Hiking the Appalachian and related trails
All content copyright © 2010-2018 Frank Revelo, United States copyright office registration number TX-7931345
The major trail is the Appalachian Trail or AT. Trails which intersect or extend the Appalachian Trail include the Long Trail in Vermont, the Long Path in New York, the Benton MacKaye trail in Tennessee and Georgia, the Pinhoti trail in Georgia and Alabama, the Alabama trail, and the Florida trail.
- Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC)
- Source of maps and Thru-Hikers Companion, which is the official guidebook. As of 2008, most durably constructed of the guidebooks for the AT, but also the heaviest.
- Alternate guidebook, sometimes called the "Wingfoot Guide", because that was the trailname of the original author (the book and associated website are now owned and maintained by another person). Almost as complete as the ATC guide, with more readable format better town maps, but the binding not very durable as of 2008, which I consider a serious drawback for a book that will be referenced several times a day for several months on end in outdoor conditions.
- Lots of info related to thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.
- Bartram Trail
- Guidebook for Bartram Trail, which connects with AT near Franklin, and allows walking into Franklin rather than hitching. This trail is shown on the AT maps, so the guidebook is not really necessary if you have the AT maps.
- Benton Mackaye Trail
- Serves as connector between Pinhoti and Appalachian trails. Runs parallel to and connects with the southern Appalachian trail in several places. Trail covered by the National Geographic Topo maps for: Springer and Cohutta mountain; Cherokee National Forest; Great Smoky Mountains.
- Pinhoti Trail Alliance
- Alabama Trails Association
- Georgia Pinhoti Trail
- Pinhoti trail passes through northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia, and terminates at intersection with Benton Mackaye trail.
- Alabama Hiking Trail Society
- Has guide for walking from Florida-Alabama border to start of Appalachian trail, including the Alabama road walk, the Pinhoti trail and the Benton Mackaye trail.
- Florida Trail Association
- Trail that runs from Key West to Pensacola, with spur trail leading to border with Alabama, where it intersects with the Alabama roadwalk.
- Orlando area bus service
- Bus transportation in Orlando, Florida area. Route 11 to get from airport to Lynx central station. Route 4 to get from Lynx central station to downtown Kissimmee, which is on the Florida trail western corridor. Routes 102 and 103 to get from Lynx central station to Seminole Center, which is near the Florida trail eastern corridor.
Alternative thru-hiking schedule
The ideal hiking season on the Appalachian Trail is mid-August to mid-September for Maine and New Hampshire and late September through October elsewhere. For someone determined to hike the entire trail in a single season, flip-flopping is the best idea. That is, start walking south from Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania no sooner than March, reach Georgia no sooner than mid-July, flip to Maine and start walking south again, finishing at Delaware Water Gap mid-November. This allows a total of 8 months to complete the trail, or a leisurely 9 miles a day. A faster walker can start later and finish earlier. What is important is to avoid flipping to Maine sooner than mid-July, since there are too many mosquitoes and black flies before then. Another possibility, especially attractive to those who live in the eastern United States, is to return home after reaching Georgia in early June and take a break before resuming in Maine in early August. Flip-flopping like this has numerous advantages:
- While the flip between Georgia and Maine will be a nuisance, the start and finish of the trail will be within easy access of major transit hubs, since the town of Stroudsburg, which is 5 miles from Delaware Water Gap and accessible via a local shuttle bus, has regular bus service to New York and Philadelphia.
- Easy access to towns during the first few months. An important consideration for someone who isn't fully confident in their gear or who hasn't done much hiking in the past. Whereas, the trail at either ends (Georgia, Maine) is somewhat more distant from towns.
- Though the trail in Pennsylvania is very rocky and rugged, it does not involve many elevation changes or long distances between town stops. So starting there allows gradually getting the body into physical condition (other than the feet, ankles and knees, which must be strong from the get-go), in preparation for the mountains of the south followed by the mountains of Maine and New Hampshire.
- Avoids harsh conditions (snow and cold rain) in the southern mountains in March and April. Conditions during these months are typically milder in Pennsylvania and northern Virgina, since the trail is at much lower elevation there than further south.
- Avoids much of the summertime heat and humidity, since conditions are fairly mild in Maine and New Hampshire in August and September. By additionally taking a break after reaching Georgia in early June, virtually all the really bad summertime heat and humidity can be avoided.
- Avoids harsh conditions (cold rain) in Maine in late September and early October.
- Avoids rushing to beat the Oct 15 deadline for ascending Mount Katahdin.
