Appalachian Trail Completion Rates for 2013 released

AT2013 logoThe Appalachian Trail Conservancy just released the completion statistics for the Class of 2013 and they make for pretty astounding reading.

The ATC points out (20th November 2013) that these are just preliminary numbers so are subject to change and I especially would expect for a few more southbounders to be finishing up in mid-late November or perhaps haven’t caught their breath yet to send in their forms. It’s unlikely though the northbounder stats will change much as they ought to have finished at least 4 weeks earlier.

As I write this the ATC have dropped off the 2012 statistics but fortunately I made a note of those beforehand. I expect they will reinstate those soon when they realise the mistake.

The table below summarizes the last three years of straight-thru hiker numbers.

2011 2012 2013
Northbound (GA-ME) Attempts 1700 2500 2700
Northbound Completions 464 536 385
Northbound Success Rate 27.3% 21.4% 14.3%
Southbound (ME-GA) Attempts 293* 330 336
Southbound Completions 83 73 23**
Southbound Success Rate 28.3% 22.1% 6.8%
Total Success Rate 27.4% 21.5% 13.4%

* Records were not kept at the Mount Katahdin start in 2011 so I split the difference between the numbers for 2010 (256) and 2012 (330) instead. 

** Preliminary, as of 20th November 2013. This is very likely to increase.

Some figures stand out from this pretty starkly. First of all, the dramatic drop in completion rate in 2013. In fact the ATC statistics from even further back show that total completion rates had nudged up from a fairly consistent 20% in years gone by and were heading towards 30% until 2011 when they took a step back to 27% before heading further down in 2012 and now this year.

Why is this? Well, every year has its challenges but the Class of 2013 northbound had to contend with a long and bitter winter with temperatures at -20c at the end of March and still freezing at the end of April. Undoubtedly that will have put some out of the game, unprepared or unwilling to live for weeks on end in such conditions. Further, a nasty outbreak of norovirus, again affecting only northbounders in spring, may have sidelined some. I heard many stories this year of hikers contracting Lyme disease, and this does seem to be a much bigger problem than it was 10 years ago. I can’t put hard numbers to any of those reasons however and the blogosphere isn’t exactly crowded with people lining up to detail the sad demise of their long-awaited adventure. I personally picked 10 blogs (outside of Trail Journals) covering 12 people to follow this year and 9 of them ended early, with only 4 explaining why (shingles, the cold, stopped enjoying it, tonsilitis). The only one to complete was Acorn and even she took a 2 week break mid-way.

As pure speculation I would wonder if it was also connected to the equally dramatic rise in total thru-hiker numbers which spiked up in the 2000′s, possibly connected to the success of Bill Bryson’s novel, ‘A Walk In The Woods’ which was set on the AT. From 1300 attempts in 2006 the numbers have risen each year to over 3000 this year. Perhaps not all of these attempts were from hikers as prepared and experienced as the smaller corps in years past?

In fact one would expect hikers be more prepared today than ever. The explosion of the information available to potential thru-hikers through the Internet, plus the ever-increasing number of online daily journals, journal-style books and e-books published, should allow hikers to become well acquainted with the challenges that lie before them and pick up many tips for success. This is truly a game changing opportunity and has only existed for the most recent of years.

In addition, gear has grown more functional, lighter and is (way) more easily available. People are carrying lighter packs and this ought to make long-distance backpacking more viable for a wider variety of people, not just the ex-military and young athletic men.

As its detractors like to point out, the AT as a trail community has matured considerably with each passing year that see more hikers. The maps and guides are infinitely better than in the past, the number of hostels and resupply points has increased, trail angels dish out food and sodas on trail most weekends and so there’s little left in the way of true wilderness.

But the fact remains: more people are attempting a thru-hike but with less success: this year, 6 in 7 people did not finish. Thousands of people are taking time off from their lives, their families, their careers and their hobbies. They are spending lots of precious time and money preparing for the expedition. They are setting themselves up for some humiliation and embarrassment among family, friends and co-workers if they fail (however they try to re-word that). And yet the vast majority of those people are not completing what they set out to do.

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