Appalachian Trail Hikers Share What They've Learned

Your Lessons from the Trail

September 28, 2023

The Appalachian Trail (A.T.) can be a great teacher. Anyone who has visited the Trail, whether for a day, a weekend, or a monthslong thru-hike, has likely come away with a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. We asked A.T. hikers to share these lessons from the Trail and, in return, we received harrowing stories, practical tips, and moving personal journeys. We read each lesson from the Trail and organized our favorites below into common themes. It is our hope that by sharing the wisdom of A.T. hikers past and present we can build a stronger, more welcoming community on the Trail for everyone. 

The stories shared below were submitted via online form and through the ATC’s social media accounts. Some submissions have been edited for grammar, length, or clarity, although we did our best to retain the spirit of each lesson from the A.T. Thank you to all who shared their lessons from the Trail! 

Appalachian Trail 101: Practical Advice 

Planning for a hike on the A.T., no matter the length, requires advanced planning and know-how. A.T. hikers have shared some of the lessons in preparing for the Trail that they’ve gained through experience.  

“Gather firewood uphill from campsite. Take a pair of leather gloves when you climb Katahdin.” — Nevins Smith 

Sections of the Trail through Pennsylvania and New Jersey are notoriously rocky as a result of glaciation during the last ice age. From boulders to cobble, the trails are littered with slippery and unstable rocks. It’s very easy to lose your footing (especially during rainy or icy weather) which can lead to debilitating foot and ankle injuries. Appropriate footwear with good ankle support is very important on these sections of the Trail, and having awareness in your footing will help prevent slips, trips, and falls. Be safe!” — James Tyrone, @jimjamgeology 

“The Trail gets funky in southern Virginia crossing roads and highways, always check your map and stay oriented.” — Danny Eaton, @gn0mek1ng 

“I’m a planner and a retired secondary science teacher. I’ve made all my mistakes and learned a lot over decades of public-school teaching. When I’m easily passed by younger groups, I remember what Abe Lincoln said: ‘I am a slow walker, but I never walk backwards.’ Careful planning for students, copies, slides, meetings, microscopes, inevitable distractions, etc., requires efficient time management. I channel this thinking into the careful planning for hiking as light and efficient as possible. So, what did I learn? Success is coming home alive, not too poor, and uninjured. I spent four weeks on the A.T. as a solo hiker. Surviving, and indeed, thriving with the rigors of daily hiking, which reinforced the lesson of careful planning. Planning can save your life.” — Naomi Brown 

Gaining Mental Clarity and Purpose 

Many people who shared their lessons from the Trail pointed out that hiking is simple, but not easy. The refreshing clarity of putting one foot in front of the other and following the path as it stretches out before you was a common theme.  

Photo by Meital Kupfer

“I quit my job abroad and returned to the U.S. to set off on this long footpath. When I began my northbound thru-hike from Springer Mountain this March, my world reduced to the basics: shelter, water, food, and miles to cover. Emails were not pinging every five minutes, and my priorities were simple. I could then be fully absorbed into the rhythm, the daily task of feet stepping over root, mud and rock to steadily move northward. There was no other goal but to slowly make progress towards Katahdin. Things that had once seemed stressful seemed to roll off my back better, compared to before, and my known world reduced to several feet across made decision-making less complicated, almost easy. Now, that I am re-entering the professional world, there is not a singular, overarching lesson the trail has taught me that I can bring to my daily life. It is rather the act of letting things go, embracing fluidity, and keeping things simple.” — Meital Kupfer, @m3ital 

It’s About the People You Meet 

The A.T. hiking experience is so special in part because of the vibrant Trail community and the people you meet along the way.  

A group of four hikers pose with the Katahdin summit sign, celebrating their completed thru-hike.

Photo by Leanna “All Good” Keegan 

“After 20+ years of working in the field of education I left my career to attempt a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. I successfully completed my A.T. thru-hike (194 days on the AT between 04/25/2022 and 04/19/2023) and have had the opportunity to reflect on the AT as a teacher, mentor, partner, family member, friend, foe, and much more. When I think about lessons learned from my time on the A.T. I realize that the biggest lesson that I learned is to EXPECT the UNEXPECTED.

I hiked most of my A.T. thru-hike alone. I started my hike alone, and I planned to hike alone. But, what I did not expect was making hiker friends! This unexpected story takes place in Maine and includes three other hikers: Pep, Poncho, and Turtle Head (hikers who I had met earlier on the trail). I will be honest: I expected to summit Mount Katahdin alone, as I did most of my hiking alone. But, unexpectedly, the four of us met at Abol two days before we summited Katahdin. Not only did we have the opportunity to hike together for two days…we also had the opportunity to summit Katahdin together! The memories of those days on the trail and the memories of those hikers (now dear friends) hold such a special place in my heart! As much as I expected to summit Mount Katahdin alone, I cannot imagine my Katahdin summit day any other way!

