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The Appalachian Trail is one of the best and most famous long-distance hiking routes in the world. The experience gained from it is phenomenal. Epic would be an understatement. This is probably why three million people take the hiking challenge through this trail every year. Let not this number fool you, only a fraction of them manage to trek the entire trail. This tells you that persistence and determination are part of the job description.
The Appalachian Trail popularly regarded as the AT is 2,190 miles long and passes across 14 states. It extends between Mount Katahdin found in Maine and Springer Mountain in Georgia. There is, however, another extension called the International Appalachian Trail, which extends north into Canada and halts in Newfoundland. These 14 states are inclusive of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
This trail is long, and so is maintaining it. More than 30 different clubs have chipped in to construct and repair the trail. They are all under the National Park Service in conjunction with Appalachian Trail Conservancy. A majority of this trial’s path is in the wilderness, although some part extends through crossroads and towns. As juxtaposed as it is, you will interact with life both in the cities and wilderness alike.
How long does it take to hike the Appalachian Trail? This is what this article is all about. We dwell deep into more than that, telling you everything that you need to know about this epic trail; from the culture around it, hiking strategies, the routes to follow, and the best time to hike it to the preparations to undertake.
Our aim is to provide you with a detailed guide in a simple language that you will understand. Everything is yours for the take. One thing that we’re sure about is that by the end of this guide, you will crave to take yourself through the experience. This is a little spoiler. So, prepare yourself emotionally.
How Long Does It Take to Hike the Appalachian Trail
We wouldn’t want to keep you waiting and will go straight to answering the question. Most of the thru-hikers spend anywhere between four and seven months hiking through the Appalachian Trails. Please note the word ‘Most.’ It is all dependent on your speed. Some take a shorter period than this while others a longer duration than this. The four and seven months is where a larger bracket lies. This is taking into consideration the normal and average pace for most hikers.
This duration can be translated to mean that you will experience two or three different seasons during your adventure. The best seasons to be out in the wild are the spring, summer, and autumn seasons. The majority of the hikers, therefore, position their journey between the months of March and December. This doesn’t imply that it is impossible to hike through the winter period. However, the conditions at the time make it more difficult. There are generally deep snows, low temperatures ad unpredictable storms, which make hiking very hard.
Another factor that will determine the time of the year to hike is the route used. The starting and ending points and the direction of the hike will go a long way in determining the best time of the year when you need to start your hike.
Every part of the trail is normally open throughout the year for hiking, with the only exceptions being Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin. These are normally closed overnight on 15th October and only allow visitors during the daytime. Vehicles usually are denied access to the park on 1st November because, at this time, winter is approaching, and it is too dangerous to summit the mountains.
Due to these regulations, the management recommends hiking along the Katahdin should be completed by 15th October for safety purposes. This date isn’t fixed and might be initiated on an earlier date, depending on the conditions.
Routes for Thru-Hiking
The route to hike through is one of the essential decisions that thru-hikers need to make a decision on. The route to be used will determine a lot of things; including the time of the year to carry out the hike. The route to be used will also have an effect on the hiker mentally, physically, and socially. 2,190 miles is no joke, and you have to considerate of the route that you’re going to use. Lucky enough, there are a number of them. Consider our list for the available routes and the considerations to weigh on.
The Northbound hike is popularly referred to as ‘NOBO’ is one of the most popular choices that many hikers settle for. This route spans from Springer mountain and extends northwards till the top of Mount Katahdin. Its popularity makes it very crowded. In 2014, for example, there were 2,500 thru-hikers registered on the route. This number made up for roughly 87% of the total hikers’ population. This number is also ten times that of those who opted for the Southbound route.
The vast number is excellent for the social experience but comes with its costs. The large influx is a menace, making it hard to access some of the services and even damaging the trail and its surroundings. With this, the management recommends for hikers to settle for other routes, if possible, for conservancy reasons.
Northbound hikers should typically begin their hiking in late March and early April. This means that their hike will end at around Late August or early October. The most popular starting dates are on 1st March, 15th March and 1st April. Expect huge crowds on these dates and consider other dates to avoid the big crowds.
What to Know
- Beginning the hike at Springer Mountain is more comfortable physically, logistically and mentally as compared to starting at Mount Katahdin.
- Mount Katahdin is one of the toughest parts to climb, and also one of the most beautiful and scenic.
- With the enormous crowds, be sure to have the shelters overcrowded at the first few hundreds of miles.
- The huge crowds make it vulnerable to the exposure and spread of communicable diseases due to the crowded conditions.
- You should be prepared for winter during the first few months of your hike. Some parts will still experience deep snow and low temperatures extending to late April. You, therefore, need to carry heavy clothing and winter gear for the weather conditions.