- Avoids most crowding, with two exceptions. First, the crowd of northbound hikers will be passed for the first time sometime in Virginia. However, it is easy to stealth camp in Virginia, and conditions will be mild by then, so this should not be problem, provided you bring camping gear and don't rely on shelters. Second, the crowd of northbound hikers will be passed again in Maine and New Hampshire. This may present a problem, because there are limited possibilities for stealth camping in those two states, due to the ruggedness of the terrain and regulations. Best solution is to start early in the day and finish early as well, before all the campsite or shelter and hut berths get taken. There are sometimes orientation groups from universities in the White Mountains during the last week of August ("college week"), which arrive early and monopolize all the campsites. Best solution to this problem is to make sure the Whites are crossed either before or after the last week of August.
- Avoids prime tick season in prime tick territory. Namely, May through July in Northern Virginia through Vermont (inclusive). Terrain in Pennsylvania is mostly dry, rocky mountains where ticks are not normally a problem regardless of the time of year, which is why Delaware Water Gap makes a good starting point, assuming a start in March or early April. Whereas, further north than Pennsylvania, the AT passes through occasional pastures and brushy areas. American Lyme Disease Foundation indicates that adult tick season is September and October, but I did not experience any problems with ticks during those months during a southbound hike.
- Avoids most mosquitoes and black flies. Mosquitoes are not a problem in the early spring. Prime black fly season in the northeast is May through early July. Neither mosquitoes nor black flies are problem in Maine or New Hampshire in late August and September. Mosquitoes are normally a minor problem in Vermont and south from mid-September on.
- Avoids walking through Pennsylvania, where the AT passes through state hunting lands, during deer hunting season (which starts in October for archery and muzzle-loaders and November for rifles).
Another flip-flop possibility is to start southbound from Maine in mid-July, then flip to Georgia at Harper's Ferry (which has commuter train access to the Washington-Baltimore area) and begin walking north. This scheme works better than a straight-through southbound thru-hike because winter is milder in northern Virginia, due to the lower elevation, than in the mountains further south. A southbounder should be able to reach Harper's Ferry by late September, flip to Georgia and start walking north, and reach Harper's Ferry again by the end of November, which is normally when winter sets in. In 2010, a little north of Pearisburg, Virginia, at 4000 feet elevation, I experienced several inches of snow on November 5 and temperatures in the low teens at night. As is typical with such early storms, the sun came out the next afternoon, the snow melted and temperatures were mild for several weeks afterwards. Storms like this can thus typically be dealt with by simply waiting them out. On the other hand, in 2009, winter arrived early and there was permanent snow on the ground and sub-freezing temperatures throughout the southern Appalachians at elevations above 3000 starting from late October until March of the next year. If necessary to bail-out due to an early winter, Greyhound service to Washington stops at Marion, Roanoke or Charlottesville. Marion and Roanoke are within walking distance of the trail. To get to Charlottesville, take a taxi from Waynesboro. A resupply schedule for the above scheme, assuming 15 miles/day other than in the White Mountains and southern Maine and a desire to avoid hitch-hiking, is as follows (information valid as of 2008 and 2010, the years I hiked the AT):
- Send out maildrops for northern section (Monson, Caratunk, Andover, Glencliff)
- Baxter Park: start with 7 days food, maps to Glencliff
- Monson: pickup maildrop with 4 days food (grocery and convenience stores are not well-supplied)
- Caratunk: pickup maildrop with 6 days food (no stores)
- Stratton: buy 3 days food to supplement what is in pack (mid-sized grocery at ski resort)
- Andover: pickup maildrop with 6 days food (grocery isn't well-supplied)
- Glencliff: pickup maildrop with 4 days food, maps to Harper's Ferry (mid-sized grocery a few miles away)
- Gorham: buy 4 days food, from here to Harper's Ferry, resupply is easy (large co-op supermarket)
- Between Gorham and Harper's Ferry, it is never more than 3 days between towns. So just keep a few days of food in the pack at all times.
- Harper's Ferry: commuter rail to and from Washington, DC (weekdays only). Prepare and send out maildrops for southern section (Neels Gap, Fontana Dam, Hot Springs). Arrange transport to Mount Springer. Convenience store in Harper's Ferry is poorly stocked, though there is a bus to Charlestown, WV, which has several large stores. Lodging options are also limited in Harper's Ferry. As an alternative to spending the night in Harper's Ferry, walk 2 miles along the C&O canal trail to Brunswick, MD, and spend the night there. Commuter train between Harper's Ferry and Washington stops at Brunswick.
