The Appalachian Trail will always be a special place for me. From March 2014 to September 2014, I slowly made my way north over three seasons hiking through 14 states, climbing countless mountains, taking some iconic photographs and getting caught in numerous rainstorms and eve one snow storm. It was a crazy, wild and adventure but also one of my best accomplishments!
Before I started the hike and since my return, even years later, people still ask some common questions about the adventure. So it felt time for me to answer the five frequently asked questions about my experience on the AT.
WHY DID I HIKE THE AT?
As it was for many people, Bill Bryson’s memoir, A Walk in the Woods, was my introduction to the AT. While I found Bill and Katz’ misadventures hilarious and memorable, I didn’t think of the AT much after reading the book. Unlike most people who undertake a thru hike, I didn’t fantasize about it or plan for it for years and years. In fact, my hiking experience was limited to day hiking and a few weekend backpacking trips only a few hours away from the comforts of my home.
2014 was a strange time in my life. I left an organization that I loved for a new job but six months later my new organization folded for financial reasons. I didn’t feel inspired to undertake another daunting months long job search. I was also young and didn’t have many responsibilities, save my beloved dog, Rosie. So it felt like the right time to take on a productive, challenging and unconventional adventure.
Hiking the AT was the first idea that popped into my head. Unlike most people who take on a thru hike, I hadn’t fantasied about it or planned one for years. In fact, Bill Bryson’s hilarious memoir, A Walk in the Woods, was my introduction to the AT and thru hike life. Since my hiking experience was limited to short day hikes and backpacking to a few weekend trips only a few hours from the comfort of my home, taking on a thru hike felt daunting and impossible. So I started exploring other options, including the possibility of driving across the United States to every baseball stadium. But I continued to be drawn to the AT, so while I was on a vacation in Puerto Rico two of my friends convinced me that the AT was the right choice! A few months later, I was standing on Springer Mountain ready to head north.
WAS IT SAFE TO HIKE THE AT ALONE, ESPECIALLY AS A WOMAN?
This question was sometimes also followed by whether I’d carry a gun. Often people were concerned about my encounters with animals that could maim me but some were also worried that I’d run into strange people with sinister intentions.
As many people who followed my AT adventures remember, I did have encounters with a grumpy bear (I sang Madonna to make it move off the trail) and nearly stepped on a rattle snake (it was nice enough to warn me very loudly). I met a range of people and some were strange but all were friendly and none had any ill intentions. In fact, the AT community is an extremely trusting and honorable one. I routinely left gear that cost thousands of dollars away from me for hours at a time and never once was anything missing or out of place. My second day on the AT, I left my expensive camera at a shelter and I didn’t know about it until someone tracked me down to return the camera to me.
The AT community is also the most helpful I’ve encountered. The day I crossed the border into North Carolina, the temperature steadily dropped. As I was setting up my tent, a couple of fellow hikers noticed that I was shivering. They helped me set up my tent and warmed up my water while I got changed into dry clothes. Soon after they noticed that I was showing signs of hypothermia and spent the entire night taking turns to make sure that I was safe. Aside from fellow hikers, the AT is filled with people known as trail angels. These are ordinary people that help hikers whether by offering rides into town and back to the trail, providing hot freshly cooked meals and snacks, or leaving water in stretches of areas known to lack water. In addition to physical things, their acts of kindness usually lifts every hiker’s spirits and brings them immense happiness. Without these amazing people, I’m not sure any hiker could complete the daunting task of a thru hiker.
HOW MUCH DID MY PACK WEIGH?
My starting pack weight was a whopping 36 pounds! As with most thru hikers, my pack weight decreased over the months. There were some things that I thought was absolutely necessary which turned out to be luxuries that added weight. I carried a phone, a kindle and two lightweight extra battery packs. I also carried a travel size deodorant and a small bottle of mouthwash. Some of these, I never gave up but others like extra contact lenses I sent home. I also adapted some preferences for the sake of shaving some weight off my pack. I stopped cooking hot food, so I was able to send my stove and bowl home. As the weather warmed, I was changed to my spring sleeping bag which weighed significantly less than my winter bag. Half way through my hike, I had to switch to a better fitting pack, which was smaller (48L vs. 60L) and weighed less. By the end of the hike, my pack weight had gotten down to about 20 pounds.
WHAT GEAR DID I TAKE WITH ME?
I’ll write another blog post detailing my AT gear list along with a review of each item. But for the purpose of answering this question, I’ll provide a list of the essential items I carried with me.
Equipment: Gregory Jade 60L Backpack (and later Gregory Karen 48L); Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Tent; North Face Cat’s Meow Sleeping Bag; Deuter Dreamlite 500 Sleeping Bag (for the spring); REI Flash Sleeping Pad; JetBoil Flash Stove; Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter and Sawyer Mini (later in the hike) and Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock Trekking Poles
Apparel: REI Convertible Hiking Pants; Smartwool long sleeve shirt; Mountain Hard Wear Sleeveless Shirt; Arcteryx Hiking Skirt; Under Armor Short Sleeve Shirt; Patagonia Underwear and Sports Bra; Patagonia Capilene Lightweight Bottom; Marmot Minimalist Rain Jacket; and REI Midlayer Jacket.
Footwear: Salomon Quest 4D GTX Hiking Boots; Salmon XA Pro 3D; Smartwool PhD socks; REI Midweight Merino Wool Hiking Socks; Darn Tough Hiking Quarter Socks; and Sole insoles
Technology: Kindle Paper White; iPhone 4; LifeProof Phone Case; and Olympia Stylus Camera
WHAT DID I EAT ON THE TRAIL?
Trail eating is like no other. When you are hiking 15-20 miles a day, you can afford to indulge and you need the energy. Just like my weight shifted, my food choices also changed over the months. In the beginning, I ate cliff bars for breakfast and raamen mixed with Indian spices for dinner. As I got tired of Cliff bars, I switched to other nutrition bars (Nutri Grain, Luna, Lara). A staple of my diet that didn’t change was Snickers bars. They were great snacks because they were full of energy and easy to carry. I also carried Cheez-Its, my preferred savory snack. For lunch and dinner, I usually ate tortillas with packets of tuna. My friends were kind enough to always mail Gatorade packets, which are hard to find on the trail. I supplemented my staple items with Little Debbie snacks, Rice Krispie Treats, Fruity Pebble Treats and other individually wrapped lightweight snacks that were available in trail towns.
WHERE DID I SLEEP?
There were plenty of sleeping options both on and off the trail. Most nights, I camped and slept in my Big Agnes tent. Occasionally, if there was a hard rain or a place not suitable to pitch a tent, I slept in a shelter (a three walled wooden structure). I came into tow every five to seven days to resupply. Usually, I slept in a hotel on these days.
HOW MUCH DID THE TRIP COST?
Not accounting for bills that I was still responsible for while I was hiking and the gear I purchased for the trip, the cost of the hike was $7,000. Many people hiked the AT for nearly half the cost by limiting their stays in town, arranging for mail dropped food resupply, choosing hostels and sharing hotel rooms.