- The Mid-Atlantic states usually experience hot and humid climatic conditions. The mosquitoes are at their prime during this time.
Southbound hiking is the opposite of Northbound hiking. It is popularly known as ‘SOBO.’ This route spans from the top of Mount Katahdin southwards till Springer Mountain. The Southbound route is less popular than NOBO. A significant reason for this is that this route requires hikers to begin with the most difficult terrains. Hikers will begin with the difficult terrains then move on to more than 100 miles of wilderness.
This route comes with all the challenges of the White Mountains and South Maine. These challenges make it difficult for amateur and newbies to follow the SOBO. SOBO perfectly suits experienced and expert hikers. Some hikers also don’t love the idea of finishing their hiker on Springer Mountain instead of Mount Katahdin, but this is strictly personal.
This route isn’t entirely bad, as it seems. There are those who love it, claiming that the first parts of the journey are the ones that are supposed to be difficult. There is a good side to it. Southbound hikers normally begin their hiker on Later June or early July. This means that their hike will end at around November or December.
What to Know
- Finishing your hike on Springer Mountain will be less scenic and epic as compared to Mount Katahdin.
- You will come across fall colors by the time you arrive at Southern Appalachians and Virginia.
- The number of hikers who opt for the SOBO is a few each year. This means that you will have fewer encounters with other hikers. The good side of this is that shelters, huts, and campsites will be less crowded.
- You may experience hot and humid climatic conditions through some parts of the Mid-Atlantic.
- Be sure to expect heavy rainfalls in the summer months in New England. Also, prepare yourself for high stream and muddy trails.
- There will be a presence of black flies, especially during June and July, which are a nuisance.
- October is the hunting period for residents of the Southern States.
- You will begin to experience snow, and cold weather as November approaches.
NOBO is associated with huge crowds and congestion. SOBO, on the other hand, has a very difficult beginning that is unsuitable for newbies. With these unfavorable conditions, many hikers have been looking for an alternative route that will suit and favor their needs. Alternative itineraries have been established for a more exciting adventure. These alternative routes have been awarded names such as ‘LeapFrog,’ ‘Head Start,’ and ‘Flip Flop.’
These alternative routes are becoming more popular with time as they favor a lot of hikers. They are more flexible, and their starting and ending dates are also favorable. There are many methods of constructing the flip flop hike. A common example is where hikers start near AT point in Harpers Ferry in the month of May. They hike till mount Katahdin and arrive during the months of either August or September. They then go back to Harpers Ferry and continue hiking south and finalize on their journey at Springer Mountain at around November or December.
What to Know
- This route enables hikers to begin their journey with the easiest of the terrains. These are in the parts of Maryland and Pennsylvania.
- There are no issues of congestion and crowd related problems.
- You will be able to arrive at the Mid-Atlantic States before the summer temperatures begin
- The temperatures in the White Mountains are pleasant around the month of July
- You will encounter the early northbound hikers in the first half of your journey then the southbound hikers at the final end of your journey.
- You will be able to miss the mosquitoes in the Mid-Atlantic and the black flies in Maine
- You will catch the fly colors at Virginia and South of Appalachians
- You might begin to experience the cold seasons in the South Appalachian as November nears.
Maps and Guidebooks
There are traditional maps that are provided one in the trail, although they aren’t as detailed as the modern guidebooks. Despite this, they will provide you with all the valuable information that you’ll require to hike the trail. The maps give hikers and overview of the surroundings and what to expect once they begin their journey. They are unique in a different manner from the guidebooks.
These maps will lay a good foundation for you of what to expect in terms of the topography as well as providing you with an insight of the roads, forests, and any relevant trails. The AT is a huge one, and there’s no doubt about that. It will, therefore, be impossible to have every information inside the maps. Guidebooks are also too small for the AT.
If hikers wish to have a map for the entire trail, they could as well purchase many maps for different sections of the trails. These maps are found at affordable prices and will highlight everything that you need to know about different sections of the trail.
The choice of settling for either guidebooks or maps lies entirely with you. Guidebooks are cheap but heavy. They provide detailed and meaningful information about the mountains and other sections. Maps are lighter but more expensive than the guidebooks. They will provide you with a view of the trail in a way that the guidebook cannot. If you are lost on what to settle for, going for both is also an option. This is, however, dependent on the depth of your pocket.
Camping and Shelters
Sleeping out in the woods isn’t a foreign site for hikers. This is a normal part of life for thru-hikers. When night falls near the AT, you have two options for settling for the night. You can either make use of some of the already established AT shelters or alternatively create your own traditional setup.
