This Northeastern graduate hiked the entire Appalachian Trail—in the winter

scott benerofe posing next to mt washington summit trail sign
Photo Courtesy of Scott Benerofe

As Scott Benerofe approached the summit, he dropped to his knees. With blizzard winds gusting at 70 to 80 miles an hour, the hiker struggled to stay upright. So, with a 60-pound pack on his back, Benerofe crawled to the snow and ice-encrusted peak of South Twin Mountain in New Hampshire.

It was January. A month earlier, Benerofe had set out to hike the Appalachian Trail starting from its northern end in Maine. He was determined to complete a south-bound trek of the entire trail, carrying everything he needed to survive in the wintry woods on his back. 

He did it.

After five months on the trail, Benerofe reached the southern terminus in Georgia in May 2022. Along the way, he forded frozen rivers, hiked through days that didn’t get above zero degrees Fahrenheit, fought his way through blizzards, braced against winds that brought chills of 40 degrees below zero, slept with his boots in his sleeping bag so they wouldn’t turn into blocks of ice, and conquered these challenges completely alone.

When facing the harshness of winter every minute of every day for months, “you just realize how powerful nature is,” Benerofe says. “It’s humbling, and really, really special.”

Seeking solitude and facing every second of winter

This wasn’t the first time Benerofe had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. In March 2019, a few months after graduating from Northeastern University with a degree in mechanical engineering, he set out from the southern end of the trail in Georgia and completed his hike during the warmer months. Then, Benerofe did what most thru-hikers do after what is typically a once-in-a-lifetime experience: He found a job and a place to live that had a roof and four solid walls. 

But, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Benerofe had a lingering sense that he had “unfinished business with the trail.”

When he set out for his first hike of the Appalachian Trail, Benerofe says, “I was looking for this big, wild, solitude-filled adventure. And the AT is a big, wild adventure, but it just wasn’t so filled with solitude.” 

In 2019, Benerofe set out for his hike around the same time as the majority of other north-bound through-hikers, landing him amongst a crowd that is often referred to as “The Bubble.” Starting in Maine in early December, he surmised, would give him many more miles of solitude.

Winter also held a particular allure for Benerofe—not only because it ensured the trail would be empty of other hikers. “I wanted to spend the winter outside. I feel like it’s the season that we most readily block out, and I wanted to embrace it,” he says of winter.

“I’m in the privileged position to say, I can turn the heat on and turn the lights on and sort of shut the winter out when I want to,” Benerofe explains. “I wanted to see what would happen if that wasn’t always the case. If I had to deal with the sun going down at 4:00 and deal with it just being perpetually cold. What would that feel like?”

Benerofe frequently hiked in the dark, pushing on for a few hours after that early sunset with just a headlamp to illuminate his frozen surroundings. He had many miles to cover and not a lot of daylight each day.

Intimidated by the challenge that lay ahead

The days before Benerofe set out at the beginning of December 2021, he felt intimidated by the challenge that lay ahead. “Most of me knew I could do it,” he says. “But there was a part of me that thought I might get two or three days into this trip and turn around.”

The official northern end of the Appalachian Trail sits at the peak of Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest peak. It’s immediately followed by the 100-Mile Wilderness, a remote stretch of trail that has no major roads running through it or easy bail-out options. The only way out of that wilderness is to continue hiking or turn around and hike back out. 

“So right off the bat, you do the hardest mountain on the trail, and then you go 100 miles without resupply, through this really rugged wilderness with all the river fords,” he says.

Benerofe’s journey began with a tough decision. As he was approaching the summit of Mount Katahdin to begin his trek at the official terminus of the trail, whiteout conditions swept in. Making a judgment call that would keep him off the dangerous peak in the dark and winter storm, Benerofe opted to skip the summit start, stopping 1.6 miles shy of the official spot. 

Descending into the 100-Mile Wilderness, Benerofe quickly felt the full force of his solitude. It took him eight days to complete this remote section of trail. 

“I heard some airplanes go over my head. That was it,” he recalls. “I didn’t see anyone or hear anything. No cars, no people. There’s no one out there. You’re reminded every day just how removed you are from anything except what you’ve got on your back and the woods.”

Anything that is wet freezes

Backpacking in the winter brings unique challenges. For example, backpackers typically collect and treat water from running streams, springs and other sources along the trail. But in the winter, they can be frozen solid or locked in by a thick layer of ice. That’s where Benerofe’s ice ax came in handy at camp. He could hack through the ice to get to running water. Another option: melting snow or ice.

In the frigid temperatures, especially at night, anything that is wet freezes. So sweaty clothes (and boots), water bottles and a water filtering system have to be kept warm. Electronics also don’t work if it’s too cold out. So Benerofe put all his things in his sleeping bag with him at night.

“All of it is shoved in there with you,” he says. “You have this little hole cinched down [in the hood of the sleeping bag] that’s the size of a baseball, at its largest, that’s right near your mouth. When you wake up in the morning, there’s a ring of ice around that little hole because your breath freezes as soon as it hits the air outside the bag.”

Benerofe says he never thought about quitting while he was hiking the Appalachian Trail last winter. Instead, he says, he focused on the challenges right in front of him as they came. 

And the challenges did come.

Right away, as Benerofe began his trek through the remote 100-Mile Wilderness, he had to cross semi-frozen rivers. With winter settling into the Maine woods in mid-December, ice had begun to form on the edges of the waterways, but frigid torrents continued to flow swiftly down their middles. 

At one particularly wide crossing (Benerofe estimates the river was 60 to 80 feet wide), there appeared to be a nearly complete ice bridge. But Benerofe was skeptical of its strength. He took out his ice ax and gave it a few sharp jabs, breaking through the top layer to reveal another layer of water with a thick ice sheet below it. 

“I was really nervous about breaking through unexpectedly and falling over,” he recalls. Soaking himself and all of his gear might mean risking hypothermia, and it would be difficult to dry it all out after. 

Benerofe decided to leave his pack on the bank of the river and attempt the crossing. He switched from hiking boots to Crocs and waterproof socks, rolled up his leggings, and stepped onto the ice. 

At first everything was fine, but then…

At first everything was fine. But as Benerofe continued to move across the ice bridge, he began to hear cracking. “When you hear a crack under your feet, you can feel it, too,” he says. “With each step I’m taking, I hear more cracks.”

At this point, Benerofe had made it to the middle of the river and could see water rushing under the thin ice beneath his feet. He took one more step and suddenly sank into the water.

It happened slowly, Benerofe says, and he landed on the lower, thicker layer of ice. Thinking quickly, he decided to forcibly crack through the top layer of ice with every step, making a watery path along the lower layer of ice for himself the rest of the way. Then, after reaching the other side, Benerofe turned around and retraced his steps to collect his heavy pack.

To minimize the risk of breaking through the second layer of ice and plunging everything he had into the cold water, Benerofe decided to make an extra trip. He split his gear in half, hauling what was most essential for warmth across the river first, and then going back for the rest.

On his way to collect the last bunch of gear, Benerofe stopped in the middle of the river and looked around. He noticed the ice and flowing rapids in the river, trees with no leaves on the shore, and sunlight shining through sparse clouds over the naked branches. 

“It felt like I was really in the wild,” Benerofe says, adding that this moment was emblematic of the experience he sought by hiking the Appalachian Trail in the winter. “I had the biggest smile on my face.”

The longest three months of winter

Winter wasn’t always so invigorating for Benerofe. As the cold days stretched on in February and he worked his way through the Vermont section of the trail, Benerofe found himself wondering if winter would ever end. 

“I felt like winter had become this thing that was going to keep going forever. I’d been out there for so long, hiking 10 hours a day for three months. There’s a difference between week one embracing winter and three months in,” he says. At that point, “it’s harsh. It definitely wears on you.”

Still, Benerofe says, this was exactly what he had sought to experience. 

Eventually, as Benerofe moved south, the days got longer, temperatures rose, and snow diminished. The hiking got easier, he says, but that introduced a new challenge: accepting that “it doesn’t need to be about to break me to be enjoyable and for me to get something out of it.”

After finishing his winter through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Benerofe decided to go to graduate school to study to become a physics teacher. Although he’s spending a lot more time indoors these days, Benerofe says, “I’m definitely not done with winter.”

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