What Hiking 2,189 Miles Taught Me About Leadership

What can you learn about leadership from hiking for six months straight, covering thousands of miles, and carrying everything you own stuffed into a bag on your back?

Plenty, it turns out.

Recently I asked successful long-distance backpacker Greg Ward if he would be willing to share some of his Appalachian Trail leadership lessons with us.  His reply was quick, insightful, and included some unexpected truths that defy convention and can help us all become better leaders.

Appalachian Trail Leadership

The Trail:  

The Appalachian Trail or “AT” is a 2,189.1 mile long rocky path that snakes its way from Springer Mountain in Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine.  It generally follows the ancient spine of the Appalachian mountains, passing through 14 states along the way.

Two thousand miles of walking is a lot, but as if that weren’t daunting enough, there’s also the climbing.  The trail has an elevation gain equivalent to climbing Mount Everest 16 times.

The Thru-hiker:

My first glimpse of Greg Ward (trail name “Hammer”) was a  red-bandanna’d head bobbing through the high grass.  We were both out for a hike one day last June, though as a thru-hiker, his destination was a lot farther away than mine. We fell into easy conversation.

By that point Greg had already hiked over 1,000 miles of the AT; his calm but purposeful demeanor made it easy to see that he fully intended to finish the rest of it.  During our short walk together he shared some of his tips with me about how not to quit when attempting to accomplish a big goal like this one.


Since it’s completion in 1937, fewer than 15,000 people have completed a successful thru-hike of the trail.  In recent years, roughly 2,500 make the attempt annually, but about 75% of them drop out.  Fatigue, illness, and injury claim most.  Those who do make it to the end typically take about half a year of nearly continuous hiking to complete the task.

Greg Ward is one of those rare people.  Fresh off his successful thru-hike, he had some revealing things to share about what it takes to be successful.

Here’s what Greg has to say about Appalachian Trail Leadership:

It’s Not What They Told You

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was a lifelong dream of mine.

Years ago, my youngest daughter gave me Bill Bryson’s book, “A Walk In The Woods.” What a joke! I now know the AT is nothing even close to Bryson’s memoir, nor the movie.

Bryson was a very entertaining author, but nowhere near factual…and he didn’t technically thru-hike. To his credit, Bryson was writing to entertain, not educate.

Too many people try to take Bryson’s stories and make them learning experiences, myself included.  But what you read and see in the media doesn’t always square up with reality.

Nobody can prepare you for what the AT does to you physically, mentally and emotionally. Leadership is a significant requirement of successful thru-hikers and the lack of sound leadership qualities are why most people fail on the trail and in life.

Applachian Trail Leadership Lessons

Here are a few things I learned on my 2,189.1 mile journey from Georgia to Maine.

1) Find comfort in discomfort.  Leaders are comfortable being uncomfortable. When things get rough (and they always do) a strong leader makes the decision to make things tolerable, quickly!

During my 180 day trek there were many days of bad weather, sickness, and injury, and I was uncomfortable much of the time. The beauty of the scenery and sheer determination kept me moving north.

2) Sweat the small stuff.  Some people like to live by the motto “Don’t sweat the small stuff!” Leaders know this is bunk! Leaders correct small issues before they become big ones. A pebble in a hiker’s shoe can cause major problems if not removed before a blister surfaces.

Ticks, giardia (a waterborne parasite), and poison ivy were never a problem because I was meticulous about using DEET, bleach and a water filter religiously!

3) Get quality help.  Recruiting a capable, loyal support system is crucial and good leaders do this well.  This allows them to make really tough decisions without fear of a catastrophe, knowing the support system will patch it up and make things even better than they were.

I could never have done this without the support of my wife, family, and Sam Rayburn Independent School District in north Texas, which adopted me.  Care packages, letters, cards, videos and kind words kept me focused and determined to complete the ginormous task I had taken on!

The Adventure Continues

greg-at2Now that I’m home trying to acclimate to civilization,  my heart is planning my next adventure, as a good leader should! “Good leaders have a dream, great leaders have a PLAN!”


Hammer (Greg Ward)

2016 AT Thru-hiker

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Well said, Greg, and thank you for sharing your insights.  Whether our journey is one step or millions, if we’re willing to get uncomfortable, focus on important detail, and build a support network, chances are we’ll go far.  Maybe even 2,189 miles!

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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