Everything You Wanted to Know about Thru-Hiking and Weren’t Afraid to Ask
We’ve received a lot of questions about the logistics of thru-hiking while we’ve been on the trail. Unfortunately, because of limited cellphone service (or dead batteries), we haven’t always been able to write back. So, since we’re on a break right now — and our cellphones are fully charged — here are some details about our trek. Please note, though, that this is only our way of hiking, which is limited by our age and skills. Other thru-hikers do things differently.
How often do we go into a town? We try to check into a motel roughly every four days, depending on how close one is to the trail. We originally planned to stop only once a week to do laundry and shower, but we just couldn’t stand the smell.
How do we get into towns? Some motels near the trail offer free shuttles. There are also local people who drive hikers into towns for a fee. A lot of people hitchhike, but we haven’t done that yet.
How far in advance do we reserve hotels? Only a day or two. Our schedule is too unpredictable to book places much in advance.
How often do we sleep in the open? Whenever we aren’t in a hotel (so five or six days per week). We either sleep in our hammocks or on a wooden bunk in one of the three-sided shelters along the trail.
What is the trail like? Rocky and steep. Very occasionally there is a nice, soft path through the woods or an open field, but mostly the trail goes up and down over rough terrain. We are tackling the northern section of the AT first, though, and it is supposedly the toughest part.
What is our daily distance? Right now it’s about 16 miles per day, but it depends on the terrain. Our average pace is 2 mph with loaded packs. Rocks can slow us down even more. (Our longest day so far is 23 miles.) A lot of hikers, particularly the young ones, go a lot faster and farther than us.
What is our daily schedule? We wake up at 5am with the sun and birds. By 6am we’ve packed and are ready to hike. We stop every couple of hours to snack and filter water, and try to finish hiking by 6pm. We set up camp, bolt down a quick dinner, filter water for the following morning, and fall into bed by 7 or 8.
Is there cellphone service on the trail? Sometimes, but usually only when we reach a road or a power line cut on the top of a mountain.
How do we recharge our cellphones? As long as I turn my phone off at night and keep it on airplane mode during the day (so I can take photos), my battery lasts for about three days. We also carry extra battery packs and plug in our phones whenever we get to a town. Even so, my phone is sometimes dead.
What technology and guidebooks do we use? I carry the paper version of AWOL’s guide. John has the electronic version on his phone. He also has the Guthook app, which is amazing. It has maps and lots of other useful information about the trail, such as alternative places to camp. Best of all, it uses GPS to show us our exact location, keeping us from getting lost. (With the GPS on and the phone in aircraft mode it only uses 10% of the battery per day.) In addition to all that, we have a SPOT device to let everyone know we are okay each night and call for help in an emergency.
Is the trail marked? Yes, the Appalachian Trail is marked with white blazes. Most of the time they are pretty clear, but sometimes the blazes have faded or the tree they are on has died. (In rocky sections, the blazes are painted on rocks.) If we haven’t seen a white blaze in a while we go back to the last one we spotted to make sure we didn’t miss a turn.
Who are trail angels? Trail angels are people who help hikers in some way, usually by giving them rides, water, or food. Sometimes they do it intentionally, such as setting up relief stations or leaving bottled water beside the trail. Other times it’s a spontaneous act of generosity. Their actions are called Trail Magic.
How do we get water? Finding water is a critical part of each day. We constantly check our guidebook for springs or streams to make sure we don’t run out. (It’s also very heavy, so we don’t want to carry too much.) We always filter the water we drink and in some places, treat it chemically, too. Some places near the trail (such as restaurants) let hikers use their spigots which saves a lot of time.
How much do our packs weigh? My base weight (without food and water) is about 16 pounds. Food and water can add up to 10 pounds, depending on how long it has been since we resupplied. John’s pack weighs even more. I’d love to lower my pack weight, but between cold weather gear and hiker hunger, this is the best I can do for now.
What is “hiker hunger?” Hiking for 10-12 hours a day burns up a lot of calories. After a few weeks on the trail, your body can’t keep up with the demand. The result is weight loss and raging hunger. You constantly need to eat. In towns, hikers will bolt down incredible quantities of food, and then two hours later be starving again.
How do we get food? Some hikers depend solely on local stores to resupply. They hitchhike into a town every few days and stock up. We mailed ourselves weekly food drops so we could eat the food we like, then supplement with local buys. If we come across a bar, deli, or restaurant near the trail, though, we nearly always stop (see “hiker hunger”).
What do we eat? Granola with powdered milk for breakfast (I add flax and chia seeds, dried blueberries and other superfoods to mine). Dried fruit, nuts, and M&Ms during the day. We eat protein bars for snacks. For dinner we boil water and add it to dehydrated mashed potatoes or backpacking meals (which we’ve beefed up with lots of dried vegetables). We also throw in whatever other lightweight foods we can carry like beef jerky or cheese. And of course, whenever we’re near a restaurant we chow down.
How do we cook our food? We don’t. The most we do is boil water using a minuscule stove at night. And we eat everything out of plastic bags so there aren’t any dishes to wash.
How long will the hike take? For most people it takes 5-6 months to hike the entire 2,189 miles of the AT, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. We expect it to take us at least six months, longer including breaks.
What route are we following? We started at Harper’s Ferry, WV and are heading to Maine first. Then we will return to HF and do the southern section of the trail. This is called a flip-flop thru-hike. We decided to do our hike this way to avoid the crowds in the south. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is encouraging flip-flop thru-hiking to reduce the impact on the trail.
So that’s it. If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Otherwise stay tuned. The adventure continues next week!
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