The proposal for the Appalachian Trail was first offered by Benton MacKaye in 1921. Less than twenty years later, a footpath from Georgia to Maine was developed by a vast volunteer cooperative organized by Myron Avery. The A.T., as the Appalachian Trail is often called, has changed its course over the years as land was purchased, road walks were eliminated and the wilderness experience maximized. By 1987, hundreds of hikers would take the challenge each year to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.
The inscription on the plaques found at the each end describes the Appalachian Trail as: “A footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness”. The A.T. makes good on that promise and provides a pleasant long distance hiking environment. Walking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail is a life changing experience. Those who intend to hike end to end are called “thruhikers”. The adventure is most often a walk with spring, starting from the south as early as February, however, some thruhikers do walk from the north. The A.T. is cleary marked by white blazes and is usually well maintained by dedicated volunteers.
The Trail winds across the best of the Appalachian Mountains, passing through 14 states within the reach of large population centers like New York City and Washington DC. More than a just a walk in the woods, the Appalachian Trail is about the people as much as it is wilderness. The friendliness of the Trail’s neighbors as well as the other hikers helps to create a linear family that lasts long after the hike has ended.
Thruhikers adopt trail names and personalities as they walk on the A.T. My hiking partner, Mark, and I chose the name “Half Ass Expeditions” We hiked northward with characters like “Redbeard”, “Rambo”, “Featherback”, “Dead Buffalo”, “Swiss Miss”, “Night Prowler” , “Bilbo”, “Frodo”, “The French Stooge”, “The Blaze Brothers” and the infamous “Wingfoot”. Thruhikers keep in touch using trail registers that are located at every shelter and other strategic locations along the A.T. Some of the entries are rather entertaining and they become required reading whenever they are encountered.
The hardest part of preparing for a thruhike on the A.T. is getting the time off. The only way to physically prepare for a long distance hike is by hiking. The Appalachian Trail will get you in shape fairly quickly and you will surely lose some weight like most hikers. Since the Appalachian Trail passes through many towns, there are ample places to restock the backpack and hikers are able to use the post office to mail supplies as well. A good strategy is mailing a box containing extra equipment, hard to find nonperishable food stuffs, a repair kit and maps to the next mail drop on your way.
A backpack and all the other equipment has to be carefully selected. All gear must be lightweight and durable enough to handle rigorous daily use on the Appalachian Trail. Boots are very important and should be broken in before the start of the hike. I didn’t break in my boots and the result was the inspiration for the Blisters dice game. Since fires are not recommended, a lightweight gas stove should be on the pack list. Any clothes should be lightweight, tough, quick drying and easy to clean. Other key pieces of equipment include a good sleeping bag, a pad to sleep on, rain gear, a cook kit, water bottles, a small but quality camera and a journal. You may consider a lightweight tent or tarp as well.
One of the more unique features of the Appalachian Trail are the shelters found at strategic points along the way. This doesn’t guarantee a dry place to sleep as the shelters do fill up, especially at the start of the Trail. For this reason, a tent or tarp is recommended. Also, insects can be an issue and the shelters are not bug proof. These shelters are usually located at scenic sites and can be necessary at times. In the Smoky Mountain National Park, hikers are required to use the shelters which are fitted with a locking entrance to keep out the bears. Don’t expect anything more than a outhouse for a bathroom. And some of those can get pretty nasty from overuse and/or neglect.
Eating is serious business on the Appalachian Trail. When a couple of hikers get together, the subject of conversation will most likely be food. Restaurants become the most important feature of a Trail town and the AYCE (all you can eat) eateries are sacred feeding grounds. There is no need to rely on backpacking food since provisions from a supermarket are adequate, less expensive and usually better tasting. Remember, fast cooking foods use less fuel! Pasta, quick cook rice, oatmeal, dried fruit, trail mix, soups, peanut butter, powdered drink mixes, snack bars and pita bread could all be found in my food bag. The thruhiker’s obsession with food can be summed up with this anecdote:
A thruhiker on the Appalachian Trail enters an outhouse to seek relief. Peering into the hole in the seat, he is aghast to see another thruhiker wading around in the foulness below.
“What are you doing down there” he asks?
The filth covered hiker below looks up and replies, “I dropped my rain parka” .
“Come on out of there and I’ll give you mine” shouts the thruhiker above, disbelieving anyone would wade through that stinky sludge for a rain parka.
“I would”, he replies, ”but there is a granola bar in the pocket.”
The thruhiker above jumps in with him, starts looking around and states, “If I find it, I get half!”
Some of the finest water you’ll ever drink is on the Appalachian Trail. I developed a deep appreciation for water as I hiked northward. There is nothing better than quaffing icy spring water taken right from the source. When hiking with a full backpack, drinking lots of water is required. A safe water source is not always nearby and it becomes necessary to lug around an extra 5 pounds of water. At times water quality may be questionable and a filter or chemicals should be used before drinking. Of course, a hard boil will kill everything that may harm you. Illness from untreated water can be dangerous but it can be avoided.
A Way of Life
Within a week or two into the hike, the human body starts to adapt to walking all day, every day, with a backpack. Along with an insatiable appetite, there will be aches and pains in new places. Life becomes regulated no longer by a clock but the sun and the stomach. Sure you’ll stink like never before and that mysterious bug bite is beginning to swell but you’ll be having the best time of your life. Scenic vistas, peaceful settings, beautiful wildlife, incredible sunsets and great company are just some of the rewards of the long distance hiker. There is no better way to experience America than walking the Appalachian Trail.
Want to learn more about the Appalachian Trail? You can look on the web at hundreds of sites including journals of thruhikers who may even still be on the Trail! Favorite Appalachian Trail links include:
- Appalachian Trail Museum
- Appalachian Trail Homepage
- Appalachian Trail Conservancy
- Appalachian Trail 101: The Complete Guide
- Great Smoky Mountains
- White Blaze Network
- HAE on the AT
- Appalachian Mountain Club
- American Hiking Society
Other hiking trails to use as “goal scores”:
- American Discovery Trail, 6350 miles
- North Country Trail, 3200 miles
- Continental Divide Trail, 3100 miles
- Pacific Crest Trail, 2600 miles
- Florida Trail, 1300 miles
- Buckeye Trail, 1275 miles
- The Idaho Centennial Trail, 1,200 miles
- Pacific Northwest Trail, 1100 miles
- Ice Age Trail, 1000 miles
- Potomac Heritage Trail, 700 miles
- Natchez Trace Trail, 700 miles
- Finger Lakes Trail, 552 miles