5,000,000 steps. That’s roughly how many steps it takes to thru-hike a major trail like the Appalachian Trail. And while most people take vacation for a little R&R (rest and relaxation), some instead choose to attempt to thru-hike a major trail like the Appalachian Trail with their vacation time–a grueling endeavor at the total opposite end of the R&R spectrum.
Thru-hiking is simply completing a trail from beginning to end in a single go. Unlike most weekend or even week-long hikes, thru-hikes are typically in the 100s to 1000s of miles in length requiring much more time and careful preparation. In short, thru-hiking requires commitment…and perhaps a bit of chutzpah. The rewards, though, far outweigh the obstacles one may encounter in preparing for such a hike. It is our attempt in this interview to plant the seed of inspiration to strike out on your own thru-hike or to push you to commit to one.
In 2016, a friend of ours, Dylan Tonkin (trail name “Pickle”), decided it was his time to break away from the comforts of the corporate life and embark upon a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (or AT for short). In this short interview, we asked Dylan his thoughts on dreaming about, committing to, and completing a successful thru-hike.
To start, give us a quick overview of your trip: what trail, how many miles, when started/when finished, and where did you start/finish?
Last year I thru-hiked the 2,189 mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 151 days. I started April 5th and finished on Sept 2nd.
Why did you decide to hike the AT? What was your goal in completing the trail (e.g. to find yourself, reconnect with nature, etc.)? Did you achieve it?
I had been hiking on the AT my whole life near Duncannon, PA and always dreamed of thru-hiking. It was time for me to get away from corporate paper pushing. I felt like I was in a hamster wheel and needed to be part of something bigger than myself. I absolutely achieved that and more. It changed my entire world perspective.
“My only fear was not following through with my plan to hike. That fear disappeared the moment I stepped foot on the trail in Georgia. I knew if I could just get to Georgia, I was determined enough to make it to Maine.”
What fears did you have about hiking the AT? Which, if any, were justified?
My only fear was not following through with my plan to hike. That fear disappeared the moment I stepped foot on the trail in Georgia. I knew if I could just get to Georgia, I was determined enough to make it to Maine.
What challenges did you have to overcome in order to hike the AT? Which was the hardest? Any easier or harder than you thought?
The hardest challenge I had was coping with the loss of one of my closest friend in a car accident during my hike. The mental side of thru-hiking was more difficult than the physical side for me. It was more mentally challenging than I expected. Something about not showering for a week and putting on the same sweaty shirt each day is mentally defeating.
What was your strategy in planning a successful thru-hike of the AT?
Planning my thru-hike revolved around only 2 things, budget and pack weight. Everything I did for the 14 months prior to my start date had some impact on these 2 items. I wanted to get my pack the lightest I possibly could and save enough money to spend 6 months hiking. I budgeted for 6 months, intended to do it in 4.5 and finished happily in 5. I also carried the lightest pack of most everyone I met on the trail because of my extensive gear research. The rest was just showing up and walking to Maine.
What was your plan to leave work before your hike and how did the conversation go with your employer? Did you have a plan to return to work afterwards? What are you doing now? Any advice you’d like to share with others who are considering doing the same?
My overall plan was to separate myself from corporate America. I respectfully declined an offer to return to my old position upon my completion. I’m now out on my own consulting in the same field, which I love. It’s a difficult decision on how to exit a job to do a thru-hike. Start with your goals for your return home and go from there. Most importantly, don’t limit your time on the trail because of a narrow window from an employer. This is about you and you alone.
Was life on the trail as you imagined it would be? If not, how was it different?
It was what I expected; hike, eat, sleep, repeat. It was the relationships I developed and the impact on my life that were so much more meaningful than I ever could have imagined. I have missed the trail and the people I met every single day since the last white blaze. It is part of me, and I am part of it.
What were some of your biggest lessons learned from the trail?
When you meet good people, stick with them. When you get lost in the White Mountains, pull out your headlamp and eat a snack. Keep a daily journal. Your friends and family at home can make or break your hike, tell them you love them often. Thru-hiking is 90% mental, 10% physical, 15% gummy bears, 1% math.
How was re-entry into society after the trail? What’s different now that you’re almost a year out from starting your thru-hike?
I struggled with adjusting when I returned. I didn’t do well in large crowds and had difficulty adjusting back to a normal routine. I still feel uncomfortable around crowds or in busy/congested areas. At a year out I am starting to get the itch to get hiking again.
“You have to make the time [for a thru-hike], you will never find 6 months of free time. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Commit your whole life to making it happen. It will be the greatest gift you ever give yourself.”
What advice would you give to would-be thru-hikers?
I wish I had done it 10 years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t wait another 10. You have to make the time, you will never find 6 months of free time. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Commit your whole life to making it happen. It will be the greatest gift you ever give yourself.
Where would you recommend a potential thru-hiker to begin the process of planning a thru-hike?
The two worst reasons to leave a thru-hike are running out of money, and running out of time because of a job. Commit your entire lifestyle and budget to making your thru-hike happen for as long as it takes. Do one thing every day to get you closer to the first white blaze. Once you step foot on the trail, you’ve already beat out the daydreamers.
So what now? Have any future plans?
Yes, I’ll be hiking the Horseshoe Trail in PA at the end of March, as well as, doing trail magic for the AT thru hikers this summer in PA. My 5-year plan includes finishing off the Triple Crown* starting with the PCT in 2018.
*(Note: The Triple Crown is the successful thru-hiking of America’s three most popular trails: the Appalachian Trail [AT], the Pacific Crest Trail [PCT], and the Continental Divide Trail [CDT]).