5 Signs of Life on the Appalachian Trail: Advice, Insight, and Experiences From My First Solo Backpacking Trip

When I was first dropped off at the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) for my first solo expedition, it was strange waving goodbye to my friend and shuttle driver. It felt like I was waving goodbye to much more, that I was saying goodbye to my daily internet dose and many of the modern conveniences I take for granted (including the Hardees I had for breakfast that morning). And in turn, I was saying hello to the expansive world of backpacking; the wet miles and lonely nights, the silent backdrop of nature and unpredictably of the forest, and all the struggles involved of going at it alone. For a second, and just one second, I thought I was getting myself in over my head.

But as the miles added up and the days turned to night, I figured out something that I already knew, I figured out how wonderful of a place the back country is. And whether you’re traveling alone or not, there’s enough stimulus and input to spend those lonely nights with all sorts of company, and the time alone allows you to define your experience however you want. Above anything, besides the trail markers and shelter signs, I figured out that the A.T. has enough signs of life to point you in the right direction towards having a great backpacking trip:

Pack Right
A successful backpacking trip does require a fair amount of planning, and depending on your experience level, it could require a lot of planning. One of the first things to do is make a pack list. You need to be specific with what you bring to balance the fine line between weight you have to carry and items you’ll need to independently live on your own. Things to consider packing include, but are not limited to:

  • Shelter (tent, tarp, hammock, etc.)
  • Sleeping Arrangements – sleeping bag, sleeping bag liner, sleeping pad
  • Cooking Supplies – stove, pots, pans, eating utensils, fire creators
  • Water Resources – extra water containers, water filter, iodine drops
  • Food – the heaviest of all equipment sometimes, remember you’ll be burning a lot of calories during the day
  • Clothes – pack light and be open to smelliness, a layering system with non-cotton fabrics works best
  • Weather Gear – specifically rain gear (jacket, pants, pack-cover); always plan for rain
  • Medical Kit – blister supplies (mole-skin, athletic tape, scissors), band-aids, anti-itch & anti-bacterial cream, etc. Pack according to your medical needs and possible trail conditions
  • Trail Guides, Maps, and Compass
  • All the Extra Items – a lightweight book, notebook, extra shoelaces, camp soap, Leatherman, etc… Watch the weight, but some of the “extra” items can make or break a trip.

I had a 70 liter pack and filled it to the brim. It made me feel comfortable knowing that I had everything and then some, but it made hiking up and down mountains a struggle. I ran into some thru-hikers who were on days 104 & 105 and they carried 35 liter packs and bagged double the distance I was doing. The lighter the better.

Logistics, Logistics, Logistics!
Backpacking on a registered trail requires a fair amount of logistics to work out. Before you’re trip you want to make sure you have a resource to return back to civilization. This mean’s setting a shuttle, and there are about as many ways to do that as there are to set up a tent, but the end goal is always the same. Whether you park your car at the end of the trail, get a signed affidavit from a friend who will pick you up, or even research the public transport options; do whatever you need to do to not get stranded on the side of the road. Also plan your finances when you can. Computer and smartphone access are limited on trail, and you don’t want to get welcomed back to civilization with an over-drafted balance and late bills.

While you are on the trail, a whole new set of logistics come into play. It’s important to have a map or trail guide that lays out the different camping and water options for this will drive your schedule making. Every night, plan for the next day by seeing how many miles it is to where your camping the next night, where you can pick up water when you need it, and how many miles you need to go to complete your entire adventure on time.

