Throwing caution to the wind and hiking a trail that is 2,179 miles long is not something you do lightly. The Appalachian Trail was conceived of by Benton MacKaye in 1921, finally completed in 1937 and is now the narrowest national park in the United States.
Crossing 14 states, the trail's southern terminus is Springer Mountain in Georgia and the northern terminus is at Katahdin, Baxter State Park in Maine. Earl Shaffer, having returned from World War II, is the first person to have thru-hiked the entire trail in one year. Almost as famous is Grandma Gatewood, the first female to hike the entire trail in one year and the first person to hike the trail twice. An estimated 2,000 people begin the trail each year (either in Georgia or Maine) with only 500 to 600 completing the trail. There are many reasons for one to thru-hike, but most people are in a transition state when beginning.
So, you want to hike the trail? Here's how:
Money: It can cost approximately $3,000 to $5,000 per person to hike the trail in the average six month time span. Many people do it on less and many do it on more. This cost includes your food for the trip, lodging along the way as well as any other gear and essentials. This does not cover your initial expenses of obtaining gear. Some people have done it on far less, but don't enjoy the amenities of town as much.
Time: Unless you are retired, just out of college or blessed with at least six months of vacation, more than likely you will have to quit your job just as we did or get lucky and take a leave of absence. The majority of people who hike the trail are in the late teens and early 20s or at retirement age because of this important issue. Some people take as little as four months to hike the trail and some as many as seven months, but the average runs five to six months. There are also folks who section hike the trail over a series of a few years to more than 20 or 30 years, doing bits here and there until they are done.
Gear: People have hiked the trail with oversized, antiquated external frame Kelty packs to light daypacks that carry only essentials. Most meet somewhere in the middle with a pack that can hold a small backpacking tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, water purification system, backpacking stove and pot, at least one change of clothes, wool socks, hiking boots, winter clothes such as fleece and light down jacket, rain gear, a small medicine bag, an Appalachian Trail companion book, and at least 3-5 days worth of food. Gear is highly person specific and it can easily change along the way, getting rid of and gaining things as desired. Outfitters are common in the most popular trail towns so finding the right items is not difficult. You can read more about gear here.
Training: Some people start hiking the trail by getting off the couch and putting one foot in front of the other. That isn't the best way to start. One should at least start walking around your neighborhood, if not in a state park or somewhere with a good trail system. If you live in a flat area, go for longer distances, but if you are around mountains, start climbing them to build your muscles and lungs up. Get your feet accustomed to your boots and get your body used to carrying a full 25-30 lb pack. You will be sore and working out kinks for things such as blisters is essential. The better trained you are the less torture Georgia (or Maine) will be to you.
Food & Water: Thinking of taking a can of spaghetti o's to heat up? Think again! Your best bet is to buy freeze dried meals such as Mountain House or Alpine Aire if you can afford them. They offer the best nutrition and calories and are actually quite tasty. But, if you can't manage that, many people live on Ramen noodles or Knorr sides with packages of chicken, tuna or salmon. Breakfast begins by eating packets of oatmeal and can easily morph into a few breakfast bars on the go. Lunch might consist of peanut butter with pita bread or, well, junk food. This is the time when eating whatever you want actually benefits you. A jar of Nutella? Go for it. A can of Pringles? Sure, if you want to carry the odd shaped can, you can take it. Food is very flexible and eventually you will find a combination of items that suit you. Water can be found commonly along the trail in the form of springs, streams, puddles and rivers. Purification of your water is essential, even if you get it from a spring coming out of the ground. You do not want to be stuck days from town with a case of giardia. Pumps, purification tablets or drops are the most common forms of treating your water.
Shelter: The trail is blessed to have three sided shelters every 7 to 10 miles, some a little closer and some further away. You can either stay in these shelters or pitch your tent along side of it. Or you can stealth camp, which is to find another site along the way that is not near a shelter. The shelters can be nice but they are often crowded at the beginning and in the summer the bugs can be bad. You might also find yourself a companion in the form of a mouse. Keeping your food away from the shelter is ideal if you don't want it stolen by the mice and especially if you want to keep the bears out! Hanging your food is very important!
Mental Health: Sure, looking at photos of hiking the trail makes everything seem easy. There are beautiful sunsets and sunrises, flowers along the way, animals to spot in the woods, but when it is freezing cold in March, raining in June or the flies in Vermont are driving you insane, mental stability is what gets you through it all. You get up every single day and walk unless you are taking a "zero" day in town. You walk from approximately 7am until maybe 6pm with small breaks along the way, putting in miles that begin around 10 miles a day until you are such a professional you manage over 20 miles a day. Sometimes you battle rain, wet shoes, wet clothes, wet packs, a tiredness that just seeps into your bones, and you are dirty all the time. Sometimes it seems impossible that you are out there. There are difficult mountains, slick rocks, miles of rocks that hurt your feet and of course times you fall down in mud or slide down and break your trekking poles. You must have mental fortitude to get past the bad day and look forward to the next miles and where you are going for the day. The majority of people quit because of mental reasons, not because of an injury.
