An Essential Guide to The Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail is possibly one of the most famous long-distance hiking trails in the world and spans more than 2100 miles altogether. Nicknamed the A.T, the trail takes place between Georgia’s Springer Mountain and Mount Katahdin in Maine. This long-distance hiking trail passes through 14 states across America’s East, in order, they are Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and finally Maine.
Around 3,000 people each year attempt the full thru-hike from Georgia to Maine, and the amount of annual visitors to the trail overall reaches 3 million. The average amount of time it takes to complete the full Appalachian Trail is around 5-7 months altogether, but another challenge of the trail is people compete to get the fastest running time possible.
Who is the Current ‘Fastest Running Time’ Record Holder for the Appalachian Trail?
The challenge to speed run the Appalachian Trail has been attempted by many different people as if the original version of the trail wasn’t tricky enough for most.
Karel Sabbe a Belgian dentist and ultra-runner, is the current record holder for the fastest running time to complete the Appalachian Trail. Beating the previous record on August 28th, 2018, he took just 41 days, 7 hours, and 39 minutes, averaging around 53 miles per day. However as he was supported on his run, the still remaining record holder for a self–a supported attempt is still Joe ‘ Stringbean’
McConaughy with a time of 45 days, 12 hours, and 15 minutes. Both of these attempts were done on the Northbound Route from Georgia to Maine, but the Southbound route also has its own record-holders as it’s a different challenge altogether to go the opposite way on the trail, but we will get into that later when discussing routes.
The History of the Appalachian Trail
The creation of the Appalachian Trail began here, it was 1921 and Benton MacKaye dreamt of creating a long-distance hiking trail that connected the points along the Appalachian Mountains. During the beginning of the 20th Century, hiking was becoming a more fashionable hobby for people in the Northeast of the United States to partake in. People were now looking for new long-distance trails to do, and MacKaye believed he had one in mind.
Allegedly, the idea came to him while he was sitting in a tree in Vermont’s Stratton Mountain. He was particularly bothered by clashes between the traditional and rural values of the United States, versus urban values. There was now a boom in economic growth thanks to the Industrial Revolution, but the effects of the First World War also brought changes to American life.
In October of 1921, he proposed his idea in an issue of the Journal of American Institute of Architects. He envisioned a trail that would be a utopian refugee from this new urban lifestyle and instead focus on more traditional ways of life. The trail would have recreational camps and farming camps that would bring back that more rural way of living.
At a 1925 meeting, MacKaye gathered is supported to create a more stable plan forming the Appalachian Trail Conference which would eventually become what is now known as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy as of 2005.
Ultimately after having a falling out with the long-time Chairman of the ATC Myron Avery, over their contrasting views on what the trail should become, MacKaye, stepped back from his role in helping to create the Appalachian Trail and left Avery to take charge.
The progression of making the trail didn’t get very far. Disputes between landowners whose properties resided along the trail caused many delays. Natural disasters also cause huge problems as a hurricane destroyed parts of the trails halting progress. The trail remained in a constant state of disrepair. By this time the Second World War was also here and resulted in resources being very limited since most men were being drafted and the majority of people’s efforts would be going towards helping with the war.
Only Avery and a few others had hiked the trail, however only in small sections. It wasn’t until 1948 that thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was realized as an actual possibility. Earl Shaffer, a veteran of WWII became the first man to hike along the full trail. The original creator of the trail MacKaye had never even planned for the trail to be hiked in its entirety. Shaffer hiked the full trail two more times in his life, the last time he was aged 79! As he stated by Shaffer in his memoir:
“I almost wished that the Trail was endless, that no one could ever hike its length,”
By hiking the full trail, Shaffer inspired many others to also attempt to complete the challenge resulting in many of the caretakers continuing efforts on the progress of the Appalachian Trail giving us the trail we now know of today.
What are Appalachian Trail Routes?
Northbound – The most common and traditional route for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is to head north along with the states from Georgia to Maine. The official starting point of this route is Springer Mountain in Georgia and you finish at Mount Katahdin in Maine. The majority of people hiking this route begin so in March or April so that they are beginning the trail in winter conditions and then as they go along they get closer to springtime.
Southbound – The trickier route, doing the Appalachian Trail southbound means you instead start in Maine and finish the trail in Georgia. You begin with the hardest part first, starting by climbing the toughest ascent of the trail, Mount Katahdin on your very first day. To hike the trail this way it is recommended you have had previous backpacking experience on the trail specifically in Maine/ New Hampshire or experience with tough terrains beforehand.
It is also of worthy note to mention that you can’t hike the Appalachian Trail the southbound way earlier than June. This is because the Appalachian Trail Conservancy does not allow you to register for thru-hikes of the trail until June 1st as Katahdin trails don’t open until this date. As such it means by the time it hits winter you are in the high mountains of the South, if you go later than June it means you are adding more months of winter hiking to your time on the trail. Basically not only are you going the opposite way, but you are also beginning and ending in different weather conditions than the northbound way too.
