10 Life Lessons, 10 Years After an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

In June 2013, I summited a fog-shrouded Katahdin with Bambi legs and big dreams to thru-hike the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail southbound from Maine to Georgia. Even as a SoBo hiker (the less popular direction), I was—and still am—far from unique in that ambition. The AT has positively exploded in popularity in recent years. Since 2010, roughly 10,000 people have joined the ranks of the AT Conservancy's 2,000-milers(Opens in a new window), which means about 1,000 people complete a thru-hike each year.

Despite my less-than-distinctive claim to fame, however, there’s no denying the distinct staying power of a long-distance backpacking trip. I thru-hiked the AT almost a decade ago, and there are still tons of life lessons I learned on that journey that I carry with me today. Here are some of them, which hopefully you’ll find at least marginally helpful.

1. Sometimes Getting Literal with Direction Is Best

Two people standing next to a the Katahdin sign on the AT The author and his hiking partner “Freaky John” at the summit of Katahdin. Photo courtesy of Ry Glover

When I set off on my hike, I had just graduated college with a Bachelor's degree in History and French—aka, minimal job prospects, maximal directionless. So, what did I do? I went south. Like the “go west, young man” jet-setters of yore, I simply picked a literal direction and started walking that way. What it did—what walking southbound for 4.5-months accomplished—was to give me a very clear and clearly defined purpose. There wasn’t the FOMO-fueled yank and pull down different avenues. I was a man on a mission. Since the AT, in certain moments of inevitable waywardness that life sometimes has in store, I’ve found great reprieve in getting literal. When I lived in certain cities I didn’t like, I moved. When I felt lost, I doubled down and got purposefully lost to see if I could find my way home. When I felt stuck, I hopped in a car and unstuck myself by driving across the country. Sometimes the easiest cures in life are playing the 5-year-old’s game of asking “why” over and over again until you’re left with something so boiled down and simple, the only thing left to do is get literal. And that’s often where some weird, yet net-positive things play out.

2. Cleanliness Is Overrated

There was a moment in Shenandoah National Park, about halfway through the trail, when I could smell a day hiker’s laundry detergent from a mile away. Who’s to say what sort of primordial must they were smelling on me. But one thing’s for certain: Showers along the A.T. were infrequent at best and inconceivable at worst. But who cares. Being “clean”—being pampered and powdered and perfumed 24/7—is something so ingrained in our culture that we take it as gospel. Only the hippies and the headies preach the doctrine of dirt. And what a shame that is. Because being clean is seriously overrated. On the trail, I wore my mud-streaked calves like a badge of honor and my solitary salt-stained merino tee like a medal of mountain-man valor.

These days, I’ve carried on that grimy AT legacy. For years, I haven’t washed my hair. It’s not some dreadlocked rat’s nest. On the contrary, like native flora that reclaims the land in an abandoned industrial site, the natural oils of my hair have regenerated. I learned on the AT there are far worse things than being dirty (like lightning storms and dried-up water sources to name a couple). In fact, being sweaty, grimy, and dirty—these are some of the best indicators there are to suggest you’re living life to the fullest. So, keep that salt in your hair and sweat on your neck. It means you’re doing it right.

3. Gear Doesn’t Need to Be Complicated - But You Need Some Solid Staples

A hovering shot of backpacking gear organized and spread out on the floor This is too much gear. Photo courtesy of Ry Glover

This lesson, of course, has its limitations based on your activity of choice. If you’re heading into the frozen tundra or up a sheer rock face, by all means, bring the bells and whistles. But for simpler, human-powered means of exploration (backpacking, hiking, and trail running in temperate climates), you don’t always need to overcomplicate things. A well-made pack(Opens in a new window), a warm sleeping bag, a solidly constructed tent, and one well-trusted layering system of apparel is often all you need. At the beginning of my hike, my pack’s base weight (pre-food) was a meaty 32-pounds—filled with knives and pack towels and far too many pairs of underwear and socks to count. By the end, I was working with a 20-pound base weight, and my lower back (and mental fortitude) were both much the stronger as a result. (By the way, I used an Atmos 50(Opens in a new window) that to this day is the only pack in my gear closet and the only pack I ever use. A couple of buckles are partly broken - and I’m just too lazy to send it in for a free repair with Osprey’s Almighty Guarantee(Opens in a new window). But aside from that, it’s as good as the first day I hauled it up Katahdin.) A couple of simple, well-made staples—that’s the ticket.

4. Simplicity in Life Is Key

Not a day goes by that I don’t in some capacity think back to how simple and stripped-down life was on the trail. The routine was almost laughably routine-y. Wake up. Eat. Walk. Snack. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Then walk some more. I never had to think about career decisions, work-life balance, rent payments, or stock market crashes. Didn’t have to keep up with media trends or fashion trends or freaking NFTs. Didn’t have to practice mindfulness. Heck, I WAS mindfulness. Walking mindfulness. These days, in moments of everyday-life pressures and angst, I try to conjure up the spirit of simplicity that I so embodied back then on the AT. It’s not always easy, but when it works—when I go for a trail run with my dog, or sit on the porch with a Jim Harrison novel, or have a glass of wine and a chess match with my girlfriend—man it works. The simple stuff works.

