16 Things 2020 Thru-Hikers Need to Know
It’s that time of year again! Hikers around the globe are crossing the last pieces of gear off their list, finalizing mail drops, and making plans to head toward the Appalachian Trail. As the class of 2020 begins to come down with Springer Fever, we’ve been reaching out to past thru-hikers and trail organizations alike to find out exactly what these hikers need to know before heading out to start their journeys.
While a good amount of trail information stays consistent from year to year, we’ve compiled a list of the most notable changes that 2020 thru-hikers will need to consider on their trip.
1. Droughts and Fires
Parts of Georgia and Tennessee are experiencing abnormally dry conditions as of the publication of this article. The ATC is suggesting that hikers in these parts be prepared to carry more water than usual, and allow more time to collect water as flows are slow. It is also noted that sometimes water can be found by following the watercourse downhill past the water source.
Dry conditions also call for hikers to be extra vigilant about fires. Douse campfires, pack out cigarette butts, and be alert when using a camp stove. 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, 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. Prepare for Cold Weather
The majority of both northbound and southbound hikers are almost guaranteed to hit cold weather, and possibly snow, at some point during their journey. Although most will only be dealing with these conditions for a few weeks, planning accordingly will help keep these weeks enjoyable. Learn the ins and outs of protecting your water filter from being damaged in the cold, research proper layering systems, and get educated on how to handle hypothermia in both yourself and other hikers on the trail.
3. Bear Safety Updates
In recent years, an increased number of “problem bears” have become regulars along the trail and at certain shelters. To help combat this, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has officially started 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, and bear-proof storage is also recommended between Bull Gap Campsite and Baggs Creek Gap Campsite in Georgia. A new policy in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont states “Except while being consumed, all food, food containers and refuse shall be stored suspended at least twelve (12) feet above the ground and not less than six (6) feet horizontally from any object. Bear boxes and bear canisters designed specifically for food and/or refuse storage are acceptable.”
Despite all this, 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 of 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. Overmountain Shelter Closure
One of the most beloved shelters along the trail has been closed due to safety concerns. Overmountain Shelter, which was once an old barn located in Pisgah National Forest, has been deemed structurally unsound by Forest Service engineers. Operations are ongoing to determine if the shelter can be repaired. In the meantime, the fields around the shelter remain open for tent camping. Hikers are advised not to camp within 40 feet of the building.
5. Please, Register Your Hike!
Within the past few years, the popularity of thru-hiking has skyrocketed. To help prevent severe impacts to the trail, the ATC has introduced a voluntary registration system that each long-distance hiker is encouraged to complete. The goal is to both protect the trail, and keep thru-hiking an enjoyable experience by minimizing overcrowding, giving hikers more of a wilderness experience, and lessening overuse impacts to the trail. 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!
6. Have You Considered a Nontraditional Hike?
Crowded trails and overflowing shelters have become the new normal during March and April in Georgia. If this sounds different than the wilderness experience you had in mind, a nontraditional hike may be for you. SOBO, flip-flop, and other nontraditional routes have been gaining popularity in recent years, and offer hikers flexibility, better weather, and a lower impact on the trail than those hiking within the bubble. Nearly 3,300 NOBOs started at Springer/Amicalola in 2019, and around 350 SOBOs started at Katahdin, so if quiet nights and peaceful days are more your speed, then it’s worth taking the time to research which starting point is best for you.
Using the voluntary registration tool mentioned above is a great way to gain insight on how crowded certain start dates and locations will be, and help you make an informed decision on which route you want to take to accomplish your hike. Still not convinced? Check out more 2019 stats here.
7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
GSMNP is one of the most anticipated sections along the trail, but acquiring a permit to enter the Smokies requires some planning. Hikers will need internet access and a printer, as well as an exact date for when you plan on entering the park. This means that although you can obtain your permit up to 30 days in advance, you can’t print your permit at home before starting your hike since there is no way of knowing exactly when you will be entering the park boundary. However, multiple hostels, outfitters, and hiker-friendly businesses located right outside 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. Many hikers print their permit at the NOC, which gives them a closer estimate of their GSMNP entrance date.
8. Shenandoah National Park
There are multiple entry options for Shenandoah, depending on 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 in 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.
9. Baxter State Park
Often talked about as one of the most stressful permits on the trail, acquiring a permit to enter Baxter State Park and climb Katahdin as a thru-hiker sort of depends on luck. Although permits are free and can be attained at both the park headquarters and Katahdin Stream Campground, there are 3,150 permits allocated for thru-hikers each year. If 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 done their homework to 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.
10. Dog Restrictions
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, Trailside Museum and Wildlife Center (Bear Mountain State Park, New York), 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. Leave It Better
With growing numbers of hikers hitting the AT every year, it is increasingly important for each person to do their part in protecting the trail by making an effort to minimize their impact. Stay on the trail, pack out all trash, do not throw food scraps on the ground, and always bury your poop / pack out toilet paper. The goal is to leave each campsite, overlook, and section of trail exactly as you found it, and if possible, even better. Dedication to following the seven Leave No Trace principles will help ensure 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 in parks and trail towns along the AT. While it’s true that the vast majority of AT hikers are wel- 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
The easiest way to protect yourself from Lyme disease? Check. For. Ticks. The very best 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. You will be tired at the end of each day, but resist the urge of climbing into your tent without giving yourself a thorough tick check. In the event you find a tick, be sure to carry a good pair of tweezers in your pack so you can quickly and efficiently remove it 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 their peak seasons and locations. Although ticks are found in every state along the trail, hikers should be extra vigilant between Virginia and Vermont, 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.
Getting a stomach virus is one thing, but catching one in the middle of the woods is another. Each year, Norovirus spreads on parts of the AT and in trail towns that experience crowded conditions. The virus lasts 24-60 hours and causes stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, and fatigue. Hostels and shelters are especially prone to outbreaks due to the high concentration of hikers using these facilities. 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.
Sanitation is key to preventing an outbreak and keeping yourself healthy. Use hand sanitizer after using privies and before eating, do not share water bottles or utensils with other hikers, treat all water, and follow LNT for disposing of human waste. 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, or pick up the train at the Appalachian Trail stop and trade mountain views for city traffic in New York City 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 ATC
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 2020: Good luck, and happy trails! If you’d like to participate in The Trek’s annual thru-hiker survey at the end of your hike, subscribe to our newsletter to stay up-to-date on survey info.
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