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

We’re back for a second dose of wisdom from the AT Class of 2018! As some eager 2019 NOBOs are getting their first miles under their feet, let’s hear some more from those who finished their thru-hikes last year.

Christopher “Sticks” Keys | March 25th – September 30th NOBO

“If you are out there just trying to get to Katahdin, you are out there for the wrong reason.”

Favorite trail town and why?
This one is tough. So many wonderful trail towns. Daleville might be the sneaky fave. The HoJo Hotel (Howard Johnson) is one of a kind. Can’t go to far into detail, but this place was fun. We had a huge group in Daleville and ended up shuttling ahead to hop on the Shenandoah River and aqua blaze for a week and a half. After that, Gigs, Happy Feet, and I went back to Daleville to begin hiking north again and let’s just say the staff was happy to see us again.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?
I read a lot. Which doesn’t always translate on trail. But just being aware of the many things that can happen out there. Reading other people’s experiences. I figured just having some familiarity toward things and the trail made a difference. I definitely set my tent up in the living room. I also set it up in the dark, wanted to be ready to set it up in any condition or weather. The best preparation would probably be to get your base weight down to a comfortable weight. Pack weight makes a huge difference.

I was living in the Midwest, so I didn’t get out for shakedown hikes. I went to the gym a decent amount, but in my opinion, there is really no way to be prepared for the mountains. You could train quite strenuously and still get your butt kicked when you start out. No matter what direction you are headed. You will get your trail legs and that’s all that matters, no matter which direction you go. Also understanding that you can only control certain things, and just knowing that you are going to need to adapt. It’s not going to go as planned.

I put a huge emphasis on budgeting and saving early in the planning stage. I followed the familiar budget of $1,000/month and came home under budget, and I was out there for a while. I didn’t want money to be something that I had to worry about out there. So I did my best to avoid it being a problem.

What were your luxuries on trail?
Happy Feet and I carried a pound of coffee out there so we could use the GSI Outdoors Ultralight Java Drip. I found myself carrying foolish items at times as well. I probably carried too many clothes. Once I left town with a book? Wiffleball bat and ball for a while. Just random things that constantly changed.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
Probably a JetBoil stove. My stove was great, but having boiled water in just a minute after hiking all day is unreal.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life from this experience?
A lot about me changed. I realized how easy it is to live with just what you carry on you back. This is a hard question. One I guess I really haven’t fully processed. But a lot has changed, and for the better.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?
I hiked mainly in a group. I went many miles with Happy Feet and Giggles. And we were also part of a trail collective known as the Snooze Crew. It was three groups of three, and we had some great times together.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
Sometimes when I was having a rough day I’d try to find some service and make a quick phone call home. Kind of regroup and remember why I am out there. Some days I would hike alone for a while and before long I’d be back to normal.

Hard to have a hard day when you are walking all day with some of the most fantastic people you’ve ever met.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
I miss the simplicity of day-to-day life on trail. If I made any strides toward Maine, it was a successful day. Physically, emotionally, however. Whether I walked 24 miles, two miles, or took a zero to enjoy town. I miss the simplicity of living life that way.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
Just enjoy yourself and don’t stress; smiles, not miles. If you are out there just trying to get to Katahdin, you are out there for the wrong reason.

Eiryn “Ray” Reynolds | March 2nd – September 9th NOBO

“The trail help me put myself first and it helped me recognize myself worth.”

Favorite trail town and why?
Oh this is a hard question… but I would have to say Marion, VA. Marion isn’t too far away from my hometown in North Carolina, so my mom had decided to bring our summer sleeping bags instead of sending them in the mail. At that time we had been hiking in horrible rain and wind, so she picked us up at a random dirt road in the middle of nowhere and took us into Marion. We decided to stay the night in Marion and zero the next day, because of the rain. We ended up staying at this restored hotel in the middle of downtown (because they felt bad for us and gave us an incredible deal) and it was way too nice for hiker trash. We spent our zero at the local coffee shop just watching the rain outside. I guess I have fond memories of that town because I got to see family and just hang out experiencing the small town charm.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?
When I was prepping for my hike I read a ton of information basically saying “hit the stair stepper”; and while I did spend a lot of time in the gym, I think what most prepared me for my hike was getting involved in bouldering. I’m not a huge fan of heights, and bouldering really pushed me out of my comfort zone. It allowed me to figure out how to push through uncomfortable moments, which definitely helped me out on the trail.