The lesson of EXPECTING the UNEXPECTED echoed throughout the remainder of my thru-hike and continues to teach me beyond my A.T. thru-hike!” — Leanna “All Good” Keegan 

“I learned that the longer I was on Trail, the more it became about the people on the Trail.” — Jeff Pyper, @pyper_jeff

Understanding and Appreciating the World Around You 

The originator of the idea for the Appalachian Trail, Benton Mackaye, envisioned the Trail as an escape from civilization and a place where people could go to reconnect with nature. Several A.T. hikers shared similar lessons that they came away with after spending time on the Trail. 

An A.T. mile marker at South Browns Gap is visible in front of a lush, green mountain ridge line in the background.

Photo by Mike Poternast

“Everything is connected. We are not just visiting nature when hiking, but instead we will always be a part of nature. Treat yourself and nature with love and respect.” — Instagram user @jeffrouth 

“Though we hiked a smaller section through Shenandoah National Park, I learned to reconnect — with myself, with an old friend, and with Mother Nature.” — Sarah Joyner, @sewallace06 

Knowing Your Limits 

The A.T. tests your body, mind, and spirit. Sometimes the hardest lesson to learn is when to rest, take a break, and come back to the Trail another day.  

“I’ve only completed eleven miles of the Trail. My partner and I quickly learned that we were out there to push ourselves and experience the outdoors but, most importantly to us, have fun. When we stopped having fun and started fighting about 2 miles before the lot where we parked our car, we called for a ride and got driven back. We pushed through muscle strains, broken equipment and electronics, and a yellow jacket attack before deciding that it was worth the money to call a last-minute ride out. Now, with a little experience, we are planning our next section and couldn’t be more excited!” — Liz Furman 

“Never be afraid to ask for help, especially from those who want to help. I had several injuries toward the end and asking for help was essential for continuing my journey in the healthiest way possible.” — William Davis, @will_davis_34 

“What you can learn on an A.T. thru-hike is more than in a master’s degree program…biology and history, plus you see the U.S. in a way that few others do. You also learn so much about yourself and the other hikers: resource management, money management, time management. You learn to understand your own limits and who you really are vs your self image.” — Matt Parker, @chat.with.matt.english 

“When I retired, my wife and I hiked the Georgia section — 76 miles and only 3 percent of the A.T. We did it slowly over a year and a half. I learned to admire anyone who hikes a portion of the Trail and stand in awe of those who go the distance. Even a short hike on the Trail is worth it.” — Billy Chism, @chism.trail 

“It is okay not to finish a trail. If you’re hurt. If the weather is too dangerous. If you’re just not feeling it. It is okay to choose to not finish.” — Erin C. Brenner, @ecbrenner_98 

Knowing When to Push Your Limits 

Several people also shared the lessons they learned about how much they could endure. Because the Trail is such a challenge, it can teach so much about what we’re capable of when we focus on a goal.  

You can accomplish anything just by taking it one step at a time.” — Instagram user @highlight.hiker 

“On my thru hike I learned I was stronger than I ever knew.” — Marji “Flossie” Oster Robinson 

“I learned on the Trail that I can persevere through anything. Hiking the A.T. on a nice weather day is fun, but hiking a section of the A.T. is a challenge no matter the weather. Hiking the A.T. gave me the knowledge to prepare for any challenge I may face in everyday life. It also taught me to appreciate the things we take for granted in everyday life, like running water, a nice bathroom, a comfortable bed, and food. Lastly, after a few days hiking the A.T. one finds themselves ‘reflecting’ more which can be difficult to do during normal daily life activities.” — Mike Paternoster 

Slowing Down and Finding Joy 

Ultimately, as the world’s longest hiking-only trail, the A.T. provides Trail visitors with miles and miles of nature’s stillness. This presents an opportunity to slow the pace of life and find joy in the unexpected.  

“I learned peace in the rain.” — Christopher Michael 

“I learned that I’m tougher than I thought I was. I learned to lighten up. I learned how to ask for help. I learned that it’s okay to attend to my needs. I learned how to be vulnerable. I learned what is important. I learned how to heal. I learned there’s a LOT of rocks in this world. I learned the early bird gets the face full of spider webs. I learned that the stick I thought hit me in the shin was actually a snake bite. I learned that a hot shower after a week without one is an indescribably wonderful experience. I learned that no matter how many times I set foot on the A.T., I always want to go back. And I will!” — “Purple Lotus,” @emplowered 

“The Trail goes up, the Trail goes down, rarely level in between. But the lonesome lakes and vistas are inspiring to be seen. As you hike your own hike, please allow me my pace, too. The significant discovery is what the Trail reveals about you.” — James Kendall, @4hickory1950