Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Why We Do It

Why do people hike the Appalachian Trail? We met hikers 100 miles from the southern terminus to learn about their motivation to take on the AT.

Appalachian Trail
A foggy day on the Appalachian Trail; photos by Seth Orme

The smell of looming spring mixed abruptly with a fresh whiff of crusted sweat and smoldering charcoal. Soaking up the April sunshine with a small bubble of thru-hikers, I listened as the vagabonds juggled words with mouthfuls of hamburger and gulps of Pabst Blue Ribbon. My brother brought over another Trail Magic hamburger.

Appalachian Trail magic
People cook up some trail magic hamburgers for hikers on the AT

A nearby hiker reached out for the hot delicacy and resumed her scan of the nearby landscape – intent on finding a level patch of dirt to pitch her silnylon home. Staring at the group, I couldn’t help but wonder who these folks were, why they were thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, and what they sacrificed to attempt the same dream I chased three years ago. I spoke up, anxious to find out.

This is what a few hikers had to say.

Trail Name: Squeak

Appalachian Trail hiker

“The hiking is really nice, but by the end of the day, my feet are just … dead.”

From: Anchorage, Alaska.

Start date: April 8.

Who were you before the trail?: Nordic ski coach / Worked at a gear store.

Why are you out here?: For the challenge.

What was the greatest sacrifice you had to make to be here?: Missing crust season (Nordic skiing in the mountains).

Describe the first 100 miles: Bipolar and mildly painful.

Trail Name: Squatch

Appalachian Trail hiker

“I’m trying to figure out what I wanna do. When you’re at home, everybody is always asking what you’re going to do. Out here, you can just hike.”

From: Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Start date: April 8.

Who were you before the trail?: Line cook.

Why are you out here?: Time to think.

What was the greatest sacrifice you had to make to be here?: Time away from friends.

Describe the first 100 miles: I’m loving it.

Squeak and Squatch are cousins.

Trail Name: Bumble Bee

Appalachian Trail hiker

”I would listen to audio books about the trail and would actually feel upset at the thought of not doing it.”

From: Brighton, Michigan.

Start date: April 8.

Who were you before the trail?: Nurse anesthetist / Stepmom (3 kids, 2 dogs).

Why are you out here?: Too much work and life stress. It was time for a change.

What was the greatest sacrifice you had to make to be here?: Being away from my family.

Describe the first 100 miles: Harder than I thought.

Trail Name: Bonefide

Appalachian Trail hiker

“Everyone is complaining about the weather – this time of year is perfect!”

From: Asheville, North Carolina.

Start date: Thru-hiked in 2017.

Who were you before the trail?: Teacher / Program manager.

Why are you out here?: To heal from sickness. This year, I’m hiking a missed section from last year’s fire.

What was the greatest sacrifice you had to make to be here?: Time away from family.

Describe the first 100 miles: The mountains get big.

Trail Name: Labowski

Appalachian Trail hiker

“I’m just happy to be here.” – paraphrased

From: Asheville, North Carolina.

Start date: Thru-hiked with Bonefide in 2017.

Why are you out here?: Hiking a missed section from last year in the Nantahala National Forest.

Labowski maintained silence throughout the rest of questioning, but did wag his tail in enthusiasm.

Trail Name: Cartman

Appalachian Trail hiker

“You can misquote me as long as you make me sound smart … or badass.”

From: New York.

Start Date: March 26.

Who were you before the trail?: Writer / Producer / Filmmaker.

Why are you out here?: Tired of the superficial industry I worked in.

What was the greatest sacrifice you had to make to be here?: Career progression.

Describe the first 100 miles: Hilly.

Trail Name: Redneck Momma

Appalachian Trail hiker

“You can only crochet so many doilies.”

From: Kokomo, Indiana.

Start date: March 15.

Who were you before the trail?: Retired – worked for the State of Indiana.

Why are you out here?: I started thinking about the hike 10 months ago and love to be outside.

What was the greatest sacrifice you had to make to be here?: Putting my Norwich Terrier into foster care.

Describe the first 100 miles: Beautiful and strenuous.

The Wrap-Up

After I finished scribbling the final details into my notebook, I thanked Redneck Momma for her time. She smiled and took a concluding sip from her PBR. I looked on as the dedicated 74-year-old hauled the mighty green pack up onto her shoulders. She thanked me and followed the rest of the hikers north – to Maine.

With my curiosity satisfied, I wandered over to the new bubble of hikers enjoying burgers and cold drinks. So far, the class of 2018 looked to be a strong bunch. I smiled and let myself reminisce about when I was one of the thousands to discover the beauty and hospitality that only the Appalachian Trail can provide.

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