What were your luxuries on trail?
Clothes. I carried way too many clothes compared to other hikers, but I do not regret it at all. I’m a complete wuss when it comes to the cold and had probably double the layers of anyone else I saw, but it kept me sane during the first month and a half. Once it got warmer, I would have my mom ship me a different shirt or shorts when she sent a mail drop just to switch things up. It sounds strange, but being able to wear something different that smelled like home really boosted my morale.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
Since my boyfriend and I were splitting a tent, I started with an Eno Rainfly. The thought behind it was I could use it as shelter in case we got separated (he carried the body of the tent while I carried the poles) and that we could use it if we needed to set up our tent in the pouring rain. It came in handy at one shelter when it was super cold and everyone was blocking the entrance of the shelter to keep the wind out, but other than that it was completely useless and was sent home fairly quickly.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
I wish I would have had an umbrella. My boyfriend hiked with one and at the end of the rainy days he would be basically dry when I would be soaking wet. I bought a cheap one on trail that broke immediately in the wind, but if I could go back I would have invested in a well-made, lightweight umbrella.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life from this experience?
All of my life I have been a people-pleaser. I was always the type of person to push aside my wants or needs if I felt it would make someone else happier. After the trail I’ve realized that it is 100% OK to put myself first sometimes. The trail help me put myself first and it helped me recognize myself worth.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?
My boyfriend (Huck) and I started and finished the trail together. We really didn’t have a trail family per se; we kind of just hiked around different groups, sometimes being with them, most of the time not. A lot of people thought we were insane for hiking the trail as a young, unmarried couple, but I absolutely loved the experience. Of course there were difficulties, but we really got to learn each other on a different level. I guess the coolest part of the experience was seeing him become vulnerable to the things he wanted to change about himself and to witness his personal growth throughout the trip.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
Huck and I were each others motivators on the rough days, but if I’m being honest, one of the biggest things I turned to was my parents. They were both so excited about me doing this, and one of the biggest personal motivators was the thought of “I don’t want to let them down.” They both invested so much into me growing up to make sure I would succeed in what I chose to do in life, and although I know they would have been proud of me regardless, it was a great motivator.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
What I miss most about trail is the constant traveling. Every day you are in a new place, experiencing new things, and I really loved that aspect about it. Now that I’m home, I realize how easy it is to fall into patterns and not get out and see new things; but I’m trying to pull that into my everyday life by going new places and trying new things just to break up the mundane.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
Don’t rush! In the beginning we were wanting to complete the trail in four months (for no specific reason other than saving a little money). We always felt like we weren’t doing enough miles, or we felt guilty for taking a zero because of this time-frame we set. We really starting enjoying the trail when we ditched our timeline and just started doing what we wanted to. We spent time exploring trail towns and some of my best memories are on days we only did four miles and set up camp with our friends. You’ll miss it when you’re done, so make it last.

David “Buck” Stockwell | March 5th to August 30th NOBO

“Don’t think about the fact you’re walking to Maine until you get to New Hampshire. Don’t think about the fact you’re walking to Katahdin until you’re in Maine.”

