I am spending the winter packing a bag for the greatest undertaking of my life: The Appalachian Trail.
The Appalachian Trail is a 2,190 mile long footpath that starts at the summit of Springer Mountain in Georgia, and ends at the summit of Katahdin in Maine. As a “thru-hiker” I will be attempting to hike the whole thing, carrying my own food, water, and gear on my back. It’s a journey that takes an average of 5 months to complete.
It’s hard to explain why I want to do this hike. I think you could blame my mother, former AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) high mountain hut “croo” member and all around bad-ass, who ensured that my first memories were of woods and rivers, and that hiking and backpacking were a constant part of my life. In college I also worked for the AMC. Instead of the mountain huts like my mom I spent that summer at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at the base of Mt Washington in New Hampshire. I discovered a deep well within myself that summer. Spending so much time hiking gave me the self reliance, and confidence, and ease that I always thought I lacked. I saw a lot of thru-hikers come through Pinkham Notch, and I recognized that they were on a whole other level. They had the strength and the skill and the grit to make it that far north. I was, and still am, primarily a day hiker so I never forgot seeing those people, 4 months into the AT, taking time on the sunny front porch to just sit on the bench and enjoy the afternoon, ready for the long days ahead.
I want to hike the Appalachian Trail because I want what those hikers had. I want grit, I want freedom, I want to accomplish something extraordinary, I want clarity about who I am, I want to spend less time in front of screens and see what that teaches me, I want to see the American landscape, I want to appreciate, really appreciate, simply sitting in the sun on a summer afternoon in the mountains.
But this past year has handed us all challenges like never before. Pandemic and quarantine and cancelled plans. For me it has been a year of anxiety, bouts of depression, uncertainty, and change – and I’m one of the lucky ones. I don’t think hiking the AT this year is a responsible thing to do, or a moral thing to do, or a safe thing to do in the midst of a pandemic. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy agrees, saying in bold print on their website: “The ATC continues to advise long-distance hikers to postpone hikes until 2022 or when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has deemed the pandemic under control, and/or a COVID-19 vaccine or effective treatment is widely available and distributed.”
But my judgement is clouded because I want this so badly, which fills me with uncertainty. Is it enough to be as safe as possible, but also hike? Am I a danger to small trail towns along the way? Will I miss receiving my vaccine if I go? Will I regret going or not going more? I’m always looking outside of myself to make difficult decisions. I want validation that I’m headed down the right path. Yet another lesson from this year: I am the only one who has the answer. So I’m putting a plan in place.
I’ve always pictured myself hiking the AT in the traditional way, which is to say Northbound (or “NOBO”), starting in Georgia and hiking continuously north to Maine. This is going to change. Instead I will be doing the less traditional Flip-Flop thru hike. Flip-Flop means that you start somewhere in the middle of the trail (Harpers Ferry West Virginia for me) and hike north to Katahdin, then fly/drive back to your starting point and then hike south to Georgia. The ATC has great information about this, and all types of AT thru-hikes, on their website: https://appalachiantrail.org/explore/hike-the-a-t/thru-hiking/
There are a lot of benefits to this kind of hike, but the two that convinced me are:
Benefit 1) Less contact with other hikers.
By starting in Harpers Ferry, WV I can avoid the ‘hiker bubble’ of thru hikers starting at the same time in Georgia. Less overflowing campsites and low trail traffic = Less contact. Also, a much more pleasant starting atmosphere.
Forty other hikers are planning to start their hike from Springer Mountain Georgia on April 3, my original start date. This quantity puts the campsites already over capacity, as noted by the red line in the image below. You can see that the first couple of campsites are over capacity for the whole month of March through the first week of April, and this is just for thru hikers! Never mind the weekend backpackers and day hikers and other thru-hikers faster or slower than you. This is a crowded start, often described as having a “spring break atmosphere”.
Now, take a look at the same graph for a Harper’s Ferry start – note the difference in scale. This means that, on my previous start date of April 3, two other people would be starting the same day as me. Of course, it’s recommended to start your flip-flop no earlier than the second week of April, but you can see that there is simply no comparison to hiker registration for Georgia.
Benefit 2) More flexibility in start date
By starting in Harpers Ferry I could start hiking as late as June and still complete the thru-hike without encountering winter weather. This allows me to make plans, and shift them as needed for COVID considerations.
Hikers starting in Georgia need to hit the trail early enough to give themselves time to reach Katahdin before the middle of October. Baxter State park closes for the winter, making it almost impossible to finish the trail if you reach it too late. This pressure is removed in a flip flop thru, even if you start in May or June you don’t have have to worry about not reaching Katahdin.
My plan is to start my hike in the middle of April, but if COVID still looks the way it does today then I will have the easy option of pushing my date forward to the end of April or May or even June. I don’t know what I’m waiting for to make that final decision, maybe I’m waiting for the vaccine to be widely distributed, or for the CDC to say that everything is under control, or for the ATC to say that they will officially recognize 2021 thru-hikers again, or for overnight camping to be allowed in Massachusetts… Realistically I think my decision will be based on a mix of all of these things, but in the end I will need to be the one to make the call and it wont be clear cut either way.
So, for now I am packing my bag. I’m weighing all of my gear, cutting out ounces where I can. I’m pouring over maps and guidebooks. I’m building strength and resilience. I’m trying to keep it all together, mostly unsuccessfully.
Before I hike you can expect one more post sharing the details of my gear and food. During the hike I will be posting here occasionally, but I think Instagram will be the best way to keep in touch as I go.