A NEMO Engineer's Best Stories from the Appalachian Trail
NEMO team members, Brittany Bendel and Randy Gaetano, sat down to learn more about Brittany's engaging 105-day experience as a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail. Here's what they had to say.
Part 1: Humble Beginnings
When did you first get serious about hiking?
Brittany: Well, I casually hiked a bunch growing up, but it was always just at state parks. Then after my sophomore year in college, I did the Long Trail with my friends. I was very ill-prepared. I had a hodgepodge of gear that I found in the basement. It was a wet, cold summer. It even snowed on us. And though we were grossly unprepared, we had a blast.
Summer snowstorms are no place for garbage bag rain jackets.
Whose gear was it?
Brittany: I stole some of my dad's gear that I found in the basement. I used an extended daypack for my backpack. I didn't own a rain jacket, so I used a trash bag. It was mud season, so that was pretty rough. Actually, six of us started and only two finished. The two of us that did were super determined and everyone else felt like we just did not have the gear to be up there. But I loved it a lot.
That’s pretty dedicated. Ok, so fast-forward a year and you decide to attempt the AT?
Brittany: After the Long Trail, I pretty much became obsessed. I decided I wanted to own real gear, so I could be better equipped. So, the next summer I actually did the AT as a Thru-Hike Syndicate ambassador. I was able to get all NEMO gear — a way better experience. I still think, for me, the Long Trail seems like it was much harder than the AT because I was just so much more prepared.
Did you do any physical training or just gear upgrades?
Brittany: I was in school full time, so I ran a bunch. I would hike on the weekends, but just the usual.
Brittany Bendel takes a moment to observe the stillness of a mountain pond.
What was your trail name and how did you get it?
Brittany: My trail name was Peaches. So, it was the end of my first week on the trail and I went to town to get my first mail drop. I had my mom sending my pre-packaged boxes to me that I had pre-packed with all of my ultralight dehydrated food. I get to the post office and they hand me the largest package I've ever seen. There's no way this is my package, but the postal worker confirmed it’s my package. I open it up and it turns out my mom had put so much food in it! She just thought there was no way I can get by with so little food and she quadrupled it.
Coming out of post office there’s a 7-mile, uphill hike back to the next shelter, and it’s hailing. So, I'm going up the hill with this huge backpack and I'm not even acclimated yet — it’s pretty hard — and I finally get there and hang up my food bag. Then this guy asks, “Are you eating for seven?” I sigh… and then I just said this phrase, “Well, my mom's a peach!”
But I am not the demographic to use a phrase like that — I was like 21. I was trying to say that she was being really sweet, but she had ruined my day by making me hike all that food up the mountain. Everyone laughed and thought it was weird I used the word peach. And from there, I became Peaches.
Are there some other funny names that you've encountered?
"I met a horse along the way. That was cool."
What do you think is your biggest inspiration for thru-hiking?
Brittany: I feel like the purpose of life is to do the things that make you happy and seek adventure and travel. And I think a thru-hike is the epitome of that experience. Your ONLY responsibility is to walk North. And that's only if you feel like it. And so, you just experience a lot of beautiful scenery, beautiful people, and community along the way.
Part 2: The Appalachian Trail Experience
What was the most beautiful part of the AT?
Brittany: I'm torn between the Smokys and the Whites. The first time I'd ever seen the Smokys was on the AT and it was pretty amazing. But then, there's this beautiful section as you're coming out of the Whites of northern New Hampshire into Maine, that's as beautiful as anything in the Whites, but not as populated.
What was the most inspiring part of your hike?
Brittany: I'd say the people that I met. You just meet so many people and develop a trail family with great friendships. Everyone has their own unique story and you just kind of learn from them and it really inspires you to do more because everyone there clearly has made a substantial life choice to ditch whatever they were doing to hike for six months.
The amazing virtues of this experience quickly began to present themselves.
What was an easy part of the hike that you expected to be hard?
Brittany: I was really nervous about food resupplies — as far as getting to town and not getting kidnapped while hitchhiking. But all of the people I met on the trail were really nice. I never felt in serious danger at any point on the AT. Everyone was just so accommodating, and trail angels were so prevalent. It made me want to pay it forward for all the help I received getting to town and back so easily.
There were about six people that went above and beyond — like driving me to a pharmacy to find the meds that I needed in a different town — just above and beyond. Some offered to pick me up and let me stay in their home for a few nights if I wanted to. And I was like, “Wow! That's so kind.”
Were there any unexpected challenges on the hike?
Brittany: The hardest part I expected — the never-ending blisters. But missing my friends and family at home was harder than I anticipated, and that was a challenge.
Did anybody meet you on the trail?
Brittany: My parents met me when I was close to home. The AT goes through Connecticut which was pretty awesome. And then my friends met me for day hikes in Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and then at the end in Katahdin, which was super awesome.
Maybe for a moment, this little box turtle was a great reminder.
That must have been amazing. Did you ever feel like, “Wow, I have a long journey ahead…”?
Brittany: Yeah, there's this section where people commonly get the “Virginia Blues”. You’re in Virginia for about 500 miles and it feels like forever. The beginning and the end of the Virginia are nice, but the middle of the state feels like you could do without it. I definitely experienced the “Virginia Blues” thinking, this state will never end and I could be home with running water. It happens again for part of Pennsylvania.
Any other things that you could think of that were challenging?
