Six Lessons I Learned By Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine and is recognizable by its signature white blazes.

In 2018, after seven years of living and working on a public relations career in Washington, D.C., I quit my dream job to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). The next six months went by in a flash. Day in and day out, I trudged up and over mountains, in extreme cold and sweltering heat, through swarms of mosquitoes, in sickness and in health, through 14 states from Georgia to Maine. My home was the forest; my safe haven was my tent. My fellow hikers turned into family and my biggest fear became reaching the end of the trail.

I had dreamed of thru-hiking the AT for years. I’d read “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson cover to cover three times. My ambition to do it even caused me to get dumped by a less adventurous ex-boyfriend (years before I actually took the leap). And yet, nothing could have prepared me for how much I would fall in love with that trail and with life while I was out there.

There were ups and downs, of course. There were heartbreaks and inconveniences and disappointments and blisters and sore muscles and too much rain and nights of little sleep. But so too were there kindred spirits and wild ponies and trail magic and pro-athlete levels of physical fitness and all the sugar one could ever want to eat and wild days and nights and some of the most beautiful forests I could ever imagine. The entire state of Virginia was covered in twisted trees full of blooms—vibrant magenta and delicate white and flaming orange. I still think about the trail way more often than I should. I can’t imagine life ever being better or more meaningful than it was in those 2,190.9 miles between Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. But life is full of surprises, and you never know what could be next.

Now that I have had a couple of years to reflect, I’m better able to articulate what it is that I learned and took away from the experience. I could never be the same after hiking the AT. We’re human beings after all; we’re always moving forward and becoming the next versions of ourselves. Some experiences just push us a little further and faster to that next place, and the AT was one such experience. Friends, here are the six lessons that I learned by thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

  • You do not have to have it all figured out. When I arrived at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia to walk under the famous arch and begin my long journey to Maine, I was unquestionably unprepared. My pack was way too heavy, I was carrying way too much food, I was out of shape (well, out of backpacking shape), and I hadn’t slept outside in a tent during winter conditions since I was a teenager. I hadn’t tested out my water filter, or opened my tent since attending a festival the summer before. But you know what? It didn’t matter. There were others in the same boat; people to talk it through with, to commiserate with, and all the time in the world to get it all figured out. Only a couple of states later, I was a backpacking pro. I could set up my tent in my sleep and didn’t need to think twice about what I needed at the grocery store. By northern Virginia, I no longer even woke up to animals creeping around camp looking for backpacker scraps in the night. It all just became so normal. What I mean to say is, whether it’s a thru-hike or life, we will all figure it out in the end. So we should probably all just stop worrying and enjoy the ride a bit more!
  • Fear has no place at the table. This is a big one for me. I have a very strict rule for myself—I do not allow myself to make decisions out of fear. I did this when I was a kid (a very shy and anxious one at that), and I missed out on things because of this. As an adult, I may sometimes eat (vegan) ice cream for lunch or chips for dinner, but what I don’t do is miss out on incredible experiences because I’m too afraid to pursue them. One of my very favorite quotes is “leap and the net will appear” by John Burroughs. I try to keep this in mind every time I’m freaking out about the unknown. Everything will fall into place—you just have to take it one step at a time.  
  • People want to belong to something greater than themselves. I have never known anything like the AT community. People love that trail with a fierceness that I’ve seen unmatched elsewhere. And because of this, these people—from trail angels to trail communities to trail business owners to the friends and family of thru-hikers—will do absolutely anything and everything to help you along your quest. It is a frequent statement of people who’ve thru-hiked the AT that it has restored their faith in humanity, and there is good reason for that. Complete strangers will feed you, allow you into their homes, pick you up as you’re hitchhiking, pay your tab at a brewery, help you get to the doctor, help you get to the post office, let you use their phone, and more. You want to find a community and feel good about humanity? Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
  • You can do anything that you put your mind to. Oooh boy, for the entire first half of the AT, I refused to look beyond the next town. I could not stop for a second to think about the astronomical distance I had in front of me. Not that I wasn’t loving every minute, but if I ever stopped to think about the fact that I had 2,000 more miles to go, I’d get overwhelmed and panic and believe there was no way I’d ever make it. And in the end, I finished the trail and I still wished there was so much more to go. I think this can apply to anything in life that’s hard—baby steps and consistency are the keys to accomplishing anything that you could possibly want to. Stick with it and you will get there.
  • Your tribe is out there. I started the AT with a friend (whom I hiked almost the entire trail with), but even despite having a buddy, I was terrified that I wasn’t going to make friends on the trail and that I’d spend the entire time in my own head, my problems spinning through my mind on repeat like a bad record. What. A. Joke. I made about a million friends and met my soul mates and still talk to many of those friends regularly and some almost daily. Making friends as an adult is certainly hard. I’m not denying that, and have definitely had my struggles with this in non-trail life. But I think the key to finding your tribe is to follow your passions. Surely, if you can find the people that love the same things with the same ferocity that you do, that is where you’ll find your people.
  • All good things must come to an end. I know—this one is kind of depressing. But the bad things don’t last forever, either. I just think we all need to recognize the amazing experiences, people, and opportunities that we have in this life and squeeze every single ounce of joy out of them that we can. Because none of us can ever know how long these things will last, and we can never go back.

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Published by Audrey

Hi! My name is Audrey, otherwise known as Glowstick on trail. I've always been into hiking, adventuring, and the outdoors, but these things took a backseat as I worked on my career in public relations for several years in Washington, D.C. In 2018, I decided that I was discontent with city life. Instead of working on my career, I needed to work on my happiness. So, I reprioritized. I quit my (amazing) job at World Wildlife Fund, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and relocated to beautiful Boulder, Colorado, where I work in climate communications and climb mountains every chance that I get.

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