AT has set up shelters that are known as lean-tos or huts. This is one thing that makes the AT unique from other hiking trails. These shelters are generally wooden structures of three sides with an elevated wooden floor and an overhanging roof. These shelters were built with the aim of minimizing and managing dispersed settlements around the trail, especially at night. The AT has more than 250 of these shelters, which are strategically located near river banks and other reliable sources of water.
The distance between these shelters isn’t constant and vary. They are, however, not far from each other; typically, a walking distance of about five miles. The shelters are constructed and maintained by the local trail clubs.
These huts vary in size, with their holding capacities ranging between five and twenty hikers. The huts are open to every hiker and operate on the ‘first come, first serve’ basis. Please note that every traveler is allowed to camp in these shelters and not just the thru-hikers. If you arrive late and find that the shelters are already full, then you will have no otherwise other than setting up a temporary shelter for the night. We, therefore, can’t emphasize how important it is to arrive early enough if you’re looking to catch up on one of these huts.
Inside the shelters, you will be provided with essential amenities. The amenities vary between different shelters. Some come with a picnic table, systems for bear-bagging, and fire pits. Most, but not all, huts are fitted with extra space for tents should the hut get filled for the night. These are the cool stuff about the shelters. There is the other side of the coin, the downsides that you should consider. Before deciding to settle for shelters, here are some of the things that you need to consider.
If you arrive late and find the shelters are already full, then your other option is to set up traditional camping. The good news is that there are over 100 campsites scattered along the Appalachian Trail. Similar to the shelters, the camps are also located near water sources. The only difference is that they lack some of the amenities provided in the shelters.
There are some well-equipped campsites which come with wooden tents. Please note that you’ll be required to pay a small fee in some campsites. Apart from the already setup campsites, there are other areas along the AT where hikers are allowed to set up their own camps, a practice known as ‘dispersed camping.’ The dispersed campsites are marked in the maps and guidebooks for hikers to locate them easily.
Amidst all of this, there are rules and regulations that come along with dispersed camping. Different parks, towns, and states have their own rules that you must adhere to. Some of these rules include the following:
- Dispersed camping is strongly forbidden in Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
- The hikers are required to remain at the designated campsites and shelters only.
- Some places prohibit the use of campfires outside the campsites.
These are just a few of the many rules set. The rules are there to ensure that there is a peaceful co-existence among the hikers and also non-interference with the ecosystem and surrounding. It is, therefore, your responsibility as a hiker to be aware of the set rules and regulations of different places. Also, ensure that you stick to the rules in order to avoid conflicts.
One problem with dispersed camping is that it interferes with the trail and its environs. For this reason, it is normally advised to avoid clearing new places but use the already set up campsites. By doing so, you will help preserve the ecosystem and surrounding of the trail. This enables the trail to survive for long and allow those who will come long after you get to enjoy the same way that you did. We all wish for that to happen, don’t we?
Fording Water Bodies
Once in a while, you will be required to ford rivers, creeks, and streams, although on rare occasions. This is especially common in Maine. Most of the fords are manageable and so won’t pose much of huge risk. Times to be extra careful are when heavy rains fall. The water levels increase, and it is normally dangerous. Extra caution is advised. Crossings at this time are normally fitted with ropes to guide and assist hikers across the fords as well as provide them with the needed balance.
One river exempted from fording is the Kennebec River found in Maine. This is the widest river on the trail and doesn’t come with a bridge. It measures over 200 feet wide. There are dams up the mountains that release water unexpectedly, which causes the water levels to rise abruptly. Across this river, the management has provided hikers with a ferry service to help them to the other sides safely. Hikers are advised to use the ferry at all times for the sake of their safety.
No matter how much information we may try to provide you concerning the Appalachian Trail, there are still lots more that you need to grasp. However, we have stayed true to our course and provided you with the basic and most important information that you need to know. Hiking the AT requires a lot of planning and resources. The longer you plan for it, the better and easier it becomes.
Hikers have the option of choosing among the three routes that have been mentioned. Although Northbound is the most popular, you aren’t restricted to any. It all depends on your preferences and needs.
Be sure to carry along with your heavy clothing and blankets. Carry enough water for yourself for emergency purposes. Also, have water treatment as the water present is not always safe for drinking. Mosquitoes will be many, so have mosquito repellants. Have with you at all times any medication that you might require. If all these are followed, then nothing could possibly go wrong.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is so much fun. The feeling of reaching the end successfully is phenomenal. Be strong, persistent and patient. Go at your own pace. Interact and make new friends. Take care of yourself and stay safe. Above all, have fun!
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