The original purpose of The Thruhiking Papers was to provide prospective AT (Appalachian Trail) thruhikers with a different and, we believe, more realistic viewpoint than was available at the time about planning and executing an AT thruhike. We included a little of what to expect during a thruhike. We also had some thoughts about “coming home.”
Some of the information here may be useful to section hikers, but for the most part, it's for, about and to thruhikers.
Something like 80 percent of those who start an AT thruhike don't make it to Katahdin (or Springer Mt.) in large part because they're confronted by events, situations and conditions they don't know exist, don't understand and don't know how to handle. There are lots of people blowing sunshine about how wonderful the AT is, but who's telling prospective thruhikers about the rain? Who's telling them that they need more than just enthusiasm to get to Katahdin? Or that "freedom" doesn't mean getting drunk and burning down the shelter - or the town.
Who am I? I'm a 1992 AT thruhiker who made a lot of mistakes - and learned from them. I'm not an "expert" or "guru" or "superhiker", but what follows works for me. If it works for you, that's cool. If not - that's cool, too - no two people do things exactly the same way. My comments here are not what you "should" be doing - this is the supermarket approach. If you see something that makes sense to you or fits your life or style, then you're welcome to it. What you don't like, you don't have to - and in fact, shouldn't - use. The Trail is hard enough without trying to live with someone else's way of doing things.
Everything here should be read with the following caveats in mind:
- This is not a "Thruhikers Manual". It's a collection of my thoughts and feelings about the realities of thruhiking the AT.
- This is my personal experience, observation and opinion. There's nothing scientific or even necessarily logical about it. But then, people aren't logical, are they?
- I'm one of the "fringe" people whose life changed drastically on the Trail. What happened to me is NOT the norm.
- As a thruhiker I am, by definition, crazy and therefore cannot be held responsible for anything I say.
- I may wander off in strange directions.
- You may not like everything I have to say.
- Advice is worth what you pay for it - and this is free.
For "wannabe" thruhikers - "dreamers" if you will - these are a few things you might not have run across before. Several people have told me they don't believe some of what I've written, but a lot of thruhikers have come back and told me that they'd found some of what I said to be useful. One of them said that he'd cursed me for wishing him an "interesting" trip - because that's exactly what he got.
We all learn - sometimes sooner, sometimes later - sometimes too late.
What is the Appalachian Trail ?
According to the official definition, the Appalachian Trail is a 2174 mile footpath with the Southern terminus at Springer Mt. in Georgia and the Northern terminus at Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine. My definition is somewhat different -
- The AT is a complex, living entity, with its own culture and infrastructure. The culture includes the ATC, thruhikers, section hikers, day hikers, maintaining organizations and the townspeople along the route of the AT, among others. The infrastructure is the footpath, the shelters, outhouses, hostels, campsites, springs, etc.
- The AT runs through 14 states. It sometimes runs through towns and along roads and is sometimes within shouting distance of housing developments. It has its own managing organization - the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), headquartered at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
- The AT is called the "long green tunnel" for good reason. For westerners, the variety of trees and wildflowers is amazing. My lady was raised in Tucson and worked in San Francisco and was really impressed by the variety - and by so many shades of green.
- It's hard to get lost on the AT - you could walk it without maps or guidebooks, although very few do it that way. Knowing where you are and what's around you and what's coming next is its own reward.
- Of those who start the AT as self-proclaimed thruhikers, the estimated completion rate is about 15%. The thruhikers are a highly individualistic travelling community with all the accompanying human characteristics (good and bad) of any other community. And it's a large community - several thousand starters every year.
- For thruhikers, it's a social trail. Even in the remotest areas, if you walk 2 days without meeting another hiker, you're probably out there in mid-winter. Yes, it can be hiked in winter - but not easily. There are lots of hostels, lots of hikers, and lots of social life and camaraderie.
- In the South, the typical thruhiker will encounter rain, fog, sleet, hail, snow, mud and a little sunshine in addition to a seemingly endless series of short, steep knobs superimposed on what some people don't consider to be mountains - until they thruhike .
- In Virginia it gets hot and the stinging nettles come out to play. The springs run dry in Pennsylvania, New York is a workout and the first "real mountain" after North Carolina doesn't show up until Massachusetts. And then there are the rocks - the Pennsylvania trail clubs spend a lot of time sharpening them. New England is different - the mountains may not be 10,000 footers, but the climbs make you think they are. There are 2,000 ft/mile climbs and long rock walks, and the bogs start in Massachusetts and don't stop until Maine.
- But it IS beautiful - and there are the moose.
Who thruhikes ?
A cross-section of those who thruhike the AT would include people of all ages from a variety of occupations and all areas of the United States - and a few from other countries. There have been Brits, Germans, Australians, New Zealanders, French, Israelis, Dutch, Iranians and Canadians, just to name a few. There are engineers, housewives, nurses, truck drivers, doctors, secretaries, business executives, lawyers, college students, social workers, carpenters and college professors - again, just to name a few.
There is no "standard profile" of a thruhiker. Nor, at this time, are there any bars to anyone who wants to attempt the hike. An 8 year old has completed the AT. So has a blind man. So have octogenarians, diabetics, teenagers, a man with MS (on crutches), one with no stomach, ................ But don't get the idea that it's easy - it's not.
Nor is there any "standard profile" of a successful thruhiker. There are people who've tried for years to determine who will finish a thruhike and who won't. They don't know - and neither do I. The AT is non-discriminating, non-judgmental and, indeed, indifferent to age, sex, race, religion, experience, physical condition or even health. None of these make any apparent difference with respect to the probability of finishing.
Even being young, strong and fast is no guarantee. I was passed in Tennessee by a large group of college students doing 20+ mile days - one of them finished one day ahead of me, most of them finished a week or more later than I did. And some of them didn't finish at all.
Being older is no handicap either. My Trail family had two people who celebrated their 60th birthday on the Trail, a 76 year old four-time thruhiker, four of us in our fifties and some younger folk. Only two of them didn't finish (due to injury).
Why Thruhike ?
There's no single reason for hiking the Trail.
Among other reasons - some are out there for "fun" (whatever that is), some to see how far they can get, some to prove something to themselves, some as a "different" way to spend the summer, some just to keep a friend company, some for the physical, mental or emotional challenge, more than a few are out there to party, and some are committed to hiking to Katahdin.
A lot of us hike at a change point in our lives - graduation, retirement, divorce, death in the family, job dissatisfaction or burnout, etc. Some start out not caring about Katahdin and change their minds along the way. Some start out committed to Katahdin and change their minds along the way.
Personal opinion is that all of us are looking for something. Some of us find it - but it's not always what we think we're looking for. Many of us find things we didn't know we were looking for.