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Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail
By Adam Welman
March - September, 1997
|- How to plan an AT hike|
|- My thru-hike stories and photos|
|- Applachian Trail Map|
Springer Mountain, Georgia, March 19, 1997
Mt. Katahdin, Maine, September 13, 1997
Thirty miles completed, and 2,130 to go: I was in for one LONG walk and one amazing adventure. That's about what I was thinking just after sunset on the third evening of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. My friend and hiking partner Jason and I had chosen a tent site on the edge of a cliff overlooking a wide, forested valley. The full moon was just over the horizon, we had a belly full of macaroni & cheese and tuna, a friendly Trail Angel had given Jason a free beer, and the butterscotch pudding was chilling in a nearby stream. Life was good.
On March 19, 1997 I set out to hike the entire Appalachian Trail from beginning to end. My journey began at Springer Mountain in northern Georgia, and would end over 2,000 miles later when I reached the summit of Maine's Mt. Katahdin on September 13. Along the way I walked through 14 states; went through three pairs of boots and perhaps as many sets of toenails; lost about ten pounds; met some of the most wonderful, fascinating people whose company I've ever had the pleasure of keeping; glimpsed the most spectacular views -- in weather both breathtakingly perfect and frustratingly dreary; was hungrier than I ever imagined possible; smelled worse than I ever imagined possible; saw a Black Bear -- from a distance of three feet; and so much more. It was wicked good.
The concept of a trail linking the entire Appalachian mountain range was first developed in 1921 when Benton MacKaye wrote an article in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects describing his dream and ambition. For a complete history, check out the Appalachian Trail Conference's website: http://www.atconf.org/about/history/index.html.
In 1997, after a long and interesting period of development, the Trail that I hiked was just over 2,160 miles long, and
largely on public lands. The AT was, and still is, mostly used by day- or weekend-hikers; but each year a couple thousand people
begin in Georgia with the goal of reaching Maine in one continuous journey. Most of those folks don't reach Katahdin -- I've
heard estimates of the dropout rate to be between 80 and 90% -- but each year several hundred do. Generally, most
thru-hikers follow the AT northward, beginning in March or April and "walking with spring." There are 200+ shelters along the length of the
AT, most of which are roughly a day's hike apart. The majority of thru-hikers spend most of their nights in or at the shelters,
though there are many opportunities to tent on a thru-hike (I imagine it would be impossible to stay at a shelter each and every
night on a thru-hike). There's a great FAQ page on the Appalachian Trail Conference's website (http://www.atconf.org).
Anyway, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was absolutely the best adventure I've ever had (so far!), and I've decided to use this website (and the generosity of my hip Aunt Joy and Uncle Jim) to display some photos from my thru-hike, explain the photos and share other stories, answer some commonly-asked questions about the AT, and provide some resources for you to check out if you're interested in learning more about the Appalachian Trail or thru-hiking it. Enjoy!
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How to Plan an Appalachian Trail Hike
There are a variety of different ways to plan for a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Here I've briefly discussed how I planned for it, and offer suggestions on different ways to plan and where to look for information and ideas.
I had been considering thru-hiking the AT for a several years, and seriously planning the hike for about two years before I left. During the course of that time, I read a number of books about the Appalachian Trail. My parents had a copy of the National Geographic's circa 1970s book on AT thru-hiking; I read it, but was most interested in the photos. I also read As Far as the Eye Can See, a novel that describes in detail a number of stories from a thru-hiker's time on the Trail. In general, I think it's a good idea to do some reading and/or talk to former thru-hikers to really get a sense of what it is you're considering. Check below for descriptions of other books I read and recommend.
First, after learning and thinking a lot about your particular approach to the Trail, decide if you want to do maildrops. If you don't, then the planning is much easier. If you do, it's more complicated -- but potentially easier once you're actually out walking.
Jason and I had a lot of big maildrops. We went through the guidebooks, and picked out towns that were roughly 5-7 days apart (~100 miles once we were used to it). We spent a lot of time thinking about what sort of food we liked, making way too much granola, buying supplies (extra batteries, etc), and packing these 25ish boxes. Each box got its own address label, indicating that it should be held, General Delivery, for a thru-hiker arriving on a date that my parents would actually write on each box. All post offices along the Trail are familiar with this practice. Again, refer to all the books below for more information and tips.
In general, I think it's important to remember that whatever sounds appealing to you in your living room 5 months before you begin hiking the Trail will NOT remain appealing for all six months of your thru-hike. If I had to do it all over again, I would pack fewer maildrops, with much less food and supplies in them. The towns along the Trail (there are some definite exceptions, noted in the Handbook) are all used to hikers, and most grocery stores stock food and supplies you'll need and want. I would rely more on these towns.
In the course of planning these boxes we both planned our own budgets and determined how much time we had to complete our hike. It's crucial to do this -- aside from injuries and lack of interest (some people realize the Trail just isn't for them), financial issues force most thru-hikers off the Trail. We also sent out a list of all of our maildrops and addresses to our friends. Getting mail along the Trail is the best: it connects you to people you care about, helps gets rid of any loneliness or homesickness you might be feeling, and gives you something to read at nights along the Trail. ENCOURAGE MAIL FROM YOUR FRIENDS! Man, I could spend all day typing up my thoughts on the best way to plan for an AT hike, but the truth is, there are a tremendous variety of different ways to plan for and hike the AT. Most of them work out really well. Check out the websites and books below, ask a lot of questions (feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org), and get ready for a great adventure.
Best of luck!
1) The Data Book is small book that contains the mileages of all the important features (shelters, roads, water sources, etc.) along the AT. Almost every thru-hiker I know carried this book for at least part of the AT. I think it's indispensable both before and during a thru-hike.
2) The Thru-Hiker's Handbook has a lot of really super in-depth information about all the towns anywhere near the AT as well as a great deal of helpful advice about points along the actual Trail. It also has plenty of interesting information (bird and plant identification, stories, etc) that makes for a good read. Less people carry this on the AT (it's a bit large), but I brought it with me over every mile and am grateful I did. It's great for detail-oriented folks like me.
3) The AT maps and guidebooks. These are great, and if you buy them, they'll probably be useful to some degree. The guidebooks offer very descriptive outlines of all sections of the Trail, telling you when you will hike uphill and how steeply, where exactly the water sources can be found, and so on. The maps show only the narrow corridor of the AT (don't buy them if you're interested in hiking near the AT, as the corridor is very narrow), but do in great detail.
4) The Appalachian Trail Backpacker offers lots of general advice on long-distance backpacking. It's a good read, though certainly not all that necessary or useful out on the Trail.
On the Trail I carried the Data Book and the Thru-hiker's Handbook. Jason carried the guidebook for the section of Trail we were currently hiking, acquiring the next section's book via maildrops. I forget who carried the maps, though I know they were useful.
Appalachian Trail Conference http://www.atconf.org
Center for Appalachian Trail Studies http://www.trailplace.com
Pacific Crest Trail Conference http://www.pcta.org
Green Mountain Club http://www.greenmountainclub.org
The The Appalachian Trail Conference Ultimate Trail Store (purchase books here): http://www.atctrailstore.org
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My Thru Hike Stories and Photos
Georgia to Virginia, March 19 to April 19 Click Here
Virginia, ~ April 19 to June 6 Click Here
West Virginia to New Jersey, June 6 to ~June 30 Click Here
New Jersey to Vermont, ~June 30 to July 18 Click Here
Vermont to Maine, July 18 to September 19 Click Here
Appalachian Trail Map Click Here
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