Thoughts / Travel

13 Things the Appalachian Trail (and an AT Thru-Hike) is NOT

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It has nearly been three years since my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, and I always seem to be answering the same questions from people outside of the thru-hiking community. Mentioning the fact that you have hiked for months on end really gets some interesting questions from people. Here are some things that the AT is NOT, and these are things that I have addressed with some sense of humor over the past three years.

1. The AT is NOT a paved path.

First and foremost, I want to address the fact that some people think that the AT is a paved, smooth path the entire way from Georgia to Maine. This really grinds my gears. Sure, the AT goes through towns, sometimes follows roads and paths, but it is typically a dirt trail, rock pile, or rocky scramble.

2. An AT thru-hike is NOT a race.

An AT thru-hike is not a race but is a pilgrimage of sorts. A hiker can choose to go as slow or as fast as they desire. The phrase “Hike Your Own Hike” is very commonly heard among trail folk.

3. AT thru-hikers do NOT all start at the same time/day.

So, all thru-hikers start on the same day? I get this question more often than not. So, if you are heading northbound, northbound hikers typically start during the same two-month period in either sometime in March or April. But, that is not because it is ‘cool’ but that is because so we can summit the last mountain in Maine before winter comes.

4. An AT thru-hike is NOT {always} a test in survival.

A thru-hike is more a test in physical ability than surviving. We do not need to create shelters out of trees, take hours building a fire, or stock up on months of food.

However, there is some element of preparedness here like waiting out storms, making sure your have adequate food/water, and having the right gear for the weather.

5. Thru-hikers do NOT typically hunt for food.

So, did you hunt for your food? This question has been asked to me more times than I can count. No, thru-hikers do not typically hunt for food. Sure, there might be some broke hikers that enjoy hunting, and it may be the only food source they can rely on. However, for the majority of thru-hikers, we leave the wildlife to the wild. Also, hunting takes time away from hiking. Our main ‘job’ here is to hike the trail, not waste time hunting small game that should be saved for the predator animals that actually need to eat it.

6. An AT thru-hike is NOT easy.

The AT is not just a ‘walk in the woods’ (I’m talking to you Bill Bryson…). Sure, there are some relatively easy stretches of flat terrain, but more often than not, there are rolling hills and difficult mountains to summit. Also, the physical element isn’t always the hardest thing to consider while thru-hiking; there is a mental element, called the Virginia Blues, that many thru-hikers face from hiking day in and day out for months. It can be a difficult journey both mentally and physically.

7. The AT is NOT a bike path.

I’ve had a few people ask me why I didn’t bike the trail. Well, the majority of the Appalachian Trail is foot travel only. And, some stretches of the AT are so technically difficult, a bike would never make it through.

8. The AT is NOT just for hippies and vagabonds.

You took six months off work? Are you some kind of hippie or hobo? Okay, a thru-hiker might have a hobo-esque lifestyle. However, that does not mean we are all hippies and hobos (but you will see people of this type on the trail). We are HIKERS, not hobos, not hippies. The hippies usually drift off the trail eventually in search of a new adventure or a music festival. The hobos end up living in the shelters because they have nowhere else to go. BUT, a thru-hiker is hiking nearly every day, and there is that difference.

9. An AT thru-hike does NOT mean months of blisters.

I understand how thru-hike might seem synonymous with ‘blisters’ but definitely not months of blisters. It is typical to get blisters the first couple weeks as a thru-hiker adjusts to hiking in their shoes everyday. However, if a thru-hiker is struggling with months of blisters, that means they are wearing the wrong size shoes or not airing out their feet often enough. I had even had a person ask if I got blisters on my back from my pack. NO! I didn’t know anyone that suffered from that, but if they did, that means the pack size is wrong or the pack has too much weight.

10. An AT thru-hike attempt does NOT mean one will finish.

If you set out on a thru-hike, you do have hopes to complete the entire trail in one go. However, only about 25-30% of thru-hikers actually complete the entire trail each year. Why? Well they are so many reasons why a thru-hiker might quit. Injuries, money, bad weather, and bad company are common reasons. However, I’ve seen many people start a thru-hike and quit because it is nothing they expected. It’s work some days. It’s not always a simple journey.

11. You do NOT need to do the entire trail to enjoy the AT.

I think its funny when people ask if a hiker can hike the trail if they can’t or don’t intend to hike the whole thing. Well, YES! The AT is just a long footpath that traverses the eastern United States. Trailheads are found in 14 states and you can walk as much or as little as you like.

12. An AT thru-hike is NOT always lonely.

Sure, there were times when we didn’t see a soul for days. However, the AT, just like the eastern United States, is popular. If an AT thru-hiker starts with the ‘bubble,’ in or around March or early April, there will be a huge surge of hikers on the trail. The summer is also full of day hikers and tourists.

13. Bill Bryson is NOT a hero for AT thru-hikers.

Last but definitely not least, Bill Bryson must be addressed. The majority of people I tell about my thru-hike always ask if I’ve read Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods (which is now a full length film). Yes, I’ve read the book. And no, I didn’t think it was that good. Bryson is a great writer but a horrible thru-hiker. SPOILER ALERT: He didn’t finish the trail. His friend Katz had no sense of Leave No Trace. Bill Bryson will never be a hero of an AT thru-hiker, or at least not MY hero. If you must ask, our heroes are Grandma Gatewood, Scott Jurek, Earl Shaffer, and Jennifer Pharr Davis – all amazing people that completed the trail with their own grace and style.


 

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Now, this article is not meant to be taken too seriously but it does reflect the kind of questions a thru-hiker gets asked about their epic journey. Are you planning a thru-hike anytime soon? Check out my article 15 Tips for a Girl Wanting to Hike the Appalachian Trail to read more about my opinion on hiking this incredible footpath.

Are you planning a thru-hike? Tell me about it in the comments below! I would love to hear from you!

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7 thoughts on “13 Things the Appalachian Trail (and an AT Thru-Hike) is NOT

  1. Pingback: 6 Tips on Planning a Last-Minute Trip | In Any Direction

  2. I really appreciate some of these myths. My personal pet peeve would be that the AT is not a contest for how emaciated you look at the end lol. Everyone seemed surprised/disappointed I didn’t get even skinnier like that meant it wasn’t a challenge… (I already only weigh like 100lb…) You can do something hard without starving to death!

  3. Pingback: The Ups and Downs of My Freelance Life (And Why You Won’t Get Rich Quick So Stop Googling It) | In Any Direction

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