As I prepared to hike the application trail, starting this March and heading northbound, there are a bunch of questions. My non-backpacking family and friends keep asking me. So here are the basic questions and my answers.
How far is it, where do you start, and how long will it take?
The trails length changes slightly year to year, and as of 2022 it grew to about 2194.3 miles. I am hiking northbound (aka NOBO) and so will be starting at amicalola State Park in Georgia, by hiking up the eight plus mile approach trail to the official beginning at the summit of Springer mountain. I’m giving myself about 6 months to complete the trail, which equates to approximately 12 mi per day. While there will be many days, I hike much more than that, this also accounts for occasional zero mile days, and some low mileage days where I hike into town for a resupply.
What will you eat?
My father would say “tree bark”, but honestly, the Appalachian Trail runs through many populated areas, and it’s rare that you’re more than three or four days from a place to pick up food. Besides what I can buy along the way, I am sending myself 10 resupply boxes each with about 4 days or so of food. Most of the things I pack are: dehydrated meals, tuna, peanut butter, snack bars and trail mix, jerky and beef sticks. Whenever I’m in town I try to pick up some type of wrap or sandwich I can take for my next meal on the trail, and also pick up some wraps and spinach or avocados to eat along the way. I will also fill my belly as much as possible at every stop to try and make up for the calories I can’t carry on the trail, since I’ll be burning over 5,000 calories a day.
Where will you sleep?
Mostly in a tent. There are shelters about every 10 to 12 miles that you can sleep in, but they tend to get crowded and have problems with vermin. I will likely camp near shelters since many have privies, water sources, and bear hang cables, so I don’t have to create my own bear hang. At least once a week I will stay in either hotel or hostile.
Will you carry a gun?
When I heard this question for the first time I was very confused. I’ve been backpacking for over 30 years, and have neither needed nor felt the need for a weapon of any kind. I’ve run into plenty of bear since I live in New Jersey, and have yet to have a serious problem. The wildlife on the east coast is just not something that requires a gun, and I will never direct a weapon at another person. It’s just not who I am. While I imagine there is the occasional person that could be a problem, violence is not generally the way I try to deal with conflict.
Ultimately, it comes down to something much simpler though. I am absolutely not going to carry extra weight that I specifically hope not to use. I have carefully honed every piece of equipment I’m bringing and have eliminated just about everything that is not a daily use item. I know that this argument could be used about my first aid kit as well, but realistically I will use most of the things in there for blister repair and other minor injuries which are likely to occur over 2,200 miles of walking in the woods.
Also, the logistics of proper licensing and permitting to carry a gun, either open or concealed carry, through all the state with all their differing laws, and then the concern of keeping it clean, keeping it within reach when I might actually need it, and the optics of carrying a weapon on me among other hikers just isn’t how I want to hike my hike or live my life.
What about bears?
Honestly, bears are a concern, but as wildlife goes, not a huge concern. I’ve been hiking around the AT for decades in New Jersey. which is completely overrun with bear. But they are all black bears, which tend not to be aggressive unless they feel you are threatening their cubs. I have run into many a bear and usually find being a loud, obnoxious, and stinky human is plenty to keep them away. I am extra-cautious about placing anything that might have the faintest smell in a bear bag and suspending 15 feet in the air.
Other wildlife concerns are wild boar, which can be aggressive, and snakes, which can be sneaky. But my concern about these pales compared to the biggest and most aggressive of the creatures out there… the Deer Tick. Lyme disease is a bigger and more realistic threat than all the others combined. They are tiny, everywhere, and will really mess up your hike and your overall health. While getting mauled by a bear would likely suck much more that Lyme, the likelihood is miniscule comparatively. That said, I will be treating my clothing with Permethrin, and adding occasional doses of Picaridin to my equipment as need be. Also, hopefully having these poisonous chemical on my being will make me all the less tasty to any bear friends.
Are you hiking with anyone?
This is kind of a loaded question. I am not starting the hike with any particular person that I know. However, at the time of this writing there will be 39 people starting the same day I am, and 1780 people registered to hike the trail as a whole. And this is just registered people. There are plenty who simply show up and hike. Estimates are that over 2,000 people attempt the Appalachian Trail every year. As it turns out, only 25% of those people complete the trail. Amazingly, 25% of the people who start the trail drop out after just 30 miles (at Neil Gap). This happens for lots of reasons, but primarily it’s a combination of not being prepared physically and unrealistic expectations mentally. I’ve had lots of experience over the past 30 years with backpacking, so I know what I’m getting into and I know my limitations and my speed. While I may be starting on my own, chances are I will find other hikers close to my age range who also have some experience and will end up hiking with them. Friendships form over experiences like these. I’ve made some great friends in the past on simple 10 day trips, so 180 days is likely to create family.
What if you get hurt?
Injury takes out about 25% of hikers. This is the primary reason I could imagine myself not completing the trail. The most common injuries are treatable: blisters, plantar fasciitis, minor sprains, cuts and bruises, and insect related illness such as Lyme or bite infections. And even though these are treatable, that does not mean they won’t knock you off the trail. A bad case of plantar fasciitis could make daily hiking too painful to make the trip worthwhile. I knew someone who got halfway through before getting a spider bite which ultimately became necrotic and forced him off the trail. So all kinds of things can happen. If dealing with any of these kinds of minor injuries and I’m not able to deal with them myself, I can always get to an urgent care in a town and get some medical attention and then take a few days off if need be.
Larger injuries would consist of breaks, serious falls, lightning strikes, animal attacks, etc. In the case of any of these the biggest concern is getting found and getting help. Chances are, with the popularity of the Appalachian Trail, someone will pass by me within a couple hours of any type of injury and hopefully will be able to help. Should an injury occur where I’m not directly on the trail or if no one comes by, I am carrying a personal GPS tracking device with an SOS feature that will allow me to alert search and rescue should the need arise. While the chances of this are extremely low, it is a matter of carrying an umbrella to assure no rain. Also, my partner’s require I can be locatable in case a bear tries to make off with me.
Is your family ok with this?
My family is very supportive. I’ve done quite a few hikes with family members. I’ve hiked multiple occasions with my father including the 100 mile wilderness, I’ve done a week long trip through Shenandoah with my wife, and I’ve hiked across and into the backcountry of the Grand Canyon with both of my parents and a friend, so they all know what I’m about to partake in, at least to some degree. I also have a very supportive partner that is going to help by mailing out my resupply boxes and visit me along the trail. I know my daughter (adult), wife and partner will all miss me, but they know this is something I’ve longed to do for a long time. My wife reminds me occasionally when I express concern over leaving for six months that I did tell her I was going to do this on our first date, so it wasn’t unexpected.
What about your job?
My employer is being very supportive. They have actually worked out a way for me to do this without losing my time with the company. I honestly didn’t give them a whole lot of choice about leaving for six months to hike. If I lost my job over it, this was a risk I was willing to take, considering I’ve been wanting to do this for three decades. But as it turns out, my market director and direct manager value me enough to want me back. I do have to get this done in six months or less to not lose my earned annual vacation time and other benefits, but I think I should be able to pull that off. Health care is of course the biggest challenge. I will have to pay for my own health insurance mostly out of pocket during this leave, which turns out to be one of the biggest expenses I will incur over the six months of my hike.
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