Five myths about hiking the Appalachian Trail

Why hike the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) from Georgia to Maine? For some people it’s a rite of passage, a transition from youth to adulthood, or maybe a way to heal a broken heart. Others do it for the physical challenge, or to simply be in nature and stay off the grid for months at a time. But before you lace up your boots and put your “Out of Office” reply on your email, here are five myths about the A.T.

1. You need to take five or six months off to walk the Appalachian Trail.

Only if you want to. So called “thru-hikers” typically start in Georgia and end their walk many months and many blisters later on Mount Katahdin in Maine. But other hikers choose to do one section of the A.T. at a time, hence the term “section hiker.”

“I completed the A.T. over the course of 43 years, in 24 separate section hikes,” saysJeffrey Marion, a research biologist and an adjunct professor in the Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation Department at Virginia Tech. One distinct advantage of doing the A.T. this way is that “you can choose your weather. Most of my hikes were in the cool and less humid fall months, after tick and black fly season.”

Jeffrey Ryan, author of Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-Year Hike on America’s Trail, is also a dedicated section hiker. Ryan says that “the attrition rate among hikers attempting the entire 2,100-plus mile trail is high. Only about 25% of thru-hikers and 20% of section hikers end up completing the trail according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.”

2. Walking the A.T. is only for uber-fit athletes.

It pays to be in shape. Many hikers go through a fairly rigorous training regimen before they start and still find themselves tired out after days on the trail. Simply put, the A.T. is a mountain trail with lots of ups and downs.

“What I have found is that sheer athleticism isn’t a prerequisite, but perseverance is,” Ryan says. “You have to be willing to keep going through a variety of physical, mental and weather conditions. It certainly helps to be aerobically fit in the first place. And, ideally, you should like being outdoors in general and hiking in particular. Without those prerequisites, the learning curve is pretty steep.”

For section hikers, fitness can be an even greater issue, since “you have to get your body in shape for long days on the trail, year after year,” Marion says. “One thru-hiker told me that he was impressed because I had hiked the A.T. on ‘city-legs.’”

At the end of the day, “the A.T. will get you sufficiently fit to hike it as long as you stick with it,” says Marion. Still, that fitness level won’t occur overnight but “generally takes three to four weeks.”

3. The A.T. is so well-marked that you don’t really need a compass and map.

“The A.T. is actually quite forgiving on those who are ‘navigationally challenged’ because there are thousands of white paint blazes to follow,” says Marion. But “every year there is a thru-hiker with the trail name ‘Wrong-way’ because he or she headed out on more than one morning in the wrong direction.”

The A.T. is indeed well-marked with those ubiquitous 6” x 2” paint blazes on trees and rocks for the length of the route. There’s also the fact that the path is well-worn, since more than three million people hike at least a piece of the A.T. each year.

But Ryan says “I can’t emphasize enough the need to carry a compass, map and descriptive guide of the trail for a number of reasons. Phone service is unreliable on the trail, so you can’t count on GPS. If you do get off trail, you can recalibrate by referring to your map, guide and compass. If you encounter someone that needs help with a sprained ankle, for example, you have the tools to help get them out. The maps show side trails and roads.”

Maps and guidebooks are published by the trail clubs that protect and maintain the trail and can be purchased on the website of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

4. Bears and rattlesnakes are big threats along the hike.

“Hiking the A.T. is very safe; most of my hikes were done solo and I typically camped by myself with a hammock away from shelters and campsites,” says Marion. “I only saw two bears and one rattlesnake across my 24 A.T. section hikes. The bears ran away from me and I simply walked around the snake.”

Ryan agrees that while there are bears and rattlesnakes on the trail, “they are rarely threats if you are paying attention. A rattlesnake would rather let you know they are there and is unlikely to strike unless you are a perceived threat. And the best defense against ravaging bears is to be careful with food preparation and storage. “

A bigger threat, he adds, may be “being several days away from a cheeseburger or having The Lion Sleeps Tonight stuck in your head for miles on end. But, seriously, I think the biggest threats along the trail have more to do with your physical health and the availability of water.”

His tips after 28 years of walking the A.T. include paying attention to your physical and mental states, watching the weather, keeping an eye on your water supply and knowing where the next available source of water might be.

“Staying aware is one of the key factors in staying healthy and safe in the backcountry,” Ryan says. “Most stories about people getting into trouble begin with an error in judgement.”

5. Since Bill Bryson wrote his popular book A Walk in the Woods, and Robert Redford followed up with a movie, the A.T. has gotten way too crowded.

Like any popular destination, the A.T. can be crowded at times, and Ryan says that the added publicity has encouraged more people to attempt a long-distance hike.

“Most thru-hikers start in Springer Mountain, Ga., in March or April of any given year,” Ryan observes. “That initial group fills up the trail and campsites for a month or so in the southern regions. After that, the numbers go down as that 75% attrition rate kicks in.”

Then there’s the trend of “flip-flopping” that’s been growing every year.

“You can really get quite creative in how you piece it all together. Of course, I highly recommend the 28-year approach.”