Monday, December 22, 2014
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13 Reasons Why You Should Take Time Off Of College to Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail

13 Reasons Why You Should Take Time Off Of College to Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail

Cole Heathcott

Go Hiking, College Can Wait

On the Appalachian Trail, most thru-hikers I encountered were in their mid 20s, 50s, or 60s. I would occasionally run into some thru-hikers that were my age, but we were definitely outnumbered by older hikers. When I hiked the trail at 19, older hikers repeatedly told me that they wish they could have thru-hiked at my age. I am glad that I chose to hike the trail when I did, instead of waiting to do it later in life. I got so much out of the trail at such a young age and I definitely think that 19, or any college-ish age, is the perfect age to attempt a thru-hike.  Here are 13 reasons why…

1) You probably don’t have an established career

At 19, you probably won’t be leaving behind any important job to start hiking. For older adults, leaving an established job is difficult to do. It is a big step for them to abandon the financial security that they have in their life (read Zach’s book for more info on this). For me, at 19, the only thing I left behind was half a semester of college and a $9/hour part time summer job. Go and hike before you actually need to make real money to support yourself and a family.

2) College isn’t going anywhere

If you are in college, or thinking about starting college, taking time off to hike the trail doesn’t mean you are permanently dropping out. A lot of colleges like to have applicants take a gap year or a semester off. Your college will still be right where you left it after you hike.

3) College may pay for your hike

If you do go to college, look into getting a grant from your school to help fund your hike. If you school is anything like mine, it would love to be able to say that it funded a thru-hike. Apply for any grant that you can. It never hurts to apply.

4) Your hike will be significantly cheaper

A lot of older hikers go broke on the trail and have to stop hiking. I believe the main reason for this is alcohol. At 19, you legally can’t purchase alcohol and you probably won’t have a $50 bar tab at every town you visit. Because I wasn’t legally able to go to bars and drink, my hike was a lot cheaper than most other hikes.

5) Better trail magic

Mothers and grandmothers will see you and take care of you. They will tell you that you remind them of their children and they will shower you with sandwiches and love. At 19, you will easily be able to pul the “I’m a hungry kid” card, which will bring you plenty of magic.

6) Easier Hitching

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

At 19, your beard won’t be as big as everyone else’s. Because of your inability to grow facial hair, people will be more willing to pick you up.

7) Gain wisdom from older people

One of my favorite parts of the trail was getting to hang out with older people. In real life, all of my friends are around my age. Being surrounded by grown adults was refreshing and I tried to take in as much of their wisdom as possible. When else in life will you be able to chill with a 65 year old man and have the time of your life?

8) Learn to take care of yourself and be your own person

All of my life before the trail, I was always being watched and controlled by parents, siblings, teachers, and coaches. On the trail, I was on my own. The freedom was ridiculously liberating. I have never felt so independent and free in my life.

9) Figure out what you want to do with your life

Part of the reason why I hiked the trail in the first place was that I needed a break from college. I felt like I was going to college just because that’s what most high school graduates are expected to do where I am from. Taking time off gave me a break from the hectic schedule of school. On the break, I was able to reflect and gain a better understanding of what I want to do with my life.

10) You aren’t put down for your age

On the trail, there is no social standing. Everyone is a hiker and everyone is equal. In real life, being young can be discouraging. When I worked retail, a lot of customers did not take me seriously because I was so young and they would ask me to find someone else to assist them, even though I was perfectly capable of doing my job. Young people are capable of anything, yet society puts us down. Being viewed as an equal to older people was refreshing and satisfying.

11) You get to accomplish something that most people your age won’t accomplish

When I turned 19 last February, I had a panic attack. Realizing that I hadn’t done anything special with my life up to that point, I wanted to do something incredible before I turned 20. I could’ve easily gotten a boring internship last summer like a lot of my friends, but I am glad I did something different. Hiking the trail is my proudest accomplishment, and one of the only times in my life I can say that I have truly lived.

12) Thru-hiker parties > College parties

I have been back in college for about a month now and I can honestly say that college parties are no fun compared to the times I partied on my thru-hike. I would choose sitting around a campfire with hiker trash over a being on a crowded and sweaty puke-covered dance floor any day.

13) You realize who is important in your life

In college and high school, you meet a lot of different people who you may consider to be your “friend.” When I was hiking, I realized that a lot of these friendships were superficial. Being away from everyone for so long helped me realize who my real friends are. These are the people who I love and care for with all of my heart.

These are just some reasons, among many others, to take a break( or delay starting) college to hike the trail. Since my thru-hike, many people have told me that their dream is to hike the AT and that they will do it in the future. If it is your dream, DO IT NOW! Why wait on something when you can go for it now? Follow your dreams and live life to the fullest. Don’t sit in a classroom and daydream when you can go to Georgia and start living the dream.

- poptart NOBO 2013 -

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About Cole Heathcott

My name is Cole, my friends call me Bear, my trail names (yes, I had two trail names) were Poptart and Balto. In 2013, at 19 years old, I completed a northbound thru-hike and fell in love with life, the outdoors, and adventure. Check out my website - www.beingcolbert.com
  • dennis_sarasota

    Being an “older” hiker, I especially enjoyed item’s 7 and 10. Good job Cole. I loved it when I hiked the trail and hooked up with younger people. I ended up hiking a good portion of the AT with “New York Minute,” a software engineer. I’m a hardware engineer (radio technology) and we had no end of wonderful discussions around technology, and how it is constantly changing. After reading your blog here, I realized that, in my book, Three Hundred Zeroes, the young people were what made the hike special to me. I admired their bravery, their desire to get outside the box and do what their heart desired and not what our culture dictated. Thanks for the inspiration Cole.

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  • Alby J

    What shoes did you use?

  • Sam

    My parents think I’m nuts for wanting to take a year off school to work and hike. Their main worry is safety as I’m a girl and would only be 19 when hiking. Did you find it to be safe for younger people/did you see a lot of female solo hikers? Did they seem comfortable and safe?

    • Darion

      I’m trying to solo the AT next Spring as a 19 yr old female as well. I’ve been encouraged by my school to do it; however, the ‘rents don’t agree. Being in their late 60’s, their central concern is safety. I’m not worried about it, but I definitely need facts to back my argument.

  • Ned_Ed_Ted

    Good article. Agreed, college is a great time to hike the trail. On the other hand … just as college isn’t going away, neither is the trail. It will still be around next year, or the next 10 years. In college I was pretty eager to start working and earn money. Taking six months off to hike the trail would have seemed foolishly indulgent (plus we didn’t really have the internet then, so I was barely aware of the trail, and there was no easy way to get information about it). In retrospect, it would have been a good time to hike, and I could have benefitted from being a year older in college. HOWEVER … as a result of my working hard for the past two decades, I’ve come to a point in my life where I could simply take off and kike the trail, no worries about finances during the trip or afterward, even if I choose never to work again. The only reason I’m not hiking it now is that I love my job and my kids are at home. However, in another decade…

  • Chad

    Great article. I decided a few weeks ago to take 2015 off of college to thu-hike, something I’ve been dreaming of for years. Reading this was refreshing and reassuring and is making me all the more anxious for March to arrive!