This article is dedicated to the worried moms, concerned friends, family, loved ones, employers, and anyone fearing for [insert name here]'s life as they thru-hike. Let's get it out of the way now: they're going to be okay. Really, you don't need to worry. Of course, anything can happen, but then again, anything can happen off the trail, too. This article is intended to alleviate your stress and turn your fears, worries, and concerns into love, support, and encouragement. Let's get started.
It's true. In fact, most people have trouble finding real solitude on the trail. Of course, it depends on when you start the trail. During peak thru-hiking season, it's near impossible to go a day without seeing another person. Some people choose to go non-traditional routes such as SouthBound or Flip-Flop to avoid the crowds, but the majority head north. The trail also sees nearly two million people annually across the entire trail. It's actually more of an effort for you to be alone than it is not. Myth #1, busted!
Also true. Most hikers actually tend to carry far too much food on them. It's easy to worry and buy way too much and/or shop while hungry and end up with an oversized food bag which you resent and love yourself for. With road crossings to town once or twice a week, it's quite hard to miss an opportunity if you absolutely needed to get food. And most of these towns have the usual grocery stores allowing them to stock up on almost anything. If the town is lacking, there's always mail drops (mailing food to yourself ahead of time). Oh, and there's magic given from angels. In layman's terms - wonderful people leave or cook food & supplies at road crossings along the trail which can result in extending your food stores for a day or two. To sum it up, food is not going to be hard to come by on the trail.
Believe it or not, seeing a bear on the trail is generally a rare occasion. Some hikers hike the entire trail without seeing any. Others are graced with seeing them often and from a safe distance. Obviously, a bear is a wild animal which can and sometimes will attack humans. But, black bears are generally quite skittish and run off at the sound of your feet approaching. In my experience of seeing 15 bears, only 1 did not run from me. I simply kept walking, unharmed.
While it might seem to outsiders that all day hikers are scaling vertical rock faces, being chased by wild animals, or simply leisurely walking through the woods, all would (pretty much) be false.The trail is actually quite safe. It's well marked, hard to get lost on, and never too far from town. If you're worried about crazy people on the trail (something a lot of people questioned me about), maybe think of this: there's far more people not on the trail than are. And it's much more likely to encounter conflict when you're not on an isolated trail. So, if there are likely less crazy-people encounters and the trail is mostly safe to hike on, you can be at peace knowing it's safer than you think.
This is one of the biggest takeaways from the trail for a lot of thru-hikers. The trail truly restored my faith in humanity. The community is such a tight-knit, protective, and loving group . Everyone feels like family (even if some hikers don't get along, you're still family). There are so many outsiders who love to get involved in the community. I met people who had families take them in for a couple nights and feed them just because they wanted to help. I personally experienced loads of trail magic in the form of coolers filled with drinks and food at a road crossing, free rides to and from town, having someone buy dinner for my partner and myself in town, being fed loads of free food by local churches, and in one instance a stranger paid for pizza and ice cream at a gas station by putting their card down as I went to pay. These are just some of the dozens of instances that made me realize that there are in fact good people in the world. Especially in the trail community.
Lots of people, especially employers, tend to worry that after taking this chunk of time off to thru-hike that it'll hurt their career from the lapse on their resume/CV. It actually tends to have the opposite effect. It's a really unique and boast-worthy achievement to have. In my experience, it's been a conversation starter time and time again. As always, there could be employers who don't want to hire someone who's done that, but chances are it's not a place a thru-hiker would be happy working anyway.
I hope you're getting the sense that it will be good for them. For so many, this is one of the the most influential experiences of their lives. There are so many transformations that take place during months of spending time with yourself in nature. What is gained is unique to each hiker, but there are countless strengths that are carried forward for the rest of their lives. Some of the most important strengths I gained from the trail were in self-confidence. I had very little before I hiked and there's almost never a moment I feel incompetent anymore. I always feel strong and comfortable in my own skin. I know so many others who feel the same. One thing we can all agree on is that it was the best choice we ever made.
Now that you've realized that this is in fact an amazing trip for them, you should find ways to support them! Mailing food and supplies (mail drops) to them is always a morale booster. My mom used to mail homemade trail bars, cookies, and all sorts of things for me. It was always a treat for myself and other hikers around. I had other friends and family send mail drops, meet me for a section, buy me a hotel, give me some money (which goes a long way), and all sorts of other morale boosters.