What Makes Me Nervous to Hike the Appalachian Trail (and what I’m doing about it)

Whenever I get ready to tell someone that I’m preparing to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I can almost guess (with a decent degree of certainty) that they’re going to say one of the following within the next sixty seconds: “How many friends are going in your group?” “What are you going to do if you see a bear?” “Are you bringing xyz for protection?” While there are dozens more questions, the aforementioned three are the ones I’m most used to, and have answered enough to regurgitate responses. Even though it’s become a routine to answer these questions, I don’t blame anyone for having these curiosities. Before I became interested in hiking the trail, I had the same questions.

I think what it really comes down to is fearing the unknown. I’ve realized that in asking these questions, people are projecting their fears onto me. Thru-hiking is a vast, unknown niche world. The vast majority of people will never personally know someone who has thru-hiked the trail, let alone experience the emotional and physical highs and lows, culture, and camaraderie of a thru-hike for themselves. Most people will never encounter it, so in asking these questions, they tell you what they are afraid of for you.

As I write this, my start date is just around the corner. I have less than a week left of work, and the fact that I’m starting the Appalachian Trail in just a few weeks is getting SO real. Going away parties are being hosted, projects are being wrapped up at work, last minute errands are being run, and my belongings are going into storage. For anyone that’s asked me in the last couple of days how I’m feeling, the answer is that I’m so excited. I feel good. I’m sure that once I arrive at Amicalola the nerves will set in, but for now, I feel good. I’m as prepared as I can be to begin a walk across the country.

However, the reality is, there are things I am nervous about. The irony is that what I’m nervous about is usually vastly different than what other people are nervous about for me. What I’ve learned over the last year and half of preparing for the trail is that it’s okay to be nervous. I don’t care who you are or how many miles you’ve hiked. Toeing the line to a multi-month trip walking across the country with some degree of trepidation is normal, and healthy actually (you’d be crazy not to be). But those nerves shouldn’t stop you. One of my favorite songs on my hiking playlist, “Daydream” by Lily Meola describes this perfectly:

“Darlin’, don’t quit your daydreamIt’s your life that you’re makingIt ain’t big enough if it doesn’t scare the hell out of youIf it makes you nervousIt’s probably worth itWhy save it for sleep when you could be living your daydream?”

So yes, while I’m counting down the days until I check in at Amicalola, there are still some things in the back of my head about what could go wrong. However, these nerves are calmed when I remember all the steps I’ve taken to do my best to prevent these fears from getting blown out of proportion. These fears don’t sound as scary when I know I’ve done my best to prepare for it.



While everyone is well meaning in listing out their fears for me on the Appalachian Trail, I always tell them that the one thing that they aren’t afraid of for me that they probably should be is ticks. Ticks run rampant on the trail, and hikers that started in February are already reporting seeing them. Heck, Lyme Disease gets its name from the town Lyme, Connecticut, one of the fourteen states that the trail passes through. Lyme Disease is debilitating enough to not only get someone off trail, but can also have lasting physical and neurological effects if not treated quickly, so it’s definitely something to be taken seriously.

The first step to avoiding Lyme Disease is prevention. I have treated my tent and pack with Permethrin, and plan to spray items again on trail every couple of weeks. For my hiking clothing, I opted to get each piece professionally treated with Permethrin by Insect Shield which claims to last 70 washes. (Bonus of using Permethrin is that it also repels mosquitoes, which are my arch nemesis in the summer. They LOVE to feast on me, (no, really, mosquitoes are attracted to some people more than others) and I break out in giant itchy rashes when they do).

At least once a day (probably more in the summer and when I’m in the densest tick areas in the northern part of the trail), I’ll check myself for ticks. When hiking with a buddy/tramily member, it’s common to do buddy checks on each other. In my first aid kit, I have a set of tweezers so that I can remove a tick if I see it. While not all ticks transmit Lyme, early detection is important and drastically decreases the odds of developing the condition.

Finally, if I do notice a tick embedded/start developing symptoms of Lyme Disease, I’ve gotten a prescription from my doctor for Doxycycline, the antibiotic used to treat Lyme. During my physical last month, my doctor talked me through the signs I should look out for, as well as the dosing for the medicine. As someone who has walked on foot to a urgent care clinic while travelling out of state and without a vehicle, having the medication already with me, for something that could potentially have lasting side effects, gives me great peace of mind.

Data and Surveillance | Lyme Disease | CDC

Courtesy of the CDC


Injury is one of the things that scares me most about the trail. I think it’s because I could do everything “right,” and still have a fall that lands the wrong way and causes an issue. I can be pretty clumsy and stumble over my feet sometimes, and my trekking poles have caught me from falling further on more than one occasion. But, I keep reminding myself that having these fears is no way to live. Could I take a tumble on trail? Sure. But could I also trip on something at work or get in a fender bender on the road? Also yes. If we let it, fear can surround our lives, so we can’t allow it the power to debilitate us from doing what we’re called to.