- Mt Springer: start with 3 days food and maps to Hot Springs
- Neels Gap: pick up maildrop with 7 days food (Walasi-Yi store is mostly snacks)
- Nantahala Outdoor Center: buy 2 days food at the Wesser convenience store (about 1 mile away)
- Fontana Dam: pick up maildrop with 4 days food (good grocery at resort, but shouldn't be relied on)
- Gatlinburg or Cherokee: buy 5 days food (many supermarkets)
- Hot Springs: buy 5 days food, pick up maildrop with maps to Harper's Ferry (dollar general, mid-sized grocery)
- Erwin: buy 6 days food (food lion, dollar general)
- Hampton: buy 3 days food (mid-sized grocery)
- Damascus: buy 6 days food (food lion, dollar general)
- Groseclose: buy 3 days food (several well-stocked convenience stores)
- Bland: buy 3 days food (dollar general, convenience stores)
- Pearisburg: buy 6 days food (food lion, dollar general)
- Catawba: buy 1 days food (convenience store)
- Daleville: buy 7 days food (kroger, many convenience stores)
- Montebello: buy 3 days food (mid-sized grocery at campground, open year-round)
- Waynesboro: buy 5 days food (kroger, dollar general)
- Big Meadows Wayside: buy 3 days food (well-stocked, open to end of November)
- Linden: buy 2 days food (well-stocked convenience store)
- Bluemont: buy 2 days food (well-stocked convenience store)
- Harper's Ferry: end of hike (poorly-stocked convenience store)
As of 2010, Hiker Hostel provides reasonably priced shuttles from Atlanta to the trailhead. But if they stop this service and no other shuttle can be found, then an alternative is to take Greyhound from the Atlanta airport to Dalton, then a taxi from Dalton to Chatsworth (about 15 miles), walk about 5 miles to the trailhead for the Chattahoochee segment of the Georgia Pinhoti trail, follow that trail for about 30 miles to where it intersects with the Benton MacKaye trail, follow the BMT for about 70 miles to Mount Springer. The Pinhoti and BMT trail segments, plus the road walk from Chatsworth to the Pinhoti trailhead, are clearly shown on the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Springer and Cohutta Mountains map. There are plenty of motels in both Dalton or Chatsworth, in case of a late arrival into town.
It is possible to walk the AT without maps, though they are nice to have, especially for first-timers. By trimming away unneeded parts, the weight of the entire map set can be reduced from about 2140 grams (almost 5 pounds) to perhaps 1400 grams (about 3 pounds). This is low enough that carrying the entire map set from the start is feasible. Alternatively, carry a pound of maps or so at a time, and thus reduce the number of maildrops required to three. For example, a hiker doing the flip-flop described above could start with maps for Delaware Water Gap (PA) to Damascus (VA), then replace with maps for Damascus to Mount Springer (GA), then replace with maps for Mount Katahdin (ME) to Glencliff (NH), and finally replace with maps for Glencliff to Delaware Water Gap.
[Update as of 2013: Now that almost everyone has a smartphone, and many people have a mapping GPS as well, it probably makes more sense to use electronic rather than paper maps for the Appalachian Trail. Electronics can fail, of course, but getting lost on the AT is very unlikely. Aside from saving money and reducing weight, using electronic rather than paper maps eliminates the maildrop problem for the most part. A few food maildrops will still be necessary, but those can be arranged on the fly, buying in big towns and mailing to small towns further down the trail. See the GPS page for more on this topic.]]
Camping is not allowed along the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains national park. Rather, all hikers must stay in huts if hiking the AT there. Those who prefer camping can take the Benton MacKaye trail through the Smokies rather than the AT, since hiking is allowed along the Benton MacKaye trail. The Benton MacKaye trail is about 20 miles longer than the AT, and involves more elevation changes.
Be careful with maildrops that are not sent to post offices, since these are sometimes insecure. For example, I sent a mail drop to the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harper's Ferry, but then had to get off the trail and so couldn't pick up this maildrop in person. When I called the ATC later to ask them to return the package, they said they couldn't find it, though they did have record of having received it. I talked to two people in the office, and both started laughing nervously and telling me obvious lies when I asked them what their procedures were for giving out maildrops to hikers. Eventually, I gathered that they simply leave packages out where anyone can take them, rather than requiring photo IDs before handing over packages. Though I didn't myself use hostels or stores for maildrops along the AT, I got the impression that most of these had the same lack of security as the ATC. By comparison, post offices always require a photo ID for picking up packages. Post offices have limited office hours and sometimes won't hold packages for more than two weeks, which is why I sent my package to the ATC and why many hikers use hostels and stores for maildrops. Of course, having longer hours and holding periods is not much of an advantage if a package gets lost or stolen.