Each spring, about 3,000 people set off on the journey of a lifetime.
That’s how many attempt to “thru-hike” the entire 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, about 750 people—one in four—succeed.
But what drives someone to attempt this feat, and what does it take to accomplish it? We asked three central PA hikers just before they headed south to begin their treks.
Connor Phiel, 24, of Gettysburg, is what many describe as a typical A.T. thru-hiker. A recent college graduate, he’s worked as an architect for about two years, with the goal of saving enough money to take a “gap year” in 2018.
“I look at it as a good transition year, a chance to slow down,” he said. “You’re crammed through school into a job—it streamlines you and you get caught up in it. For me, hiking the trail is a conscious decision to slow things down.”
The groundwork for his trip was laid in childhood. Growing up, Phiel was a Boy Scout, attaining the rank of Eagle Scout. His father was a park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park for more than 30 years, and the family regularly traveled to national parks.
Despite this pedigree, Phiel worked hard to prepare. He’s been running, biking and weightlifting to build strength and endurance. He tested his gear during two- and three-night backpacking trips locally. He said that carrying everything on his back forced him to think about what he truly needed to survive. For him, that included hot meals when possible. So, he’s packing a small stove resembling a Bunsen burner. The average A.T. hiker burns 6,000 calories daily.
“My food will probably be my biggest luxury item—I want to enjoy a hot cup of coffee or tea,” he said. “I’m also bringing my phone, a charger, a sketchbook and journal, which will add weight and are really luxury items, too.”
He launches his journey this month.
“I’d say I’m most excited to see the Smokies and the South, plus the White Mountains in New Hampshire,” he said. “But, beyond that, it’s really about challenging yourself, self-fulfillment and personal growth.”
Like Phiel, Andrew Burd, 22, of Newville, is a recent college graduate whose parents worked in forestry—first for the Allegheny National Forest in western PA, followed by the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. He grew up in both locations. He also earned the rank of Eagle Scout.
“I’ve been hiking my entire life, but I got serious about backpacking in college,” Burd said.
Through the Department of Experiential Education at Gettysburg College, Burd embarked upon hiking and kayaking trips. After hiking the A.T, he plans to launch his career in tourism management on the West Coast.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, most thru-hikers begin at Springer Mountain, Ga., between February and April, then spend six months hiking northward through 14 states, eight national forests, six national parks and numerous state parks and forests—including several in central PA—to arrive at Katahdin, Maine, in the late summer or fall.
Burd’s plan fits this timeframe. He set out in late February and hopes to arrive in Maine by late July.
What will it feel like to finish up?
“I imagine it’s going to be a mix of utter exhaustion and elation,” Burd said. “It’s going to be the most physically and mentally demanding journey of my life. At first, the physical challenge drew me in, but now the mental challenge intrigues me.”
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, hikers like Burd and Phiel are the ones who stand a good chance of making it all the way.
“Hikers who have some degree of preparedness are generally the ones who succeed,” said Jordan Bowman, public relations and social media manager.
Testing out equipment and being financially prepared are one thing, but the keys to a successful thru-hike include physical and mental preparation, he said.
“Physically, it’s tough, but it’s all about persistence, which is where the mental aspect comes in,” Bowman said. “You’re going to be hiking through rain, also hiking when it’s hot, you’re going to be sweating, exhausted. There’s a lot of discomfort, and it becomes a mental marathon.”
Brad Duffan, 35, of Dover, also began hiking the A.T. in February, with the goal of finishing in time for his brother’s wedding in September. By registering with the ATC, he could tell that 10 other hikers were starting on the same day.
Duffan left his full-time job as a heavy equipment operator in order to hit the trail.
“It’s been a goal of mine for a long time,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘I’ll do it later,’ and pushing it off. Well, if I keep pushing it off, I’ll be 60 before you know it. I decided I needed to do it now, because I’m not getting any younger.”
For more information about the Appalachian Trail, visit appalachiantrail.org. You also can visit the Appalachian Trail Museum at 1120 Pine Grove Rd., Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Gardners, Pa. Visit atmuseum.org.