You’re Doing What? FAQs on Thru-Hiking the AT
After answering question after question from family members and friends when I announced my trip, to save us all some time, I have put my responses in one place. Sure, you might know I intend to spend six months hiking the Appalachian Trail, but what does that mean? I’m happy you asked.
Running from Georgia to Maine through 14 states total, the Appalachian Trail is the longest maintained walking path in the world and stretches 2,100+ miles (the exact mileage count changes every year). I have hiked a small portion of the AT before (area running through Bear Mountain in New York) and also hiked a section of the Northville-Placid Trail farther upstate. For some reason, hiking the whole AT got stuck in my head as a young girl, and I’ve never been able to shake the idea.
What about your stuff?
I’ll carry what I need to live during those five to six months in the woods. Tent, sleeping bag, spare socks, water purification, food (which I’ll top up often in towns), notebook, phone, cooking equipment and stove, nail clippers, change of clothes, etc. (and, of course, my tea). The lighter the pack, the easier it is to hike, but I am still debating some trade-offs between comfort and ounces to carry. Thinking through my packing list has been an exercise in minimalism and a reduction to covering my immediate needs. Staying warm and dry? Absolutely key. Makeup and hairbrush? I don’t think so. My priorities will be to stay safe, eat enough food, and not get sick or injured, and everything else will fall into place after that.
Where will you sleep?
In my adorable little tent, or occasionally in lean-tos scattered along the trail (especially on the damp and snowy nights). Yes, that means on the ground or on some wooden planks a few feet above the ground crammed in with other hikers like sardines. Once in a while as I pass through a town, I will look for a hiker hostel and try for laundry and a shower.
Six-month vacation, so expensive.
Thankfully I have lived in NYC most of my life, and forgoing the city rent alone covers my budget. Manhattan makes tents/shelters (and most other places) look like quite a bargain. Since I knew I would be hiking in 2019, I have tried to save mindfully, and between that and getting someone to sublet, I should be all set.
How about food and water?
I have a water filter and will purify water from different sources along the way, in an effort to avoid nasty stomach bugs one can get from untreated water. On the food side, I will carry enough for several days at a time. Every week if not more frequently, the AT runs through a town or close enough to hitchhike into town for supplies. People mail themselves boxes of food, buy out all the trail mix at the local gas station, or hope for a holy grail (ShopRite! Price Chopper!) and a friendly driver with a spare seat. I haven’t decided how often I will set up mail drops instead of testing my luck in town. That takes considerably more planning and a sense of how far I will travel each day, but it would allow me to replenish with some delicious Trader Joe’s offerings.
But you’ll get eaten by bears, starve, fall off a cliff, get kidnapped, and disappear!
To her credit, my grandmother didn’t say all of these at once. People often mention one of these fears (or several) after hearing about my hike, but I am not worried for these reasons. What do I see as the problems I might face on the AT? Here you go, in order from most to least concerning.
- Hypothermia. It rains all the time, which increases the risk of staying damp and not warming up.
- Injury in a remote area. I expect to see another hiker every day or few days, but getting lost and then getting hurt wouldn’t be good.
- Lyme disease/West Nile virus. Sure, I can check for ticks every day, but there is only so much one can do to avoid all the bugs. I would prefer not to have to deal with getting ill.
- Killing one of my favorite foods. Will I hate oatmeal forever after eating it for six months? Doubtful, since it’s breakfast every day now. But what about trail mix? Dried fruits? Peanut butter?
- Being the most smelly in any given group of hikers.
- Someone who walks the same sections at the same pace as me, and they’re annoying.
(Note: if I do become the first ever bear + cliff + assorted bad ends statistics and these do come to pass, people have free reign at my funeral to mention the hubris of youth. Let’s admit it would be just the tiniest bit humorous).
What a nice, easy walk in the woods!
Yes, walking is easy. One foot in front of the other. When I spend two hours getting through one mile of boulders in Maine or am struggling through bug-infested summer months, I will be sure to remember this. But hey, I hear the Virginia portion is gorgeous. If I wanted a lovely walk, I would pick another trail. I want to challenge myself and see how far I can push my line of comfort/necessity. Maybe after this, I can do the PCT and make up some of the gorgeous views there.
You’re going ALONE?
Yes! Women can do all sorts of cool things these days. Go look up Grandma Gatewood if you want some historical context. I have built up my travel resume with solo stints in Costa Rica, Panama, Turkey, Latvia, and various US cities, among other places. I don’t mind being on my own and enjoy the time to think, so I am actually looking forward to a large solo trip. Plus, I will run into other hikers most days and at the lean-tos, so I won’t be completely alone.
What are you not bringing?
People have great suggestions of things to bring, but not all of them match the AT. For example, solar-powered phone chargers. That would be a good fit for a sunny desert trail, but the AT has so much overgrowth and trees in the way that there are few places I could catch enough sunlight to make the weight worth it.
Similarly, I will bring one change of clothes and that’s likely it, because a) everything will get gross anyway, b) clothes are heavy, and c) all I need it a dry set each night to stave off hypothermia. (For my friends who have seen me go on two-week vacations with one backpack, this probably seems like the next logical step in cutting down my vacation packing.)
Deodorant and other nice smelling things will be staying in the medicine cabinet at home. Again, everything will get gross. Working out for hours every day and then topping up my deodorant won’t help much, and the scents attract insects and bears.
Where are the showers?
If you hadn’t guessed from the last answer, there are none, unless I stop in town and stay for the night at a hostel. I will be bringing wipes and doing my best to clean up when I stop to camp each night, but it will be a change. On the plus side, everyone else will be in the same situation, so I will strive to be tidier than at least one other person.
Katharine, you’re throwing away your career!
I have saved up several weeks of vacation days and will be asking for unpaid leave to cover the remainder of my thru-hike. While I will be hoping for a “Yes,” ultimately the decision comes down to what HR and my team envision for the coming year, so I could hear a “No” and sadly have to give notice. I like to think that we’re in a workplace environment where taking a few months off will not make or break the rest of my future. If I were hiring, I would love to see someone who had the determination, organization, and independence to take a solo thru-hike, and I would want my employees to be driven and self-aware. I never planned to work straight through my 60s, have my 2.1 children and a picket fence, and rise up through the ranks every few years. There are too many adventures ahead, so I always knew my future wouldn’t be a straight line. At this point, all I can do is see what happens, try not to worry as the decision is out of my control, and focus on my trip.
How will you stay in touch?
I will have my phone and trusty portable charger, but I will not necessarily have cell service. My plan is to charge up when I am in town and try to check in with my family (and update everyone at The Trek) each week. Realistically, that timeline may thin out a little once I start. For peace of mind, remember that most campsites along the AT have a trail register (a notebook in a ziplock or sometimes a nice, fancy box) for hikers to sign. That way, it is easier to look back and see the last place someone stopped. As a heads up, and since since I am trying to enjoy nature and the time to myself, I will not hesitate to take a leisurely amount of time to reply to texts and emails.
Wait! What about Game of Thrones?
Unfortunately, my hike timing just about overlaps with the final series. I haven’t decided yet if I should try watching on my phone after downloading each week’s episode in town (not the same experience) or if I should wait until I finish and binge everything in celebration (a long time to go without spoilers). Good thing I have four months left to plan.
Hopefully that covers all your immediate questions. I’m always open to suggestions or other questions, so keep them coming.
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