There are some adventures in life that can be had over and over again. You can brave it alone, revisit with friends, and come back years later with children. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is exactly that kind of adventure. There is so much to see and experience and it is never the same twice. There can be vast differences in the experience of an adventure journeyed alone versus with someone else. Each has its merits.
Given the scale and risk involved with hiking the Appalachian Trail, some people rightfully wonder if anyone should hike it alone. Like everything with nature, the real answer to that is deeply personal. Thus far the consensus is that hiking alone is an amazing and life-changing experience that everyone should have. Every step of the way from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine makes for unrivaled memories, blisters and all.
You’re never truly alone
Every year hundreds of people hike the Appalachian Trail alone. They make their way through the unrivaled backcountry and amazing little trail towns of the great smoky mountains in the United States. For some, it is a right of passage and for others, it is a test of fortitude. Some might go so far as to say that not only can you successfully and safely hike the Appalachian Trail alone but that it is better to do so.
The famous naturalist and “Father of the National Parks,” John Muir once wrote that, “To sit in solitude, to think in solitude with only the music of the stream and the cedar to break the flow of silence, there lies the value of wilderness.” That is the philosophy that many abide by. Still, despite long stretches alone on the trail, you can never really be alone for too long on the Appalachian Trail. Since the 1930’s only around 20,000 people have been documented actually completing a thru-hike of the trail.These “2000-milers” as they are known only make up a small percentage of the annual foot traffic on the trail.
However, The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) estimates that around 3 million visitors hike a section of the trail every year. Even spread out over the 2100 plus miles of the AT during all seasons you are still bound to run into someone. Some people are just out for a day hike, others are section hikers and long-distance hikers. A rare few might be working their way up towards solo hiking the entire trail for the first time.
Thru-hikers and non-thru-hikers alike make up the distinct Appalachian Trail hiking community so even if you start hiking by yourself you won’t necessarily finish alone. Oftentimes thru-hikers will encounter others who are hiking the same section as themselves at a similar pace and from this, friendships are born. You exchange trail names, you find yourselves at the same shelters, exchanging snacks, games, and stories. These moments can become some of the best of the hike.
For those hiking to “get away from it all,” the Appalachian Trail is more like getting away from one world and entering another. You always have the choice to stick to yourself and revel in whatever degree of solitude you find but there is always the option to make friends and join others. In that sense, the AT is a little like a choose your own adventure book. It is up to you how rugged, how isolated, and how tested you want to feel.
The realities of a solo hike: the good
Even though it is difficult to really be alone on the Appalachian Trail for too long you can still tackle it solo. As with any solo travel or adventure, the freedom and pride of accomplishment and self-reliance always stand out as the greatest benefits. When you aren’t beholden to anyone else and no one is to you you can go about each day doing exactly what you want. You start when you want, hike how and where you want, and stop when you like. You’re a one-person show and you are in command.
Experiencing this degree of freedom can be very cathartic and eye-opening. At most stages of life, you don’t really have this. You grow up accountable to your parents and teachers and then you move out and find yourself accountable to your boss. If you are in a relationship then your day to day actions always have some element of compromise or consideration for another built-in.
That all doesn’t instantly disappear when you are solo on the trail but you are definitely more in charge of your day-to-day. If you want to get up then great, if not then enjoy sleeping in. This is where the pride of accomplishment and self-reliance comes in. Because you can do what you want each day, including nothing, pushing yourself to finish something difficult is all the more satisfying.
In that kind of situation, you are forced to confront yourself. Do you naturally just get up and go? Do you have to motivate yourself? What drives you? You start to figure those things out and more. You also realize that that not only can you do, or not do, what you want each day but you can also be who you want. When you are on the AT long enough you will eventually get a trail name, a sort of symbolic transformation of self. That transformation can happen from day one though.
When you hike solo all the people you know, and who know you, are somewhere else. Whoever you are to them doesn’t have to be the person you are on the trail. If you hike with a friend or loved one from back home you bring that part of yourself with you. You continue to be that person with them and on the trail. When you are totally solo you can be anyone. If you were shy and introverted before you can try being gregarious on the trail. No one will know the wiser.
The cumulative benefits of a solo hike on the Appalachian Trail are greater self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-knowledge. Even though you will likely spend lots of time with others and you will make several good friends, in the end, you were in charge of you. That changes a person, builds character.
The realities of a solo hike: the bad
The Appalachian Trail is very much steeped in reality, it is not a bubble where only good things happen and it can be dangerous. This danger isn’t often as bad as some might make it out to be but it doesn’t hurt to be cautious and well informed. When you are out in nature things can go wrong, when you are out in nature alone things can get worse.
The biggest downside to the solo hike is just not having someone to watch your back. Girls and guys alike are susceptible to manmade and natural threats. These threats can come in all forms but, in a nutshell, that’s life. The Appalachian Trail is a community, a city unto itself in a way. This means there is crime and there are shady people to watch out for but this also means it isn’t unlike your home town.
