Scott Benerofe thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail solo in the winter, overcoming obstacles and discovering joy deep in the backcountry.
On Dec. 5, 2021, Scott Benerofe embarked on an intense undertaking that would lead to months of summiting peaks in whiteout conditions, breaking trail for hours at a time, slogging under a 70-pound backpack, and fording icy rivers in the midst of winter. His southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) was completed on May 5, 2022—exactly five months after he began this journey of self-reflection on a trail near and dear to his heart.
After thru-hiking the AT northbound in 2019, what made you turn around and want to do it again, but as a southbound winter-thru-hike?
I wanted to spend a winter outside. I realized this would be an awesome chance to revisit the trail and see it in another light. I have all these memories over all these different phases of my life in these mountains. On my most recent thru-hike in 2022, I remember as I was going further south how I felt coming north back in 2019. The closer I got to Georgia, the younger the shadow of myself got and it was interesting to reconnect with how I felt during those early days on trail. I had more to get out of the trail, and this was a good way to do it. I never felt like I really had my back up against the wall in 2019, and I wanted to see what I was capable of.
Did you ever consider quitting? How did you overcome challenges on the trail?
Almost every day. It was really tough to grapple with just how slowly I was moving. The days were shorter, so I hiked in the dark a lot. My pack, at its heaviest, was about 70 pounds. For the first two months, I averaged about 9 miles per day. Some days, I’d be breaking trail and/or weathering a storm, and could only muster 2 or 3 miles for the day. When you don’t see or talk to another person for almost eight days, you have to be your own support system.
Every morning, I’d wake up and my body ached. It’s so bitterly cold and I know exactly what it’s going to take to get through the day. It felt like a tsunami every morning, just too much to handle. My head would already be at the end of the day, and I was still sitting in my sleeping bag in the morning, not knowing how to get there. I had to learn to not let myself spiral out of control in those moments, how to be kinder to myself. Every day I got through these challenges made me feel more capable.
Tell us about some of your favorite moments on trail.
I just love hiking. The days are shorter in the winter, but that also meant I got to see almost every sunrise and sunset. I was always hiking late and the stars were beautiful. I was fording one of the rivers in Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness, breaking through ice, and wading through freezing water, and I just stopped in the middle of the river for a second. I looked around in awe—it was sort of a surreal moment where I really understood the gravity of what I was doing. I love feeling so small in this huge wilderness. Just feeling the power of everything around me was incredible. Having those really hard moments out there were also beautiful too, in their own way. They didn’t feel that way in the moment, but that’s why I’m out there—for the difficult moments.
You claim you’re just an ordinary guy who accomplished an extraordinary feat. Elaborate on this.
I’m just some dude who really likes hiking. It’s as simple as that. It’s hard to compare my winter thru-hike to anybody else’s, winter or not. At the end of the day, what it all boils down to is getting what I wanted out of my hike and having a good time. This mindset takes a lot of pressure off of needing to go faster or do more extreme things. Check in with your intentions. Are you doing this hike for the right reasons? It forced me to check in with where my boundaries are and not feel bad about that.
What did you learn from this trip and how did it change you?
I had to practice my inner dialogue. At the end of the day, instead of beating myself up for not handling something better, I would take a step back and recognize it was hard, and give myself a little more grace. This was a chance to sit with everything going on in my life, good and bad, and give myself the space to think. We get so busy in our lives and it’s too easy to cut out time alone. I really leaned into letting everything come up. But there’s nothing quite like standing on a mountain with everything I need on my back and looking at the horizon, only to show up on that horizon days later. It’s humbling, really. This experience really changed the way I treat myself, and helped me discover what I’m capable of, mentally and physically.
Cover Photo: Courtesy Scott Benerofe