JMU student takes semester off to hike entire Appalachian Trail

Masen Armel hikes Appalachian Trail.
Masen Armel hikes Appalachian Trail.(Masen Armel)
Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 11:10 AM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - A James Madison University student is back on campus this fall after taking a semester off and the summer to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.

Masen Armel grew up around the Valley and always thought about hiking the Appalachian Trail. It wasn’t until her freshman year of college after reading a book called ‘Becoming Odyssa’ that Armel finally decided she wanted to embark on the 2,194.3-mile-long journey. It was just a matter of when.

“Originally, I thought I would take off a semester my sophomore year, then I decided I’d take off my junior year, then I decided I’d do it after,” Armel said.

But after COVID, Armel said she didn’t want to wait any longer. So, on February 20, Armel and her boyfriend started their trip in Georgia.

“We’d have some nights where it’d get below freezing, but usually in the day, we’d get around 40 or 50 degrees and if you’re moving, that’s not a big deal at all. We had our puffies, we had nice sleeping bags, so we’d just keep on going. It started to get a lot warmer when we hit Virginia and Pennsylvania,” Armel explained.

While the hike itself was no easy feat, Armel said the hardest part of the trail was putting on wet socks in the morning.

“We decided we’ll do a 17-mile day... And we would get to this shelter on trail, and we’d be able to have a fire in the shelter, so it’d be nice and toasty and dry,” Armel said. “And we get there, and the shelter is completely full, so unfortunately, I had to set up my tent with frozen fingers and have wet socks to put on in the morning.”

But no matter how hard it got, Armel said giving up never even crossed her mind. And the views she saw and the people she met along the way made it all worth it.

“Just getting to meet all these weirdos who also decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, and the trail was really the great equalizer,” Armel said. “You could have been just laid off, or just retired from a wonderful job, or be a college kid. It doesn’t matter. All of us have to get up that hill anyway.”

Less than five months later, Armel reached the top of Mt. Katahdin in Maine on July 11. While she said she was proud she accomplished something, she also said she didn’t get very emotional.

“It was just about the journey. It wasn’t about reaching Mt. Katahdin. My favorite moments on trail, they didn’t happen right there. They happened at mile 500 when I was walking with my friend, Swerve, and we were just having a really nice conversation that day,” Armel explained.

Looking back, she said one of the biggest things this experience taught her was to not wait for opportunities but to go out and find them.

For those who may be interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail or taking on some other big challenge, Armel said just remember to hike your own hike, do what will make you happy and don’t be afraid to ask people questions.

“The biggest resource for me was actually pass-through hikers. I just talked to people around me, and I had found someone who had already done it,” Armel said. “Find people in whatever community you want to get into and ask them for advice.”