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Interview with an AT Thru-Hiker

Trey Burger is in the midst of what lots of folks consider to be the ultimate outdoor adventure, an end-t0-end hike of the popular long distance footpath, the Appalachian Trail.

The AT is a 2200 mile ridge trail that rambles from Georgia to Maine, and sees thousands of day and thru-hikers each year. The number of people who attempt a thru-hike has skyrocketed over the past decade, though only about one in four actually complete the entire trail.

At the end of June, Trey was in Pennsylvania, having covered over 1220 miles since he began his hike in April. He has just under a thousand miles to go to reach the endpoint atop Mount Katahdin, which he expects will be in mid-September.  

We caught up with Trey via email, and he helped us dig into what it’s actually like to hike and sleep in the woods for months on end. Parts of his story sound as picturesque as a daydream, and others expose the grit and determination it takes to complete this epic trail. Read on for a peek into life on the AT from a real time thru-hiker.  

(Trey, if you’re reading this, beers are on us when you get back to Chattanooga!)


The Basics:

Where are you on the trail right now?

Delaware Water Gap, on the PA/NJ border.

Miles covered?

1295

Gotta ask– trail name and how’d you get it?

Thumper” after the Grouse. It’s a large bird that thumps its tail on a hollow log in increasing intervals. If you’ve ever heard one, you know exactly what I’m talking about. No one could make sense of the mysterious sound and I was apparently the only person who could enlighten them, so I got named “Thumper.”  

There were some pretty hilarious theories I heard from other hikers on what the sound could be. People thought they were having a heart attack or that there was a lawnmower starting up off in the distance. One guy even thought it was underground tremors caused by the government!

Overall, how are things going on your hike? Is it what you expected?

Things are going great. I’ve made so many new friends and shared even more memories with them that I can only hope to remember the laughs and smiles when I’m older.

The idea of standing atop Mount Katahdin in Maine is something I visualize everyday, but I don’t think that will be my favorite part of this hike.  I’m finding out that it’s all about the journey and the friendships you make along the way, not the destination. It’s almost like a microcosm of life back in the real world. I think T.S. Eliot said it best, “The journey, not the destination matters.”

How many miles do you average per day?

I try to aim for a campsite with a view or water source anywhere in 15-20 mile range.

The farthest you’ve gone in a day?

I once did 28 miles in a single day, but 3 miles were in the opposite direction. Don’t ask me how it happened!


The Good Stuff:

What’s been the best thing about the trail so far?

The people are definitely the best. I mean everyone out here has the common denominator of attempting to complete a 2200 mile physical and spiritual journey, so of course you meet some really awesome people.

What’s been your favorite place/campsite/view so far?

Tough question. Probably camping on top of the Priest Mountain in Virginia. I was all alone and had the sunset and sunrise all to myself. It was a moment I’ll never forget.

Your photos are amazing– what kind of camera are you shooting with and how do you protect it from the elements on the trail?

It’s just the camera on my smartphone, Google Pixel 2. I tend to think I have an eye for photography, though 🙂

What’s your biggest food craving while hiking?

Champy’s Fried Chicken


The Tough Stuff:

What’s been your lowest moment so far on the AT?

There was one day in particular that stands out. I was in Virginia and it had been raining for about a week straight. The trail was pretty much like hiking through an ankle deep creek. Everything I had was soaking wet and all of my clothes smelled like mildew.

I tried to step over a fallen tree, but my shoe got caught and I face planted in the mud. I remember laying there for a minute and just being really frustrated with myself. But I got up and kept walking. That night I treated myself to a hot shower and a steak dinner.

Have you ever thought about quitting?

Not once

What’s been the worst thing about the trail so far?

For me personally, the rain is the worst. I just like to be dry. Others hate the cold. Or the heat. Or the bugs.

What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in yourself during your hike, mentally or physically?

Well physically, I’ve never been in better shape. I’ve lost 30 pounds and my calves are humongous. However, my feet hurt every morning and I’ve lost feeling in my toes, which is apparently pretty common. They call it “Christmas Toes” because you’re supposed to regain feeling in your toes by Christmas. Fingers crossed!

Mentally, I think I’m stronger and definitely more resilient. When you’re walking on top of mountains for 10 hours a day, every day, you have a considerable amount of time to think. You reflect on the past. You dream about the future. You meditate in the present. And you think a lot about food! Hundreds of hours are spent pondering the questions of life. I’ve noticed that little annoyances don’t bother me as much. I tell myself if I can hike 2200 miles in the snow, rain, and heat, then I can do anything I put my mind to.

Any wildlife encounters or other close calls?

Bears, snakes, skunks, you name it. I haven’t had any bad encounters, but I had an extremely close call while canoeing the Shenandoah River during a flash flood. There was a lot of whitewater and we got stuck on the river after dark during a lightning storm. I think we made it out alive due to dumb luck.


The Gear:

Tent: Z-Packs Duplex

Pack and size: Osprey Exos 58L, then Hyperlite Windrider 3400

Sleeping bag: Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20 degree quilt

Sleeping pad: Thermarest Prolite Plus

Footwear: Altra Lone Peak 3.5

Water filtration: Sawyer Squeeze

Trekking Poles: Leki Corklite

What’s been your most trusty, can’t-live-without-it piece of gear?

It may sound dumb, but I’d probably say my head Buff. Keeping the sweat out of your eyes is underrated.

Or my Thermarest sleeping pad. It’s a little heavier than most, but a good night’s sleep makes all the difference.

Anything you wish you’d brought?

I wish I had more of Toby’s homemade hot sauce. (Toby Towne is the manager at Rock/Creek Hamilton Place and a bonafide expert on all things spicy.)

Anything you packed but haven’t needed?

Sounds gross, but I haven’t used hand sanitizer one time since I started the hike. But my mom made me bring some (sorry Mom!)


The Idea:

What made you decide to thru-hike, and why the AT?

Last year I did a vanlife tour of 23 national parks. I became really interested in hiking and completed a lot of shorter day hikes in these parks. One day in Utah the idea of completing the Appalachian Trail popped into my head. It would be the ultimate adventure.

I knew 2 friends from college that completed the AT and it changed their lives in awesome ways. I also knew I probably wouldn’t have this chance ever again to take 6 months off and go live in the woods. I couldn’t do it once I have a family to support, and if I waited until retirement there’s no guarantee my body would be able to do 2200 miles.

Can you describe a little bit of the process of planning your hike?

Once I decided I wanted to do the hike, I obsessed over the trail. I consulted with my friends that had hiked it a few years ago. I scoured the internet for information. I read 5 books written by former thru-hikers. My family can testify, I lived and breathed the Appalachian Trail for months. I went on a handful of “shakedown” hikes with other Rock Creekers to test my gear. Then, I hit the trail on March 10.

What would you tell someone who was thinking about thru-hiking?

I’d tell them to follow their heart. If they really, truly want to do it, then nothing will stand in their way. Family, career, money, etc. will work itself out.

Anything else you want to add?

Rock Creek is the best! I learned so much about gear while working there and talking to other hiking enthusiasts. I can’t wait to see everyone when I finish the trail!

You can follow along with Trey’s AT adventures on Instagram at @wandertrey

(All photos by Trey Burger via Instagram)