From the pages of I RVing: Fall 2022

See You in Six Months

Agony, ecstasy, and everything you need to master the Appalachian Trail

“I don’t think I should be here”

Patrick Cullinan expected a lot of things on the Appalachian Trail, but he certainly did not expect this much snow. Nor did he expect to be waking up at 3 a.m. and trudging onwards into the cold, wet dark just to stay warm.

Nor is Patrick the only one to entertain second thoughts. Every year, over 4,000 hikers start the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail (aka the AT)—and nearly a fifth of them quit less than two percent of the way through. The trail’s southern starting point lies about an hour north of the busy hub of the Atlanta airport. And from there, it lures casual hikers with promises of backwoods bravado, an achievement they can boast of the rest of their life. If they finish. But Patrick proved to be more than a casual hiker in 2018. He got through the snow—and innumerable other unexpected obstacles—to complete the AT. Now he’s hungry for more and is currently pressing his way up the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), the second prong of thru-hiking’s Triple Crown. (He’ll target the Pacific Crest Trail next.)

One wonders: What drives a person to take on challenges like this?

“I’ve got this energy or desire to have an adventure,” Patrick admits. And there are folks like him up and down the trail. Some are looking to hit reset on life. Others just want to live differently and not stick to societal conventions. Anyone taking on the AT gets four to six months of away, and they join an on-trail culture with a pithy, countercultural moniker that most are proud of: dirtbag. Patrick grew up hiking and fishing in Pittsburgh. But it wasn’t until a high school bike trip to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, that he discovered thru-hiking.

On a water break, Patrick and his classmates looked up and noticed a group of hikers resting near a cliff. His teacher identified them. Those were thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. His teacher noted that they’d probably walked through four to five pairs of shoes. That got Patrick’s attention. A few weeks later, Patrick completed the Vermont Long Trail, a 273-mile trek from the Massachusetts-Vermont border to Canada. But that wasn’t enough. He wanted a bigger challenge. He wanted the AT—an obsession that began to border on the extreme. He trained constantly. He researched on Reddit and then found himself sawing his toothbrush in half and removing tags from his clothes to save mere ounces of weight.

But ultimately it wasn’t his conditioning—or the ounces he didn’t carry—that mattered most on the AT. It was a mental challenge. “It sucks a lot of the time you’re out there,” he confesses. “I don’t know anyone that likes waking up in the rain for the fourth day in a row and putting on your wet clothes again and packing up a wet tent and hiking all day.” There are aching feet and sweaty clothes and pains up and down the length of your body. And you can’t even really think about the distance. A few weeks into the AT, Patrick put two fingers on the map near
Hot Springs, North Carolina. About 175 miles. His finish line was not even on the map yet.

Not. Even. Close. “When you start thinking about the trail,” Patrick relates, “you’re not gonna make it.” The key, he says, is making smaller, more attainable goals. In three days you’ll arrive in town. Just reach that tree up ahead. Patrick’s journey on the AT consisted of many four or five-day long hikes with short breaks at towns in between. In the towns, he found hostels, laundry, supplies (like toilet paper), and places to grab a warm meal before he pressed on. If the trail exited outside of a town instead of directly into it, he employed a different method. “The art of hitchhiking is definitely one to be learned,” Patrick laughs. He got rides from everyone—plumbers and electricians, folks with nice cars, and pick-ups with empty truck beds.

Whatever got him back to the epic trail that found its northern endpoint at Katahdin, Maine. All told it took Patrick four months to go end-to-end. It takes the average hiker about six, but, again, Patrick’s not your average hiker. “There’s a special energy on the trail,” he says. While its reality can disabuse you of any naïve romanticism, the payoff is equally big. Small pleasures, like sitting at a picnic table, become big. The sounds of nature surround you. Kindness from strangers takes new meaning. It’s why it takes a different breed to go. And for campers like Patrick, the only question is: How far?

When you start thinking about the trail, you’re not gonna make it


Not everyone is ready to leave the RV behind for six months and take on the AT in its entirety. (Put us in that camp.) But, even so, Patrick has some great tips to offer any camper planning on making an extended hike into the wild. Here are his five biggest tips.

Take Some Trial Runs

Make sure you truly enjoy hiking. Thru-hikes are not the same as a day hike. At all. You’re going to feel it. Try small trips to see how they go and if you want more. As for your boots, well, you’ll wanna break those in early. Do two nights. Do four nights. Do two weeks comprised of three-night stints? If you start to get weary, moderate your mileage. These runs are also important to get used to your gear—and put it into action. What does it feel like in your sleeping bag and tent when the temp drops? Spend a night outside to find out.

Narrow Down to Necessities

Let’s start with the Big Four: backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and shelter. After that, you might want to consider the following.
► Stove and gas canister for cooking hot meals in the winter
► Water purification, like Aqua-Mira
► Clothes for cold weather, extra socks, underwear, cookware setup
► Basic first aid and Ibuprofen (or as hikers call it, “Vitamin I”)
► Toothbrush and toothpaste
► Headlamp
► Pocket knife
► Toilet paper
► Cash. Patrick budgeted about $1,000–$1,300 a month for food, hostels, and tipping people who gave him a ride.

Adopt a Dirtbag Diet

In colder weather, warmer meals like instant mashed potatoes and Knorr pasta or rice (“the hiker’s faithful”) are favorites. In the summer, simple snacks like cheese and crackers become
more common. Freeze-dried meals from brands like Mountain House become key sources of protein. But, hey, these rules aren’t strict. Eat what keeps you going, like a true dirtbag. Patrick recalls seeing someone eat two honey buns with Nutella and peanut M&Ms stuffed in between. And that was a meal. If you’re lucky, you might get free food or drinks from generous strangers, aka “trail magic.” All that’s expected in return is your company and good conversation.

Have a Business Plan

We’ll keep this one short and sweet:
► Step 1: Dig a hole six inches deep with a trowel—at least 250 feet from the trail. (Even dirtbags have etiquette.)
► Step 2: Do your business in the hole. And aim well.
► Step 3: Clean that butt up, preferably using stolen gas station toilet paper or Taco Bell napkins.
► Step 4: Cover the hole and the TP.

► Step 5: Restock on TP at the next town.
► Step 6: Repeat as nature demands.

Steel Your Resolve

Accept the fact that you’re going to suffer. And you’re going to be uncomfortable a lot of the time. Things will hurt. If you have some romantic idea about what you think thru-hiking will be like, squash it. Instead, focus on short-term goals that you can attain and enjoy. Then keep on pushing. Because you’re not a quitter. At least not today.

Choosing the Right Trail

Wanna get a flavor of the AT, but don’t have six months to spare? We get that. See which section best fits your profile.

Weekend Warriors

  • Mau-Har Loop, VA
  • Perfect overnight hike with waterfalls
  • and knockout views.
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Distance: 14 miles
  • Park at: Sherando Lake Recreation Area

Nature-Loving Newbies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Trek through Tennessee’s visitor-friendly
park on a four-day excursion.
Difficulty: Various
Distance: ~70 miles
Park at: Smoky Bear Campground and RV Park

Easygoing Escape

Shenandoah National Park, VA
Ideal stretch for beginners looking to
stretch their range.
Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 100 miles
Park at: Matthew’s Arm Campground

AT Dress Rehearsal

Vermont Long Trail, VT
Want the real deal? Take 3-4 weeks and
test your mettle.
Difficulty: Intermediate
Distance: 272 miles (+ 166 miles of side trails)
Park at: Pine Hollow Campground

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