Appalachian Trail: Am I Hiking Alone?
“You are on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.” -Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go
The first question asked by friends, family, coworkers, and strangers was—are you hiking ALONE? Is your husband coming? I was genuinely touched that so many people were instantly concerned for my safety. They were curious how I was going to make it out there on my own.
I Hike, You Hike, We All Hike
Good news: I am actually hiking with about 2000-3000 other people. Starting in March (or April) places hikers smack in the middle of the ‘hiker-bubble’. Approximately 3,000 people will attempt to thru-hike each year, and 76 percent will start in March/April in Springer, Georgia heading northbound NOBO to Katahdin, Maine.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy publishes trail registrants by day, and as of mid-March 2022, there were 3,005 northbound hikers registered already, while only 91 planned to march southbound. In March, the peak month for hikers starting their adventures, 1,590 hikers registered to start their trek—that’s more than half (53%) of all the other months combined, followed by April (26%). That’s one BIG hiking bubble.
On the day I started, more than 50 hikers were registered to be on the trail, and that was an average volume day for March. Was I going to be alone? Highly unlikely. At least not for the first few months. My husband was also section hiking and we were starting the NOBO trek together.
Nearly 70 percent of all hikers start the thru hike solo, but almost everyone ends up making friends and hikes in a group together (Source: 2019 Hiker Survey, The Trek).
After all, for most people, it’s hard to find friends and family members willing to give up their lives for 5-7 months to go walking through the woods. It took a year of planning for me to finally make the decision to go—and it’s never convenient to take a six-month vacation.
Communities Along the Trail
There are 50 towns along the trail that are officially recognized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy as AT communities, where hikers are supported with good resupply options, hostels, and other amenities such as laundromats and showers. The trail is also sprinkled with magical trail angels who help hikers with rides into town, homemade meals, beer, and cheery company.
Black bears are a dime and a dozen. But, they are a rare sight. In the daytime, most bears will high-tail away from a hiker long before they can be spotted. But at night, specifically around the food bags, branch-snapping sounds are typically a sign that a bear is scoping out the food supplies hanging in bear bags from nearby trees.
On a different backpacking trip in Shenandoah, Virginia, a bear visitor crunched his way right up to our tent in the middle of the night. Luckily, the snapping branches under his paws instantly woke me up and I made enough noise to scare the bear away. But he did leave a fresh pile of scat right under the hanging food bag.
It is critical to properly store your food (read tips on storage from the ATC). In most states, black bears will leave their hibernation dens between February and April—just in time to join hikers on the trail.
Fun Insight: In the Smokies, some bears will turn to hollowed-out trees to make a den—60-80 feet off the ground. Look up to spot bears in the trees!
Lyme-disease-carrying insects are by far the scariest (and tiniest) danger on the trail. According to the CDC reports, most prevalent states with Lyme disease are concentrated in the Northeast and across the Appalachian mountains in Virginia.
More than half of all hikers spray their clothing and gear with permethrin as a preventative measure, but that alone is not enough. Hikers must check their bodies daily for possible ticks. If caught within a 24-hour period, the chances of getting the disease are greatly reduced.
The ATC recently published an article on how to prevent tick bites.
As is true for almost every place in the world, some hikers will encounter some not-so-well-intentioned people on the trail. Unfortunately, it happens. The trail isn’t immune to crime, and sadly, in the last 47 years, 11 people were killed on the trail (1974-2021).
Insight: On the trail, news about suspicious hikers spreads like wildfire. From Reddit threads to Facebook groups and word-of-mouth on the trail itself, hikers aren’t shy about sharing the latest updates and known whereabouts of potentially dangerous people. There is an unspoken awareness that we’ve all got each other’s backs and everyone is looking out for potential trouble.
These slithering reptiles are locals to the trail, and are some of the last standing predators in the Appalachians. They are particularly active in the warmer months and enjoy sunbathing on the trail during the day. Since they can’t regulate their own body temps, they’ll look for sunny spots to enjoy the day.
The timber rattlesnake is the most common species on the trail and will have a thick body of approximately three feet in length. They will warn you if you approach. My husband almost stepped on a large rattlesnake in North Carolina, but its rattle was so instantaneous and loud that he jumped back a few feet prior to even spotting the snake in the grass, which was just inches off the trail.
Rattlesnakes are not aggressive snakes and snake bites aren’t too common, but it’s best to use some hiking poles to move leaves around if stepping into a thick pile.
Fun Insight: Rattlesnakes don’t have ears, and can’t hear. If you spot a snake, raising your voice won’t be very useful. How do snakes know you’re coming? They can feel the vibrations from the footsteps on the ground (Source: National Geographic). Try stomping your feet instead to get it to move—from a safe distance, of course.
Cooler temps, wet clothing, lack of calories…and BAM! you might find yourself mumbling and fumbling. One of the first signs of hypothermia is slurred speech. If you start to mumble, take note. Hikers can also get confused and may seem discombobulated.
If your hiking buddy starts to act a little funny, get them into dry clothing quickly, wrap them in a sleeping bag, boil hot water to drink, and feed them some hot food. You can also pour warm water into bottles and place them under armpits and near the groin. Hypothermia is a medical emergency and should be treated immediately (Source: TrustCare).
Tip: I used hand warmers in my sleeping bag to warm up after shivering for 30 minutes during a particularly cold night. They warmed up my core in about 10 minutes and I was able to comfortably sleep through the night.
Bad hygiene practices mixed with a crowded hiking community make for an ideal environment for the virus to spread. It’s important to sanitize your hands after touching anything communal: bear ropes/cables and food storage boxes, hiker boxes, shuttles, shelters, and picnic tables. If sharing food or accepting food, don’t reach into chip bags, pour some chips out instead. More on my personal hygiene practices can be read here.
Filtering, boiling, and/or using a Steripen to sanitize water from the rivers and streams is a must. Hikers will be quickly taken off trail if the drinking water isn’t properly treated.
Tip: If temps drop into the 30s, it’s important to sleep with your filter inside your sleeping bag. If it freezes in the elements, it will no longer properly function. Every hiker is extra diligent about preserving their clean water systems.
All-in-all, the hiking community is a supportive group of like-minded nature enthusiasts. The eclectic collection of individuals from every walk of life makes this hiking trail a fascinating experience.
If you are considering doing a thru hike, try a shakedown hike at first. Bring a friend over a three-day weekend and hike a section amidst the hiking bubble. It will give you a real sense of this adventure, which will go far beyond anything you can find on YouTube.
There is a certain edge to hiking the Appalachian Trail. Just the physical challenge of walking up and down mountains for 6-8 hours each day brings together a tight-knit community and everyone bonds over the micro and macro ups and downs of the trail. Leaning on each other for company, mental support, and kindness is what makes this trail so unique and special. Whether you hike alone or with a friend there is always someone here to keep you company.
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