We All Have Demons, Get Ready to Face Them or Your Pre-Hike Reading List

Why Are You Hiking the AT? – the question we can’t fully answer.

The most common question that is asked of anyone before they leave for a thru-hike is “Why?” which most of us cannot really give a good answer for.  Why?  It is there.  Why?  I’ve always dreamed of doing it.  We have some standard response the deflects rather than answers the question.  Most of us are incapable of articulating the real answer.  The drive to thru-hike is like an itch.  You typically don’t know why it is there, but you have to scratch it.

Earl Shaffer was the first AT thru-hiker.  He hiked to work out his PTDS issues from WWII although they called it “shell shock” back then.  Grandma Gatewood, the first woman to thru-hike the AT, has an amazing life story of survival of severe domestic abuse. She certainly had her demons and lots of them.  If you plan to be an AT thru-hiker, and you’ve never read Grandma Gatewood’s Walk or Walking With Spring, you definitely need to.  They literally are the stories of two of the giants on whose shoulders we stand today.  They are the mother and father of AT thru-hiking.

An interesting fact about  Earl “The Crazy One” Shaffer and Grandma Gatewood share is that they both thru-hiked the AT three times.  They had a lot of demons to work out.

My Demons. Your Demons.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had a thru-hike attempt in 2016 that lasted almost 500 miles (485, I believe).  My failure to meet my key goal (Springer to Maine) had to do with a foot condition that required surgery after I quit but equally or mostly was due to my own personal demons.  If anything, an AT thru-hike accentuates your neurotic tendencies to an extreme.  Uncomfortable with yourself? Get ready to be more uncomfortable.  Have control issues?  The AT is a place where you realize just how little control you have despite your best planning.  Have entitlement issues?  Guess what?   The reality is that everyone stinks. Everyone has to sleep in a tent or a hammock or in mouse infested shelters but not in a bed.  Everyone poops in nasty privies or balances over tiny cat holes and does their best to hit the intended hole while trying to not fall over.  Rain falls a lot and falls on everyone.  Your diet is mostly a mix of highly processed food coupled with fast food or bar food in town (apologies to those rare people who actually plan and eat decent food). The AT is a great leveler.  For me, I like to have everything planned.  I am an RN.  Nurses LOVE checklists.  Nurses love organization and predictability.  The AT is not a checklist nor is it especially predicable (except perhaps that it will rain and rain a lot) and that it is a series of PUDs.

I tend to stay so busy that I rarely have time to think which can easily be understood as self-reflection avoidance, right?  A lot of us do that.  Most of us are not very comfortable being alone with ourselves, our thoughts, day after day.  We keep ourselves “busy” watching reruns of The Office or obsessively watching NFL or college football or MLB or curling.  We adore the Outside channel.  We spend hours on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.  Really, we will do most anything but sit with our own thoughts.  Our thoughts frighten most of us.  Five or six months of backpacking leaves us lots of time to be lost in what we actively avoid, ourselves.

A Question That Cut To The Truth

On my 2016 attempt, I met a kid from New Jersey named Rooster.  It was a rainy day, a very rainy day, and my friend, Handles, and I went to a shelter to eat lunch. I remember that my cell phone self-destroyed that day when cell phones were “water resistant” and not waterproof.  It was right before Fontana Dam and I had to pay to get a replacement overnighted.  Rooster, who appeared to be about 16, looked at me and calmly asked, “What’s so fucked up about you that you are out here hiking?”  I never saw Rooster again, but those words had a big impact on me.  My guess is that most of us are out to face our demons regardless of how much or how little we are aware of that motivation.  It is also avoiding our demons which really is the thoughts in our mind that are most likely to make us fail.  I think Rooster had a better understanding of what motivates many of us to thru-hike at whatever his age was than I did in my 50s.

What Is This All About?

So what do you do with this?  Well, first, be  flexible and open to new experiences which, at the time, might feel very painful.  Sure, you’ll get sore knees, blisters, be cold at night, be hot during the day, and stink.  That is not the pain I am talking about.  It is the psychological pain that will get you (unless you have a big injury or some odd physical condition), which is pretty unusual.  In reality, people who have physical limitations complete the AT every year.   Quitting is almost always a mental thing.  So you have to be open to your own mental suffering, doubts, and lack of tolerance for spending day after day after day hiking with just your thoughts.  The AT forces us to live with ourselves and our thoughts.  I’d that the people you see who hike with music all day are just avoiding their own thoughts, their own demons.  It can be very challenging to be alone with yourself for most of the day, day after day.  One of the benefits of the AT is that there is a very social aspect to it with shelters and hostels that the other two of the triple crown trails do not have to nearly the same extent.

Do Not Confuse The Following With Kissing Butt

OK, I am going to say this. Yes, I blog for The Trek, and, yes, that is the baby of Zach Davis.  He is also the author of Appalachian Trials.  I have no agenda here to earn the favor of or help Zach sell books.  I’ve never met him and likely never will.  I am one of hundreds of people who have or are currently writing for The Trek.  With that said, I think that Zach really gets it right in this book.  It is almost always your head that will lead you off the trail and away from your thru-hike dreams and rarely your body.  He gives some really good concrete methods to help get ready for the trail.  While most people are worried about how to physically train for the AT, this book helps you get your head ready for it.  The “mental pushups” are more likely to help you get to Maine than the physical training.  You’re going to carry 35 +/- pounds and hike all day, almost every day.  How do you physically train for that while working?  You can’t.  You physically train during your first month or so on the trail.  That is a reality.

Earl Shaffer instinctively knew that months in nature was the cure for his PTSD.  Today, the value of “nature therapy” has been repeatedly proven through research.  Grandma Gatewood escaped a life of suffering and found freedom on the AT.  Nature loves us back to health and wholeness.  I truly believe that.  So get your head ready as possible so you can enjoy a trip that will benefit you in so many ways.

Your Pre-Hike AT Reading List

Three books to read before an AT thru-hike attempt:

  • Grandma Gatewood’s Walk
  • Walking with Spring
  • Appalachian Trials

I’d also suggest AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller who also produces The A. T. Guide which is just referred to as AWOL.


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Comments 6

  • Doyle Brinson : Jan 9th

    Very well stated, David! I’m enjoying your posts and find what you write to be something I think about a lot. The mental part of any big undertaking will ultimately determine the success or failure of the attempt. Thanks for your hard work on the blog.

    • David Smith : Jan 11th


  • Paul : Jan 9th

    Try reading “Thirst”
    It’s about thru-hiking the PCT
    But is all about the mental challenges

    • David Smith : Jan 11th

      I did read it. It was really well written. At 61, I am much more of the turtle, but the mental part impacts us.
      Thanks for reading.

  • pearwood : Jan 11th

    Thanks. I heartily agree with your books choices. Walking with Spring is still on my to-read list. The books remind me that people thru-hike the AT for all sorts of reasons and have all sorts of different experiences.

  • Christina : Jan 13th

    Thanks for the insight and reading recommendations, David. Good to see a fellow Phoenician resident, too! I’m merely an aspiring thru-hiker that’s had the itch since I was a kid, but I suspect that the prospect of facing our demons is both why we crave the trail, and part of why we procrastinate starting it.
    Looking forward to seeing more posts from you!


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