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August 25, 2005 12:58 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever known someone to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, all 2200 miles straight through?

A friend and I have 4 to 5 months off next year in late spring / early summer and have actually considered attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail all the way through (northbound). We know it can be expensive, we know only 20% of people actually finish, we know it is the most grueling thing you can do either physically or mentally, but anyone know someone who's actually done it and what their experience was? Any advice welcome, (including don't do it).
posted by Ugh to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Not likely in your time frame. Read Bill Bryson's book A Walk in the Woods. From what I recall, those who do the entire trail start as early in the year as possible at the southernmost end when it's really cold and finish at the northernmost end when it's really cold. It typically takes 5 to seven months.
posted by plinth at 1:06 PM on August 25, 2005

Check out Bearfoot - A northbounder. It is a book composed of a series of emails sent via dictation while thru-hiking the trail.
posted by reverendX at 1:13 PM on August 25, 2005

My cousin just did it. I haven't talked to him yet, though.. he just got back.

Late spring is too late, though, I think. You need to start EARLY, as plinth notes.
posted by selfnoise at 1:15 PM on August 25, 2005

See if you can get your hands on the June/July 2004 issue of National Geographic Adventure.... lots of great info in there.
posted by spilon at 1:15 PM on August 25, 2005

Hmmm...I know a lot of people who've put time and thought into planning it, but no one who's actually done it. IMO the hardest part would be the organization/planning of supplies for the trip. Most hikers create boxes of food and have a friend or relative mail them to drop points along the trail. Making sure you and your supplies are at the same point at the same time is a big priority; you don't want to run out of food before you get to your next drop, that sort of thing. If you end up hiking slower than you'd planned (most people do) your entire drop schedule has to be revised on the fly.

On preview: plinth is probably right. Generally hikers start in Georgia March/April and get to Maine around October. Still, 4-5 months on the trail would be a great experience.
posted by junkbox at 1:15 PM on August 25, 2005

Seconding the Bryson book, even if you end up not walking the Trail. It's really funny and a great read.
posted by SashaPT at 1:16 PM on August 25, 2005

I know someone who is doing it right now. Email me in a few months and I'll be able to give you more info.
posted by anathema at 1:17 PM on August 25, 2005

Thirding the Bryson book.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 1:19 PM on August 25, 2005

Ray Jardine hiked the Appalachian Trail in less than three months. He has also hiked the Pacific Crest Trail three times and the Continental Divide Trail. His book has lots of good advice. I strongly recommend reading it.
posted by driveler at 1:20 PM on August 25, 2005

Five months is really ambitious. I'd second A Walk in the Woods... well, the first half, anyway.

I know someone who completed all but the last 300 miles then injured her knee. Once she got over the injury she finished. Can't remember how long it took her to do the first 1900 miles, and I'm not positive but I think she had mailed food and other supplies to herself at various points along the route. I do know that she loved it. I also know that she lives in rural Maine in a sod house and bathes in a galvanized steel water trough. Fun gal.

Have you considered hiking a shorter trail, like Long Trail, John Muir Trail or the Mountains to Sea Trail?
posted by cog_nate at 1:24 PM on August 25, 2005

I did large sections of the trail when I was in highschool and have met many through hikers along the way. Because it is such a big goal, you have to have other reasons to hike the trail rather than just to say you did it. You'll never make it through if that is your only goal. Along the way you'll see awesome sites, and meet some truely unique people. I worked occasionally in the Hikers hostel down the hill from my house (Bears Den outside of Bluemont Va.) and I can tell you that AT hikers are a lot of fun.
posted by trbrts at 1:25 PM on August 25, 2005

You can read about lots of AT experiences here.
posted by JanetLand at 1:27 PM on August 25, 2005

I have the same experience as trbrts -- have done many of sections of trail (in GA, PA, NJ NY, VT, ME), have met plenty of thru-hikers, but never did it myself.

I think you'll need at least six months. And many people plan it in large sections -- say, three months one year, three months the next.

