The Appalachian Trail (the Trail, the AT) is a National Scenic Trail following the crest of the Appalachian Mountains over 2000 miles from Springer Mt in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Central Maine.
The Trail was formally proposed in 1921 by Boston planner, Benton McKaye in an article published in the October issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects.
A network of individuals and local hiking clubs began work on the Trail in 1922. The final section of the Trail was completed by Civilian Conservation Corp crews on Sugarloaf Mountain, ME in 1937.
Although intially considered impossible, in 1948 a Pennsylvania hiker and WWII vet, Earl Shaffer, became the first person to complete (thru-hike) the Trail in a single season.
A number of hikers followed in Mr. Shaffer's footsteps in the next 3 decades. In the 1980s however, what had been a trickle of annual attempted thru-hikes jumped into the hundreds. The trend peaked in 2000 with almost 3,000 hikers setting out from Georgia. Numbers have declined by 15% each year since with about 2,100 starters in 2002.
Traditionally, 15-20% of those attempting a thru-hike succeed in any given year.
The Appalachian Trail is more than 2,100 miles long, passes through parts of 14 states and includes more than 90 miles of elevation change over its full course.
Because of ongoing relocations (largely designed to reroute the Trail onto public lands) the overall length of the Appalachian Trail can vary by several miles from year to year.
When Earl Shaffer first thru-hiked the AT in 1948 the Trail was 2044 miles.
In 2002 the the Appalachian Trail (AT, the Trail) officially covered 2168.8 miles from Springer Mt in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Central Maine.
For 2005-2006 the official published length of the Trail was 2174.6 miles.
Provided, this figure likely omits at least several changes included in the as-walked but not yet official tally.
I reached Springer 201 days (or 6 1/2 months) after I first walked out my back door and 196 days after I left Harpers Ferry.
Of that time, I was completely off the Trail (at home or in transit) for 31 days. As such my effective hiking time on the AT was about 5 1/2 months (including 15 zero days).
At 20 mi/day, the Trail will take 108.5 days or just under 4 months.
At 15 mi/day, the Trail will take 144.5 days or a little more than twenty weeks.
Add in some zero days, some slack days and one trip home and the Trail can take anywhere from 4 to 6 months (and in most cases well over 100 nights in the woods).
There were 154 days in which I hiked at least some distance on the Trail. These include a large number of "slack" days in which I hiked 5-10 miles in and/or out of a town for resupply or stopped up short to spend the night at particularly compelling spot or feature.
That noted, my average distance for the Trail overall (both northern and southern sections) was 14.5 miles for each day of hiking or about 100 mi/week.
I walked my share of 20+ mile days. My longest day was 23.5 miles. I also walked my share of 11 and 12 mile days. My most typical day was 15-17 miles.
Some thru-hikers do the Trail in regular 25-35 mile days. Some thru-hikers plug along at 10-12 mi/day, day in day out. Most thru-hikers find a sweet spot somewhere in the range of 15 - 20 mi/day.
Although I packed a tarp, and initially imagined I would pitch it most every night, I mainly slept in AT shelters. These are usually three sided wood, log or concrete structures, but sometimes include retired fire wardens cabins and barns.
Shelters are most typically spaced every 5-10 miles along the Trail. Spacing can, however, vary wildly from section to section, and in some areas spacing is 12-15 miles which greatly complicates planning.
Shelters are for the most part located near a reliable water source. This fact is among their chief attractions.
Shelters can be designed to sleep as few as 4 people and as many as 20. Heading north it was rare to find an empty shelter. Heading south the crowd was a little thinner and I spent a good 10-15 nights alone in the woods.
I hiked the Trail by myself in the sense that I had no day in day out partner.
This is in fact the most common approach to thru-hiking.
That said, I very rarely hiked alone. I became a member of 15 mile/day "affinity group" shortly out of Harpers Ferry. We rarely hiked hand-in-glove, but we generally hiked the same distances each day and shared more than the occasional lunch spot for the first 400 odd miles of my hike.
Between Bear Mt, NY (mi 1384.6) and Hanover, NH (mi 1728.4) I hiked pretty much day in and day out with one person (the Woodman), and was also rejoined in VT with one of my original group (Choo Choo) who more or less kept up with me until she was forced to leave the Trail in the White Mountains.
Between Andover, ME (mi 1913.8) and Mt Katahdin, ME (mi 2168.8) I again hiked with a regular partner (Crusader) completing the first half of the trip.
