Advantages and Disadvantages of a May Start Thru-Hike

This past summer, I completed a northbound thru-hike starting on May 20th. Because I started so late, my thru-hike was very different than a typical thru-hike. In this post, I will examine some advantages and disadvantages of starting a hike so late in the season. 

Advantage: Avoid the cold

            Most thru-hikers start their adventure in March and April. When you start that early, you will have to deal with brutally cold temperatures. Because I started at the end of May, I was able to carry my summer gear from the beginning. Having a lighter pack on day 1 helped me cover ground in Georgia and North Carolina faster than the average March/April hiker would have.

Advantage: Avoid the bubble

When I started in May, I was always able to stay in shelters whenever I wanted to and there weren’t many other thru-hikers around. I even ditched my tent for an 800-mile stretch because I knew I wouldn’t have to fight for a shelter spot. When I started catching up to big “bubbles” of hikers in the North, the massive crowd of hikers at shelters and hostels overwhelmed me. Although having more people led to more excitement and partying, it was a completely different lifestyle than the southern part of my hike. If you’re looking for an intimate and self-reflective experience with the trail, a May start is the way to go.

Disadvantage: The burden of time

On May 20th, I ran into a park ranger shortly after summiting Springer Mt. She asked me if I was prepared to “flip-flop.” In the moment, I said “Yes” not knowing what she meant. Once I figured out what “flip-flopping” was, I was insulted by what she asked me. This park ranger thought I couldn’t complete a northbound thru-hike by October 15th! Along with the park ranger, many other people along the trail told me I wouldn’t make it in time since I started so late in the season. This motivated me to hike the southern half of the trail as hard and as fast as I could. Lesson learned: be prepared for people to tell you that you don’t have enough time to make it. All in all, 5 months is easily enough time to complete a thru-hike. You just won’t have the time to take 50 zeros along the way!

Disadvantage: Heckling from other hikers

When I started my hike, I didn’t think it was a big deal to be a May start. As I started passing March and April starts, I became aware of the stereotypes that come along with starting so late. Other hikers thought that I was a death marcher who had no fun. Clearly, if I wasn’t having fun on the trail, I wouldn’t be hiking to begin with! Just because I’m on the trail 2 less months than everyone else doesn’t mean I am not fully experiencing it! Be prepared to get made fun of for your start date.

            To be completely honest, if I ever hike the AT again I will start in April. I loved starting in May but hated carrying the stereotypes that went with it. I only started in May because I had to finish school and would’ve given anything to be on the trail in March and April when I was sitting inside a classroom every day. The trail is a wonderful place and you should spend as much time on your thru-hike as possible. However, if you have to start in May, it’s not the end of the world. All of the May starts I met on the trail were able to complete the trail and experience it just as everyone else.

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Comments 3

  • Counselor : Aug 20th

    Nice post. I started my thru hike on April 28, 2013 and finished on Oct. 12, 2013. I had plenty of time to finish, including taking 25-30 zero days. I completely agree with your summary, and all the negative comments you have to put up with as a late starter. I do wish I could have spent more time in the southern part of the trail, but I set of goal of reaching Harpers Ferry by July 4.

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  • Swamp ape : Jan 10th

    What you said is pretty motovitaing for me to hear. I will be starting my thru hike on May 7th this year NOBO. I was nervous about not running into any other hikers with such a late start. I really wanted to experience a trail family on this hike compared to on I did have on my Florida Trail thru hike. Thanks for posting


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