Hiking the Appalachian Trail

(GCC: Ever since I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, it has been a dream of mine to hike the Appalachian Trail. It’s also a popular idea for those early stages of Early Retirement, when the psychological transition from earning to spending is underway. Fresh air, physical exertion, and low prices are a great cure all. Plus an accomplishment as great as this one can bring a whole new perspective to life. Just ask Joe, today’s guest post author. )

Me (after returning from a three day hike in the Smokies): Hey, uhh…Katie?

Katie: Yes?

Me: I wanna hike the Appalachian Trail. Like the whole thing. All at once.

Katie: You do? When?

Me: This March (we were planning on getting married in March…)

Katie: Okay…?

Me: Ya! So I met this guy…

I was out for a weekender with a few friends on spring break when I met my first thru hiker. He had a beard down to his chest, he was wearing a raggedy fedora and he smelled like wet socks left in a car on a summer day in FL. I wanted to be just like him. Marcus, or “Little Engine” was his name; A “SOBO” southbounder that had just completed his thru hike and was extending his trip.

At first I was scared of this man and didn’t want to go anywhere near him. I observed from a safe distance and quickly realized he was decent, educated, and had a lot of experience and knowledge. Before I met him I never believed people ACTUALLY took 6 months out of their lives to hike through 14 states. Almost exactly a year later I’d be one of those locos attempting to walk 2,200 miles with a 20 lb pack from GA to ME. (A “Gamer”) :P

We pushed back our wedding to Sept.1 and I was scheduled to leave March 1, giving me exactly 6 months to complete the trail. Then my sister got engaged and set her wedding date to March 10, yay… My March 12th start date was then set!

Getting Started

Starting the trail I was a bit concerned (read: freaking nervous) I couldn’t finish early enough for my wedding, so I obsessed over being as lightweight as I could afford, to be as efficient as possible. Backpacking gear is pretty basic but it is one of the biggest costs of a thru hike. If you’re starting from scratch you’ll need a decent backpack (go figure) a three season tent and a sleeping bag. Those make up “the big three” and those costs combined can easily add up to $1500 or more. On the other hand a great entry level setup can be had for ~$300. But think, no rent, no gas, no internet, cable, etc… while being on the trail. That’s a great deal!

(Joe’s Big 3 4 ideas: Backpack, Tent, Sleeping Bag, plus a sleeping pad.)
(GCC: or the bag we used on the Wonderland Trail.)

Daily costs are very low. You hike for about a week, carry enough food to get you to the next town, then head to civilization to resupply. You do this again, and again… and again. In town you might indulge in the family size pizza (for yourself, of course)… and 2 hours later the double bacon cheeseburger with a large side of onion rings all washed down with a tub-sized milkshake. You’ll likely pay $15-30 for a cozy dorm bed in a hostel, primarily for the hot shower. If you really want to splurge you can book the town’s only hotel and have a more luxurious experience but that will cost you about $100. Smart people will split this cost with five other smelly hikers.

The greatest aspect of hiking the trail is that you find freedom from everything in “normal” life that typically causes stress. Picking a daily outfit, long commutes in traffic, news. Also it’s CHEAP compared to the alternative. The only problem is that you’re not really MAKING any money while thru hiking unless you have already developed sources of passive income streams.

It took me exactly four months and thirteen days to complete my thru hike. That might sound like a long time to be roughing it in the woods, but honestly it wasn’t enough. I met some of the most incredible people, learned so much about gratitude and experienced something that so many people only dream of doing. Did I ever feel like quitting? No, not really. Only because I had such great support back at home.

McAfee Knob

The encouragement that my now wife, Katie gave me during my hike was powerful. She sent me high-school style love notes and boxes filled with snacks and random food I had requested. (coconut M&M’s, who knew?) I missed her and my family very much but the motivation to make everyone at home proud also kept me going. I’m not sure if it would’ve been the same if I was doing it solo. I also get teary eyed when I read all of the letters my mother-in-law’s fifth grade class sent me. “I wonder what you are doing? I wish I was there?” From a girl in a wheelchair. And, “I lik you tent. I do not lik your bathroom. Ew!” From the boy learning english. (I think he was referring to the privy with no doors or walls, haha!)

Focus on the Cupcakes! (A whole box just for me)

Having said this, there were many emotional lows I experienced on the trail. Talk to any thru hiker and they’ll likely tell you that the hardest aspect about a long hike are the emotional challenges not the physical ones. I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t want to get out of my warm and cozy down sleeping bag only to put on my soggy, stinky hiking outfit and start yet another day in the cold rain. Or the frustration I felt trying to catch a hitch to a nearby town so I could get a warm shower and a legitimate meal while car after car sped past me. I saw many thru hikers quit and countless individuals who continued their hike but were generally unhappy. Maybe they were battling with stress they left back at home. Maybe they were sick of eating Knorr pasta sides and peanut butter and were ready to be finished. There’s a reason why the AT thru hike success rate is only about 20%. It’s not a walk in the park.

I like to tell people that the trail can be done for as much or as little as you want, like real life. There are “hiker boxes” in every town where people leave what they don’t want and items are free for others to take. You can camp just outside towns and resupply in the morning and do all other chores before heading out in the evening to avoid the “town vortex” and associated costs. There is a lot of room to do the trail on the cheap. A good estimate would be $3,000 – $5,000 to hike the whole trail. It sounds like a lot but where else in the U.S. can one live for 5 months on that little?

I’d urge anyone even slightly considering taking on the Appalachian Trail to “do it.” Thru hiking the AT was the best thing I’ve done in my life. It’s a great way to spend six months and you might even learn a thing or two about yourself and life in general. Regardless, you’ll never know unless you try it.

Plus, there’s nothing better than a warm shower and ice cream after 6 days of camping in the woods. So appreciate the small stuff. That’s what the trail taught me…. :)

Crossing the Finish Line

If it wasn’t for Little Engine I might not have embarked on that journey so I owe it to him to encourage others to do the same.

I essentially walked my way to our wedding and I am so grateful for Katie and all of the support my family gave me while I was on the trail.

We clean up nice

Thank you for reading. Please reach out to me if you have any thru hiking questions.
-Smilin’ Joe

Joe completed his Appalachian Trail thru hike in 2012 and since then he and his wife have been working diligently towards gaining back the freedom he experienced on the trail. Together they own and operate Big Day Celebrations, a wedding planning company and An Epic Elopement, which combines Katie’s passion for weddings and Joe’s travel hacking skills. They plan on retiring in their thirties to travel the world and live life on their own terms. Joe also attempts to write about travel hacking on his blog Smiling Mile. Follow Joe on Instagram and Twitter for more!

Are you ready to hike the Appalachian Trail?