It’s been 20 years since I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. There’s no doubt, it was a different Trail back then – fewer thru-hikers, no cell phones, and no websites to research the A.T. prior to heading out. Thru-hikers today are better informed, better connected, and significantly better prepared than when I hiked in 1994. That said, here are some tips for the Class of 2015 as you start the A.T. this Spring:
Create, then ditch your itinerary. It’s fun to plan an itinerary and anticipate where you will be during your thru-hike. You should do it – but don’t live by it. Schedules are for the workingman. I had the most fun on the Trail when I ditched my itinerary and rolled with the Trail (and not against it).
It’s the journey not the destination: Take your time and enjoy it. There aren’t many thru-hikers that finish and wish they went faster. If you generally enjoy being on the Trail, you are far more likely to finish it. Besides, many of you will be back in the 40+ hour/week grind soon enough. Cherish your thru-hike while you have it. You may not get this chance again or for quiet some time (although I hope you do).
Don’t let the extreme thru-hikers ruin your experience. Don’t let anyone ruin your experience, this is your trip. Hike your own hike.
Keep a journal: Your mind will fade, trust me, and you will want to remember where you were on [insert date] on your thru-hike. In the 20 years since my thru-hike, there isn’t a single month that goes by where I don’t look at my journal.
Take lots of photos (or videos): No one was shooting video in 1994 when I hiked, but we did take 35mm pictures and I’m glad we did. Photos (and video) capture many things your journal does not – what you are wearing, eating, doing, etc. Many of these things are lost in a journal and over time.
Swap photos (or videos) with other thru-hikers: Your Trail buddies may bring a different perspective to the thru-hike in the pictures they take, angles they shoot, moments they capture, etc. They may also take a lot of pictures of you during the hike. That’s something you can’t easily do on your own.
Be grateful to those who provide services on the trail. You are setting a legacy for the future.
Don’t forget those who made this possible. Thank every volunteer you meet. Pitch in when and where you can (now or later). The A.T. exists because of the Trail maintainers and they can’t be thanked enough for it.
Mix a few hours of music into your hike each day. It will become the soundtrack of your thru-hike, and 20 years from now those songs will bring back memories just like your journal, photos, or videos.
Know that this experience may haunt you for the rest of your life (in a good way): So embrace it. The reality is that the trappings of life (jobs, mortgage, car payments, kid expenses, etc.) will find you soon enough. Those things aren’t necessarily bad, but they make doing a second thru-hike a challenge. This is truly your time – when you have the freedom to take every day at your pace and to answer only to the Trail. So make the most of it.