16 Things 2018 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Need To Know
In just a few short weeks, thru-hiking season will be upon us again. As the class of 2018 purchases the final pieces of gear and packs up the last few mail drops, we reached out to some thru-hiker friends to find out exactly what information they wish they had known before starting their hike.
While a good amount of trail information stays consistent from year to year, we’ve compiled a list of the most notable changes that 2018 thru-hikers will need to consider on their journey. From this year’s bear canister protocol, to updated permit guidelines along the trail, we’ve got you covered so you can have one less thing to add to your to-do list before making your way to the trailhead.
1. Droughts and Fires
Although massive fires raged along several parts of the trail last year (including Gatlinburg, the Smokies, and various southern sections), things seem to be recovering. This coming year is predicted to be somewhat dry again, so it is important to follow all fire safety protocols. Pay attention when fire and camping restrictions are in place to prevent future fires along the trail, and check the US Drought Monitor for the latest on drought conditions throughout the Appalachians. In addition, regularly reading hiker logs and checking apps (such as Guthook) can help you get a sense of the conditions of water sources down the trail.
2. Hypothermia and Cold Weather
The beginning of a Northbound and the end of a Southbound hiker’s journey is almost guaranteed to have at least a few days with freezing temperatures, and possibly snow. Although hikers typically only have to deal with a few weeks of colder weather, it is important to be prepared and plan accordingly. Protect your water filter from freezing, pack warm, lightweight layers, and learn how to handle hypothermia in both yourself and other hikers in case of the emergency.
3. Bear Safety Updates
With an increasing number of “problem bears” making themselves comfortable along the AT, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) is officially recommending the use of bear canisters along the entire trail. Nantahala National Forest is also strongly recommending the use of bear-proof storage containers throughout their stretch of the AT. However, the only place where a bear canister is absolutely required is the five-mile stretch through Chattahoochee National Forest between Jarrard Gap and Neel Gap (which includes Blood Mountain). Don’t stress though—most thru-hikers without bear canisters plan accordingly and have no problem hiking straight through this section and camping elsewhere. Regardless where or when you are camping along the AT, please remember to hang and store your food properly, especially in areas with high bear populations such as New Jersey, the Smokies, and Shenandoah.
For latest updates along all 2,000+ miles of trail, check out the ATC’s Trailwide Updates page.
4. Register Your Hike, Please!
With the popularity of thru-hiking on the rise, the ATC is encouraging all hikers to use their online registration tool to help minimize overcrowding impacts on the trail. Registering can help you avoid the most crowded start dates, which in turn helps lessen your impact on the trail and can give you more of a wilderness experience. Registration is free and completely voluntary, but provides the ATC with important data on popular start times, the average length of a hike, and hiker dropout rate. Have more questions about registering your hike? Check out the FAQs over on the ATC’s website!
5. Have you Considered a Non-Traditional Hike?
If you are concerned about crowded trails and overflowing shelters, then a flip-flop, SOBO, or other nontraditional route may be for you. 2017 saw nearly 4,000 NOBOs at Springer/Amicalola, and around 500 SOBO starting at Katahdin. A non-traditional route allows you to hike in some of the best weather conditions, minimizes the number of hikers sharing the trail, and offers more flexibility overall. If you’re still wondering which start location is best for you, it’s worth doing a little bit of research on both flip-flop and southbound thru hikes before starting your journey! Still not convinced? Check out more record-breaking 2017 numbers here.
6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Acquiring a permit to enter the Smokies can require a little bit of planning. Not only do you need access to the internet and a printer, you’ll also need an exact date for when you plan on entering the park. This means you can’t print your permit at home before starting your hike. However, multiple hostels, outfitters, and hiker-friendly businesses located right outside of the park have computers and printers that you can use to get your permit. The cost of the permit is $20 and you will be asked to deposit one half of it into a box located at your point of entry. Keep the other half in an easily accessible (and water safe) location in your pack and be prepared to show it to a park ranger or two as you travel through the beautiful mountains of GSMNP.
7. Shenandoah National Park
There are multiple entry options for Shenandoah, depending whether you choose to aquablaze this section or not. Regardless, obtaining a permit is relatively easy: If hiking into the park, you can self register at both the north and south entry points. If entering the park a nontraditional way, permits are available at visitor contact stations, which are located at several of the park’s road entry points and are open during normal business hours. Permits for this section of the trail are free, but are required for anyone traveling in the backcountry.
8. Baxter State Park
Within the past two years, there have been some changes as to how hikers can enter Baxter State Park (BSP) and climb the beautiful Mt. Katahdin. Permits are now required for all long-distance hikers entering the park and taking the AT (known as the Hunt Trail within BSP) up Katahdin. The permits are free and can be found at the park headquarters and Katahdin Stream Campground. If allotted permits run out, “The Birches” long-distance hiker campsite will close for the year. Don’t panic though: while there are a limited amount of permits available, the park has looked at past thru hiker numbers and has set aside a reasonable number of permits so that they can both protect the wilderness from overuse, but still serve the AT community. This makes your chances of getting a permit pretty high, but on the off chance you don’t get one, you can still enter the park and climb Katahdin as a Day Use Hiker.
