Thoughts from an unconventional route on the Appalachian Trail
They say there are as many ways to thru-hike as there are people who thru-hike. No two people are going to have the exact same experience, and unless you have a hiking partner throughout the entire trail, you won’t find anyone else with the exact same itinerary.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) is advocating for unconventional routes for hiking the AT. Every year, more and more people attempt thru-hikes of the world’s first fully blazed long distance footpath. Since the trail’s first thru-hike in 1948 (Earl Shaffer), the trail has traditionally been completed going north from Georgia to Maine in one full swing. A few outliers would start at the northern terminus (Katahdin) and go all the way south, and soon flip-flop hikes became fairly common as well (splitting it up into two halves, going a different direction for each half). Even so, the trail is disproportionately inundated each year with people beginning their northbound hikes at Springer Mountain, as opposed to choosing any other part of the trail to start. This is really rough on the trail (and is part of why Norovirus is a thing). The ATC strongly encourages northbounders especially to register their thru-hikes online in an attempt to disperse hikers. So, if you can see that 50 people are already registered to start on March 15th, maybe you’ll decide to start a day or two before or after. The truth of the matter is, the majority of people end up having a different itinerary than they expect to. Going a little slower or faster than you expected is common, and getting off trail unexpectedly, skipping a section or two, or turning what you thought would be a straight through into a flip-flop are all common occurrences which don’t seem to be discussed much.
I’m here to talk about unconventional routes and timings when thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.
According to the ATC, the only real requirement for achieving the title of “thru-hiker” is hiking the whole trail, to the best of your ability (barring reroutes due to bad conditions and things of this nature), within 365 days, and (I love this part), with respect toward the trail and other hikers. (so if you’re a jerk, you don’t get to be called a thru-hiker. Be kind, m’friends). Nowhere in the rules does it say you have to go a certain direction the whole time or do it without taking time off. In fact, as previously stated, they encourage people to take unconventional routes to lighten the load for the trail and its maintainers.
As for my own itinerary: it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. I thought I’d go straight from Katahdin, Maine, down to Springer Mountain, Georgia, in 4-5 months, and aside from the occasional zero along the way, I was only planning to take 3 days off, when I hiked through my home town. I knew I was healthy and was a pretty strong hiker. Barring injury, I naively thought “It’ll be a challenge, sure, but there’s no reason I can’t do that.” [side bar: me before starting the trail was over idealistic and under experienced.] I ended up being slowed down significantly from my natural pace in the first two months. When Hurricane Florence hit, I took a whole week off. I skipped a 20 mile stretch by my hometown, and another 20 mile stretch around Pearisburg, VA, and ended up getting off trail indefinitely a week later on October 31st. I felt ambushed by winter and the stress fracture in my foot that I had been limping on for the last 530 miles (not recommended). Winter was rough. I finally got back on trail in April and made it to the southern terminus in May. I sewed up those two 20 mile sections, officially finishing 357 days after I started at Katahdin. Sure, it was technically about 5 months of actual hiking days, so I was right about that estimate. When I started, though, I had no idea I would have to spend so much time off trail before finishing it.
I don’t have any regrets about the way I hiked. It wasn’t easy, but I never really thought it would be (even if I thought it would be less complicated). I have a feeling I’ll be doing the trail again a couple more times, and each time is going to have a vastly different itinerary. I was surprised how many other southbounders I saw this year who were hiking out of season (for our direction, that is – we were hiking right through all the northbounders). I know of about a dozen people who, like me, had to pause their southbound hikes last year and managed to get back on to finish going south this year.
Don’t be afraid to hike your own hike. Not just with pace, pack content, and mindset, but with itinerary, as well. Unconventional routes can lead to the most interesting and valuable experiences and stories.