A College Student’s Guide to a Thru-Hike (Of Sorts)

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail has been a dream of mine since I could remember. Eventually, it turned into a full-blown obsession of the three major long trails of the US. As an 18-year-old college student in Wisconsin, I know that taking six months off for a thru-hike isn’t a viable option for me. I have to graduate first and then I will be free to frolic my way from Georgia to Maine and Mexico to Canada. But I didn’t want my college education to postpone my ability to call myself a thru-hiker.

You might be asking, “What does the ‘of sorts’ mean in the title?” Since I can’t take the time to hike one of the long trails, I’m going to thru-hike the Superior Hiking Trail this summer. It’s a 310-mile trail from the Wisconsin-Minnesota border to the Canadian border. I’m sure most people wouldn’t consider this a true “thru-hike” based on the distance, but it’s the closest that I can get with the time and resources that I have.

This trail has been calling me ever since I found out about it. Until I can take my first step on trail, I have to wait out the days walking to class listening to Backpacker Radio and imagine that I am hiking down a trail. During the short time that I have been in college, I have found a variety of ways to keep my thru-hiking imagination active and to keep up with this passion of being a hiker trash college student.

Keeping Sane

While most of my time should be focused on my next homework assignment, studying for an exam, or when I have my meeting with my adviser, I just want to spend my time thinking about backpacking. The long study hours spent staring at a computer screen is not my definition of a good time. I have found a few ways to keep my outdoor desire in check while having to juggle the stresses of being a full-time college student.

I try to fit backpacking into my life whenever I can. This can mean browsing the new articles and blogs on The Trek while drinking coffee in the morning, listening to Backpacker Radio on my walk to class, or taking a long way home to get an extra half-mile into my walk. The college norm of eating ramen and candy helps prepare me for an average thru-hiker diet. If I have the time during the week, I allow myself a few hours to plan the logistics of my thru-hike. This small amount of exposure to the world that I love so much keeps me sane, even in the depths of exam season when I can’t spend time thinking about backpacking. 


Affording a Thru-Hike as a Broke College Student

I am one of the very few lucky students who has a large scholarship to the college that I attend. I am so grateful that I am able to save the money that allows me to embark on a thru-hike. Gear is expensive, to say the least. When I first started looking into the prices of the ultralight backpacking gear, I was appalled. Twenty dollars for an ultralight poop trowel?! I started off my planning by making a complete list of all of the gear that I needed. I vastly researched my gear list because I want to make sure that it is a good quality. Hopefully my choices will last me into the future longer-distance thru-hikes that I will be embarking on.

Once I had all of the items that I thought I needed, I started to save for the highest-priced items. Every day, I would look on the REI and other gear websites to find a deal that would save me a little bit of money. I worked at my retail job full time over the school breaks and I found a local babysitting job to make a little extra cash. Over Christmas, I asked my family for REI gift cards and small gear items.

Overall, I spent a fair bit of money on gear, mainly because I wanted good-quality items. What’s the saying? Buy once, cry once? This is the motto that I followed when buying my gear, but it isn’t the most realistic for those on a strict budget. I plan on using this gear for thousands of miles in the future, so I wanted to splurge on items that would last.

Planning as a College Backpacker

The process of planning as a college student is a lot like other people’s planning process, with just a little less time to do it. I’m sure that a large amount of people have to limit their planning time with full-time jobs, taking care of kids, etc. College life is the same way. As much as I might not want it to be, my education is my first priority. So, backpacking is generally put on the back burner. When my schedule gets extremely busy, it’s hard to find time to plan. One thing that I do is dedicate a few hours each Sunday to check a few logistical things off my list. I use this time for my resupply strategy, finding the campsites that I will be staying at, and scouring over The Guide to the Superior Hiking Trail. 

When it comes to gear, buying online has become my best friend. I don’t have the resources to get to the local REI often, so I mainly rely on purchasing gear online. I do this because it is the only way that I can get gear to me, but it is extremely bad for the environment. To reduce the environmental impacts, I try to save the money to make one purchase of a few gear items. The items will come in one package, which will reduce the carbon footprint of transportation and the packaging waste. I did a lot of gear research to make sure that it will fit my preferences. I didn’t want to waste money buying a different gear piece and I wanted to make sure it lasts as long as possible.

Ending Thoughts

Having the motivation to keep up with the grind of college life is hard when all I want to do is be outside. I count my days until I can go for a hike. I have chosen the college education path knowing that I would have to make a sacrifice to my dream for now, but staying immersed in the world of backpacking makes the long days of studying a little easier. I am excited to embark on a thru-hike (of sorts) this summer, which will hold me over until I can afford to spend a few months walking through the woods.

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