When I set out to hike my first section of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia in October 2000, I had no aspirations of hiking the entire trail. Planning this first hike had been rather complicated for an A.T. novice, so 2200 miles of trail seemed out of reach. On subsequent trips, as state lines were crossed, and major mileposts reached — 100 miles, 200 miles, 500 miles — the goal of completing the entire A.T. started to seem attainable.
I am still 650 miles away from reaching my goal, but after 13 years and more than 40 section hikes, I’ve managed to become reasonably proficient and efficient at planning them. Here are some lessons learned, resources, and ideas that may help in planning your next A.T. section hike.
Connect with or Cultivate a Group
Only three of my section hikes have been solo; all others have been with at least one other person, and many have been with several others. I find that planning for a small group is in many ways easier than planning for a solo trip. This may seem counter-intuitive because one has to coordinate the availability and desires of multiple hikers, but that is outweighed by simplified vehicle logistics, shared gear and expenses. I’ve gathered an informal group of a few dozen folks with an interest in backpacking. Before the start of each year, I announce my planned dates and destinations and invite everyone in the group to participate. Typically 3 to 7 will go on any given trip. My group grew out of Scouting friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Others find connections through organized trail clubs and outdoor-related groups and through online forums such as whiteblaze.net.
Not everyone in my hiking group actually backpacks. We have a subset of interested folks that we affectionately refer to as the “B-Team,” who travel with us on many trips. Having non-backpackers in our group is rare and incredibly helpful. They help us by shuttling vehicles (much more on vehicles later) and by being nearby and available to extract a hiker should an injury or equipment failure make this necessary. They often set up and offer Trail Magic for hikers, do day hikes in the area, and enjoy a more traditional camping experience.
Develop an Itinerary
Before each section hike, I plan a detailed itinerary. The itinerary has three distinct parts – getting to the trail, the hike itself, and getting home after the hike. There are a handful of tools that are invaluable to me in planning the itinerary. First and foremost is “The A.T. Guide” by David Miller. “The A.T. Guide” has all of the on-trail facts that are valuable to backpackers – locations of water sources, campsites, shelters, etc. – but goes beyond that with other resources of importance to section hikers such as parking locations with GPS coordinates; names and contact information for shuttlers, outfitters, and other service providers; and places to get a shower after the hike. Other sources of information are the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) website, the official guidebooks and maps put out by the ATC, and online forums such as http://www.whiteblaze.net.
For the “getting to the trail” portion of the itinerary, I look at the route we will take, travel time, fuel cost, even places to eat along the way. If travel to the trail will take more than one day, arrangements are made for an overnight stay. We typically try to use hostels, camps, or campgrounds for this. Shuttle arrangements (if applicable) and parking locations are also included in the itinerary.
For “the hike” portion of the plan, I create a concise (1 or 2 pages) sheet, duplicated for each person to carry with them, that includes the relevant pages or data from “The A.T. Guide,” plus mobile phone numbers for others in the group, and local emergency numbers. The sheets are marked with the planned destination (shelter or campsite) for each day. Often these daily destinations change during the course of the trip, but we always start with a plan.
The “getting home after the hike” portion of the itinerary starts with two very important things – where to get a good meal and where to get a shower. For the shower spot — often a hostel, state park, campground, or truck stop — when possible I try to confirm this by e-mail or phone prior to the trip to avoid any complications. The rest of the itinerary is very much like the “getting to the trail” portion – travel time, fuel cost, places to eat, and overnight accommodations if needed.
The finalized itinerary is shared with other participants and family members. This ensures all participants are “on the same page,” and provides the folks back home with the comfort of knowing trip details.
As a result of living on the east coast, all of my A.T. section hikes have been within a day and a half drive of home.
When traveling with multiple vehicles, the solution is easy. Drop a vehicle at the planned end spot then drive everyone to the starting location, and hike back to the other vehicle. One variant on this plan, which I used several times on southern sections of the A.T., was to take a smaller second vehicle pulled with a towbar behind the primary vehicle. We would drop one at the end point, drive back to the start, and hike. Effectively we self-shuttled by taking two vehicles and (mostly) driving just one.
On trips where we have a “B-Team” to come along, vehicle logistics is much simpler; they drop the hikers off at one end and pick them up at the other.
Another common option is to travel with one vehicle and hire a shuttler to meet you at a designated parking area at or near your planned ending location and drive you to your starting location. There are friends of the trail scattered throughout its length who offer shuttle services for hikers. Some of these folks do this in conjunction with other trail services they provide, notably outfitters and hostel owners. Information on shuttlers can be found in “The A.T. Guide” and in an online list maintained by the ATC (go to http://www.appalachiantrail.org and search for “shuttle list” using the search tool on the site).
Parking is available at many A.T. road crossings, but not all road crossings have parking. Determining where to park is much easier today thanks to two resources. “The A.T. Guide” lists more than 200 parking areas, and nearly all of them include coordinates that can be put into your vehicle’s GPS to direct you right to the spot. Even more details can be found on the wonderful website by David and Cyndi Rohland at http://appalachiantrail.rohland.org/. The site lists parking areas along the A.T. and includes maps, written directions, capacity, a safety rating, and commentary (including notes on any reported vandalism).
Many folks are understandably uneasy about leaving their vehicles for multiple days in unattended parking areas in remote locations. I have been fortunate, but have heard of several others who have been victims of vandalism. It is prudent to check the recent history of any vandalism activity at a parking area you are considering. You can check with the local trail clubs or with shuttlers, hostel owners or local outfitters. It is also wise to take normal precautions with your vehicle to reduce the likelihood of any incidents, such as securing any valuables out of sight (or leave them at home).
Safe parking may also be available from hostels and shuttlers. This is something that you can inquire about when making other arrangements with these service providers.
Having a reasonably reliable forecast for the area before the trip can help you make better choices when selecting gear and packing. Everyone has their favorite online source for travel weather info, but most of these sites are of limited value for hiking because most are built around forecasts for cities and towns, and very often the weather in remote sites at elevation on the trail is quite different than the weather at the nearby city or town. One resource that I have used for more trail specific forecasts is the Appalachian Trail Weather page at the Appalachian Trail Database.
I hope some of these concepts and suggestions may be helpful in planning your next section hike.