The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a hiking trail that runs between Springer Mountain, Georgia, and Mount Katahdin in Maine (map). It was the first National Scenic Trail in the United States, a “footpath through the wilderness” proposed in 1921 by Benton MacKaye and it was completed in 1937. The AT is one of the Triple Crown hiking trails of the US, along with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Continental Divide Trail (CDT).
The AT runs through 14 states. Six of the middle states will be new to me – Virginia (I get 550 miles to check it out), West Virginia (all 4 miles of it, though 20 further miles is directly along the border with Virginia), Maryland, Pennsylvania (hated by hikers – the nickname Rocksylvania gives a clue), New Jersey and Connecticut. I have actually visited New Jersey and Connecticut before but not for long enough for me to count them and I am particularly looking forward to exploring those two.
The creators of the AT never expected anyone to hike it end to end; rather it was designed to allow people to experience the wilderness for day hikes, weekends and short sections. But in 1948, World War 2 veteran Earl Shaffer sought some peace and solace after his traumatic service so decided to walk the war out of his system and in doing so became the first ever thru-hiker. It was considered a feat so impossible that no-one even believed him and he was required to attend an interview and provide detailed evidence of his hike. After also becoming the first southbound thru-hiker in 1965 he topped it off with a final thru hike at the age of 78 for good measure. More details on the history of the AT can be found at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website.
For anyone that wants to read a detailed account of a typical thru-hike I recommend buying ‘AWOL on the Appalachian Trail‘ as it is simply the best AT book I’ve read.
The exact route and distance varies constantly as the trail is re-routed in small parts for various reasons and usually increases each year but the official distance in 2012 was 2181.0 miles (3510 kilometers). Since the AT sports 99.8 miles of ascent and it takes an average of 10 extra miles of effort expended per 1 mile of ascent, walking the AT is really like tackling over 3000 flat miles.
For folks in the UK, it would be pretty impressive for someone to walk the entire length of both England and Scotland, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, right? We literally have no bigger challenge. Well, that would actually be a pretty flat 814 miles of walking so could be completed in under 4 weeks.
How far is it in European terms?
According to Google Maps, if you set off from Moscow in Russia, and drove to the western tip of France, Le Conquet, you would still be 74 miles short of the AT’s 2181 miles. If you started from the southwest tip of Portugal in Lagos and drove up to France and across southern Europe you would get past Hungary and Slovakia and make it comfortably into Ukraine.
And in world terms, completing the AT is equivalent to walking 8.8% of the Earth’s circumference of 24,901 miles.
Walking the 2181 miles at an average of 1.6 steps per yard (my own measured pace on flat terrain which is rather unrealistic since the AT boasts 100 miles of ascent) it will take me well over 6 million steps in total to complete the AT.
There’s as much ascent (and, sadly, descent) on the AT in total (526,664 feet) as tackling 29,035′ Mount Everest over 18 times starting at sea level. To thru-hike the AT you therefore have to go up and down Mount Everest once every 8-9 days. (source)
Completing the entire AT is equivalent to scaling Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis in western Scotland at 4409 feet, more than 5 times each and every week, for a total of 119.5 completions. England’s tallest mountain, Scafell, would have to be climbed every single day to get through the 164 completions required. In fact the average elevation of the AT (so where a thru-hiker spends his life for 5-6 months) is only 600 feet lower than the peak of Scafell.
The highest point on the AT, Clingmans Dome in Tennessee at 6643 feet is 50% higher than Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak.
To complete the AT in my target of 160 days I need to achieve an average of 3292 feet of ascent and descent every single day.
Around 4 in 5 people who attempt a thru-hike fail, many giving up in the first week alone. In fact many of the remaining people who claim to complete a thru-hike will actually have quietly employed some method at some point to make it slightly easier, such as “flip-flopping” (e.g. driving north to then walk south to benefit from the best possible weather and bug conditions), taking shortcuts (known as “blue-blazing” when walking or “yellow-blazing” when using a car), skipping small sections altogether, taking a long break part way through, etc. At the other end of the spectrum, a “purist” considers those methods to be cheating and invalidate the claim to having completed a true thru-hike.
In 2012, 547 people summited Mt Everest (operating from base camp), a success rate of 56%. (source) Meanwhile in 2012, 609 people completed a straight thru-hike of the AT with a success rate of 21%. (source)
On a decent day a pack-carrying AT hiker can burn more than double the 2600 calories a marathon runner expends. Since there’s no way to carry enough food to fuel that level of output for extended periods all thru-hikers operate at a permanent state of caloric deficiency. Basically they starve. Still, an AT hiker may consume between 750,000 and 1 million calories while completing the trail.
On the trail Nutella is legitimate food. Dense with fat, calories and even a little a protein plus the serotonin stimulation of chocolate, it is often used in place of mayonnaise in lunch wraps regardless of what it’s mixed with.
What’s The Weather Like?
