Welcome to Command Central. It’s actually not so bad. We were hanging up Paul’s pancho liner to dry out inside because it would have frozen outside.
I thought that I would take some time to explain the different ways of hiking the AT and how we are doing it.
Over 3 million people hike some portion of the AT every year. The vast majority are day hikers or weekend warriors. Some hikers tackle a section at a time. These Section Hikers may hike 100 miles in Shenandoah one year. The next year they will take a week in Vermont and so on. Many Section Hikers complete the trail over a period of years. We met one couple who were finishing their last leg–it had taken them 12 years. But working around jobs with limited vacation time, that’s what worked for them. I think that shows a lot of discipline and determination. Congratulations to them.
Then there are the Thru Hikers. They intend to hike all 2190 miles in one calendar year. They have 365 days to cross Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire & Maine. How fast they do it is entirely up to them.
Most Thru Hikers start at the Southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia. There is a short window of time to get to Mt Katahdin, Maine before the weather shuts the park down. The majority of the north bound hikers depart Georgia in the month of March. We’ve already met some thru hikers who started in February to beat the crowds. They encountered some hellacious weather early on with freak snowstorms along the way. We’ve even met one lady who started in January. She is hiking with her gorgeous 9 month old German Shepherd, Blaze. And yes, Blaze carries his own backpack, or more precisely, saddle bags. Blaze & his mama bring a lot of joy to the campsite.
The really hearty souls start in Maine. Maine doesn’t usually defrost until June so this year’s Southbounders haven’t even started yet. Everyone says that Maine & New Hampshire are the hardest section of the trail. There is something to be said about getting the roughest part over with first.
So you have North and South bound Thru-hikers. The third category of Thru hiker is the Flip Flopper. Flip flippers start anywhere on the trail other than Springer Mountain or Mt Katahdin. They hike to one terminus, go back to where they started and hike to the other terminus. We are Flip Floppers.
There are many advantages to doing a Flip flop. In fact, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy was strongly encouraging folks to try this approach, if possible. The biggest reason is to avoid the congestion at Springer Mountain. Once the movie “A Walk in the Woods” came out, the ATC anticipated an explosion in popularity. I talked to an Outfitter at Rockfish Gap. He told me that he was getting reports of 30 – 50 people starting the trail in Georgia every single day in March. An ATC volunteer told me that 3000 registered with them to start there. Registering is strictly voluntary so I imagine that most people did not bother. Can you imagine planning to get some alone time in the woods and you get to the shelter and it’s full and there are 40 tents set up already. No thanks. Considering that a full 40 % of the people who start in Georgia quit the first week, we thought there was no reason to deal with that mess. Those mountains in Georgia are no joke. I got a tip from another outfitter: The first 8 miles of the trail in Georgia are littered with brand new equipment. People suddenly realize that they don’t want to carry the camp chair, solar charger or extra food etc. A crafty camper could really clean up.
Where you start a Flip Flop is entirely up to you. We met a guy at Harper’s Ferry who was heading south bound. He started in Pennsylvania. He was more concerned with avoiding the heat of Georgia and Carolina than facing snow in Maine. Many flip Floppers start in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. It’s the home of the ATC, but more significantly, it’s the psychological mid point of the trail.
We chose to start at Shenandoah National Park. We thought it would be a great place to practice our tracking skills and my ability to find Paul at the end of the day. It proved to be a good call.
You cannot do this hike without some level of support. The barest minimum is having someone mail your pre packed boxes of food. It would be impossible to carry everything you need for the entire trek. Paul is doing what’s called a Supported Hike. I’m around to resupply him. I can pick him up at night and drop him off again in the morning. This is not cheating . In fact sometimes it slows him down because we have to find a road where I can meet him and it may not be where he was ready to stop. Plus he gets an earlier start if he camps out. The only thing considered cheating is not walking all the miles and saying that you did.
We drove our RV out to Virginia. We shipped our little SUV ( which was surprisingly cheaper than me driving it out) So we park the RV at a campsite for 4 or 5 days. I take the SUV and drop Paul off at the trailhead. He does his daily hike (which is averaging 15 miles right now) and, if he wishes, I pick him up at a prearranged spot. He gets a shower, meals cooked for him, a warm bed and to enjoy the company of my sparkling personality:). After he walks about 50 or 60 miles, we move the RV up to the next campsite.
He has the opportunity to “slack pack” which is to leave gear you won’t need (tent, sleeping bag…) But he hasn’t done that yet. Just in case I can’t reach him, I want him to have everything he needs.
He is staying out more, and frankly I am a bit envious. The weather is nicer. We are meeting more Thru Hikers and they are always interesting. Most are flip Floppers but some are actually the speedy ones who started in Georgia in February.
Since everyone hikes at their own pace and takes days off at different rates, we might see them again on the trail or we may never cross paths again. Especially the runners. We have heard of them but not seen the people who don’t hike, but run the AT. Some have set the goal to finish the AT and the Pacific Crest Trail in one calendar year. And you know what, that’s ok too. I prefer our pace, though.
When we’ve told other hikers how we are doing it the overwhelming response is positive. In fact most say they wish they could do it too.
But what we’ve heard repeatedly is everyone gets to “Hike your own hike”. It’s like a mantra out here. No judgement. Frankly that is just excellent advice for life. More wisdom we have picked up from the trail.