If you’re an avid hiker it may be one of your long-term goals to thru-hike a long trail, the Appalachian being one of the most popular. The Appalachian Trail runs between Georgia and Maine at a length of about 2,200 miles. Crossing a total of fourteen states will take you on average 5-7 months to complete from start to finish. I got a chance to ask Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, Mary, some questions about her 2003 adventure. Read about her struggles, her accomplishments, how she packed, and what she ate!
Note: All photos are from Mary. Also, photos are from 2003 (wow technology has advanced!)
Basics of the Appalachian Trail
“My longest backpacking/camping trip before the AT was four days and nights.”
How many thru hikes have you done?
I have actually done two. My first was the Appalachian Trail in 2003 and I never intended to do another one. Then I heard about the Camino de Santiago in Spain and did that one in 2006. It was much easier, both mentally and physically. I actually did the Camino as a cheap way to see northern Spain.
Did you thru hike alone?
I met two people online, I don’t even remember how, and planned and started my AT hike with them. He was in Chattanooga and she in Florida, and I lived in Arizona. We started our hike together and met at Amicalola State Park in Georgia the night before we started. We stayed together for about 3 weeks, but then I wanted to go faster because I wanted to get to Maine before it got too cold in the north. After I went ahead of them, I walked through Virginia with a 55 year old and a 65 year old. In Harper’s Ferry West Virginia, I met SweetAss and Booble, and the three of us walked all the way to Maine together. I had lost a lot of weight and in Maine, they really wanted to push to finish by the end of August. I just didn’t have the energy. So we parted ways and I walked with another guy, Homerun, and a couple and the four of us summited Mt Katahdin on the same day.
How long did you think it would take you?
I planned for six months total on the trail, but realized it would be quite cold in Maine in September, so I decided to go faster than originally planned. The trail conditions you to the point where 20 miles a day is the norm. Until you hit New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where you’re lucky to cover 5-7 miles a day.
How long did it take you? I started on March 25th and finished on Sept 3rd. Five months and five days.
How did you train?
I started hiking and camping about three years before I did the AT. I had never done either before. But I did run and work out, but that doesn’t really prepare you for carrying a 20lb pack every day all day. Carrying the pack is more mental than physical. My longest backpacking/camping trip before the AT was four days and nights.
Did you meet many hikers?
Yes, loads! Sometimes there would be 30 people in one camp near the beginning of the trail. The further you go, the fewer the people. Lots of people begin a thru hike but drop off along the way. The class of 2003 has two facebook groups and several people have written books (Ray Anderson – The Trail) and a couple of people made movies! The trail is it’s own Social Media site. Each shelter has a journal for hikers to sign, so you can read and find out who is ahead of you or who dropped off, who took a break, who found trail magic (food or sodas left on the trail for hikers to find and the person who left it would come back later to pick up the cooler or container). The journals were our entertainment. People left messages for someone they knew was behind them. I got lazy about signing them, but I never failed to read them. When I did it in 2003 no one had a cell phone.
Safety on the Trail
Did you feel safe?
Yes. I never once felt threatened. I walked alone most of the day, but I never camped alone because there were just simply too many people on the trail. We did meet one pretty shady character in New York and decided to hike on to the next shelter instead of staying at the one where he was.
Did you get any injuries?
I fortunately did not get injured and apparently I’m not allergic to poison ivy. Lots of people had issues with poison ivy and several people in camp would have it, but I never did and I walked the same places they did. To this day I’ve never had a reaction to it.
How did you plan for safety?
Well, I guess I didn’t. The AT is actually very safe and there is a network of hikers. I didn’t technically hike alone, although I did walk alone much of the day, but would meet up with my hiking buddies at breaks and at camp. If we thought someone was supposed to show up at camp, and they didn’t, somehow we always had a way of finding out what happened to them. Invariably they just got tired and camped somewhere before the shelter.
Gear for Thru-Hiking
How much clothing did you pack? Not much! I didn’t want to carry it; I wore the same pair of shorts and one shirt for the entire trail. I had two pairs of Exofficio underwear, two (barely) sport bras, two pairs Smartwool socks, 2 pair sock liners, Marmot rain jacket and pants (mostly to keep warm, not dry), one fleece pullover, one pair long underwear, warm pants for camp, fleece jacket, wool hat, gloves, baseball cap. When it finally got hot, I sent the winter clothes to my sister so I wouldn’t have to carry them.
