Why Engineers Thru-Hike: SOBO Days 144 – 151

The tallest dam in the USA East of the Rockies is Fontana Dam, which also just so happens to be on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina.

As I walked across the dam, snapping haphazard photos of the lake and mountains, I thought about my trip to the Mactaquac Dam (New Brunswick, Canada) with my class in my second year of university.

Having recently learned about the basic principles of thermodynamics and fluid dynamics — including turbines and flow, I remember looking around with wonder at the structure. I peered down at Fontana Dam with similar wonder on my thru-hike. It can’t just be me with my background in chemical engineering. How many hikers are thinking about hydropower as they walk by this trail destination?

It turns out, many of them, actually.

Engineers Hit the Books, Then the Trail

Going SOBO on the Appalachian Trail, I’ve met many different people from many different walks of life. However, if I had to narrow it down, the most common backgrounds for a SOBO thru-hiker include:

  • Retirees, especially military
  • Recent graduates, especially college/university
  • Educators
  • Engineers

At my rock climbing gym during university, there were also many engineers. I thought it had to do with the problem-solving nature inherent to the sport of rock climbing. But thru-hiking? Why do so many engineers thru-hike?

1) Time to Think

Many engineers that I’ve met are at least a little bit introverted. They like time to themselves, time to think. A SOBO thru-hike is advertised as a solitary alternative to a NOBO thru-hike, which is known more for its social community. This means many miles of quiet nature with time to reflect and let the mind wander free.

2) Challenging Yourself

Engineering is a mentally intense program at university. And it’s a mentally stimulating profession. It’s all about complex problem solving, difficult mathematics, blending human and science to create solutions. It’s a challenge. And so is a thru-hike. While it might seem that a thru-hike is just physically challenging, it’s also hugely mentally challenging. Many engineers find fulfillment in practicing mental grit and the physical challenge of the trail is a great way to get an engineer off the computer and into nature.

3) Geek Out About Gear

Is that dyneema or DCF? How many ounces is your sleeping pad? If I break off the handle of my toothbrush, does that difference make up for the weight of my French press? Many engineers love math and love to geek out about the finer technicalities of gear, base weight, optimized gear functionality, etc. It’s fun, and sometimes turns into an Excel spreadsheet.

4) Burned Out, Need a Break

Despite loving a challenge, the engineering system, including academia and the workplace, often leads to burnout. And what better way to cope with burnout than 5-7 months of responsibility-free, stress-free, gloriously indulgent me-time? A thru-hike it is!

5) Financial Privilege

A thru-hike is a privilege in and of itself. A thru-hiker must have enough savings for expensive gear and 5-7 months of living without income. This is a certain privilege for which I, and others on trail, must acknowledge and be grateful. The engineering profession often lends itself to high-income salaries, which allows a person to save for an endeavour such as a thru-hike. Above all, a thru-hike is a selfish pursuit, and an expensive one at that.

Fontana to Neel’s Gap

After a shower at the dam (with exquisite pressure from the nozzle, I might add), I continued South towards the NOC, and then to the town of Franklin. A lovely couple out for a day hike with their dog gave me a ride into town, where I resupplied, picked up my free Buff at Outdoor 76, and hit the trail again.

I crossed into the state of Georgia surrounded by friends, and dogs — No Kiddin’, Stretch, Lotus, Mountain Goat, and the pups, FrankE and Bjorn. It felt surreal to be at the border to my 14th, and final, state on the Appalachian Trail.

Abnormally sunny and warm days greeted me as I climbed Kelly Knob, Tray Mountain, Rocky Mountain, and Blue Mountain. I enjoyed a refreshing last hostel stay at Around the Bend, enjoying cuddles with their kitty, Walker. I’ve been letting my mind explore post-trail plans without limitation, but often find myself thinking back on memories from the trail as well.

I’m a bundle of mixed emotions. Most prevalent, though, is a still a simple joy for hiking, a happiness at being outside all day, gratitude for the people I’ve met, appreciation for the privilege to be here, and maybe just a little ache in my feet.

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Comments 1

  • thetentman : Nov 14th

    The world needs Engineers. I am not an Engineer. For a good part of my career, I was paid to break things that Engineers built—what fun.


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