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Thursday, February 7, 2019

A Conversation with Preston Kahn: Hiking the Appalachian Trail for Mental Health

By Anita Guy Burgess 

On July 8th Preston Kahn embarked on a journey of a life time. He hiked the Appalachian Trail, traveling over 2100 miles through 14 states from Maine to Georgia in just 4 months. It was something he wanted to do not only for himself, but also for local teens struggling with mental health concerns. In the process he used his resources, honed his planning skills, pushed himself to his physical limits, tested his personal commitment and gained an amazing sense of achievement. As a bonus, he surpassed his goal of raising $20,000 for the Grant Us Hope organization, which funds the training and development of Hope Squads in area high schools. One squad is already operational at The Summit Country Day Upper School.

Preston posing at Chimney Rock in Tyro, Virginia after completing about 1800 miles of the hike. 

After his suicide scare in August 2017, Preston returned to Miami University and soon realized he was not prepared for the typical senior year of searching for a job. Instead he wanted to do something after graduation that would benefit his mental health. He found others had benefitted from the challenge of hiking the Appalachian Trial (AT). “My parents were very supportive of the idea [of hiking the AT], but told me I had to pay for it myself,” Preston said. “So I funded my trip from proceeds of a joint business venture at Miami that created T-shirts for Green Beer Day.” In total, Preston estimated he spend $1500 on gear for the trip and put about $4500 in an account for expenses during the trip. 

In addition, he wanted to raise money for a charitable organization. “My family has been involved with Alzheimer charities, so that was my first thought, but my mom suggested I pick an organization I could personally identify with.  I found out about the Grant Us Hope organization and reached out to them. I told them I really believe in what they are doing, and I wanted to raise money for the cause. They were very supportive.”

Preston celebrates the completion of his journey with his proud family - brother Henry, Preston, mother Amy and father David.
Grant Us Hope develops and trains students to be part of Hope Squads, which emphasize suicide prevention, self-care and anti-bullying in high schools. Grant Us Hope is in the process of establishing Hope Squads in over 20 schools in the Greater Cincinnati area. One kicked off the fall at The Summit. Mike Fee, Upper School guidance counselor, works with 19 students selected by their peers on a weekly basis. 

“We discuss interactions we’ve had with students and work on ongoing curriculum from the national office. Just last week we became aware of a freshman who had posted something worrisome on social media. Another freshman saw it and alerted a Hope Squad member.” The situation has been resolved, and the parents are no longer concerned. “The student thanked me today. It’s pretty amazing the work the squad members are doing.”

Preston at end of the trail in Springer, Georgia with his dog Josie
One result is referrals to Mike are up, but intervention is happening earlier - and that is good thing. “We also focus on programs and activities that spread hope and encouragement throughout the student body.”

For help planning his 2100 mile journey, Preston turned to Bryan Wolf, the owner of RRT in Milford and an experienced hiker of the AT.  Preston credits Bryan for giving him invaluable advice on the gear he would need, how to plan the trip and what he might face. “Bryan was like my North Star. He advised me to tell everyone about my goal so I wouldn’t back out. And as far as physical training, he said you can never do enough!” Bryan also warned him only 1 in 5 people who attempt the journey actually complete it. “I always looked at myself as being part of the 20% who would finish. I never entertained the idea of quitting. That’s probably why I succeeded.”

Preston was advised to start in Maine and finish in Georgia because of the timing (starting in July) and his anticipated moderate pace (20-25 miles/day). This is the opposite of what most people do in order to avoid hitting the dreaded 100 Mile Wilderness within the first week of the hike. According to Preston, this is the longest, most physically challenging and most remote part of the trail. “You go 100 miles before coming to the first town. It’s a shock to the system, and it’s where lots of people drop out if taking the southbound route. When I completed that section of the trail, that’s when I looked at myself and said, ‘I can do this!’”

Preston used an app called Guthook, like Waze, for the AT, to help him plan his trip. The app let him know the distance to the next town or shelter. Shelters typically included a source of fresh water, an outhouse and a three-sided shelter to sleep in. “If the app said the next shelter was 25 miles ahead, then that’s what I’d do.” He would typically stock up in towns and carry a 4-5 day supply of food such as Pop tarts, Ramen noodles, tuna, honey buns, instant mashed potatoes and fruit snacks. “Over the course of the hike I lost 25 pounds, and I’ll never eat tuna again!” 

The low point was hiking through the state of Virginia. “Hiking through Virginia makes up about one quarter of the hike and it took a month. I just began to feel stagnant, like this is never going to end. I hadn’t seen anyone on the trail in four or five days, so I called my mom for someone to talk to. Luckily my dad had some free time. He met me in Virginia, relieved me of my pack for a stretch and we slept in a hotel. He came to my rescue. That was huge!”

What was his first meal request after completing the AT? You guessed it - Skyline Chili! “We had to stop at the first Skyline we came to in Kentucky!”

Preston enjoying his first requested meal after four months on the trail at Skyline Chili as his brother Henry looks on
What did Preston learn about himself? “I learned self-accountability. My dad used to say, ‘No one is better running their mouth than you, but when it comes to getting it done?’” 

I guess you could say he had his doubts early on.  “And in terms of school stuff I was just okay; but when I got out of the school environment and on the AT, I realized I’m capable of doing lots of things and doing them well. It’s been cool to be recognized for completing the journey.”

While Preston was hiking in Virginia, he was recognized as the recipient of the Grant Us Hope Inspire Award at their Butterfly Bash. “I was actually able to FaceTime into the awards and see my parents accepting the award for me. It was very special.”

Preston set up a GoFundMe page ( with the goal of raising $20,000 for Grant Us Hope. Donations have exceeded $25,000. The funding will be used in part to start a Hope Squad at Madeira High School – his alma mater. (The family currently resides in Hyde Park). The Madeira school district will begin implementation of the program in the spring of 2019. 

Early on, Bryan Wolf at RRT advised Preston he might experience some post-trail depression, but that hasn’t been too much of a problem for Preston. For one thing, Bryan gave him the opportunity to work at RRT during the holidays. And Preston has been busy sharing his story. “I get approached all the time now by teens wanting to talk to me about their own story because I’ve been open sharing mine. They see it’s okay to talk about their struggles.”

What are his future plans? “I’m starting to apply for jobs in and around Cincinnati and Chicago.  I also want to continue to work with Grant Us Hope. I’m happy to help in any way I can.”

More information
Information about Grant Us Hope at
Donate to Preston’s GoFundMe account at
Follow Preston’s journey through the AT at

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