By Colleen Goldhorn
In May of 2016, I threw my gear in the trunk of a one-way rental car and set out for the 13-hour drive from Philadelphia to Springer Mountain, GA. I had graduated college just 48 hours earlier, and was off on an adventure that was 2.5 years in the making. I had hopes of earning the badge of “Appalachian Trail Thru Hiker” by the time the summer was over, and couldn’t believe the goal my 19-year-old self set was on its way to becoming a reality.
“When I had to abruptly end my hike after just six weeks, my initial reaction was to mourn the loss of my dream of reaching Katahdin”
When I had to abruptly end my hike after just six weeks, my initial reaction was to mourn the loss of my dream of reaching Katahdin with 2000 miles under my belt. Little did I know that although this may have been the end of my thru hike, it was only the beginning of my new adventure of section hiking the AT. There wasn’t a whole lot of planning or a big “a-ha” moment when I transitioned into section hiking — it just felt like the natural next step in completing my larger goal of finishing the trail. I began checking off small pieces of trail whenever I got the chance, and it took me another 2.5 years to reach my 1,000th mile on the trail in November of 2018, an accomplishment I am still incredibly proud of today.
Changing paths from a thru hike isn’t always simple. While section hiking is often viewed as an easier – or sometimes inferior – way to complete a long trail, it brings unique challenges that require section hikers to utilize different types of planning and determination than their thru-hiking counterparts. Everything from daily mileage, shuttle rides, parking locations, and driving to the trailhead must be carefully calculated, and successfully completing a section hike is as much of a logistical challenge as it is a mental and physical one.
Not only can section hiking be a solution to those who cannot take six months off to hike, I learned it can also be just as powerful of an adventure as thru hiking – and potentially give you a richer experience as you navigate each section.
Thinking about section hiking a long trail in the coming months? Congrats on joining the club! I’ve compiled a list of the five biggest lessons I learned while section hiking the Appalachian Trail that can help you consider if section hiking is the right choice for your lifestyle and hiking preferences.
Crossing the NY / NJ State Line. Photo by Colleen Goldhorn
Although it takes almost unfathomable amounts of drive and dedication to finish a long trail, the perseverance and grit of section hikers is truly unmatched. To them, the trail is not a momentary interest or unique way to spend a summer. Section hiking requires living and breathing all things long distance hiking for years – or sometimes decades – at a time. Utilizing every available day off or free weekend for the length of your hike is no easy task, and similar to traditional thru hikers, the trail is often the only thing on a section hiker’s mind while they carefully plan every mile, shuttle ride, and precious day spent on trail. The sacrifices are countless, but the reward of crossing that next state line, adding another 100 miles to the list, and eventually traveling the entire length of the trail is as sweet as it gets.
2. Year-Round Hiking
Section hikers oftentimes need to learn to be comfortable hiking in any sort of condition while they continue pushing towards their goal. This sometimes means having the luxury of choosing to hike certain sections of trail in ideal conditions or during seasons when most traditional thru hikers are hiking in other areas – like the peak of fall in New England, or enjoying the lush greens that mark the height of summer in the South. On the other hand, this also means hiking through poor conditions like snow and freezing temps to continue getting miles in when you have the time available. This makes section hikers master four-season outdoor people who can push through a hard climb in the baking sun and deep snow alike. It forces them to be well versed in the best gear for year-round hiking, and allows them to cherish spending time on trail during the warmer months that much more.
Hiking on the Appalachian Trail during winter in New Jersey. Photo by Colleen Goldhorn
3. Keeping The Trail Legs in Shape
Weekday gym workouts become all the more important when your weekends revolve around crossing off another section of trail, and for many section hikers one of the most challenging things is keeping up their trail legs for the length of their hike. After spending multiple months on the trail, many traditional thru hikers are able to slowly work up to hiking 20+ miles in a day. However, since section hikers spend smaller chunks of time on the trail, it is significantly harder for them to acquire the muscles and strength needed for marathon days. Some section hikers simply accept the shorter days and spend a longer overall time hiking the trail. Others may choose to keep up their trail legs by prioritizing long walks or strength training while balancing work and life commitments. When prolonged fitness is the key to crossing off your goal, there suddenly are very few excuses to not keep your body in tip-top shape. It is definitely possible for section hikers to get some big mile days in — they might just have to work a little bit harder to get there.
4. How To Balance Big Goals with Other Commitments
One of the hardest parts of section hiking is wanting to spend all of your available free time checking off sections of trail while still balancing birthdays, holidays, and social get-togethers. Although thru hikers often crave the luxury of being involved in big and small moments alike with family – finding the perfect balance between enjoying family time while still prioritizing your larger goal is sometimes a struggle for section hikers. Many thru hikers opt to put life and social commitments on hold for the length of their hike due to the nature of it being harder to travel home for weddings, birthdays, or graduations. For section hikers, it is a tightrope to walk between being there to celebrate – and be a part of – big family memories, while still chalking out sacred time on your calendar for hiking. This makes section hikers experts at balancing their schedule, and prioritizing time spent on trail as true weekend warriors.
Picture-perfect sunset to finish my hike of the Connecticut section of trail. Photo by Colleen Goldhorn
5. How To Budget and Save For Big Goals
It is no easy feat to save and budget for a six-month thru hike. Although section hikers often have the luxury of working and continuing to save while still crossing off sections of trail, a section hike is arguably more expensive than a traditional thru hike. Between shuttles, gas, mileage on your car, and potentially a few plane tickets to reach further sections of trail, section hikers become experts at budgeting and saving for their larger goal. In fact, I personally credit all of my self-proclaimed budgeting skills directly to the Appalachian Trail. Having a big goal that requires considerable amounts of time and money to achieve can feel daunting, but section hiking teaches hikers to prioritize this goal in their monthly finances, and how to focus your spending on items or experiences that truly bring you happiness.
Although they may not always get the credit, section hikers truly embody what it means to be a thru hiker. However, although they are working towards the same goal as their thru-hiking counterparts, each type of hiker is setting course for a completely different type of adventure.
To me, section hiking the Appalachian Trail taught me more about myself than any experience in my life. Although I set out on a northbound thru hike, I was left with what I consider to be a richer and more robust experience through section hiking. I formed friendships with shuttle drivers and hostel owners from spending multiple weekends utilizing their services. I was able to get an in-depth view of each trail town, and how they all connect to each other by both backroads and on the trail alike. My time spent on the Appalachian Trail is one of the greatest gifts I have given myself, and no amount of trail maintenance could repay the debt I owe the trail for the lessons it has taught me along the way.
Section hiker, thru hiker, day hiker, or flip flopper – one way of hiking isn't greater than the other. At the end of the day, we have all climbed the same mountains and each of us embodies the same dedication and deep love of the trail that it takes to get there. The type of hike you choose to commit yourself to is a truly personal decision that comes down to your preferences and lifestyle needs. No matter how you choose to hike your own hike, it pays to acknowledge and celebrate the gentle lessons the trail teaches us from the many hours spent as a student on its rocky path.