Flip- Flop Hiking – The way some of the people tackling the trail will do is by ‘Flip- Flopping’. The trail is still completed however it is done so in a non-linear way, instead of doing the trail in its entirety you chose a section to start with, usually in the middle, complete it and then return to your start point by vehicle and finish the rest later.
The most popular route to do when flip-flop hiking the trail is to begin at Harpers Ferry in mid-April to May and then head north to Mount Katahdin. You then return to Harpers Ferry at a later date and head south to Springer.
By doing the trail with this method it means you can choose a more accessible point to begin the trail at, you receive milder weather conditions and you can finish the trail over a more set period. It can also help to prevent overcrowding of the trail as most people will be beginning at the northbound starting point of Springer Mountain. This can also help preserve the trail route better if people are not all at the same part at the same time, since again on the northbound route everyone will start at the same time of year whereas with this you can be more flexible with when you go.
Where to Stay
Along the Appalachian Trail, there are many different options for you to stay at depending on what is the most comfortable for you. Campsites and shelters are a-plenty and for those that don’t enjoy sleeping in the wilderness, there are more than enough places you can book in local towns.
Camping – The sleeping arrangement option chosen by the majority of hikers on the trail is to camp in one of the many campsites available. For those that want more solitude and don’t fancy sleeping near other hikers but still want to experience sleeping in the wild, this is the best option for you.
It is best to plan out your campsites ahead of time by mapping out how many miles and the amount of ground you plan to cover each day and then choose campsites based on that. You should always have a backup option in mind just in case things change, which goes for any of the sleeping arrangement choices you pick honestly.
Shelters – Staying in a shelter is perfect for days when the weather is rainy and wet and you just don’t fancy putting up a tent. There’s always a water source nearby, and shelters can be directly off the trail on down a side trail. They are also excellent for gaining a sense of community on the trail as you meet other hikers.
Unfortunately, as they are open to anyone, this can also mean they can get very crowded especially in those earlier months of the trail when the weather is at its worse. They are first come first serve, so again planning beforehand is key if you are aiming to stay in one. You will also have to sleep close to other hikers so if that doesn’t sound fun to you camping may be best instead.
They can also sometimes be quite old and not well maintained but that just depends on different structures, others will be well looked after and may even have doors.
Another downside is as they are usually slightly open structures of wood they can become a bit of a hotspot for mice, especially if the trash has recently been left behind. To avoid this first always take trash with you and dispose of it properly. There are also usually places for you to hang your belongings so they are out of the way of mice or even bears in these shelters.
Local Lodging – Another possible option that you can pick from is to instead stay in one of the local towns instead. This option is great for days when the weather is pretty bad and staying in a shelter just doesn’t appeal to you at all. It could also just be a treat for yourself for progressing along the trail.
There are many hostels, bed and breakfasts, motels and, Airbnb’s to pick from and can offer some well-deserved rest and serve as a bit of a break from the trail life. Many of them offer food services, laundry, and showers and can be a great way to do some resupplying.
If you want to go for this option, research places you’d like to stay, again if you’ve already planned out your daily schedule you can look at where you think would be a good time to stop at some, especially if there are other sights you want to see within that area.
What to Bring with You
Obviously, as the Appalachian Trail is extremely long you should only be packing items that are essential to you otherwise you are taking up room and weight in your bag that could be given to something of hire necessity.
You should buy your backpack last so that you have all your gear sorted and tested together first. The backpack you pick should be as comfy as possible, you will be carrying it the whole time so you need to make sure to pick something that is the right fit for you. The last thing you want is an uncomfortable backpack that rubs and causes pain especially if you’ve barely begun the trail.
Your backpack should be organized depending on which items you will need more often and are of higher importance. A waterproof backpack is also essential as rainy weather and wet conditions are inevitable.
Clothing- wise you first have to be prepared the gear you chose to bring may not be able to be worn again after the trail as you are hiking such a long way, body odour and wear and tear is bound to happen. You need raingear, some kind of outer jacket for colder days, sensible hiking boots, socks, undergarments, etc, basically the typical hiking gear you’d expect however you need to cater them specifically for this trail.
The Appalachian Trail is more than 2100 miles, there’s no way you will be able to avoid shoes that blister or cause discomfort during your time on the trail, but you need to pick the ones that will protect your feet as much as possible. Mesh trainers are the most popular option with thru-hikers as they hold water less readily than hiking boots do and are a more lightweight option for your feet. Comfy hiking socks can also prevent rubbing and protect your feet from the water. You also need to be prepared that you will probably need a new pair around every 400 miles of the trail.
Other Essential Hiking Items You Need While on the Appalachian Trail :
Navigation – Map compass, GPS, your phone – any sort of navigation can be life-saving while on the trail and you should not be relying on just one method either.
