to completing what I started. Appalachian Trials addresses the mental and psychological trials all long distance thru-hikers experience.
My Top 3 For Combating Self Limiting Thoughts on Trail
Faith: I believe God will not allow me to struggle through more than what I am capable of handling. There are many different belief systems and faiths, and God is mine. Believe, trust, and live your spiritual belief system. Live life with intention; It is my intention to complete the trail and summit Mt. Katahdin in Maine. It is my intention to be a good steward of the trail. It is my intention to help anyone I can along the way, without losing focus on MY journey.
Community: The trail provides. It’s true! Long distance hikers are their own breed. We are from all walks of life. And guess what? On trail, none of that matters! No one cares! Hikers, hostel owners, trail town outfitters, shuttle drivers, hiker’s family members, and trail angels are all part of the tramily. There are many social media hiker forums and even local and state Appalachian trail groups that any aspiring hiker can join.
Humility: Let’s face it, no one is a super fan of constructive criticism. However, I remain open to listening and learning from those who have gone before me. That does not mean I have not researched and ultimately made my own decisions regarding gear and logistics. I love to read hiking gear data analysis, because numbers don’t lie. Listening to hiking podcasts and other’s experiences as well as being honest with myself during gear shakedowns have been imperative to my upcoming thru-hike prep.
“We all have fears and we tend to carry them with us. If you plan on hiking all or any portion of the trail, just remember to take inventory of your fears. Unpack what you can.” – Tim Davis, Fresh Ground’s Leapfrog Cafe
I’m curious, what are or would be your biggest fears on the trail? How would you mitigate those fears? Comment below!
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