This is the year that you’re going to do it: hike the whole Appalachian Trail from one end to the other. You could be a student between school years, a retired military person or just between jobs. Whatever your background happens to be, you have the desire and three to six months off from regular life to hike 2,178 miles.
If any of that sounds like you, congratulations. You’ve taken the most important step in planning your hike: wanting to. The question you might be asking now is, “Where do I begin?”
If every hike starts with a plan, then a through-hike on the AT should take a lot of planning. To some extent that’s true. But like most things that you’ll discover about a through-hike, it’s all a matter of perspective. Some people have never hiked or carried a backpack before they started. They buy all new equipment a month before they leave and set out. Some of them actually make it all the way. Others plan for years, but don’t make it. The chances are pretty good that you’ll fall somewhere in between those extremes.
At this point in your thought process, you’re probably not sure if you have enough time to start a through-hike, let alone plan it. The short answer to both questions can best be explained by plugging in a few dates and working backwards.
So here are some suggested start dates. If you want to start in Georgia and finish in Maine by October, you should start hiking no later than the first week in May. That leaves you about two months from February to decide if you want to have mail drops for resupplying yourself with food, or if you’re just going to buy food at the limited number of stores in towns near the trail along the way.
If you’re going to resupply with mail drops, you’ll need to know where the towns are with post offices. That way you can determine how many days of food to carry between drops. There are a number of AT planning guides available on the market that include the list of post offices. You can search amazon.com under Appalachian Trail for books and guides. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy at atc.org has the most comprehensive list of planning guides and maps.
For Sandi “Bluebearee” Sabaka of Hope, who completed her through-hike in 2002, planning her food drops before her hike was only somewhat reassuring. “In all reality, it probably didn’t help me that much. Actually I take that back. I suppose it helped somewhat, as I had my mail drops all figured out and that provided peace of mind, but looking back, I realize that you really can throw stuff in a pack, get yourself to the trailhead and start walking. You figure so much more of it out after you’re on the trail,” she said.
Sabaka had been thinking about hiking the trail for a long time before her hike. “It had been in my head for almost 30years,” she said. “But the real honest-to-goodness I’m-really-doing-this started about five or six months before.”
Planning was also only somewhat important for James Lawrence “Memphis” Row of Batesville, Ark., who completed his through-hike in 1994. He and I spent roughly five months together on the trail that year. “Planning to me was equally as important as being in physical shape and, from previous month-long treks, knowing what to expect in terms of difficulty,” he said.
When it came to Phil “Phil 4:13” Pepin’s third through-hike last year, planning was as important as it was for his first two hikes in 1977 and 1982. “Usually I start the year before by thinking about it. But I took about 5 or 6 months to plan from conception to actually beginning the hike,” the Bradford man said.
For his first hike he learned most of what he needed to know about the trail by hiking the trail. “The first time was a total learning experience, as I had not done any extensive hiking at all. In 1977 there just wasn’t as much information available as there is today. I mostly learned by trial and error and by making adjustments as I encountered others and saw what worked for them and what didn’t,” he said.
J.R. “Model-T” Tate from Knoxville, Tenn., is a veteran of four through-hikes in ’90, ‘94, ’98 and ‘06. He has written two books on the AT. For him, planning was most important for his first hike. “For first hike it was critical. In 1990, I began planning six months ahead of the hike. For the others, about a month ahead. I just started with a vague idea and the list of mail drops that I used in 1990,” he said.
So if you want to go this year, now is the time you should start planning for a hike from Georgia to Maine. If you want to hike south from Katahdin to Georgia, which a small number of hikers do every year, you have a little more time. I’ve met hikers on the trail in Maine who left Katahdin in the first week of August. Most start from Katahdin sometime between mid-May, when Baxter State Park opens for the camping season, and that first week in August.
If you think you might not be able to plan a through-hike for this year because it’s too late, there’s good news. It’s not too early to start for 2012. The trail isn’t going anywhere. The hardest part of anyone’s through-hike isn’t the hike really. It’s getting started.