In the communities around the Appalachian Trail or the hiking world, knowledge of the trail seems commonplace. I’ve realized that to much of my world at home it might not be quite as clear what I’m actually doing, just something along the lines of “Sarah is off doing a hiking thing, not really sure when she’s coming back, hope she’s alive”. I still question whether I’m a little bit crazy or I’m just pursuing my best attempt to live life to the fullest, or maybe it’s a little of both. Regardless, I’ll take a stab at explaining myself.
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is one of the “big 3” long distance hiking trails in the United States. Its cousins are the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), both out west. The AT is the oldest of the three, and while the shortest at approximately 2,190 miles, it has arguably the hardest terrain in terms of elevation gained and lost during the course of the trail. It’s one long stair stepper that never ends, with nature conveniently around it to distract from that fact.
The AT runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The most day dreamy – doing something big – escaping life as you know it way of hiking the trail would probably be considered the thru hike. A thru-hiker is someone who completes the entire 2,190 miles of the trail within a one year period of time. The majority of people attempting a thru hike start in Georgia in March or April and hike north. It takes an average person about six months to complete the trail when hiking it continuously like this, which can vary in length in either direction. No matter how you swing it, a six month thru hike takes some sacrifice, and although there are so many different types of people attempting the hike, it’s safe to say that most thru-hikers have saved up money for their hike and essentially packed up their lives at home or are in some type of transition.
That being said, what does this make me? Not exactly a thru-hiker. I didn’t clear out a six month period of time to complete the entire trail, and even if I tried to make it a thru hike by completing the trail in a one year timeframe, weather and jobs that I chose to keep would limit that this year. That isn’t to say that I don’t feel the intense pull of completing a thru hike of a big trail, but more on that another time. I fall under the category of “section hiker”. While there are a few thousand people attempting a thru hike each year, many many more come out to hike sections of the trail. These section hikes can range from days to weeks to months, the latter coining the term “lasher” for “long ass section hiker”. I fall into that “lasher” category, trying to hike large chunks at a time. Not all section hikers have a goal of completing the entire trail eventually, but many do. Some do it in two years, some do it in 20, but regardless of timeframe anyone that completes the full trail is considered a 2,000 miler. I think there is something about the idea of completing the whole trail that really drives me, but in the end the sheer completion doesn’t feel like the entire point to me as much as the experiences while reaching that point.
So what has my timeframe been, and how exactly am I doing this, both financially and schedule-wise?
I started hiking the trail on April 10, hanging out in Atlanta a couple days beforehand. I took about a week prior to that doing almost nothing besides making sure I had everything ready and being sure everything was squared away in terms of leaving my apartment alone for a little while. I was on the trail from that point until the tail end of May, involving a few periods of time where I didn’t hike for several days at a time – first because of a tooth issue early on in Georgia, then when visiting Gatlinburg, TN, and finally when attending Trail Days in Damascus, VA. Since the end of May I’ve been home briefly twice, and I mean extremely briefly, to attend Bears drumline rehearsal, work a couple flights, and then go right back to hike in an attempt to keep it as continuous as possible. I’ve hiked 400 miles so far. Most people who have continuously been hiking northbound from around the time I started have covered more than that, but the pacing does vary greatly from person to person, and I’ve also learned how quickly these brief periods of time spent heading back home can add up in terms of miles that would be covered in that time if it were a straight thru-hike. Both times leading up to having to come home the trail has felt a little like I was jogging along, then all the sudden I had to start skidding to a halt a few days before my time to go, assuring that I had more than enough time to hike to a point on the trail that I could easily leave from.
I’ve realized that it could potentially appear crazy that I’m barely working and keep heading back to the trail, but from someone who is surrounded by thru-hikers on the trail, I see a different angle. I see that I’m doing just a portion of what the thru hikers do and what the whole thing would entail, and it’s my own smaller version of doing as much of the trail as possible in a year without the full commitment that a thru hike would take in terms of saving money and leaving a job.
I know that one of the biggest head scratchers about doing something like this is how the time off of work is possible, and how to pay for it. Since being on the trail I’ve met people from so many different walks of life that come with an endless variety of stories as to how they made their hike happen. I’m going to shed light on specifically how I’m doing mine, but I can’t reiterate enough that every situation has one commonality: it took an active effort, will, and some sacrifice to make it happen. Some life situations are more conducive to being able to go hike the trail than others and I recognize that, but I can’t reiterate enough that where there’s a will there’s a way, even if that way means someone who has always wanted to hike the trail getting out there for a weekend hike.
When it comes to getting time off to do this, I know that I have a bit of a unique situation. My job as a flight attendant means I work hourly. Not meaning this in a condescending way to my company, the simple reality is that I am a number. It doesn’t really matter who is working the flight, as long as someone is working the flight. This means that if I’m able to, I can work my schedule in such a way that I might work very few hours in one month and a lot of hours the next. Over time I’ve learned the system well that we use to trade around our work trips with both open trips in the computer and with other flight attendants, and in that way I’ve cleared my schedule for weeks at a time.
