Conquering the Appalachian Trail

 

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, better known as the Appalachian Trail or just A.T., is a hiking trail in the Eastern United States that extends from Springer Mountain in Georgia up to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The Appalachian Trail is around 2,190 miles long and cuts across eight different national forests, six national parks, and numerous state parks, forests, and game lands spanning 14 states in total.

Every year, about 3 million people make their way to the A.T. to hike a section of the trail. Only a select few of those people go on to complete the hike and conquer the Appalachian Trail from beginning to end. As a matter of fact, since 1936, there have only been around 20,000 completed hikes recorded by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  In the 1970s, a new term was coined to describe thru-hikers who’ve completed the trail, “2,000 miler”, which signifies the entire distance of the Appalachian Trail from start to end.

The Different Ways of Hiking the A.T.

Not everyone has the time and freedom to drop everything and hike the whole Appalachian Trail. Fortunately, there are 3 different types of hikes that you can choose from so you can enjoy the trail at a pace you feel comfortable with.

  1. Day hiking: This can be something as simple as an hour-long stroll through the trail or a challenging hike that takes a few hours. Point is you return home on the same day.
  2. Multi-day Hiking: This type of hike can be a simple overnight camp to tackling large portions of the Appalachian Trail over a few days. These people hike stretches of the A.T. one by one until they complete the whole trail.
  3. Thru-hiking: This is going the distance and hiking the entire Appalachian Trail inside a year. Most thru-hikes will take you about 5 and a half to 7 months to complete depending on your skill and determination.

Each hike will be explained in detail, followed by some tips for what you need to bring, as well as what you can expect in terms of wildlife, sanitation, weather, and some reminders as you hike your way to completing the trail and becoming a “2,000 miler”.

Day Hiking

Day-hikes can be rated from easy to strenuous. The total round-trip distance and elevation gains of a trail are what determines how they are rated. Day-hikes, which are rated as Easy, can be family-friendly hikes which young kids will surely enjoy.  You will come across a variety of plants, trees, and wildlife. Don’t forget to bring your camera, binoculars, and even a magnifying glass as everyone in the family experiences the rich biodiversity the A.T. offers. Strenuous day-hikes will have you doing a lot of climbing with plenty of elevation gains and going through rough paths due to rocks and lots of roots.

Most of the popular day-hikes are the ones that will have you hiking to an outcropping that rewards you with a fantastic view or ones that have you hiking to a mountain top and back down again. These destination hikes will still have you climbing uphill and descending back down. Other popular day-hikes have a waterfall, a calming meadow, or a lake being the end goal. Research and plan ahead by taking the distance of the hike plus the hours needed to complete the hike to help you decide which hike you’d like to experience.

Some recommended Day-hikes are:

The Clarendon Gorge - is an Easy rated hike in Vermont and is a great introduction of hiking in the A.T. while also being a beautiful spot to visit. You’ll be passing a bridge over the gorge and follow a pathway that will lead you down to the water. You and your kids will enjoy the views of the river, gorge, and waterfall.

 

Pleasant Pond Mountain – Don’t let the name and its short distance of 1.7 miles(one-way) fool you. Located in Maine, this hike is rated as Strenuous as it has a total of 1100 feet in elevation, so make sure you’re fit enough for it. The beginning of the hike can have you taking a swim at Pleasant Pond, before making you go on steep ascents and a lot of climbing. You are rewarded with a fantastic view once you reach the summit.

If you want to know more information about the other day-hikes available, including their location and description, this site has a detailed list and a guide for Family Hikes.

Multi-Day Hiking

More known as Section Hiking, this method of hiking the Appalachian Trail allows you to become a 2,000 miler as you complete the trail by doing a series of multi-day hikes. This method allows you to fully immerse yourself with the outdoors and give you enough time to take in the beautiful views of the Appalachian countryside and the charm of the small towns in it. Being able to hike at your own pace, it certainly is less pressure compared to a thru-hike.

Section hiking is more affordable as the expenses are spread out compared to the amount needed for a thru-hike. Getting to choose when to do each section allows you to do one section during Fall to enjoy the colors, then experience the vibrancy that comes with Spring for the next section—timing each hike to coincide when the temperatures are more comfortable.

Some popular Section Hikes:

GSMNP to Max Patch  – This 2-day, 15-mile section hike starts from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park border up to the summit of Max Patch, North Carolina. The summit has a 300-acre grassy bald with a 360-degree view of the neighboring mountains of Mount Mitchell in the east, and the Great Smokies in the west. Camping on the summit isn’t allowed, but campsites are located a little below the summit.

 

Waynesboro to Front Royal – This 108-mile section hike has you going through Shenandoah National Park and takes anywhere from 6 to 10 days to complete. Rated as Easy-Moderate, this section is best enjoyed during Spring or Fall to enjoy the colorful foliage. This section winds across Skyline Drive Scenic Highway, giving you lots of choices for parking spots to customize the distance of your hike.