You May be Alone, But You Won’t be Lonely
A big trepidation for first-time solo backpackers seems to be the loneliness factor. But my little experience tells me that although you might hit the trail solo, plenty of other interactions make you not feel alone. Here are a few things that kept me company on my first solo-trip:

  • Insects, Animals, and Shelter Companions – Alright they may not hold the best conversation, but you’ll see enough wildlife to keep you interested well into the night. I spent my first night in a shelter with a non-venomous black snake and we left each other alone, but I never forgot he was there.
  • Human Contact – I ran into six other people in my five days in the woods. Some where thru-hikers, others were first timers, but everyone I ran into was seeking some positive experience of their own from the trail and all held great conversations.
  • Trail Registers – The trail registers on the A.T. are amazing novellas of the A.T. experience. In a single notebook you could watch the weather change, different personalities pop onto the page, and feel the electric current of life that flows along the Appalachian Trail. Here are some selected register quotes:

“…this doesn’t strike me as bear country, but still, I felt like I was sleeping in Manhattan on the sidewalk, cradling a big bag of money.” – Riversong

“No water here. Gotta go go go.” – Clover

“SQUIRREL here stopping by for some food, then onto the goodbye party for Tutu & Trail Bait at the swimming hole!” – Squirrel 

What Brings You to the Wilderness?
If the trail provides anything for you, it is ample time to think. And while you’re doing all that thinking, you will most likely, whether your realize it or not, begin to understand what brings you to the wilderness. And like the puddle collecting raindrops, it’s often not one source that defines it for you. But here are some of the things that I discovered the wilderness can be used for so you can start to better understand your own call of the wild:

  • A Fresh Breath of Air – It helps in one’s life to be able to take a step back from the car exhaust of your daily commute, the bad taste that the evening news sometimes leaves in your mouth, and anything else with a stinky scent in your life to get outside and get some fresh air. Take a step back and rejuvenate your spirit.
  • The Silent Backdrop of the Woods – Anyone who has spent time in the woods can tell you the forest isn’t quiet. It’s full of insects, animal, and imaginary creatures snapping twigs in the dark of night. But their seems to be a rhythm to it, a synchronicity amongst the chaos, and that rhythm often allows you to think well, or not think at all, whatever you choose
  • You Can’t Run Away From Your Problems – It’s true, most problems that people have lie squarely in their own heads, and you can’t run away from those. But often times in this modern world, you can’t even find time to confront them. Cell phones, T.V. ads, and other distractions; the wilderness has none of these.
  • Healthy Living – Backpacking will have you being conscious of what you eat, how much water you’re drinking, and your sudden yearning for an early bedtime. The whole experience doesn’t just put you into overdrive, it naturally puts you in a healthy cycle of exercise, nutrition, and sleeping habits.
  • Back to the Basics – Food, shelter, water, warmth, and comfort; it’s amazing how life is different when you have to put more thought into the basics of everyday living. In some ways it’s simpler, in some ways it’s more difficult, but one thing is for sure; it’s always rewarding.
  • The Need to Explore – What’s beyond that next knob? What new things are in store for me? The need to explore seems to be a universal human instinct, and backpacking through the wilderness, following maps and symbols, seems to quench that thirst with a strong heavy tilt of the bottle.

The Beauty of Backpacking
I felt like a newbie when I ran into the thru-hikers who were on day 104 & 105, but between my non-solo experiences and the five days by myself, I think I have begun to understand the subtle beauties of backpacking just a bit more. It’s a strange adjustment getting into trail-mode, but with a little time and patience, the difference between the trail and everyday life doesn’t seem to be that big of a stretch.

Backpacking or not, we are all in that search for tonight’s shelter and warmth, for the food and water to keep us going, and those creature comforts that make the difference in the day. And although they may blur together, each day is a bit different; there’s going to be downhill moments and uphill moments, long moments of flat sections, and sometimes the weatherman calls for sunny skies, but rain clouds move at their own speed. With each new day, past experiences light the way and your steps add up quickly. The pace may seem slow at times, but when it’s all said and done, you’re travels will be more than you realize. And as always, a nice campfire is great way to light up the night.

Whether your talking about everyday life or backpacking, the two balance each other very well. Skills from one translate to the other and each contribute to one another through lessons learned and values taught. Find out for yourself on your next solo trip, and remember, whether you’re talking about everyday life or life on trail, the hardest part is usually taking that first step.