I can’t stress enough for my family and friends that it’s not always possible to have this flexibility, as has been and will again be brought up to me when I’m not able to commit to something months in advance such as a family trip that couldn’t be easily cancelled if I found out I couldn’t make it because of my work schedule. I have to finagle my schedule month by month as it comes, and with something like hiking, I simply know that if it doesn’t work for the period of time I was trying to get off, I’ll have to work rather than hike.
In April and May, I used all of my vacation time for the year, combined with clearing days off for the rest of the time. That’s how I was able to hike for that extended stretch. Now that June has rolled around, I’ve started having rehearsals for Bears drumline. I finagled my schedule in such a way that I would come back for the two June rehearsals I needed to attend and work a couple flights each time while I was home. I’m hoping things go similarly for July, and I’ll know for sure after this Sunday when trip trade day happens. Past that point, Bears drumline commitments pick up as the season takes hold and I know that it won’t be possible to keep coming and going when I would only have spans of less than a week at a time, even though I’d love to keep hiking as much of the trail as possible this year until the weather gets too cold. Coming to and from the trail even just twice has proven to be tiring, but worth it as it’s the way I’ve chosen to do it while maintaining commitments at home.
So that’s how I worked out the schedule to be able to do this, but what about money? Clearly I’m not making money while I’m gone hiking, and it’s a simple fact that to do extended hikes like this you either need to clear your expenses at home, such as giving up an apartment while you’re gone, or have some money saved up to take care of those expenses. In addition, a very rough rule of thumb is that you should have $1000 for every month you’re on the trail. You can hike on much more or much less, depending on your style. You essentially need to own the proper gear, and beyond that you’re spending money at Walmart or the like to resupply your food every week. In the end, once you own the gear it is a relatively cheap activity compared to something like going on vacation, staying in a hotel, and eating out every day. Inevitably though, at various points you’re going to need to stay a night in town or grab a shuttle to or from town, and might want to eat some “real” food while you’re there. While generally inexpensive, it still requires having the cash for this unless you have enough willpower to get in and out of town to resupply within a few hours time after all of your gear is soaking wet after 3 days of rain and you’ve been eating ramen and rice for dinner for 6 days and are willing to pass up a McDonalds feast or a bunk at a hostel that night while it calls your name. I have yet to meet that person, so this is why although counterintuitive to an image such as jaunting through the woods, the reality is that a long hike does require some $.
I have a couple tactics for saving, and here’s where the touchy subject comes into play. I’m not going to ignore the role that privilege plays in this. There are certain situations in my life that might have allowed me to save more compared to someone else reading this, as we all come from different backgrounds and places in life. Now that I’ve mentioned that, just keep in mind that the purpose is to share my situation, and I would never want someone to read this and think that something like this isn’t possible for them just because my specific situation is different than theirs.
Back when I graduated from college, I moved in with my dad and step-mom for a year and a half. I was working a part time job, soon added a second part time job to that, and then was hired at the airlines and was still living with them for my first 10 months as a flight attendant. All of this time I was making money, but not spending much of it at all as I wasn’t paying any rent. I can truly say that since that time, I haven’t spent much of those savings and that timeframe directly contributes to me being able to pay for this hike.
Some of my other saving tactics involve taking opportunities to be frugal when I can. Again, a situational opportunity played a role, but my apartment is virtually furnished entirely with items from when my grandma moved out of her house and downsized, plus some furniture items that were in my dad’s crawl space from the house I grew up in. I grasp at opportunities to re-use like this versus buying new. I have a fairly small wardrobe, as I wear a uniform to work. I enjoy finds at thrift stores, from anything to clothes to kitchen items to candles. I love books but I frequent the library rather than buying. I often get my hair cut at a cheaper option like great clips versus a salon. I don’t own a tv right now and therefore don’t pay for cable. I don’t have wifi – I use a phone plan with unlimited data and just use that for the hotspot when I need it. I also have a small portion of my paycheck direct-deposited into my savings account each month so that I don’t even notice it. I’m not saying I never do these things in a more expensive way from time to time and I certainly have expenses. But these are small ways in which I save which have undoubtedly contributed towards doing something like being able to work some low hours for a period of time while I go hiking.
The entire process of planning this hike was made up of cumulative baby steps, including some of the money tactics that are habits to me more than anything. It can be a little confusing when you feel you turn something down like taking an extra trip or vacation, yet you then take off for a couple months to hike while not working. It’s all part of that goal-oriented sacrifice in making something happen.
I’m hoping that sharing my tactics can lay insight into how one of many ways doing something like this can be made possible, and I hope there can be a takeaway here that no matter what it is you want to do, just take a baby step toward it. It might take years, but those baby steps add up. Sometimes things that appear to be made possible by a “just drop everything and go” attitude are actually made possible through some careful planning. Don’t be fooled. If you have any inkling of a goal in your mind of something you’d like to do someday, I fully cheer you on to take that step toward whatever it is that you want to do, even if it is years away from happening. Even if you’re like me when I stood in REI one day a while back and knew that I just needed to own a backpack for a hike that hadn’t materialized yet. Even if it means re-shaping your goal into a smaller one that’s possible for you in the moment versus not trying it out in the first place, as when I realized I could do a chunk of the trail rather than having to quit a job I didn’t want to quit for a full thru-hike. I didn’t do anything special, I just took one step at a time, and if there’s any overarching phrase that describes how I’m going hiking, it’s that :).