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Frequently Asked Questions About My Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

Appalachian Trail sign photo by Billy Hathorn (Creative Commons)

I have committed the cardinal sin of blogging.  Forgive me, for it has been two months since my last post.  What has been going on since January 22?

Well, I haven’t felt like writing, obviously.  That’s not for lack of time or lack of ideas, just lack of motivation.  I fell into an all-too-familiar trap during the second half of this winter, fretting over the future and worrying over the past instead of living in the moment.  One of the reasons I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail this year is to re-ground myself in the present.

That leads me to reflect upon a question I’ve been asked a lot: why are you taking time off work to go for a months-long walk in the woods?  To address that question, and others that I’m hearing a lot, I present this FAQ regarding my 2014 Appalachian Trail thru-hike.

“Thru-hiking the AT”? What does that mean?

“The AT” is hiker shorthand for the Appalachian Trail, a long-distance footpath stretching through fourteen states along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains.  The trail runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park.  “Thru-hiking” refers to hiking the full length of the trail in a single, continuous journey.

How many miles is that?

Roughly 2,185 miles, from end to end.  I say roughly because the route frequently undergoes minor alterations, and so in any given year the total distance can vary a bit.

How long will that take?

That all depends on how fast I walk and how many miles I cover in a day!  I anticipate it taking me a little over five months.  The typical range is four to six months.

What’s the longest hike that you’ve been on before?

My longest day hikes have covered 20-25 miles with several thousand feet of elevation gain.  I’ve been on numerous multi-day backpacking trips covering up to 100 miles, and have also done extended stays in the backcountry while doing botany fieldwork.  Thru-hiking, obviously, is a different sort of endeavor entirely, but I have abundant backcountry experience and confidence in my skills.

Are you really hiking by yourself?

Yes.  I will be thru-hiking on my own, but will hike with others intermittently.  I have many friends who live in striking distance of the AT, and quite a few folks would like to come out and join me for periods of a day to a week.  I’m looking forward to a mix of solitude, hiking with old friends, and meeting new people.

What kind of food are you going to bring?

Calorie-dense is the thru-hiker’s rallying cry.  The idea is to carry maximal calories for minimal weight.  I’m doing my usual mix of backpacking foods, which includes lots of granola, peanut butter, my own custom blend of GORP, and dried fruits and veggies.  I’m including some meals from the wonderful folks at Outdoor Herbivore for dinners.  I will adjust as necessary as I go: some thru-hikers put a tremendous amount of pre-planning into meals, but this precludes accommodating odd cravings and “I’m so sick of oatmeal” feelings a hiker is bound to encounter.  Thus, I have stockpiled some staples and will have a friend mail them to me along the way, but I will supplement at towns along the trail.

How much will your pack weigh?  What kind of gear are you bringing?

You know, I haven’t actually weighed my pack.  I have what I need and nothing extra, and my pack is lighter than it often is for shorter backpacking trips.  I already had most of the gear I needed, including:

I did buy a few new things, getting some great deals from sales:

  • Snow Peak titanium pot that’s much lighter than my long-serving MSR Blacklite cookset
  • new sleeping bag (Mountain Hardwear Ultralaminina 32) that offers more warmth for its weight and packs down smaller than my old three-season bag
  • Saucony trail runners to use in place of my usual Lowa backpacking boots
  • Aquamira drops (for backup/additional water treatment)

Why are you doing it?

Ah, the most important question of all.  There are several answers:

  1. It’s something I have wanted to do since I first learned it was possible, at age 12 or 13.  I grew up in North Jersey, not far from the AT, and I had frequent if superficial encounters with the trail. Some of my first day hikes were on the AT in New York or New Jersey.  My first backpacking trip, a pre-college orientation trip with Princeton Outdoor Action, was on the AT in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation AreaStokes State Forest, and High Point State Park.  Even when my family would drive north on the Palisades Parkway, I would always look for the little “Hiker Crossing” sign where the AT crossed the highway, and be entranced by the fact that this footpath stretched all the way from Georgia to Maine.  The very existence of the AT has captured my imagination since my youth.
  2. I need to reassess my life.  I’ve experienced several major life transitions in the past year, involving everything from work to the end of a seven-year relationship that I had every reason to believe would be lifelong.  So far, 2014 is going much better than 2013, but I’m still reeling a bit from all that has happened.  I know from experience that some serious outdoors time is the best cure for most anything that ails me.  If I can (a) spend several months hiking and (b) give myself the opportunity to reflect on my priorities, well hell, that seems like a no-brainer.
  3. The time is right.  For many years, I put off doing the AT.  “Maybe when I have more time, have more gear, have more money” … the excuses were endless.  I also doubted my mental and physical fortitude, my ability to see through a project like this that would require several months of dedicated effort.  It got to the point where I believed I would never actually be able to thru-hike the AT.  While I was in grad school, though, I came to realize that was bollocks.  Particularly, I trained for a marathon (my first, but, I hope, not my last) during my final semester of grad school, while simultaneously trying to complete my degree requirements and project report.  It was demanding and challenging and unbelievably rewarding.  I came to believe that I really was capable of committing myself and following through.  Now, I find myself in a position where I have what I need to successfully thru-hike the AT: time, savings, gear, and—most importantly—the belief that I can.
  4. I have a book sitting inside me that needs to be hatched.  For several years now, I have been thinking of writing a book about the mental health benefits of wilderness experiences.  I have bits and pieces of it down already, but since it will be at least somewhat autobiographical, I need some serious time to reflect.  Where better to muse on how wilderness has affected me personally than while on the trail?  I’ll be doing extensive journaling that I hope will serve as a foundation for this project.

