Look at this photo. At a glance, I think you’d agree that I appear pretty happy to have reached the 600 mile mark and of course, I was thrilled. But behind the weary smile, a different reality unfolds, undetectable to the camera.
I had spent a good half an hour prior to this picture being taken, searching for somewhere decent enough to take an exceptionally unpleasant dump in the woods.
See that bandana hanging from my pack? I’ve been blowing my nose and wiping my sweat into it for days on end. It never dries. Neither does any of my gear or clothes; it remains damp and smells like a combination of wet dog and the kind of mould you do not, under any circumstances, want to inhale.
I’m also slowly losing my mind from the constellation of bug bites scattered across my trembling limbs and the persistent aching and pinching caused by my backpack, which I could never seem to get to sit comfortably against my tired, tense back.
As an eternal optimist and someone who tries to see the world through lighthearted, humorous spectacles, this post will definitely be delivered in that way; but let’s also be real here for a minute: Some days, hiking the Appalachian Trail SUCKS.
And this is something that is underrepresented on social media, because it’s not attractive to come across as negative and people want to be inspired, not put off by a misery guts. Take Instagram for instance, regardless of their cut-up knees, legs caked in mud and carefully selected floral shirts from the local thrift shop drenched in layers upon layers of sweat; it is awash with pictures of grinning Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and their inspirational photo captions.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m guilty of it too.
Perhaps if we talked more openly about the struggles we face, and admitted that we are all in fact awkwardly uncoordinated human beings and not these polished hiking machines marching invincibly up America’s east coast; then it would prepare more prospective thru-hikers to see the Appalachian Trail (and any other long distance trail for that matter) in a more realistic light, and thus increase their chances of success.
I hiked over 1000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and if you are ever lucky enough to set foot on it yourself, you will soon become familiar with the bad that comes with the good.
So let’s chat about it. Here is my experience of everything that sucked on the Appalachian Trail, from the physical, to the emotional, to everything in-between.
Heat exhaustion & dehydration
Heat exhaustion and dehydration aren’t things to joke about and have taken many a hiker off the trail and into hospital. My experience with heat exhaustion hit me about three miles out of a town in PA, where I had to lie down in the middle of the trail and try my hardest not to simultaneously vomit and lose consciousness whilst being fed a concoction of medicines and electrolytes by a number of concerned friends.
On the other end of the extreme scale of medical emergencies, you have hypothermia. I believe I became borderline hypothermic on two occasions, after getting very wet. By about 7 miles in on one of those miserable mornings, I spent lunch time at a shelter simply unable to get warm, regardless of wearing every layer I owned. It wasn’t until I stripped off all my wet clothes, got into my sleeping bag and lay down on my sleeping pad (which my wonderful hiking buddy blew up for me whilst making me a hot drink), that I started to feel the life trickle back into my body.
Much like Christmas, Norovirus makes an annual appearance and runs rampant for a few weeks, infecting everyone in its wake. It hit me and my buddy not long after the initial outbreak occurred, rendering us confined to our tent and hammock for an entire day, concurrently vomiting, hallucinating and baking under the heat of the sun.
Many hikers choose to hike ‘through’ the Noro, which to me, is insanity. The virus had us cooped up in a hotel room feeling unwell and unable to stomach food for the good part of a week (I’m unable to comprehend eating couscous again to this day) *gag*.
It appears that every American is familiar with the dreaded chigger. Essentially a mite, that likes to live in the grass and go to town on any host with skin, I had never encountered or even heard of these little beasts. After spending one night camped in a particularly grassy patch behind a convenience store and subsequently itching to the point of utter madness for the next fortnight, I will be paranoid of any stretch of green for years to come.
Allergic reactions to bug bites
Along with the chigger bites, which drove us all to insanity, I had the added issue of being severely allergic to mosquito bites. This resulted in numerous cankles (to the amusement of many), swollen legs and arms and a general sense of feeling under the weather. In the end, it was these reactions which lead me to throw in the towel and wave goodbye to the Appalachian Trail.
Damp, smelly clothes and gear
In the colder weather, if your clothes and gear get wet, they don’t dry. In the hot, humid weather, if your clothes and gear get wet, they don’t dry. Basically, you can expect to feel and smell like a dog who has just taken a long, luxurious dip in a canal, for days on end. It’s uncomfortable, it’s sticky and no amount of wash cycles in the laundromat can save you.
Or lack of? Eventually the wet wipes become unable to handle the amount of sweat and grime caked onto your skin, so you give up on even trying. Your finger and toe nails somehow come out filthier post-shower. You enjoy your dinner whilst someone clips said filthy nails opposite you and engages you in a serious discussion about bodily functions without batting an eyelid (bodily functions are an important topic of conversation between hikers).
Brushing your hair is a luxury best saved for zero days, because you’re too exhausted to wrestle with it any other time. You realise that digging your own cat hole and pooping in the woods is the more sanitary option. The little bottle of hand sanitiser you cling onto so dearly is the only thing between you and potential DISEASE.
Dealing with your period in the woods
Dealing with your period in the comfort of your own home can be a nightmare, so you can only imagine the logistics faced when it comes to that time of the month in the woods. I personally use a Moon Cup, and have done for years. Overall, my experience on the trail was positive; the cup saved on packing out and carrying new and used sanitary products, as well as money.