What gear/how much gear did you bring? My pack weighed about 20 pounds with no food, with food about 25 pounds. I had a one man REI tent, 3/4 length Thermarest, Marmot -15 sleeping bag for winter, and a thin one for summer (I would call my sister to send me what I needed), 3 inch Gerber knife (to slice cheese and salami!), Pocket Rocket stove, one pot, spoon, plastic scrubber for the pot, toothbrush, toothpaste, Dr Bonner’s peppermint soap, pack cover, headlamp, guidebook, camera, and whatever you do, do NOT forget ZIPLOC bags!
Challenges of Thru-Hiking
“I was near hypothermia…”
What was the hardest part of the trail?
The one mile of the Mahoosuc Notch in Maine. It’s a mile of boulders. Big ones. I had to traverse it on my hands and feet with a backpack and walking stick in the way.
What was the hardest part of thru hiking?
The rain. 2003 is still the wettest summer on record for the AT. I felt like I was cold and wet until June 22nd; I specifically remember that day being dry and 90 degrees. I was so happy. It was the first morning I put on dry shoes and socks in two months.
What was easier than you thought it would be?
Honestly, nothing. But I think that’s because I was just too dumb to know what to expect. I think it was a case of ignorance is bliss. I only had one moment of doubt, in Virginia, when I sat down in the sunshine to eat a Snickers, and moments later it started to rain. Again. The freakin’ rain just wouldn’t stop. And I asked myself, “Why in the hell am I doing this?” Just that one time. I guess maybe I thought I would feel that way more than once.
What was the worst weather encountered? Smoky Mountain National Park near Gatlinburg. It was cold and the rain was coming down in sheets. By the time I got to the shelter, with the help of my 55 year old hiking buddy, I was near hypothermia. I couldn’t think straight. Someone opened my pack and got my clothes out, and took off my rain jacket and shoes. I took it from there and stripped down totally naked in a shelter full of people and put on my dry clothes.
Scenery and Wildlife
What state was your favorite? New York. The trail was pretty easy (of course, I was in awesome shape by then!) and there were lots of places along the trail to stop for beer! Pennsylvania is another favorite for this same reason, but the pointy rocks on the trail in Pennsylvania really got to me. They got to everybody and were the subject of many a conversation in camp. I had my first fall on the entire trail because I caught my toe on one of those damn rocks.
What wildlife did you see? Lots of birds and up north I saw my first black bear in New Jersey. In New Hampshire and Maine I saw a few moose. Lots of deer. A rattlesnake in Pennsylvania. It was hiding in the rocks. I also spent one night in my tent with an adorable beagle we found in the forest in Virginia. We think he was lost. He walked to town with us the next day, and we were going to try to find a place for him, but he took off.
Where were the best views? In Virginia, but I missed all of them because of the damn rain and fog! Seriously. I saw so few views. But in Maine, there was a lot less rain and I loved the views once we got above tree line. Of course, the view from Katahdin was the best.
Eating on the Trail
What did you eat?
It’s more like what didn’t I eat? lol! I lost 30 pounds eating anything I wanted, in town. I usually carried Ramen, Lipton Noodles or Rice, Kraft Mac & Cheese, and instant mashed potatoes. I carried a bit of powdered milk, packages of tuna, and any combination of these was my dinner on any given night. By the time I got to Vermont, we were all trading recipes of how to mix and match all of the above. For lunch I had tortillas with pepperoni and cheese, or peanut butter mixed with trail mix that I had made myself and put in my resupply boxes, and a Snickers. Breakfast was either packets of flavored oatmeal, or pop tarts. Something quick and easy with no cleanup. We poured hot water right into the oatmeal packet so we wouldn’t have to wash a pot. I also carried an assortment of Oreos, Hershey bars, Snickers, and Mrs Fields soft chocolate chip cookies if I could find them (I don’t eat any of this anymore. Haven’t in years.)
