The Parent’s and Partner’s Appalachian Trail Guide
There are tons of guides for potential Appalachian Trail Thru hikers – AWOL’s Guide, the Databook, our very own Appalachian Trials. But few resources exist to help those playing the integral part of supporting thru hikers from home.
To alleviate this lack of information I contacted experts in the field of Appalachian Trail support. I felt it was important to gain the perspective of folks most likely to play this role – parents and partners.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy breaks down the ages of Appalachian Trail hikers like this,
“While more than half of all thru-hikers are in their 20s, many people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s have thru-hiked the A.T…Section-hikers tend to be older, with a median age of 40.”
If more than half of all thru-hikers are in their 20s, it is likely that more than half of thru hikers are supported by their parents. Millennials are less likely to own their own homes, less likely to be married , and most importantly, they are more likely to be living with their families.
Conversely, section hikers tend to be older, with a median age of 40. It is more difficult to discern who is supporting these hikers. With the median age of marriage rising, and the economic recession pushing more adults into family living situations, these hikers could be supported by parents, partners, or friends.
Whatever the relationship to the hiker, providing support from home is a parallel journey to thru hiking, and just like thru hiking, it takes takes practical and emotional preparation to complete the thru-hike from the home front.
The Expert Panel
I turned to my parents to garner their experience of my 2014 solo southbound Appalachian Trail thru hike. My parents were given minimal time to adjust to the concept of a thru-hike and minimal information ( I wasn’t exactly prepared to step foot on Katahdin). Through a lot of adjusting, parenting from afar, and many tear filled phone calls, they are now the parents of a successful thru hiker.
Anyone who traveled the Appalachian Trail in 2014 may remember Wolfburger from his humorous and sometimes disturbing shelter log renderings of his beloved cats. When Wolfburger learned of my background in academic Women’s Studies, he mentioned his fiancee was a badass lady in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics). I love badass science ladies – naturally I contacted chemical engineer Alyssa Ferell to share her experience off trail during Wolfburger’s southbound AT thru.
When I asked my parents about their biggest concerns pre-hike, they came down to medical coverage and the GPS Tracking. When I asked Alyssa what challenges she faced preparing for Wolfburger’s thru, she shared ways they managed to save for his thru hike.
My family chose to try out the Spot GPS as a way to track my progress during my thru hike. My mother calls the The Spot GPS a “mixed blessing” because it was nice to receive a check in from me, but it was scary when my parents did not receive a check in. I began my thru hike on July 1st 2014, and during my 100 mile wilderness traverse post tropical storm Arthur hit Maine, dumping high winds and record rainfall. Heavy cloud cover plus the green tunnel of Maine rendered my Spot pretty useless.
Spot GPS and other such emergency devices rank among the most common devices sent home along the Appalachian Trail. Why? Our own expert at Mountain Crossings Outfitter, Carlie Gentry says it the best,
“They are not at all necessary for a high traffic adventure like the Appalachian Trail. Good luck breaking your leg during thru hiker season and not having 10 hikers come along and help carry you out.”
While all this may seem very practical to the thru-hiker used to the realities of a thru hike, popular culture tells a different story. Remember that scene in “A Walk in the Woods” where Bryson and Katz fall off the cliff and are forced to spend the night only to be rescued by two strangely un-bearded thru hikers? That was done on a green screen.
The Appalachian Trail is one of the most highly traveled footpaths in the world, and it is experiencing more and more foot traffic each year. Although it is scary to not have an emergency beacon, there is an amazing community of hikers that will be there for your hiker when the going gets tough. Even if they are the beardless hunks from “A Walk in the Woods”.
My parents made sure I had health coverage before I headed out on the Appalachian Trail. I wasn’t invested at the time, but this is a practical step that every thru hiker should take before stepping out on their journey. Although I never used my health insurance on the trail, I did have a few close calls with the ever popular Wilderness Acquired Diarrhea. It was nice to know, as I dug a cat hole every fifteen minutes, that I could go to the hospital, receive care, AND have enough money to finish my thru hike.
There are a couple options to consider when choosing insurance for a thru hike.
I wasn’t making beaucoup bucks as a recent graduate, so I qualified for financial assistance to afford healthcare coverage in New York State. The caveat? I was only covered in New York State.
This is where travel insurance comes in. As our own Frozen Mac explains, travel insurance covers a hiker anywhere 100 miles from their residence. A pretty good idea for a trail covering just about 2200 miles.
Saving for a Thru Hike
Besides visiting “REI after REI” in search of the perfect gear, Alyssa and the not-yet-christened Wolfburger made a major change that helped finance his thru hike. They moved to a much cheaper apartment so he could save on his off-trail expenses while on his hike. Although many would see this as a major sacrifice, since Wolfburger barely lived in the apartment, Alyssa says after hearing him talk about this hike for six years,
“I really just wanted him to be able to do this thing he had been thinking about for so long and if moving was helpful, then it’s really no big deal.”
Finances can make or break a thru-hike, and thinking about expenses both pre-trail and on-trail can be the difference between finishing or coming up miles short. Reducing monthly bills is certainly one way to save for your thru-hike, but there are many other ways. Others include setting goals, making lists, selling things and my favorite, buying used gear!
After the initial gear has been purchased and the first mail drops have been sent, thru hikers leave for the trail and the folks on the homefront receive packages from Mountain Crossings full of un-needed gear. These first couple months can be scary, or they can be a relief that the big trip is finally underway.
