Nothing feels light enough when you’re trying to walk over 2,000 miles full of steep hills, boulders and river crossings. Like many thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, Matt Hayden ditched most of his extra clothes and decided he was fine with some stink. Others go so far as to cut the handles off toothbrushes to save a few ounces.
No amount of food seems enough on the grueling trek, either. Tommy Dunn lost 40 pounds on his five-month journey from Maine to Georgia, more than 20 percent of his body weight. Between meals of ramen noodles, rice and beans and powdered milk, a can of tuna packed in oil was a major treat.
Still, Hayden and Dunn, owners of GreenLife Adventure Sports in Norfolk, Virginia, never considered quitting. When they were exhausted, cold, wet, hungry or face-to-face with one of the spiny porcupines that like to gnaw on hikers’ sweaty backpacks, they just cussed, hated life for a bit and kept moving.
“It’s such an adventure,” says Dunn, GreenLife’s founder and president. “I loved all of it—the challenge, the beauty and the solitude.”
“I’m a totally different person since I did this,” adds Hayden, the outdoor outfitter’s general manager. “All my friends tell me that. I’m out of my party stage, and I appreciate my life and time with my family so much more.”
Dunn, 39, traveled from Maine’s Mount Katahdin to Georgia’s Springer Mountain in 1998, from June 8 to Oct. 31. Hayden, 26, went south to north in 2012, from April 1 to Aug. 31. Both Norfolk natives averaged 17 to 19 miles a day, with rest days included. Right after getting home, Hayden met Dunn in a chance encounter while on a lunch date with his mother and grandmother. Still skinny from his own 40-pound weight loss and sporting an easy-to-maintain Mohawk, he happened to drive past GreenLife’s 21st Street location just as Dunn was unfurling a temporary banner for the new store.
“I knew I wanted to work somewhere I could help people enjoy the outdoors,” Hayden says. “I was in a really outgoing mood from talking to so many people on the trail, so I just went up to Tommy and started firing questions at him. We eventually found out we were both Eagle Scouts from the same Boy Scout troop, along with both doing the A.T.”
Only 1 in 4 people who set out to cover the entire Appalachian Trail succeed, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which manages the trail. Thru-hikers need great physical and mental endurance to grapple with elevation changes the equivalent of hiking Mount Everest from sea level and back 16 times. The average travel time is just under six months. Yet people ages 6 to 86, including some with disabilities, have finished, based on conservancy reports.
Dunn and Hayden have loved backpacking since childhood. Dunn decided to tackle the trail just after graduating from James Madison University, where he majored in economics and sociology. Hayden went because he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, except that he had always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Unlike most people, Dunn chose the southbound route, which is less crowded but requires hikers to immediately face very rugged terrain and longer distances between supply points. That decision was based on timing: starting in June, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get from Georgia to Maine before Baxter State Park, the site of Mount Katahdin, closed for the winter from Oct. 15 to May 15. Most people who go northbound leave Georgia in early March or April.
Dunn’s first two weeks were brutal. “You’re going straight up and down, stepping on these huge boulders,” he says. “You could be a marathon runner and your body—your knees—will take a pounding like it’s never taken before.”
Hayden set off in Georgia with his brother Jon, his companion for the first 500 miles. From there, he hiked with friends he met on the trail—“Son” from Washington State, and “Dayglow” from Massachusetts—to the New Hampshire border and then traversed Maine solo. Dunn also had his dog, El Bandito, a rescue German Shepherd/Husky mix, with him for 500 miles.
No one is ever truly alone on the Appalachian Trail, however. Hikers from all over the world support each other with encouraging notes, snacks and drinks, known as “trail magic.” Getting a shuttle, taxi or other ride into a town to buy groceries, pick up packages of shipped supplies, splurge at a restaurant or sleep at a motel or hostel with a shower is usually easy.
Thru-hikers also like to give each other fun nicknames. Dunn was “Soren,” because someone spotted him reading a book by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Hayden was “Turbo Zero,” based on his habit of hiking fast but also taking plenty of days off.
“It’s not as bad or scary out there as people seem to think,” Hayden says. “There’s a huge community of people looking out for each other, a lot of kindness.”
One of the trail’s guiding philosophies is “hike your own hike”–don’t let others dictate pace, direction or equipment. In addition to the north and south routes, some hikers “flip flop,” going from Georgia to an unofficial halfway point in West Virginia, flying to Maine before the mid-October deadline, climbing Mount Katahadin and then hiking back to West Virginia. Still others go all the way up and back; a few essentially live on the trail full-time.