In towns or restaurants, my faves were pizza, bacon cheeseburgers and fries, fried chicken, and I always ordered dessert. I ate pints of Ben & Jerry’s every chance I got, or any other readily available ice cream. I once ate 2 pints of B&J’s in one sitting; I don’t recommend that. Also, I ate a lot of fruit in towns and drank copious amounts of beer. It was awesome.
We carried Kool-Aid mix or powdered Gatorade to add to our water. In town, I drank Mt Dew and Coke, and coffee. I don’t drink any of these things anymore except coffee. With no sugar.
How often did you resupply?
Resupply is determined by two things – how much you want to carry and whether or not you’re willing to get off the trail and into a town. The trail goes right through some towns, so resupply is super easy in those cases. I used my guidebook to determine the mileage and days till the next resupply and rarely carried more than four days worth of food. Through the 100 mile wilderness in Maine, there is nowhere to resupply, but by that time, I could easily cover the flat terrain in 5 days. So I did 25+ miles a day and carried 5 days worth of food.
I also packed close to 20 resupply boxes before I began, addressed and paid postage on each one, and left them with my sister. I would call or email her when to send the next one, but it was really my brother-in-law who organized them and put them in the mail. But I found this to be totally unnecessary and more expensive than actually resupplying along the trail. My plans changed and I went faster than planned, and I think I ended up not even using the last few boxes.
Pop-tarts were a staple on the trail and in my resupply boxes. To this day, I cannot even look at a poptart without feeling the urge to run away.
How often did you buy meals and/or stay at hotels/etc?
I saved $3500 before beginning the trail, both to fund my hike and get me through October before beginning teaching again and getting a paycheck. That was way more than most hikers had when they began. There are three options for lodging along the AT. Shelters/camping, hostels, and hotels/guesthouses in towns. I used all three, but rarely stayed in a hotel due to expense and it just wasn’t necessary. I stayed in a hotel in Georgia, less than a week after starting the trail, due to a snowstorm. Six of us shared a room and dried out our gear in Helen, Georgia which is a town that looks like a German storybook. Also got a hotel for one night in Fontana Dam where I decided to separate from the two people i began hiking with. I also paid for an extravagant night at a gorgeous B&B somewhere in either NY or PA because three of us walked several miles to go to bbq and got a bit drunk. The B&B was so beautiful and nearby, but closed. We met the owner at the bbq, he ran my credit card and handed us the keys. Told us to lock up when we left the next morning! It was awesome! But no breakfast. We had to walk 12 miles back to our packs with a hangover. I don’t even remember where we left our packs. I’d have to look at my journal.
A final story…
In 1996 I met David Brill, a freelance writer for several men’s magazines, at a writer’s conference I attended in Knoxville at UT. I had the worst hangover when I woke up and I thought if he wasn’t any good, I would leave and go back to bed. There were about 15 of us in the group, and he sat at the head of the table. About 5 minutes into his talk, I realized the magnitude of what he had done. He thru-hiked the AT in the 70s but didn’t write a book about it until the 90s. I had never heard of the AT until this day, and I had never hiked or camped. But as he spoke, I began to understand what he had accomplished and I decided then and there I was going to do it. He brought some of his books, so I bought one and he signed it. I waited until everyone else left and picked his brain a bit. He answered all of my questions. While I don’t really remember all he said and all we talked about, I remember that he inspired me.
In 2003 I finally did my thru hike. When people ask me why I did it, I answer honestly. I did it just to find out if I could do it; it wasn’t a spiritual journey. I wasn’t running to or from anything, I wasn’t lost and trying to find myself. I wasn’t putting off something. I hadn’t experienced an emotional trauma that I needed to recover from, I just wanted to know if I could do it.
A question I’ve only been asked once is, “When did you know you could do it?” I said, “When I finished.”
And then I realized I had to climb back down Katahdin. So I did and I don’t think I hiked or camped again for another year.
I am Rachel, an early 30's Midwestern girl residing in NYC with my husband and dog. Surrounded by skyscrapers, I daydream of the grass, trees, and wide open landscapes that I miss. I am preoccupied with ways to get out of the city and love finding new adventures!