In terms of other injuries, prevention is my focus. I am going to take other hiker’s advice and go slow for my first few weeks out on trail, with the goal of averaging 8-12 miles per day. This experience will encourage me to listen to my body and take zeros as I need them. The last thing I want to do is start with guns blazing right out of the gate and have to get off trail from an overuse injury. Second, I am going to take breaks as needed throughout the day, and plan on starting and ended my day with stretching. I’ve added a small cork massage ball to my kit (weighing a mere 0.7oz) to help me roll out sore muscles and feet. (These are super useful for dealing with plantar fasciitis, which plagues a lot of hikers). Of course I’ll have ibuprofen to use as needed, but I’ll aim to use turmeric pills for the natural anti-inflammatory benefits, which is something I’ve been using pre-trail for years. Similarly, I’ve added krill oil to my diet for the omega-3s, which are also anti-inflammatory, in addition to many other health benefits.

Third, building up my strength is a key factor when preventing an injury. I will be prioritizing protein, and aim to get in a couple different sources a day. I know it likely won’t happen every day, but my goal is to sip on a protein “shake” at the end of each day while I’m setting up my tent. Getting in quality protein within 30-60 minutes after finishing exercise is super important to help generate muscle recovery. I am experimenting with portioning out protein powders from a bulk container into my food pot versus carrying individual packets. We’ll see what works! (PSA, Highly recommend athletes of all levels check out Episode #154 of Backpacker Radio with Nutritionist and Ironman athlete Lauren Capone. I’ve listened to it twice because it was super informative and I genuinely enjoyed the episode!)


Whenever someone asks if I prefer the hot or cold weather, I’ll pick a sweltering hot day over a day in the 30’s any day. I was just not made for cold weather. My job usually requires me to be outside for at least part of the day, every day, all throughout the year, and I would always rather be sweating than shivering.

My main concern is my hands. I have Raynaud’s Syndrome , which means that the blood vessels in my fingers and toes over constrict when I get cold. If my feet get cold, it’s uncomfortable, but I can deal with it. When it comes to my hands, it’s debilitating, and I have a hard time focusing on anything else. When I first found out that I had Raynaud’s while running winter track in high school, I can remember a few times I was brought to tears on the car ride home because of how much pain my hands were in. Knowing a Raynaud’s attack could really jeopardize my morale on trail, I’ve decided to splurge on the Enlightened Equipment Torrid mittens paired with a Goretex rain shell. I’ve found that mittens keep my hands warmer than gloves since my fingers stay together rather than separate like in gloves, and they make it easier to effectively use a hand warmer. (Also super pumped to recently learn that hand warmers can be reused for a few days if you put them in a sealed bag to starve them of the oxygen!)

Being cold while sleeping is also a concern, so I am starting the trail with a 0 degree down quilt from Enlightened Equipment. Since my last camping trip, I’ve swapped out my sleeping pad for one with a slightly higher R-value, and I’ve also added a 1/8″ foam pad from Gossamer Gear to add the tiniest bit of warmth (and hopefully keep my sleeping pad a bit quieter as I shift around at night).


Back to the fears that everyone else has for me. It seems that everyone is worried about bears. To be honest, I’m really not worried about bears (I can say this comfortably as I sit on my couch) because I know that I will likely see the back end of most of them. Storing my food in my bear canister makes it easy to stow away smellables at night without the hassle of hanging a bear bag. If I’m hiking alone, I tend to purposely make a lot of noise, tapping my trekking poles on rocks and verbally saying “hey bear” every once in a while, so if there is a bear nearby, it hears me and I don’t startle it. What does make me nervous is being in my tent at night and hearing some rustling outside my tent and thinking it’s a bear, when it reality it’s likely an innocent bunny rabbit or deer. I think thinking about this now will hopefully help keep me calm when this does happen on trail.

Now snakes on the other hand are a different story. I really hate snakes. I know there are venomous copperheads and rattlesnakes on the AT, but even harmless garter snakes freak me out just the same. At this point, I’ve just accepted that seeing them is going to be unfortunately just part of hiking the AT. I’m trying to accept that they are part of nature, and I am walking through their home (accepting it and being happy about it are two different things though. Also I sleep with my pack and my shoes inside my tent instead of in my vestibule because of this fear).

A hilariously humbling experience day hiking a couple years ago. I saw signs that black bears were present in the area in addition to bear boxes. I saw big footprints in the ground and a large, dark animal up trail. So I stopped, made myself big by putting my arms up, and made lots of noise. Turned out, it was an escaped cow.