More info about the various multi-day hikes along the Appalachian Trail can be found by clicking the link here.

Thru-Hiking

Hoo-boy! Are you ready for an adventure? Because this one is an adventure of a lifetime!  Before setting off for this one, it might be a good idea for you to inform your family and everyone you love what you’ll be doing. A thru-hike will literally have you be gone for a few months! You need to be prepared both physically and mentally for this hike, so it isn’t a stretch to say that you will need a few months to maybe even a year, to prepare yourself for this hike.

Although it isn’t required, registering your thru-hike is a good idea as you get to communicate with other hikers making coordinating itinerary and start dates to avoid overcrowding the trail and use of the shelters. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail will cost you anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000 on gear, trail resupplies, and town expenses for the entire 5 to 7 months of the hike. Start saving up!

Essentials Items for the Hike

There are plenty of ultralightweight backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, and even stoves available right now. The weight of a typical thru-hikers backpack is 30 pounds or less. A good rule to follow is that the weight shouldn’t be 20% of your body weight. A few good creature comforts you can bring along are a lightweight camping chair that’ll allow you to sit and relax after a long day of hiking much easier, if you can bring the best tasting instant coffee you can find to make getting up in the morning a bit more bearable.

Bring a good guidebook as well as a map. The A.T. Guidebook is popular with hikers as it has information regarding elevation, water sources, and town amenities. Since cellphones are predominant nowadays, you can get an app like Guthook’s Guide to the Appalachian Trail available on both Apple and Android devices. The A.T. has decent cell phone reception along most of its trail if your provider is either Verizon Network or StraightTalk. If you’re with Sprint, AT&T or T-Mobile have non-existent to very poor reception at best. Don’t forget to bring a compass and a GPS device to aid you on the hike. Bring portable batteries as well as a solar-powered charger if you can get one.

Quick-drying clothes and shoes are a must as it can rain frequently in the A.T. Warm clothing for when it becomes cold are welcome, as long as it isn’t made out of cotton. A Mylar blanket is very lightweight and does a good job of keeping you warm. It can also double as a signaling mirror during emergencies. A lightweight flashlight and headlamp are very handy, so remember to bring those plus rechargeable batteries.

Sunscreen is a must-have in the early Spring months and during Summer. Although known as a “green tunnel,” there are areas on the trail where there isn’t ample tree coverage to protect you from the harsh rays of the sun. Vaseline can be very handy to prevent you from chafing. Don’t forget to bring a medical kit.

The A.T. is filled with plenty of mosquitos and black flies. Protect yourself by packing some Nantucket Spider bug spray. This is the best natural mosquito repellent you can bring along for your hike. There are also Lyme disease-carrying ticks, so you’ll be needing something stronger. Fortunately, Nantucket Spider also has an essential oil tick repellent bug spray for you. Being water-based, you can spray it on your camping equipment and backpack to keep them free from insects. 

Some Helpful Reminders

Food, Water, and Shelter

Doing a thru-hike burns a lot of calories, and you’ll need to eat often and a lot to give you energy. So bring food that’s good for 4 to 4,500 calories a day. You can resupply in towns, so no need to bring a separate heavy bag filled with food. If you refer to the guidebooks, you’ll see that there are plenty of water sources on the trail, with most shelters having one nearby. You might want to bring water purification tablets and water filters to make sure the water is safe to drink. Bring a reusable water container to fill up each time you pass a water source as it’s important to keep yourself hydrated.

The Appalachian Trail has around 260 shelters scattered throughout the entirety of the trail. You will encounter a shelter every 8.5 miles, as they were made to be a day’s hike from each other. Some shelters can be spaced 5 to 15 miles apart, and even 30 miles when you’re close to a town that can offer you lodging for the night.

Keep a Sharp Eye Out for the Wildlife

The Appalachian Trail is rich in wildlife. You’ll come upon snakes, deers, squirrels, raccoons, and plenty of birds during your hike. Most animals won’t bother you if you leave them alone, but be wary of black bears. Most bears will tend to scurry in the opposite direction if they hear hikers coming. It’s during the night when they creep into your camp searching for food when they’re a problem. To prevent this, you can store your food inside a bear canister and remembering to hang it on a tree branch at night to keep it out of reach. Remember to keep your situational awareness sharp.

Don’t Forget to Test Your Gear

Be sure to test out your equipment before setting out on your hike. You can take your new gear on a day hike or overnight camp to make sure everything is in working order and won’t let you down when you go on a multi-day or thru-hike. This is most important for your rain gear, sleeping bag, and tent. Don’t forget to break in your hiking boots to avoid getting blisters.

Leave no Trace - If you can, try and learn hiking and camping techniques that are sustainable to help preserve the A.T. for future hikers and for the wildlife that call the Appalachian Trail home.


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