Itching for adventure and seeking a break from their D.C. jobs, Elise Mann and Will Stowe figured it was time to go for a walk. In 2015, that’s exactly what the couple did, hiking roughly 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine through woods and mountains, snow and rain on the Appalachian Trail. It took 146 days, four pairs of hiking boots each and more nonperishable food than either wants to think about, but the couple became two of the approximately 19,000 in history who have “thru-hiked” the trail, meaning they completed the entire length on foot. Mann, 28, and Stowe, 30, shared the secrets of how they completed such an undertaking — and how you can, too.
What were your lives like when you decided to go thru-hiking?
Elise Mann: Will and I had both spent about four years in D.C. Will was doing audiovisual tech stuff and I was working for a think tank around global health. We had been talking about wanting to do something else, either take a break or get out for a little while.
Will Stowe: During college I always talked about taking a year off and doing [the trail]. My parents said no — I’m glad they didn’t let me do that. But I had it in the back of my mind for a long time.
How experienced were you as hikers before that?
Mann: I grew up hiking in Colorado.
Stowe: I grew up kayaking and hiking and backpacking and in the mountains of North Carolina.
Mann: But neither of us had done any hiking longer than a week or two.
What resources did you find valuable before you left?
Stowe: I did a lot of Googling and finding forums online. There’s one called whiteblaze.net. There’s a lot of former thru-hikers on there — I used it a lot to figure out what equipment we should take.
Mann: We took a day trip from D.C. out to Harpers Ferry and visited the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. I think my favorite advice we got from there was, “Just don’t be stupid,” which I think is pretty excellent hiking advice. For me, it was a lot of talking to people and hearing what their experiences were like. There’s a really great network to plug into.
Let’s talk gear. What are some big purchases that an aspiring hiker needs to make?
Stowe: Your shoes and your pack are really important, and those just need to fit.
Mann: There’s this hiking community called “The Trek,” and they have a bunch of compiled lists that they pull together as every thru-hiking season starts of recommended tents and this or that.
Stowe: Rather than thinking about weight or size, make sure it’s gonna do OK in the rain. No matter how expensive your tent is, if you’re getting wet in your tent, you’re gonna be unhappy. … There’s people out there with tents that cost like $700, but then there’s people with a tarp they got at Walmart, and that’s fine too. It’s whatever you’re comfortable with and what’s gonna work for you.
Mann: There’s no right or wrong way to do it.
Stowe: Well, there’s plenty of wrong ways to do it. There’s just a lot of right ways, too.
What did your prep for the trail look like?
Mann: I think the best way to get in shape for hiking is just to hike. With that in mind, we went slow and tried not to push ourselves too hard.
Stowe: We’d get 8 miles in and then stop, even if it was the middle of the afternoon. We waited like a week, and then did like 10 miles a day for a week, then 12.
Mann: You don’t necessarily have had to do a ton [of hiking practice] beforehand. There were a lot of people we met [on the trail] that had done day hikes but hadn’t done a ton of camping. That’s OK — the A.T. is a bit more accessible [than other trails] because you’re passing through towns every three to six days.
How easy is it to meet people on the trail?
Stowe: When you first start out on the trail, there’s just mobs of people. People start thinning out, either because they’re spreading out or because people decide not to continue. We started seeing the same people over and over and developed these friends. If you’re on the same hiking schedule — like going the same mileage, staying at the same campsites — you’re stuck with them.
Mann: Folks that are gonna keep going on the thru-hike are going to have a certain level of grittiness, a certain level of wild. The mountains are beautiful and I love being outside, but I think the people were the best part.
How did you two do this without getting sick of each other?
Mann: At the beginning of the hike, we were like, “How do we talk about what happens if we hate each other?” We’d hike separately sometimes. We’d say, like, “Meet you in 10 miles.” Also, our tent was a neutral zone: That was our rule. That was really helpful in how we worked through conflict.
Is there anything you’d do differently?
Stowe: It took a while [on the trail] to find a pair of shoes that would work, and I think we both suffered because of that.
Mann: Your feet change so much based on how tired you are and how swollen they are and how much you walk on them or how hydrated you are. I talk to my feet all the time.
How do you think the experience changed you?
Stowe: I’m not afraid to try things and I have the confidence that I’ll be able to do it. I’m happy to dive into some situation at work that I’ve never done before, or into something I’m scared of. I’ll just do it.
What advice do you have for aspiring thru-hikers?
Mann: It was helpful for me to have some way to remember why you wanted to do it in the first place, on those days that it is really crummy or disheartening. We got to Maine and all of a sudden I was like, “I’ve already hiked 1,900 miles and everything hurts. I can’t imagine going another 300 miles!” Then Will and I spent a day or two thinking about what it would mean for me to stop 300 miles short. It can be helpful to have a way to remember why this is the challenge you wanted to do. It’s amazing, but it’s tough.
Want a taste of the trail? Damascus in southern Virginia is unofficially known as the official town of the Appalachian Trail. “The main sidewalk in town is part of the official trail,” Stowe elaborates. It’s also the place to go if you want a small taste of trail life: The town’s annual Trail Days Festival (May 18-20 this year) offers food, crafts, live music and lectures and workshops with past thru-hikers who share their experiences.