A few will attempt to hike the A.T. almost on a whim and with minimal preparation. Others will go for bonus points, traversing the trail quickly with an ultra-light pack, bringing only the bare necessitates.
Half will give up in the first few weeks. Others will reach Harper’s Ferry, W. Va. — the halfway mark — and with a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment, decide they don’t want or need to hike the rest. Only one in four aspiring thru-hikers will stick it out until the end, a six month or so journey to Maine.
The key to completion is attitude. If someone is driven to finish, they can do it, said Tim Black, an employee at Nantahala Outdoors Center who thru-hiked the A.T. in 2003. It doesn’t matter how much or how little they prepared.
Back in 2003, Black worked at REI outfitters in Atlanta, prepping for his own hike. A customer walked in one day, announced his intentions to hike the A.T. and asked what he’d need. Black, admittedly doubtful, handed him a prep book. The guy read it that night and came back the next day to buy his gear.
Sure enough, he was at Springer Mountain the day Black set off. And to Black’s surprise, he was also in Maine finishing his A.T. thru-hike on the same day as Black.
“It just all depends on your attitude,” Black said.
Now 10 years later, Black shares stories like that one with people serious about hiking the A.T. After his own trip, Black created a course that offers people an inside look at what thru-hiking can be like and gives people one more chance to make sure they have not overlooked anything.
“I can tell you about my hike, but what you choose to take or don’t take is your business,” Black said.
The class, held this February at Nantahala Outdoors Center, attracted 19 people who for the most part fell on one end of the spectrum or the other — older, possibly retired folk and 20-somethings. They have one thing in common though: they’re at a flexible stage of lives when they can leave for six months and not have to worry too much.
Kaitlyn Breiten, a 22-year-old soon-to-be graduate of Sewanee University in Tennessee, plans to hit the trail in May after getting a degree in psychology. Without a career-related job lined up and with nursing school in her future, Breiten decided to undertake the challenge of thru-hiking the A.T.
“I thought ‘why not?’” said Breiten, who described herself as active, though admitted she rarely hikes. “Gut check time — see what you’re made of.”
Breiten plans to hike by herself, which may seem like a scary endeavor, but the culture of thru-hikers ensures that no one is truly alone. In fact, the A.T. isn’t a place for solitude seekers.
“You will know about 200 people before and behind you,” Black said. “It’s a real close-knit community.”
When he hiked the AT, Black said he would hear about things happening hundreds of miles ahead. His year, a woman was murdered near the A.T., and within three days Black knew, even though he was 1,000 miles away and the woman had no connection to the A.T. or thru-hiking.
Black said hiking with a partner could be more difficult. When he hiked the A.T. with his longtime friend Jane, they had never backpacked together before. They tried to stay together but often ended up fighting; one person would always be holding the other person up.
If people are planning to hike with a friend or lover, then they need to get some of their fighting out of the way before they leave and have talks such as, “If I get off the trail, will you continue hiking or come with me?”
“You are committing to this person for six months,” Black said, cautioning class attendees.
But, there are little things backpackers can do to keep from ending up like Black and Jane who finished thru-hiking separately.
Hike at your own pace, Black said. Just pick a place to meet for lunch or camp overnight, and take two tents. Although another tent will add weight to a pack, in the long run, it’s worth it.
People need alone time. If it’s pouring down rain one day, you may end up spending all day in a tent with your partner, Black said, so think about how you would feel being confined in a small two-person tent with him or her.
Friends Scott Sheldon and Josh Jack, both 22, had originally planned to take a single tent but rethought that strategy after hearing Black’s talk.
The duo decided about a year ago to hike the AT together but did not begin serious planning until a few months earlier. They plan to leave within the next week or two and didn’t want to overlook anything.
“I had not thought out [some of] the aspects,” Sheldon said. For example, he bought a backpack but did not have it fitted specifically to his body, which Black suggested for comfort.
Jack, a resident of Albany, Ga., said he has wanted to thru-hike for a longtime and asked Sheldon if he wanted to go. Although Sheldon had not backpacked before, he hiked with friends and said he often felt like he was just getting into a rhythm as the hikes ended and always felt like he could continue on.
And as Black said, it’s all about the attitude. Do you have the will to continue on?
If a hiker gets to the point they are ready to quit, there are a few unwritten rules, Black said. You must be on the trail, and it must be sunny. You can’t quit after its been raining for a week straight, Black said. The trail will test your mettle.
“You will never laugh or cry more than when you are on the trail,” Black said.
Even though he had wanted to hike the A.T. since he was a teen, Black flirted with the idea of quitting. He hiked to Waynesboro, Va., and sat in a dark hotel room for three days, wanting to give up. Black called his mom — his support person at home, who sent him food throughout his trip — and asked her to pick him up.
But she refused, knowing he would not buy a bus ticket, Black said. She told him to walk home or keep hiking toward Maine where she would be waiting for him. So he kept walking and finished thru-hiking the AT in late September.
Black spent most of the class talking about gear for the trip, what each item weighs and what typically works for certain people. Decisions about how thick your sleeping pad should be if you sleep on your side or back, or how long you should spend in a store testing how backpacks and tents take on an added importance.
He emphasized treating gear well, especially since it will only last so long under the stress of constant use. Most gear manufactures assume that people will only use items for a few weekends a year — not live in it daily.
“Take care of your gear because it’s taking care of you most times,” Black said.
He also warned against accepting gifts of gear from friend or relatives — especially if they are not hikers themselves. The item may be superfluous and only add weight to a pack.
“Just because somebody gives you something don’t feel obligated to use it,” Black said. “If the family is buying you stuff, tell them what to get you.”
Black offered warnings throughout the class of what and what not to do but also spent time reminiscing about his own six months on the trail. He encouraged his pupils to revel in the time they have hiking and not to be too concerned about what is coming a few miles or few days up the trail. Hiking the AT is about finishing, but it’s also about not looking back and realizing you didn’t take time to just enjoy it, Black said.
“One of the things I learned from the trail is be in the moment,” he said.
Learning at NOC
The Outdoor School at Nantahala Outdoor Center in Nantahala Gorge offers a variety of classes — from whitewater canoeing and kayaking to wilderness first aid and survival — each year for both the novice and expert outdoors person. www.noc.com/noccom/outdoor-school or 888.905.7238.