Five Things I Wish I Knew Before My Appalachian Trail Thru Hike

Deciding to attempt a thru hike of any trail is a decision that takes time and research.  While doing a quick google search for backpacks, shoe reviews, and even advice for dealing with any scenario you can dream up in your head can be a big help, I find that nothing can truly prepare you for the journey you are about to take on.  For the next few Thursdays I'll be doing a series of posts gearing up for AT Thru Hiker Northbounder season.  The first post I'm doing in this series is one of a more personal nature - the five things I wish I knew before heading out onto the Appalachian Trail for my thru hike.  

This woman sitting on Springer Mountain had NO IDEA what she was getting into, that's for sure!

This woman sitting on Springer Mountain had NO IDEA what she was getting into, that's for sure!

1) The Best Laid Plans Have No Place Here

A lot of people go into a thru hike with some sort of plan. I got overwhelmed by details, but I did pre-plan my first day on trail.  I quickly threw that plan out the window when I arrived at my destination for the first night after only 3 hours of hiking and decided to move on.  Another example is the time NoKey and I decided to attempt our first 30 mile day.  We had looked at our AT Guide and decided that we were going for a big day.  The terrain was doable, the weather was great, and it was my birthday so we were both in a great mood.  Unfortunately, the book didn't show us just how rocky and terrible those ridge lines actually were!  We ended up only hiking about 15.5 miles that day and feeling defeated... but we did get to spend the night with about 15 other hikers who had equally terrible hiking days, so it all worked out anyway.  Every single day on the trail is a new day and so many things can change in an instant.  Attempting to plan out your entire trip before you even leave is futile!  

2) You Will NEVER Be Alone

While I figured I would see a few people every day, I had no idea how truly packed and crowded the AT would be.  I also figured the crowds would die down after a few weeks.  I never camped alone one time on the trail.  In those early days on trail if you need to go to the bathroom, even if you walk down a hill and out into the woods chances are someone will see you.  I always say if you are craving human contact and feel like meeting some new people, just step off trail and go to the bathroom and you'll see a ton of new faces as soon as you do!  As a woman, I was often asked before I left for the trail if I was afraid to be alone in the woods or why I wasn't taking a man with me on my hike (yes, seriously!).  My answer was always that I felt safe and confident in my abilities.  After seeing the throngs of people hiking in the south, I knew that I hadn't been wrong to assume I'd be around other people frequently.  As NoKey likes to tell people, if you're starting a Northbound thru hike in springtime, if you trip and fall and don't get up right away some stranger will come and trip over you!

3) You Will See a Whole New Side of Humanity

Let's face it - people suck. It seems like there's always one news story every single day that will make you wonder what in the world is wrong with people, am I right?  I have to tell you that after only a few hours on trail you will see humanity in a whole new and positive light!  There is a mantra that states "the trail provides" and has many meanings.  I have found personally that if there is something you truly need, you will find it at the exact moment you need it.  My case in point for this was hiking out of the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina.  There is an infamous climb up and out, over Cheoah Bald, and down into Stecoah Gap.  I hadn't seen a single hiker all day.  I was dehydrated, hot, and physically exhausted.  Crying, I came down the mountain to the road crossing.  When I arrived, a man asked if he could carry my pack and fix me up a plate of food.  His trail name was Hopeful and it was his birthday. He had thru hiked twice before and he likes spending his birthday doing trail magic.  This man sat me down, made me up plates and plates of food, refilled my water bottles, and sent me up and over the next hill with a pocket full of snack cakes.  I hiked up and over Jacob's Ladder into Brown Fork Gap that night with a full belly, witnessing one of the most stunning sunsets I had ever seen, and feeling grateful for my experience that day.  I can also say I have had bad experiences with religious people living in the southeast U.S.  After my first few weeks on trail my views on organized religion became much more positive as well.  It is amazing how truly caring people can be. 

4) The Small Moments Are the Best

So we've all heard the saying that the best things in life are free, or the best things in life aren't physical things, or even that it is the little things that count.  The Appalachian Trail has so many monuments and landmarks and vistas and parks... so many things to photograph and remember.  The moments that mean the most during your hike, however, are the small ones you spend with other hikers.  One of my favorite trail photos from my entire hike is the one I posted below - I'm signing the log book at a shelter, talking to NoKey and some other hikers at the table. I couldn't tell you what I wrote or what we were discussing, but I can tell you that the small glimpses into what my life was like back then are the most memorable of the entire trip. 

Photo taken by our friend, James "Tubesocks" Dzur in Pennsylvania - the day before we hit the halfway point of the trail.  This photo hangs in our living room.

Photo taken by our friend, James "Tubesocks" Dzur in Pennsylvania - the day before we hit the halfway point of the trail.  This photo hangs in our living room.

5) Your Life Will Change - Drastically

The piece of advice I heard from experienced thru hikers before left for my hike was the one I didn't really know how to use... that my life was about to completely change and I wouldn't understand that at all until it happened.  Those people were right.  I always like to tell people the Appalachian Trail ruined my life in the best possible way.  I left a great job in healthcare, working from home with great benefits, to take on this hike.  When I got back home, I went back to my job and expected my life to be the same.  What I discovered was that while I was away the world kept turning.  People went on with their lives while I was out on the trail.  When I came home the world was still the same, but I was not.  I had very little tolerance for driving and traffic.  I no longer really cared much about my favorite TV shows.  That amazing job I had now felt empty and required me to sit still for much longer than I would have liked.  I gave up my life and moved to Maine, over 1500 miles away, to work for very little pay for very long hours in a hiker hostel for 7 months.  I turns out that for me to live the life I was meant to live I needed to get out of my comfort zone and I had done just that over the period of five months on trail.  After a few years of part time mindless jobs and hard work, I was fortunate enough to return to the hiking trails I loved for a short time.  After that, things fell in to place and I was able to find work as a hiking guide.  It took a long time, but I finally found where I was meant to be.  

These are only a few life lessons I learned on my long journey on the Appalachian Trail.  What things would you add to this list?  Are you gearing up for a thru hike?  Leave me a comment or connect with me on Facebook - I'd love to chat with you!