Resupply & Lodging: You didn't think you'd carry six months of food did you? There are plenty of trail towns along the way, some right on the trail and some that are several miles off. More than likely you will have to learn to hitchhike to get into town. Don't worry, most people are very familiar with thru-hikers and will pick you up quickly. There are trail angels along the way, too, people who offer help free or charge to get people to town or back to the trail. Hostels are also very common in trail towns with the exception of a few places in New England. Hostels can range from pay what you can to upwards of $30 a person. They usually offer a bunk room, a shower, sometimes a meal, and maybe internet connection. Most town libraries are very nice and have easy access to the internet. Sometimes you may have to resupply at as gas station or dollar store, but perhaps your will get a very nice grocery store.
Trail Name: Coming up with a name other than the one you were given at birth is a thru-hiking tradition. Some people start off naming themselves in order to avoid being named something awkward like Stinky, but many people will allow the trail to give them their name, usually following some incident! My husband chose the name Panther because he'd seen six Florida panther's in the wild and I chose the name Ridley because of my love for the Kemp's ridley sea turtle.
Camaraderie: The best part of the trail are the people you meet along the way. Everyone comes from different backgrounds, some are older folks who are retired, and some have just graduated high school. You might find someone with dyed hair (something I did mid-way through), women with hairy legs, and of course men with mountain man beards. There are shy people and outgoing people and those who appear to be homeless but might have a PhD in engineering. You just never know who you will meet, and that is what makes the trail so special. The friends you make will teach you more about yourself than you will ever know.
Have all of that? Now you can begin hiking the Appalachian Trail by following the white blazes.
You will start as a northbounder, most likely, at Springer Mountain, Georgia sometime in March unless you buck trends and work as a southbounder and start at Katahdin in Maine in early June. As you walk north you will battle the endless "pointless ups and downs” that is Georgia until you enter North Carolina and the Smokey Mountains which offer up stunning views of the region. As you go up and over the balds of Tennessee, eventually you make it to Damascus, Virginia, a major mental turning point before heading into 500 mile + Virginia, a state that makes up a quarter of the trail. Hopefully you do not succumb to the Virginia Blues, a term that is used for those who get bored with Virginia and staying in the state for a month or more. But, you will be rewarded when you reach Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the mental halfway point of the trail. Once you cross down into the Shenandoah River valley you will have walked over 1,000 miles.
To really celebrate making it half way, you will go to Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania and enjoy the half gallon challenge, eating a half gallon of your favorite flavor of ice cream and having a stomachache afterwards. Pennsylvania will prove to be a very annoying and rocky state, but you will be pleasantly surprised by the beauty of New Jersey and their abundance of bears. The next few states you will breeze through until you finally reach the Green Mountains in Vermont, welcoming you into the beauty of mountains once again. New Hampshire will test your will and ability with the White Mountains proving difficult but absolutely stunning. Mount Washington may provide you with some of the most difficult and dangerous weather you encounter, or it may be perfectly sunny.
Entering Maine will be rewarding, but throw some challenges to you first as you traverse the boulder strewn Mahoosuc Notch and slippery Mahoosuc Arm. The last few trail towns will entice you to linger, but you will start smelling the end and Maine becomes easier as you pick up the pace and miles once again. After crossing the Kennebec River ferry you will really start feeling how close the end is, but leaving the town of Monson and embarking on the 100 Mile Wilderness will start finalizing it. During this time you will begin to see Katahdin closer and closer as you climb the Barren Chairback range and Whitecap Mountain, until you eventually get to Abol Bridge and see Katahdin in all its glory only five miles from you, the summit ten. Once you arrive at the shelter at Baxter State Park you might be too excited to sleep or overcome with a slight sadness that your expedition is almost over. The final 5 miles will prove to be some of the most difficult you've experienced, with hand over hand rock climbing, pulling yourself up and over big boulders. After reaching the Tableland, the trail will become a bit easier and your stride will lengthen as you race to reach 'the sign', the sign you've been waiting to see for months. Then you will arrive and you might kiss the sign or sit in awe of the glory of the surrounding areas. Kathadin can easily be swathed in clouds but if you are lucky you will end up with a bright and cloudless day in which you can view all of Maine. And then you will walk down the same way you came (unless you are daring and want to try the Knife's Edge) and the trail will be over.
And what is next is up to you.
There is a plethora of information on how to hike the Appalachian Trail out there from the Apalachian Trail Conservancy to WhiteBlaze.net, but most importantly it's best to remember to "Hike your own hike".
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