Alternative Thru-Hikes on the Appalachian Trail

Tired of rush hour traffic? Tired of standing in line for everything. Did Black Friday crowds get you down? Planning an escape to the Appalachian Trail to get away from it all?

Not so fast thru hiker. If you are planning a traditional NOBO hike starting in Georgia this spring, here’s some stuff to consider. Toeing off at Springer Mountain and having a serene experience can be polar opposite experiences because just about everybody else is planning to do the very same thing.

Hikers at wet Springer Mtn. view, Jim Fetig

Hikers at wet Springer Mtn. view, Photo: Jim Fetig

Last spring I saw it all as a volunteer ridgerunner. Forget about the “A Walk in the Woods” moments where Katz threw his stuff all over the place. That’s the least of it. Population density is the much bigger surprise – the surprise holds even if you follow how many people have registered their hikes.

Although it is early in the registration season, this year the hikers are distributing themselves in a pattern that is similar to previous years. The charts can be found here.

How many hikers am I talking about? The average number of hikers I counted each day after spring break began was 150. My highest daily count was 164 backpacking thru and section hikers. On top of them there were more day hikers that I could even manage to count. Talk about hiker rush hour!

Here’s where it gets real. Imagine it’s the end of a long day. You’re very tired. The weather sucks – it’s cold and wet and maybe snowy as it often is in Georgia where the elevation averages above 4,000 ft.

Snowy, slushy trail in GA Jim Fetig

Photo: Jim Fetig

You get to the shelter after a hard day. Let’s say it’s one of the bigger ones like Gooch Mountain that sleeps 14. It has maybe another 12 decent tent sites and a privy. Everything else is steep hillside.

So there you are. It’s almost dark and you want nothing more than water, hot food and shuteye, but guess what?

Crowded shelter in GA Jim Fetig

Photo: Jim Fetig

You’re in line behind 80 – 90 tents, a picnic table that seems like it’s in the middle of a rugby scrum and a privy that’s beyond capacity. I mean doo-doo doesn’t compost that fast. Boom! Just what you were looking forward to – a full privy, camping on a 30 degree slope, eating rain-drenched food and your discomfort is compounded by having little chance of drying out.

What’s an intrepid hiker gonna do? First of all, you don’t have to follow the thundering herd. There is an alternative to this traffic jam.

Crowded vista in GA, Jim Fetig

Photo: Jim Fetig

You can hike SOBO (if you’re an athlete who likes a challenge) or consider any one of a host of alternative hikes. That’s what yours truly did in 2014 and it was just what the doctor ordered.

The advantages of alternative hikes are many. You can pick better weather, have thinner crowds and still enjoy the social experience by joining the bubble later in the season after it has thinned out, say starting in Damascus sometime in April.

If your hope is for a more independent experience, you can start ahead of the bubble, say at Harpers Ferry in mid-April and hike to Katahdin with a traditional flip flop hike.

What shelters look like on an alternate thru-hike.  So roomy.  Photo: Emily Hikes the Appalachian Trail

What shelters look like on an alternate thru-hike. So roomy. Photo: Emily Hikes the Appalachian Trail

You also could pull a “cool breeze”.

While you are pondering whether an alternative hike is for you, know this.

The folks who manage the trail are acutely aware of the overcrowded conditions. The infrastructure in Georgia was overcapacity before “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods.”

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the land managers such as the U.S. Forest Service, and the maintaining clubs have been planning for a while as the number of hikers has continued to grow in the southern region, especially Georgia, and they have a lot going on and the volunteers are working hard on improvements.

Related reading: How the ATC Plans to Sustain the Appalachian Trail

Here’s some of what you may notice. More caretakers and ridgerunners are being added to assist hikers. Additional privies and designated campgrounds are being constructed. Spring break section hikers are being asked to consider alternative routes. Outreach and resources available to hikers who are preparing for their hikes have been stepped up. Bear canisters will be strongly recommended from Springer to Damascus to help reduce the growing number of bear incidents. There’s more emphasis on Leave No Trace education before hikers begin. That’s a lot.

My point is this. There are infinite ways to Hike Your Own Hike, beat the crowds and have the experience you want without missing the social camaraderie that thru hikers value so much.

A scene seldom seen on a NOBO thru-hike. Photo: Emily Hikes the AT

A scene seldom seen on a NOBO thru-hike. Photo: Emily Hikes the AT

Think about it. The experience is all yours.


Jim (Sisu) Fetig is a member of the ATC and PATC.  He maintains trails in Shenandoah National Park including the A.T. section he oversees, is the ridgerunner coordinator for the PATC, and volunteers at the ATC visitor center in Harpers Ferry.  He thru-hiked the A.T. in 2014.

* And thanks to Emily Hikes the AT for lending a couple photos from her alternate Appalachian Trail thru-hike. She’s opening a hostel in Salida, CO.  A simple hitch for CDT / Colorado Trail hikers. You should check it out

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Comments 7

  • TBR : Jan 5th

    Good advice. Hiking in the pile … I’d want to avoid that. A few friends are great. More than a few, not so much.

    The alternatives are the way I’d go.

    I hiked the top quarter of the AT, starting in August. I was among some of the thru hikers, but never a crowd. Often alone. It was a nice experience. I’d recommend hikers planning the big walk give serious thought to one of the flip-flops. The Cool Breeze sounds good.

  • George Turner : Jan 6th

    The bubble of thru hikers and lashers I walked with on last summer’s shakedown hike said the privies in Georgia were overflowing. Do we really want to mess this that? I’m starting in Virginia and plan to hike the part of the trail I’ve already done first.

  • Cosmo Catalano : Jan 7th

    Nice article, Jim. Here’s hoping we have more hikers who can make some thoughtful decisions about their trip.

  • Kyle : Jan 8th

    I recently read an article that indicated the crowds are increasing the likelihood of Baxter State Park shutting down the trail, causing the Northern terminus to no longer end at Mt. Katahdin. Does anyone have any more insight on how likely this could be in the near future? I’m planning to hike this year or in 2017 if I don’t have my finances in order and I’m concerned if I wait until next year I may not be able to summit Katahdin.

  • Laurie Potteiger : Jan 9th


    At this time, it seems relatively unlikely that the A.T. will be moved outside of Baxter State Park, even if it is a possibility. It is more likely that there may some sort of cap on the number of hikers who can enter the park via the A.T., or some sort of advance arrangements may be required. Limits on all other visitors to the park have been in place for many years.

  • Jack Dalton : Jan 21st

    I hiked from PenMar to Maine starting on May 7th. Very enjoyable, hiked with some flip flopers and did not see any serous over crowding. Plan on finishing southern half this year starting May 7th. Would I be better off SOBO? Will the privies recover and crowds be gone by then on a NOBO.


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