Wisdom from 2018 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. I)

This is the first in a series of posts called “Wisdom from the (Recent) Past” (inspired by a post of the same name from 2018), where we’ll be interviewing thru-hikers from the class of 2018 for the PCT, AT, and CDT. Anecdotes, gear advice, and reflection will provide some wisdom for those considering a thru-hike. To those of you hiking this year, hopefully this will give you some insight before you begin the journey of a lifetime. Let’s get started.

Today we’ll be talking with hikers about the importance of tramily, and when the best time to thru-hike is (hint: there isn’t one).

Mackenzie “Wilt” Wieder | March 22nd – September 10th, NOBO

“…I miss seeing this amazing and beautiful country change in front of my eyes…”

Favorite trail town and why?
It is hard for me to pinpoint a specific trail town that was my favorite. They all mean so much to me. It is probably a tie between Hot Springs, NC, and Kent, CT. Hot Springs is the first trail town you walk directly into and the Smoky Mountain Diner had the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten, plus we camped on the river for free and made fires and hung out late into the night. Kent was spectacular because my tramily had just been reunited after being separated since Pennsylvania, and we experienced the most unsuspecting trail magic at Swyft. The manager and the rest of the staff treated us like royalty and gave us free food and drinks for hours in exchange for trail stories.

What did you do to prepare for your hike, that you think directly affected the outcome?
Honestly, I don’t know if there is anything you can do to prepare for the hike that directly affects the outcome. When I started I didn’t know if I would finish, but I just had the most fun I’ve ever had in my life and I met the most amazing people. I really think I finished because I had such a spectacular relationship with them and I never wanted to not be with them.

What were your luxuries on trail?
I carried a book at all times on trail, which felt like a necessity to me because I need to end every day with reading no matter how tired I am, but it was technically a luxury. I also carried a pebble from Springer Mountain with me the entire time and collected a pebble from Mama K as well to put on a loved one’s grave once I finished.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
I brought both a puffy and a fleece and I really only needed one because the fleece and my rain coat were warm enough 90% of the time, so I sent my puffy home pretty early on.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
I pretty much just wished I had lighter-weight everything. I bought most of my gear secondhand because this was my first backpacking trip and I didn’t know if I would like it so my pack was super heavy but if I ever hike the PCT I will definitely try to do it lighter.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life, from this experience?
I think the most dramatic shift on life is my desire for happiness. I have never been as happy as I was on trail and I realized that is the meaning of life. I just want to be happy and I have made that a priority in my life now.

Did you hike more in a group or solo? What was your favorite part of hiking in a group? Alone?
I hiked mostly by myself. My tramily consisted of me, Milkeye, and Pro. We met and bonded very early on and stayed together for the majority of the trail but we usually didn’t hike as a group. I was the slowest so we would hike at our own pace and then just wait for each other on breaks and to camp. I liked having very genuine, heartfelt conversations when I hiked with other people. I especially liked getting to hike with section and day hikers and talking to them. I liked hiking alone because I felt no pressure to shift my pace for other people. I used the trail to process emotions and heal, which I was able to do more when I hiked solo and I was alone with my thoughts.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
On rough days I turned to Milkeye and Pro to keep me motivated and driven.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
I miss the people, I miss the natural feeling of walking all day, I miss getting to constantly eat junk food, I miss challenging myself physically, I miss chasing a goal, I miss seeing this amazing and beautiful country change in front of my eyes. I miss trail towns and random hotels, I miss trail magic. I miss everything about the trail.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
The best advice I received and I can give is just don’t quit. It is inevitable that you will want to quit at some point but just push through it. The desire will pass and the satisfaction of completing a thru-hike is the best feeling in the world.

Brandon “Moxie” Chase | March 25th – June 30th, NOBO

“There will never be a ‘perfect’ time to thru-hike. Pick a year and make it happen.”

Favorite trail town and why?
Damascus, VA. This is a popular choice, and for good reason. It has tons of hostels, great resupply options, an outfitter, and a wonderful library with free computers to use and lovely staff.

What did you do to prepare for your hike, that you think directly affected the outcome?
Yes, I prepared quite extensively. I had been running ultramarathons for about two years prior and had also set the Fastest Known Time for a trail in Cyprus, where I was living at the time. I believe my preparation played a large role in my ability to start the trail with higher-mileage days and made the experience more enjoyable overall (although it certainly wasn’t easy!).

