"The traveler must be born again on the road, and earn a passport from the elements, the principal powers that be for him. He shall experience at last that old threat of his mother fulfilled, that he shall be skinned alive. His sores shall gradually deepen themselves that they may heal inwardly, while he gives no rest to the sole of his foot, and at night weariness must be his pillow, that so he may acquire experience against his rainy days."
– Henry David Thoreau
First, some stats and facts from the Appalachian Trail Conference:
Over 7,000 Trail completions have been reported to the ATC. This includes:
Northbound thru-hikers (GA to ME in one hike) - 65% of completions
Southbound thru-hikers (ME to GA in one hike) - 5% of completions
Flip-flop hikes (entire trail at once, but hiked out-of-order) - 10% of completions
Section hikers (different parts of the Trail on different trips) - 20% of completions
Mylon Avery was the first "2,000 miler" in 1936. The first thru-hiker was Earl V. Shaffer in 1948; 50 years later, on his third thru-hike, Schaffer became the oldest recorded thru-hiker at age 79. The youngest thru-hiker completed the Trail in 1980 at the age of 6 on a hike with his parents. AT AGE SIX. So wrong on so many levels.
A Brief Look at the Trail, State-by-State (Northbound)
75.4 miles at elevations between 2,510 and 4,461 feet
The Trail starts at Springer Mountain, at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The entire Georgia length falls in Chattahoochee National Forest, passing Three Forks (where the Appalachian Trail meets the Benton MacKaye and Duncan Ridge Trails) and Blood Mountain Shelter at the highest point along the Georgia section. March and April tend to be busy times here, with thru-hikers starting their journeys, as well as spring break crowds.
North Carolina / Tennessee
380 miles at elevations between 1,326 and 6,625 feet
This section of the Trail starts at the Georgia/North Carolina border, winds north through Nantahala National Forest, enters Great Smoky Mountains National Park, criss-crossing the Tennessee/North Carolina border. It then makes its way north through Tennessee to the Virginia border near Damascus. Along this length of the Trail, hikers pass Clingman's Dome (elev. 6,643 feet, the Trail's highest point), and will travel through the Roan Highlands, Pisgah National Forest, and Cherokee National Forest.
550.1 miles at elevations between 668 and 5,500 feet
Starting at Damascus, VA, the Trail heads north past Mt. Rogers (Virginia's highest peak). It then crosses the Great Appalachian Valley, enters the George Washington National Forest, and then parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway north to Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah National Park is home to 107 miles of the trail. The Trail here criss-crosses into West Virginia a couple of times; there is a 10-mile stretch near Peters Mountain in central Virginia, and a 13-mile stretch in northern Virginia.
Aside from the sections in Virginia that straddle the border with West Virginia, only 2.6 miles of the Trail are located in West Virginia. Most of this is in the town of Harper's Ferry, where the ATC headquarters is located - many thru-hikers stop here to have their pictures taken for ATC records. Harper's Ferry provides easy access to Amtrak, so many hikers start or end here.
40.5 miles at elevations between 230 and 1,880 feet
The Maryland section follows the C&O Canal Towpath for 3 miles along the Potomac River north to Gathland State Park, then through Washington Monument State Park, Greenbrier State Park, South Mountain State Park, Washington County State Park, and Pen-Mar County Park.
229.4 miles at elevations between 320 and 2,080 feet
The Trail starts in Pennsylvania at the Maryland border and makes its way north across the Cumberland Valley to the Susquehanna River. From there, it continues northeast to the Delaware Water Gap. The approximate halfway point of the Trail is located in Pennsylvania just north of Pine Grove Furnace State Park.
72.4 miles at elevations between 350 and 1,685 feet
Starting at the Delaware Water Gap, the New Jersey section goes north to Sunfish Pond, and then follows the Kittatinny Range north to the New York border.
88.5 miles at elevations between 124 and 1,433 feet
Cutting across New York's southeast corner, this section includes the Trail's first section, blazed in 1922 and 1923. It also has the Trail's lowest point, at 124 feet above sea level, south of Bear Mountain Bridge.
51.6 miles at elevations between 260 and 2,316 feet
Connecticut's section of the Trail passes through the Housatonic River Valley and the Taconic Range. Many towns with bus service are near the Trail along Route 7 between Kent, Connecticut and Rutland, Vermont.
90.2 miles at elevations between 650 and 3,491 feet
The Massachusetts length passes through western Massachusetts, through the Berkshires as well as a number of towns, including Washington, Dalton, and Cheshire. It also ascends Mount Greylock, the highest point in the state.
