Unpacking My Thru-Hiking Fears

There’s a common saying in backpacking, that you ‘pack your fears’. This generally refers to the fact that whatever you worry about when going into the backcountry, you will overcompensate for it by stuffing your backpack with ‘remedies’ for that fear. So, for example, if you’re afraid of being cold, you may bring way too many clothes. If you are uncomfortable with being hungry, you may carry 7 days’ worth of food for a three-day trip. These fears and the subsequent overstuffing of one’s bag with the consequences of said fears leads to one carrying extra weight. Extra weight in one’s pack is much more of a risk to the overall success of a backpacking trip than something like running out of food. The best way to ameliorate ‘packing your fears’ is experience. Once you know what it’s like to sleep out in the cold, to walk for days on end, or to source and filter your own water on a trip, you start to release those fears and the added weight is metaphorically and literally lifted.

I feel pretty confident about having moved beyond those very common backpacking fears as I prepare to leave in a few weeks for my AT thru-hike. Losing the extra clothes was the easiest for me, switching to wool garments helped as they stay fresh longer. Bringing too much food took a few trips to get through my thick head that I wasn’t going to be eating like a hormonal male teenage athlete, no matter how many miles I walked that day. I know I could probably do better with my water carrying, but I just love water SO MUCH! I like to have two liters available, even when I know a water source is just ahead. But I’m not carrying five liters or anything, like others I have known (btw, a liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds, yeah…you do that math!)

Since I’m no longer packing those fears, the only thing left to do is to unpack the remaining fears I have. These are very specific to this exact hike, and no amount of shakedown trips can truly allay worries like these when preparing to leave my usual life for up to six months to do something I’ve never done before. I’m hoping that being aware of my anxieties and shining some light on them will help. So what are they?

Leaving home

I’ve traveled for business and pleasure, I’ve driven halfway across the country to attend a Scottish Gaelic immersion week where I didn’t know a soul, I’ve gone on many backpacking trips with total strangers, and I’ve gone on vacations to varied locations. I’m not a person who doesn’t go places. But, you see, none of these travels were ever longer than two weeks. And as an adult, I have always lived within a one-hour radius of where I grew up. So I’ve never really been away for a period of time where someone I love wasn’t close by. The idea of being away for five to six months is uncharted territory and I have no idea how I will react.


I’m very much a person that believes that if you want a better output, increase the amount you input. If you want a better grade in a class, you can study more. If you want big muscles, you can do targeted exercises. I’ve traditionally done very well in these kinds of effort equals results type endeavors. But the AT is different. No amount of reading, conditioning, or expensive gear can save you from one unfortunate misstep that leads to a broken ankle. A single infected blister or Lyme disease-ridden tick can turn into serious health problems that can bring a thru attempt to an abrupt and unfortunate end. I’m doing all the ‘right’ things I can to ensure my thru hiking success, but I just can’t shake that fear of something happening like slipping on the descent from Blood Mountain, getting injured, and having to come home the very first week with my ‘I’m doing a thru-hike’ tail shamefully tucked between my legs.


Although it looks like my cat walked across my keyboard for that title, it actually refers to a food intake disorder that I (and many others) have. In a nutshell, it means that I don’t perceive and experience food the same way a neurotypical person does. The understanding of this disorder is still developing, but it’s likely related to sensory issues and/or trauma and is common in people on the spectrum and/or with other mood disorders. I’ve been shamed for it my entire life, called ‘picky’ and ‘difficult’. I’ve been at events where people gladly accommodate others’ voluntary food restrictions but get irrationally angry at me for something I can’t control. It’s only been in recent years, thanks to social media, that I’ve connected with people worldwide who experience the exact same issues I do (often even more severe) which has helped me understand this disorder isn’t a moral failing. The lifting of the shame I’ve carried my entire life isn’t complete, but it’s been incredibly lightened. When I’m home or on short backpacking trips, I can easily adjust for my needs, providing myself with ‘safe’ foods.

But just when I have become more comfortable with myself at home, I very much worry about resupplying on the AT. Limited food options are already often difficult for a robust eater, having limited options will not be optimal for me. Pair my ARFID with existing gut issues and I’m at real risk for not only experiencing health issues and lack of performance on trail, but I will have an elevated chance for having to get off trail for lack of calories and nutritional deficit.

Face blindness

Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, refers to an array of cognitive disorders in which a person’s ability to recognize faces is impaired in some way and for a variety of reasons. I’ve had this since I was a child and, again, it’s likely connected to being neurodivergent. In the most severe form, people do not recognize loved ones or even themselves. Fortunately, mine isn’t that severe and I’m usually able to work around it by using piecemeal recognition strategies. Unfortunately, these strategies don’t work when someone’s appearance changes, even in small ways. For example, I’ve gone on two outdoor trips with a woman in my hiking group but when our group met up for dinner at a restaurant a few weeks ago, I introduced myself to her as if we hadn’t yet met. I didn’t recognize her without her hair up in a ponytail and the fact that she was dressed nicely (aka not like hikertrash) and wearing makeup had me thinking she was a stranger. This, of course, makes me look like a giant jerk even though I genuinely like her and can easily remember all the things we’d talked about on our trips like her son, her dog, and her love of Fritos. One of the reasons I’m thru-hiking the AT is to meet new and interesting people, and I love the stories in thru-hiking memoirs of hikers meeting up with people that they met in their early days of their thru when they’re further up the trail (or even years later in places far away from the trail). I worry that once my fellow hikers start growing beards and their colorful clothes get dingy, I won’t recognize them. At best, I’ll miss out on those ‘hey I know you’ moments and at worst, I look like a stuck-up a-hole.

Not having a life left at home

Over the past few years, I’ve been struggling with so much grief, loss, and trauma. I’ve been completely stripped of most of what I valued in my life. It’s part of the reason I need to do the AT right now. Yes, it’s a trope that people go to the AT to heal, but I’m not healing here at home, I need to at least to try to do it there. What will happen to the few thin tendrils left of things important to me while I’m gone for six months? What will I return to, and will there be a place for me?

The sun shines through a stand of trees

“There’s still hope so I think we’ll be fine” – Frightened Rabbit



Yeah, that was some heavy stuff, but I promised you I’d share all the aspects of my thru-hike, and being worried before you go is unfortunately one of them. Like I said, I hope by speaking these fears, some of their power is removed and, overall, I refuse to dwell on any of them. Only time will tell how they shake out and that time will involve me being on my beloved AT, so I say, ‘bring it on!’


Purple Lotus is a NOBO hiker in the AT class of 2024. Read her first post, an introduction of herself, here.

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