The reasons behind why people decide that hiking the Appalachian Trail is a good idea, and the ways in which they go about it, differ greatly from person to person. But one thing is for certain; it promises a positively unique experience for each individual who sets foot on its white-blazed path.
During my 1000-mile journey, I learnt that most hikers out on the AT are searching for something. This could be it a drastic change of scenery, some form of closure, connection to like-minded individuals and nature; or simply a glimpse into themselves.
Whatever the circumstances, there is one thing that all hikers have in common, and that is that the trail pushes your mental, physical and emotional capacities to their very limit.
Keeping it real, I’ve got all of the nitty-gritty stuff out of the way in my previous Appalachian Trail post, Some Days, Hiking the Appalachian Trail SUCKS. Why? Because quite frankly, it was the build up of said nitty-gritty stuff that essentially put an end to my attempted thru-hike.
That being said, I don’t regret a thing. If I had the money, I would embark on another long-distance hike in a heartbeat. The good days were worth their weight in gold.
Now sit back, relax and prepare to feel all warm and fuzzy inside as I tell you about all the awesome reasons to hike the Appalachian Trail:
The hiking community
For me, and I think I can speak for a large proportion of other hikers here; one of the biggest perks of hiking the Appalachian Trail is the bonds and connections forged with other human beings along the way. The community you’ll find yourself immersed in is supportive, understanding and feels like an enormous family. Amazingly, this isn’t just inclusive to the 2200 mile green tunnel itself.
This sense of community became apparent to me before I even set foot on the AT. From the moment I stepped out into the Atlanta sunshine, I was warmly welcomed into the home of Bubbles (an AT 2018 hiker who was away at the time) by two of her good friends, Highlight (AT 2018, CDT 2019) and Caroline (PCT 2019). I can’t thank these girls enough for getting me on my feet, galavanting me around Atlanta and getting me safely to the Approach Trail.
Forming a Tramily (Trail Family)
This experience is different for each individual and relies heavily on personal preference and circumstance. Generally speaking, I’d liken forming a Tramily to when you accidentally create a fantastic meal out of whatever is left in the back of your cupboard, than say, using a strict, calculated recipe.
Speaking from personal experience, your Tramily will be there to pick you up when you trip over for the umpteenth time (thank you Shamoo). They’ll take a zero with you when you feel crappy; let you share their tent when you’ve sent your cold gear home too early and make you laugh so hard that you forget about all of the physical pain you are in constantly.
Trail magic and trail angels
Trail magic and trail angels are not just found on the trail. They are the kind strangers who offer you a hitch into town, welcome you into their home and pay for your coffee when they realise you are hiking the trail.
I met a lady who I chatted with outside of a cafe and as she got up to leave, she slipped $40 into my hand, wrapped her arms around my head, showered me in kisses and told me that she wanted me to have a good meal. My faith in humanity was restored virtually everyday by the kindness of strangers.
Trail Days is the perfect way to reunite with familiar faces. Some you’ll have only met a handful of times, others who you may have ended up with some distance between. It’s about banding together, sharing a common interest and having some well deserved days off from hiking.
Completing the Approach Trail
Some people say you should do it, others say don’t bother because it doesn’t count towards your miles; it’s entirely up to you. Personally, I felt like a boss conquering those damn stairs up Amicalola Falls.
Becoming physically stronger and fitter
Don’t expect this to happen quickly. It took me a long time to get my ‘trail legs’ and even then, they would have good days and bad days (as would the rest of my body). More interestingly, the one physical attribute I noticed improve the most was my lung capacity.
When I first began to hike the Appalachian Trail, a menacing tightness clutched me deep in the chest when I exerted myself beyond what I was accustomed to. After a few weeks, this pain completely diminished, and although the heavy breathing virtually never stopped, there was no pain to accompany it. I believe the scientific term is called; finally getting off your lazy ass.
There was something so satisfying about being able to spend multiple days in the woods, straight off the bat might I add, relying solely on what I could physically carry. This satisfaction peaked when collecting and filtering my own water and cooking my dinner after a gruelling day.
Connecting to your own body and strengths
Unless you just so happen to be an aggressively avid exerciser, folks leading relatively normal lives probably have no idea just how strong, capable and downright resilient their bodies are. A hike on the Appalachian Trail was a definite wake-up call for me and a chance to really connect with myself. I discovered that I could walk over 20 miles in a day, climb and descend thousands of feet of elevation before lunch and brave all kinds of weather; and this was with a cumbersome pack on my back.
This realisation has undoubtedly stayed with me post-trail. Now that I am more connected with my own capabilities, I feel a new confidence and trust in myself.
Stepping outside of your comfort zone
There’s nothing like catapulting yourself out of society and into the woods to get outside of your comfort zone. Everyone’s comfort zone will vary; for me, I was relatively new to multi-day hiking and camping. I was also completely new to America and all of its critters.
Leaving your comfort zone is empowering. It encourages you to become more flexible when you are faced with difficult situations and it inspires creativity and contributes to your overall happiness. Try it!
The trail is the perfect place to practice patience, especially in a world where instant gratification is now the norm. If you want something on the AT, you generally have to work for it. You have to put in the miles, carry that extra weight and do those all-important calculations when it comes to the overall logistics of your hike. I like to call it character building.