Everyone returns with unique stories. One night in New York, Dunn was sleeping alone in one of the trail’s primitive three-sided shelters when he awoke to a “crazy, loud sound.” Turning his headlamp on, he spied a huge porcupine perched by his feet, gnawing at the wood. “Porcupines love the salt that transfers from people’s sweat,” he says. “I had to chase it off with a ski pole.”
Hayden’s biggest oh-my-gosh moment came in Massachusetts, when he decided it would be cool to cliff-jump off a rock that jutted out 15 to 20 feet above a creek. He asked a friend to tape the moment on his cell phone, but the phone unexpectedly shut off when he was atop the rock. When Hayden walked down to restart it, he discovered the water came up only to his hip.
“It was an optical illusion that it looked much deeper,” he says. “I would have broken my legs, and I was in the middle of absolutely nowhere.”
While Maine was the hardest part of the journey for Dunn, Hayden, like many hikers, struggled through Pennsylvania. That stretch of trail, far from both beginning and end, is marked by flat, relatively non-scenic hiking, often on cobblestones. “Time goes so slowly,” he says. “You have to come up with things to occupy your mind—play games with friends and talk about everything under the sun. You have to meditate and not think so much about every step.”
As for the climate, Dunn endured a “bad weather month” in Maine, when a barrage of snow and rain swelled the rivers and streams he had to forge. Hayden had sleet in New England and a rainy, windy, 35-degree day in North Carolina when 16 hikers crammed into an eight-person shelter. He and six others slept in a three-foot clearance underneath the shelter. “It was miserable, but it turned out to be a great night,” he remembers. “We had so much fun talking and eating.”
Mentally, Dunn struggled to relax enough to stay in the moment instead of worrying about always moving quickly. Physically, he had a couple of rolled ankles and some “chafing where the sun don’t shine,” but no major problems. Everything paid off when he got to walk the last three miles with his father, who had followed Dunn’s adventure through calls home from towns.
“It meant so much to have him with me,” Dunn says.
Seconds Hayden, whose health also held up well: “Your family is so proud of you. It makes you realize how important they are.” Thru-hikers who think about giving up should take a week before making a final decision, he adds.
As for how to prepare, both men say frequent backpacking is the only way to train physically and decide what gear is most necessary and easiest to carry. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy advises a practice hike with at least two nights on terrain that approximates where a hiker will start on the trail (companion dogs should go, too, to strengthen their paw pads).
Would-be thru-hikers should seek out trail veterans and visit the conservancy’s information-packed website (appalachiantrail.org); one local resource is the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club (tidewateratc.com). Current guide books and maps can help with routes and stopping points, as well as explain environmentally-friendly methods of disposing of trash and burying human waste.
While hikers don’t need to register to get onto the trail, everyone should leave an itinerary with family or friends—and check in regularly along the way—and research permits, fees and reservations required in state and national parks. A first-aid kit is essential; a GPS spot locator can send updates and emergency messages in areas without cell phone coverage or law enforcement officials on patrol. Some hikers also carry a whistle as a backup alert system.
Hikers’ most predictable mistake is carrying too much, especially if they’re focusing on what’s needed for the entire trail rather than the first weeks, according to the conservancy. Hayden wished he’d had all his equipment—tents, backpacks, sleeping bags and shoes— in a lighter weight version. Dunn removed the top compartment of his backpack and sent home heavier-weight clothing as seasons changed.
For footwear, anything from thick leather hiking boots to “barefoot” shoes with toes can work given proper fit in length and width, good traction and advance breaking in to prevent blisters, Dunn says. “Most people wear through several pairs,” he adds. “When mailing a replacement pair, they should be broken in as well.”
The majority of hikers camp out about 85 percent of the time and spend the rest in motels or hostels, depending on their money situation, Hayden says. According to the conservancy, the typical cost of living on the trail is $1,000 a month.
Many people carry three to six days of food at a time. Hayden recommends pre-shipping packages of dehydrated meals—with dried meats and carbohydrates—because they’re healthier, lighter weight and less expensive than what a hiker might find in town. Hungry hikers, he notes, do tend to indulge cravings for items they might avoid at home, such as candy, soda and, for vegetarians, meat for protein.
Dunn and Hayden both say they’d do the Appalachian Trail again, although they have other hikes they’d like to try first. “Maybe when I’m 60 or 70, I’ll do it just to see if I can,” Hayden says. Dunn also has passed on his passion for the outdoors to his son Dru, 11, who is into rock climbing and mountain biking—and maybe, one day, will be a 2,000-miler, too. “The A.T. is tough,” Dunn says. “No matter how good of shape you’re in, it will be hard. But it’s very much worth it.”