“What if no one likes me?”

This wasn’t a fear that I anticipated when preparing to hike the AT. It brings me back to the feelings most kids have before starting kindergarten, high school, and college. It’s funny how after plenty of “first days” in my life, those same fears creep in. Over the last few months, I’ve had fleeting thoughts of “what if I don’t find a group that I get along with to hike with?” “Will my convictions and goals isolate me from a group?” I think this fear comes from naturally being an introvert. While I’ve come to accept it and love it as part of my personality (I am way more observant than most folks, because I don’t feel the need to insert myself into things if I don’t want to), that hasn’t always been the case. School, in particular, praises extroverts, shaming introverts as just being “shy” (which actually isn’t the case. Introverts aren’t necessarily shy, we just tend to gain our energy from being alone/with smaller, more intimate groups of people and find large gatherings emotionally exhausting).

The difference between kindergarten Natalie and Natalie who is getting ready to hike the AT is experience. As I’ve said, I’ve had many “first days” in my life- first days of school, first days of new jobs, first days in a new city where I didn’t know anyone, first time attending meetings/classes. At this point in my life, I can squash those fears and remember that in all of those circumstances, I have made it out positively on the other side, with great groups of new friends that I’ve connected with on all different levels. Because I’ve put myself outside of my comfort zone, I’ve developed lasting friendships with people in all of the above situations. I still talk to two thru hikers I met while I was on a week long section hike last year. I’m going to be okay. I am going to make friends. Nearly three million people step foot on the Appalachian Trail every year. At this present moment, nearly 2,500 have registered NOBO thru hikes with the ATC. I’m know who I am, and that I’m bound click with some of them, just like I have throughout my life.

Getting out of my comfort zone to join a Bible study group led to new friends

New friends from Bible study group ultimately played a big role in my interest in hiking by inviting me to hike in Yosemite with them









Will I like it? What does a bad day look like?

I’ve written about this on previous blogs, but the mental aspect of the trail is often touted as the biggest obstacle to overcome on the trail. Worrying that I won’t like it has been a concern, but I’ve decided to shift my mentality on it. Instead of viewing the trail through rose colored glasses, while sitting in the comforts of my home, watching YouTube videos, I’ve reconciled the fact that parts of the trail are going to suck. It can be easy to glamourize the trail experience. While I am super excited to start, acknowledging that there will be bad days ahead of time is half battle. I’m preparing for this now by continuing to be very clear on my why for doing the trail, and I review it often. Even more so, I review my list of what happens if I’m not successful in completing the trail. I want to be really clear on my why as well as what it will feel like/mean for not finishing.

I am blessed to have an amazing support team back home with friends, family, and coworkers. So many people are praying for me and cheering me on. I’ve promised myself that I won’t quit on a bad day. I’ve talked to those closest to me on my support team back at home about what I want them to say and do (when) I call them crying and upset at a bad day. I want them to tell me to get off trail, take a shower, sleep in a real bed, and eat a cheeseburger.  I want them to encourage me with my why lists, quotes, and remind me who I am.

At the end of the day, I know that no matter how prepared I am right now, nothing will ever fully prepare me to walk across the country. And that’s okay. I know things are still going to go wrong, but I’m ready to deal with it. Saint Joan of Arc once said, “I am not afraid, I was born to do this.” So for now, as I count down the days until my feet walk through those Arches in my permethrin treated socks, I’ll keep listening to “Daydream” and making this dream a reality.

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Comments 24

  • Paul : Mar 5th

    You go, Natalie…best to you on your journey

    • Natalie Swierzbinski : Mar 6th

      Thank you Paul!

    • Terrapin : Mar 6th

      Natalie take solicie in knowing that your fears are right on par with everyone else’s, and a large part of the hike is dealing with, and over coming these fears. You are doing all the right things to prepare and we have a saying that only the trail can truly prepare you for the trail. Enjoy it all.

      I especially like your fear that you won’t be liked by the people on the trail. I truly think this is impossible. The trail is made up of a family working together to achieve a common goal. I don’t think it is possible for someone not to be liked. My favorite part of the trail was the people I grew to love along the way…Hoops, Outlaw, Moonshine, Starlight, Glamazon and many many more.

      Embrace the fear as part of the experience!

      Terrapin – thru hiker 2022

      • Natalie Swierzbinski : Mar 11th

        Thank you for the encouraging words Terrapin!

  • Murray Ziegenfuss : Mar 6th

    Hey, Natalie! I’m wishing you a great beginning! My late husband “Ziggy” was a thru-hiker & 20+ years ago we began giving free overnights to you folks. I’m still doing that & invite you to text me @ 276-617-0727as you approach Partnership Shelter (near Marion VA) or the Atkins VA road crossing (US 11). I’ll pick you up & give a private room! Hopefully there are some posts on Farout from my far-flung tramily!