A Walk in the Woods is only OK from the perspective of learning about hiking. Bryson is unprepared, unrealistic, and whiny. He begins overconfident, and his motivation flags. He doesn't have that much experience as a hiker. In the end, it reads as the disappointing tale of what happens if you don't know what you're doing; but that has very little to do with the experience that is had by people who do have hiking and camping experience, know what they're in for, prepare properly and have reasonable expectations.

Arranging for food drops, using General Delivery, and having bailout points along the trail (places to take a break for a hot shower and night in a hotel) are key points. Being in shape, and being comfortable with covering between 10 and 25 miles a day, sometimes over very rough terrain, will help. You'll need proper gear and you'll need to learn how to store and carry it to keep it dry. You'll need to learn to cache your food and bear-proof your camp. I can't stress enough the need to prepare, prepare, prepare. It's not something you can do on a whim; you need to start your research and planning at least 6 months in advance if you plan to thru-hike in one season.

That being said, don't let it psych you out; it's totally do-able if you plan. For most of its length, the AT is surprisingly close to civilization, and in these days of cell phones you are much safer while hiking than anyone ever was in the past. There are remote stretches, but not fearsomely so.

I think the biggest downside to spending all this time on the AT is that, though pretty in spots, it is not that great a goal. Yes, it's quite a long trail. But the vast majority of it looks like a rutted, rocky, muddy pathway overhung with leafy trees. There are few wide vistas, and not many really striking landscapes. It's Eastern Woodlands, start to finish, with some minor biome changes. In high school I used to think I would want to thru-hike as an adult. But now that I've seen more truly stunning pieces of America (not to mention the rest of the world), I'm of a different mind. If I had 4-5 months to spend traveling, I sure as hell would want to do it out West, or in Canada/Alaska -- not in what amounts to a giant Eastern backyard.
posted by Miko at 1:41 PM on August 25, 2005

As far as it being 'the most grueling thing you can do either physically or mentally', I'd be remiss if I didn't point out Grandma Gatewood, the first woman to thru-hike the trail: she first did it when she was 67 years old, wearing Keds sneakers, and carrying all her gear in a bag she slung over her shoulder. Truly, an ultralight pioneer.
posted by driveler at 1:44 PM on August 25, 2005

Response by poster: Well, if we do decide to do this, we plan to get in peak physical condition before we go. We have already started running / walking everyday and are planning a day hike for each weekend. We have some literature from the Appalachian Trail Commission which says the AVERAGE is 5 months, but we can take off longer if we need to so the time frame is not a problem. When I said late spring I meant more along the lines of end of March, early April.

A lot of the people I have talked to (who have actually completed it) have said three months is very much possible if you're in good health, so giving myself an extra two months above and beyond that seems very plausible. I am by no means taking this lightly which is why I began the actual planning process 9 months in advance, and may still find it too difficult to attempt. Thanks for the links so far guys, a couple of those books I hadn't read yet.
posted by Ugh at 1:44 PM on August 25, 2005

Very important to start in GA by early spring Mar/Apr so you can be through the White Mountains in NH by early fall. Used to live in a house in VT where the AT passes through and hosted many through-hikers. A truely unique crowd of folks. There are lots of resources for planning and I would read everything you can, especialy first-person accounts.

Plan for boring, endless up the mountain/down the mountain, sleeping with mice, being unspeakably dirty/smelly for long periods of time, craving creature comforts like heroin...but you will also experience this country is a way that is fast disappearing and meet wonderful people along the way who may restore your faith in humanity. Good luck!
posted by garbo at 1:45 PM on August 25, 2005

"Appalachian Impressions", a documentary about thru-hiking the trail is playing on PBS in my area right now (i actually just caught some of it yesterday, coincidentally enough). It's a bit "rick steves" style in that there's not a hell of a lot of actual information, and instead a bunch of little vignettes of places the camera crew hit, but it does seem to offer a pretty broad overview in a tidy little package and might be worth watching (particularly if PBS is airing it in your neck of the woods).
posted by fishfucker at 1:51 PM on August 25, 2005

A friend of mine tried it, creating a website even. He lasted three days. It turned out his pack weighed seventy pounds.

