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Challenges and Sacrifices of the Thru-Hiker

Missing out on the Blue Blazes

I’m not an AT thru-hiker but hiking parts of the trail with my son Ben, I learned a lot about the mindset, and focus of the thru-hiker. Ben along with his brother Matt are both thru-hikers. What does it mean? Let’s start with the trail itself.

The Appalachian Trail spans approximately 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. It passes through 14 eastern states and is known for its stunning scenery, diverse wildlife, and challenging terrain. The trail traverses through national parks, forests, and private land, with many sections offering scenic overlooks and historical landmarks.

Thru-hikers typically take 5-7 months to complete the entire trail. Five to Seven months means the thru-hiker will experience extreme weather conditions; unbearably hot and cold temperatures, rain, snow, and thankfully some sunshine. The trail will be physically and mentally demanding, with changes in elevation, long stretches of solitude, and other hurdles that naturally arise during long-distance hiking.

This avid hiker needs to hike an average of 10.5 miles per day to make it in 7 months and 15 miles per day to do it in 5 months. For the thru-hiker, this becomes their mantra. Each morning they rise and set out with one thing in mind to hike those miles. Sadly, this means they sacrifice the beauty, allure, and deep enjoyment the trail might bring.

The trail is marked with white blazes for the main trail, and blue blazes for secondary trails. The blue blazes link scenic overlooks (not on the trail itself), other trails, or places to go for hiking needs. The thru-hiker will often skip the blue blazes knowing how far they need to go.  On the trail, the hikers will see many great places experiencing beauty as they hike along. But time and distance often overrule providing only a cursory glance or two and then back to the day’s hike.

While photographing Blackrock Mountain in Shenandoah National Park, an overlook on the Appalachian Trail, I had the opportunity to chat briefly with three AT hikers. I had to walk alongside two of them and they only glanced at the scene and didn’t even stop. One young hiker stopped for a moment, took a few pictures with a cell phone, and then was off again. A couple of minutes, maybe ten in all.

Day-hiking with Ben, we hiked some of the blue blazes, and to other spots on the trail that were particularly memorable to him. We explored trails he had passed by as a thru-hiker. As day-hikers, we had the time to enjoy the beauty and serenity of nature and our surroundings. I remember when we were at Laurel Falls. Ben told me how he could spend the entire afternoon simply sitting and letting it all soak in. It’s a good thing because I spent a long-time taking photographs.

Being a thru-hiker or day-hiker is rewarding to each in different ways. The thru-hiker gains incredible satisfaction in doing – completing a quest many only dream about. The day-hiker gains immeasurable peace and self-esteem from nature. No matter which way you hike the trail the experiences gained far outweigh the challenges.

Life is a lot like hiking. We’re all on a journey, whether it’s a long-term goal or just taking it one day at a time. Sometimes you need to push yourself to go the distance and explore the unknown, while other times it’s important to slow down and appreciate the present moment. The key is to find the right balance that works for you, just like finding the balance between thru-hiking and day-hiking. It’s about enjoying the journey and taking in all the beauty that surrounds you.