Trail legend Baltimore Jack came up with a highly respectable pun when he recalled that in 2003 he experienced 24 days with solid rain and no sun. “Indescribably horrible. The AT: a footbath through the wilderness.”
90% of thru-hikers start in Georgia and hike north to Maine. Most of those will start in March or April in order to reach Katahdin before winter makes the final summit life-threatening. Starting any earlier presents severe winter weather right away (Clingman’s Dome on March 20th 2013 saw temperatures with windchill reach -27c (-16f) and one hiker died in January 2013 from hypothermia).
So you have to prepare for very cold winter temperatures throughout April mixed in with relatively mild spring-like days. Once May hits you can pencil in solid ‘spring’ weather (a mix of wet and dry days with temperatures anywhere from cold to very warm) and June through August will see summer, with the main problem (apart from mosquitoes and ticks) being temperatures hitting 100f (37c) and dried up water sources.
Once you get to the infamous White Mountains in New Hampshire and then onto Maine, the toughest sections of the whole trail, you change back to cold-weather gear in order to cope with the high elevations and exposure above treeline, regardless of what time of year you make it there. Mount Washington in New Hampshire lays claim to some of the worst weather in the world, including wind speeds of over 230mph, and sees multiple deaths each year.
Is It Dangerous?
A comment on the AT Guide’s official Facebook page in August 2013 stated that there had been 12 deaths so far that year. A normal year is more like 6-8.
The ‘headline’ danger that always seems to be the most ‘popular’ when this trip is mentioned is that of the black bear (Ursus americanus) as they are prevalent along the AT. The black bear is quite distinct from the more dangerous brown bear (also known as the grizzly bear) found in the west and northwest of North America.
One section from Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk In The Woods, which made me laugh out loud:
Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolute salient point – once would be enough.
Bill Bryson’s book is a fictional account of the author’s various section hikes that added up to less than a quarter of the trail in total. It has mixed reviews in hiking circles but that’s usually the case when something real is turned into a fictional drama (see The Black Swan movie for further details). He certainly did like to point out the dangers and to be fair these aren’t fictional though they are quite dramatic:
“The woods were full of peril. Rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of copperheads; bobcats, bears, coyotes, wolves, and wild boar; loony hillbillies destabilized by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex; rabies-crazed skunks, raccoons, and squirrels; merciless fire ants and ravening blackfly; poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, and poison salamanders; even a scattering of moose lethally deranged by a parasitic worm that burrows a nest in their brains and befuddles them into chasing hapless hikers….
“Then there were all the diseases one is vulnerable to in the woods – giardiasis, eastern equine encephalitis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, ehilchiosis, schistosomiasis, brucellosis, and shigellosis, to offer but a sampling. Eastern equine encephalitis, caused by the prick of a mosquito, attacks the brain and central nervous system. If you’re lucky you can hope to spend the rest of your life propped in a chair with a bib around your neck, but generally it will kill you. There is no known cure.
“No less arresting is Lyme disease, which comes from the bite of a tiny deer tick. If undetected, it can lie dormant in the human body for years before erupting in a positive fiesta of maladies. This is a disease for the person who wants to experience it all. The symptoms include, but are not limited to, headaches, fatigue, fever, chills, shortness of breath, dizziness, shooting pains in the extremities, cardiac irregularities, facial paralysis, muscle spasms, sever mental impairment, loss of control of body functions, and – hardly surprising, really – chronic depression.”
And while disease is a very real problem to be concerned about (author Zachary Davis in his excellent ‘Appalachian Trials‘ book recounts what is was like to contract West Nile virus from a mosquito bite on his 2011 hike, and it’s not fun reading) there has to be some consideration also give to environmental dangers such as hurricanes, tornados, lightning strikes, landslides (there was a 2.4m cubic feet landslide at Newfound Gap in the Smokies in Jan 2013), wolves, hypothermia (Eastern Mountain Sports reports that kills 650 people a year in the US alone), tree blowdowns, sheer cold, and the physical issues generally encountered when climbing mountains, crossing rivers and such like. One hiker was even killed recently while crossing a road, his senses completely out of tune to the speed of the modern world.
There is a good amount of terminology, jargon and euphemisms found on the trail. A few that tickled my fancy:
Hiker Midnight: 9pm.
Nero: Nearly a Zero day, i.e. very little mileage made.
Puds: Pointless Ups and Downs: the AT is famous for these. When a trail takes the hardest possible route to get nowhere at all interesting.
Vitamin I: Ibuprofen.
Yogi-ing: the art of politely obtaining food from other people (usually civilians) by means of conversation without directly asking for it. If one just asks for the food it is no longer yogi-ing, but rather simple begging, which is shameful.
Zero: A day with no mileage, i.e. a rest day if done voluntarily.
This is a fully interactive Google Map of the AT with all the usual features such as Terrain or Satellite views, etc. You can click the icon in the top-right corner to view full-screen.
The data is taken from the official centerline data file from the ATC.