To Hike or Not To Hike: Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” –John Muir
More than once, the idea of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (hiking it from end to end) has crossed my mind. Three or four months of solitude in the woods didn’t sound so bad, hiking beautiful mountains and clearing my head while I explored the world on my own two feet. We’ve hiked short stretches of the AT in several states, including the Jackson-Webster loop in New Hampshire, and on this trip so far, our 10+ miles in Tennessee and Virginia. While I’ve enjoyed each of those day hikes, with every mile I log, I wonder if I’m really up for 2,000 more. And then we chatted with a few guys who were in the early stages of their thru-hike attempts, and I wondered why I ever entertained the idea in the first place.
The majority of thru-hikers tackles the trail in a northbound fashion, meaning they start their trek at Springer Mountain, Georgia and walk in a general northeasterly direction until—approximately 2,180 miles later—they reach the end of the trail on the summit of Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine. The journey takes the average hiker four to six months, although some take three and others take more. The trip is generally constrained by weather, since most hikers need to make it to Maine before it gets snowed in. In a less popular route, some hikers start at Katahdin in May or June and finish in Georgia in autumn.
The Park Service strictly regulates thru-hikers and backcountry camping. To minimize impact on the trails and ensure a level of traceability, hikers are required to stay overnight in designated shelters. There is a network of shelters (maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club and other organizations) that offer protected lodging and are spaced roughly a day apart on the trail. Backcountry tenting is prohibited, and ridge runners (volunteers who run back and forth across segments of the trail) patrol the ridge to enforce that rule.
The shelters are beautiful buildings, often made of stone and timber. But what they offer in beauty, they lack in comfort. At the Icewater Springs shelter we checked out, the bunks consist of two large wooden platforms, one about two feet above the other. Hikers (mostly thru-hikers, with a few day hikers thrown in for good measure) sleep shoulder to shoulder, often with strangers, in the three-sided structure.
We encountered several thru-hikers on the trail yesterday. Most were men, hiking alone, ages ranging from early 20s to mid-60s. We saw only one couple and one solo woman, likely in her 40s. As a general rule, they were a chatty bunch, not afraid to strike up a conversation or ask a question. We heard tales “vermin” in the shelters and of guys like “Machete Mitch,” a survivalist type who is hiking parallel to the AT (but not on it) equipped with only a machete, a compass, and an iPad. (Apparently survivalist does not mean electronics minimalist.)
The “vermin” didn’t sound too exotic…mostly field mice and chipmunks looking for food…but in my mind, even a chipmunk becomes terrifying if he’s running across my face in the middle of the night. Then there’s the incessant snoring from your neighbor, and if you’re extra lucky, a crying baby like one hiker reported from a shelter in the night before. (Parents: I understand the desire to take your kids into the backcountry overnight, but can we agree to wait until they are potty-trained?)
And while the majority of the AT does cross scenic ranges in sparsely traveled places like those I imagined, some sections cross right through major tourist areas or the centers of towns. One hiker shared the culture shock he experienced when he hitched a ride into Gatlinburg after two weeks on the trail…and was dropped off near a Hard Rock Café. Not exactly the scenery of Muir.
I have total respect for folks that attempt a thru-hike, tackling a strenuous journey and relying only on themselves while they attempt the adventure of a lifetime. Most sources estimate only 1 in 4 hikers who start the hike will finish it. I, however, have a 0% chance of finishing it, because I will never start it. But I will go to the mountains when they call, and I will return to the AT. I’ll just continue to seek out my adventures in metered doses, in 10-mile sections that can be covered in one day. -J