HOWEVER; one fateful morning, on a particularly clumsy day of my menstrual cycle, I sleepily stumbled into the woods and prepared to empty my cup, only to accidentally pour its entire contents all over my shorts. I had to ninja back into my tent looking like the victim of a truly horrendous crime, where I then convinced my comrades to hike a -2 mile day back to the nearest road so we could hitchhike into town.
Separating from trail family
This is difficult for every hiker who becomes a part of a ‘tramily’ and can really upset and unsettle your sense of wellbeing. Some people get separated due to injury or plans; for me, I just didn’t feel good being part of my group anymore. We hiked at different speeds and had different outlooks and ideas on our hikes.
Though it felt counterintuitive to part ways, I was much happier for it in the long run and ended up meeting people way more on my level. Another difficult scenario is when someone you have become incredibly close to decides that it’s time to go home. A little hole is left in your heart where they once were.
Having to hike when you don’t want to
These days were some of the toughest for me and my mental health would take an absolute battering. I would find my body pleading with my protesting mind to cooperate, and it would take until I rolled into camp in the evening, completely spent by the days battle, for the two warriors to finally settle down and resume their alliance.
Other days it would be my body who would be giving up on me; failing to battle the elements or the relentless terrain (sometimes both at the same time). Then there were the downright dark days, where I couldn’t even get out of bed, and hiking felt like the last thing on earth that I wanted to do… but I had to.
The hike becoming a job
It was times like the above when hiking felt like it was becoming a job, and not the kind of job I was excited to get up and do. The monotony would really get to me; the eat, sleep, walk, repeat cycle, the feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere and questioning why I was even out there in the first place.
Money is on a lot of peoples minds out on the AT, because it’s a lot more expensive than people care to admit. Hiking on a budget just isn’t a realistic outlook for many people, because you can’t plan for the unexpected zero days and the amount of food you are actually going to wind up consuming. I for one, spent a great deal more money than I thought I would, particularly on those two things.
Getting sick of food
Speaking of food, myself and many others got sick of eating the same thing’s over and over. Following a vegan diet was certainly more restrictive than usual out on the trail and in small-town America.
A bad nights sleep
I cannot stress to you how upsetting it is to arrive at your chosen campsite after a long day of slogging through the woods, only to find that the limited spaces left for your tent are all on a slant. I never knew how much I appreciated sleeping on a flat surface until I camped on a slant for the first time. It’s a night-long battle against gravity which, my friend, you will never, ever win.
The weather can take a dramatic turn on the trail. I would feel especially uneasy when the wind would pick up at night when I was lay somewhat helpless in my tent. I remember one night a real storm rolled in, making the trees creak and groan, sending branches spiralling down to the floor, some of which thumped off my tent. I lay awake all night, praying that I wouldn’t get crushed.
I’ve also been caught in a nasty thunder storm where the thunder was so close above my head that it sounded like rapid gunfire going off. Completely trapped, all I could do was walk forwards through the flowing river that was once the trail. When you experience such raw weather, you realise just how insignificant you are compared to Mother Nature.
False summits and no views
I would climb and climb, for hours on end, and my reward would be a view like every other; no view, just more trees. Some days I would hike for 8 hours through the trees and the scenery would feel like it was on a repetitive loop. This was when a good podcast or playlist would draw me back from the cusp of madness.
Some sections of the trail were dry for an uncomfortably long time, which would mean we had to carry more water weight and be mindful of how much we were drinking. Some water sources would be so far off trail, we would rather go thirsty than add an extra mile to our already long day. Water sources would more often than not dictate where we slept and how far we walked, which was sometimes annoyingly restrictive. Oh, and running out of water is quite terrifying.
As I hiked north on the Appalachian Trail, the privies went through an interesting transformation. In other words, they progressively got worse. I especially disliked the privies which were so small that your legs hung out of the door and the ones where you could make eye contact with fellow hikers as you did your business.
Then there were the privy-less sections in the Smoky Mountains, where you’d instead be directed to what was basically a minefield of human turds, usually located on a hill besides the shelter.
Just like out in the ‘real world’, unfortunately, not everyone you meet on the trail is going to be your cup of tea. Sexual harassment is very real, drinking sometimes gets out of hand and this year (2019), the trail community was devastated by the murder of one of our fellow hikers.
Though I feel it’s not my place to go into detail about this tragic incident (there are plenty of articles online), I will say this: The Appalachian Trail is generally an exceptionally safe place and although everyone was very shaken by the event, we will not allow the cruel actions of one person to ruin the trail or our personal experiences of it, be they the good or bad bits, because they all count.
So there you have it, from blood-stained shorts to hobbling around on the fattest of cankles. Some days, the Appalachian Trail sucks.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret; it’s these horrendous sucky days that bring you closer to people, form unbreakable bonds and lifelong friendships, make you realise your own strength and give you an experience that you will never, ever forget; and although at the time I may have been cursing and ugly crying and having a major meltdown on the side of the trail; I wouldn’t trade them for anything.