A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is one of the most famous hiking trails in the United States. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, approximately three thousand people try to hike the trail each year. However, each of their goals can be very different from each other. Hiking the TA requires a bit of thought before you start and a load of mindfulness afterwards. With the number of people you will meet there, you might not think this is a wilderness getaway. The number of people you meet depends on whether you are going north (nobo) or south (sobo) and what time of year you start your hike. If you’re getting ready to hit the TA, there are a few things you should figure out before you even get started.
The Thru-Hiker Call
In trail-talk, a thru-hiker is anyone who decides to cross the AT on a hike. The stipulation is that they cover the entire 2,193 miles in a single calendar year. It doesn’t matter how you do those miles or in what order. In fact, regulars on the trails divide hikers into several different categories:
White Blazers: The trail is marked with white flames in front and double white flames upside down, and these hikers only stick to the trails marked in white.
Blue blazers: the secondary paths and the paths leading to the shelters are marked with blue flames. Blue blazers love to hike these side trails to explore.
Other Colors: You also get cute nicknames for regular marijuana users (green blazers), those who postpone their hikes to a hike with a crush (pink blazers), and those who hitchhike a point to another and skip areas to come back later (flip-flops). Those who skip areas of the hike entirely are known as yellow blazers.
There is some rivalry between the blazer groups, but for the most part it’s good humor. Deciding which hike YOU want to take is the most crucial aspect. If you are hiking you should at least make it fun.
Should you decide to go on a nobo or solo hike? Most people choose the northbound route because it is the route most other people take, including the first man to cross. Earl Shaffer started from Springer Mountain in Georgia in 1848 and successfully hiked the AT Trail to Maine’s Mouth Katahdin in August. The Nobos are likely to encounter a lot of people on the same area of the trail with them, but it’s not that bad. Sometimes it can feel like a fellowship party with so many people there. Nobos will encounter fairly cold winter conditions in March and early April, but they will also have less company during those months.
Southbound hikers will experience a different AT than nobos. Usually, sobos start in Maine right after Memorial Day celebrations end. The sobo approach attracts fewer hikers as you have to cross Mt Katahdin first – arguably the most difficult part of the entire trail. Right after that is the longest stretch without a road, something Maine Public Radio has called the 100-Mile Wilderness. To deal with nobos and sobos and give people an idea of what they will be dealing with, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has implemented a registration system. This system allows hikers to understand who else can hike with them.
Get back in shape
While you can get through the AT as a warped slob, it will be significantly more difficult. Ideally, to reduce the number of aches, pains, and potential fractures you might be exposed to, you should try to get in shape. You don’t have to be a marathon runner or anything like that. Unless you’re aiming for a speed record (which you really shouldn’t be doing if you’re not in shape), you can get by just by being able to handle yourself. Ideally, you should focus on your aerobic fitness and leg strength, as these areas will be the most vital to your AT experience.
Packing and restocking throughout the trek
You will need to layer your gear as the weather in the peaks can get very cold. However, sometimes you can also deal with a lot of heat, so you will need to know when to add layers and when to take them off. Shoes are a big concern. You can’t hike with ill-fitting boots, but buying one that fits you perfectly on the hike won’t be right for you either. Most hikers complain that their feet swell while hiking, so you can buy boots a few sizes larger. Use lacing techniques and socks to make up the difference. You can’t make a small boot bigger, but a big boot will be much more comfortable when your feet are swollen from hiking. Always pack a tent when you can’t get to a shelter on time and need to get outside.
When shopping for your initial supplies you need to remember that you can restock on the trail. Thanks to its laces which cross the road, several municipalities dot the AT course, making large refueling points. Try not to overdo it, however. Usually a week of supplies is all you need. Anything more than that will get bossy and you will spend more time shopping than hiking.
Space to sleep
Shelters are easily accessible all along the trail, marked by the previously mentioned blue flames. However, shelters operate on a first come, first served basis. Most hikers have the lights off around 9 p.m. so if you show up after that time try to consider the rest of the people already there. If you have a tent ready (see section on packing and restocking), you shouldn’t have too much of a problem setting up outside. If you are staying in a shelter, it is good etiquette to turn off your phone, turn down the lights, and go outside to make your calls. Chances are you won’t get a good reception anyway.
Take one day at a time
The AT hike allows you to get to know your environment better and to enjoy the mountains. It is something that you should take at your own pace. Every hiker has a different approach to TA, so don’t feel like you have to approach it in a particular way. The end goal is to complete your hike. How you do it is entirely up to you.