Roland Mueser wrote a book called Long Distance Hiking: Lessons from the Appalachian Trail, examining data he collected from several thruhikers. It's very well-written, with lots of details about what works.
posted by atchafalaya at 2:28 PM on August 25, 2005

You must, MUST get Beyond Backpacking by the above mentioned Ray Jardine. His ideas are revolutionary and will help you walk faster and having a better time.

Another thought: Before you attempt the AT, do a trial run (no, I don't mean trail run, those those wouldn't hurt) of a couple days out. This will help you dial in your system.

Check out GoLite for some great hiking/fastpacking gear. (IANEmployedByThem, just a fan.)
posted by ArcAm at 4:42 PM on August 25, 2005

Waldo has hiked quite a bit of it. Here's his page with details.
posted by Hankins at 6:39 PM on August 25, 2005

Hey, thanks for the shoutout, Hankins. :) I just happened to open this AskMefi.

I attempted a thru-hike in '96, but I broke my feet (8 times). I did nearly all of it, though -- I'm only missing CT, MA, and VT. Five months is in no way unreasonable, but it's probably tighter timeframe than you'd like. Four months would be very unpleasant, and you would be sad. I have dozens of friends who are also thru-hikers.

Do yourself a favor and go to Trailplace and start reading. Use the Discussion boards (specifically the Basic Info forum), get to know some thru-hikers, and see if you like the idea. Do yourself a huge favor and do at least a one-week shakedown hike the fall before you intend to go. If you don't like it, don't subject yourself to five months of it.

I'll tell you, straight-up, that the fact that I'm not thru-hiking right this very minute depresses the hell out of me. There is nothing I that I would like to be doing more than be in the midst of a long-distance hike. Someday I'll get orthopedic surgery and spend the rest of my days hiking the world's great trails.
posted by waldo at 7:29 PM on August 25, 2005

I've done it--March 15 to August 21, 1980, which was 5 months plus a week. My email is in my profile, I'd love to talk about it.
posted by LarryC at 7:53 PM on August 25, 2005

never read A Walk in the Woods, but having read some Bryson, I imagine Miko is right. Giving something credit enough to try and do it right would just cramp Bryson's aren't-I-so-clever&cynical style.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:06 PM on August 25, 2005

I know five people who have through-hiked the AT, two of them last year. Each had a different story, but each made a similar comment: after a while, it's all about the miles. Head down, feet out front, get to Katahdin before it closes for the season.

Miko talks about food drops, and I know a vegetarian who did this, but the last pair I met bought food on the way (Lipton noodles, snickers, peanut butter, whatever high-fat food they could find at the local store / quickie-mart).

I've heard a lot of gear stories. Tarp tent, tyvek ground tarp, garbage compactor bag to keep your stuff dry in the pack (no pack cover), JetBoil, toss the cold clothing when it warms up and rebuy when needed... lots of tips to pack light.

When to start? The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has a page on it.

I second drivelers suggestion on Jardine's book, which contains the results of a through-hiker survey done in 1990/1991. One set of stats: hikers averaged 11.5 miles/day the first two weeks and 16.2 miles/day once they got conditioned.

Good luck if you go. I'm building new trail here in Missouri through '06, and hope to hit the AT or another long trail in '07.
posted by F Mackenzie at 8:14 PM on August 25, 2005

I really enjoyed reading Flyin Brian's hiking journals.

I had fun making Pepsi/beer can alcohol stoves and they work well too. I also highly recommend Hennessy Hammocks. They have an asymmetrical design so you can lay flat and are very comfortable to sleep in. They are lighter than most tents and keep you up off the cold wet lumpy surface. After my first night I figured out that all those past mornings waking up stiff with a sore back wasn't from my pack, but from sleeping on the ground.
posted by roboto at 11:58 PM on August 25, 2005

It might seem like a strange place but there is an account of a trek along the Appalachian Trail in the hardcore punk fanzine Inside Front #12 (cover). I remember reading it at a friend's house in Sweden in Spring 2000 and it certainly made me consider walking the trail.

The zine seems to be out of print, but I am sure the people at CrimethInc. would be happy to photocopy it for you, or to point you in the direction of someone else who might.
posted by xpermanentx at 2:14 AM on August 26, 2005

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