A Word of Caution to Aspiring Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers: It’s Not a Vacation

If you’ve read Appalachian Trials, the following may feel redundant, however, good advice bears repeating. 

Let’s buffer this lecture with some happy truths about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

1) Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail will quite likely be the best thing you will ever do

This certainly is the case for me (so far anyway).  I know several other thru-hikers who would unequivocally agree.

2) Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail will be the most fun you will ever have

This coming from a guy who went to a top two party school.  There will be days on the Trail where your body is supersaturated with endorphins from hiking and jaw-dropping views, guzzling beer and inhaling pizza without any repercussion to your waistline, and forming tight enough bonds with fellow hikers to start calling them family.

3) Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail will render you strong enough to swallow mountains whole

Although the first few weeks will undoubtedly kick your ass (especially for those who fail to pace themselves), there will come a point where the challenge of climbing dissipates.  You will shock yourself with your own strength.  What once was difficult will become your norm.  You will return home with dinner plate calves and lumberjack thighs (you too, guys!).

In other words, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a life changing experience for the better.  Chances are, if you’re contemplating embarking on this journey, you already anticipate this.

But here’s the part a lot of people don’t tell you (and quite frankly, it’s doing you a disservice).

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is self-induced torture. 

There will be days where discomfort is the rule and relief is the exception.  There will be days where you’ll waste more energy debating the sanity of your current circumstance than you will carrying yourself plus 30lbs up and down the steep side of mountains.  There will be days where the only thing standing between hiking and quitting is pride.

I repeat, (some days) thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is self-induced torture.

“Wait, so the AT is self-induced torture and the best thing you’ll ever do?”

Yes.

It is the best thing you’ll ever do for the aforementioned reasons, but also because it’s the hardest thing you will ever do.

Not unlike why someone endures 14 years of education, training, and fellowships to earn the title (and salary) of a doctor, thru-hikers withstand a half year’s worth of struggle, pain, and psychological transformation in pursuit of an accomplishment beyond their previously perceived capacity.  It’s a rite of passage with intrinsic rewards that dwarf the fleeting discomforts, for the minority who are equipped with the tools to persevere.

Thru-Hiking and Thru-Hikers

A friend recently called her thru-hike short explaining, “at a certain point, it felt like I wanted to be a thru-hiker more than I wanted to do the thru-hiking.”  Ultimately this unsettling realization pulled her off the trail.  She went into her hike looking for a vacation, and when the vacation period left, so did she.

This also poetically explains what’s required to follow through with such an outlandish pursuit. If your cutoff is “when it stops being fun,” you can all but bank on joining the 80% of those who do not see Katahdin. Putting on sweaty underwear in the morning is not fun.  Walking with blistered feet, plantar fasciitis, and chaffed potty parts is not fun. Navigating rock fields during a thunderstorm is not fun. Hiking through a constant cloud of mosquitos is not fun.

(Again, this is not to say that the Trail stops being fun altogether, but there will be hours, days, or even weeks, where the ups pale in comparison to the downs.  Without adequately preparing your mind, these lows become too much to bear.)

Granted, there is a spectrum of personalities who enter into such a journey.  Some seem to be intoxicated on serotonin throughout their hike, regardless of the obstacles thrown their way.  These people were born to backpack, and quite frankly, the advice in Appalachian Trials (or here) will seem foreign.  If you can, surround yourself with these people, as their energy is infectious.

Then there are those who struggle from day one and continue to do so until the day they quit.  The little things that most of us cherish about disappearing into the mountains- the tranquil soundtrack of a spring, a chance encounter with a fawn, the smell of the campfire, the galaxy canvassed as your ceiling- fail to inject their hearts with that unparalleled sense of warmth and peace. For this group, backpacking isn’t their thing, and the advice offered in Appalachian Trials won’t be enough to get them to Katahdin.

But these define the extreme ends of the bell-curve.  Most of us fall in the middle.  It is you, the majority, that needs to calibrate your expectations and prepare for both the vacation and the torture if the finish line is an important conclusion to your journey.

The more you can reframe pain, the less you will struggle.  The more you can dissociate your emotional state from your circumstance, the smaller these challenges become.  The challenges, however, are inevitable and must be welcomed- for the good times will fill you with nostalgia, but, it’s the hard times that gift you eternal strength.

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Comments 2

  • Jayne : Mar 5th

    There are 4 sisters that will hike a section of the AT in June ( near Rockfish Gap). I am trying to read up on all the news on the AT. I do have a question. Flying from Nebraska to Richmond, VA or Charlottesville, VA…way cheaper than Waynesboro. How do I find a ride or should I just start walking…Plus anyone going to be out on AT in June???

    Reply
  • Chip aka Old goat : Jan 20th

    There were many mornings during my thru hike where I put my cold wet clothes on from the day before and said to myself “It’s back to work for the day.” I treated my hike as a job and not a vacation. The miles melted away and the fun came with it.

    I enjoy the book Appalachian Trials because it discusses the things that go through your head that wants to sabotage your hike.

    Reply

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