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Within ten days of having the idea to thru hike the Appalachian Trail, I was on a bus headed towards Maine from Philadelphia for my very first backpacking trip in winter. I had spent those ten days only thinking about what gear I needed to survive. I didn’t even one time think about what the experience was actually going to be like. I had no experience dealing with winter at all. I walked into this backwards, blindfolded, with my pants down.
I’m just a fun-haver. I’m a beard grower. I’m a former active duty Marine scout sniper. I’m a motivator, a persevere-er, and quite frankly, if it’s crazy, I want to be a part of it. I want to do it and have as much fun as humanly possible. When I was three, my mom had to have me on a harness and tether, that’s the level I was getting after it at an early age.
The thru hiking world knows me as Jabba, like the Hutt, the internet world knows me as the Real Hiking Viking. I’ve spent the last decade of my life backpacking to the tune of 25,000 miles, give or take a few miles here or there, of long distance trails in the US and beyond.
When I got out of the Marine Corps in 2010, I just started going to school right away because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be. In 2012, I went down to Appalachian Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia, and I saw these crusty, disgusting, filthy, dirty, thru hikers, and my brain was like, I want to do that. It was never an intent for me to become a professional, long distance endurance athlete. But, I realized that I was happy with only what was on my back. I was just so hungry for it. I wanted to do it all.
That third year of thru hiking, I had just hiked four or 5,000 miles. October came around, and it was Thanksgiving and I was home with my family, back in Pennsylvania. And I’m sitting there stuffing my face thinking What the hell am I going to do this winter? Maybe it’s time to level up.
My brain said, Hey, I wonder what it would be like to thru hike the Appalachian Trail southbound in winter. I had never been winter backpacking. I’d never done even overnight winter camping before.
So there I was December 4th, starting my Appalachian Trail thru hike. I’m scared of the alpine mountains in southern Maine and in New Hampshire. The White Mountains, the Presidential Range, Mount Washington. You hear about people dying in the White Mountains on day hikes. The number one scary thing about winter anything is your core temperature dropping, because you’re soaking wet and you’re in not just sub-freezing, but sub-zero temperatures.
I’m breaking trail every day. I’m fording rivers and creeks. I’m wearing crampons. I’m wearing rain pants with leggings under them. I’m wearing a rain jacket with three layers of material underneath me—merino wool, a vapor barrier, and merino wool over that. Condensation occurs, and then that condensation freezes. Everything gets wet and frozen. Everything.
If your boots are holding moisture anywhere in them, they’re just ice lockers for your feet, and that’s bad news bears. You lose your toes, it’s game over, and life’s going to suck after that. There’s no going back from being the moron who just was too bored in winter and decided to go southbound on the Appalachian Trail, to losing toes, all because he has misplaced energy. That’s just stupid. They’re going to write articles about that forever, and I’m never going to live it down.
So, I’ve got to be smart, and I’ve got to be super task-oriented. I’ve got to be on the clock with everything. Every minute matters, every second matters, when you’re talking about hypothermia or frostbite. When you’re done hiking, you’ve got to take off all this sopping wet shit in the dark, and you’ve got to quickly put on all the dry shit in your heavy-ass pack before your core temperature drops to hypothermic levels. You’ve got to put all your wet shit in dry bags, and get in that sleeping bag before you freeze your butt off. Then, you wake up in the dark and you’ve got to put it back on soaking wet before it freezes on your body. And then you’ve got to get moving before you freeze in those wet clothes. You also only have eight hours of daylight in the day. You’re hiking half the day in the dark.
It’s going to feel like you’re never going to make it. I have all these doubts flooding my brain; I’m spiraling down the rabbit hole. I’m thinking about quitting on day two, and I’m thinking about lying about it. Like, What lie can I come up with to quit? That’s just not me. So I tell myself, Dude, just take it one step at a time. You don’t have to think about Mount Washington right now. All you’ve got to do is think about getting to the next shelter. That’s all you’ve got to do.
You can’t think about the end of the thru hike. It’s a five month journey, so thinking about the end, you are losing your ability to get through the day because the challenge is too insurmountable. So you just have to break it down into these much, much smaller increments. Each mile is so hard. I’m just thinking about getting to the next place where I either can get water or eat a bar, or getting to the next shelter every day.
That’s what I did. From, or Mount Katahdin to Springer Mountain in Georgia, 2200 miles. I felt like I beat the crux of winter working through the deepest, darkest doubts of fear. There’s no substitute for doing that. For being at your lowest low and thinking that you can’t, and then persevering through that feeling and actually completing the challenge that you set out to do.
It just opens up pathways of if you think it, you can do it. I don’t just think it. Now I know it.
By not letting your fears dictate what you are actually capable of motivating yourself to do, you can find yourself realizing experientially that you are capable of whatever you think up.
Thomas Gathman is a professional walker and biker of outrageously long distances. During the production of this episode, Thomas was nearing the completion of his latest trek, a nearly 6,000- mile-long bike packing trip. You can follow him on his many adventures on Instagram @therealhikingviking.