74 pages 2 hours read

Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a 1998 travel book by American-British author Bill Bryson. The book was a New York Times bestseller, and a 2014 Cable News Network (CNN) poll named it the funniest travel book ever written. In addition, it inspired the 2015 film A Walk in the Woods starring Robert Redford as Bryson, Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz (his primary hiking companion), and Emma Thompson as his wife.

Bryson is a journalist and author known for his wry wit. His other books include an examination of the English language, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990); the popular science books A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) and The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019); and a popular history book, One Summer: America, 1927.

Structured as a chapter-by-chapter travelog, A Walk in the Woods chronicles the author’s experiences while attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail end to end, from Georgia to Maine, in the spring and summer of 1996. Bryson blends humorous narrative with background information on various aspects of American history, nature conservation, botany, geology, geography, industrialization, and wildlife. The book explores three primary themes: Wilderness and Civilization, Isolation and Companionship, and The History of the Appalachian Trail.

This guide references the first Anchor Books edition.


After living in England for 20 years, Bryson and his family move to Hanover, New Hampshire, where he soon discovers that the famed Appalachian Trail (AT) runs nearby. He decides to hike the whole trail, from Georgia to Maine. To purchase backpacking and camping gear for the trek, he visits a local sporting goods store, where he’s bemused by the complexity and expense of the recommendations but nonetheless leaves with most of the items. In addition, he buys some relevant books. Fearful of making the trek alone, he begins inviting friends to come along. None respond, but one old pal, Stephen Katz, hears of his plan and asks to come along. Katz and Bryson grew up together in Iowa but barely saw each other for decades. While Bryson is glad that he won’t be traveling alone, he’s slightly worried that Katz isn’t disciplined or healthy enough for the trek. The pair fly to Atlanta and make their way to Springer Mountain to begin their routine of hiking by day and camping by night. During their adventure, they encounter numerous interesting people and experience both hilarious and challenging, even harrowing, moments involving curious black bears and getting lost. At intervals along the trail, they descend into towns (including Hiawassee, Georgia; Franklin, North Carolina; Gatlinburg, Tennessee; and Waynesboro, Virginia) to do laundry, have a real meal, and sleep in a bed for a night.

After a brush with tourism and crass commercialism in Gatlinburg, near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bryson and Katz decide to rent a car and drive to Roanoke, Virginia, effectively skipping more than 200 miles of the trail. After trekking through Shenandoah National Park, they take a planned summer break and return to their normal lives—a book tour for Bryson and a summer construction job back in Iowa for Katz—but agree to meet up again in August to hike the final leg of the trail, the famous Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine. During their hiatus, Bryson continues to hike small portions of the trail but is unfulfilled because he’s now hiking by car instead of camping. He drives to spots along the trail (such as Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia; Centralia, Pennsylvania; the Delaware Water Gap; and Adams, Massachusetts) but stays in motels after a day of hiking. Once he works his way to New England, he begins doing day hikes along the trail, driving to locations such as Stratton Mountain in Vermont and Mount Washington in New Hampshire but returning home every night.

Katz returns to New Hampshire in August, and the two set out to finish the trail by hiking all 282 miles of the Maine portion, ending at Mount Katahdin. Located in Maine, this final portion of the AT is known as the remotest and most rugged of its 2,100 miles. Once in Maine, Bryson and Katz face a difficult 38-mile hike just to get to the starting point of the Hundred Mile Wilderness. Having completed the 38 miles, they start stocking food for the more difficult section but have a falling out because Katz, a reformed drinker, starts drinking again. Back on the trail, they make up but then face disaster when Katz gets lost with no water in extreme heat. They don’t find each other again until the next day, after which they both agree that it’s time for them to go home. Back in New Hampshire, Bryson calculates his trek distances and realizes that he completed a respectable 870 total miles but that this is only 39.5% of the AT.