Brittany: My biggest challenge was that I had to get back for my next semester within a certain time frame. So, I had to balance 3 things: trying to really push myself, dealing with injuries, and experiencing the trail as you should — at a pace that allows you to step back and enjoy it too. So, just trying to balance those three aspects. I knew I had to average 22 miles. Every day I didn't do 22 miles, I had to add it on the next day, which is a lot of miles and then your feet just slowly peel off.
That's a solid average. What was your time frame — how many days did you have?
Brittany: I had 105 days. And that’s what I did.
Wow, right to the last day. So, were you averaging higher than 22 or did you have to catch back up?
Brittany: In the southern states I’d go way over 22, I was doing 30+ days for a long time. When I got to the Whites and was closer to where my friends could visit, I started slowing down. Throughout the day, when I hit the Green Mountains, I would just hang out with my trail family and eat cheese during the day and then night hike.
Did you read anything about the trail?
Brittany: I read A Walk in The Woods beforehand which isn't really a super inspiring book because it's about his failure on the trail. But the book is satirical. And even though he personally portrayed it as not a very fun experience, it really did catch my attention and inspire me to want to do it ... especially because I loved the Whites while growing up.
On the trail did you have anything to read?
Brittany: I started off with a book on the trail but then I found that I didn't read too much because I was hanging out with people. Sooner or later I ditched my book to also save on weight.
For the minimalist, little gifts surprisingly arrive in many ways on the trail.
That's my next question. How strictly did you subscribe to thru hiker minimalism? Was it a progression?Brittany: It definitely was a progression for me. I started with two headlamps just in case I wanted to go caving randomly. I had a whittling kit and a harmonica. I had books. A deck of cards. Just so many fun things. And then my pack got what's called “A Shakedown.” Thru-hikers with more experience will do that to newer thru-hikers — they'll go through your pack and take out every single thing they don't think you need. And so that's pretty much when I truly converted. The cases of everything were tossed. My pack was just completely stripped, and then they weighed it. After, you notice that you could have saved yourself from about 12 pounds of just extra shit to carry. I still kept my whittling kit for a long time — got really good at a spoon. I kept my harmonica for a while too. By the end of the trail, I sawed off my toothbrush handle. Gotta save grams.
Simple and cold at dinner time, but light in the pack during hike time.
What are some of your other weight-saving disciplines?
Brittany: I didn't carry a stove. I provided a list of really good meals that other people made, and I enjoyed trying, but I didn't carry a stove at all just because it wasn't worth the weight to me. I did all dry food, all the time.
That's amazing. I’ve heard you did a solid amount of pop tarts?
Brittany: Yep! Most days … so great.
Was there any gear that you wish you had?
Honestly, I really do wish I had a pillow. I didn't know camp pillows existed then. I would always just bunch a jacket up, but when I was cold and wanted to wear it, I was stuck with nothing.
What is the balance of being both a gearhead and a minimalist?
Brittany: I like to think that I'm both. I definitely think you can be both, it just depends on the sport. For backpacking, I'm a minimalist because you need so little to really enjoy the outdoors, and I feel like having little also enhances that enjoyment. But on the other hand, if I'm just going out on a one-night trip, I'm going to pack my self-inflating Roamer™ and just pretty much tech it out as much as I can. I like to enjoy gear too. Because you’re just there to enjoy it. Why not have the comfiest pad ever made?
I like how you separate the two because it's really all about appreciation. Either going minimal and appreciating nature or being really comfortable and enjoying the beauty of gear. It's great to be able to enjoy both approaches.
Part 3: The Bear
What was your most memorable moment?
So, I go down the trail and there's a bear! My first bear! I'm super excited about it and take some pictures. Then, figuring everyone at the shelter would want to see it, I go back and tell everyone there's a bear. Everyone wants to see it and walks down the poop trail with me, keeping their distance. Then they start taking pictures on their iPhones and hanging out … and I still have to go to the bathroom! I start to really feel the urge, and now I have all these people around me.
Finally, I tell them they have to leave. And then I think, now I’m alone with this bear. I’d read a lot about what to do if a bear comes around on the trail because I'm kind of afraid of them. So, I try to look really big. I click my trekking polls together. I make loud noises. But it starts walking toward me, unphased. Now, I'm really scared … and this bear is just chillin’! And then I think, “Well, I really gotta go.”
So, I dig my hole and the bear clearly isn’t going away. I start going to the bathroom and then the bear gets more interested. It starts to walk closer. Now, I’m in a very vulnerable situation. I can't move. I feel like, “Oh my God, this bear is coming close!”
I try to make loud noises again, just trying to scare it away. Then, all of sudden, it stops … and starts relieving itself as well! Here we are, me and the bear, pooping together! And I just thought, “Wow! I am done with the Trail. This is all I needed in life.” And then I see the bear is still going and I finish and run away.
Wow. That's amazing. I had no idea how that story was going to end. Haha... That is not what I expected — pooping with a bear. You're probably the only person in the world to have ever experienced that.
It can be a jarring experience when the sun sets on your journey.
Part 4: The Transition
Hard to follow that up … but I was curious to know how it felt returning back to life in civilization?
Brittany: It was definitely very challenging. I went straight from the Trail to school full-time. On top of that, I started training for a part-time job that I had. I was transitioning from living outside and just doing whatever made me happy, to studying to be a chemical engineer. It was a very jarring experience. And I went to bed pretty early on the AT — it gets dark early. Then I had to start studying and staying up really late to do homework. It took a while to adjust back.
I bet. Any future thru-hikes planned?
Brittany Bendel is NEMO's Test Engineer and loves exploring caves, rock climbing, and spending time on the trail whenever she can.