What to Expect When You Tell Them You’re Hiking

When I went public with my plans to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 2015, I immediately realized how unprepared I was to handle all the questions, warnings, ‘advice’, and material items I received in regards to my hike.

I begin another, lengthier thru-hike Jan 1, 2022 of the American Discovery Trail and upon my announcement, memories of the repercussions came flooding back. In this article I will explore the psychology behind these things, why it happens, and how you can use your reactions as a powerful tool to educate and connect others.

Frequently Asked Questions

By the time I’d finished my thru-hike not only was I able to answer every question you had for me before you even asked, but I could answer them in the order in which you’d ask, depending on whether you were male or female. I had hundreds of these encounters to use as the basis of my data. It shocked me, really. A few of the questions you can expect: How long will it take you? Are you bringing a gun? How do you carry all your food? Where will you sleep? Are you doing this alone? What do you do when it rains? Will you be taking a dog?

A lot of things were the same with everyone in the sense that their questions and concerns were more protection or danger-laden. No matter how many times I was asked how much my pack would weigh or what kind of footwear I’d use, I knew that everyone really just wanted to know about the dark, negative, dangerous side, which brings me to something I have been doing some research on for my own improvements.

The Negativity Bias

Back in late 2014, the first thing I was usually asked when telling people of my plan may have also been the only thing they had ever heard of the Appalachian Trail. They’d squint their eyes and look at me over the top of their bifocals, leaning in slowly and meaningfully. It was as if they knew that surely something bad would happen to me and this was their warning.

“Did you know a woman went missing there a while back?”

I was well aware that Geraldine Largay, an Appalachian Trail hiker, had wandered off the trail in Maine in 2013 and failed to find her way back, unfortunately resulting in her death weeks later, mere miles from the last white blaze she’d seen. Although her remains were eventually found the year I hiked in 2015, she was still missing upon my decision to begin. It was all the buzz as soon as you mentioned any sort of hiking in Maine.

Why do people seem to be much more interested in the macabre? Why do they ask the negative questions first? An article on verywellmind.com shed a little light on the topic:

“Because negative information causes a surge in activity in a critical information processing area of the brain, our behaviors and attitudes tend to be shaped more powerfully by bad news, experiences, and information.”


People who had never hiked a day in their lives immediately began warning me of the dangers of being a woman in the woods alone. Make sure you bring a gun for the bears. You need bear spray. Take a huge knife with you. Protection, defense, security. The amount of negativity I was receiving was alarming and a little depressing in the sense that I couldn’t believe how quick people were to jump to the dark side of things. I found myself becoming irritated and always was on the defense for the trail. After a little reflection, I felt armed with the creatvity and power of aversion I found necessary to file the sharpness of these corners.

When I was asked about the Geraldine Largay disappearance, or told horror stories of people getting abducted, mugged, or worse, I would reply with, “You know, you can draw a 2,200-mile line anywhere in the world and experience a bad situation. I can get hit by a truck while crossing the road. There could be a flash flood or earthquake that could wipe us all out at any time. There is danger in every part of living. While it is important to be aware of how to prevent a bad situation, I’m not about to cancel what will be the best six-month-long trip yet just because something unfavorable can happen to me.”

After reciting a rendition of that 3 or 4 times I shortened my spiel with a clever, less time-consuming phrase, “Don’t be scared; be prepared.”

Another way I’ve since learned to avert attention from the negative is through writing. I recently published an article on the subject of hitchhiking and the focus was on how one can effectively hitchhike and what I’ve found to be successful concerning proper etiquette. I did not touch on dangers of hitchhiking but how to conduct and present yourself while roadside. The reader can still form their own opinions but at least I get to stand on my soap box for the duration of the piece.

The Collection

I spent all morning trying to find a study that has been done, or the specific meaning of giving someone a personal item before they leave for a journey. Gift giving has been around pretty much since the beginning of time in one way or another. There is a very good chance that if you have a large circle of people who know your plans, many of them will want to give you things. Do not be alarmed if you wind up with quite a collection of old memorabilia. The things people chose to give me to bring on my thru-hike surprised me.

Nobody gave me brand new, ultralight hiking gear. Someone gave me a cartographer’s compass which was probably 40 years old. Someone else gave me a military-issue compass. I ended up with 4 or 5 heavy-duty compasses of different styles. Maglites and other assorted flashlights were another popular item. I recieved heirloom jewelry to wear, many knives, binoculars, fire-starting kits, first aid kits, snakebite kits, whistles, bells, MREs, solar flares (you can’t make this up), mess kits, a thermos, and enough paracord to wrap around the globe a few times.

I wanted to see how much weight I’d have to carry if I brought all these items with me so I put them into a box.  It weighed in to be heavier than my own fully-packed backpack. Why do people give personal items like this? My only guesses other than the fact that they are doing all they know to care for you (which is very sweet) are that they are giving you a piece of them in hopes that they will become a part of your journey in a vicarious sort of way.

The Connection

We are humans and creatures of nature. As the human race has been surviving for so long, technology has emerged and many things have changed. People live in houses and drive their cars and go on flights and stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. I believe that everyone still has an instinctive connection to nature. Many do not exercise this nearly as much as they should, and that is why they will put you on a pedestal, congratulate you, and also want to form an attachment to your endeavor.

You might consider yourself as an ordinary outdoorsperson who has chosen to go for a long hike. Many others, however, look up to you like a prolific pioneer on a dangerous mission. A hero. Someone who is doing something they have not done and probably won’t.

Helping people by sharing your adventure is priceless and you won’t realize the positive impact it has on others. I was writing a blog about my AT thru-hike which I began months before I even got to Georgia to commence my trek. Some of my readers actually did trail magic for me. I didn’t know who they were until they said something. Some readers drove out and left me sandwiches hidden in state park bathrooms. Others mailed me packages. People want to be a part of your journey. Take it as a compliment and an honor and let them.

I made sure to send lots of postcards and letters while I was on trail. This is one of the easiest, most inexpensive things you can do that makes a huge impact on others. Use this method of communication to educate people of what it is really like. Create a picture in their mind.

The Takeaway

What have I learned from this experience? When you announce a thru-hike, most of the response will be the same.  The better equipped you are to handle your audience gives you an advantageous angle at which to present your own type of education.

Let people follow along from home. Help them to see what you’re seeing. Thank them for the gifts. Thank them for the ‘advice’ you won’t take. Don’t let the negativity and worry of others discourage you. Seek your answers from other thru-hikers, not the general public. Most of all, don’t forget that you’ll soon be able to disconnect and enjoy the freedoms and beauty of being on trail.

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Comments 3

  • Herb Brown : Dec 16th

    Great article, Rocky! I’m sure you’ll have a blast on the ADT! Love the pic of you at the South Mountain Post Office! That would have been from the day I met you…probably just minutes before! I’ll be following along on your FB page set up for it! Rock on, Rocky!

  • pearwood : Dec 17th

    I tell folks the most dangerous part of the trip, statistically at least, will be driving from home to the Amtrak station, from Atlanta to my brother’s house, and from there to the trailhead.


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