Favorite trail town and why?
There are some really wonderful trail towns along the way. Quaint places with lovely people, independent breweries, and great food. I’m from the UK and have been to the States a whole bunch of times on vacation, but always to the obvious tourist spots. Seeing small-town America along the trail was a really interesting experience and a whole other side to the country that the average tourist isn’t fortunate enough to see. Now I’m going to go completely against that line of thought and tell you that my favorite trail town is one that’s got to be in the top five of modern, commercialized towns along the way: Hanover. Going NOBO, by the time you walk into this metropolis you’ve gone full caveman/woman and the bustling city is a welcome reminder of life outside the woods. With the daunting Whites ahead of you, Hanover is a good place to recharge with all the conveniences of urban life. We went the cinema, we went to Starbucks, we ate free food from plenty of places around town with special offers for thru-hikers. It’s a great place.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?
I hiked with my girlfriend (now fiance) and we spent a lot of time before the hike talking about how tough the tough times would be and how we have to get through them. Mentally preparing for when it gets hard, and stays hard for a prolonged period, is the best thing you can do. There will be times when you want to go home, but the dream of finishing and the belief that you’ll get there has to be what pulls you through. Don’t think about the fact you’re walking to Maine until you get to New Hampshire. Don’t think about the fact you’re walking to Katahdin until you’re in Maine. The AT is too long to wrap our puny human brains around. You’re so far away from the finish for so long, it’s going to take a toll mentally if day after day you still feel endlessly far away from your goal. Just think about where you’re aiming for each night, and when you get there, even if it’s only eight miles from where you started, celebrate. All these daily victories add up and get you to the end.

What were your luxuries on trail?
An extra fleece for the first couple of months; toward the end, nothing.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
A camera. Ended up sending it home at New York to save weight. iPhone camera was good enough.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
A lighter pack!

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life from this experience?
My bullshit tolerance. I can’t explain why and I don’t understand how it’s linked, but since coming back my tolerance for listening to people talk bollocks is way down there. At a stretch, I’ll put it down to the fact that every day on the AT you are mentally and physically challenged and every day you achieve something. It’s really easy to drift through normal life without feeling challenged and without feeling like you’re achieving something, so maybe now when someone complains about something I don’t think is particularly complain-worthy, I struggle to see their side of it because there isn’t always an obvious challenge or achievement in helping to fix their first world problem.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?
A group of four.

What was your trail family like?
Awesome. I get emotional thinking about them. We formed our group on day four and hiked over 1,500 miles together until my girlfriend got Lyme disease and we had to take three weeks off. Squid Kid drove 16 hours from Maryland to summit Katahdin with us after he and Hedwig had finished a few weeks earlier. We video call every so often to keep in touch and plan to thru the PCT together in a year or two.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group?
You form a bond that I’m convinced will be lifelong through the shared experiences.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
On a rough day, more often than not, you can’t just quit. You’re probably in the middle of a forest or up a mountain and it doesn’t matter how sucky an experience you’re having you can’t just curl up in a ball and not be there. You have to keep going to somewhere you can put a tent up or a town. If you are having a terrible day, or a terrible couple of days, you have to do what you need to do to get through it. If that’s hike a short day and find the comfort of your sleeping bag early, or to get a hitch into town and have a day off, do it. The only thing that counts is that you get back on trail the next day or the day after. There is zero shame in getting off trail for a day if you’re struggling. Weather changes, terrain changes, the suck isn’t for ever.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
The lifestyle. Your whole existence changes and while it can take a bit of getting used to, it’s wonderful. For me, the best example of the lifestyle is filtering your water each day. You really take taps for granted in normal life and nothing is better at reminding you how you live now than when you have to scoop your water out of a stream while deer graze just a few feet away, unconcerned by your presence (that happened).

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
Just keep going. It’s worth it.

Kelsy “Beamer” Filler | February 28th – September 16th NOBO

“When you’re left with nothing but putting one foot in front of the other, as one thought follows another, you’re kind of forced to make friends with your mind and your body.”

Favorite trail town and why?
Hot Springs, NC. We were all so relived to catch a few days of sun after having a crazy cold start to our hike. Our tramily set up camp down by the river and ended up taking two zeros to enjoy the gravy-covered burgers, the convenience store milkshakes, the literal hot springs, and the awesome locals.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?
I had a blast doing research online in the years leading up to our thru, but reading Appalachian Trials by Zach Davis definitely had the biggest impact. The mental preparation that book provides created a more solid foundation for my hike than any other book or video I came across.

