Better Late Than Never: Starting a NOBO Thru-Hike in May
Everything my fiancé Luna and I had read prior to setting out on the Appalachian Trail told us that we should start a northbound hike from anywhere between February through April. In true Bronco fashion, I disregarded all of this information and we set out in May of 2015. I had originally planned on thru-hiking in the spring of 2016, but the thought of riding out another year at home, working myself to death in a factory changed that idea instantaneously. In one felled swoop I ditched college graduation (sorry mom), quit my job and against all better judgement started hiking.
I cannot recount the trillions (no exaggeration) of stories I was told by fellow hikers about how crowded the campsites and hostels were for those who had started in early spring. They recounted horror stories of setting up tents in the middle of the trail because there was no room in the shelters or surrounding camping areas and having to listen to people perform “extra curricular activities” inches from their heads through the false privacy of a silnylon wall. In some ways I feel lucky that Luna and I started when we did, but starting in May came with its fair share of difficulties. In the following paragraphs I outline the good the bad and the ugly that come with starting a northbound thru-hike late in the season.
The Good Stuff:
The shelters and hostels were not crowded.
From day one onward, Luna and I rarely had to fight for a space to set up camp, for a room, or for bunk space anywhere along the trail. By starting in May all of the large bubbles of hikers had already gotten so far ahead of us that we’d never see them or the statistical majority of aspiring thru-hikers had inevitably given up and gone home. For Luna and I this worked out quite well because we were seeking a little solitude and reprieve from the normal world.
The sense of urgency was a great motivator.
While Luna and I took the occasional zero day, we felt a constant push from our late start to get out of town as fast as possible. It is all too easy to get sucked into town and be tempted to stay much longer than necessary. It’s hard to leave behind a dry, air conditioned room with instant access to pizza and cheeseburgers. It’s a lot less hard when you are scared out of your mind that you aren’t going to make it to Katahdin before winter breaks loose in the Maine wilderness. Sure we fell victim to the occasional double and even triple zero day (we’ve all been, or will be there) but in general we tried to treat trips to town as in-and-out experiences.
Our trail family was hardcore.
I don’t know if we were just incredibly lucky on our thru-hike or if this is how it goes for everyone. The small group of hikers that we hung around with through the majority of the hike were, and still are some of the most amazing and supportive people either Lunar or I have ever met. I do not recall a single time where any of the group got into a fight with one another. Sure we argued from time to time, but when you’re around each other day in and day out for months on end, it is inevitable. We would meet up nightly, set up our tents, share food, laugh, fart, and laugh some more. Our trail family also pushed each other to pump out those extra miles and to leave town when all we wanted to do was stop early or take a zero day. These are the types of people you need to surround yourself with both on and off the trail!
We missed all of the black flies and mosquitoes.
Ok, that’s a little misleading because there were still mosquitoes, but seriously, from the sounds of it Luna and I lucked out by missing the swarms of all types of biting and stinging insects. I tossed the bug net I brought along by Harpers Ferry and only used DEET a handful of times on the entire length of the AT. The gnats were still annoying but hey, you can’t have it all. By heading northbound a little later than everyone else, we avoided the peak seasons of getting eaten to death by bugs which was a major advantage because walking 10-15 miles a day is hard enough as it is. Score.
We got really good at making fires towards the end of the hike.
Ok, let me say this before you proceed, You should not make fires unless it is necessary! I encourage you to take the Leave No Trace online course if you are planning on thru-hiking yourself or are a human being in general to keep the trail beautiful for everyone. With that being said, I consider consistent, below freezing temperatures in Maine as a necessary occasion, especially when you get caught in a rain turned freezing ice storm and your soaking wet clothes get frozen to the rafters of a shelter (but that’s an entirely different story). Learning how to make a fire is one of the most beneficial survival skills you can have when heading into the backcountry so I’d encourage you to learn how to properly build one before you attempt a thru hike.
The fall colors in Maine were astounding.
To this day I have never seen any landscape more beautiful than the mountains of Maine draped in the colors of fall. The reds, yellows, browns and purples of the leaves paint the mountains for as far as the eye can see. There were times where Luna and I would come to a clearing and be so struck with awe that we would stop and stare for long periods of time without moving. It was worth the cold nights and frigid river crossings we had to deal with, no questions asked.
We got to send summit photo postcards to all of the people who told us that we wouldn’t make it to Katahdin.
Starting later in the season you will encounter, almost daily, all the way from Georgia to Maine people telling you some variation of the phrase, “You know that most people started two months ago, you probably won’t make it to Baxter in time before they close Katahdin.” In fact, this phrase became my number one motivator during the hardest moments of the hike. I simply imagined sending everyone that uttered the aforementioned phrase a postcard with our summit picture on it informing them that Luna and I completed our thru-hike. You best believe that upon our return home everyone who doubted us got a card with the written phrase, “I told you that we’d make it.” With that being said, we also sent many appreciative cards to the multitudes of outfitters, hostels and trail angels we met along the way who, under no obligation helped us to complete our goal. You all rule.
