The short version is pretty simple- start in Maine at Mt. Katahdin and walk to Georgia ending at Springer Mountain.
But the real money is in the details:
6 months of hiking on average
Total elevation gain equivalent of hiking Mt Everest 16x
Burn up to 6000 calories a day
2000 people attempt it each year
Only 1 in 4 complete the entire journey.
“The AT” or just “the Trail” was developed in 1937 as a dream to link one continuous trail through the East Coast. It was started in NY as a trail between Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park. Today it is maintained and supported by a network of local volunteer hiking organizations. The trail is marked by the same rectangular white blazes (see home page) all the way thru.
It largely runs along the Appalachian Mountains (go figure). Interestingly these mountains were formed 480 millions years ago with the formation of Pangea. This makes them one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. Now I have NO idea how they figured this out but they estimate that when they were formed they more closely resembled the Himalayas or the Alps. So where they used to rival the 29,000 elevation of Everest now they top out at 6400. I guess you could say that the Himalayas are the brash, indestructible, punk-kids of the mountain world. The Appalachians then are the calm, consistent, careful old-fogies.
That parallel continues to exhibit itself in the people hiking the AT. For the most part there are two demographics- twenty-somethings and retirees. I will do a whole post on my developing profile of AT thru-hikers. For now lets just say that one group takes it slow, doesn’t count miles, and focuses on savoring the experience. The other approaches it more as a sport, usually because there is a deadline back in the real world they have to meet.
My impression is that most people start the trail for any number of reasons- adventure, challenge, escape, a break from life. However almost universally they stay on the trail because of the people they meet. It’s referred to as a “hiking bubble” and is the natural consequence of people using the same network of shelters along throughout the trail.
There are about 250+ shelters each built about a day’s hike between each other. Most are three-walled wood shelters, many with a fire pit, a water source, and a privy/outhouse. Along the way there are towns, usually in gaps (sorry no denim jeans or stretch tee’s here) where you can get your resupply of food and other vitals (aka shower). Most people seem to stay in these towns at hotels or hostels about once very two or three weeks.
The majority of hikers head Northbound from Georgia to Maine. This allows one to start in the spring and end in the late summer. It also saves the biggest mountains for the end after you have traded in your Geo Metro for a 3-axle, Diesel truck with overhead jimmy-jam slamshaft and 200 liter thing-a-ma-jig… and a gun rack in the window. Seriously though most start doing around 5-8 miles a day and by the end they are averaging 20+. When you consider the 3mph is a brisk pace, this means 4-10 hours of walking a day. Oops maybe this should be in the non-Mom-friendly section. By going northbound you also enjoy the comfort of larger crowds. I’ve heard of as many as 40-50 tents being set up around shelters immediately after Springer in late March. That can also be a disadvantage as it can have a very college-frat atmosphere apparently.
Southbounders tend to be a more strict group. At least that’s what they say about themselves. I’d imagine on average they have done more physical prep work than the NoBo’s. This is because on day 1 they hike up one of the largest mountains on the trail, and the largest in Maine, Mt. Katahdin. After that its not all down hill from there. The 100-Mile Wilderness follows and the Presidential mountains which includes the 6288ft Mt Washington. You want to know how tall Mt Washington is? Below is a very common bumper sticker seen in New England:
Yeah, its that tall. In fact every year they have a bicycle race up it… you know who wins, a Tour de France professional cyclist! We however will be walking.
So yeah the Appalachian Trail, meh, nothing major. Pretty easy. You should come too.