How to Pick a Start Date
I have picked my start date! Woo hoo! I will start my NOBO AT thru-hike on February 18, 2018.
A lot of thought went into picking this date. Several of the important aspects of picking my start date include: average miles hiked per day in order to have a chance at finishing, average temperature and snowfall early in the year, hiking into Damascus, VA for Trail Days, how crowded the starting line might be, and my desire to get started as soon as I can.
Best Planner Tool
Check out postholer.com. This site has an awesome, automated planner that will “dynamically create a plan based on your hiking style, terrain and other important factors”. You can enter the date you think you want to start, use a slider tool to estimate your speed from “record pace” to “very relaxed,” and the planner will estimate the number of miles per day, zero days, etc. taking into account terrain, resupply points, shelters, and other factors. The postholer planner lets you adjust number of zero/nero days and lets you adjust arrival dates to various shelters and locations. The tool automatically updates and even gives you warnings (see red numbers spreadsheet column) if your resupply is over 7 days.
Starting my trek on February 18th, at a fairly relaxed pace, gives me 238 days to reach Mt. Katahadin (est. end date October 13th). My plan includes 18 estimated zero/nero days which gives me 220 days to hike the full distance of the trail. That averages out to about 10 miles per day. The postholer tool provides a more indepth analysis of how those miles might be hiked based on terrain; thus, there is one section that I’d only hike 28 miles in 3 days, and a section with a max of 95 miles in six days. Given my current physical ability, this plan seems very reasonable to me and allows for a lot of flexibility for rest days, or just taking an impromptu break somewhere beautiful.
Trail days are May 19, 20 & 21, in Damascus, VA. Check out the trails Days website. I want to hike into Damascus for the event instead of having to flip up or down to it. I don’t really know why this is important to me, but it is. My current plan estimates me arriving in Damascus on May 16th. This is great because I will have a few days of wiggle room to meet my goal of hiking in for the event.
Temperature and Snowfall
Leaving so early in the season, I’m concerned about being ready for cold temperatures. The postholer website has an AT Databook that provides high/low/average temps by month and section of the trail. In February the mean temperature for the section from Springer Mountain to Hiawassee GA is 37°F, and a high/low of 50°/24° F. This is cold, but with the right gear, I am ok with that. I am more concerned about entering the Smoky Mountains so early though.
I estimate entering the Smoky Mountains at Fontana Dam around March 21st. According to postholer AT Databook, the average temperature for the section from Fontana Dam NC to Hot Springs NC is 40°F. This seems ok, until I think of snow and ice. There is a nice website called Hiking in the Smokys that indicates the average snow fall on Clingmans Dome during the month of March is 26”. Also check out the National Park Service information for the Smokys. The average snowfall in April is 5”. That is a pretty significant difference. The severity of the weather will certainly impact my hike and I am very, very mindful of my limitations and not getting in over my head. I really, really, really do NOT want a rescue team having to come after me!
I registered my hike on the AT Conservancy Thru-Hike Registration website. I was happy to see that there are already quite a few people voluntarily signing up. When you register, you can see how many other people have registered and what day they plan to begin. This is super helpful so that I can try to avoid heavy start days. As of this post, there are 51 people registered to start on March 1st. So far, I am one of 3 people registered to start on February 18th. I am currently a pretty slow hiker, which means that all those folks starting on March 1st will certainly pass me up. I will have fun waving as they pass me by and then will probably see them again when we all get stopped by the snow at Clingmans Dome! We’ll have great party and snowball fight.
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