149.5 miles at elevations between 400 and 4,010 feet
In Vermont, the Trail passes through Green Mountain National Forest, and then follows the Green Mountain Club's "Long Trail" to Maine Junction near U.S. Route 4. This section climbs Stratton Mountain and Baker Peak, and provides access to a sidetrail that climbs Killington Peak.
161 miles at elevations between 400 and 6,288 feet
After crossing into New Hampshire, the Trail makes its way northeast to the White Mountains. Most of the Trail in the Whites is above timberline and is very rugged, requiring some steep climbs.
281.4 miles at elevations between 490 and 5,267 feet
Upon reaching Maine, the terrain doesn't let up. One of the most difficult sections of the Trail, the mile-long Mahoosuc Notch boulder passage, is located here. The Trail continues northeast from Bigelow Preserve to Monson, and requires hikers to cross the Kennebec River. A canoe service ferries hikers across the river, as crossing it on foot can be extremely dangerous. From Monson, the terrain gets easier, but is very isolated to the Trail's northern terminus at Katahdin.
A thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail might be for you if you meet the following criteria:
You enjoy hiking. A lot. Sure, you're thinking, "Well, of course I'd have to enjoy hiking to do the AT thru-hike, why don't you tell me something else that I know? I hear the sky is blue these days..." Hear me out. This is no weekend hiking trip that finds you getting your worn-out self back to civilization (and a shower) in 2 days. This is MONTHS of being away from home, away from family, away from friends, away from your life. Your love of hiking and/or desire to hike the Trail has to be able to counteract your homesickness, your lack of modern conveniences, your sore feet, your limited food choices, and any other unpleasant things the Trail might toss at you. The drop-out rate for thru-hikers is high; of 1,875 northbound hikers in 2002, only 356 completed the entire length. Every one of the people who didn't finish is someone who had every intent of completing the Trail. That fact alone should tell you something about how difficult this really is.
You have months on end of nothing to do and a spare $3,500. The Appalachian Trail is 2,167 miles long, and if you hike an average of 10 miles a day, it'll take you over 7 months to complete the entire length. It's not something that you can complete over summer vacation, so you'll need to commit to being away from your life for as long as it takes. The average cost for a thru-hike is $3,500. You'll need gear and supplies, and you'll probably need to pay some park fees along the way. However, if we again figure a hiking speed of 10 miles a day, this cost comes out to less than $17 a day. It's not so bad if you look at it that way.
You're in decent physical shape. "Decent" doesn't mean you have to be crowned World's Strongest Man. "Decent" means that you can go through physical exertion without collapsing. Even if you're not in fantastic shape, you'll get in shape after a couple of weeks on the Trail, provided you start slow and don't push yourself too hard. Going too fast too soon is a really awesome way to hurt yourself. If you have health problems, talk to your doctor first, and see if the ATC maintains a list of people who completed the Trail with any conditions you might have (their 2,000 miler lists include lists of diabetics, kidney transplant patients, food allergy sufferers, people with heart disease, and other hikers who needed special attention or had special restrictions).
Preparation: Things to know and Things to do
Your Itinerary: Where, When, How
Probably the first thing you'll need to do is decide whether you want to do a northbound thru-hike, a southbound thru-hike, or a flip-flop hike. Your chosen route will probably predetermine the time of year that you'll start/finish, and each hike type has some downsides.
A northbound thru-hike is the most common hike (for reasons that we'll talk about later). Even though you're starting out in Georgia, you need to be thinking about Maine from the get-go; Baxter State Park, which is the last leg of the Trail, closes for winter season on October 15. This means that you have to start your hike early enough in the year to guarantee that you'll reach Baxter before closing. However, if you start out too early, you'll be hitting some ugly winter weather in the South (remember, elevation can override latitude very quickly when it comes to cold weather). The most common start time is from March into early April. While it will still be cold, proper winter will be over. Since this is a popular time not only for thru-hikers, but for spring break hikers, you'll have company along the Trail for the first couple of weeks. These numbers will dwindle as the spring breakers go back to school and the thru-hikers drop out, but there won't be much solitude early on. When you reach Harper's Ferry, WV, you'll need to evaluate your progress. If you're not there by July 15th, chances are excellent that you're not on course to reach Baxter (and thus, the end of the Trail) before closing. If this is the case, Amtrak access at Harper's Ferry allows you to change plans to a flip-flop hike - jump up to Maine and hike south, avoiding the Baxter issue entirely. If you continue northbound, you'll experience a mid-atlantic summer, which can be quite uncomfortably hot at times. Things will cool down as you head further north, and by the time you reach the White Mountains in autumn, you'll be dealing with some pretty cold temperatures while taking on the most difficult part of the Trail.
