Over a month ago I went on the Women’s AT Backpacking Trip with BRHC, and I cannot stop thinking about it. The three-day trip was truly life-changing, and I cannot wait to return to the trail. For years I have been wanting to go backpacking but did not really know where to start or who to go with. I have read countless books about thru-hiking and other adventures but had not really been backpacking before.

On a cold, dreary day in January, I was again thinking about backpacking. I visited the BRHC website and started browsing through their guided trips. They all seemed so amazing but honestly the trips were just not in my budget. Then I saw that they offered reduced pricing for those that need it and immediately sent an email. Little did I know how much that email would impact me. BRHC staff were so kind and explained the process for reduced pricing. After some back-and-forth emailing and filling out an application, I was able to sign up for a guided trip at a price that I could afford. I was confirmed as a participant on the Women’s AT Backpacking trip in May.

As the trip neared, I was both excited and nervous. I was looking forward to learning more about backpacking. During graduate school, in the thick of my dreaming, I bought a backpacking pack at REI during one of their annual sales. The only time I had been able to use the pack was during a trip to North Manitou Island in Lake Michigan with some friends from graduate school. Looking back, we were so unprepared. That was a great trip, but we did not have backpacking tents. We had a bulky four-person tent that was intended for car camping and we all just traded off carrying it while we were hiking to our camping spot on the island. So, needless to say, I was excited to actually get to use this pack and to learn more about real backpacking equipment. But, I was also nervous. I hike quite a bit with friends and my dog, but I hike slowly. As a larger person, I was nervous about being perceived as the out-of-shape participant and being the slowest one in the group. Before the trip, I shared these concerns with the trip leader, Heidi, via email and she helped ease my concerns.

The day before the start of the trip involved a drive from my home in Raleigh to the Appalachian Trial-er bunkhouse in Hot Springs, NC. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Heidi and shown a bunk bed that I could use. Since it was late, I went to sleep pretty much right away. The next morning started with coffee and talking to Heidi followed by a walk to the local dinner for breakfast. After breakfast, we went back to the Trail-er and started the “shakedown.” This is where Heidi and AJ (the bunkhouse caretaker) explained how to pack all of the backpacking gear in our packs and helped us pick out food for the trip. I was surprised by how good the food options were but thought that packing two gallon-sized Zip Lock bags of food seemed excessive (spoiler, AJ and Heidi were spot on with their recommendations for the amount of food that was needed). Then we moved our cars around and piled into the van to be shuttled to the start of the hike.

The hike started at Max Patch and ended back at the Trail-er in Hot Springs, NC. Twenty miles of hiking over three days with a pack was daunting, but before I knew it we were off. For the first few miles, we did not see many other hikers but the views were amazing! We met our first few thru-hikers when we stopped at a shelter for lunch and we would meet more throughout the trip at the shelters where we camped. However, the best part of the trip was really just talking with the other women in the group. Heidi was such a wealth of knowledge (and I definitely asked her a million questions about backpacking gear, her own experiences, and backpacking with a dog). Heidi also told us all about the different wildflowers and plants that we saw along the trail.

On the first day, we only hiked three miles, but it was nice to start to get used to having a pack on. I had to make some adjustments to the straps on my pack throughout the day since it was digging into my shoulder. Three miles may not seem like that much, but I was definitely very tired by the time I had set up my tent near the shelter that we had hiked to. After setting up our tent and sleeping system, we all gathered together to make dinner. We learned about boiling water with the stove and making the backpacking meals that we had brought. While eating our delicious dinners, Heidi shared more of her experiences and explained how we would have to gather all of our “smelly things” to hang them on the bear cables. After taking care of everything that we needed to, I headed to bed and fell asleep pretty much instantly.

The next morning we had coffee and breakfast before breaking down our tents and repacking our bags. With 10 miles ahead of us, this was the longest day of hiking during this trip. Before we set off, I was again nervous about being the slowest hiker. However, once we were off I forgot about
being nervous and was just so excited about seeing everything on the trail. We made a few stops to eat snacks and lunch and also stopped at a few water sources to filter water and fill up water bottles. At the end of the day, I was tired but really, really proud of myself for hiking 10 miles. My dinner was again delicious and we all decided to relax around a campfire before going to bed. Our entertainment consisted of telling funny stories and reading the trail register at that story (the thru-hikers had some pretty amusing things to report). After dragging myself to my tent, I was again asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow (one of the “luxury items” that I had decided to bring was a small camping pillow - it was well worth the extra weight in my pack).

The final morning on the trail was bittersweet. I was sad that the trip was coming to an end, but also felt very accomplished about being able to hike to town that day. With seven miles of hiking ahead of us, we decided to get moving after our coffee and breakfast. As the trail descended in elevation, we started to see some different varieties of wildflowers and Heidi filled us in on all of their names. In the middle of the hike, we came across some trail magic and we decided to take a longer break there. After our break, the trail was uneventful and we eventually could start seeing the rooftops of Hot Springs. Upon making it back to town, we took celebratory photos next to the sign near the trail and make our way back to the Trail-er. Everyone’s spirits were high, but I personally felt elated! I was so excited that I had had a great trip. When we made it back to the Trail-er, we hung out on the porch with celebratory eclairs and cokes. Sitting in the Adirondack chair eating a chilled eclair, all I could think about was how darn proud I was of myself. I did it! And I loved it! Not only did I hike the hike, but I learned so much about backpacking. I sat there feeling strong and full of knowledge. I knew that I wanted to go backpacking again.

Our trip came to an end with a group trip to the Big Pillow Brewing Company with Heidi and AJ. We walked to the brewery and had beers on the patio. I could not think of a better way to end the perfect trip. Spending three days on the trail with six other fabulous women and our fearless guide, Heidi, was such a special experience. I cannot wait to get back out on the trail!