The Bad Stuff:
There was no room for error.
For Luna and myself, getting injured was the major fear for potentially ending our thru-hike. With starting in May, there was no time to take a week or a month off to recover if necessary. We put ourselves in a do or die scenario and luckily for us there were no major injuries. I did suffer a pretty nasty sprained ankle in Pennsylvania and by some stroke of luck a wilderness first aid responder happened to be camping at the same shelter and professionally wrapped my ankle (Thanks dude, you rule.). Luna also came down with severe trench foot which later became infected, setting us back for 4 days in Gorham, NH until the antibiotics took effect. She hiked the Wildcat with an excruciating cellulitis infection on her foot – this is the term “badass” defined in the dictionary.
There were significantly less people to make friends with.
Although Luna and I made some extraordinary friendships along the way, the majority of the people we came across were stragglers from the early season who had partied a little too hard or who were simply delaying the inevitable of getting off the trail. Most of these folks were met while passing through town, never to be seen again after our departure. As for the others who had started late, some were freaks of nature who blasted off like rockets and were not heard from again. At first this was a real bummer because, being the social creatures we are, human beings crave relationships and the lack thereof flat out sucks. By the time Luna and I hit Virginia we had found some solid pals that stuck it through with us to the end. The quality over quantity rule applies in this case.
Some hostels were closed for the season.
This was really a non-issue until we reached the New England states. Since the vast majority of thru-hikers had already passed through, the viewpoint of many of the hostels was that it isn’t very profitable to stay open simply to cater to a few stragglers. This only sucked a handful of times because the only other option was to stay at a hotel, which is always more expensive. There is nobody to blame here though, this is just how the trail operates. We did not expect people to bend over backwards for us simply because we were thru-hiking. Surprisingly enough, people often did bend over backwards for us because they were selfless, kind hearted individuals. Modesty goes a long way on the AT.
It was dark by 5:00 PM.
No joke, it was pitch black by 5:00 PM. I am not a huge fan of night hiking, in fact I hate night hiking. It strains the eyes and is disorienting beyond all belief. As much as I dislike it, night hiking was often the only option come mid September. We had to make the miles and that meant busting out the headlamps, sucking it up and pushing through the dark to our predetermined camp site. This caused many uncomfortable hours and strained relationships for the last few weeks of the hike. When the sun went down we all became unbearably cranky to the point that it was better to refrain from talking to one another, and that flat out sucked. This was by far my least favorite part of the entire Appalachian Trail.
It was freaking cold.
We had astounding luck for most of our hike as far as weather was concerned. There was the occasional rainstorm and a few 100+ degree days, but overall it was tolerable and beautiful. We were some of the lucky few to experience a clear day on Mount Washington! The weather was exceptionally warm through the end of September, but all good things must come to an end. The last section in Maine from Shaw’s Hiker Hostel (the best on the AT) to Katahdin was downright brutal. Once October hit, the temperatures dropped significantly. Many nights were well below freezing, the coldest being 20 degrees, and most summits were covered in snow and ice increasing our hiking time exponentially. The last two weeks of our thru hike were not enjoyable in the least bit. Katahdin was gnarly and frigid but in the end the snow covered summit was gorgeous. With that being said, I am glad I was able to experience that. Not everyone is able to see all four season on the A.T. and I feel honored to be one of the lucky ones who have.
Everyone we met told us that “Katahdin was closed.”
The closer Luna and I got to Maine, the more people incessantly reminded us that Katahdin would be treacherous and impassable by the time we got there. This made for multiple panic attacks and long, worrisome days filled with self doubt and terror. We were even hassled about paying $200 to get a shuttle to Katahdin even after refusing multiple times. I am still not sure whether the person was trying to be helpful or trying to cash in on some desperate hikers. It was definitely a test of willpower and guts to stare down the last few hundred miles with everyone telling us that there was no way that we would make it. All the worry was for none because we toughed it out and summited Katahdin with no issue. In the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “We all have great inner power. The power is self-faith. There’s really an attitude to winning. You have to see yourself winning before you win. And you have to be hungry. You have to want to conquer.” We were definitely hungry, but I’m not quite sure thats what Arnold is getting at.
Hopefully you are able to get a realistic glimpse of what it is like to head northbound later in the thru-hiking season. There are a great deal of good and bad aspects of taking on a thru-hike two months behind everyone else, but in the end I would not trade my experience for any other. I personally enjoyed the challenge. A thru-hike is no easy feat no matter when or where you start, and anyone who completes a thru-hike no matter how many months or years it takes is a badass. Luna and I did not complete the A.T. any faster than any average thru-hiker, finishing in 5 months and 25 days. Starting in May worked for us, but I would not recommend it for everyone. We were lucky more than anything and without the help of family, some ultra supportive hostel owners, trail angels and our trail family I am not sure if we could have made it. If you are slightly insane, bullheaded and can deal with having unrelenting doubt shoved down your throat for nearly six months I would say go ahead and start late, just do not overestimate your ability and speed because it will bite you in the ass! Did I mention that it was cold?
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