What were your luxuries on trail?
A massage ball to use on my feet, a larger battery pack (16,500 mAH), and a Delorme InReach.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
Deodorant, camp shoes, and a titanium drinking cup.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
An extra layer for the first month—it was damn cold in the Smokies!

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life, from this experience?
I may be in the minority here, but I don’t feel that thru-hiking the AT substantially changed my personality and outlook on life. It was a wonderful experience that I’m extremely grateful to have had, but for me it was more about facing the physical and mental challenges. If anything, I learned that I’m both more capable than I thought but also less invincible (as evidenced by some nasty IT band issues I faced).

Did you hike more in a group or solo?
Because of my pace, I hiked almost exclusively alone with the exception of a few days

What was your trail family like?
I hiked with diverse group of young folks on and off for a week or so. They were nice, funny, and capable hikers. We separated when the group went into a town and I had to push on. They summited Katahdin together, which was great to see.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group?
Seeing a familiar face during or at the end of the day, being able to exchange “war stories” about the trail, and cracking jokes.

Alone?
Being in control of my schedule and pace. Being able to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the trail (or a podcast if I wasn’t feeling it) without distraction.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
I reminded myself of why I was out there—for a challenge and an adventure. I was very determined to finish, but I didn’t focus on it at the cost of my health or well-being. I kept in close contact with my family (thanks to the InReach) and they helped encourage me.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
Making continual visible progress on a singular goal, pushing my physical and mental limits on a daily basis, and spending a lot of time outdoors.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
There will never be a “perfect” time to thru-hike—pick a year and make it happen. Don’t make the experience as black and white as completing a thru-hike or not. Certainly plan to finish, but don’t rule out the possibility of the experience ending in another way.

Esther “Snow Angel” Burghouwt | March 2nd – September 8th, NOBO

“It’s not a job, keep it fun!”

Favorite trail town and why?
Loved Hot Springs, with their hot baths, great hostel(s), and diverse food places (both healthy and not so healthy options :).

What did you do to prepare for your hike, that you think directly affected the outcome?
Since I live in a country with no mountains (Netherlands), I trained twice for a week in the French Pyrenees (pretty tough mountain range). Perfect place to test all my gear and to mentally prepare for the toughness of the trail. Also tried working on strengthening my legs with some different classes at the gym. Could I have succeeded without these preparations? Probably. Was it very helpful in knowing what to expect and to make the start a little easier with strong legs? Yes!

What were your luxuries on trail?
Could not have done without my e-reader (what you guys call a Kindle :). I need books, to feed my mind and find some distraction and reward at night in my tent. Could have read on my phone, but preferred e-reader (longer battery life, more comfortable reading, not using phone as much). Also carried both a GPS and Spot device (on the request of my mom).

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
Nothing? I used everything, probably could have done without the GPS and Spot, but they were also helpful and informative.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
Bought down booties after suffering real hard in the cold; wish I had bought them sooner. But luckily they were not needed anymore again for five months after that.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life from this experience?
Nothing. I know, I seem to be the exception when I hear and see all these “life-changing experiences” of other people, but that is just my own experience. I am pretty secure with myself, know what I am or need, so this trip did not offer any revelations. The trip was more of a confirmation that I can persevere and be tough, and still have great adventures at 31, as long as I choose and pursue it.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?
Solo.

What was your favorite part of hiking alone?
I am a pretty solitary person in general, so I much preferred to do everything by myself and to be completely responsible for whatever I wanted to do or not do. Did not mean I did not love meeting people or hanging out with them, and on some days a small conversation could uplift my whole mood. But again, preferred to do whatever the heck I wanted to do.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
Podcasts, other hikers, family. In random order. Also setting small goals/rewards helped, like eating candy at the next break or booking a hostel for the next night.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
Simplicity? Only today matters, and maybe how much food you have till the next place.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
Everybody keeps going on about hike your own hike, but please, listen to them. Don’t try to keep up with people because you do not want to be alone, don’t treat it as a competition, be open to all people you meet, don’t worry about everything too much, ask for help when you need it. And remember, it is not a job, keep it fun!

Audrey “Glowstick” Payne | March 20th – September 16th, NOBO

“…these people understand you in a way that no one else can, because they’re living the experience with you…”

Favorite trail town and why?

This is a tough one—there are so many charming, friendly towns to love along the AT! But I think I would have to say Damascus, VA. It’s insanely adorable, featuring grand historic homes and a crystal clear creek running through it in addition to being surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, is home to an incredible coffeehouse (good coffee was very much missed on the trail!) and a microbrewery that lets you bring in your own picnics, is very near to one of my absolute favorite parts of the AT (the Grayson Highlands—where there are wild ponies!), and is super thru-hiker friendly. It even hosts Trail Days each year.

