Two activities which get us overly excited are peak bagging and thru-hiking. Both require persistence and patience. Be it collecting all famous US fourteeners or trudging almost half a year through 2,200 miles (3,500 km), it takes enormous effort to stay focused and finish the project. It’s always exciting to hear the stories of amazing people who complete these journeys and share their emotions.
In September 2018, our attention was drawn to an Instagram photo made by Rebecca Pressman. She was standing by a lake and was looking at Mount Katahdin. Shortly after the pic was taken, she completed the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike.
We talked to Rebecca about the Appalachian Trail, highs and lows along the two-thousand mile epic journey, and future plans. Read the interview with Rebecca Pressman.
Q1. How did you get inspired about doing an AT through hike? Was it harder or easier than you had imagined? Did you have any previous experience?
I’ve wanted to thru hike for as long as I’ve learnt about thru hiking. I think I first heard about it from one of the group leaders on a backpacking trip I went on in high school. The trip was through an outdoor company called Adventure Treks and that was my first introduction to backpacking. After high school I started going on weekend and week-long backpacking trips with friends and family. I think I had a little bit more backpacking experience compared to many people I met on the AT. I also worked at REI for a year so I know a lot about backpacking gear. However, many people who had never slept outside accomplish a thru hike on their first attempt. In the beginning it was easier than I’d thought it would be, probably due to my previous experience, but as time went on it became much more challenging physically and mentally than I’d ever anticipated.
Q2. How did you prepare yourself for the hike? How did you organize the hike? Were friends and family supportive of this endeavor?
I prepared myself by reading a lot of books about thru hiking and about the AT specifically. I followed previous thru hikers on social media and spent a lot of time browsing r/Appalachiantrail and r/ultralight on Reddit. Also, I spent time backpacking and camping to make sure I was happy with all the gear I planned to bring on my hike. I didn’t do a lot of specific physical training other than a few weekend backpacking trips, but I was doing a lot of trail running leading up to my start date. With regards to planning I only organized my first resupply box before I left. My family was very supportive and sent me resupply boxes to towns along the way with whatever I needed. I was pretty lucky in that respect because I could easily ask for different things as the trail went on and didn’t have to have everything planned out before I started the trail. My only set plan was to finish before October 15th when Baxter State Park typically closes for the winter. Most of my friends were supportive but I definitely had some that thought I was crazy for doing it by myself and also a few that questioned if I would really be able to do the whole thing.
Q3. What was the toughest moment? Was there a moment when you was on the edge of giving up? What helped you to move on?
The toughest time on trail for me was when my grandfather got really sick when I was in New Hampshire, about a month away from finishing the trail. I really struggled with whether or not I should get off trail to be with my family, but they encouraged me to keep going and told me that he wanted me to finish. He passed away on September 11th when I was about two days away from a road so there was no way I would’ve been able to make it back to Pennsylvania for the funeral. This was a sad and difficult part of my hike and I’m so thankful that I was hiking with my trail buddy Terminator during this time. I had a lot of down days during my hike, just like in regular life not every day is amazing, but this was the only time I seriously considered calling someone to come get me and take me home. I think if I had been hiking alone during this time I probably would’ve got off trail and went home when I hit the next road. With my family’s support and Terminator there to keep me company I kept pushing forward towards Katahdin.
Q4. Were there any scary situations? Any bear encounters?
One of the scariest/sketchiest situation I encountered on trail was in the 100-mile wilderness in Maine. When I was hiking up over White Cap Mountain it was raining sideways, and the winds were so strong the tree roots were lifting out of the ground with every gust of wind. It looked as if the ground was breathing. I was pretty nervous a tree was going to fall on me, but I kept pushing forward as fast as I could. When the trail crossed above the tree line I experienced the strongest winds I have ever felt in my life and it was pretty difficult to stay upright while trying to move quickly along the rocky, wet, and difficult to see trail. For some reason I found this hilarious and laughed and yelled into the wind as I moved across the open summit. For me personally, it was moments like these out in the middle of nowhere, completely alone and vulnerable to the rapidly changing weather conditions, that made me feel the most alive. The wind knocked me over a few times but I made it below tree line on the other side without injury. I saw five bears during my hike but they all moved away after some yelling and banging my trekking poles together.
Q5. What was the funniest situation?
It’s hard for me to think of one situation on trail that was the funniest, and most of them were probably “you had to be there” moments, but a few that come to mind include my friend Elephant slipping in the mud and sliding down a hill in the pouring rain, Terminator thinking all his pop tart packages only had one pop tart when really they were all just two pop tarts smashed together, numerous failed bear bag hanging attempts, people falling down, everyone’s gear falling apart by the end, the never ending rain, the trail in Southern Maine, etc. When you are tired and hungry and out in the middle of nowhere with your entire life on your back a lot of things seem hilarious that ordinarily would not. Sometimes we laughed because if we hadn’t we would have cried.
Q6. How about the most memorable moment in the hike?
The most memorable day on trail for me was the day I climbed Mt. Washington. When I woke up it was foggy and raining and I resigned myself to a viewless day through the southern Presidentials. The hiking was slow and pretty miserable with no protection from the elements above tree line. After making it to Lake of the Clouds hut a few thru hikers and I were sitting around waiting to start doing work-for-stay when all of a sudden the sun came out and the fog lifted. The five of us looked at each other, grabbed our trekking poles, and started running up Mt. Washington yelling and laughing. It felt so good to move without a pack on, soak up the sunshine, and take in the views with some awesome trail friends. The sun setting through the clouds was probably the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. We had one of the most touristy summits on the AT and the entire east coast all to ourselves. It was a perfect day that started with rain and ended with leftover lasagna and a dry place to sleep.
Q7. What was the most scenic spot along the trail?
Although the AT is often referred to as the “green tunnel” there are so many scenic spots along the way. My favorite views were in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. I like standing on top of a mountain and being able to look out and see no signs of human civilization. Outside of the many views up north I really enjoyed looking up at the stars from Wind Rock in Virginia.
Q8. Do you have any advice for others who would like to do the AT through hike?
My advice would be to read as much as you can about the trail but take every piece of advice you receive with a grain of salt. There is more than one way to successfully thru hike the trail and even if you have the best, lightest gear, it won’t help you if you aren’t properly mentally prepared. Different things work for different people and your gear will likely change along the way. It’s not going to be fun all the time and you need to be ready for that. The best advice I got before starting my hike was to think small. The enormity of what you are trying to accomplish can seem impossible, so try to just focus on making it to the next town, the next shelter, or even the next mile. And remember, smiles over miles!
Q9. Any plans for the future long-distance treks? Maybe Sentiero Italia? :-)
There are so many long-distance hikes I want to do at some point in my life (Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Florida Trail, Te Aurora, etc.) but for right now I’m focusing on finding a job, shorter weekend backpacking trips, and trail running. I’m hoping to run a 50-mile trail race this summer and also put up some women’s fastest known times (FKT) on some local PA trails that currently only have male FKTs. I’ve never hiked in Europe, but I definitely hope to someday! You can follow along on my future adventures on Instagram @rebeccapressman.