The Appalachian National Scenic Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, running its full length of nearly 2,200 miles through 14 states—or five pairs of shoes if you’re Scott Benerofe, who hiked the full trail earlier this year.
Benerofe, a lifelong Plainsboro resident who recently moved to West Windsor and graduated from Northeastern University this past December, describes himself as having been “absolutely gripped” by the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail for the past four years.
He read about it, planned for it, mentally and physically prepared for it, undertook comparably shorter hikes and camping excursions with it in mind, and finally hit the trail’s southern terminus in Springer Mountain, Georgia, on March 10.
By July 25, he had summited its northern terminus on Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park, joining the ranks of the few hundred people a year who “thru-hike” the Appalachian Trail, or completely walk it in one season.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it,” Benerofe says. “It’s such an inspiring thought to me, the idea of walking so far with everything I need on my back, travelling such a great distance on foot. It was a really motivating thing to think about being able to cover all of that land, to look at the map and know that I walked past every trail marker, I walked the whole entire trail.”
Nearly two million people step foot on the trail each year, many of whom are “day hikers” looking to tackle a smaller, reasonably accessible patch of the trail. Those who begin the trail with the intent of hiking its entirety have a success rate of roughly one in four or one in five hikers actually sticking it out, putting Benerofe in some rare company.
Preparation is one of the key differentiators between finishing the trail and not. It’s not just about readying oneself for the trail. It’s also about being prepared once the hike is underway and there’s no turning back, and there is a definite sweet spot between packing too much and not having nearly enough.
The gear Benerofe traveled with included: a backpack; a guidebook; a phone, which he says was mostly turned off during his hike, and charging accessories; a water filter and bottle; extra clothing; trekking poles; an SOS device; a small stove; and extra food procured from one of the trail towns he stopped at every three to five days.
He also carried a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag for the trail’s first 1,200 miles before switching to a hammock for the remainder of the hike.
While he did encounter some days that were more challenging than others, he says that he never once actually thought about calling it quits.
“I never regretted taking this on, but I definitely questioned it, and there were times I asked myself what would happen if I stopped but deep down, there was no real consideration of that—it was more like my mind playing tricks on me, but there were times it was hard to delineate between what’s a trick and what I really felt,” Benerofe says. “I knew deep down I really wanted to finish. I had some really tough moments where I thought about what would happen if I stopped, but I never actually considered it. Nobody was making me be out there. I could stop at any time, but my body always kept moving forward.”
Taking on the Appalachian Trail is certainly not without its physical risks, which include anything from inclement weather—Benerofe says that he woke up with snow in the earliest parts of the spring; he got soaked in thunder and lighting storms’ drenching rains as the summer unfolded—to “nearly stepping on a copperhead.”
He also had to navigate wet rocks and dicey mountain terrain with the potential for falls that could have ended in serious injury. Benerofe says that aside from a shin splint that called for a rest day, a few stumbles, and one particularly nasty spill on a part of the trail called Knife’s Edge in Pennsylvania, he “came away largely unscathed” from his four-and-a-half long trek.
As a number of the trail’s points include scaling mountains (its highest point is Clingmans Dome in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, rising 6,643 feet above sea level) in addition to demanding that a hiker trek quite a few miles a day—Benerofe averaged between 10 and 15.
The physical conditioning that’s necessary before committing to the trail not only helps minimize the potential for injury but also prepares a hiker for the rigors of a months-long, largely self-sufficient journey on foot.
But the risks were more than worth it, Benerofe says. There is some education he wishes had been a little more accessible to a first-time thru-hiker—better descriptions of the most scenic camping areas, more thorough descriptions of what the trail towns and their amenities offer to hikers—but he also feels that discovery was a big part of the emotional impact of the hike, especially in terms of witnessing the trail’s natural splendor himself.
“Part of me wants to say I wish I knew how truly amazing it would be, how beautiful everything really is,” he says. “But, no, part of what made this so worth it was about finding that out and seeing it for myself.”
Benerofe admits that he’s more comfortable in the outdoors than being confined to more urban landscapes.
“It doesn’t really bother me to be hiking in the woods at 3 a.m. in the rain, but being in the city can get overwhelming,” he said.
He says he loved the opportunity to spend his days taking in the ever-changing scenery all around him, and was “blown away” by the beauty of the South in the Roan Highlands on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, and how the Great Smoky Mountains seem to go on forever in “intense layers.”
He also mentions the numerous sunrises and sunsets he witnessed, the elevation in New Hampshire’s White Mountains “that was just impossible to capture in a photo,” and how the scenery in Maine included “the most gorgeous mountain of the whole trail.”
Leaving behind the stunning vistas that he describes as “too much for words,” coupled with the realization that a dream he nurtured for four years was now behind him left Benerofe with what dedicated hikers are all too familiar with: post-trail depression.
“Coming back home was one of the most difficult parts of the entire experience,” he said. “When I was on the trail, I was living the dream in my mind: I was out in the woods doing what I wanted every day, going through this beautiful scenery, and getting to exercise every day. When you’re on the trail, you’re listening to the birds, you’re looking around at the wilderness around you, and I think I took those quiet moments on the trail for granted. My phone started buzzing as soon as I was home and you have all these noises, like traffic. That’s definitely hard to readjust to.”
While he’s now looking for that first post-college job, Benerofe is already thinking about his next long hike, even though he knows he might have to wait a while. The Appalachian Trail, the West Coast’s Pacific Crest Trail and the Rocky Mountains’ Continental Divide Trail form the Triple Crown of Hiking, and Benerofe’s considered taking on the other two treks at some point. He’s also got his eye on completing the Arizona National Scenic Trail, which he says he’s already done a portion of.
But he feels like he’ll return to sections of the Appalachian Trail, and is “100-percent, without a question” certain that he’ll thru-hike it again.
In the meantime, Benerofe documented his hike both on Instagram (@scottbenerofe) and on The Trek (thetrek.co/author/scott-benerofe/), a website dedicated to documenting hikers’ journeys, where he can relive his on-foot travels. And he’s also more than happy to use his experience to advise others who are interested in thru-hiking their way through the Appalachian Trail he called home for more than four months.
“Don’t stress about how much your gear weighs, definitely go slow in the beginning to adjust and gain your strength, and just have fun and go with the flow—being flexible in your course is a good thing, and one or two days here and there of making a shorter hike than you planned isn’t going to ruin your pace, especially if you’re just not feeling it that day,” he says.
“There’s a saying: Don’t quit on a bad day,” he adds. “If you quit on a bad day, you’re just quitting because it’s bad at that time. If you quit on a good day, it means you really aren’t enjoying the trail. I saw a lot of people out there, and the one thing that every thru-hiker had in common was that they really enjoyed being out there. It wasn’t a job, it wasn’t a task, they weren’t forcing it: They wanted to be out there more than anywhere else.”