Sleeping Bag / Quilt
First Aid Hiking Kit
Stove and Cook Kit
Wildlife and Animals on The Appalachian Trail
Along the Appalachian Trail, you are bound to come across many varieties of wildlife as with any hiking trail, but it’s best to know what to expect to see ahead of time so that you can be prepared for any animals you may encounter. Many species of mammal, reptiles, insects, birds, etc can be spotted in their habitats on your hike, these are the most common you are likely to come across and should be on the lookout for:
Black Bear – Bear attacks on the Appalachian Trail are extremely rare. The type of bear you will come across is the Black Bear, which is much smaller than Grizzly Bears however can still pose a threat to you if you get too close. You should never approach the bear, watch it from afar instead, and pay attention to its behaviour that can provide warning signs to you. for example, if it stops what it’s doing or even begins to get closer to you then you’ve gotten too close.
More information on how to be safe from black bears can be found here. The main thing you need to be on the lookout for is your supplies and food, as they will be far more interested in stealing that than attacking you.
Coyotes and Foxes – Coyotes and Foxes live along the trails the entire length, however, they most likely won’t want to get too close to you, and you’ll most likely hear them more often than you’ll see them. They will only be interested in your food, but also feast on small rodents and rabbits so will be quite happy to hunt for them instead.
Spiders, Mosquitos, and Ticks – On the trail, you should expect to be bitten by many bugs, you are in the open outdoors after all and even with bug sprays it’s still going to happen. However, you do need to be on the lookout for insects that can provide more danger to you and could even get you very sick.
Water filters and natural-based bug repellents can be great for protection and having supplies in your first aid kit for allergic reactions to spider bites are always a must. You should also be checking for ticks often, do so every morning and night as one of the prevalent dangers of the Appalachian Trail is to contract Lyme Disease from ticks.
Skunks – Two types of species of a skunk can be found on the Appalachian Trail, the spotted skunk, and striped skunk. To know the difference between them, spotted skunks are the smaller of the two and have a wriggly stripe pattern coating and striped skunks have the distinctive two white stripes along their back. The best thing you can do if you come across a skunk is to back away, you do not want to be sprayed by one of them while hiking. They also can be carriers of rabies so it’s overall the best idea to keep your distance.
Venomous Snakes – Even though most of the snakes on the Appalachian Trail are safe and non-venomous, there are a few species you need to look out for: Copperheads, Pygmy Rattlesnakes, Timber Rattlesnakes, Cottonmouths, Massasauga Rattlesnake, and the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. If you are bit by a snake you either need to call for help or even go to a hospital. You will most likely feel sick and the area of the bite will swell.
Other Wildlife You May Spot While on the Appalachian Trail:
Appalachian Trail Safety Information
For the basic safety information when hiking, we have a guide here that covers some of the more general rules, such as letting people know where you are, preparing for your hike beforehand, etc. There is also a basic run-through of safety on the trail where you can look at it too. These are situations that are more relevant to things that you may have to deal with when hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Murders on the Trail – We will start with perhaps the most extreme example, which is also very rare. The Appalachian Trail is very infamous for the murders that have taken place on it, with interest picking up on this topic again after the attacks that took place in 2019. Overall there has been a total of 12 murders on the trail, which considering how long the trail is and that it’s been around for 80 years is a pretty low amount, and shows it’s an extremely rare circumstance. That doesn’t stop the trail from having a misconception of being unsafe and dangerous for people to travel on.
Hiking the trail is no different than any other in this sense, as the same guidelines for personal safety apply here, especially for women. You must update others on where you are such as family members or friends. This does not mean however that you should give away plans for your hike to strangers. Avoid people on the trail that make you uncomfortable or suspicious, and if you are particularly concerned stick with another hiking group. Do not hitchhike, carry pepper spray if that makes you feel more comfortable, and always remain cautious. The trail is no more dangerous than any other hike but if you do feel threatened call 911 or local national park numbers for help or advice.
Difficult Sections of the Trail – One of the main dangers of the trail you can be prepared for is the sections that can be quite difficult no matter your hiking level. The White Mountains are such a section and it is considered the most dangerous part of the Appalachian Trail. It is exposed and has rugged terrains, it can become very steep and there are very high winds. No matter what the weather conditions are expected to be that day it can also become very unpredictable and change forecast quickly. You need to be prepared for what you will be facing when tackling this area and how realistic it is for you to manage it.
Illness – We have already discussed the issues and illnesses caused by ticks on the trail, however another very common illness on the Appalachian trail is Norovirus. It is highly contagious and usually comes from drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated food, or being spread to other infected people. Contracting the virus can result in common issues such as stomach pains, nausea, being diarrhea, and vomiting with symptoms usually lasting 1-2 days. It can be easily picked up on the trail from sharing shelters and hostels as you are very close with people that could be infected.
To prevent yourself from catching the virus, always treat all water with a water filter and do not drink from other people’s water bottles. You should also avoid sharing any utensils with other hikers or eating from each other’s food bags. Clean up after yourself, take your rubbish with you and maintain the best hygiene possible by washing hands before eating and after going to the bathroom. Not all sanitizers protect you from Norovirus so also check which one you are planning to take with you.