The opportunity to take six months away from real life to attempt an Appalachian Trail thru-hike is a gift of which most people can only dream. Open your mind to gain a piece of wisdom or two from those who have successfully persevered through months on end of the good and the bad and trekked their way across fourteen mountainous states.
The list below was generated from a random survey of recent Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and sums up the eight most common regrets they experienced when their journey was complete. Though many of us wouldn’t change a thing about our journey, this list may provide insight for others to consider before embarking on their own pilgrimage. Leave the trail better than you found it and leave no trace please!
#1 – Take tons of photos and videos. This is the big one I hear most often. In my humble opinion, it’s a much better problem to have too many pictures than too few. You need not carry a fancy, heavy camera. A phone works just fine to capture the moments you’ll want to remember forever! Whether it’s a random orphaned puppy rescue from the summit of a thirsty mountain, small moments with friends, or significant milestones, pictures truly tell a thousand words that even a photogenic memory won’t recall with such precision.
#2 – Give yourself a few extra zero days (in woods and in towns) – A “zero day” is what thru-hikers refer to as a day of rest logging zero A.T. miles. Take days off often! Your body needs the rest, and you’ll make memories of a lifetime. Spend a rainy day reading a book in an A.T. shelter. Go fishing. Visit trail towns and talk to the locals. There’s little reason to rush through this adventure, and the people you meet are what make this journey so special. Most of us wish we had taken a bit more time to smell the roses, so to speak. Video clip of shelter life on the A.T.
Regret #3: Enjoy a few nights of cowboy camping – My mistake was waiting until Maine to experience the freedom of cowboy camping, a hiker term for sleeping directly under the stars. Our night sky is beautiful from the top of a mountain! Think about it. If the stars only appeared once every hundred years, people would flock to experience them. Instead, we take them for granted, oblivious to the beauty of our universe. Put up your tent as a backup if you must, but lay your sleeping pad and bag directly on the ground and lose yourself in the connect-the-dots game of stargazing. You may discover a new level of peaceful sleep with the sky as your ceiling.
Regret #4: Not stopping to take in the views – Take the time to enjoy more blue blazes along the way. So often we thru-hikers get fixated on miles to complete and we miss out on views that are just a short distance off trail. Spend some time sitting beside that breathtaking lake. Walk an extra half mile to experience a vista many other thru-hikers will miss in their haste. Life itself is stressful with constant rushing around. The trail is your reprieve. Stop, relax, and enjoy the journey.
#5 Swim often – The common theme of most of the regrets listed in this article centers around not taking time to stop and experience the whole trail experience. Swim, swim, swim. Our hiker life involves fewer showers than normal life. The A.T. brings you across everything from large public lakes to puddle-sized swimming holes and everything in between. You haven’t lived until you’ve stood under a waterfall or jumped from a bridge into a river 30 feet below. Not only will you feel like a million bucks after a swim on a scorching day, but you’ll smell like it too…well, as close as a thru-hiker can get anyway.
#6 Save plenty of money before you take a hike – One of the top 10 mistakes thru-hikers make is not saving enough money. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to quit your otherwise successful journey due to finances. If you have to put off your hike for a year, do so. It’s worth it to set yourself up for success and start your adventure with plenty of cash to see it through. Strive to save at least $3000 for your journey after you purchase your gear to avoid the regret of having to bow out early. Clarity‘s supply list
#7 Whether you’re a writer or not, WRITE – You think you’ll remember all the details as you go. You won’t. You’ll forget minutiae about your feelings, thoughts, moments experienced along the way. At minimum, jot a nightly list of things that happened that day. Remember to include meaningful thoughts that popped into your silent mind during the day. The thoughts are worth capturing. Clarity’s trail journals
#8 Letting others affect miles per day – As incredibly strong as the bonds are between you and your trail family, often people wish they had hiked their own hike rather than taking on someone else’s schedule. In some cases, being pushed by others to hike harder, faster, longer results in injuries that may end a thru-hike prematurely. My joy was hiking the first 800 miles on my own, meeting tons of new people along the way, and joining a group later in my hike. This provided me with that “me-time” I desperately needed as well as a trail family to bring companionship toward the end of my adventure.
There you have them! The eight suggested bits of wisdom offered by former thru-hikers to alleviate any regrets after your journey of a lifetime is finished. The most important thing is, hike your own hike while adhering to the last Leave No Trace principle, “Be Respectful to Others”. Your A.T. thru-hike may be your only opportunity for complete unadulterated freedom. Enjoy it for the journey, not the destination!