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6 Things I Learned While Hiking the Appalachian Trail Alone for 3 Months

By Anna Blake Keeley

The summer before my senior year of college, I’d fallen into a Deep Dark Pit of Despair. None of the dozens of editorial internships I’d applied for had panned out, and the prospect of another summer in my childhood bedroom, spent lifeguarding and trying not to kill/be killed by my mother did not sound inviting. What did sound inviting was escaping into the wilderness, galivanting like Maria von Trapp among the very much alive hills, traipsing over mountains getting hot and fit. Plus, in my imaginings, there was not an assignment or drowning kid in sight.

So, with absolutely zero backpacking experience, I stuffed my cousin’s pack full of crap (most of which I soon discovered was not worth lugging around) and set out Frodo-style on a three month hike of the Appalachian Trail with my dog. Turns out, solo backpacking is hard AF. But the experience was life-changing as only difficult things can be.

Here’s what I learned:

It’s okay to be alone: As a friendship-needy extrovert, one of my biggest fears about the trip was being alone. To me, alone meant getting murdered by a vagabond hiding in a shelter, or being mauled by a bear and slowly decaying just out of earshot. Or, more likely, walking mile after mile with no human interaction and going slowly crazy, stuck in my own head with no distractions. Well, sometimes it’s okay to go a little crazy in your own head. Normally, being “alone” meant texting five people at once. It meant zoning out to Netflix or listening to music or reading or watching YouTube videos about how to get rid of blackheads (if you know, pls tell me). It certainly didn’t mean watching my feet pass over endless miles of dirt trail, being forced to visit parts of my brain I usually left unexplored, parts I usually blocked out with Grey’s Anatomy and company. Without those distractions, I confronted some pretty gnarly inner-demons, and also thought a lot about food. Actually it was mostly the food thing, but there was some soul searching in there too. And with only myself to rely on, I realized some of my gnarly inner-demons were actually no match for me. Appalachian Trail me was strong. She could scale mountains, poop in holes in the ground, sleep during raging thunderstorms, and convince bearded strangers she was a pro. She believed in herself enough to do the damn thing, even when the voice in her head whispered quit. I think it’s okay to hear that voice sometimes. Good, even. And you have to be alone to really choose not to listen.

It’s okay to need people: All that said, friends rule, being alone to be murdered drools. I quickly abandoned all my fears of death, but without my trail fam, I would have died of loneliness. If you don’t have friends to sing Pocahontas with as you climb a mountain, then what even is the point? Sometimes, an experience is made true by sharing it with someone. Realizing you can turn strangers into friends is one of the most empowering things on the planet. And you can! Anywhere! Turns out, everyone likes to be liked, to have companionship, to laugh with a buddy.

You’re stronger than you think: Like, crazy strong. Maybe you have absolutely no desire to backpack, and the thought of not showering for days makes you want to die. Whatever you want to do, there’s nothing but to do it. You can prepare, practice, research (or in my case, none of the above), but all it really takes are some balls and the nerve to take the leap.

You don’t need as much crap as you think you do: This week, I moved out of my apartment, and I couldn’t believe how much stuff I’d accumulated over the past year. Piles and boxes and bags of crap I’d never used, or had only used once, or bought and lost. But carry your stuff on your back, and you realize how much you don’t really need to take with you. Stuff is fun, but it really is just stuff. I’m not here to tell you to stop spending money on yourself (I would NEVER). I am here to say, it’s nice to be able to pack up your life and move. To make room for people and experiences. To care a little less about what your wearing, because it’s going to get dirty anyways.

Get stinky: And by this I mean, I realized personal hygiene is overrated. No, just kidding, please shower. What I mean is, it’s okay to feel like a dirty betch. To let your life get a little messy. To have dirt under your nails and hairy-ass legs (literally or metaphorically). It’s okay to not know where you’re going, and just focus on the next step. Things only matter as much as you choose to let them matter. Off the AT, I would have died to think I’d have let my covered-in-cow-shit dog sleep with me in my sleeping bag. Or that I’d just give up on underwear entirely. Or that I’d be living off Advil. But, lower your standards and it’s amazing what you’ll accept as normal! Just kidding again. High standards are good; sometimes, though, you have to get a little grimy—a little cold, a little lost, a little hungry—to grow.

Do things that scare you: And that leads to my biggest AT takeaway—if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not going to learn. If you aren’t afraid, or nervous, or out of your element, if you don’t push yourself, you can’t really know how much you’re capable of. And when you’ve conquered that fear, you’ll feel SO strong. In my case, conquering the fear meant blisters, bug bites, aching feet, and also new, life-long friends, a killer butt, confidence, and bragging rights forever.

Katie was the former Senior Associate Editor of Her Campus. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2015, where she studied Writing Seminars, psychology, and women's studies. Prior to joining the full-time staff, Katie was a national contributing writer and Health Editor for HC. In addition to her work with Her Campus, Katie interned at Cleveland Magazine, EMILY's List, and the National Partnership for Women & Families. Katie is also an alumna of Kappa Alpha Theta. In her spare time, Katie enjoys writing poetry, hanging out with cats, eating vegan cupcakes, and advocating for women's rights.