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Why Do You Hike the Appalachian Trail?

 Franconia Ridge Trail heading North

My friend Martin left a comment on my last trip report, saying the he was beginning to see the appeal of hiking the Appalachian Trail. To put this in context, Martin lives in the UK and hikes a lot in Scotland. He's a lightweight backpacker like me and is one of my far flung blogging friends.

His comment got me thinking about why I hike the AT. It wasn't obvious to me at first.

The reality is that I probably will never finish section hiking all 2,172 miles of the Appalachian Trail. There was a time when I dreamed otherwise, but with work and the fact that I'm getting older, it's unlikely that I'd be able to hike it more than 15 days per year for the next 15 years, even if I dedicated myself to it.

The fact is that, I'm not section hiking the AT in order to finish it, even though I have hiked 460 miles of the trail in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine over the past 2 years. So why do it?

Moose Mountain Shelter Sign - Folk Art

I think the answer is community. People who hike or have hiked the Appalachian Trail share a common bond that transcends age, race, socioeconomic status, political beliefs, religion, hair-dos, and all of the things that divide us off the trail.

Speaking for myself, I'm always pleased to meet new people at trail shelters or out along the trail and talk to them. I've met the most interesting people this way and I count many of them as good friends to this day.

Then there's the bond between AT hikers (both thru-hikers and section-hikers), past and present, that is reinforced in online communities like Whiteblaze.net and expressed in a whole series of traditions that revolve around the AT experience: Trail Days gatherings, hiker feeds, trail magic, hiker hostels, decorating privies, shelter log books, shelter graffiti, trail adopters, and so on.

But the community that surrounds the Appalachian Trail extends beyond the hikers that hike it and includes the towns and communities that border the AT corridor from Georgia to Maine. It is not uncommon for those people to be uncommonly supportive and kind to hikers they meet on the road or in town. For instance, I'm always amazed when people stop me on the road and ask if I need a ride, especially when I'm not even hitchhiking. It's a beautiful thing and harkens back to past time when people helped strangers instead of fearing them.

So I think a shared sense of community is probably the biggest reasons that I mainly hike the Appalachian Trail instead of other trails in my area. What are your reasons?

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  1. Nice post! I hiked portions of the trail growing up (Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Smokies). I still feel a deep fondness for the trail and its community even though it has been more than 25 years since I've wandered there. The AT is where my love of the mountains was born and a thru hike is still on my bucket list.

  2. Again, a great post begins with a probing question.

    I first thought of thru-hiking the AT when on a middle school club trip to hike a section in Connecticut I saw a group of thru-hikers loading up on food at a grocery store near the trail. That was in the mid-1970s. Life intervened and it wasn't until the mid-1990s that I could start section hiking, and even then not every year could I squeeze a trip in. Up to this year I'd hiked from Harpers Ferry to Katahdin, and this summer I went south and started at Springer and hiked the 340 miles to Erwin, TN. That still leaves 675 and at least a few trips before I can say I've hiked the entire trail.

    The question is why hike the whole trail. I find that I like seeing the country at 2 mph, taking in the regional differences as I go, and the simple rhythm of trail life helps me remain centered long after I've finished a hike. After a hundred miles whatever had been bothering me seems less than critical, and I'm reminded how much of a mental game life can be. By that I mean, it's easy to assign outsized importance to aspects of the circumstances we find ourselves in. Pushing for miles in the rain, hoofing it up a mountain with a new leg's worth of supplies, it's best to not make the going more onerous with negative thinking. Some things we can't change.

    I've rehiked many sections, and like Earlylite it seems I find myself drawn to the White Mountains. Perhaps it's the moonscape above treeline, the unobstructed views, the more direct interaction with each days weather pattern. Still I look forward to exploring other areas of the country as I work to complete the trail.

  3. Matt – I couldn't agree with you more, but let me emphasize one of your points about regional differences. When you hike the AT you can really appreciate the diversity that we have in the US between different geographies and regional subcultures in a way that has largely missed by mainstream media.

    I think you hit it on the head: 2mph is the answer. Every section I hike is a discovery or a rediscovery of myself, my relationships to people I meet, and my awe of nature's vastness. The AT is a thread running through it all but it's each point in time along the way that makes the experience so vivid and memorable.

  4. Why? Here's a nice quote that pretty much sums it up for me:

    "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered."