Why not the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail)?

This is one I get mainly from other hikers, especially people I’ve worked with in the western national parks.  I’ve also been hearing it some from people who have recently read Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

Though there is certainly appeal in the idea of hiking the PCT, there are two main reasons I want to do the AT first.  One is that, as I discussed above, thru-hiking the AT is something I have dreamed of doing for many years.  Second, the logistics of planning an AT hike are simpler.  The hiking season is longer (most years, anyway; this winter’s dismal snows in the Sierra Nevada may make 2014 different, but I didn’t know that ahead of time).  The AT crosses lots of roads and passes close to many towns, which makes dealing with resupply much more straightforward.  Finding water on the PCT can be difficult, especially on the southernmost stretches through the desert.

That said, I have hiked bits of the PCT, and they are glorious.  The country is beautiful and dramatic and perhaps one day I will do some long-distance hiking out there.

Will you be blogging from the trail?

Not regularly, I don’t think, but I’m honestly not sure.  I have always valued my backcountry time as an escape from technology.  We’ll just have to see what kind of routine I settle into on the trail.  I have heard from many friends that they would love to follow me along my hike through my blog, and I would love to share the experience in that way, but I do not want blogging to supersede the hike experience itself.  Additionally, I have some safety concerns about posting information about my location in real-time.

I suspect I’ll tweet a decent amount, though with some time delay.  So if you don’t already follow me on Twitter, now is a great time to start.

If I wanted to reach you while you’re out there, how would I do that?

I will be carrying my phone with me.  I’ll have it off much of the time but will check for voicemail, texts, and emails once every several days.  In other words, get in touch however you normally would, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

If you need to reach me in an emergency, my friend Megan in Pennsylvania is serving as my trip coordinator.  I will update her more frequently on where I am and how my trip is going.  She will have a list of post offices and other addresses where I will stop to check for mail.  Please contact me by phone/text/message/email if you’d like her contact information.  I will happily accept care packages, but please remember that I will have to carry everything with me, so sending food is probably the most helpful thing you could do!

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sounds like a truly excellent plan Cathy, I’ll be doing the same a little later on when I don’t have as many people to look after. After reading Bill Brysons account of the AT years ago I was completely sold on the idea. Have a fabulous time :)

    March 23, 2014
    • Yes, A Walk in the Woods is a delightful book. Let me know when your turn comes to get out there! It’ll be a great adventure.

      March 23, 2014
  2. Ellen R. #

    ROCK ON, CATHY! I can’t wait for the updates when they come. Though short, I like your response to the solo-hiking question. How fun it will be to hike with friends new and old in the trail community AND get those days of solitude. If you’ll remember by then, give my regards to Vermont. Wishing you the best, safe, and happy hiking!

    March 23, 2014
    • Thanks, Ellen! The “Are you really going out there by yourself?” question bugs me sometimes, depending on who asks and how. Sometimes it’s just people with no experience of backcountry travel, for whom the idea of anyone going out solo would be intimidating. Often, though, it’s an extremely condescending question from a boy scout leader who implies, possibly unwittingly, that a woman shouldn’t be out on her own. It’s deeply tedious to encounter that attitude. That’s part of the reason I still think about going back for a PhD and looking at women’s use of backcountry and wilderness.

      March 23, 2014
      • Ellen R. #

        A friend and I met a professor/author who asked us why we (women) don’t participate in backpacking as often as men (we were day hiking, he was southbound thru hiking the LT). He gave us his card so we could follow up, but his name/affiliation is escaping me. I’ll let you know if I figure out who he is. Gogo human dimensions!

        March 23, 2014
  3. Go for it! I stumbled upon your blog and ended up here at the beginning. I completed the AT what seems now like a lifetime ago, hiking 1/2 of it via vacations and then in 1987, going from VA to ME. It was wonderful! I hope you have a great time and look forward to your book.

    March 26, 2014
    • Thanks! I don’t know if I would be doing this if I hadn’t met a few folks who, like you, successfully completed the AT and other long-distance trails. The inspiring stories helped turn an abstract dream into something tangible and achievable.

      March 27, 2014
  4. Wow, how inspiring! I can’t wait to hear about your hike — I know people who have done much of it, but not its entirety. How exciting. I REALLY can’t wait to hear about your adventures and all the beauty you encounter.

    March 26, 2014
    • Thanks so much for your enthusiasm! I’m pretty excited myself. Starting to get a little nervous, now that the trail is just a few days away.

      March 27, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Thoughts on Depression and Time Spent Outdoors | Homelandscapes
  2. Curious About Thruhiker Life? | Homelandscapes

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