Going the Distance at Warren Doyle’s A.T. Institute

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PrintWarren Doyle is an Appalachian Trail icon who has thru-hiked the A.T. 16 times. And his pupils at the Appalachian Trail Institute are three times more likely to finish than those who attempt a thru-hike on their own. They complete the AT at a 75% rate versus around 25% for those who don’t take the class.

Often regarded as eccentric for his unique ways on the trail (read: having taken only Little Debbies with him on extended hikes, never carrying or treating water), Warren Doyle has methodically created a successful “path” to help potential Appalachian Trail treaders complete the entire 2,180-mile trail.

The most important piece of equipment? According to Doyle, it is your mind. Training your brain to handle the vagaries of the trail is the key. A typical potential thru-hiker trolls websites and tramps to outfitters, learning about the latest packs, the best boots, the hardest hills and the coolest trail towns. Some also train their bodies. Yet almost none consider toning their mental muscles in order to fulfill the dream.

Doyle started the Appalachian Trail Institute in 1989. Prior to that, he had hiked the Appalachian Trail multiple times, at one time holding the thru-hike speed record.  Introduced to the Appalachian Trail while in his home state of Connecticut, the retired college professor, now living near Mountain City, Tennessee, has made the A.T. a driving force in his life for 40 years.

Doyle runs the Appalachian Trail Institute out of his home, a 19-room rambling old farmhouse complemented with an assortment of outbuildings. His compound is designed to host groups for educational endeavors extending beyond the A.T., including other outdoor adventures and Doyle’s other passion — contra dancing.

Doyle’s most famous Appalachian Trail Institute graduate is Jennifer Pharr Davis, a three-time AT thru-hiker and current thru-hike speed record holder at 46 days. Another is Bill Irwin, a blind hiker who completed the A.T. with his seeing-eye dog. Another man, whose trail name was Gutless, took Doyle’s class and completed the A.T. journey despite having his stomach removed due to cancer.

Students of all ages and backgrounds travel from across the country and around the world to attend the one-week workshop.  They all attended the Appalachian Trail Institute to “shorten the learning curve,” as Doyle puts it. Doyle’s students learn the psychological and philosophical aspects of the thru-hike. It boils down to his 13 statements of wisdom. Here are a few Doyle nuggets:

  • Walking the entire Appalachian Trail is not recreation. It is an education and a job.
  • Time, distance, terrain, weather, and the trail itself cannot be changed. You have to change.
  • It is far better, and less painful, to learn to be a smart hiker rather than a strong hiker.

Doyle also reminds his students to take control of their individual temperaments, levels of comfort, and thresholds of pain. If they can match these mental states with the requirements of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, then they will likely complete your pilgrimage.

Classroom workshops cover lessons about trail safety, goal setting, sponsorship, hitchhiking, and handling the domestic front.

Afternoons are spent hiking the A.T. near Doyle’s home. This gives students a taste of the trail, learning to set their pace, feel the mountains, and discover a Doyle axiom: “The trail knows neither prejudice nor discrimination. Don’t expect any favors from the trail. The trail is inherently hard. Everything has to be earned. The trail is a trial.” •

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