For the last 800 odd miles of my hike (from Rockfish Gap, Va to Gooch Mt, Ga) more through pleasant happenstance than actual planning, I shared innumerable shelters and town stops with a Maine to Georgia thru-hiker named Brother. But I almost always walked alone and frequently went for several days without bumping into him.
Both heading north and south, I frequently shared shelters and the Trail with a regular set of fellow thru-hikers. We shared campsites. We exchanged notes through the trail registers. We shared town adventures and became fast friends.
I obtained food through mailed resupply (or drop) boxes as well as in grocery and convenience stores in towns near to, and sometimes literally on, the Trail.
Although the vast majority of the Appalachian Trail is routed over ridges and through wilderness, in the course of its 2170 odd miles the Trail necessarilly crosses several hundred roads (including any number of major highways).
There are some 88 US Post Offices and towns within 15 miles of an AT roadhead. Some towns are within easy walking distance. More typically towns require a 3-5 mile hitch-hike.
With your backpack visible, getting a ride near the Trail is usually pretty painless. Most (or at least some) folks will recognize that you are an AT hiker, and at least one will want to hear your story.
I typically scheduled resupplies (by whatever method) about every 75 miles, which at my pace (15-20 mi/day) required 4-5 days worth of food. I was frequently able to carry less in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast where town crossings were somewhat more frequent.
I took water from springs, streams and on very rare ocassions ponds.
It was possible in some spots (e.g. the Shenandoahs) to get water from developed sources. This was always inferior to a good spring but quite welcome during lean times. In some particularly lean spots trail angels have left H2O in gallon jugs near a roadhead. This was always welcome.
The best springs were "piped" at the source, meaning a steel, copper, wood or pvc pipe had been inserted in or near a flowing source to channel the flow (marginally decreasing the risk of contamination and greatly increasing the ease of collection)
The worst springs were mere trickles collecting in a silt filled basin (a/k/a mud puddles).
I spent better than half my hike treating water with chlorine dioxide (and a bandana). This treatment comes in two parts that, when combined, yield chlorine gas. The entire process requires 25 minutes. I typically treated 2 quarts at a time but sometimes as much as a gallon.
In late September the quality of the water sources had declined to a point where filtering was necessary to make it palatable -- not to say safe, and I sent home for my water filter (an MSR Miniworks).
I continued to filter until mid-October when chronic precipitation had more than adequately recharged the aquifer.
For my last 445 miles I went totally cowboy. Although I was selective about the sources (and there were many high-volume springs to choose from) I fairly gulped down H20 whenever and wherever I found it.
I took showers in at least 15 of the 88 towns I passed by in the course of the hike. I did my wash about as often.
I dreamed of a bath but never got one.
I switched out my clothes 3 times -- more for weight loss than for wear or stink.
And I did stink most of the time. Fortunately, thru-hikers cannot smell themselves or each other. It is very much like being French.
My total packload, including my baseload, 5 days worth of food and two quarts of H2O, ranged from a low of 22 lbs. at the height of Summer, to a high of 35 lbs. in the depths of Fall.
My packed baseload (excludes food and water) ranged from 12 lbs to an all time high of 20 lbs (including the pack itself). My most basic packload included:
This was filled out by a heavyweight fleece, an extra set of thermals and my 20° bag (37 oz) in cold weather
The cold weather also significantly increased my appetite and by extension food load requiring three or four additional pounds of food between stops.
The pathway of the Appalachian Trail is marked by 2 x 6 inch white blazes. These typically appear on trees but can appear on telephone poles, rocks, fenceposts, guardrails and -- at the Kennebeck River near Caratunk, ME -- on the bottom of a canoe.
The quality of the blazing varies greatly from section to section. In some sections blazes appear at least once every .25 miles, southbound blazes are spaced halfway between each northbound blaze, and confusing trail and road crossings are clearly marked with one blaze immediately visisble from the next.
In some places a hiker can go a good mile and past many forks without the reassurance of a single blaze.
In addition, I carried topographical maps (useful but not necessary) as well as pages from two guidebooks (very necessary) that indicated not only the location of trail features (water, shelters, significant elevation change) but town services on and near the Trail as well.
And yes, I did get lost. I lost the path for a hundred yards or so too many times to count. I went seriously awry (1+ mile) three times, once for over 5 1/2 miles (managing to hike a loop back to an earlier lunch spot).
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