    • Natalie Swierzbinski : Mar 6th

      This is fantastic, thank you Murray! I will be in touch. Thank you for the support

  • Bigfoot91 : Mar 6th

    When I thru-hiked in 1991, there was precious little to read in the way of advice, especially from someone who had never attempted the trail before. This just goes to show just HOW MUCH information is out there 32 years later! By the way, I probably stupidly didn’t allow negative thoughts of what bad things may happen to me before I left, so I guess I can thank the Lord that nothing (much) did!!! I was drawn to one song that fall/winter as I was preparing my thru-hike and I can truthfully say that I think it helped my spirit immensely – “Hammer and a Nail” by the The Indigo Girls. WHAT friggin’ inspiration!!!!!

    • Natalie Swierzbinski : Mar 6th

      Thank you Bigfoot! I am so impressed by hikers that hiked before thru-hiking became so popular and the internet was widespread.
      Also, I’ve added Hammer and a Nail to my playlist!

  • Darrell Smith : Mar 6th

    Best of luck!!

    • Natalie Swierzbinski : Mar 6th

      Thank you Darrell!

  • KingCatDaddyBrooks : Mar 6th

    So proud to read some wholesome posts on a blog! Impressed that you set your faith as a high priority and that you are unabashed & unafraid to talk about being in Bible Study groups & talking about people praying for you. Just so you know, even though strangers, we are lifting you up before our Heavenly Father, too!

    • Natalie Swierzbinski : Mar 6th

      Thank you for your kind comment and prayers! All glory to God

  • Kara Wise : Mar 9th

    Omg I totally have first day of school vibes!! I’m so excited to meet everyone, and I hope I find a great crew to hike with. It’s nice to remember that everyone else is nervous the first few days too

    • Natalie Swierzbinski : Mar 11th

      Yes, first day of school vibes is right! I’m glad I’m not the only one. Hope our paths cross on trail! 🙂

  • Kathy Durning : Mar 9th

    You are wise to have some fears as you set out on your journey. Thinking you know it all and can handle anything makes you complacent and sets you up for problems. God keep you safe on the trail!

    • Natalie Swierzbinski : Mar 11th

      Thank you Kathy! Ready to take it one day at a time and open to learning on the trail

    • Jeff Kasper : Mar 27th

      Definitely watch out for snakes. My daughter and i had a 20 minute standoff with an eastern diamondback on a trail in Smoky Mountains National Park. I took a large trash bag that i was storing my pack in a t night and got it full of air and shook it at the snake. This got it to go back into the brush. It was about 5 to 6 feet long. They have a 20 to 30 percent mortality rate. Probably less than that considering how deep in the woods we were. Bears get all the hype but they’re easier to spot and easier to scare off. Good luck and safe travels.

  • Aaron Andrews. tTt wooden crosses Trucken LLC : Mar 10th

    The only thing that is stoppen me from a trekking adventure like is /the fact that I ‘m a 2yr Stent server/& the fact,that I’d have stop& resupply me med’s ??¿ how long does it take to get to the outter end of trail ??tanks ? ?

  • Lauren Lamb : Mar 11th

    I saw the map of Lyme Disease cases in the U.S.

    I’m so glad there are barely any cases in Massachusetts! What a relief!

    (Just kidding – everyone here gets it. Your Doctor is right. Knowing symptoms and having Doxycycline is very important here. For pets and people. Nothing worse than spending $1000 on an unscrupulous Veterinarian or cutting a trip short. Then finding out you only need $10 antibiotic.)

    • Natalie Swierzbinski : Mar 11th

      Glad to be prepared now. Thanks Lauren!

  • bunchie : Mar 12th

    Thank you for your blog and I love the fact that you mention your fears. Everyone has fears it’s confronting your fears and getting out of your comfort zone which propels people forward and you are doing that. I also believe you should not be afraid of not completing your first thru hike because the fact that you are attempting one by yourself is remarkable . You have thoroughly prepared yourself and are going in with mental preparation so I believe you will be successful it’s more mental than physical. I will be looking forward to your future blogs and most importantly praying for a safe successful journey for you.

  • Amparo McDowell : Mar 16th

    Buen camino to you! ?. The article it’s so good, full of great ideas, but most of all the excitement, hopes and expectations! ??????

  • Bob : Mar 18th

    I was just diagnosed with Raynaud’s. I haven’t backpacked since diagnosis and am more concerned about it than anything else on the trail. Good luck. Be safe. God bless.

  • Kathleen Stephens : May 30th

    I was looking forward to following your blog while you hiked, but haven’t seen an update in a while…Is everything OK?


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