A southbound thru-hike (typically starting in June) is not for the inexperienced hiker, which is why the northbound option is more traveled. Southbound requires you to break yourself in over some very rough terrain, and also has long distances between supply points in the early going. You'll have fewer fellow hikers starting out, but you'll have swarms of black flies to keep you company. However, there isn't as much cold weather - the coldest part will be the last month or two, as opposed to cold weather at both ends northbound. Either direction will land you in uncomfortable hot weather in the mid-atlantic states.
If neither of those options appeals to you, you might want to consider a flip-flop hike, which will allow you to experience the different areas of the Trail at more optimal times than a thru-hike allows. However, you'll need to do more planning ahead of time, and you'll need to figure out the logistics of how you'll get from location to location. An example of a flip-flop hike would be to start at Damascus, Virginia or Harpers Ferry and head north to Katahdin, then start again at the start point and head south to Springer - Flip-flop hike itineraries are only limited by the imagination.
Once you've decided on an itinerary, try to get in touch with other hikers who have completed the Trail. There are thru-hike books, guides, and videos galore, but hearing about some of the challenges and rewards of the Trail first-hand is invaluable. http://www.backcountry.net/ has an e-mail discussion list for Appalachian Trail hikers, and http://www.trailjournals.com/journals.cfm has web journals from people who have completed or are in the middle of their journeys. The ATC also has lists of hikers who have completed the Trail separated into various categories (Hikers with dogs, lightweight pack hikers, international hikers, couples/honeymooners, diabetics, vegetarians/vegans are a few of the categories available). E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to request a copy of any correspondence list.
Gear, Supplies, and Food
You know your route, you've gotten some advice from other hikers... it's time to head to the outdoor store to get/replace your gear. Try not to go crazy here; anything that you decide to bring will spend most of the 2,167 mile journey strapped to your back. Some generally agreed-upon must-haves: a sleeping bag, tent, hiking boots, clothing in thin layers (i.e., no heavy coat) that will protect you from rain and cold, a map, compass, water and a means to purify any natural water, extra food, trowel and toilet paper, a whistle for distress calls, a first aid kit, flashlight, a heavy garbage bag, a sharp knife, matches or a sturdy lighter, and a backpack to hold it all (except the boots). Anything beyond that is up to you.
Once you have your gear squared away, you'll need to test it out. First off, break in your boots. If your feet ain't happy, ain't nobody happy, dig? Once your boots are broken in, take them and all your potential gear on some overnight practice hikes. Look for practice hikes that have mountainous terrain, as you'll be dealing with some fairly rocky and steep ground on the Trail. Actually going on a hike with your gear is the best way to see if you're on the dangerous road to overpacking; you'll be amazed at how unnecessary some of your gear becomes after you've carried it for 5 miles.
The two main food supply options are buying food at the many stores near the Trail (located about 3-5 days apart), or mailing food to yourself care of a post office or business. Each option has its merits. Buying food along the way allows you to get fresher food, but you have to allow for some isolated stretches; Maine has a 100-mile-long stretch (about 10-12 days hike) with no stores, and North Carolina and Georgia have similar 70-mile stretches. The mail drop system allows hikers to control their diets more, but requires time before the hike for drying and packing the food.
It's recommended that hikers bring a camp stove with them if possible. Many areas along the trail don't allow campfires, which might leave an unprepared hiker unable to cook for a day. Not eating for a day is NOT an option, as hiking is a strenuous and extremely physical undertaking. Over the first couple of weeks, your metabolism will increase, so food intake has to increase to continue supplying the body with the needed calories.
As far as your accomodations go, there are many designated campsites, shelters, huts, cabins, and hostels along the trail. The shelters and campsites are the most plentiful, spaced out about a day's hike from each other. Research these options thoroughly - some of the sites require permits, registration, and/or fees. Dispersed camping is allowed in some sections along the trail, but you need to find out about any local regulations before setting up camp.
If you're seriously considering becoming a 2,000 miler, there is no such thing as "too much research." Many sections of the trail have local Appalachian Trail clubs, and these clubs have a wealth of information on their particular trail length.
Some valuable resources
http://www.appalachiantrail.org - The Appalachian Trail Conference
http://www.aldha.org/comp_pdf.htm - Information on shelters, mail drops, general logistics