Frequently Asked Questions
What is is the Appalachian Trail?
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Blaze, White Blaze: A two by six inch square of white paint ocassionally and wholly accidentally left on a tree by the mythical maintainers. These are generally thought to indicate that: someone went this way before me and they apparently own paint.
Blue Blazer: A hiker who frequently substitutes blue blazed routes paralleling the official AT. These may be: shorter, flatter or more scenic than the official route. Many blue blazed trails are in fact vestiges of earlier AT routes and as such frequently head directly through popular resupply points avoided by the modern "scenic" AT.
Credited Miles: An as yet un-hiked portion of the official white blazed Appalachian Trail. Credited miles exclude side trails to shelters, water, services and views. Credited miles also exclude any portion of the Trail previously trod upon by the hiker (e.g. a northbounder's descent from Katahdin)
Flip-Flop Hiker: A hiker completing the Trail in a discontinuous hike within a single year. Flip-flop hikes may begin at either end of the Trail (i.e. Leg 1 North from Georgia, Leg 2 South from Maine) or may begin a convenient midpoint on the Trail (Harpers Ferry is popular) (i.e. Leg 1 Mid-point North to Maine, Leg 2 Mid-point South to Georgia).
GA-ME, GAME: Short hand for Georgia to Maine. A notation used in trail registers by Georgia to Maine thru-hikers.
Go-lighter, Ultra-lighter: A hiker who carries an extemely light pack (typically 15-25 lbs). Ultra-lighters use light-weight tarps in lieu of tents and favor sleep sacks (silk and fleece liners) over traditional bags. They are frequently cold and always hungry.
ME-GA, MEGA: Short hand for Maine to Georgia. A notation used in trail registers by Maine to Georgia thru-hikers.
Northbounder (NoBo): Short hand for a Georgia to Maine thru-hiker.
Pointless Ups and Downs (PUDs) Hills and full blown mountains senselessly included in the path of the Appalachian Trail. These features are frequently remote from the most natural trail route requiring exquisite and serpentine contortions in the path to deliver the hiker to the base of targeted monolith.
Purist: A hiker who insists on passing every white blaze (demarcating the official AT) between Maine and Georgia. See, also: Ultra-purist (var); Blue Blazer (ant)
Section Hiker: A hiker who seeks to complete the Trail in large sections over several years. Section hikers can take two, three or as many as twenty years (at 100 mi/year) to complete the Trail.
Southbounder (SoBo): Short hand for a Maine to Georgia thru-hiker.
Trail Names: The fanciful (some would say Super Friends-like) monikers adopted by or assigned to Appalachian Trail hikers. These names are used in trail and shelter registers and in actual conversation among hikers. An odd convention of the Trail to some, trail names are memorable and help hikers sort among the twenty Johns, thirty Davids and twelve Anns they are likely to meet in the course of months or weeks on the AT.
Thru-hiker: Generally used to mean a hiker who has walked the Trail from end-to-end in a single (normally continuous) hike. Often includes hikers completing the trail in a single dis-continuous hike within a single year, and may include hikers completing the Trail in large sections over two or three years.
Tour Hiker: A hiker who seeks to hike only the most desirable sections of the Trail. These hikers ofter start in Georgia and finish in Maine but, either because of time constraints or boredom, skip large sections of the Trail (Pennsylvania is a popular omission as are New Jersey, New York and Connecticut). See, also: Yellow Blazing, Yellow Blazer
Ultra-purist: A hiker who scrupulously insists on carrying her full pack not only past every white blaze on the Trail but over every inch of soil demarcated by those blazes. Unlike simple purists, ultra-purists consider dirt under a large fallen tree to be "part of the official AT" and will literally tag the space underneath from either side whenever forced to circumnavigate a blowdown.
Weekend Hiker, Weekender: A hiker who is out for 2-3 days and is more or less incidentally hiking on the AT. Frequently includes large camp and church groups. Often includes Boy Scout troops. Has been known in Pennsylvania to include penal boot camp outings.
Yellow Blazing, Yellow Blazer: Hitch-hiking or otherwise skipping over sections of the Trail. (Named for the yellow line down the center of the road) A yellow blazer is a hiker who skips large sections of the Trail because they are keeping a schedule or because the skipped section is difficult and/or tedious. See, also: Tour Hiker
Yogi, Yogi-ing: In its strictest meaning, the act (or art) of obtaining desired goods or services without directly asking the candidate provider. In general usage, the act of obtaining desired goods of services from a third-party by any means including non-fatal force.
Zero Day, Taking a Zero, Zeroing: A day in which a hiker walks no "credited" miles (generally spent in a town or hostel). Zero days may be for resupply, recuperation and/or recreation. Hikers taking too many zero days risk "losing their hike" and/or becoming yellow blazers.
The Appalachian Trail (the Trail, the AT) is a National Scenic Trail following the crest of the Appalachian Mountains over 2100 miles from Springer Mt in Georgia to Mt Katahdin in Central Maine.
The AT is maintained in public/private partnership coordinated by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) (f/k/a/ Conference), Regional Trail and Hiking Clubs, as well as multiple state and federal, public lands agencies.
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.
How long is the Appalachian Trail?
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.
Because of ongoing relocations (largely designed to reroute the Trail onto public lands) the length of the Trail changes every year.
When Earl Shaffer first thru-hiked the AT in 1948 the Trail was 2044 miles. In 2003 the official length will be 2171 miles.
The Trail passes through parts of 14 states and includes more than 90 miles of elevation change over its full course.
How long did it take you to hike it?
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).
How far did you walk each day?
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.
Where did you sleep? Did you take a tent?
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.
Did you hike by yourelf?
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.
How did you get food? How much did you carry?
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.
How did you get water? Did you treat it?
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.
Did you take showers? Did you wash your clothes?
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.
What did your carry? What did your pack weigh?
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:
- 55° sleeping bag (22 oz)
- self-inflating ground pad (16 oz)
- tarp (24 oz)
- rain top & pants
- 1 pair dry socks
- 1 pair dry sock liners
- thermal bottoms
- thermal top
- micro fleece top
- alcohol stove & 16 oz fuel
- titanium cookset
- toilet paper
- dop/medical kit
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.
How did you find your way?
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).