    Hiking, especially the spine of a 250M year-old mountain chain, is hard work. But you plan a little, use your experience and knowledge and it usually all goes quite nicely.

    There is a big difference between day tripping and doing a 100 miles. After a week or so you settle into a new "life routine". I swear my hearing gets better and my visual acuity increases. I notice things that usually are invisible. For me, that's the fun part. But I still marvel at how people did this hundreds of years ago without ziplock bags, poly, Ibuprofen etc., etc.

  5. I have only got to hike on the AT once – my husband drove me to Harpers Ferry when we were in DC for a week ;-) – but it is very much why I love hiking on the PCT out here! I know I probably won't finish the trail but that is OK. Every year I get to hike new sections and often I rehike old ones. It feels good to be out there and most of all, it feels like home!

  6. Living in Georgia gives me the opportunity to spend a day or so each Spring with hikers starting out. The reasons are always spiritual and always individual.

    They say things like:

    "I'm on two knees the doctors said I would never walk on."

    "I lost my job, girlfriend kicked me out, Never spent a night out doors before coming here."

    "An opportunity to spend some time with my son, who just graduated high school."

    "It was now, or never".

    We could say they are looking for something within themselves. If the answer is a better idea, they leave the trail, not as failures, but with a purpose. If they finish, they recognize in themselves the resolve to set a difficult goal, and accomplish it.

    There are no winners and loosers on the trail, just each on their own journey.

  7. Living in Georgia gives me the opportunity every spring to spend a couple of days with hikers starting out. Their reasons for hiking are always spiritual and always individual. They say things like:

    “I lost my job, my girlfriend kicked me out and so here I am. Never spent a night outdoors before coming here. “

    “I’m on two knees the doctors said I would never walk on.”

    “I'm spending some time with my son who just graduated from high school.”

    We could say that they are looking for answers within themselves. If they get a better idea, they leave the trail, not as failures, but with a purpose.

    There are no winners and no losers; all are on their own individual journeys.

    • Very well Said! So many people from so many different walks of life. Doctors, lawyers, farmers, vagrants, teachers, students… etc… It’s funny how in regular life, half of us wouldn’t even acknowledge the others, but when we are both dirty, smelly, and fighting to survive… It encourages us to be compassionate, helpful, and caring of one another. This is in part what drives all the interesting bonds and friendships we make along the way!

  8. I recently did the longest section hike i’ve done on the trail. It was two weeks with a college class, there was 17 of us and it was a great experience. Even though I was in such a large group most of the time was spent hiking alone. I’ve never considered myself to be a religious person but the trail makes you think there is more out there. On the trail I met a lot of thru hikers that felt the trail is a journey, and even in the short time I was on the trail I knew that I could feel it too. The experience was something I would suggest to anyone.

  9. My partner is planning on doing a thru hike of the trail and it’s really stressing our relationship. I don’t see the point, I’m not into nature at all, I don’t care to hike, and I’m just finding it ridiculous that he’ll be gone at least six months. The only reason he gives me is he needs to do it. I just don’t get the appeal of being filthy and walking 2k miles. Anyone else lose a partner and relationship over something like this?

    • I would tell him not to marry you. Or to get away from you. Each of us has our reasons for wanting to do this. I think wanting to hike the trail is reason enough. Just because its not for you, doesn’t mean that it is a meaningless endeavor. It sounds like this might be a “deal breaker” for you. If you can’t be supportive for your partner to do this, you are holding him back and it will forever get in the way in your relationship. When each of us has a dream, we need to encourage each other. I’m 65 (woman) and married with 3 sons. I recently hiked for 6 days in Maine with 2 friends, and I am lucky to have a partner who has encouraged me for 36 years. The “civilized” world is a crazy place. Stepping away from it to gain some perspective on what is really important in our lives is the best thing we can do. My hope for your partner is that he will realize that you are not for him and that he should find someone who will encourage him to fulfill his aspirations. There are lots of those people on the trail.

  10. I was getting into car camping when I discovered backpacking. With backpacking I get the best of all worlds. I love to camp and sit around a campfire at night. During the day I love to walk down trails and breath the fresh air, watch the wildlife and be in nature. With backpacking I get to do all of that. I am not one who can just sit all day so hanging around camp all day to me can get boring but with backpacking I am never bored because I am not in the same place for very long.

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