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The lessons I learned on the Appalachian Trail have stuck with me. I’m still very conservative with water, and I still travel as lightly as possible. But there were much bigger lessons — lessons that have enabled me to live a much fuller life than I’d have otherwise even attempted.

People are good.

When I announced my plans to hike the Appalachian Trail, my family’s biggest worry was that all those “bad” people out there would do horrible things to me.

Yes, bad things have happened on the Appalachian Trail, including rape and murder, but those things happen in my hometown, too, and I’m not afraid to walk down the street.

What I found on and along the trail were not bad people, but good and kind people — people who went out of their way to help. In the years since, I’ve found that good people everywhere far outnumber the bad.

It is only our constant over-exposure to media doom and gloom that instills such fear in us that we end up hiding in our homes.


It’s what you do with what you have that counts.

I was very inexperienced when I started my Appalachian Trail hike, and I didn’t have much money, so my gear was a collection of homemade and cheap off-brand items. I was intimidated by the other, more experienced hikers with their name brand equipment, and I began to wonder if I could really make it all 2,100 miles.

That first night on the trail, though, I was surprised to hear those other hikers confess their doubts about the hike. They were afraid, too!

As I traveled up the trail, I carried my cheap gear with care and determination to make it and myself hold up until the end. I could have held back and waited until I knew more, until I had all the “right” gear — but then I may never have even attempted my dream. The important thing was to just start with what I had and learn what I needed along the way. And I made it to the end!


A little dirt never hurt anyone.

As hikers, we routinely went a week at a time without showering. We ate with grimy hands. In fact, we’d eat food that had fallen on the ground or the shelter floor.

Our cook pots rarely got more than a rinse; some never saw soap at all. We’d eat from the same pot, drink from the same bottle, and even share a spoon.

Normal societal conventions just didn’t apply. And we were all as happy and healthy as could be.



Watch out for each other.

All up and down the trail, hikers watched out for each other and helped each other through the rough spots. These were people who had only just met and whose only thing in common was the trail, yet they became a family.

If a hiker didn’t show up at a shelter as expected, the others noticed, and would often hike back to check up. When I fell and blackened both my eyes in New Jersey, a much faster hiker slowed his pace without a word and hiked with me for several days until I was over the trauma and had my confidence back.


Take time for the little people.

One July day in Maryland, I was having a grumpy hiking day. Nothing was going right, I had two new blisters, and my hiking partner was way ahead. When I rounded a curve in the trail and saw a group of summer camp kids strung out along the trail, I groaned. It would take forever to get past them all, and I was in no mood to interact with anyone.

Far behind the main group was one boy, followed by one counselor. The boy dragged his feet and stumbled. Every three minutes he opened his canteen for a drink of water. He clearly was not one of the crowd and would rather have been somewhere else.

As I drew even with the pair, I said hello, but kept up my pace with thoughts of the day’s goal in mind. The boy asked questions about my hike, which I answered briefly before speeding up to pass. But I couldn’t pass, and I realized that the boy was trying to keep pace with me as he continued his queries.

I decided maybe I didn’t have to rush to camp. I slowed, but just a bit, and walked alongside the boy. We talked about my hike and about his little-boy dreams, and I pointed out interesting plants along the trail.

I had his interest and attention, and we began to gain on the rest of the group. By the time we arrived at the end of the group’s hike, this straggler had hiked himself to the front of the group, and I was no longer grouchy.


Passion is a driving force.

The day-hikers I met on the trail often asked how far I was hiking. When they learned I was doing the entire 2,100 miles, they expressed envy, but invariably exclaimed, “I could never do that!”

What they should have said was that they envied my freedom to hike for six months, but that they wouldn’t want to do it. I learned on the trail that you can do anything you really want to do. The passion will drive you through the not-so-fun parts.

And when you think you’ve got nothing left to give, the passion will pull you through to the end, and you’ll find you’re stronger than you ever dreamed you were.




Nancy Shepherd is the author of My Own Hike: A Woman’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail. As an accomplished thru-hiker she also maintains her own site at

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