Photo provided by Deserrae Potts
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My Trail Story featuring Early Bird

Deserrae Potts, a.k.a Early Bird, shares the story of how she went from a completely broke student and inexperienced backpacker to a thru hiker in one year.

Fatima Peña      My Trail Story       11/15/2019
Fatima Peña
My Trail Story
11/15/2019

How I Went From Zero Experience and No Gear to a Thru Hiker in One Year

Trail Name: Early Bird

Trail: Appalachian Trail in 2019

Age: 21 years old

Hi my name is Deserrae, trail name “Early Bird,” and I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2019 immediately after I graduated college. This is the story of how I went from a completely broke student and inexperienced backpacker to a thru hiker in one year! 

A thru-hiker is hitch-hiking on the side of the road.
Photo provided by Deserrae Potts

My whole life, I have always been strongly drawn to spending time outdoors doing physical activity. It was common for me to regularly be frustrated that I didn’t have any skills, knowledge, gear, or even a partner to go and do the activities I had such a strong desire for. I got into climbing at the indoor campus gym while I was in college, but I was always frustrated with the fact that I didn’t have a solid partner or the money for any gear to get outside. I always found myself relying on other people to take me out and teach me skills, or even lead a route for me that I didn’t feel strong enough to complete. I couldn’t justify investing the very little money I had in the sport when my equipment would have a short expiration date and I still didn’t have a solid partner who would commit to actually using the gear with me. It felt like I was at a dead end so I found myself looking for something I could do on my own.

Searching for my own thing, I knew that backpacking was something I had always wanted to do. I followed a girl on Instagram who thru hiked the Pacific Crest Trail last year, and I would constantly see pictures and read stories of her cowboy camping and hiking alone. I couldn’t get over just how on earth I could ever do such a thing, but the more I saw her doing it, the more I thought I could probably do the same. I remember even reaching out to her and asking how she handled camping alone.

Thru-hiker on a rock ledge at the Appalachian Trail
Photo provided by Deserrae Potts

Miraculously, I ended up being given a backpack and tent as a gift. Next I spent money on a sleeping bag, which seemed like a big deal to me who at the time was saving every penny I could and working like crazy to pay for my college degree. At one point I remember giving myself a $10 a week budget to do something fun, which included anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary for me to live or own. Even if I wanted to get a cup of coffee with a friend I would have to dip into the $10, and only have $7 left. As a result I’ve always been pretty careful about my decision making regarding money. To make a long story short, I absolutely did not have the funds to start backpacking, yet I still found a way. I went to yard sales all summer and I found a junky sleeping pad for only $2, but it worked for me! I saved up the funds to purchase a water filter and buy the cheapest stove and cook set sold on Amazon. Now that I felt like I had the absolute basics to get outside: a tent, backpack, sleeping bag, stove, and water filter, I just needed to find someone to go with. There was still no way I was going to go alone!

Scenic forest from the Appalachian Trail
Photo provided by Deserrae Potts

I asked my friends to go with me several times but after hearing “no” and “I’m too busy” so many times I just gave up. I was so desperate I started to look for random people on Facebook to go with via the group feature, and that’s where I found “Mountain Chicks Midwest” (a group which has ceased to exist). They had a backpacking trip planned for the next weekend that worked for me. All I had to do was sign up, and show up to the relatively local location with my gear. That was it. No  money involved. I definitely could not afford to pay $300 to go on a guided trip with an outdoors company like REI or the college program.

Thru-hiker posing in front of the Appalachian Trail Mountains
Photo provided by Deserrae Potts

I showed up to the trip with barely anything in my backpack, mostly because I didn’t own anything else to bring. I didn’t know a single person and I was the youngest one by far, being only 20 at the time. There were quite a few middle aged women, as well as a retiree. When we started hiking I was so nervous. My backpack looked considerably empty compared to everyone else’s, and they were all experienced, often going on day hikes or weekend trips. The first hill we climbed up absolutely killed me. I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe how hard backpacking was, but regardless, I was instantly in love with it.

My pack wasn’t adjusted correctly and my shoulder and neck were killing me. Too afraid to speak up in fear that I would be complaining about something else everyone wasn’t having a problem with, I didn’t say anything until we got to camp where one of the women kindly helped me learn how to adjust my pack the correct way so I wouldn’t hurt. At night I heard coyotes howling outside my tent, and I didn’t sleep at all because I was so paralyzed with fear. When the trip was over and I finally arrived home I felt more sore and beat up than I had expected. There were bruises on my hips and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to limp around for my 12 hour shift at the hospital the next day.

Thru-hiker filling up their water bottle at night with a head lamp on the Appalchian Trail
Photo by Deserrae Potts

After actually getting outside and doing it, I was hooked. Spending most of my life living in an Appalachian Trail state (Pennsylvania), I can’t remember not knowing the trail existed. In the back of my head I always knew it was something I wanted to do when I grew up, but I really didn’t understand or think about what it would take to actually complete it. I ended up with a job making more than I ever had (which was still close to minimum wage) and living in a place with rent cheap enough to save extra money. When I decided to graduate a year early, I realized that I would actually have funds to do what I wanted!

Mountains from the Appalachian Trail
Photo by Deserrae Potts

I remember taking 21 credit hours, and when I wasn’t studying I was working 12 hour shifts. It was a difficult and extremely busy time, but I was determined that I would be thru hiking the trail less than a year from now. I became so obsessed with the trail that I could barely sleep. Constantly, I was praying about it, doing research, reading books, and watching videos. There were a lot of sacrifices I had to make in order to do it, but I wanted it so bad. In fact, I don’t really feel that I’ve ever worked so hard for something that I was so desperate to do in my whole life.

Thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail with its mountains in the background
Photo by Deserrae Potts

Telling people what I wanted to do was scary. I was so worried that people would be disappointed that I didn’t really care about graduating college, or that I would bail out in my first week. There were several times I found myself doubting if I could really hike 2,200 miles by myself and almost didn’t even attempt it. Eventually I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what other people think of my dreams and that I am the only one who would make it happen for me. Making the final commitment in my head was one of the biggest and most intimidating steps of the entire trail journey. Without that first step, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing about how I went from being a broke college student with zero experience to a thru hiker in a year.

Thru-hiker with 2000 spelled out on the ground next to them on the Appalachian Trail
Photo by Deserrae Potts

So if you’re thinking about thru hiking or backpacking and asking yourself how on earth you will pull it off, I’m here to let you know that where there is a will, there is a way. I promise, that whatever is stopping you has been overcome by someone else at some point and if they can do it, so can you!

(Disclaimer: At some point on my thru hike I have gone without every single one of these items listed in my absolutely necessary gear list, except for a backpack. Not that I recommend going without any of these items (except a stove), but where there is a will there is a way!)

Thru-hiker at Mount Katahdin on the Appalachian Trail
Photo by Deserrae Potts

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The Appalachian Trail is one of the oldest National Scenic Trails in the US. Its path takes you from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

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Pennsylvania, Appalachian Trail
Photo by Zoë Symon
Pennsylvania, Appalachian Trail
Photo by Zoë Symon

Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is one of the oldest National Scenic Trails in the US. Its path takes you from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

2200 mi (3540 km)
$59.99 full guide
Learn more
Get our trail guide for this area!
About the Author

Fatima Peña

Fatima is Atlas Guides’ 2019-2020 student intern. She is an art major at Northern Arizona University.