Hey fellow hikers! I’m Kelly Hays and in this article I will be sharing the story of one of my greatest ever experiences: trekking the 2,190+ miles of the Appalachian Trail. Before I get started, allow me to introduce myself and give you an overview of what led me to take on this adventure of a lifetime.
I’m 28 years old and from Conway, Arkansas. I lived here nearly my entire life. I went to Conway Christian High School and the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) where I played basketball for two years. My degree is in Journalism and I have a minor in Marketing, as well as another bachelor’s in Nutrition and a masters in the Science of Nutrition (all from UCA).
Living in Arkansas, The Natural State, I have always lived around tons of nature and trail systems. I remember my parents taking me hiking when I was little and absolutely loving it! My grandparents also lived on a huge farm in Illinois with tons of acres – and so one of my favorite things to do there was to walk around the property with my Grandma exploring.
I hiked and backpacked many trails in Arkansas growing up, which ultimately led me to wanting to hike the Appalachian Trail. But I didn’t even know that the Appalachian Trail existed until about three years ago. Some friends and I decided to hike a trail at a local state park that was a 12-mile loop. It took us all day and we thought we had done something hardcore.
That led me to think, “Well if I can hike 12 miles in one day, I wonder if I could do 15 or 20?” My next thought was, “What if I hiked those miles and then slept in the woods after?!” This continued to lead me down the rabbit hole of backpacking and eventually I found the Appalachian Trail.
I was instantly intrigued and knew that I was going to complete it one day. I immediately started planning the day I learned about the trail – watching hours of YouTube videos about the trail, gear and backpacking. Also, I went to my local library and checked out tons of books about backpacking.
I completed the hike on November 16th, 2021 at Low Gap Shelter in Georgia. It was starting to get cold in November, but temperatures were bearable. I never dealt with snow, however I did experience the coldest night on trail a couple days before finishing with it dropping to 19 degrees at night.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail from APR – NOV
I started my hike on April 10th and completed the 2,193.1 miles on November 16th. It wasn’t without unexpected interruptions. Just six days into my hike on April 15th, I woke up to the worst pain of my life. I ended up having to walk five miles to the nearest road and was taken to the hospital.
There, after a CT scan and ultrasound, the doctor informed me that I had a cyst on my ovary and an ovarian torsion that was about to rupture. I was rushed upstairs to have an emergency surgery where they removed the entire ovary. It was a terrible and painful experience that I will never forget.
I ended up taking three weeks off to recover and got back on trail on May 7th at Max Patch – skipping a ~200 mile section so I could stay on track to summit Mount Katahdin on time. The first week back on trail was rough. I was still healing and experiencing some adverse effects from surgery.
I pushed through and on October 14th, I summited Mount Katahdin – the northern terminus of the AT. While this is most thru-hikers’ end of trail finale, I still had unfinished business down south with the 200 mile section of trail I still needed to complete. I flew home from Maine and took two weeks back home to get things done and plan my trip back to the trail.
I returned to the trail on November 1st and completed the remaining miles on the 16th with my grand finale finish at Low Gap Shelter where I woke up to the excruciating pain back in April. It was a journey (to say the least)!
Why the AT is Called the “Green Tunnel”
They call the Appalachian Trail the “green tunnel” for a reason. A large majority of this trail takes you through the woods. Personally, I loved it. There is so much life to experience in the woods. Since I was out there for seven-ish months, I got to see the forest change throughout the seasons.
I especially enjoyed all of the spring flowers, vibrant green colors of summer, different mushroom species and the extravagant colors of fall in the northeast section – especially in Maine! Aside from the forest walk, the trail does have many beautiful views, lakes and rock formations. My favorite viewpoints were in the White Mountain Range in New Hampshire.
Maine was filled with tons of different lakes, where we enjoyed stealth camping when we had the chance. The trail also takes you through tons of different towns, which boasted my different historical landmarks, mom and pop shops, and delicious hole in the wall restaurants. Exploring the towns and meeting the locals was one of my favorite parts of the trail.