What were your luxuries on trail?
I picked up a Liteflex Umbrella just after Trail Days and couldn’t believe how much I loved it. Everything wets through eventually on the AT, but it was so great not being pelted in the face during downpours anymore.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
I brought a journal that ended up feeling like dead weight within the first few days. I sent it home in the first town we came across and just wrote daily entries on my phone instead.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
I started with a 20 degree EE quilt, but I definitely should’ve brought a sleeping bag liner to go with it for the first few months. I has to buy one when we hiked into Neel Gap after a few miserable nights.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life from this experience?
Finally knowing what I’m capable of. Every life goal of mine is a matter of “when” instead of “if” now.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?
I hiked with my boyfriend Conner (AKA Nugget). We hiked in groups a majority of the time, but there were at least a couple hundred miles of hiking with just the two of us. We gave ourselves time to hike solo every day and met up at all the pretty spots for food.

What was your trail family like?
It was always changing. In the beginning it was close to 12 people. After everyone spread out, we hiked as a trio more often then not. Some we hiked with for a day, some we hiked 1,400+ miles with.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group?
Everything. I completely agree with those who say that it’s the people who make the AT what it is. The friendships that form feel so different on trail since no one really has the energy to be anything other than who they truly are. I feel grateful to have spent time with some of the most amazing individuals I’ve ever met in such a genuine setting. Hiking with my favorite person went better than I could’ve hoped for. Nugget and I helped each other overcome every obstacle and learned how to laugh off the roughest days together. Now that we’re home, a day hasn’t gone by where we don’t talk about our time on trail.

Alone?
Getting to know myself in a completely different way. When you’re left with nothing but putting one foot in front of the other, as one thought follows another, you’re kind of forced to make friends with your mind and your body.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
Music, for sure. There’s always an album out there that can switch things to a “F*ck it, we’re good.” mind-set. (Shout-out to Gawk by Vundabar for being that album for me more often than not.) Podcasts were amazing, too. Either ones that are completely unrelated to trail to give your mind other things to focus on, or podcasts like Backpacker Radio that just remind you how you’re going to miss the rough days eventually too.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
It feels like I could be asked this question every day and come up with a different answer every time.

Today, the first thing that comes to mind is the sensation of belonging to the woods. Having the same “Whoa, a person” reaction that animals have when you come across another hiker. Being able to smell the differences between thru-hikers and day hikers. Finding forgeable foods in the woods and eating them that same day. Going to sleep right after the sun sets and waking up as the sun rises without an alarm clock. Proving to yourself what you can do on a daily basis. Just feeling like you’re a wild being.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
Seriously, “Embrace the Suck” and be grateful for everything you can while you’re out there. So many days are spent cold, tired, soaked, and in pain, but that just makes everything so much more amazing when things go “right.” Let yourself feel the gratitude for all the snacks in your pack, every time you get to slip into your sleeping bag, each ray of sun that comes to help dry out your gear, every moment laughing around a fire pit with your tramily, and for every mile or mountain you end up crossing. It makes the days better while you’re on trail, and makes the memories even brighter when you get home.

So many thanks to everyone who agreed to be interviewed for this series! Keep your eyes peeled for more from the CDT and PCT, coming soon.

Check out the rest of the interviews in this series:

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

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

Wisdom from 2018 Pacific Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. II)

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

Wisdom from 2018 Continental Divide Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. II)

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Comments 3

  • walter thomas : Apr 2nd

    I stayed about a mile from the a/t for about 2 yrs back in 1996/ 97. It was my first chance to live in the mountains and I enjoyed it very much. I did quite a few day hikes but I never thought a Thu. Hike.I’m 63 now and just don’t have the courage to attempt one now. I’ve read that age shouldn’t make a difference but it’s still a hard thought for me. I hat goes off to all that do have that courage and drive to do this. For me. Maybe one day. Keep up the trail and enjoy the good times and push on through the hard times. Your all a special type of person. Good luck and may the trail God’s be with you

    Reply
    • Charles Andrew : Apr 5th

      I retired as I started the AT last year and turned 65 midway. The hike is very difficult and a true adventure! There was nothing to be scared of. I had no real injuries or illnesses along the way. My recovery took 3 to 4 month back home but I am glad and proud to have had the adventure.

      Reply
  • Michael Huntsberry : Jul 21st

    wiki

    Reply

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