Developing a newfound confidence
I like to think that every point I have made so far and indeed, many more to come, all join together in a nutshell to form this one. In connecting with yourself and others both physically and mentally; jumping outside of your comfort zone, being faced with and overcoming regular trials and tribulations and breaking down daily habits that are only really detrimental to your wellbeing; you are going to blossom into more of a badass than you already are.
Mastering new skills
Hiking is a skill. Becoming a fountain of knowledge when it comes to gear is a skill. Connecting with new people is a skill. Organising yourself and the logistics of the trail every single day is a skill.
Getting a good sleep routine
Sleeping might seem like a minor detail in the grand scheme of your thru-hike. On the contrary, that ease of falling asleep as the sun sets and waking up at dawn is wonderfully beneficial to your mental wellbeing and it is one of the things that I miss most about the trail.
Being able to eat what you want
It’s quite nice being able to sit on a log eating peanut butter by the spoonful without anyone batting an eyelid.
Living simply and minimally
Whilst hiking the Appalachian Trail, you are essentially embracing the concept of minimalism. That doesn’t just mean that you have less ‘stuff’. Indeed, having fewer belongings creates a deeper sense of value in what we do have, and removes the noise and distraction from everything else. Did you ever imagine you’d become so attached to a pair of trekking poles or a spork, and feel such little need to watch TV or check your phone?
The trail encourages you to live everyday with intention and become undeniably present. This, in turn, helps to promote clarity. As a budding minimalist myself, I can affirm that this way of living improves so many aspects of your life, and is something that you can continue to practice post-trail.
Taking zeros basically means having a day off and hiking zero miles on the trail. They are best spent having some me-time, or with your buddies; relaxing, exploring the new town you find yourself in and eating your weight in Mexican food. They are a time to slob, to transform your disgusting clothes into semi-disgusting clothes and to resupply your dwindling food bag with exciting new treats. Zeros are fun and therefore, I most certainly took way too many of them.
Slackpacking is essentially hiking with a much lighter load on your back, carrying only what you need for the day. I did this a number of ways; by leaving my belongings with someone and having them bring it to me somewhere along the trail, or leaving my gear at a hotel/hostel and having someone ferry me to and from the trail.
Slackpacking provides a fantastic mental boost. Without my unwieldy backpack, I could feel just how in-shape I had become. I could hike bigger miles in a day and often had a comfy bed and shower waiting for me at the end.
Hitting mile markers
Mile markers are another way of getting an often much-needed mental boost along the trail, reminding you of your purpose and incredible achievements so far.
Seeing the sights
Although hiking the Appalachian Trail comprises mostly of the ‘green tunnel’, there are of course, many wonderful and exciting sights to see along the way. From quirky towns such as Hot Springs and Gatlinburg, to natural wonders like Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob and the Grayson Highland Ponies.
Falling in love with the outdoors
There’s no better way to appreciate the outdoors than by hiking in it all day and then sleeping in it all night. I fell in love with the trees for providing me shade, the streams that quenched my thirst, the flowers that added pops of colour to my surroundings, the views for taking my breath away and the campsites that felt like home every evening.
Aqua Blazing the Shenandoah River is an absolute hoot. It’s perfect for those who are after a change of scenery and don’t claim to be ‘purists’ about hiking every mile of the trail. Over 3 days, my buddies and I paddled 50 miles through rain and shine. We camped next to the river, got stuck on rocks twice in rapids, almost capsized once, saw turtles and got chased by an angry mama goose!
Don’t be fooled though, it’s physically exhausting, somewhat painful to be sat down on a hard seat for days on end and everything you own will take on the smell of dirty river water!
Side trips are a fun way to take a break from the daily grind and see parts of America you may never visit otherwise. Two of my favourites were a spontaneous adventure to Asheville, NC and New York City!
If those 22 reasons aren’t enough, here’s what some of my beautiful friends had to say when I asked them about their favourite parts of the trail:
“I love living the lion’s share of my life outside. Even when the weather or bugs or poison ivy or terrain proves challenging, I relish waking up to birdsong and going to bed to cricket chirps. Yes, I love the people most of all, but I feel a special alchemy in the combination of people and forest: the laughter and tears and helping each other, set in the backdrop of wilderness.
We are more in touch with our shared frailty and fierceness, and we become more real with each other sooner. I truly believe the trees give off not just a welcome oxygen, but a vital surrounding of strength, spurring us on when we think we can’t.”
“I love the freedom that being out here provides. The ability to rid yourself the distractions and the noise that surround us in every day life, to simplify your life down to the basic needs. The white blazes provide the direction and purpose, the scenery provides constant awe and amazement, fellow hikers provide some amazing company and amusement, everything else you need is on your back”.
“My favourite thing about hiking the Appalachian Trail is how even though everyday you’re doing the same thing, you know, hiking, each day is totally different and something new always happens. One day might suck and you want to quit, but the next day you go swimming at a beach, see a bear or eat ice cream. You just never know what awesome thing will come next”.
If you plan to hike the Appalachian Trail in the future, or just love reading about it, check out all of my articles in my Appalachian Trail archive. Alternatively, you can visit the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website.