9. AMC Campsite Pass
For a second year in a row, the American Mountain Club (AMC) is rolling out their thru-hiker camping pass. There is a fee to stay at AMC-run campsites throughout the White Mountains (covering things like waste removable and trail maintenance), and the pass allows thru-hikers to save money by creating a punch-card system. Once a thru-hiker has paid the $10 per night fee at one of the designated sites, they can save 50% on following consecutive stays at AMC campsites as they travel through the Whites. In addition, the pass allows thru-hikers one free bowl of soup and up to two free baked goods at the AMC’s eight Huts. Discounted camping and some free food through the Whites? It doesn’t get better than that!
Dogs make some of the best hiking companions, but know that there are multiple stretches along the AT where dogs are not allowed for safety and environmental reasons. Both Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Baxter State Park have strict policies against dogs. Hiking with a four-legged companion? Great! Just be prepared to make accommodations for your dog while you hike through these sections of trail. It is also important to note that “faking” a service animal so that your dog can hike through these sections with you is not cool.
For more information on Appalachian Trail permits, including the shelter and campsite policies along certain stretches of trail, head over to the ATC’s website!
Respect The Trail
11. Brush Up On (and Follow) Leave No Trace
With the trail supporting an increasing amount of hikers, it is important to make sure you are making an effort to minimize your impact. Pack out all trash and food waste, stay on the trail, and always bury your poop / pack out your toilet paper. Try to leave each overlook and campsite even better than when you arrived. All hikers doing their best to follow LNT Principles ensures that the trail is still beautiful and wild for generations of thru-hikers to come.
12. Thru-Hiker’s Code of Conduct
In recent years, the behavior of a few thru-hikers has tarnished the reputation of the entire hiker community to parks and trail towns along the AT. While it’s true that the vast majority of AT hikers are well behaved and respectful, it is important to teach ourselves and others about the Thru-Hiker’s Code of Conduct. Long story short, respect your fellow hikers, the trail, trail angels, park rangers, and the generous strangers who help you on your journey.
Illness and Disease Avoidance
13. Tick-Borne Illness
Simply put: Check. For. Ticks. The easiest way to prevent Lyme Disease and other tick-borne illnesses is to make sure that you never give a tick the opportunity to transmit the disease. Check yourself every night before climbing into your tent, and make sure you are carrying a good pair of tweezers to properly remove any tick from your body. Although Lyme is by far the most common tick-borne illness in the east, Anaplasmosis, Erlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Babesiosis, and Powassen Disease have all been found in ticks along the trail. Ticks can transmit more than one of these diseases at a time, and are sometimes still active outside of their peak seasons and locations. Hikers should be extra vigilant between Virginia and Vermont (although ticks are found in every state along the trail), and any time the temperatures are above freezing. The most important thing to keep in mind is that Lyme Disease and other illness-carrying ticks can be as small as a pen point, which makes spotting them a challenge. Regularly using insect repellent or applying permethrin to your clothing can help prevent them from biting you in the first place, which gives you one less thing to worry about at the end of the day.
Imagine the worst stomach virus you’ve ever had, multiply it by five, then imagine this happening while in the middle of the woods. Enter Norovirus: the stomach virus from hell. Hikers in “the bubble” will especially want to take steps to prevent the spread of this extremely contagious virus. Each year, certain hostels and shelters seem to get hit harder than others, so pay attention to trail logs and hiker gossip to make sure you avoid these areas. In addition, carrying hand sanitizer for after you use the privy and before you touch your food can help tremendously in avoiding the bug. Want the gory details on Noro? Check here….
Make The Most of Your Hike
15. Stop and Smell The Roses (…or Blue Blazes)
Don’t limit your horizons to where the white blazes take you. Chalk out time to follow a blue blaze one afternoon (some of the best ones are listed here, here, and here), take a zero and tube down the Nantahala River when you go through the NOC, pick up the train at the Appalachian Trail stop and trade mountain views for city traffic in NYC for a day. After all, there is a good chance that you will never have six months away from work to explore the Appalachian Mountains again. Use your time wisely, don’t rush through it, and experience all there is to do along the AT and beyond on your journey. As the old saying goes, the last one to Katahdin wins!
16. Report Your Completed Hike To The Appalachian Trail Conservancy
Aside from having the ultimate hiker feast and telling everyone you know about your adventure, reporting your completed hike is one of the best ways to celebrate the accomplishment of a thru hike. Successful “2,000 milers” get a patch, certificate, and listed on the ATC’s website and magazine. It also helps the Appalachian Trail Conservancy get better statistics and trail information to assist future thru hikers! (Fun Fact: “2,000 miler” is a reference to the original length of the AT, and refers to any hiker who has completed the entire trail, not just those who have hiked 2,000 miles).
Class of 2018: Good luck, and happy trails!
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