Overnight Experiences on the Appalachian Trail
There are a variety of options of where to stay overnight on the AT. The majority of nights I stayed in my tent, which was always my first choice. I also stayed in shelters, hostels, hotels and sometimes peoples homes.
Most campsites we stayed at were “official trail campsites” and had a shelter option, privy and water – everything you need. This was always the easiest option because we knew where the shelters/campsites were based on the map, and I always knew there would be other hikers there.
Sometimes, I would stealth camp on the Appalachian Trail, which basically means staying at an unmarked location somewhere in the woods. Stealth campsites were some of my favorite nights. This all depended on where we were on trail though, as some states do not allow stealth camping.
Staying overnight in the woods was almost always an enjoyable experience. If we got to camp early enough we would normally make a fire or hangout at the shelter with other hikers, which led to awesome memories.
My Favorite Memory on the Appalachian Trail
I have so many wonderful memories from this trail, but one of my favorite memories was when we climbed off of Mount Washington on a clear day. The day prior we had climbed up to Mount Washington, and I ended up getting food poisoning at the top. There was bad weather rolling in and there were still over six miles we had to hike to get back to the tree line.
This forced me to take a train to get off the mountain. I was frustrated, but I knew it was better to be safe than sorry – especially after my previous medical condition. The next day, we got a ride back up to the top of the mountain where we left off. The ride up was breathtaking, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. That afternoon we hiked down Mount Washington.
The weather was perfect and we experienced one of the prettiest sunsets I had ever seen. We had 360-degree views. At one point the sun was setting over the horizon and on the other side there was a full moon rising above us. The colors in the sky were unreal. I felt like I was walking in a dream. As a bonus, I got to spend this moment with my best friend I met on trail.
How Hard is Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail?
The AT was the hardest thing I have ever done. I faced unique challenges with my surgery on my journey, and it was hard to overcome the obstacles that came with that. I do believe anyone can do the trail though.
You don’t have to be athletic or even in shape to do it. Everyone starts out slow, and like with anything, the body will eventually adapt. I learned my body was capable of much more than I ever thought possible.
Responsible Hiking and Eco-Friendly Practices
If you plan on thru-hiking the AT, one of the biggest pieces of advice I would give is to Leave No Trace! This is the most important thing a hiker can do on a trail. This means not leaving any trash, digging appropriate cat holes, and paying attention to signs and restrictions on the trail.
One tip I have is to reuse everything. Hikers tend to use a lot of ziplock bags for food. I reused these bags until they basically fell apart. This prevented me from using a bunch of extra plastic. Make sure you use an eco-friendly soap. I used Dr. Bronners and made sure I was careful where I used it.
Final Thoughts & Tips on this Hike
Do your research and have a general idea of what you are getting into. Know that the gear you start out with likely will not be the gear you end with. Save, save, save! Things can be expensive and money will go much faster than you think. Every now and then you will want to treat yourself or take a shower, so make sure you budget for those kinds of things.
Don’t worry so much about food. There is food everywhere. In fact, I didn’t carry food for over 100 miles from New Jersey to Massachusetts as there were delis right off the trail every 10 miles. Get Guthooks aka Farout for maps, just do it. Shoes are one of the most important pieces of gear and it may take you a few hundred miles to find a pair that work for you.
Everyone should know that the trail is not easy. You may think that every day is going to be awesome with sunshine and roses. It’s not. It sucks some days, just like normal life. Now, I would take a crappy day on trail over a crappy day in the real world every day – but just know some days are hard.
You will question why you are out there and why you are doing this sometimes, but at the end of the day you will not want to be anywhere else. The trail will change your life in more ways than you can imagine.
You will look at the world completely differently and it may mess you up a little bit when you come back from such an amazing experience like this. In the end, the trail will always live with you: the people, the lifestyle and the simplicity of just walking in the woods day after day. Enjoy your AT hike!