What you can learn from a really long walk
What you can learn from a really long walk
Thousands of people will attempt to thru-hike the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail this year, starting right around now. Who are these people? Where do they come from? How can they afford six months off from work?
To paint a portrait of the average AT hiker, we analyzed data from a fall 2016 survey published by hiking website The Trek, which collects numbers like hiker demographics and time on trail. Then we filled in the blank spots with empirical observations—or at least anecdotal ones. Now, we present your typical Appalachian Trail thru-hiker: young, idealistic, deprived of hygiene, and sporting rock-solid calves. We call him Tom Walker.
Residence: Albany, New York. For the past year, he’s been living with his parents to save for his thru-hike.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in international studies with a plans of graduate school looming ahead.
A handful of overnights in the Catskills while in college.
He’s read and reread A Walk in the Woods a dozen times, and always felt a certain romantic disdain toward contemporary society, thanks to Thoreau. He figured he’d gain some perspective about himself and the world while walking in the mountains for a half-year.
April 6, going northbound from Springer Mountain—the most popular time to start, ensuring the opportunity to make friends as quickly as possible. Camaraderie is just as important as solitary reflection.
At least once a week.
Tom is five foot eight inches with shoulder-length, brown hair. He keeps it in a bun most days to prevent it from sticking to his neck. Back in Georgia, he was pushing 165 pounds, but he’s now slimmed down to a lean 150. His calves and thighs are rock solid and his skin is sun-kissed, save what’s under his shirt, giving him a flawless farmer’s tan. A burly beard covers his face, though he makes sure it’s kempt when he goes to resupply in town every few days. It makes him look slightly less homeless.
No Filter. Tom learned the hard way to always have his Sawyer filter handy when taking a drink. After sipping from a spring or two in Georgia without treating the water, he spent a long night on the can at a motel, thus earning the moniker from his fellow hikers.
Sixteen. While most days he keeps this steady pace, he’ll push 25 or 30 miles in a day if the terrain is conducive. Since it’s so hot and muggy in mid-summer, some mornings he’ll start walking a couple hours before daylight with a few other hikers and relax under a shade tree to wait out midday.
He wears a polyester shirt he snagged for free at the Trail Days festival in Damascus, Virginia, back in May 2016. He opts for a $5 bathing suit from Walmart that’s a size too small, so thus fits like Daisy Dukes' cutoffs. It’s okay, though—his thighs are brawny enough.
His Merrell Moab Ventilator hikers wore out a few hundred miles ago, so he switched to a pair of Salomon trail runners. With his light summer weight, they’ve handled the Northeast terrain quite well.
While he wouldn’t consider himself an ultra-light hiker, his base weight is around 20 pounds. So far, his Osprey Exos 58 backpack hasn’t let him down, proving to be lightweight and durable. His Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 2 tent serves as his home base at night, though he’s getting fonder of sleeping in shelters lately, where, when the bugs aren’t swarming, he curls up on a NeoAir XLite inflatable sleeping pad. While he started from Springer Mountain with a three-season mummy from REI, he shipped it back home until he gets to New Hampshire, and currently uses a blanket. He couldn’t do without a warm meal, which makes the MSR Pocket Rocket stove and 750-milliliter titanium pot an invaluable combination.
Instead of rain gear, he hikes with an umbrella. It’s lightweight and waterproof shells just make you damp with sweat, anyway. A Smartwater bottle has long replaced his Nalgene because it’s lighter—as a bonus, it’s one liter and a Sawyer filter screws right on top. When one of his trekking poles snapped in Virginia, he replaced them with a pair of old ski poles that have worked like a charm.
An assortment of Little Debbie cakes is a priority. So are tortillas, pepperonis and peanut butter—and yes, at times they all three go together. For breakfast, it’s usually Poptarts or oatmeal. Lunch consists of tuna—lots of tuna. Nuts, Snickers and Clif bars offer easy snacking food. Zatarain’s dinner mixes and Knorr pasta sides offer plenty of calories at the end of a grueling day, though he still adds olive oil for good measure. Of course, he always keeps a pack of Ramen noodles handy.
The A.T. Guide by David “AWOL” Miller, listing everything you’ll need to know on an AT thru-hike. It includes information on hostels, shelters, location of water sources, elevation profiles, trail town maps and more. A new version is published each year with updated trail information.
Instagram is by far his favorite social media outlet, with every sweet sunset photo or must-see along the trail getting tagged with #at2017. In town, when he’s not stuffing his face with Golden Corral, he’s cruising the ‘Gram to catch up with other hikers and send his best wishes to family.