The Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail, or the “Trail” or “AT”, is almost 2,200 miles long, beginning at Springer Mountain in central Georgia and waggling northeast to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. When you try to determine how much walking an AT hike might be, this 2,200 miles doesn’t include the miles off-trail, because you can become lost by heading in the wrong direction, or adding the inevitable miles to find supplies at a town off-trail. But if you’re going to walk 2,200 miles, what’s a few more hundred?

There’s multiple ways to do the trail. You can be a “thru-hiker”, who starts at one end or the other, either as a north bound “NOBO” who starts in Georgia or a “SOBO” who starts in Maine. You can be a “flip flopper”, who starts at one end, such as Georgia, stops part way and goes to Maine to eventually finish where you got off.

If you do it continuously, with breaks here and there, the hike typically takes between five and seven months.

If you can't commit that much time all at once, you can be a “section hiker”, one who does the “AT” in pieces over an extended period of time.

Regardless of which way you go, around 14,000 have purportedly finished the entire trail since it was envisioned in the 1920’s and the first thru-hiker completed the nearly complete trail in 1948.

Most NOBO’s start in March or April, although some start in January or February. SOBO’s typically start in May or June. A flip flopper typically will hike into Virginia or Pennsylvania, and then switch to Maine because they are concerned they can’t finish at the speed they are going before Mount Katahdin buttons up for winter on October 15th.

Of roughly every 100 people who start the trail as a thru, only 25 make it. In 2013 only 13 of every 100 thru hikers made it to the end. Many reasons account for this but the most important seems to being mentally ready. As arduous physically as the trail is, being equipped for and battling all the reasons to stop seems the most important factor to completion.

Many people who get on the trail have never backpacked or spent a night in the woods before. They may enter out of shape, figuring – frequently correctly – the Trail will take care of that.

Others quit from injuries, off-trail problems (e.g. illness in the family), financial, etc. And then there’s the weather. Can you imagine being on the Trail for a full day with rain and lightening? Or have a sudden blizzard when you’re 10 miles from the nearest shelter? Then there’s the wave of mosquitos, ticks, snakes, nasty bacteria hiding in water, norovirus, mice scampering over your head in a shelter, and the occasional bear. The reasons to quit are nearly endless.

The trail is also not static, it's a living breathing thing. 31 volunteer clubs work to maintain the trail and shelters, the closest for us is “AMC Berkshire” which has over 3,400 members to support 90 miles of trail! The volunteer based Appalachian Trail Conservancy, or “ATC”, has been given almost all responsibility for maintaining the Trail by the Department of the Interior. Since half the Trail used to be on private land, the U.S. Government enacted legislation beginning in the 1970’s to fund the purchase of land the Trail uses. Even with this effort to stabilize its path, the Trail adjusts regularly because of physical problems with the Trail’s route, changing the actual mileage almost every year.

Attempting to do the Trail, even as a section hiker, takes planning and a thoughtful consideration of what to bring and what not to bring. More on that soon enough.

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