The Appalachian Trail, also known as the A.T., runs approximately 2,200 miles, from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Managed by the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, this trail meanders through wilderness, across rivers and through some towns. The greatest challenge associated with the A.T. is the “thru-hike,” or an attempt to hike the whole way during just one season. If you are looking for an adventure that will let you see a great deal of the beauty of America, and you have a period of months to dedicate, then check out these tips about making it all the way from northern New England to the Old South.
There are some people who ship packages to themselves containing supplies, picking them up at small post offices along the way. However, the A.T. gives you access to quite a few towns with stores as you go, so you don’t need to worry about figuring out mailings. This way you can shop as you go, for most of the route. The only places where you might think about shipping packages is to the post office in Fontana Village, North Carolina (which also offers a place to stay and do your laundry), and to the Kincora Hostel, in Dennis Cove, Tennessee.
You’ll find almost 300 shelters along the trail, but they can get loud and crowded; the most seasoned thru-hikers recommend putting up tents instead. They are good places to stop and get the news about conditions up the trail, mooch some provisions from the short-term hikers, who are usually glad to dump the weight, and check out the shelter’s log to read the adventures of others.
The A.T. has clear markings the whole way, so you don’t need a compass and map. If you start to wonder if people have walked where you are, you’ve probably taken a wrong turn, so go back to the worn trail. If you are hiking right after a snowfall or in the fog above the treeline, those are the only conditions in which navigating can get tricky.
If you leave Georgia in the middle of April, you have to average about 13 miles a day, giving yourself one day off each week, to get to Mount Katahdin before the park closes for the season on October 15. However, some places are easier than others. Remember to start at a comfortable pace, hiking a maximum of 10 miles each day for the first two weeks. Then go up to 12 in the third week, getting to 15 by the middle of May. If you have made it to damascus, Virginia, by the 40th day, you are in good shape.
Your Own Trail Name
Every thru-hiker gets one. However, you have to wait until someone gives you one. If you show up wanting people to call you Mighty Bear, things won’t go so well for you. You’ll find that the A.T. is incredibly social: you’ll make friends for a lifetime. However, if you get thrown off track by those shelter parties near the start, you will get off pace.
Six months of walking is a lot more than it sounds like. The weather might challenge you, and your joints might start to get angry at you for going so far, but it is the mental part that will get you before anything else. If you want to stay motivated during your hike, here are some strategies:
Make some friends
There are always plenty of people heading in the same direction you are, and the more the merrier. Finding comrades builds your sense of mission.
Laugh at adversity
If you can’t crack a smile when you take a tumble, or laugh ruefully when you wake up to hear thunder for the third day in a row, then you won’t make it. You’re out to become one with nature, not to resent it.
Take a quick break
Remember those rest days? Stack two of them in a row and just camp without the grind of the hike. That can help focus yourself. Walk into one of the many towns and treat yourself to a night in a hotel with real sheets, before heading back to the wilderness.
Remember to bring your iPod, and load it with great books and music. You can charge it at the shelters, and it will keep you from becoming bored.
Remember that you are hiking the A.T. to challenge yourself, to break new boundaries, to unplug from the stress of society. This can change your life for the better — if you let it.