7 Things I Learned Thru-Hiking in America as a Brit
Having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Continental Divide Trail (CDT), I could offer a lot of technical advice about how to hike America's long distance trails. However, in this post, I want to share what it's like thru-hiking in America as a Brit. I'm sure some of these social and cultural observations I've made over the years will bring a smile to your face. I'll also talk about some of the extra things a foreigner needs to think about and plan for when taking on one of America's long trails–as if planning for a 2,000-mile hike wasn't complicated enough already!
Thru-Hiking in America as a Brit: "Are you from LUHN DUN?!"
Having worked periodically in the United States, as well as hiking two long trails, I've gotten my fair share of attention for my accent. My accent is a traveled, watered-down one, but every time I say "Paul" in Starbucks, an American thinks I said "Cole." Trying to correct them just makes it worse, so now I've given up and say my name is Thomas.
I've had a few "you're not from around here, are ya?" from gruff middle-aged men when hitchhiking in the back of a pickup truck. And yes, I've had giggly "I luuuurv your accent!" once or twice in local watering holes. Getting attention for the British accent can get annoying at times. Generally though, it's a great conversation starter and people just want to hear my story. That storytelling is a fun aspect of thru-hiking in America as a Brit, and has followed me throughout these experiences, observations, and lessons from the trail.
1. Being Amazed at the Array of Junk Food in the Grocery Store while Thru-Hiking in America as a Brit
I remember getting excited as a kid going into Walmart when on holidays in Florida. It wasn't until returning to America as an adult that I realized how much rubbish there is on sale in American supermarkets.
When I bought my first food resupply for the AT, I was overwhelmed by the amount of different crisps I could buy. Other hikers around me were gorging on things called "Honey Buns" and "Ding Dongs." What was all this sugar-coated madness? After the initial shock wore off, I quickly became a convert, eating a Twinkie here and there and sampling these mysterious "Corn Dogs."
By the end of any long distance hike, I'm always sick of everything in my food bag. At least thru-hiking in America as a Brit means there's always something new and awful to try. Over the years, I've tried to cut back on the amount of junk food I eat, whilst still keeping it interesting on trail. To see what kind of foods I eat on a backpacking trip, check out this video series on my Youtube channel.
2. Witnessing the Booming Thru-Hiking Community in America
It's not until you step out on a busy trail like the AT that you realize what a booming community of long distance hikers there is in America. I knew from research before the AT how many people hike the trail. I wasn't prepared for how much infrastructure exists around the trail. Hostels, restaurants, and shuttle services all specifically catering to thru-hikers.
Once I became more involved with the community through social media, I realized what a booming community it is. Not just the AT, but also the trails out west, such as the PCT, and even shorter, lesser known trails. Coming from a very suburban, English upbringing, I wasn't aware such outdoor-oriented communities existed.
3. Discovering the Wealth of "Cottage Industry" Gear Companies
Business is booming for cottage manufacturers in America's backpacking community. When preparing for the AT, I spent hours researching what gear to bring. I found the majority of the best and lightest options were being produced on a small scale for the U.S. market.
I love to see people with an entrepreneurial mindset earning a living doing something they love. I'd love to support more businesses coming out of the U.K. or Europe. However, I'm a firm believer in finding the right tool for the job, which often means purchasing from American companies.
4. Marvelling at Wide Open Spaces while Thru-Hiking in America as a Brit
Aside from dog walking on the weekends, all the greenery I saw growing up was at the local playground when I was up to no good. Nothing could have prepared me for the vast open spaces of the American wilderness.
Simply being able to walk in a "straight" line through the woods for five months boggled my mind. That was before I headed out west and saw the sweeping mountain vistas of the Rockies. Turning 360 degrees from the top of a 13,000-foot mountain and not seeing any sign of civilization made me feel humbled and small–as if me and my friends were the only people on this beautiful earth.
5. Logistics of Thru-Hiking in America as a Brit
Planning a multi-month hike is complicated on its own. As a foreigner, there are even more logistics involved. Europeans (which I still am for now, cough, Brexit, cough) can stay in the United States for 90 days without a visa. After that, it's off to the embassy for paperwork and fees.
I've had four separate U.S. visas over the years. Despite lots of paperwork, background checks, and fees, they are fairly straightforward to get.
Another complication is ordering hiking gear, or sending yourself resupply packages out on the trail. Having gear sent to Europe from the U.S. can be cost prohibitive due to high customs taxes. What I've done in the past is had gear sent to a hiker friend in the U.S. and picked it up when I arrive. For the CDT, I was lucky to have my good friend Cheesebeard's mum send our resupply boxes. We headed to Costco and Walmart before the trail and purchased all our junk before pre-packing our boxes to be sent out.
What it is to have good friends.
6. Not Seeing Another Soul for Days while Thru-Hiking as a Brit on America's Trails
On the AT, I was surrounded by people on an almost constant basis. If you sat down in the middle of the trail, even in the remotest areas, you would see at least thirty people in a day–whether that be other thru-hikers, or someone walking their dog.
The story was not quite the same on the CDT. We hiked some sections where we didn't see another soul for three or four days at a time. Some of these areas on the CDT are so remote that no one heads out there to walk the dog or take a stroll. Harsh weather and crazy conditions also presented some real risks. Dealing with high temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit is not a regular occurrence in the U.K. Just a lot of rain.
7. Embracing the Hospitable and Caring Nature of Americans while Thru-Hiking as a Brit
Despite the teasing between Brits and Americans, most Americans are the most hospitable and welcoming people I've ever met. On the AT, I had several strangers invite me into their homes when they heard what I was up to. They'd make me food while sharing the history of their town to a ragged British man that appeared out of the woods.
I made friends on that first hike that are set to be friends for life. We've had many adventures together since and have more hikes in the works. Friends spread out all over the U.S. invite me to crash at their place, eager to catch up if I'm ever passing through. I often take them up on their hospitality.
The Next American Hiking Adventure in America for this Brit
There are so many cultural and societal differences thru-hiking in America as a Brit. Those I've shared in this post are just a few that resonated with me. This summer, I'm heading back to the United States to link together a series of trails in the High Sierra. To follow along on my hiking adventures, stop by my website and say hello!