What is unlike your home town though maybe is the degree of solitude you experience and your exposure to the elements. At times you will be several miles from the nearest town or person so a sprained ankle or a slip and fall carries additional risk. Other times you will be surrounded by people but you are exhaustedly carrying everything you need to survive on your back. That can make you a target for a desperate person.
This isn’t to say that you must live in fear every day on the trail. What’s more appropriate is that you practice street smarts. At home, it isn’t as necessary to listen to your gut or be as aware of your surroundings and the people in them. On the trail it is important you start to practice that though and become more in tune with your body’s instinctive reactions to things.
Solo hikes and adventures also have a less discussed downside to them. As you go along the trail and your journey unfolds you will experience some pretty remarkable things. You’ll see beautiful vistas, go through some wild moments, and in the end, you’ll have memories. When you are solo though you will eventually find that you most appreciate those experiences when you have someone to share them with. You realize shared memories are the best.
At the end of a solo hike, you will have a treasure trove of images and stories to share with others. Your family will eat them up. After all is said and done the best reflections are had with someone who was on the trail with you, only they really get it. Danger and risk aside the rarity of shared experience is arguably the biggest downside to any solo journey.
Safety tips for the solo hiker
It is a crazy thing to put in perspective but from the 1930s to the 1960s only 59 people completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Then, the ‘70s hit, thru-hiking took off, and more thru-hikes have been completed in each subsequent decade since then. The 2010s had a record-setting 9,261 documented thru-hikes alone. Among these thousands, a large number of solo hikers have gone before you leaving a collection of indispensable advice behind them.
One of the greatest truths to come out of their experience is understanding the significance of self-awareness and having a plan. More often than not hikers seem to end up in dangerous situations because of a lack of one or both of these things. Self-awareness is simply listening to your body and respecting it. If you’re exhausted from hiking all day, the sun is setting, yet you still haven’t made it to a shelter just stop where you are and find a good spot to camp. There’s really no need to push it.
The same applies if the weather seems too hot, too cold or a crazy looking storm is rolling in. If your body is saying “no more,” then listen. Injuries and deaths occur when people try to push themselves past their limits without proper training or support. Self-awareness is a life or death skill when you are hiking solo.
Having a plan can be another life or death skill for the solo hiker. Imagine this, you’re hiking along and all of a sudden you trip on a root, fall down an embankment, break your leg and hit your head. As a solo hiker will anyone know to look for you, and if so, where do they begin to look? This is the importance of a plan. You must spell out exactly where you will be hiking, where your resupply drops are, where you intend to start and stop, etc. The more detailed the better.
Even if you are solo on the trail it is a good idea to have a reliable cell phone and a reliable person you can check in with back home. This person should have a copy of your plan and you should have a set schedule for when and how often you will check in with them. That way if you miss a check-in for too long someone knows there’s a problem. Trail safety and risk mitigation are all about preparedness and awareness.
Considerations for backpacking, camping and hitchhiking
As a solo hiker, there are ways you can minimize risk at every step of the journey. Preparedness and awareness are still the key things to focus on but that plays out a little differently depending on what you are doing. When your packing for a solo journey you don’t have the luxury of splitting essentials with someone, you get to carry everything. This places some restrictions on weight and what you have room for, obviously you need the basics. Whatever little room or weight you have left can be used for peace of mind.
So, if you think you might run out of food then bring more food. If you are afraid of the dark then bring extra flashlights and batteries. Everyone has their thing and it is better to over-prepare at your weak points, especially as a solo traveler. This extra boost in security and confidence can pay off.
When it comes to camping, especially camping alone, there are some tried and true rules to follow. For one, you should be careful when telling strangers where you’re setting up camp. This includes posting your location to social media or letting people tag you. You have to weigh this one out for yourself but it is a matter of trust.
If you trust someone then maybe you want to camp together, if not then be careful. Vandalism and theft do occur and you are more of a target alone. You should also be wary of setting up campsites near roads and trailheads for the same reason. Theft and vandalism are more likely to occur if you make it easy for someone to do so.
Hitchhiking is another potentially risky move for the solo hiker. If you need to hitch into town it is always better to go with someone else. There is power in numbers. This is why having a hiking partner, at least some of the time, can be a good idea. If you end up needing to hitchhike solo for some reason, which you shouldn’t, then you should be very prepared to turn down rides. Just because someone stops doesn’t obligate you to get in their vehicle. It is important to trust your gut on this one.
In most cases, people on and near the trail are amazingly kind and considerate. They will go out of their way to help one another. Unfortunately, this climate of goodness can attract some opportunistic and desperate people. That’s who you need to be cautious of as a solo hiker.
If you start hiking the Appalachian Trail solo it is very likely you will soon find yourself surrounded by other amazing and like-minded people. The trail hiking community is amazing for that. You can arrive alone and leave with life long friends. Despite all the inherent risks and dangers of a long-distance solo adventure in nature the benefits and rewards outweigh them. It is the very act of setting off alone, saddled with uncertainty about what might happen, and then coming out the other side stronger that makes solo travel worth it.
Bonus Tip: Check out this beautiful documentary about one woman’s amazing thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail!