After losing 200 pounds, hiker takes on 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Zach Cross was sitting with friends around a campfire in the North Carolina mountains two years ago when he first heard about hiking the Appalachian Trail. It was his first backpacking trip, and a stranger approached to offer supplies they might need if they were making the entire 2,200-mile trek.

The stranger said he had completed the trail years earlier, start to finish, in honor of his brother who died in a car accident.

Cross and his buddies were only on a weekend trip, but the Tucker resident said he came home inspired.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “I got home and started researching.”

Monday, Cross will set out on the milestone hike, starting from the Southern Terminus at Springer Mountain. He hopes to complete the 2,198.4-mile journey across 14 states by October.

Cross took up hiking in 2020, a year before his North Carolina experience, to lose weight.

Daily hikes eventually resulted in a 200-pound weight loss that has transformed his mind and spirit, as well as his body, he said.

Credit: Courtesy Zach Cross

Credit: Courtesy Zach Cross

Hiking trails over the past three years has taught Cross about his own self-determination, he said. The 28-year-old estimates that he’s taken more than 900 hikes throughout Georgia, and trails from the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina to the plateaus and canyons at Mount Zion National Park in Utah.

Now he’s ready to hike the full Appalachian Trail, known conversationally to enthusiasts as the A.T. It will be an experience that he says is a calling.

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

“I’ve struggled a lot with self-confidence issues, and this has shown me that I can do anything,” Cross said of hiking in general, and his Appalachian Trail goal. “I have the power to change something about myself. It’s all about putting my mind to it.”

In April 2020, Cross had no idea that he was about to change his own life. He says an unhealthy weight of nearly 400 pounds mixed with the pandemic shutdown led to depression and binge eating.

“….(It) was the darkest two months of my life,” Cross said of March and April 2020. “At that point, I was past weighing myself. I didn’t like to look at myself in the mirror…I would try to diet and would fail.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a strong enough place to do it at that time.”

Credit: Courtesy Zach Cross

Credit: Courtesy Zach Cross

Then one evening, Cross decided to take a walk. That led to a walk the following day, and another the day after. Eventually, Cross began hiking trails.

Monday marks the anniversary of his first walk. He will take a leave of absence from his human resources job to hike the trail.

Becoming a hiker

Because of busy workdays and time spent with wife, Grayson, Cross said he fit in hikes at night, usually around 11 p.m.

“At first hiking was really tough, but then being in nature didn’t feel like a workout. It became my happy place,” he says. “I started viewing it as a time and place where I found joy. There’s something of a beauty of just being out in nature and you’re just away from cars and planes and the sounds of the city.”

Cross is now a fit 185 pounds, but even that was a perilous journey.

Cross said he lost 100 pounds during his first year of hiking with an unhealthy diet sometimes eating just one Granola bar totaling 100 calories per day. By summer 2021, he’d become weak and lethargic, and experienced a weight-loss plateau.

“I was still near 300 pounds. I would lose a pound in two weeks and I started to get depressed,” Cross said. “I was trying to walk my way into a perfect body.”

Grayson convinced him to start eating normally, and his doctor explained that his body is not designed to lose such a great amount of weight so quickly, Cross said.

He gained back 20 pounds but continued his daily outings and began to lose weight again as five-mile hikes turned into 30 miles.

Cross said he intended to hike the entire trail a year ago but broke his ankle while alone on a remote part of Art Loeb Trail in North Carolina. The experience, he said, showed him that he was not yet mentally prepared for Appalachian Trail.

“I was hopping over a rock and came down on my ankle and it went sideways and just snapped,” Cross said. “I was on a really remote trail and it was near dark. I had to take a stick and some duck tape and wrap my foot up.”

The Appalachian Trail

Cross expects to encounter freezing rain, snow and blistering heat on his journey.

“At a certain point when hiking the AT, you’re just going to have to deal with: ‘I’m cold, I’m wet and I’m tired,’” he said.

The trail’s Northern Terminus is in Maine. Between here and there, the trail draws a jagged line that mostly runs northeast. The big exception is in Tennessee, where it loops westward into the Great Smokey Mountains before turning back. The trail briefly skips through the southern portion of North Carolina and West Virginia, before rapidly climbing north through Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Just north of Harrisburg, Pa., the trail turns toward the Atlantic Ocean on an easterly run through New Jersey and New York, before again heading sharply north through Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Cross said he believes his weight loss journey has helped him to prepare for the physical challenge of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“There’s still a lot in front of me” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people know how hard the Appalachian Trail is. I’ve done the hard part. I’ve lost the weight. Now I’m looking for that same challenge on the mental side.”

During the first three weeks, Cross is expecting snow on high elevations of the North Carolina mountains.

“That’s going to be one of the hardest parts. I will get through that and will realize that I’m at 8% of the journey,” he said.

The trail’s highest altitudes, several above 6,000 feet, are in the High Country along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Cross needs to walk about 17 to 20 miles per day, carrying a 20-pound backpack, to finish by his October timeline.

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Which items to place in that backpack are crucial decisions.

Cross has budgeted $6,000 for the cost of food, gear replacement and shuttles into towns. He say he plans to pack high calories foods that won’t weigh him down.

“A pack of Oreo’s has 4,000 calories in it and weighs one pound,” Cross said. “I’m just trying to get as much calories into my body as a I can — a lot of fats, sugars, olive oil, peanut butter and jelly. Hopefully that can kind of sustain me until I get to a town and can have an actual nutritious meal.”

He said he will carry about two liters of water and a filter that he can use for water from rivers, waterfalls and streams.

Alex Popp, a 31-year-old reporter with Appen Media, completed the A.T. in six months in 2017 and says the difficulty of the trail is not easy to fathom. It’s a mental and physical challenge, he said.

“Imagine taking everything from your life and basically throwing it out the window ... and going to live out in the woods for half a year,” Popp said. “It’s like living in a different world.”

There are three-walled, wood shelters about every 8.5 miles along the trail, for hikers to set up tents and rest. There are also hostels located near trails where hikers can eat, sleep, shower, pick up supplies and often catch a shuttle into town.

Wife Grayson, 27, said she plans to meet Cross at times along the trail, and deliver supplies. The couple met in middle school in Winston-Salem, N.C., and will be married six years in July.

“I do think it’s going to be tough,” Grayson said of her husband’s absence. “Zach and I have never been apart that long. I will miss him but I know he needs this.”

Cross said he realizes that the next five months will be challenging for his wife, as well.

“I’m taking five months where I am gong to be dead weight on my family; not making any money; asking my wife to support our house and our pets. I’m going to miss out on our anniversary.” he said. “But I know if I don’t do this I’m going to die and regret it.”

Come back to for follow-up coverage of Cross’ journey in the coming weeks and months, including Monday when he embarks.


Appalachian Trail Facts:

Nearly all of the Appalachian Trail is protected by federal or state ownership or through rights-of-way, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.


More than 4,000 volunteers log 185,000 hours to maintain the trail each year.


Thru-hikers: Unlike daily hikers, thru-hikers along the trail are attempting to complete the 2,200-mile trek in one year’s time. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only one in four thru-hikers successfully complete the trail, which typically takes 5 to 7 months.

2,000-milers: Hikers who complete the entire Appalachian Trail in one trip. A current list of names is located on the Appalachian Conservancy website at

Trail magic: Acts kindness or gifts bestowed on hikers such as food, water, transportation and more.

Tramily: A made-up word that combines trail with family. These are people who spend large amounts of time together while making their way along the A.T.

Yo-Yo: When a hiker makes a round trip of the entire A.T by hiking from one terminus to the other, and then immediately back.

By the numbers

∗ 2,198.4 miles across 14 states

∗ 464,500 feet in gain or loss elevation

∗ 3 million visitors per year

∗ 6,643 feet is the highest peak

Georgia A.T.

Nearly 4,000 thru-hikers start their journey at the southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Fannin County annually. There are 78 miles of the Appalachian Trail in the state. Elevation ranges from 2,510 to 4,461 at Blood Mountain. Hikers can encounter snow and near zero temperatures from November to April.