5. Nature Is Awesome

A backpacker watching the sunset from a hilltop view along the AT Flip phones in 2013 didn’t have the greatest cameras, but take our word for it; nature is grand. Photo courtesy of Ry Glover

The science is there: Exposure to the woods, to trees, to nature is good for the soul. In less squishy terms, we have a deep biological and evolutionary need to have more nature in our lives. (Unfortunately, humankind also has this weird obsession with building and flocking to centralized cities and living like concrete-loving sea mussels attached as one pulsing organism yet separated by our individual shells. But that’s beside the point!) The fact is: plants, trees, soil, oxygen—these things are good for the brain. Plus, they’re darn beautiful to look at! To this day, I have thousands of mental photographs from various moments along the trail when nature put on its majestic, monumental, time-immemorial show. Bloody sunsets spilling over sprawling, glassy lakes in Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness. Wispy cirrus clouds racing at breakneck speeds over the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Black bear cubs scrambling with hilarious incoordination down the length of a chestnut oak before abandoning ship 10-feet from the bottom, thudding to the ground, then crashing through the underbrush like bulls, er, bears in a China shop. Nature is awesome.

6. Even in Peak Solitude, You’re Never Alone

During one particularly lonely stretch of trail, on a cold, gray, November day in the Roan Mountain Highlands of Tennessee, a (rather existential) thought occurred to me. I wondered: in this exact moment in time, as I feel about as lonely as one can feel, is there anyone in the world thinking of me right now? The truth is: yes, somebody was. Somebody always is. You’re never as alone as you might think. Maybe not at that exact moment in the Roan Highlands, but over the course of that 4.5 months, my parents thought of me constantly. So did my brother. And my friends. And who knows, maybe even some random classmate from kindergarten randomly thought to herself, ‘huh - I wonder what he’s up to these days.’ We can’t ever fully know the extent to which we have an impact on the people around us. But, like the butterfly effect, you can be darn sure you’re having some sort of impact. And there’s some nice solace in that.

7. The Best Bar Crawls Are 2,000-Miles Long

Don’t be fooled: the Appalachian Trail is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful nature corridors in the world. It’s 2,000-miles of green tunnel, mountain vistas, geologic majesty, geographic magnificence. But it’s also 2,000-miles of some of the best, most downhome, down-to-earth dive bars and breweries in the country. From the iconic Doyle Hotel in Duncannon, PA to the bucolic grounds of Devil’s Backbone Brewery in Roseland, VA, the AT sure knows how to party. I’ve had plenty of beers in the last ten years, but none quite as tasty as those first few sips of IPA after 6-8 consecutive days of slogging and sleeping through the woods. So, the life lesson? The trail-to-tavern lifestyle is one helluva good time; embrace it always.

8. Time Is an Illusion, a Flat Circle, a Fickle Beast

A close up picture of a backpacker growing out his beard The “roadkill goatee” in all its glory. Photo courtesy of Ry Glover

It’s not a groundbreaking revelation to suggest that time moves more slowly or more quickly depending on the activity at hand. But boy is that point hammered home when the only thing you do each and every day for five months on end is walk. In the 90-degree cornfields of Pennsylvania, time inches like an obese inchworm. In the 500+ mile section of Virginia, it drags like a primordial slug. For the final homestretch of punchy uphills in Georgia, it crawls like a constipated tortoise. But then—standing there atop Springer with a thimble of celebratory scotch and a “roadkill goatee” scotch-taped to your lips—you wonder where all the time went so quickly. Appreciate every single micro-moment life throws at you, from the mundane to the extraordinary. It’s trite but it’s true. And time will be your ally as a result.

9. Never Take Water for Granted

I never knew dehydration until that day in mid-August in central PA. My hiking partner “Freaky John” and I had been walking for 10-miles before arriving at what was supposed to be a steadily flowing piped spring… but it had dried up. Ninety-five degrees outside and the spring had dried up. That morning we’d done our typical “camel-ing up” (chugging our 32-ounce bottles of water before hiking so to avoid carrying the water weight). Up till now, this method had proven a flawless hack. But here, three hours removed from our last sip of water, our lips as cracked and dry as the Atacama, with another 10-miles to go until the next water source, we knew we were up the creek. When we finally reached the next spring, it was barely running, one tiny drop every three seconds or so from an atomically tiny hole in the ground. It took almost half an hour to fill up one bottle. But boy, once it was filled up—crystal clear, 55-degrees, beading with condensation on the exterior—that first sip was pure rapture. I could almost hear an angelic choir harmonizing in the Key of G as my organs expanded with water and gratitude. To this day, it’s the best water I’ve ever drunk. I now never take water for granted. (Maybe we should’ve just carried a hydration pack, huh?)

10. Big Ticket Adventures Should Never Go Out of Style

Two people posing atop a mountain along the AT Big adventures bring lifelong memories (and the occasional awkward photo). Photo courtesy of Ry Glover

Everyday backyard adventures are fantastic—irreplaceable, even. In many ways, they’re the lifeblood of recreation, the jet fuel of exploration, the ever-beating pulse of the weekend warrior ethos. In the decade since my thru-hike, they’ve sustained me and fulfilled me in too many ways to count. You know the ones: weekend backpacking trips, post-work trail runs, five-o’clock-somewhere swimming holes. But none of these hold a candle to the sense of accomplishment I felt and feel today for having completed a Big Kahuna adventure like the Appalachian Trail. Maybe it’s an ego thing—heck, it probably is an ego thing—but the fact is: I love having this achievement on my outdoor C.V. Having it on my actual C.V. has led to more than a handful of job opportunities, in fact. (I guess hiring managers have a thing for big-ticket adventures, too, or at least the mental grit and determination that come along with them.) The thing is: there are few things in this world quite as fulfilling as setting a big, grandiose goal, then actually going out and grinding through it. So, by all means, embark on the weekend warrior excursion. But if you’ve been weighing up a big one, definitely pull the trigger.

With that, happy trails.

Featured image provided by Josiah Gascho(Opens in a new window)