The Hardest Thing I Ever Did: Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Last year, I lived in the woods for 179 days. I hiked up to 25 miles a day, and carried everything I needed to sustain myself on my back. It was one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve ever done. The reason I was out in the woods for six months? My husband and I had the crazy idea to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. We trekked 2,189.8 miles through 14 states, starting in Georgia and ending in Maine.
A “thru-hiker” is someone who hikes the entire length of the trail in a 12-month period. Each year, of all the hikers who attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, only 25-30% complete it. You may be shocked at how low this percentage is, but completing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail is a pretty hard thing to do. There are many reasons why hikers quit, the most common being the mental and physical strains on the body.
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is one of the most badass outdoor pursuits a woman can do. I was impressed with the number of females I saw on the trail, when just ten years ago, only one in ten hikers were women. As of early 2018, the thru-hiker percentage of woman hikers on the Appalachian Trail is currently around 30%, but that number is on the rise each year.
On the trail, everyone goes by a “trail name,” and mine was Chica, Spanish for girl or woman. I was very proud to be a woman thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I was proving to the world–but most importantly myself–that I was a strong woman who was able to participate in this male-dominated playing field. My thru-hike was amazing! Here are nine takeaways from my hike.
No maintenance is required
I didn’t wear make-up or do my hair, and yet I felt beautiful. I wore a Buff to contain my dirty hair, which also served as a sun-protector for my head, sweat-band for my forehead, wind guard for my ears, and pillow case for my blow-up pillow at night. Any time you can use one piece of gear in multiple ways, you win because it means less weight on your back.
Work hard, play hard
I worked my body hard, usually all day long, and slept like a baby every night. I slept in a tent next to my husband most nights, but a couple times we stayed in the three-walled shelters that are scattered along the Appalachian Trail. The shelters are prone to mice, which scurry over hikers packed like sardines on the floor, whereas our three-person tent was spacious, private and rodent-free.
There was no way I could eat enough calories to sustain the amount I was burning by hiking all day, every day. I lost 38 pounds in six months. For the first time in my life, I could eat whatever I wanted. Pop-tarts for breakfast and candy bars for snacks were a major part of my trail diet. While in town I would eat as much pizza and pasta as I could. Your body will crave what you need most; mine craved salads and fruit, which I indulged in frequently as well.
Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable
I did things out of my comfort zone on a daily basis, yet I have never been more comfortable. I didn’t use deodorant for six months. I ate food given to me by people I didn’t know. I hitchhiked, shared hotel rooms with other hikers, and slept in bunkrooms where I was the only girl. Crazy as things seemed, I loved every minute of my trail life and every experience it brought.
Best job ever
Every morning I woke early and felt ready to go (well, almost every day). I knew I had a “job” to do each day: to hike around 20 miles to the next campsite. But it was the best job I ever had. I loved waking up, packing up camp, and hiking to the next destination. Each day was filled with challenges and awe.
I didn’t shower for days at a time, but rarely noticed my stench. I took a “wet wipe bath” each night before changing into my sleep clothes (one wipe for my whole stinky, muddy body). Once a week we would go into town to shower, do laundry and resupply our trail food for the next stretch. I know this sounds like a long time to go without a shower, but it was easier than I thought.
Strong is beautiful
I wasn’t the fastest hiker out there, but I have never felt stronger. My legs were incredible machines – these two limbs carried me over 2,000 miles, up and down mountains, over rocks and through streams. As my hike went on, my calf and thigh muscles fully developed and my back-of-thigh cottage-cheese cellulite vanished completely. I even developed biceps because I had a tendency to grip my trekking poles like my life depended on them (many times, it did). I loved how strong and muscular my body became.
A natural drug
Though I was tired and hungry all the time, I also felt energetic with mad rushes of adrenaline. There was a certain energy that was continuously feeding me, even as I pushed myself to the limit. Each day I was amazed at what my body could do.
Though I’m 90% introverted and wasn’t focused on making friends, I ended up connecting and making friends with numerous people of all ages. I especially loved meeting other females on the trail, who ranged from age one (trail-named Roo, hiking on the backs of her parents) to 69 (trail-named Mother Goose, who had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail several times before).
The hiking community brings people together almost instantaneously. People who wouldn’t normally interact with each other in everyday life, bond on the trail. Everyone out there is doing the same thing and sharing common struggles – trying to survive, trying to get the miles in without getting injured, and dreaming about their next meal in town.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail was the hardest thing I have ever done. It’s not just a walk in the woods. The trail is filled with roots, boulders and rocks, mud and streams, and constant mountains to climb; all while dodging injuries, mental fatigue, and inclement weather. By the time I got to the end of the trail at the northern terminus, Mt. Katahdin, Maine, I could barely contain my emotions. My body was beat up, but my spirits high. I had imagined standing at the summit sign every single day of my hike; some days it was the only thing that kept me going. I had made it! I was proud of myself and felt extremely empowered. I was on top of the world and knew from that point forward, I could do anything I set my mind to.