What did you do to prepare for your hike, that you think directly affected the outcome?
I used the trail as a transitional tool in my life and it wasn’t a decision I took lightly or made quickly. I saved up for about three years before hitting the trail and I quit my job and got rid of my apartment before leaving. I was ready to move on from my life in Washington, DC—having had enough of the busy, fast-paced, career-oriented lifestyle there—so it wasn’t as if I had a life waiting to return to. I could only look forward—not back—so I was really able to ingrain myself fully into the experience. Remaining present was an incredible gift, and I think it played an enormous part in my success. I also hiked the entire trail with a friend, so had a built-in support system.

What were your luxuries on trail?
An inflatable Cocoon travel pillow, a mini hairbrush, a tube of mascara, and a regularly replenished supply of candy.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
Sunscreen. I brought a small tube with me but literally never used it. I ended up tossing it into a hiker box up north somewhere.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
I had everything I needed (it’s amazing how little you need on trail), but I did wish I had lighter gear, which is what I’ll change next time around.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life, from this experience?
I think this experience helped bring me back to myself after several years of working and living in one of the most Type A, stressed out cities in America. Before the hike, I’d gone from working in environmental education in the woods to working in public relations in Washington, DC, for several years, and while that was valuable, it took a toll on both my outlook on life and my personality. On trail, I was able to shed a lot of that stress and I found that it was much easier to live in the present, much easier to trust people, and that no obstacle felt insurmountable. I also found that I do really well with having a concrete goal to work toward; it helps keep me focused and grounded.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?
I hiked with a friend from college (Ibex) for the entire trail, and we hiked with a tramily for the vast majority of it, though the tramily members did shift several times.

What was your trail family like? 

Ever-changing. Ibex and I hiked with the same couple of guys for the majority of the trail, but we often had other members come in and out for shorter stints. For the most part, we all really loved each other, and having a tramily to look out for you, be waiting for you at camp after a long day, and to be present for the trail’s best and worst moments was an incredible gift. It’s indescribable how much you begin to care about these people. They become a part of you.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group?
All the inside jokes and shared experiences—these people understand you in a way that no one else can, because they’re living the experience with you, day in and day out. I especially loved arriving at camp and having my tramily waiting there for me.

Alone?
I only spent a couple of weeks hiking alone, but I loved being on my own schedule, really pushing myself to see what I was capable of, and how easily it was to make friends (you’re never really alone on trail). There was one week in Virginia when I was hiking fast to catch my tramily (after getting off the trail for a couple of days), when I hiked until or after dark every single day. The fireflies went crazy lighting up the night, and I couldn’t help but get emotional about how incredibly lucky I was to be there.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
Music (especially EDM if I was really struggling and needed a pump up), podcasts (a couple of favorites were “Science Vs.” and “How to be Amazing with Michael Ian Black”), and support from my tramily.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
EVERYTHING! The sights and sounds, the freedom, the energy, my friends. Even the dang red squirrels!

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
DO IT! There are always going to be a million reasons why you shouldn’t. Find the one that says you should, and go for it wholeheartedly.

Keep an eye open for more interviews with 2018 thru-hikers coming soon. Thanks again to everyone who agreed to be interviewed for this series. Having only hiked the PCT myself, it was great to get this insight to the AT!

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Featured image via Mackenzie Wieder 

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Comments 3

  • Ruth Morley : Mar 24th

    Thanks so much for this post. I learned a lot from it, such as the minor question I had: “Do I need both a fleece and a puffy?” I’m happy to know now that I can eliminate the weight of the puffy. I was also encouraged to hear others share that they too enjoy being solo the whole time. So do I, even though I love meeting other backpackers.

    Reply
  • Jim : Mar 24th

    Great advice and down to earth wisdom from past hikers. Thank you so much for your great work. 😀

    Reply
  • Pony : Mar 25th

    These were really great. Hope to see more of them on The Trek.

    I have to say, reading Glowstick’s experience hiking until after dark in an effort to catch her trail family and seeing the dance of the fireflies….. that gave me literal shivers. Every time I saw lightning bugs on the trail I just felt like I was on a different world. There were a million blinking in and out of the trees at Byrd’s Next No. 3 shelter in Shenandoah, one of the most beautiful sights I saw among many…..

    ~Pony (CT’15; AT’16; Foothills Trail, Alabama Pinhoti Trail’18)

    Reply

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