For my parents, the first month of the trail was scary. At the time I was using AT&T for cell phone service in conjunction with the Spot GPS. I did not get cell phone service in the entire state of Maine, and, as discussed previously, my Spot was rather Spotty. While I was getting these communication issues worked out, my parents found that getting informed about thru hiking the Appalachian Trail was a helpful way to feel connected.
For the beginning of Wolfburger’s hike, Alyssa was in Belize doing research diving (right?!). Focusing on her own life was not only a way to cope with Wolfburger’s absence, but a necessity. When she returned to the east coast she found that arranging visits or weekends at home was a helpful way to get through the hike. She found the middle section of the hike the most difficult, simply because it was so uneventful. Planning Maildrops also helped Alyssa feel like she was more connected throughout the hike.
My parents found that getting informed and educating themselves about thru hiking and the Appalachian Trail helped mitigate their fears and concerns about my solo hike. They went so far as to go to lectures by former thru hikers and they also networked with the parents and guardians of other thru hikers in my home town. My father found it particularly helpful to get a copy of AWOL’s guide, and to follow my progress using the same guidebook I was using on trail.
Getting informed as a way to mitigate fears and focus on the realities of an Appalachian Trail thru hike is a wonderful thought. But checking sources and authorship is especially important when collecting information. So many popular representations of the Appalachian Trail are overdramatic and inaccurate. Sources that commercialize AT Thru Hikes have a stake in hyping up the journey, so take these sources as entertainment rather than education.
Sending maildrops of food and supplies along the trail is a staple of the parallel Appalachian Trail experience. Hikers experience the joy of opening a box full of delicious food and special surprises while the support at home gets to know their mail person as they send countless boxes along the trail. Although sending maildrops can be a huge headache, Alyssa found the process helpful – it made her feel incorporated into Wolfburger’s hike.
I strongly recommend both hikers and their support at home become familiar with the Postal Service and how to address and send maildrops.
Flat Rate Priority Mail by the United States Postal Service makes packing and budgeting easy for thru-hikers. You can learn more about it here, but a short summary of flat rate priority mail includes: a flat rate for shipping (easy budgeting for hikers), free boxes (so hikers can pre-pack their boxes), and free forwarding just in case you miss your box in one town and need it forwarded to the next. Using flat rate priority mail means you can leave your support folks with the exact amount of money they’ll need to ship the packages, and all the boxes they will need to ship out your goodies.
Post Thru Hike
A thru hike is a huge undertaking, for both on trail and off trail parties. It completely changes the way both parties interact and makes even the simplest communication more difficult. But it also has the power to strengthen relationships, to build trust, and can be extremely rewarding for both parties.
When I asked Alyssa how a six month separation changed her relationship, she shared her perspective of focus on the bigger picture.
“Will it be the same after six months away? You can’t know until you do it, you just have to trust your partner. I won’t say I never worried about that. But now I know!”
You can read dozens of articles about what makes a successful thru hiker. But there are far fewer articles on what it takes to have a successful AT thru hiker partnership. Although I only walked with Wolfburger for a few days, I could tell his relationship with Alyssa was strong and resilient. The qualities that got them through the hike – mutual respect, admiration, and above all, support of each other’s life goals – aren’t results of their Appalachian Trail experience. They are evidence of an strong foundation pre-hike allowed their relationship to flourish during their AT experience.
I credit my thru hike with creating a new level of trust with my parents. At the beginning of my hike, it often felt like a fight for independence. My parent’s requests for contact felt like a confirmation of the folks who told me I shouldn’t be hiking by myself. But through being honest about our needs, compromising, and just getting used to the thru-hiking lifestyle, my parents quickly became my lifeline.
They were the first people I called when I sobbed on that big stone on Springer for a good five minutes as the sun went down on the best four months of my life.
When I asked them how my thru hike changed our relationship, both of my parents cited they felt it made me more confident. I think it brought out the confidence and abilities they have instilled in me. I am certain I couldn’t have done it without them. I certainly would have never finished my hike. But more than that I never would have stepped foot on trail if it wasn’t for them.
Final Thoughts From My Expert Panel
“Educate yourself asap. Remember it is not your journey but theirs (physical, emotional, mentally, spiritually). Trust in the thru hiker’s abilities.” – Mom
“Don’t worry. Don’t worry about your hiker, they’re capable and smart and it really isn’t as dangerous as your mom likes to make it out. Don’t worry about your relationship – if this is the reason it falls apart, better this than it falling apart because you didn’t support them, or because you tried to talk them out of their dream.” -Alyssa
“It’s a delicate balance of having faith in the ability of the thru hiker (especially if they are solo), giving them the privacy and distance that they request and obtaining a method of tracking the hiker’s progress in a way respectful to both parties. Buy the AT guide. If SPOT GPS or a satellite phone will help with the initial transition to a hiking life style (and both parties agree), buy the phone/tracker, but realize the limitations. It is more about the peace of mind.” – Dad
“Final advice: if you mail a birthday cake, get it shipped priority or at least don’t be too sad if it gets lost in the mail, rerouted several times, and arrives weeks late, inedible. You did your best.” – Alyssa
Finally a huge thank you to Wolfburger for allowing me to walk with you for a while and giving me a small window into your wonderful world and amazing family.
To Alyssa thank you for being an absurdly badass and generally inspirational human being. Thank you for sharing your expertise with me so I could butcher it for the general public.
Thank you to my parents for raisin’ me and for the last 3000+ miles. I love you more than Turkey Jerky and Snickers combined.
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